She looked around, slowly, at the thousands of books. She felt her heart move quietly. “Did you really call me what you just said?”
“Mrs. God? Oh, yes. Often. Always.”
“Come along,” she said at last.
They walked around the rooms together and then downstairs to the newspaper files, and coming back up, he suddenly leaned against the banister, holding tight.
“Miss Adams,” he said.
“What is it, Captain?”
He exhaled. “I’m scared. I don’t want to leave. I’m afraid.”
Her hand, all by itself, took his arm and she finally said, there in the shadows, “Sometimes-I’m afraid, too. What frightens you?”
“I don’t want to go away without saying good-bye. If I never return, I want to see all my friends, shake hands, slap them on the back, I don’t know, make jokes.” He stopped and waited, then went on. “But I walk around town and nobody knows me. Everyone’s gone.”
The pendulum on the wall clock slid back and forth, shining, with the merest of sounds.
Hardly knowing where she was going, Miss Adams took his arm and guided him up the last steps, away from the marble vaults below, to a final, brightly decorated room, where he glanced around and shook his head.
“There’s no one here, either.”
“Do you believe that?”
“Well, where are they? Do any of my old pals ever come visit, borrow books, bring them back late?”
“Not often,” she said. “But listen. Do you realize Thomas Wolfe was wrong?”
“Wolfe? The great literary beast? Wrong?”
“The title of one of his books.”
“You Can’t Go Home Again?” he guessed.
“That’s it. He was wrong. This is home. Your friends are still here. This was your summer place.”
“Yes. Myths. Legends. Mummies. Aztec kings. Wicked sisters who spat toads. Where I really lived. But I don’t see my people.”
And before he could speak, she switched on a green-shaded lamp that shed a private light on a small table.
“Isn’t this nice?” she said. “Most libraries today, too much light. There should be shadows, don’t you think? Some mystery, yes? So that late nights the beasts can prowl out of the stacks and crouch by this jungle light to turn the pages with their breath. Am I crazy?”
“Not that I noticed.”
“Good. Sit. Now that I know who you are, it all comes back.”
“It couldn’t possibly.”
“No? You’ll see.”
She vanished into the stacks and came out with ten books that she placed upright, their pages a trifle spread so they could stand and he could read the titles.
“The summer of 1930, when you were, what? ten, you read all of these in one week.”
“Oz? Dorothy? The Wizard? Oh, yes.”
She placed still others nearby. “Alice in Wonderland. Through the Looking-Glass. A month later you reborrowed both. ‘But,’ I said, ‘you’ve already read them!’ ‘But,’ you said, ‘not enough so I can speak. I want to be able to tell them out loud.’
“My God,” he said quietly, “did I say that?”
“You did. Here’s more you read a dozen times. Greek myths, Roman, Egyptian. Norse myths, Chinese. You were ravenous.”
“King Tut arrived from the tomb when I was three. His picture in the Rotogravure started me. What else have you there?”
“Tarzan of the Apes. You borrowed it . .
“Three dozen times! John Carter, Warlord of Mars, four dozen. My God, dear lady, how come you remember all this?”
“You never left. Summertimes you were here when I unlocked the doors. You went home for lunch but sometimes brought sandwiches and sat out by the stone lion at noon. Your father pulled you home by your ear some nights when you stayed late. How could I forget a boy like that?”
“You never played, never ran out in baseball weather, or football, I imagine. Why?”
He glanced toward the front door. “They were waiting for me.”
“You know. The ones who never borrowed books, never read. They. Them. Those.”
She looked and remembered. “Ah, yes. The bullies. Why did they chase you?”
“Because they knew I loved books and didn’t much care for them.”
“It’s a wonder you survived. I used to watch you getting, reading hunchbacked, late afternoons. You looked so lonely.”