Chapter 1, 2,
Alice decided that she had had quite enough of the art history section. If the exposure of her neck did not gain her any attention, she didn’t know what would. The boy at the circulation desk was obviously blind and dim witted, and he couldn’t see a good thing when it was sitting right in front of him.
He was utterly hopeless and Alice was determined to move on to greener pastures and other parts of the extensive library that she had yet to explore. Or maybe, a little voice in her head whispered, he’d notice her absence and come throw himself at her feet and admit that he’d loved her from afar for oh so long, and would she please come back to the art history section and then maybe they could go on a walk.
Either way it would be an adventure, an expedition worthy of documenting in journals, newspapers, and hand drawn maps.
Within a few minutes of searching she came to the conclusion that a map would actually be beneficial.
After she came to her decision the night before, she asked the other girls in her dormitory for recommendations for spots to study in the library. The girl with prefect blonde curls had given her a look of complete bewilderment and said nothing.
The girl with the elaborate lace bonnet was clearly unhappy to have Alice address her at all. She stuck her nose in the air and sniffed dramatically.
The girl with the book of verses, reading for the other two’s entertainment before she was interrupted with Alice’s request, sighed and advised Alice to find a pasttime other than burying her nose in a book about subtraction.
It was difficult, but Alice bit her tongue before correcting her.
“But aren’t we all here for the express purpose of studying?” Alice asked.
The girl with golden curls laughed, a delicate titter that she hid behind her fan.
“Alice, dear,” the girl reading poetry said, “Why don’t you fetch your knitting and sit with us for the remainder of the afternoon?” She waved the book of poetry as if that would in some way tempt Alice to sit.
The girl with the bonnet did not approve of this idea in the least.
Alice politely declined in favor of finding a place on her own. She did not look forward to being sneered at all afternoon. Besides which, she had no knitting to go and fetch and would probably embarrass herself further if she admitted as much.
She imagined that any spot the other girls chose for studying would not be to Alice’s tastes anyway. They would probably be full of talk and gossip which would distract from her studies and pull her into a conversation in which she was unwanted and where she expressed opinions that everyone else found disagreeable. The windows would be draped in pink lace and the study tables would be small, round affairs, only large enough for a single cup of tea and easily overturned. She would surely topple one table, and the rest would fall like a line of dominoes.
And so she set out on her journey through the maze of the library.
The first, and most obvious stop was the main study area on the first floor, just next to the entrance. She peered inside, half hiding behind the doorframe like a child, watching the small study groups, each crowded around a table. It was far more noisy than what she preferred, but the chairs looked more comfortable.
“You would have to share a table,” the Cheshire cat said from the book bag slung against her side.
“I’m not too keen on that,” Alice admitted. For one thing, she would not have enough room to spread out the way she liked. For another, sitting with strangers always began with an awkwardness she wished to avoid. And for yet another, she would not be able to whisper to the Cheshire cat without detection.
“The ceiling is much too low and none of the light is natural,” the cat complained. “It reminds me of a badger den.”
“Badgers are proud creatures,” Alice mused, her eyes sweeping the tables to find an empty spot that she might have overlooked.
“They maul skinny students who do not travel in groups.”
“I’d be eaten alive.”
“No. Only parts of you would be eaten. Badgers are partial to toes and kneecaps.”
“How do you know so much?”
The cat shrugged, and snuggled deeper into her bag with a purr, shifting her books about and allowing his tail to stick out and trail behind.
Alice squared her shoulders and marched in to stand behind one of the few empty seats and address the three students already sitting at the table, engrossed in conversation.
“Excuse me, but may I sit here? Everywhere else seems to be full.”
Their conversation came to an abrupt halt as each of their heads swiveled around to face her, looking at her in confusion. She shifted uncomfortably under their gaze. Then as one, they stood, the nearest boy pulling out her chair for her and scooting it back in once she had awkwardly taken her seat.
She took out some of her notes, balancing them in her lap for lack of table space, and using a text book as a hard surface on which to write.
After a moment, the boys decided that they did not need to entertain her and returned to their previous discussion.
The topic was unfamiliar, and several of the words sounded like nonsense. She mentally replaced all these words with different ones that she found more fitting.
It was hard not to listen to their discussion, both because they were so close and because the topic was too strange to tune out. So she ended up eavesdropping for quite some time while she stared down at the notes in her lap and twisted her pen between her fingers.
“There was an anomalous period between the obsolescence of badgers
and the development of badgers
powered by cupcakes
Her time in the main study area came to an end when she completely forgot herself and looked up from her forgotten work to ask a question that seemed so obvious to her after listening to their long winded discussion that she found it unbelievable that they had not thought of it themselves. Without addressing it, they were missing such a large facet of the topic, that she simply couldn’t stay silent.
“But surely people continue to hold fond feelings for the older model of badger due simply to nostalgia.”
They stopped their discussion again to stare at her, and for a moment she could not figure out why save for the fact that she interrupted them. She interrupted people fairly often, and they really should stop being bothered by it by this point.
But then she realized that she might have used the word “badger” instead of whatever the technical term was that they had been using.
She blushed, packed her bag as quickly as possible, and hurried away to her next attempt.
Her next stop was the periodicals reading room, where the study tables were replaced by heavy armchairs that flanked low tables intended to hold coffee. It was not at all ideal, but then at least she would have more space than she had in the main reading room, and the nearest anyone could sit to her was the far side of a table.
She found that the amount of available space was not a problem at all when compared to the volume level of the room. Although there were maybe twenty people spread out, studying separately, the room was silent as the grave. People looked up to shoot her dirty looks as she walked past to find an empty chair. Apparently the swish of her dress was far too loud.
Such hostility concerned her, and she attempted to walk as silently as possible, slowing her gait, raising and placing each foot carefully. Still it seemed as though her every step landed on dry leaves or stale crackers, crunching and thumping. Every sound was exaggerated, echoing through the room. Every glare turned scalding.
She was immensely thankful when another student turned the page of his book too loudly, and the collective hatred of the room turned in the opposite direction, allowing her to escape into the shelves of periodicals.
Hiding behind a bookshelf, she peeked through a space between volumes to watch the other students.
"They're so quiet. Like statues," she whispered.
"You shouldn't whisper then," the Cheshire cat said, wrapping around her ankles. "They will hear you and then attack in absolute silence."
She imagined such a thing. Perhaps they would each carry spears and grim faces, marching in two oddly straight lines, only to fan out with precision and surround her, pinning her in. She would back against a shelf, pinning herself in. She would raise her hands over her face. She would scream and there would be no sound as she was crushed by oppressive silence.
"We can't stay here," she whispered, dropping her voice so it barely carried. Perhaps it didn't carry at all. She just thought the words loudly and moved her mouth in time.
She surveyed the stretch of library she would need to recross to reach the exit. It almost seemed to glow with light and flowers and sound, but it was guarded by a small army of angry statues hunched over their books, their armchairs like armored shells. "How are we to escape?"
And what would they think of her, walking in and disrupting their work before walking straight out again empty handed? Should she pick up a volume while she was here to look as though she had had some reason to invade their realm?
No. Then she would have to return it later, or leave it on one of the book carts for re-shelving, and she did so hate to give the shelvers more work for no reason at all. Besides which, she told herself (even though she didn't believe it) that she surely imagined everyone's eyes on her. They did not care at all if she had a book or not, and they would not remember the encounter after a few moments alone with their silent reading.
She straightened her spine and took a deep breath (but not too deep for fear of someone hearing), and reminded herself "Be brave." She took a step out from behind the bookshelf and promptly stumbled over the Cheshire cat.
Four people snapped up to glare and shush her, and she decided to favor speed over silence in her exit.
She kept walking for quite a long time, unwilling to stop or check behind her in case they were following her, stealthy and angry. When she finally slowed and paused, she found herself deep in the stacks. It was a large room, although it was impossible to see its full extent as it was crowded with row upon row of shelves the stretched to the low ceiling. The air was cool, if not a bit stale, like dust and rotting books. The area had no windows and was used so infrequently that t was quite dark, save a few lamps along the walls.
She walked for a moment, noting with fascination how the bookshelves disappeared into the distance, as if they were swallowed up by the dark and how if you listened very closely the room seemed to creak as it settled, how the air whispered in a dull howl down the aisles even as it did not move. A different kind of shiver tickled down her spine, one of adventure and entertaining fright.
After a time, she found the wall, where there was a ledge the stuck out at waist level, running the length of the room, interrupted at intervals by columns to support the roof, which divided the ledge into more manageable sections. In one such section she found a chair, plain and not at all comfortable, but pulled up to the ledge as if in preparation to use it as a desk. The area was even lit by one of the few lights.
Alice exchanged a look with the Cheshire cat, who grinned in a way she did not find comforting. Then she pulled the chair out and sat, arranging her books and notes to finally get down to work.
She did manage for a while, long enough to become stuck, long enough to let her mind wander. But then she began to feel strange. As alone as she was in the room, if someone were to sneak up on her, there would be no one to come to her aid. She may not even know they were coming until it was too late. With her back to the expanse of shelves, she was exposed. Added to that was the feeling that she was being watched, that she felt a presence, that she heard a whisper or someone breathing or the beat of a heart.
It grew more and more unpleasant the more she thought on it.
The Cheshire cat had gone to sleep, snoring loudly enough that she worried the sound may muffle the alerting noise of footsteps, of a dagger being unsheathed. He could not keep watch for her, and she realized that even if she asked him, he may not tell her if anything approached.
She felt the brush of wind, tying strands of her hair to the back of her chair, tying them together into tiny little snags she wouldn’t find until she tried and failed to brush her hair that evening. It bound her shoelaces together in delicate knots, then bound them to her chair legs. It felt as if strings ran every which way, from the ceiling and the floor, from the walls and the bookshelves, like a spider web, slowly building around her to snare her so that ghosts may eat her at their convenience.
“Cheshire cat,” she hissed.
He didn’t move.
“Pst. Cheshire cat!”
She poked at his side until he grumbled and blinked at her.
“I think we should leave?”
“Is that why you’re waking me up?”
He grumbled again, then rolled over so his back faced her and curled into a ball. A moment later he disappeared.
Alice decided that she didn’t need him anyway and packed up her belongings while repeatedly checking over her shoulder.
The last place she could think to look, short of leaving the library completely, was the map room. It was hidden, just like the art history section, and she only found it by accident one day when she was searching for a water fountain. This meant that – like the art history section – few people were able to find it, so it was quiet and she would have space.
A table sat just outside the open doors, where out of date maps were left for any passing students to pick up and take home. The library staff recommended that the maps be used for art projects, book covers, or wrapping presents. Alice thought it was simply amazing, and she had spent far too long on first discovery flipping through the small collection to look for something fantastic, for a treasure map or the map of a lost continent. They were mostly out of date property or sewage system maps, and Alice had left empty handed, but with the conviction that she would simply have to try again at a later date.
Magical discoveries took effort and determination, and it was nothing too discouraging.
Four tables stood in the center of the room, surrounded by broad shelves of rolled up maps on every side, reminding Alice of a forest meadow. There was no comparison to the grandeur of the art history section, but there was something about the closeness that was appealing. Each table was certainly large enough for her purposes and no other students haunted the space. In a way it made her former study space seem excessive.
But she was seated less than a minute, not even enough time to remove her notes, before two librarians appeared before her, grinning identical grins, watching her expectantly.
Alice paused her rummaging in her bag. "Umm, how do you do?"
"Quite well!" "Quite!"
She waited for them to say something else, but they just continued to stare at her and beam. after a moment the Cheshire cat hopped onto the table and sat between the two librarians to also stare at her and grin.
The resemblance was uncanny.
"Umm," she said, "forgive me, but... can I help you?"
"You are!" "Very much!"
"You're here." "Not many people come here." "It gets lonely." "We feel useless." "Not a good feeling." "Not at all."
"Oh... Well, I'm terribly sorry to hear that."
"Thank you!" "You're so kind." "Did you come to see the maps?"
"Well, no, actually," Alice said. "I came to find a quiet place to study. But I'd love to see them later. I'm sure they're terribly interesting."
The librarians puffed up with pride. "Well, you've come to the right place!" "Never any noise here." "No distractions." "Especially if you don't look at the maps." "QUIET AS THE GRAVE."
They then frowned in realization that such silences were a sign of how infrequently people visited their collection.
They looked pitiable, and Alice couldn't help but try to reassure them in some small way, even as her irritation grew. "That is exactly what I'm looking for, so this should work very well. Thank you."
"Oh good!" "Good!" "But are you sure you don't want to see the maps?"
She held back a sigh. "I'm sure. I need to study first."
"Ah." "How long will that take?"
"Umm, well... I'm not exactly sure."
They chuckled. After a moment the Cheshire cat joined them. "You must have a lot
of studying if you don't even know how long it will take." "Indeed."
She bristled, biting down something scathing, her face flushing in anger and embarrassment, which seemed to thrill the Cheshire cat beyond words.
“Haha!” "Would you like to look at the maps while you wait for your studying to conclude?"
She tried to decide if it was worthwhile to explain that she could not simply wait for her homework to do itself. How could they mock her course load and make her feel stupid and slow when they didn’t even understand the process? It was ridiculous and she needed to be less upset over it.
In the end, she decided that this was not the optimal place to study after all. The librarian’s optimism, excitement, and general nosiness made her feel trapped and distracted. In all likelihood, it was a good call, but it meant that she was out of options.
This was her last hope. She had been counting on it to work out. She was sure it would given how nice it looked, and the fun little table outside with its out of date maps. She doubted she would ever be able to enjoy rifling through them again. Furthermore, she doubted that they had anything worth taking, and that realization was somehow even more disheartening than the idea that she had nowhere to go to study.
She resigned herself to being mildly polite until she could escape. "What kind of maps do you have?"
"All kinds!" "They're amazing!" "And wonderful."
Maps popped into existence in the air above her head to flop onto the table and unfurl as the librarians listed off their names. "Spain!" "The Black Sea!" "The Andes!" "Surrey!" "New Zealand!" "Newfoundland!" "Bali!"
The Cheshire cat added to the list at intervals, much to the delight of the librarians. "Atlantis... Shambhala… Avalon... The Moon..."
Shortly she was buried beneath a pile of maps to the point where she could no longer see the librarians or the cat or the table. She pushed herself to her feet, and still her head did not breach the surface. She reached down, pushing her hand around papers and charts to grab her bag, and then swam for the door, maps crinkling and folding around her.
Once in the corridor again, she brushed herself off, lifting a chart from her head and tossing it towards the map room, where a steady stream of rumpled paper was creeping out of the doorway as the room slowly filled with maps.
She slumped against the wall next to the water fountain, adjusting her bag and closing her eyes, trying to pull herself together, a perhaps find an elegant solution to her problem. If she could just think for a moment, something might come to her. Think think think think think.
“Where will we look next?” The Cheshire cat asked, balancing precariously on the lip of the fountain.
She sighed. “Nowhere.”
“Have we seen all the reading rooms?”
“I don’t know. There could be dozens. But if they’re all as bad as these, I’ll never accomplish anything.” She frowned down at her shoes, anxiously adjusting her hold on the strap of her bag, feeling as though she might cry out of sheer frustration.
“And if they’re not as bad as these?”
“Then I’m too tired and too far behind on my work to find out today.”
“If you’re giving up, there’s no need to do your work. You might as well get a biscuit, pack, and go home.”
“I’m giving up on finding a new place to study, not on school, you silly cat.”
“Hmmmm.” The cat rolled over, somehow still managing to balance on the lip of the water fountain. “Then what will
She clenched her jaw in defeat and looked away from him. She wasn’t really sure.
Chapter 4, 5