When Headmaster had finished comparing Sofee to a hunk of clay and a horse, he had moved on to a tropical storm, a gnat, and a piece of gristle stuck between his teeth. Then he had banished her to the library. Since she was the one student who did not consider that a punishment, Sofee’s Happiness escalated.
In the library, questions were the currency and Sofee was filthy rich. She learned more in book world than in the classroom. In the library she was free to ask the questions and discover the answers. She was in control. Her thirst for knowledge was unquenchable but there was plenty to drink.
The library was safe base. No popular kids zone. They feared it was like the Bermuda Triangle—those who entered would never return, lost in a vortex of unspeakable horror. For some reason, the other students believed they would lose control of their minds if they actually used them. Refusing to learn was their way of rebelling.
This struck Sofee as a short-sighted strategy. She’d read enough history to know that knowledge is power. Not only does it not numb your brain, it’s the best game plan. Becoming smarter than the adults around you is the only way to beat them.
Not that Sofee thought of it as a game plan. She wasn’t really a fan of games. Okay, she hated them. That’s why Sofee tried her best to avoid playing them. This proved to be virtually impossible because everywhere she turned, she encountered the games people play. Not just vidgames—those were easy to avoid. Except when Fred insisted on showing her the latest one he was obsessed with.
It was the other games that boggled Sofee’s mind. She’d pick up a paper, flip on the TV, or log onto a website and she’d find references to War Games, Political Games, Money Games, Corporate Games, Social Games and even the Game of Love. Adults claimed that games were for kids but they seemed to play even more of them. They talked about them all the time and didn’t seem to have much fun playing them. And they all repeated the same thing.
“You need to learn how to play the game.”
What game? And why did she have to play it?
Sofee tried to concentrate on her French homework but it was impossible. Her head was flooded with questions.
Pourquoi? Pourquoi? Pourquoi?
As she shut her notebook, Sofee’s eye caught two words carved into the cubicle.
What was that supposed to mean?
Sofee always enjoyed the messages scrawled on the school walls. They were hidden so only students would see them. Her favorite was:
THEY CAN CALL YOU CRAZY
BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN THEY’RE NOT.
Was everyone crazy? Why did the world seem so insane?
Needing to take a break from the barrage of questions, Sofee decided to play Book Game. No, not game. Activity. Sofee did not play games. The rules of this ‘activity’ were really quite simple. You picked three numbers—one for the shelf, the second for the row and the third for the book. No matter what the book turned out to be, you had to read it. Sofee’s random selections had included Wishful Thinking For Dummies, Magical Stories of Misery and Woe, and The History of Bad Ideas.
Actually, they weren’t in the least bit random but Sofee wasn’t ready to see that. Nor was she ready to see the significance when 1-0-1 popped into her head. Sofee was already headed towards the first shelf, top row and first book in.
As she neared the stacks, Sofee inhaled the familiar book smell. It smelled like a forest of everlasting possibility. Nah, it smelled like paper. Nevertheless, there was something about the scent that all the technology in the world couldn’t replace.
Sofee loved this place where anything was possible and no idea was too crazy. In book world, Sofee and her crazy ideas felt right at home. They could escape from their dreary reality and visit other domains where they were made to feel like one of the family. And not just the loony cousin who’s kept in the attic. Domains where smart kids who asked a lot of questions were heroes and never got hit in the head. Unless it was during an exceptional act of bravery whilst defending the elvan kingdom of Drittlesgaerd from the invasion of demon imps ordered by the diabolical sorcerer Soranaranonin who sought to capture the elvan chalice of infinite power. In book world, people said things like “chalice of infinite power” and “forest of everlasting possibility” and didn’t sound foolish. Or feel foolish.
Having spent most of her life feeling like a foole, Sofee longed to be the girl in the fantasy story with extraordinary abilities who’d fulfill an ancient prophecy and save the world. She’d have mysterious parentage, a spunky sidekick, and a chalice of infinite power. Well, maybe not a chalice. Make it a stone or a sword or a very special pen. And by possessing this object everyone would know that she was “the one” and would succeed where others had failed. And she would never ever slip on a banana peel.
Yeah, as if that would ever happen. Sofee knew for a fact that it wouldn’t because she’d tried and had failed miserably. Indeed, Sofee spent much of her childhood trying to find a secret portal to a parallel universe. Yet no matter how many cupboards, cabinets, closets, and clothes hampers, she climbed into, Sofee never found a portal. She’d bumped her nose on far too many mirrors and never been able to get through to the other side. She’d tried to walk through wardrobes but only banged her head on the hangers. She’d scratched her arms plunging into a hedge and bruised her knee scaling the wall of a secret garden that turned out to be nothing more than a parking lot. Heck, she’d even tried to climb down a rabbit hole and was bitten on the ankle by an angry cottontail. It wasn’t fair. Alice’s curiosity was rewarded with an amazing adventure in Wonderland. The white rabbit did not try to chomp off her leg.
Sofee was stuck in reality. There was no fantastic destiny awaiting her. Just her exasperating existence. Now that she was older, Sofee had given up looking for secret passageways. The alternate dimensions in her books didn’t exist. She knew book 101 couldn’t possibly be an enchanted artifact that would alter her existence. But maybe it would have a story about one.
Striding purposefully toward the shelf, Sofee didn’t notice Miss Crone, the librarian, watching her. It was hard not to spot the quirky Australian with the orange hair, blue dress and pink cowboy boots. She was the substitute librarian. The regular shusher and shelver was on extended sick leave with a severe case of frazzled nerves.
“G’day, Sofee. Playing Book Game, I see,” noted Miss Crone. “Whenever someone walks to a shelf with such determination, they’re either in another world or playing the game. Sometimes both.” She chuckled to herself as she slid a book onto the shelf.
Sofee was surprised that her secret game was not so secret.
“How do you know about Book Game?”
“It’s a ripper.” Miss Crone smiled and her eyes sparkled. “What’s your number?”
“Oh yeah? That’s full on. What book is it?”
Sofee noticed with dismay that the first space on the first shelf was empty. “There’s nothing there.”
“You’re well and truly looking in the wrong spot. Row zed is above the first row.” Miss Crone pushed her cart away.
Sofee stood on her tip-toes and stretched her head back but still couldn’t see the top of the shelf. After jumping up and down a few times, she decided it was best to find a stool. This enabled her to peer above the shelf and make the earth-shattering discovery of…
Absolutely nothing. Darn it! This was the worst round of Book Game. Why did she pick such a stupid number?
“How are you going?” Miss Crone was back with her empty cart. She certainly was fast.
“Nothing.” Sofee’s Excitement Level fell to Disheartened. It was the first time she’d ended up without a book.
The Librarian chuckled. “That’s not the first shelf. Shelf one is in the Special Reading Room.”
Ah, the Special Reading Room. That would be the special room where they kept a special collection of special books donated to St. Joan’s over the years. Far too special for anyone to actually read, they were locked away.
“Of course, you’d have to join Book Club in order to enter the Special Reading Room.” Miss Crone placed a book on her head.
Join Book Club? Never! It was the nerd card of social death. Not even Sofee would pick that one. Book Club was for outcasts who couldn’t make the cut for any other club or sport. It wasn’t that Sofee couldn’t join any activities, she simply chose not to. Teams weren’t her thing.
“Book Club meets on Thursdays at 5pm sharp, mate. Maybe you should give this team a go.” With the book still atop her head, Miss Crone slowly pushed her cart away then broke into a jog, dodging and weaving between the aisles.
That was weird. The librarian mentioned teams as soon as Sofee thought of it. Had to be a coincidence. So was the fact that it was Thursday and it was 4:58pm. Book Club was meeting in a couple minutes. Sofee was already there. And there was nowhere she had to be. Maybe she could just stop by the meeting and find out what was so special about the Special Reading Room. And she could have a quick look for book 101.
Anyway, didn’t she already hold the nerd card of social death? Could a pair make her social ranking any worse?
Following Miss Crone back to the front desk, Sofee observed her driving the cart while making train noises. She wondered if the librarian’s lunacy predated her work at St. Joan’s or the dreariness had driven her to it. When the cart was parked by the front desk with an abrupt turn to the left and a screeching brake sound effect, Sofee decided Miss Crone’s quirkiness was nothing new. She must have had a lot of practice to achieve such an effortless level.
“We’re chuffed you could join us, Sofee.” Miss Crone removed the book from her head as if it was a hat and bowed. Then she flung the book over her right shoulder. Sofee was shocked to see a librarian flinging books—even an oddball like Miss Crone. Wasn’t there a rule against that sort of thing?
The book didn’t seem to think so as it soared through the air, executed a double somersault with a half twist, and then slid perfectly into place on the shelf behind Miss Crone. It was a highly irrational occurrence which Sofee’s brain immediately dismissed in order to focus on more sensible things.
“Where are the other club members?’
“Our Book Club chapter may be small but our holiday parties are heaps of fun.” Miss Crone tilted her head and gazed at Sofee. “So why do you reckon you’re Book Club material?”
Sofee wasn’t expecting to have to prove her worthiness. “Um…I like books.”
“Ace! Can you keep a secret?”
“Yes.” Sofee kept lots of secrets. Mostly her own.
“Beaut!” Miss Crone’s voice lowered. “Because if you repeat anything to anyone about Book Club or its secret rituals, you will be pulped.” A sly smile.
Sofee’s eyes widened. Was Miss Crone completely mad?
“No worries. It’s just a joke.” The librarian laughed. “We do prefer to keep everything under cover, though.” Another chuckle.
Sofee’s tension level lowered significantly. She was still concerned about Miss Crone’s mental state but librarians rarely turned out to be psychos. Although there was a risk that one too many overdue books could induce murderous rage, Sofee always returned her books on time. She figured she was safe.
“Hang on a tick, I have to clear my desk before we begin.” With a brisk hand movement, Miss Crone brushed everything off her desk onto the floor. Then she effortlessly leapt onto the desk and reached for a volume in the middle of the tall shelf behind it. As she pulled out the book with one hand, the other searched the empty space and located a small key. It was tossed down to Sofee.
“Now that you’re an official member, you can go open the Special Reading Room.” Miss Crone replaced the book. Then she stepped off the desk, hovered for a moment and shifted her weight as if she was surfing, then floated back down to the floor.
Wait a minute. She hovered? Miss Crone couldn’t possibly have done that. Sofee wasn’t remembering correctly. In fact, she hadn’t really been paying attention. Sofee was too busy trying to figure out where the Special Reading Room was located. She only knew it existed because of a circulating story that a student once got locked in and died of boredom before anyone could rescue her.
“Off you go.” Miss Crone waved her hand towards the stacks.
“But I don’t know where it is.”
“Now Sofee, if you can’t suss out where the Special Reading Room is then you aren’t really Book Club material, are you?” Miss Crone chuckled.
Then a thought walloped Sofee in the head like the basketball in gym class.
This is a game.
Sofee sighed. “Okay.” Miss Crone was playing a game with her. It seemed foolish but Sofee decided to be a good sport and play along.
As she walked away from the front desk, Sofee examined the key. It was the long, solid, old-fashioned kind and appeared to be made of gold. Which it wasn’t. The Special Reading Room couldn’t possibly be that special. It was the kind of key you used to open a heavy, wooden door. An old door that was protecting something very special.
But there weren’t any old doors in the library. Everything was newly rebuilt after a fire had destroyed it five years earlier. Wait, that wasn’t entirely true. Part of the original structure had remained standing and was incorporated into the new design. It was the reading area where Sofee usually sat behind the shelves near the windows. What a coincidence.
When she reached her cubicle, Sofee was befuddled. There were no doors nearby—only windows along the wall. Then she noticed her notebook had fallen to the floor. Bending over to pick it up, Sofee spied something metal near her foot. A coin perhaps? Nope.
Sofee crouched down to get a closer look and discovered a lock. There was nothing else to do but try the key. Much to Sofee’s surprise, the key not only fit, it opened up a trapdoor in the floor. She had been sitting on top of the Special Reading Room the entire time. What a coincidence. Or was it?
Peering into the hole in the floor, Sofee discovered nothing more than dust and cobwebs. It was too dark to see if there was anything else in there. Hoping there were no spiders, she stuck her head in to have a closer look.
“Having a go at the floor, mate?”
Sofee jerked up her head to see Miss Crone looking down with a curious expression.
Sofee instantly felt foolish. “There was a lock…the key fit…” She stammered. “Isn’t that the Special Reading Room down there?”
“Crikey, that’s just an old bomb shelter.”
“So where is the…” Sofee noticed Miss Crone’s twinkling eyes. “This is it, isn’t it?”
“What do you think?”
“I think no one has been down there in years which means that there is no Book Club.”
“I reckon there is now.” Miss Crone peered into the hole. “It’s a bit dodgy down there. Looks like you could use a torch.”
A torch? Why would Sofee need a flaming stick? What was down there? Some sort of deranged monster that demanded student sacrifice? Had Miss Crone set her up? Sofee’s imagination was running away at top speed and she was ready to follow.
Until Miss Crone handed her a flashlight and walked away without a word.
Sofee shined the light into the hole but didn’t know why she bothered. The dusty beam of light revealed nothing but an empty crawlspace. It wasn’t much of a room and it wasn’t particularly special and it certainly wasn’t intended for reading. Once again, Sofee felt foolish. She had actually hoped to uncover a hidden chamber filled with ancient books from floor to ceiling. The kind of mysterious chamber that heroes just happened to stumble upon during their adventures. The kind that just happened to hold the secrets of the universe.
But the only thing that Sofee ever stumbled upon was her shoelaces. No magical mystical wisdom books for her. Nope. That kind of thing only happened in stories. It would never happen to Sofee. Why had she thought it would be any different this time?
The hole in the floor held nothing but dust. And it was not faerie dust. It was get-in-your-nose-and-make-you-sneeze dust. There was even a pile of it in the far corner. A rectangular shaped pile.
Now Sofee was no expert in Physics but she presumed random clumps of dust did not form rectangular shapes. That meant that something was hiding in the corner. A-ha!
Carefully stretching her arm into the hole, Sofee grabbed a hold of the object. But the object resisted. Sofee yanked but the rectangular object refused to yield. And that’s when Sofee’s Curiosity Gauge rose significantly. Whatever that thing was, she was determined to get a hold of it.
“Come on,” said Sofee. “I won’t hurt you.” It was a strange thing to say to an unidentified object but it seemed to work. The object stopped resisting and allowed Sofee to free it from the floor.
And in that awesome moment, Sofee discovered the long lost box of limitless energy that everyone in the galaxy was after and she became the greatest hero who’s ever existed.
No, not really. It was just a book covered with crud. Sofee blew, sneezed, and blew again. Wiping away the last specks of dirt, she examined the aged green leather cover and saw there was something printed on it.
EMAG OF EFIL
The fading sun from the window illuminated the letters producing a dancing ray of gold. Foole’s gold thought Sofee. She suspected the story would be stale. It sounded like one of those over-the-top fantasies where the inhabitants of the land of goodness are outnumbered by evildoers who want to take over the world. They’d bitch and moan about their fate but then they’d get it together in the end and beat the baddies.
Emag. Sounded like your basic brutal dictator. The kind with a loudmouth guard who’d bellow: “The Great and Powerful Emag will see you now.”
As if anyone really wants to have a private audience with an Emag. It never ends nicely. There are usually dungeons and torture and other undesirable consequences. Why is there always a madman who wants super duper power? Why does the hero have to confront him? Couldn’t she just stop the madman from fulfilling his evil plans from afar? Wouldn’t that be slightly safer?
Sure it would. But a true hero scoffs at safety. Then sneers at it just to show how fearless she really is. A hero marches straight into the towering fortress down the hall lit by torches—the flaming stick kind—past the suit of armor and eerie paintings with moving eyes and through the heavy wooden doors that make an unexpectedly loud creaking noise. It’s at that point our hero realizes it’ll be impossible to sneak through the castle but she doesn’t care because her bravery knows no limits. She’ll see that Emag and raise him a fearless fist.
Efil. It even sounded like evil. Only a one-letter difference which isn’t much when you think about it. If you think about things like that.
Sofee did. She spent a lot of time pondering such things. Most people did not. They said that pondering in general was a complete waste of time. Sofee never knew what it meant to waste time. Was there a proper purpose for time? If it didn’t include thinking then what did it include? No one ever said. They talked about it as if it was a precious resource and invented devices to save it. But these devices always took up more time. It was puzzling. Sofee wondered if you could actually conserve time instead of wasting it and store the extra somewhere. Maybe in a box of limitless energy.
Oh, what was the point of bothering with this book when Sofee already knew what would happen? She’d read, digested and dismissed the entire thing without even opening it. Why read it?
Because that was the number one rule of Book Game—no matter what you picked, you had to read it. And Sofee always played by the rules.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Miss Crone was back. She really did have impeccable timing. “I see you found it.”
“Is it any good?” asked Sofee.
“Some people find it quite powerful.”
“Can I borrow it?”
“Does it want you to read it?”
“I think it does.” Sofee surprised herself by so easily responding to such an incredibly odd question. But the book had jumped into her hands. At least, that’s the way it felt.
“It’s best to trust a book that wants to be read. It must have something to tell you.” Miss Crone turned to go then pivoted back.
“Sofee, there’s one thing I should probably warn you about. Some people who read this book go a bit funny in the head.”
“Only the ones who understand it.” Miss Crone chuckled. “Do you have the key?”
Sofee returned the golden key.
The librarian glanced at her wrist. She wasn’t wearing a watch. “Time for me to disappear. Cheers, Sofee.”
Miss Crone reached out her arm and seemed to grab something invisible with her hand. She turned her hand to the right, pulled her hand towards her, then stepped forward. She reached back and took a hold of something and pulled it to her. Then she was gone. It looked as though she’d walked through an invisible door.
Sofee’s brain attempted to process this but kept popping up the same message. Does not make sense. Invisible doors are not real. Disregard information.
Her brain finally decided it was her OASIS acting up. Sofee had Over-Active Sensitivity and Imagination Syndrome. An expert said so. He’d prescribed less reading and more television. Upon hearing the diagnosis, the Mother had demanded drugs. The doctor had said drugs weren’t necessary. Until the Mother explained they weren’t for Sofee, they were to calm her nerves.
Sofee’s brain was distracted from the memory by a noise. Her brain immediately concluded that Miss Crone was still there and had never actually disappeared. The rational part of her brain was once again relieved to blame everything on her imagination.
“Miss Crone,” called Sofee. “What do you mean by funny—” She stopped herself realizing the noise wasn’t made by the librarian. It was the janitor emptying wastepaper bins.
“Library’s closed,” he grunted. Detecting a student in his path lowered his Pleasure Gauge. Working after hours was the janitor’s way of avoiding the little vermin.
“I was just leaving,” replied Sofee as she quickly shut the trapdoor and concealed it with a chair. Her intuition had told her to. She rarely paid attention to the messages that popped into her head since they usually told her that she was a foole. This time the message was particularly insistent that she hide the book. In her haste to shove the book in her bag, Sofee dropped it on the floor. Bending over to pick it up, she banged her head on the desk.
Sofee was rubbing her head when she noticed the janitor staring at her.
“What’re ya reading there, kid?”
“Nothing,” said Sofee. It was the truth. She hadn’t read it yet.
“Can I see it?” The janitor reached for the book. He was never friendly. This was totally creepy.
“Uh…I gotta go.” Sofee shoved the book in the bag and hurried towards the exit. Upon leaving the library, she felt a strong sense of relief which rapidly changed to horror. She hadn’t checked out the book. Sofee had stolen the Emag of Efil. She’d be thrown out of Book Club for sure.
(c) 2008 T.C. Jester
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN…