Quiet Whispers

February 20, 2012
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Brett lounged with his tanned legs splayed carelessly into the pathway, his expression bordering on vacant. Lying abandoned by the leg of his armchair was a World History textbook, his supposed premise for being in the library during Art instead of creating half-hearted paper-mâché animals. His recent discovery of the school library had opened up a world of possible moments in which he could doze quietly. It had become routine. He would flash his pass from whatever teacher had been foolish enough to think he would study in the library, the librarian would barely glance up before inclining her head in faint consent, and he would essentially have permission to nap for thirty or forty minutes.
The only problem with the library, Brett had recently concluded rather insightfully, was the books. His usual armchair sat in a corner, surrounded on all sides by the dreadful things. They leered from their shelves, whispering phrases like “Nevermore” and “The Reckoning” and “Breaking Dawn.” Moving his naps to a different part of the library had occurred to him, rather belatedly. But when he attempted it, the volume of their whispers only increased to an incessant chattering.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged-”
“I wonder if you can understand the fun of making a beautiful thing-”
“Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget-”
“Please, Sir, I want some more.”
His stay there didn’t last long. The squashed, corduroy armchair beckoned him back and, deciding that his attempt to switch things up just wasn’t working, he fled to his old corner. The books were quieter there.
“Hey, Brett.”
A tiny girl with curly hair partially escaping from a large ponytail was standing by his feet when he opened his eyes. “Liza.” He lifted his chin slightly in greeting. “Sup?”
“I’m looking for Jamie,” she said, forcing her mouth into an almost pleasant grimace. “How’s your nap going?”
“Pretty good,” he said, nodding minutely. “I haven’t seen Jamie.”
“Obviously not,” she said curtly. “You were sleeping.”
Noticing her irritation, he shrugged carelessly. “It’s relaxing in here,” he explained. “Kind of peaceful, y’know?”
All semblance of pleasantry disappeared from her expression, leaving her face to sink into an ill-natured scowl. “It’s not peaceful with you snoring. I could have sworn there was a chainsaw in here somewhere.”
“I don’t snore,” he said, the fierceness of his protest dampened by the veneer of laziness that spread over all his time in the library. “I don’t.”
“You do,” she said testily. And somehow, with just that snappish response, he felt his argument disintegrate into nothing. Perhaps greater men wouldn’t have been cowed by an exasperated high school girl with neon painted nails and messy hair, but Brett wasn’t among the ranks of great men. In fact, he knew that it might have been a stretch to put him in the ranks of average men. On some level, he felt that Liza far outstripped him in a measure of worth. It might have been a subject of contention how true this was if Brett hadn’t already resigned himself to what he considered the sad truth of his ineptitude. So, instead of rejoining with even a vaguely coherent retort, he grumbled quietly and sank deeper into his chair.
Realizing that she had won, though there was no satisfaction in it because her opponent had simply given up, Liza reached for something else to say. There was nothing. The limits of her ingenuity had been reached, leaving her without the fulfillment she’d initiated the conversation to search for. “Whatever,” she said dismissively, her victory sour enough to illicit an attempt to gloss it over. “See you later.”
“See you,” Brett replied, sinking back into his stupor.
She lingered a few milliseconds longer, perched on a fine line between leaving and staying. Retreat proved itself to be the only option available that wouldn’t mutilate her pride further.
It was a week before Brett saw her again.
She was leaning against the wooden side of a bookcase, her thumbs tap-tap-tapping at the screen of her phone. Anywhere else it would have been instinctual to call her name and exchange a few words. In the library, Brett paused and stared with the wide-eyed look of a child caught in some petty wrong-doing. He wasn’t particularly doing anything wrong, but the feeling of guilt still rolled around violently in his gut. She was doing something right- something he wasn’t doing- and that was nearly as bad.
Without untraining her eyes from the dim phone screen, Liza turned into the shadowed space between the shelves and walked away, painfully slowly. Feeling rather idiotic, Brett continued towards his seat. He was all too aware of the muted sound from the dull shuffle of his feet against the carpet. He began to move slower and walk lighter in an attempt to minimize the noise. After reaching the edge of the next bookcase, he realized that he was tiptoeing with almost comical intensity and the feeling of idiocy returned more strongly than before. To make up for it, he was extra loud in his hurry to get to his usual chair. Still, Liza did not appear. The brutal silence intensified his strange feeling of disappointment, seeming to sit on his chest and suffocate him slowly with the sheer weight of the quiet.
Eventually, after the feeling had faded, he gave up on seeing her again. Not that it mattered particularly, his seeing her. He didn’t even know why he was disappointed at not speaking to her. Hefting his crisp copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in his left hand, he pushed his free hand into the pocket of his worn jeans. His fingers closed around the smooth plastic of his phone and stayed there, resting motionless against his leg.
What was he doing?
He released his grip on the phone, then tightened his fingers around it again. Something about disrupting the heavy dimness of the library with the harsh blaze of backlight from his cell seemed instinctively wrong. Unable to put his finger on the reason for the sensation, he tugged his phone free from his pocket and flipped it open. Liza’s number was somewhere in his contacts. He had it because they had some common friends and Sara- or maybe Angelica- had given it to him for whatever reason. It wasn’t important why, but he knew he had it.
His quest for her number was interrupted by her sudden, almost miraculous appearance. She emerged from the aisle with swift, deadly purpose. “Are you always here?” she asked, tilting her head quizzically.
He stuffed his phone back in his pocket hastily. Instantly, her eyes trained on the abruptly hidden cell phone. “What was that?”
“Nothing,” he replied, artfully innocent. “You still looking for Jamie?”
“Yeah,” she said, still staring at his pocket.
“Why do you bother?”
She blinked. “Bother what?”
“Looking for Jamie.”
Her gaze flicked up to his face and she seemed at a loss for a moment. “I don’t know. I-“ Looking troubled, she crossed her arms across her chest. “I just think you’re supposed to.”
Brett didn’t think that was the answer he wanted but was forced to accept it because of his inability to voice anything further on the subject.
“I mean, why would we come to school otherwise?” Liza continued, unsatisfied herself. She shrugged. “How far are you in that?”
She indicated the book in his hand. He stared at it like it was a foreign object. “Oh, I haven’t started yet,” he admitted, slightly sheepish.
“You know we have a test on that in, like, two days, right?” she said, affecting incredulity.
He remembered something of the sort, which was why he’d brought the book to begin with. Not that he had any real intentions to read it in the library, but the general idea had been there. “Yeah,” he said unconvincingly.
“You should start reading it.”
“I will.”
She pushed a wayward curl behind her ear and turned away. “Great. Talk to you later.”
“Bye,” he called after her absently, opening the book slowly. The pages crinkled noisily and gave way, dry and whisper-thin on his fingertips.
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken-“
He closed it twice as quickly as he had opened it. Later, he told himself. Later.

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