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The Secret Library
“Sam, your reading log is empty. This happened last week…the week before…the week before…and the week before that, too. Can’t you read at least ONE book?” complained Mrs. Hrumphey to her most…er, distracted student.
“I told you—I had a skateboarding competition this weekend. I can’t just read instead of practicing for the big day!” Sam exclaimed.
“I hate to do this to you, Sam, but if you don’t have all the reading made up by next week with a PARENT signature, I’m going to have to fail you in my class…and you know what that means—”
“No skateboarding competitions,” groaned Sam glumly.
“Right. Well, I have to be off now, so gather your things. Here’s the key—you can lock up the classroom today. Just slide it under the doormat after you’re done.”
Sam waited until the clicking of Mrs. Hrumphey’s shoes on the stone died away before snooping around the room.
“This classroom is so creepy after school. I wonder if I can find where she keeps the report cards…” wondered Sam, rifling through drawers. Despite thirty minutes of searching, Sam found absolutely no report cards; however, he did find some unusual wax seals, maps of all sizes, odd knickknacks, and pens with seemingly invisible ink. Finally, Sam slammed the last drawer in frustration and began to gather his things. And that was when it happened. The room groaned and creaked and begun to stretch like a giant piece of taffy.
“Whoa!” Sam exclaimed in astonishment.
Not only was the room stretching, but now the walls were beginning to twist around to reveal masses of bookshelves filled with dusty old books and ladders stretching fifty feet into the air. It was almost as if Sam were trapped inside the walls of his worst nightmare. A dumb old library!
“What’s going on here? Mrs. Hrumphey? You can come out now!” Sam cried.
Almost immediately after he had called out, Sam heard footsteps shuffling closer and closer. There was a small hallway in between two of the bookshelves in which a shadowy figure was emerging.
“He…hello?” Sam asked quietly.
“Oh hello there, my boy,” huffed a man with a grey goatee and plump red cheeks.
“Who are you? What’s going on? I wasn’t snooping, I swear!” exclaimed Sam.
“Don’t worry, my boy. You may call me…Professor Alagar. And as for where you are…well…let’s just call it…the Secret Library,” said the small man.
“I’m supposed to be home for dinner! Please just let me leave. My mom will be worried!” cried Sam, although he had never thought about his mother’s feelings before.
“Mmmhmm…I see. Well, that’s okay because time has been stretched so that you might visit awhile. It’s just like that old Greek philosopher said in that book of his…oh where is it?” Professor Alagar asked himself, scratching his grizzled old head as he began searching wildly around the library.
“Oh, are you looking for Arty? I saw him last in aisle five, shelf thirty-one. He was picking his spine clean of dust,” a dusty voice said sleepily.
“I knew I had left him somewhere in the thirties!” cried Professor Alagar happily.
“Um, sir…who said that?” asked Sam bewilderedly.
“One of the books, of course,” said Professor Alagar.
Sam faked a laugh.
“Good one!” he exclaimed, clutching his belly.
“Oh, you liked Nicomachean Ethics? I didn’t enjoy it much,” sighed Professor Alagar.
A hrumph echoed somewhere in the room.
“No offence, my sweet libris,” called Professor Alagar quickly.
A silence echoed throughout the room. After awhile, Sam spoke up.
“So you really are…talking to the books…” he murmured in disbelief.
“I can see why they brought you to me. You aren’t very bright,” said Professor Alagar.
“Well, it’s not every day that you see talking books!” cried Sam.
“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” replied Professor Alagar in his best Shakespearean actor voice.
“You know what? Can I just leave now?” asked Sam in utter frustration.
“But we haven’t even begun!”
“Your reading log, of course!” announced Professor Alagar, looking at Sam with a twinkle in his eye.
Suddenly, a massive white scroll triumphantly unfurled from the ceiling. And it kept unfurling until it was so long that it trailed across the room like a white carpet that disappeared behind a bookshelf.
And then Sam saw them. Hundreds of blank lines that represented all the books he had to read.
Five minutes later…
…OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I have to read all that?” Sam wailed.
“Don’t worry, you have until tomorrow,” the Professor announced cheerfully.
When he woke up, Sam was surrounded by chattering, fluttering books.
“Is he okay?”
“Do you think he’ll make it?”
Sam popped up irritably.
“Of course I’m gonna make it! It’s not like I’ll die from seeing a reading log. What time is it anyway?” he asked.
“About two minutes after faint time,” replied a crisp mathematical textbook.
“I was only knocked out for TWO MINUTES?” Sam asked exasperatedly.
“Two minutes and 14 seconds,” replied the math book crisply.
“Darn. That means my reading log is still due.”
“Precisely! Sit down—the show is about to begin!” sang Professor Alagar, pushing Sam gently but forcefully to a cross-legged position on the thick red carpet.
The chandelier lights began to tinkle and dim. And then, a spotlight shone on a blank space on the carpet. Sam waited, fidgeting, his mouth screwed up with impatience.
And then, a small square pop-up book hopped out into the spotlight, then opened slowly to the running notes of a lovely scale. Sam gasped as a mouse playing a shiny black piano slowly rose from its pages. When the mouse and his piano finally rose to their full height, the mouse raised his paw with a flourish to tap the highest note.
And thus began the stories.
Words swirled out of the book, and right as they hit the air they were sucked into a whirlpool of jumbled words that bloomed into a picture.
A young girl in tattered rags and shadows under her eyes woke up to find that her attic room has been turned into a glowing amber palace. Then, Sinbad the sailor, dusty and worn, crawled through the Valley of Diamonds amidst slithering snakes and wheeling rukhs. A young man pulled a gleaming silver sword out of a wizard-bewitched stone to find that he was king. Then, the night was torn with the screams of children burning while their shoes were piled outside to be sold. The picture swirled again, and now, a beautiful mermaid watched, her heart ripping, as her true love kissed another woman who sang him a song that was not hers. Finally, a woman who lost everything and killed the rest rode off in her grandfather’s chariot of the sun, her eyes stone but her heart shattering.
Sam sat there, laughing and crying, mesmerized by the beautiful stories that were unfolding in front of his eyes. But he wanted to know more. What became of the woman who rode away in the chariot? Why were children burning? Almost as if in answer to his questions, a stampede of books dashed toward him—Medea, A 1001 Arabian Nights, The Little Mermaid, Night, The Little Princess, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and a hundred more.
Immediately, Sam tore into The Knights of the Round Table. He was so anxious to find out what became of the young man and the sword.
“Oi, young lad! It’s been a long time since the glory days, and my spine isn’t quite what it used to be. Do take heed,” snipped a hoity-toity voice in an offended tone.
“Oh!” cried Sam, looking down at the book. “I keep forgetting you guys have feelings. I’m really sorry.”
“Quite alright, old chap,” the book cried, mollified, as he cheerfully wheezed.
Sam opened the book to the first page and began to read. He lost track of time as he delved into the story. After about an hour had gone by, the book began to clear his throat.
“Ahem,” the book interrupted. “When you slide your fingers down my pages like that it really tickles. Could you try to just turn the pages without doing that please? I almost laughed.”
Sam smiled. The book was quite horrified.
“Certainly,” he said.
After Sam finished King Arthur, he took an epic journey through the hot desert sands of Arabia, watched as an army of warriors rose from a field of scattered dragon’s teeth, and gasped in horror as Jews were ripped from their homes on Kristallnacht. He walked through story after story like a boy traveling through time, and it wasn’t until someone tapped him on the shoulder that he looked up. Professor Alagar smiled down at him.
“Would you like to see your reading log?” he asked.
“No thanks. Let’s face it…I’ll never get it done by 8:00 tomorrow morning,” Sam replied.
Professor Alagar took a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Sam. It was his reading log, completely filled with all the books he had read during the night.
“It’s…it’s finished,” whispered Sam bewilderedly. “Thank you.”
“That’s not all—this is for you as well,” said Professor Alagar, handing Sam a beautiful rusted antique gold key strung on a red velvet ribbon. “You are to be the last child to discover the Secret Library,” Professor Alagar said gravely. “Therefore, you have the task of locking its doors forever.”
“You mean…I can never come back?” asked Sam, clutching the book he was reading to his chest.
“Nor can any other child, my boy,” said Professor Alagar.
“Why?” asked Sam, tears burning in the back of his eyes.
“The Secret Library is dying. Lately, pages have been mysteriously crumbling to ash. Half the books that once lived here are gone. And so now this room must be locked forever. That key will do the job,” said Professor Alagar.
“Now here are your instructions,” continued Professor Alagar, ignoring the boy’s protests. “As soon as you have closed the door behind you, insert the key and twist it three times to the right. The next part is very important. You must put the key into the fire.”
As he had been talking, Professor Alagar had been urgently pushing the boy to the door.
“Goodbye, Sam. I hope you enjoyed your time here,” said Professor Alagar, closing the door on the wide-eyed boy.
Sam stood there as the door clicked shut, the key in his hand. The keyhole loomed in front of him like a dark foreboding shadow. He lifted the key and pressed it against the threshold of the lock, then took a deep breath and pushed it inside the keyhole.
“One…two…three,” he whispered as he turned the key three times to the right.
Tiny gold flames burst out of the keyhole and swirled around the door, and with a small pop, the beautiful carved wood door to the Secret Library was gone. Sam stared blankly at the classroom door, which stood lone and unwelcoming as all classroom doors do. Sam looked down at his battered tennis shoes, heart heavy, and began his walk towards home.
“Eh, you forgot to put me back,” said an old man’s voice after awhile.
Sam looked down at his book.
“I’m so sorry! Is there any way to get you back?” he cried.
“Nah, it’s okay. I kind of wanted a change of scene.”
Sam looked down at the cover of the book. Dante’s The Inferno glowed up at him.
“Wait a minute…”
By now Sam was sitting in his bedroom, so he sat down and slowly opened the book. The pages leapt up into dancing paper flames.
“What does “inferno” mean?” he asked the book, beginning to realize what he must do.
“My name is Fred, thank you very much, and the word ‘inferno’ comes from the Late Latin infernus, meaning ‘hell,’ a region of fire,” sniffed the book snootily. Then, after a moment’s silence, the book whispered, “You’ve figured it out, Sam.”
Sam looked at the fire. The pages began to glow a bright red, as if they were truly burning, and then melted down slowly to a gold keyhole that was centered in the middle of the book. Sam took the key from his backpack and looked down at it sadly.
“I must do it…to save the Library,” he told himself.
Then, Sam pushed the key into the middle of the keyhole. He had barely turned it when the key was pulled from his hand deep into the book.
“That wasn’t me!” cried the book.
“Who was it then?”
“Uh…unknown forces?” offered the book.
“Now what do I do?”
“Now we must—” the book began, then burst into flames.
“Fred!” exclaimed Sam, running into the bathroom to fetch water.
But it was too late. When he returned, Fred was gone, and in his place was a pile of smoking ashes. Sam felt his eyes burn with unshed tears. Fred was all he had left from the Library. Now, even he was lost. Sam pulled out his favorite toy dump-truck that he used to love when he was little from its hiding spot underneath his bed. Solemnly, he brushed the ashes into the back of the truck.
Sam stopped. There, beneath the ashes, lay a silver locket.
Sam pulled the locket from the ashes and gently pried it open. Inside was a yawning black onyx keyhole.
But where was the key?