Kim Woolley (Deakin University, Australia)
Bridie has always liked libraries.
This one is old. It has stairs that twist upwards, snaking through the levels until they reach the top, leaving a space in the middle for the light to filter down through the skylights. She can see all the way to the bottom, where the white stone floor reflects the sun’s rays back up and into her eyes.
She stands with her hands on the cool metal railing, worn from the hands of countless seekers of knowledge. Sounds bubble up from the floors below; footsteps on stone from the ground floor, voices murmuring in subdued thought, the squeal of a chair being shifted aside, the gentle rumble of the librarian’s cart. She could move away from the light and the noise, head towards the shelves packed with pages that soak up the sounds, hiding away in the darker corners, inviting silence and calm.
She’d rather stay here, her body pressed against the barrier, leaning forward as far as she dares.
It’s a long way down.
‘What’re you looking at?’
She jumps, more surprised than she should be by the simple question. She’s usually hypervigilant, impossible to sneak up on, but she’s somehow failed to notice the girl beside her. Bridie steps back from the railing, thrusting her hands into her pockets. Her shoulders hunch forward, and she drops her gaze to the floor, away from the girl’s inquisitive eyes.
‘Sorry,’ the girl says. ‘I didn’t mean to scare you.’
Bridie shakes her head slightly, but doesn’t lift her eyes. She keeps them trained on the girl’s feet, alert for any sudden movements.
The girl lowers herself to the floor and sits cross-legged, her fingers wrapped around the balusters. ‘This is the best place to sit and watch: you can see everyone, but no one ever looks up long enough to notice you.’ She smiles, and her face is bright and sincere. ‘I’m Morgan. What’s your name?’
‘Bridie.’ Her voice is hoarse, barely above a whisper.
‘Nice to meet you, Bridie.’ Her face shines with that smile again, and she pats the floor beside her. ‘Sit with me?’
She wants to. Wants to share in that light, for just a moment. But she shakes her head. ‘I can’t. I shouldn’t be here.’
Morgan shrugs her shoulders. An easy gesture, with no judgement. ‘That’s okay. Maybe next time.’
She can hear them yelling. She pulls the blankets over her head, but it does nothing to drown out the sound. Something shatters. A door slams. There are feet on the stairs.
She forces herself to be still, to stop the trembling, to make her breaths deep and even, but it’s no use. Feigning sleep doesn’t stop the door from being flung open, the light from being switched on. Her blanket is useless as armour; she’s dragged out from beneath it to blink in the sudden brightness.
‘Do you hear the way your father lies to me, Bridie? I found the cigarettes in his bag and he tells me they’re not his. He lies straight to my face. If he can lie about that, what else is he lying about? I can’t trust him at all.’ Her words come out at full volume, spittle flying wildly. Even at this time of night her breath reeks of coffee and Bridie can’t help but turn away from the stench.
Wrong move. An open palm descends upon her, striking her thighs and backside over and over.
‘You don’t believe me, do you? Go on then, take his side! Everyone always does.’ She shoves a bag into Bridie’s arms with enough force to make her stumble. ‘I want him and his shit out. Pick it all up and throw it into the back of his truck. I don’t want him stepping into this house again.’
Her mother leaves her without looking back, heading to her own room where she’ll sob and scream until she’s worn out. Bridie knows she won’t be sleeping tonight.
Morgan finds her hiding between the stacks, trying to read in peace.
‘What’re you reading?’ she asks as she settles herself on the floor beside her.
Bridie’s muscles tense at their close proximity, readying her to flee. She focuses on relaxing, forcing her body to calm, forcing it to properly assess if Morgan is a threat. The girl is slight and full of sunlight. She moves smoothly, speaks softly, and Bridie has come to appreciate her presence, even if her body is still quick to feel fear. She wonders if she will ever learn to accept human contact without feeling threatened.
‘The Children of Lir,’ she says quietly, not wanting to draw anyone’s attention. ‘It’s one of my favourites. Have you read it?’
Morgan nods, her smile somewhat subdued. ‘They get turned into swans by their step-mother.”
Bridie agrees and turns the worn pages to revel an image of the four children, doomed to stay in the bodies of swans for 900 years, their necks encircled by the arms of an old man. Morgan reaches out to touch the page, her fingers lingering on the tears that drip from the man’s eyes onto soft white feathers.
“I always thought it was such a sad ending, how they become human again only to die,’ she says.
Bridie shrugs, not lifting her eyes from the illustration. ‘At least their father tried to save them.’
Her lip is bleeding. Her father finds her in the bathroom, trying to stem the flow with toilet paper. His sigh is deep as he approaches her, and he avoids meeting her eyes. When he lifts her onto the counter his hands feel sturdy around her waist, and she’s reassured by the feeling. It’s been a while since something has made her feel safe.
Her mother has let him return to the house, the way she always does. They all know there’s nowhere else for him to go. They all know that his absence would only create more work for those left behind.
‘You need to stop setting her off. You know what she’s like.’ He dabs at the cut with a damp cloth, and Bridie allows herself the freedom of reacting to the sting.
‘I didn’t mean to.’
‘I know,’ he says with another sigh. His eyelids are heavy, drawn permanently downwards like the rest of his features. He wakes before five each morning for work, doesn’t return until the sun has set. He hasn’t had a day off for as long as Bridie can remember, and he never stops moving when he’s home either, always cooking, cleaning, fixing. ‘Just try to do better. Okay?’
Bridie lowers her eyes, and nods. She wishes he would try harder, too, but she knows he won’t. He was broken long ago. He’s the same as her. Trapped. Just trying to survive.
Morgan is saying something, but Bridie can’t make it out. She blinks hard, trying to bring the world into focus. She’s in the library, sitting at a table with Morgan. How long has she been here? What’s the time? She’ll need to get back home before her absence is noticed.
‘Bridie? Are you alright?’
She blinks again. ‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ she insists, and turns her attention to the book between them. ‘What were you saying?’
‘Isn’t this animal cute? It’s called a quokka. See, it looks like it’s smiling.’
Bridie peers down at the page. It does look like the animal is smiling up at the camera. Below its paws a tiny head has emerged from its pouch to watch the world.
‘That baby looks safe and warm.’
‘Warm, yes. Safe, not so much.’ Morgan runs a fingertip down the paper and reads a section out loud: ‘When a female quokka with a joey is in danger, she may drop the infant from her pouch. The joey makes noises that attract the predator, allowing the mother time to escape.’
Bridie pushes the tea towel across the plate. It’s too damp to dry it properly, but there are no clean ones she can switch it with. It will have to do. She adds the plate to its pile in the cupboard and reaches for another.
She hears the click that heralds the unlocking of the front door and she flinches, but composes herself before the door opens. There’s the sound of the door slamming shut, and a bag being dropped. The clipped footsteps of someone in high heels that draw ever closer.
‘You’re not done?’ Her mother never bothers with a greeting, and Bridie has stopped expecting one.
‘I’m sorry. I’m almost finished.’ She rubs at the plate faster, hoping against hope that it will somehow dry.
‘You’ve been sitting around watching TV all afternoon, haven’t you?’ Those footsteps make their way into the living room, where she rests her hand against the screen. Bridie holds her breath as she watches the emotions that chase their way across her mother’s face. Suspicion. Confirmation. Vindication. ‘It’s warm.’
‘I didn’t watch it, honestly! It must be warm from the sun!’
She’s grabbed so quickly that the plate slips between her hands, shattering to pieces on the floor. Her mother shoves her against the cabinet.
‘Useless. I ask you to do one simple thing to help me out, and you can’t even do that. One. Simple. Thing.’ Each word is punctuated by her mother’s hand, connecting with her flesh. ‘Clean it up, then get the hell out of my sight. No TV for a week.’
Bridie’s fingers tremble as the picks up the shards of porcelain. There’s a throbbing pain on her back, and a raised red mark on her arm. She knows the marks will disappear by morning. They always do.
Sometimes she wishes they would stay.
They sit together by the railing, enjoying the warmth of the sunlight while they watch the other library patrons go about their business. Morgan is laughing — did she say something funny? — and the sound echoes through the open space, bouncing against the stone floor far beneath them.
Bridie feels a tug of anxiety in her stomach. They’re being too loud. They’ll get in trouble. Someone will yell, or kick them out.
Nothing happens. The other patrons walk right past, their eyes passing over them, and no one stops. It’s almost as though they can’t hear Morgan at all.
Bridie jumps to her feet. There’s a familiar tightness in her chest, and she can’t quite catch her breath.
Morgan stands beside her, concern pooling in her eyes. ‘What’s wrong?’
She feels Morgan’s fingers reaching for her, and she jumps away. ‘I — I have to go. I shouldn’t be here.’
She heads to the stairs. She doesn’t look back.
There’s a letter on the table with Bridie’s name on it, but it’s not addressed to her. Her school crest stands boldly at the top of the page, and the words below it outline her failures. Late arrivals. Days missed. Assignments incomplete.
‘I just don’t understand why you’d do this to me, Bridie. Do you want people to think I’m a bad mother?’
Bridie stands still, her eyes on the floor. She doesn’t speak.
Her mother wails, her sobs dramatic and forced. ‘I’ve never understood why you feel the need to treat me so badly. Why you never listen, why you defy me constantly.’
Bridie feels her come closer, and suddenly there are fingers gripping her chin, forcing her to look up into her mother’s eyes. There are tears there, but Bridie knows the tremble of her lips is due to anger rather than despair.
‘I won’t put up with it anymore, do you hear?’ Her mother tells her through clenched teeth. ‘I won’t allow my child to mistreat me or hurt me any longer. You will start behaving, and you will learn to do as you’re told, or you can go live with some horrible foster family. Maybe that would teach you to be grateful. Well? What do you have to say?’
Bridie can feel the muscles around her jaw tense. Her neck is stiff, her cheeks are hot. She tries to speak, tries to think of something to say, but she can’t make her tongue form the words.
Fury blooms across her mother’s face, and Bridie closes her eyes. She doesn’t want to see what’s coming.
The stone floor is cold beneath Bridie’s feet as she runs towards the exit. She can’t hear any other footprints, can’t tell if Morgan is following her, but she knows she needs to get away.
The doors are tall and wide, carved from wood and inlaid with brass. The handles are so big she needs to wrap both hands around one just to get a grip on it. She pulls at the handle with all her might, but it doesn’t budge.
She pushes against the door, but it has no effect. She tries the other one, pushing and pulling, bracing her legs against the door frame to create leverage. Pounds against the wood with both fists.
Nothing. The doors refuse to move at all, not even enough to rattle. They remain as still and solid as the stone beneath her.
Bridie tries to take a breath, to draw in enough air to scream, but she can’t. There’s no sense of resistance, no building pressure in her chest. There’s no feeling of suffocation, just an odd emptiness that spreads through her, leaving her eyes watering, her fingers trembling.
‘I shouldn’t be here,’ she whispers, but no one hears.
She hunches down on the floor, her head in her hands and her eyes squeezed shut, rocking back and forth in time with her sobs.
It was just a shove. Just a familiar little nudge, but she lost her balance, and her head connected hard with the edge of the table.
She barely even felt it; she just lied there on the floor, watching as everything unfolded.
She didn’t feel the pain in her head, or the way the blood leaked out. Didn’t feel her heart and lungs struggling to continue.
She didn’t feel her mother’s hands when she pulled at her shoulders and shook her, screaming at her to get up and stop pretending. She didn’t feel the way her body slumped back to the ground when her mother let go.
She didn’t feel her father’s arms as he cradled her against his chest; didn’t feel the way his shoulders heaved with each breath he took.
She didn’t feel the paramedics, or the police, or the cold that stole its way through her limbs and towards her core.
She didn’t notice when it all went dark.
Bridie opens her eyes.
She stands with her back against the barrier, her hands clasped tight around the railing as she tilts her head backward to gaze up at the skylight. Motes of dust glitter in the sun’s beams as they float around her head, slow and lazy, undisturbed by her presence. It’s so bright that she can feel the warmth on her skin. If she closes her eyes she can still see it, bright and welcoming.
She feels Morgan’s approach but doesn’t bother to look at her, just asks the question that’s been waiting on the edge of her tongue for the girl to arrive.
‘I’m dead, aren’t I?’
‘Yes.’ She doesn’t even try to deny it. The time for games has passed. She sits at Bridie’s feet and pats the ground beside her.
Bridie slides down the barrier to join her. There’s no hesitancy between them now, nothing left to fear. She leans against her warmth, allowing her head to droop against Morgan’s shoulder. She feels an arm slide across her back, pulling her closer.
Did you find your truth?’
‘It wasn’t my fault.’
‘Yes. You were a child. A child is never responsible for the emotions and actions of adults.’
‘I feel … sorry for her. Will she be punished?’ She feels Morgan’s shoulders shift beneath her head as she shrugs.
‘I don’t know.’
Bridie considers the answer before moving on. ‘Where are we?’
‘In the library.’
‘Where are we, really?’
‘Somewhere safe. Where you needed to be, until you came to terms with it.’
‘Am I a ghost?’ Bridie asks, watching the other people around her. She notices for the first time that they’re all in pairs as they read and talk. Their voices wash over her like the sea.
‘No. You’re just you.”
‘And what about you? Are you dead, too?’
Morgan’s head tilts slightly as she considers her answer. ‘Not dead, no. It’s more like I never was. Not in the way you were.’
‘I don’t understand what that means.’
‘That’s okay. You don’t need to. Not just yet, anyway.’
Bridie is still unsatisfied. ‘But who are you?’
Morgan simply smiles, and reaches across to take her hands.
‘I’m your friend. Always your friend.’ She squeezes and lets go, pushing herself to her feet. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Where are we going?’ She accepts Morgan’s outstretched hand, allows her to pull her to her feet. She stands beside her friend, their fingers laced together. Morgan’s smile is as bright and welcoming as it has always been, and Bridie can’t stop herself from smiling right back. The library seems to fall into the background as the sunlight surrounds them, until all she can see is that smile.
Kim Woolley worked as a teacher for fifteen years before following her dream of writing. She is currently undertaking a Masters in Creative Writing and Children’s Literature through Deakin University, and is passionate about diverse representation in fiction. Originally from Sydney, she now lives in Adelaide with her wife, two spoiled dogs, and a cockatiel. You can follow her work on her website.