By Aisha Khan

Smoke hung so thick in the library’s rafters that she could read words in it. She coughed and her hand reached up to the left side of her head. Her eyes were stinging, but the curiosity made her look back up. For a nanosecond, the words darkened, becoming clearer. Only a moment later, the smoke dispersed and wiped away any trace of them. She already read what was written, but her face remained tilted towards the ceiling; even though the back of her neck was beginning to ache. 

“Are you still here?” a sharp voice called to her, jerking her back into reality.

She turned to her right. The librarian was looking at her with a mix of both peculiarity and frustration. She snapped her eyes to her wristwatch: it was after hours.

“Sorry” she replied, jumping up, “I’ll be off in five minutes.”

“Well, hurry up then,” for a librarian, she was ironically loud, “Don’t you have a family to go home to?”

She was separating her books from the library ones when she paused, only for a moment. Then she shrugged with a smile and dumped her notebooks in her bag. 

“You need to check those out, you know?!” the librarian bellowed. 

“I’m just taking mine.”

The library was large but empty enough for her to hear the ‘hmph’ that the librarian had just said. She cringed momentarily; she always liked to be alone between the towering shelves of books, but the side effect was that it gave the librarian more chances to spy on her. With more people, the librarian would be often occupied. One last memory flashed into her mind, reminding her that barely anyone came to the place anymore. But she still liked coming. Someone had to. 

“Do me a favor and bring some of those to the desk,” the librarian called out once more. She complied. The librarian’s crankiness never bothered her that much. 

“What’s your name?” the librarian asked.

“Maya,” she replied. 

“That’s pretty.”

No, it’s not, Maya wanted to say, but her mouth didn’t open. 

“It means magic doesn’t it?” 

“My family told me it means illusion,” Maya replied. 

“It’s almost the same thing isn’t it?”

Maya looked up to see a small, almost non-existent smile on the librarian’s face. No, they don’t, she thought.

“What were you looking at before?” the librarian asked, “Was there something on the ceiling?”

“Just some smoke,” Maya replied. The librarian breathed. Her wrinkled hands were pressing over books, flipping them open and finger pressing on every printed word. Maya was supposed to leave, but she stood fixed in front of the librarian’s desk, watching every movement.

“They say the boy saw smoke too,” the librarian said slowly, “Some witnesses said he saw smoke coming from the roof. But the fire started down here somewhere.”

Maya gulped in. She wanted to smile, ever so slightly, but that would have been suspicious. The conversation was going where she wanted. 

“Were you there too?”

“I had left my deputy in charge. She was the one who pushed the fire alarm.”

Maya nodded, “They say the boy was brave. Someone said he died trying to get a child out.”

The librarian stopped stacking the books. She looked up at Maya.

“You should be getting home. It’s almost dark now.”

“It’s not far.”

“You walk here? Every day?”

Maya nodded. For a second, the librarian wanted to ask but kept her mouth shut. She didn’t know what was stranger: the fact that this woman just saw smoke on the ceiling or that she walked to the library every day when other people were still scared. All because of a stupid, the librarian thought, stupid fire.

“At least I come don’t I?” Maya smiled at her. Not a faint one, a full one which spread to the centers of both her cheeks. The smile reminded the librarian of a memory; a happy memory but one that saddened her afterward. 

“Goodbye,” Maya said, with a pressing tone, “I miss you too.” 

The librarian looked up at her. Her forehead was wrinkled, and one eyebrow rose up. Maya smiled, “He also said you should smile more.”

The librarian parted her lips to say something. But a whiff of wind brushed against her neck. She turned but there was nothing behind. Her skin was covered with goosebumps. She turned back to Maya whose index finger was pointing towards the rafters. Up above, the smoke had covered the ceiling again. Thick, grey smoke, just like the one that filled the library the night the boy died. The librarian shuddered. The words Maya had just told her were crystal clear in the blurriness of the smog. 

The librarian stepped back, in both horror and awe. She was shivering, and a tear trickled down her face. Memories of the boy flashed in her head: his cheeky smile, his going out that day without any breakfast, his loud voice assuring her, “Don’t worry Mom! I’ll see you in the library later today!”

The librarian’s back had crashed into the wall. She turned back to Maya who was still standing there with a smile. Minutes passed before the librarian too answered back with a faint smile. 

“How did you know it was him?” she asked. 

Maya chuckled lightly, reaching her hand out to touch the librarian’s: “Didn’t you say that my name means magic?”

Aisha Khan is a designer & blogger, who is also passionate about books, art, and culture. She likes penning short fiction that is speculative, mysterious, and witty. You can find more of her art and writing content on Instagram: @aishas_canvas

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