The Midnight Library (28 page)

BOOK: The Midnight Library
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‘Oh, I’ll tell you about it later. When Molly’s in bed.’

‘Okay. Oh, there’s a shop coming any time . . . So keep an ear out for the lorry.’

‘Sure. Yeah. Yeah.’

And then Molly asked if she could get the watering can out and Ash explained that as it had been raining a lot recently it wasn’t necessary, because the sky had been looking after the flowers. ‘They’ll be okay. They’re looked after. The flowers have water.’ And the words echoed in Nora’s mind.
They’ll be okay. They’re looked after . . 
. And then Ash said something about going to the cinema tonight and how the babysitter was all arranged and Nora had forgotten completely but just smiled and tried really hard to hold on, to stay there, but it was happening, it was happening, she knew it from within every hidden chamber of her being, and there was absolutely nothing she could do to stop it.

Nowhere to Land


Unmistakably, it had happened.

She was back in the Midnight Library.

Mrs Elm was at the computer. The lights wobbled and shook and flickered overhead in fast arrhythmic blinks. ‘Nora, stop. Calm down. Be a good girl. I need to sort this out.’

Dust fell in thin wisps from the ceiling, from cracks fissuring and spreading like spider webs woven at unnatural speed. There was the sound of sudden, active destruction which, in her sad fury, Nora found herself managing to ignore.

‘You’re not Mrs Elm. Mrs Elm is dead . . . Am I dead?’

‘We’ve been through this. But now you mention it, maybe you’re about to be . . .’

‘Why aren’t I still there? Why aren’t I there? I could sense it was happening but I didn’t want it to. You said that if I found a life I wanted to live in – that I
wanted to live in – then I’d stay there. You said I’d forget about this stupid place. You said I could find the life I wanted. That was the life I wanted. That was the life!’

Moments ago she had been in the garden with Ash and Nora and Plato, a garden humming with life and love, and now she was here.

‘Take me back . . .’

‘You know it doesn’t work like that.’

‘Well, take me to the closest variation. Give me the closest possible thing to that life. Please, Mrs Elm, it must be possible. There must be a life where I went for the coffee with Ash and
where we had Molly and Plato, but I . . . I did something slightly different. So it was technically another life. Like I chose a different dog collar for Plato. Or . . . or . . . Or where I – I don’t know – where I did Pilates instead of yoga? Or where I went to a different college at Cambridge? Or if it has to be further back, where it wasn’t coffee on the date but tea? That life. Take me to the life where I did that. Come on. Please. Help me out. I’d like to try one of those lives, please . . .’

The computer started to smoke. The screen went black. The whole monitor fell to pieces.

‘You don’t understand,’ said Mrs Elm, defeated, as she collapsed back into the office chair.

‘But that’s what happens, isn’t it? I pick a regret. Something I wished I had done differently . . . And then you find the book, I open the book, and I
the book. That’s how this library works, right?’

‘It’s not that simple.’

‘Why? Is there a transference problem? You know, like what happened before?’

Mrs Elm looked at her, sadly. ‘It’s more than that. There was always a strong possibility that your old life would end. I told you that, didn’t I? You wanted to die and maybe you would.’

‘Yes, but you said I just needed somewhere to go to. “Somewhere to land”, that’s what you said. “Another life.” Those exact words. And all I needed to do was think hard enough and choose the right life and—’

‘I know. I know. But it didn’t work out like that.’

The ceiling was falling down now, in pieces, as if the plaster was no more stable than the icing of a wedding cake.

Nora noticed something even more distressing. A spark flew from one of the lights and landed on a book, which consequently ignited into a glowing burst of fire. Pretty soon the fire was spreading along the entire shelf, the books burning as rapidly as
if they were doused in petrol. A whole stream of hot, raging, roaring amber. Then another spark arced towards a different shelf and that too set alight. At about the same time a large chunk of dusty ceiling landed by Nora’s feet.

‘Under the table!’ ordered Mrs Elm. ‘Now!’

Nora hunched down and followed Mrs Elm – who was now on all fours – under the table, where she sat on her knees and was forced, like Mrs Elm, to keep her head down.

‘Why can’t you stop this?’

‘It’s a chain reaction now. Those sparks aren’t random. The books are going to be destroyed. And then, just as inevitably, the whole place is going to collapse.’

‘Why? I don’t understand. I was there. I had found the life for me. The only life for me. The best one in here . . .’

‘But that’s the problem,’ said Mrs Elm, nervously looking out from beneath the wooden legs of the table as more shelves caught on fire and as debris fell all around them. ‘It still wasn’t enough. Look!’

‘At what?’

‘At your watch. Any moment now.’

So Nora looked, and at first saw nothing untoward – but then it was happening. The watch was suddenly acting like a watch. The display was starting to move.




‘What’s happening?’ Nora asked, realising that whatever it was probably wasn’t good.

‘Time. That’s what’s happening.’

‘How are we going to leave this place?’



not,’ said Mrs Elm. ‘There’s no
. I can’t leave the library.
When the library disappears, so do I. But there is a chance that you can get out, though you don’t have long. No more than a minute . . .’

Nora had just lost one Mrs Elm, she didn’t want to lose this one too. Mrs Elm could see her distress.

‘Listen. I am part of the library. But this whole library is part of you. Do you understand? You don’t exist because of the library; this library exists because of you. Remember what Hugo said? He told you that this is the simplest way your brain translates the strange and multifarious reality of the universe. So, this is just your brain translating something. Something significant and dangerous.’

‘I gathered that.’

‘But one thing is clear: you didn’t want that life.’

‘It was the perfect life.’

‘Did you feel that? All the time?’

‘Yes. I mean . . . I wanted to. I mean, I loved Molly. I might have loved Ash. But I suppose, maybe . . . it wasn’t
life. I hadn’t made it by myself. I had walked into this other version of me. I was carbon-copied into the perfect life. But it wasn’t me.’


‘I don’t want to die,’ said Nora, her voice suddenly raised but also fragile. She was shaking from her very core. ‘
I don’t want to die

Mrs Elm looked at her with wide eyes. Eyes shining with the small flame of an idea. ‘You need to get out of here.’

‘I can’t! The library goes on for bloody ever. The moment I walked in it, the entrance disappeared.’

‘Then you have to find it again.’

‘How? There are no doors.’

‘Who needs a door when you have a book?’

‘The books are all on fire.’

‘There’s one that won’t be. That’s the one you need to find.’

The Book of Regrets

Mrs Elm almost laughed. ‘No. That is the last book you need. That will be ash by now. That will have been the first book to burn. You need to go that way!’ She pointed to her left, to chaos and fire and falling plaster. ‘It’s the eleventh aisle that way. Third shelf from the bottom.’

‘The whole place is going to fall down!’




‘Don’t you get it, Nora?’

‘Get what?’

‘It all makes sense. You came back here this time not because you wanted to die, but because you
want to live
. This library isn’t falling down because it wants to kill you. It’s falling down because it is giving you a chance to return. Something decisive has finally happened. You have decided you want to be alive. Now go on,
, while you still have the chance.’

‘But . . . what about you? What’s going to happen to you?’

‘Don’t worry about me,’ she said. ‘I promise you. I won’t feel a thing.’ And then she said what the real Mrs Elm had said when she had hugged Nora back at the school library on the day her dad had died. ‘Things will get better, Nora. It’s going to be all right.’

Mrs Elm placed a hand above the desk and hastily rummaged for something. A second later she was handing Nora an orange plastic fountain pen. The kind Nora had owned at school. The one she had noticed ages ago.

‘You’ll need this.’


‘This one isn’t already written. You have to start this.’

Nora took the pen.

‘Bye, Mrs Elm.’

A second later, a massive chunk of ceiling slammed onto the table. A thick cloud of plaster dust clouded them, choking them.



‘Go,’ coughed Mrs Elm. ‘

Don’t You Dare Give Up, Nora Seed!

Nora walked through the haze of dust and smoke in the direction Mrs Elm had pointed towards, as the ceiling continued to fall.

It was hard to breathe, and to see, but she had just about managed to keep count of the aisles. Sparks from the lights fell onto her head.

The dust stuck in her throat, nearly causing her to vomit. But even in the powdery fog she could see that most of the books were now ablaze. In fact, none of the shelves of books seemed intact, and the heat felt like a force. Some of the earliest shelves and books to set on fire were now nothing but ash.

Just as she reached the eleventh aisle she was hit hard by a chunk of falling debris that floored her.

Pressed under rock, she felt the pen slip out of her hand and slide away from her.

Her first attempt to free herself was unsuccessful.

This is it
I am going to die, whether I want to or not. I am going to die

The library was a wasteland.



It was all over.

She was certain of it once more. She was going to die here, as all her possible lives were ravished all around her.

But then she saw it, amid a brief clearing in the clouds. There, on the eleventh aisle that way. Third shelf from the bottom.

A gap in the fire that was consuming every other book on the shelf.

I don’t want to die

She had to try harder. She had to want the life she always thought she didn’t. Because just as this library was a part of her, so too were all the other lives. She might not have felt everything she had felt in those lives, but she had the capability. She might have missed those particular opportunities that led her to become an Olympic swimmer, or a traveller, or a vineyard owner, or a rock star, or a planet-saving glaciologist, or a Cambridge graduate, or a mother, or the million other things, but she was still in some way
those people. They were all her. She could have been all those amazing things, and that wasn’t depressing, as she had once thought. Not at all. It was inspiring. Because now she saw the kinds of things she could do when she put herself to work. And that, actually, the life she had been living had its own logic to it. Her brother was alive. Izzy was alive. And she had helped a young boy stay out of trouble. What sometimes feels like a trap is actually just a trick of the mind. She didn’t need a vineyard or a Californian sunset to be happy. She didn’t even need a large house and the perfect family. She just needed potential. And she was nothing if not potential. She wondered why she had never seen it before.

She heard Mrs Elm’s voice, from under the table somewhere far behind her, cutting through the noise.

‘Don’t give up! Don’t you
give up, Nora Seed!’

She didn’t want to die. And she didn’t want to live any other life than the one that was hers. The one that could be a messy struggle, but it was her messy struggle. A beautiful messy struggle.



As she writhed and pushed and resisted the weight on top of her, and as the seconds ticked on, she managed – with a great exertion that burned and stifled her lungs – to get back onto her feet.

She scrabbled around on the ground and found the fountain
pen, thickly coated in dust, then ran through the particles of smoke to reach the eleventh aisle.

And there it was.

The only book not burning. Still there, perfectly green.

Flinching at the heat, and with a careful index finger, she hooked the top of the spine and pulled the book from the shelf. She then did what she always did. She opened the book and tried to find the first page. But the only difficulty was that there was no first page. There were no words in the entire book. It was completely blank. Like the other books, this was the book of her future. But unlike the others, in this one that future was unwritten.

So, this was it. This was
life. Her root life.

And it was a blank page.

Nora stood there a moment, with her old school pen in hand. It was now nearly one minute after midnight.

The other books on the shelf had become charcoal, and the hanging light bulb flickered through the dust, vaguely illuminating the fracturing ceiling. A large piece of ceiling around the light – roughly the shape of France – was looking ready to fall and crush her.

Nora took the lid off the pen and pressed the open book against the charred stack of bookshelves.

The ceiling groaned.

There wasn’t long.

She started to write.
Nora wanted to live

Once she’d finished the inscription she waited a moment. Frustratingly, nothing happened, and she remembered what Mrs Elm had once said.
Want is an interesting word. It means lack
. So, she crossed that out and tried again.

Nora decided to live

Nothing. She tried again.

BOOK: The Midnight Library
4.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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