(Scholastic Honorable Mention)
I steal library cards obsessively. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I hold the world record for the most library cards in one room at a given moment, because I have precisely 543,676 library cards on the floor to ceiling shelves in room 356 of my old hotel. These sacred, wafer-thin keys to an alternate world are my favorite past time, my addiction. But it wasn’t always this way.
You see, I own this run-down hotel on the edge of New York City, which has been part of our family ever since my great-grandfather set foot off the ship that liberated him from the Irish potato famine. This hotel used to be the highlight of the city with the best rooms and the best chefs to fill the extravagant ballrooms with cornucopias of food. Even our mice had to wear decorative shoes. There was never a day when the hotel had a vacancy, and it stayed like that for more than a generation.
Then came the complaints.
There were reports of noises in the walls. The most chilling was one about an entire orchestra playing in the rafters, but others were close behind, with stories of tap-dancers in the walls and treble clefs painted on pristine drywall with olive oil from the grand kitchen. Soon enough, our hotel, once filled with lights, music, and people as far as the eye could see, had difficulties paying the day shift. Within a month, the hotel had become abandoned, and my mysterious ancestor ran off to pursue a lucrative career as a stockbroker.
More than a hundred years had passed since, and the ivy that had been meticulously trimmed was now in its chaotic glory, climbing above the intricately carved spires and swallowing the slate roof with a carpet of green. Still, the noises persisted. Rumors went on and on about jackhammering coming from the leftmost spires long past midnight and random flickering lights on the third floor. So, it stayed abandoned and neglected, but still…living.
When I went into hotel room 356 for the first time, I was just a teenager who’d been offered a dare. I clambered past sharp, splintered wood and into a nearly pitch-black corridor. Two squeaky flights of stairs and a broken floorboard later, I was on the third floor. Whereas the first floor was bustling with animal life, this floor was quiet—eerily quiet. The silence was screaming from all four peeling-paint walls and a smell wafted from all around with the passing wind. Freshly cut grass? Or was it just old paint?
The archaic nails that had held the room plates to their spots on the walls had long since rusted to oblivion, surrendering their burdens to gravity. Faint silhouettes of these plates remained as shadows on the mildew-covered doors—except for room 356. Its plaque was not only hanging, but the gold-plated lettering was still visible, floating on a sea of bronze patina. I just had to go into this room, the room that seemed to have stood the test of time. My mind raced, enumerating the possibilities that awaited me behind the door. Maybe an old chest filled with gold? Or even better, a message from my predecessor?
Aware of potential spiders, I used my faded yellow shirt as a makeshift glove and grabbed the door handle. No luck. It was rusted shut. I gave the door a kick, and to my surprise, it fell without any effort at all. The hinges had rusted away, coalescing into piles of reddish-brown dust on the floor. To my disappointment, this room was bare, save for a small stool and a smoky, grease-stained window, already cracked by the assault of the green carpet from outside. Walking towards the stool, I assessed the room. I had just noticed a peculiar set of mouse skeletons in the corner, ones with decorative shoes, when my foot went through a decaying floorboard—for the second time that day.
A bright orange glow filled the previously dank and chilly hotel room, and I was suddenly very aware of every single nook and cranny in the floor, ceiling, and window. I felt cleaner, sharper, smarter. The sound of a lightly strumming harp was accompanied by the voluptuous drone of a violin, coming from the wall…no the ceiling…no everywhere at once! It was true! The reports were all true! Whatever it was, I knew that the glow was causing it, and I didn’t want to pull my leg from the broken floorboard, where the glow flowed like water.
Then, I saw the library card. A solitary library card sitting on the stool. It glowed a warm orange, just like the entire room, but I felt an irresistible urge to pick it up. So, I did. It instantly filled me with a sense of completeness, like my life without that library card wasn’t worth living. My foot was still wedged between the rafters. At that moment, while holding that card, I noticed that I, too, had started to glow a warm orange, but the glow of the card was fading, its energy flowing into some unseen cavity. It was over in seconds, and I was left holding a cold, hard piece of plastic that bore, in Comic Sans writing, “Shirley County Public library”. The glow under the floorboards had extinguished as well, leaving my leg stuck, slightly bleeding, and no longer glowing among two pieces of bone-dry wood. But I felt good. I had never felt better in my whole life.
Since the incident, I simply couldn’t fall asleep, but I soon found out that I didn’t need it—the burden of weariness had simply been extricated from my very being. The long vigil that I was granted every night had turned from a bane to a blessing when I started composing poetry, poetry that was promptly rejected from all publications because it was all about library cards.
This newfound passion for library cards was a direct result of my encounter with the warm glow in room 356, and these cards had become my food and drink. My mission to collect all the library cards in the world became my search for sustenance. I started local, “borrowing” cards from any unfortunate library that crossed my way. I had nothing in mind other than to pursue my insatiable desire for more and more library cards from all corners of the earth, if the earth had corners. First, it was the Russian libraries with their wood and metal cards, then the French libraries with gilded insignias and complimentary tasseled boxes.
No matter where the cards came from, I felt an overwhelming urge to deposit them in room 356 where I had found my first. Soon, metal shelves supplanted the wooden stool, and garrisons of cards in various social classes filled them from floor to ceiling. I couldn’t explain it. Just like breathing, I found my feet involuntarily gravitating to this mysterious room every time my hands touched any library card, and placing them on the shelves was an act of extreme satisfaction, a satisfaction that was foreign to me.
I am still on this endless quest. My hair has turned snow-white and a tremor has developed in my right hand, but I am very close to achieving my goal. It’s a very cold winter day and I’m on my way to deposit the last library card, a colorful specimen from London. The injection molded plastic card weighs heavily in my hand, and I feel an overwhelming curiosity as to what might happen, for every time I added something, the room groaned and hummed as if confirming my deposit. Like the perpetual drone of a green transformer outside my apartment, there was an inherent feeling of immense energy, an energy that seemed to be omnipresent and hidden. Oh well. There is only one way to find out. It better be something fascinating.
For the longest time, I have made my trips through an old side door of the hotel to be discreet, but this was too big of an occasion to turn down a grand entrance through the black cast-iron spires that framed the main entrance. Chewed-up pavement crunches beneath my feet as I walk through an archway that had contained a door but was now missing, presumably stolen. I hesitate on the third floor. Everything is still the same. However, there is no screaming silence. A loud hum fills the air, emanating from the empty door frame of room 356. Curiosity triumphing over sanity, I step in. There was only one spot left among the shelves, the one in the bottom left corner. I pushed the red and blue card in. A click. Disappointing. Nothing happens.
Then, everything explodes.
It is a quiet explosion, and although the shelves are ripped apart and their cargo sent flying like spinning blades in every feasible direction, not a breeze ruffles my worn suit. Orange light swirls around me, filling the room with orange powder like freshly fallen snow. The old and cracked window blows out, but instead of seeing the gloomy outdoor sky, I see a younger self—in the same room. Through the dusty frame, I see my foot go through the fateful floorboard and my grasp at the solitary library card. I have created a portal. I don’t know why, but I suddenly find myself squeezing through the window frame and running to my own youth. But I am not moving. My pounding feet on dry wood are going nowhere and I realize that the hotel had the last laugh.
I am trapped in a paradox—one where going halfway to a destination meant going halfway there first, then half of that again, with no end. It would take an infinite amount of time to reach my younger self, who was now freeing his leg from the floorboards. I am trapped in stationary movement.
Everyone, even those who wish them ill, concedes that libraries are portals to the past. Volumes upon volumes of dust-covered tomes show a seemingly infinite number of past worlds, in fiction, reality, and everywhere in between. Library cards are the keys to this portal, a singularity of information. By itself, a library card is nothing. Books are books, but enough parts will make a whole. The last library card completed a collection of sorts, bringing together keys to all knowledge that we, as one humanity, have ever made. It tipped the very balance of our fragile world, made weaker by this mysterious room 356. The glow that had empowered my mission was a mere glitch in the fabric of existence, but the combined insidious slips of plastic have capitalized upon that abnormality and shattered time into a thousand pieces—at least for me. Just like how I don’t know why I charged through the window frame, I don’t know how I know this. It simply sounds right.
I look back to the portal where I had recklessly clambered through seconds ago. It gazed into a dark room with a single dusty stool in the corner. Warbled, as if from a far-away source, the noise of two children playing in the broken hotel driveway drifts through the stained drywall. No light, no library cards. Where was my past? The light, the cards, the poetry? As I stood fifty years in the past on unchanged planks, I longed for what lay beyond the faded wooden frame. I longed for eternity, waiting for infinite seconds to pass.