His phone bleeped again. Marcus sat back on the stairs and stared at the screen as the children played around him. A couple of kids had climbed right to the top of the stairs where a window overlooked the library’s public area. He heard them laughing and performing blowfishes on the glass. To his left a row of studious-looking kids tapped at computers with huge oversize coloured keyboards and gigantic track balls. They attempted to play a wordy variation of Tetris, stacking letters to form words and watching them pop and disappear as soon as they had formed. Most of the kids were preliterate anyway so they just raced each other to stack random letters to see who could lose first (and therefore win, presumably).
He looked at the message. It was Eleanor, again.
‘Are they there yet?’
He typed his reply. ‘Nope.’
At the other end of the room, a slide show ran through a long loop of children’s artwork: some of it scribbles, some of it representative, some of it genuinely beautiful. A group of boys constructed increasingly elaborate forts from foam blocks, admired their handiwork for a moment, before suddenly and at some undetectable signal charging into it, pro-wrestling style.
Charlie was oblivious to it all. She kneeled at the small solitary bookshelf and stared at it; that unsettling stare when she lapsed into one of her reveries. She waved one hand across the spines of the books and held the other below as though catching the dust that fell. She lifted her hand and inspected the dust for a moment, before stuffing it into her pocket. Marcus smiled.
She liked putting imaginary things in her pocket. She insisted any new skirts, jeans or jackets have plenty of pocket space. Marcus rarely found any actual things in there, but Charlie insisted it was necessary. Marcus thought of the behaviour as charming, though not everyone agreed.
‘Where is she? Where is that little special girl of mine?’
Charlie broke out of her daydream and leaped up, scanning the room. ‘Mum?’
He’d never known Tanya to be quiet exactly, but something about this new boyfriend of hers amped up her voice to a shrill wail, even in regular conversation. From the tone of Tanya’s voice, Marcus already suspected she had Whippo with her.
‘I don’t know why we had to meet here. Lie-baries give me the creeps.’
‘This isn’t even like a proper library. There’s like kids and screaming and noise and shit. Where are all the books?’
‘It’s the kids section, Whippo. This is what they do now because the kids don’t read books and stuff.’
Whippo contemplated this as Charlie rushed to them, wrapping her arms around her mother’s legs.
Tanya lifted the girl into her arms and the pair shared a chest-crushing hug with claims and counter claims of who has missed the other more.
‘Hey Dorkus,’ said Whippo.
Marcus responded with a curt nod. ‘Where have you been?’ he said to Tanya.
‘We had to park at the arse end of nowhere. Why the fuck did you want to meet here anyway? It’s chaos after the sand thing and now all this bloody rain.’
‘I wanted to bring Charlie somewhere she would like.’
‘Somewhere we can’t afford to park.’
‘You could have taken public transport.’
‘Whippo doesn’t like public transport.’ Whippo nodded to confirm this. ‘He doesn’t like putting his arse where someone else’s has been.’
‘That must get exhausting.’
‘It was stupid coming here. Haven’t you been watching the news? It’s like the end of the bloody world here.’
He heard about the sand and there had been talk of flooding if this rain didn’t ease up, but Marcus hadn’t really thought much about the practicalities of what that might mean for today. He had been thinking more about this conversation and how he could broach the topic. He needed somewhere wordy to keep Charlie distracted and noisy enough to allow the adults to thrash it out. There was no room to account for breaking river banks. They would just have to deal with that if it became a problem.
Tanya lowered Charlie back to the floor. ‘Okay darling, go and play with the other kiddies for a second, then we’ll go.’
Charlie responded with a quizzical look. Marcus decided it was either in response to her mother’s babyish talk or the assumption that she would deign to play with other children. She returned the to the bookshelf and removed a picture book. She brushed at the pages, as though clearing something away from them.
‘Did you get my message?’ Marcus said to Tanya.
‘What about her?’
‘I wanted to pick her up early next week.’
Tanya stiffened. ‘We agreed. One week each. When you want more time with her, you tell me three weeks in advance.’
‘I sent you an email four weeks ago about this.’
‘Didn’t get it.’
‘I put a read receipt on it. I know you read it.’
‘Must have been someone else. I’ve changed my email address. The old one got hacked.’ She emphasised the last word, as though showing off something new she had learned.
‘Hacked? Don’t shit me, Tanya. It’s just a day early. It was the only time I could get in to see the psychologist.’
‘She doesn’t need a psychologist. She’s not crazy!’
‘She’s a bit weird,’ said Whippo.
‘Whose side are you on?’ cried Tanya.
‘Go and get us a coffee or something, Whippo. I’ll come out with Charlie in a second.’
‘We need to do something about this, Tanya. Charlie is gifted.’
Tanya scoffed. ‘Gifted.’
‘I’m serious. She’s on level 30 readers and she’s still in prep for shit’s sake. The teachers are saying they’re never seen anything like it.’
‘So she’s smart. What’s wrong with that?’
‘Nothing. But she needs to be assessed.’
‘So she can be challenged. They think she plays with imaginary things because she’s bored.’
They were arguing again. They were such nice people, all of them. Even Whippo was great sometimes, letting her eat cereal in front of the TV or letting her wander through their neighbourhood looking for interesting words. They were nice people, as long as they weren’t together.
They were arguing over her. It was always over her. They talked about ‘gifted’. Charlie wasn’t quite sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. It was a thing.
Charlie checked her pockets again. A few names, some ‘doing words’ as her teacher calls them, little fragmented words like ‘if’ and ‘it’. She collected as many as she could from the bookshelf, but places like this were not great. Inside a library and especially in a children’s section there wasn’t much to see. Kids hung onto their words, they were careful with them, kept them close to their chests. Most kids didn’t have all that many words either. The kids in her class carried a few around. Some jealously guarded them. Others weren’t quite sure what to do with them.
With adults, it’s completely different. Adults throw words around, waste them, step on them, treat them like a toy, and discard them at an alarming rate. They shoehorn words into each other with little regard. They smear them over surfaces, slice them, smash them. Adults don’t seem to like words at all.
Charlie used to get upset at this, until she realised something very important. The adults couldn’t see what they were doing. Only Charlie could see the words.
Her parents threw some new words at each other, firing sharpened phrases at each other’s armour. As they raised their voices, the words fell around their feet. Charlie was reminded of a war movie Whippo once let her watch. A man fired a machine gun and let the empty shells pile up around his feet.
The piles didn’t last long. Some of the younger kids circled around her parents, absently gathering every word as fast as they were made. All kids do this. That’s why this place has nothing to collect. Kids seem to know how valuable they are. They scoop up stray words without seeing them, without even realising what they’re doing. They pick up everything. Even the words they’re not supposed to know. Especially the words they’re not supposed to know.
Just beyond the kids section, Charlie spied the lounge chairs and tables crammed with people at laptops. Almost all of them with headphones. They all looked so serious, so intent on their screens and oblivious to anything else. There weren’t a lot of words here to collect either. People in libraries were as good as kids at tidying up the strays, she’d discovered.
‘This is not about you,’ Marcus hissed.
His face was bright red, though more from embarrassment than anger. It seemed his plan to have this discussion in a noisy place wasn’t as well thought out as he’d hoped. The room was noisy, but not even a couple of dozen playing children could match Tanya’s screeching.
‘It’s not about you either! This is about Charlie getting a normal life!’
Around them, the other parents were herding their own youngsters away. The women drew their handbags close to their chests, as though protecting themselves. The men leaned down and muttered to their charges. Everyone was preparing to leave. Marcus could see they were causing a scene and everyone around them were too embarrassed to intervene.
‘A normal life? What’s so normal about what you’re offering her, Tanya? That fucking douchebag of a boyfriend of yours is not exactly a model of straight up parenting. You let her stay up all night, eat shitty food, watch inappropriate movies. If she wasn’t so mature, you’d have broken her already. As it is she comes back addled.’
The mutters around them grew louder. People were really starting to move out now. Come on, we’re going. Bags and protesting children were dragged up the few stairs towards the exit.
‘What about that little piece you’ve shacked up with then? What kind of model is she? All those precious books and vases and trinkets she keeps on the shelf. How is Charlie supposed to be a kid when she can’t touch anything in your house?’
Almost everyone else was gone now, leaving Tanya and Marcus to go through the motions without an audience. They continued the regular dance, back and forth, raking over the coals of their brief but productive relationship. Every slight, every nasty aside, every cold response was catalogued and reviewed. They could almost recite it by now.
It wasn’t until the last of the others had left the children’s corner, they noticed the thump from the window outside.
Whippo curled his fist and beat desperately at the glass. He was saying something about the radio, but his voice was muffled.
‘Whfffr, whffr, whffr radio! Iron Brightman!’
Tanya and Marcus broke their dance to stare at him.
‘What’s he saying?’ said Marcus.
‘Brian Brightman?’ said Tanya. ‘What about him?’ she yelled through the glass.
‘On the fucking radio! Just now! Talking to Brian Brightman on the fucking air! Yeah!’
‘What was he on the radio for?’
‘I don’t know.’ She raised her voice again. ‘What for?’
‘Fucking flood, baby! They wanted someone to sound panicky so I fucking gave it! Woo!’
‘Flood?’ Marcus looked around. The commotion wasn’t confined to their corner of the library. People everywhere were streaming out of the place. There was a large congregation at the windows overlooking the river. Even the headphone-and-laptop drones were unplugged, taking photos with their phones.
‘Nice work, Marcus. Bringing your daughter into the most dangerous place in the city. Real smart.’
‘Shut up, Tanya. Charlie! Let’s get going!’
They look down to the bookshelf where Charlie had been.
Tanya spun around. Marcus peered through the sea of legs at the windows, looking for a sign of Charlie’s dress.
‘She can’t have gone far. She was just here.’
Marcus ran towards the windows, happy to leave Tanya to rely on the potency of her irritating voice. He was confident Charlie would have followed the crowd to the windows. No big deal.
The library people looked worried. Nothing especially surprising about that. Charlie hadn’t seen library people much, but whenever she did, they looked worried. It seemed sad to Charlie that they would worry so much about words they can’t see. Today was strange though. The sky was dark, really dark and everyone had that librarian worry. There were so many people. It reminded Charlie of going to the show when her Dad wrote his phone number on her arm in black texta in case she ‘got away’. Numbers were really important to him. Sometimes Charlie wished she could see numbers the way she saw words.
There were a lot of people standing around, looking down at the river. There was a lot of talking, a lot of words were crushed underfoot, but that wasn’t unusual. The people who weren’t looking down at the river, were looking at their phones, swearing and shaking the things, allowing words to spill out from them.
That was a phrase being passed from the back to the front, from the phoners to the starers.
‘It’s breaking the bank.’
That was a phrase being passed from the front to the back, from the starers to the phoners.
A string of words, all clumped together in a messy half-sentence dangled from one of the phones. She couldn’t make any of the individual words out, but usually clumps like this one contained some interesting and hard-to-find words. Charlie sidled up to the distracted adult – a huge hairy man with long arms and a round belly – trying not to draw attention to herself. The phone was attached to his belt, tantalisingly close. In straining to look over the shoulders of those in front of him, the man jiggled his belly and danced his feet back and forth. The words swayed with him.
Charlie stood still by his side, watching the words from the corner of her eye. With one quick move, she snatched the clump and stuffed it into her pocket. The man stopped jiggling and looked down at her.
‘You right, kid?’
She smiled. They always liked it when she smiled. ‘Yes thank you,’ she said.
The man turned his attention back to the window. Something very important was happening here and Charlie had no way of reaching the front. She headed instead for the front entrance to the library. Her Dad once showed her how you could get to the other floors. Maybe if she got up high, she could see what the others were looking at.
If she was really lucky she might find a few words for her collection along the way.
Searching . . .
Searching? Searching? Are they serious? Bloody technology. The one time you need—absolutely need—a phone to work, the bars conveniently vanish and in their place one word and a string of dots to suggest that civilisation is not far away. Not far away at all! What the hell is going on?
Marcus dropped to his knees and crawled around behind the crowd, searching for a glimpse of Charlie’s dress. Nothing. He sprinted to the information desk by the entrance. No one there. No, of course not.
His heart hammered in his chest. He was painfully aware that the longer Charlie didn’t show up, the worse things would get. He took a deep breath and attempted to scan the area systematically. It didn’t work. His eyes darted left and right, every distraction, every flash of red colour was her, almost her, surely her.
He stumbled towards the main entrance of the library. At least if she was inside, he would spot her before she got outside. Hordes streamed in and out past him, excited, concerned, some laughing, some barely acknowledging the chaos unfolding.
In the blur of bodies, Marcus didn’t even register the uniform. Anyone asking to help was welcome as far as he was concerned.
‘Sir, are you alright?’
‘My daughter. She was just here. I thought she was here.’
‘Sir, calm down. What’s her name.’
‘Charlotte, Charlie. She’s Charlie.’
‘And when did you last see her?’
Marcus stopped and thought for a second. When had he last seen her? How long had he been arguing with Tanya before they realised the only thing they had worth arguing over was gone?
‘Um, I don’t know. Not long. Not long at all.’
‘Can you give me an estimate? It makes all the difference.’
‘I know. Ten minutes. Tops. Her mother is here too. She’ll be looking. And screaming. Screaming and looking.’
He runs through everything he should be doing: stay still, stay calm. A nauseous lurch flows through him as he realises what he is responsible for. His five-year-old is wandering unsupervised in an enormous public space. He delivers Charlie’s basic details and appearance to the security guard.
‘She’s smart! She’s really really smart.’
He wasn’t quite sure why he said that. Why that was important. Maybe he was saying it to himself. He dashed into the bookshop, the cafe, around the sculptures that dotted the concourse, and through the endless throng of people chattering, bustling, dawdling, and strolling. A clawing, gasping panic began to overtake him. Every minute makes a difference.
Not many people look up, but sometimes it’s worth looking for the lovely things up there. The atrium was nice, with its layer on layer of balconies and floors, but on the ceiling outside the bookshop, someone had placed giant bugs. Not real ones. Big metal things, not moving, just observing what was happening below. Near one of the giant metal bugs, a much smaller spider had built a web. Spiders liked ‘doing’ words, especially short ones. They wove them into the webs, linking them together, fanning out from the centre, one after another until all their meaning had been lost and they formed a new pattern all of their own.
Charlie liked spiders, usually.
Lately the spiders had been doing strange things with their webs, though, like this one. It had torn all the useful words out, unstitching them from the web and letting them fall. It was strange and unsettling. Spiders were normally so careful. It was like they were panicking, offloading what they didn’t need any more.
Finding the elevator wasn’t too difficult, but she was concerned she might not reach the buttons. Sometimes to get high up, you had be high up in the first place. But this elevator was fine. She couldn’t reach the top button, but the one below was in easy reach. Not much in the way of words in here. These librarians were absolutely diligent. That was a nice word she picked up outside the teachers’ room at school. She looked at the label next to the button she’d pressed.
Okay. She would go to special collections and see what she could find. She pressed the buttons and after a satisfying ping, the doors slid shut in front of her and carried her as high in the building as she could go.
The crowds were dispersing. They could see the bridges clogging up with traffic: cars and pedestrians. Everyone crossing north and south through the only routes available. Overhead, helicopters rattled and buzzed. Though the rain had stopped and the sun was shining, the sky maintained a brooding heaviness.
‘Spooky,’ said Whippo. ‘We really gotta go.’
‘We haven’t found Charlie.’
‘Dorkus is looking for her. He’ll text you when he finds her.’
‘Nigel, do you seriously think I’m going to leave without finding her?’
‘Don’t call me Nigel.’
Tanya had never really paid attention to the river until now. She knew it was there, of course, but how often do you stop and stare at the millions of litres that flow past?
Now she stopped. And stared.
The water had a hypnotic pulse to it. It eddied and sloshed and plumed and wrestled with itself. Great wells of water would rise up, propelled by some unseen force below, a bloom of whitewash within the background brown. The wells would appear, disgorge their watery content up, attempting to reach skyward, before running out of steam and settling back into the morass only for another plume to rise somewhere else. It never settled. It never stopped.
And it was loud.
‘Ha! Look at that,’ said Whippo.
A long sexy-looking speedboat, some kind of millionaire’s toy, had wedged itself into a bridge pylon.
A few people were around on this floor, but for the moment no one was worried about her. Charlie looked around, wondering which way the windows were.
This level looked different from the others she had seen. The others had rows and rows and rows of books, more than she had ever seen at the school library.
Charlie spent a lot of time with books. Books helped her make sense of the words she saw everywhere. They helped her understand how words went together and what they look like when people order them. Books were okay. But the way others talked about them, Charlie wondered if she was missing something.
‘I love books,’ said their teacher in the first week of prep.
‘Why?’ Charlie said.
‘Because books open up a whole world of possibility. Books are a window into . . . ’ Charlie lost track at that point. It’s not the only time she’s heard stuff like that.
For Charlie, books were useful, but the words in them were dead. Out here, words do all sorts of things. They combine and break up and move around and reform. They turn up in strange and wonderful places. They don’t stay still.
But this floor was not full of rows and rows of dead things. This floor looked more like a shop for antiques. And one antique caught her eye.
It was a large white vase with a picture on it painted in blue: birds facing each other, dancing together in silence, surrounded by strange looking trees and buildings. It was pretty.
And it was stuffed full of words.
Charlie stared at it. All the words she had ever found were on the ground, left behind on tables, hanging sadly from someone’s clothing or belonging. Everything from her collection was someone else’s junk. She’d never thought to look somewhere special.
An amazing thought occurred to Charlie. She took a deep, measured breath in. Her fingers and toes tingled with pins and needles.
Someone had put those words in there.
Someone like her had kept their own collection and stored it in a white vase with dancing birds painted on it in blue. What kind of words deserved such gentle and careful treatment? They must be words she had never encountered before. What’s more, someone—the same someone who collected them?—had placed the vase out there in the open on a desk. Just out of reach. Charlie inched her way closer to the vase, reaching her hand out, desperate to know what such precious words must feel like. They looked clean.
There are other people like me.
Charlie jumped in fright and whirled around to find herself face to face with someone official. She wanted to run away, but she didn’t want to leave the words in the vase without touching them.
‘Hey, it’s okay! You look very lost, there, sweetheart!’
She wasn’t old like a lot of the librarians Charlie had seen. She was much younger, probably younger than Charlie’s Mum. She had bigger boobs too. The name on the badge pinned to her shirt read:
The tag dangling from the lanyard around her neck added some more detail and an awkward photo.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Charlie, I’m Sammi. Are you missing your mum or dad?’
Charlie blinked at her. Mum and Dad would be still talking, still sharpening their words and flinging them at each other’s faces. They took a long time doing that. Charlie wasn’t worried.
Sammi smiled with her mouth, but frowned with her eyes. ‘They’ll be looking for you. Everyone needs to go home now. Let’s go down there and see if we can find them.’
She reached a hand out to Charlie. A helicopter flew low over the building sending thick pulses of noise echoing down the atrium.
Charlie snatched her hand back.
‘Sweetheart, we have to go. You can’t stay here.’
‘No!’ Charlie would be happy to go once she had a closer look at the words in the vase. She wasn’t sure how to say that. She ran for it, escaping Sammi’s reach. She stumbled towards the desk where the vase perched and flung her hand for one tiny, small touch of what was inside it.
It rocked back and forth—once, twice—before falling on its side.
A guttural groan emerged from Sammi as she rushed past Charlie to stop the vase from falling off the desk and onto the tiles below. She pushed Charlie aside, clawing at it with her fingertips.
Charlie fell backwards onto her bottom and watched. As it rolled on the surface, a few words tumbled out and onto the desk. When it fell through the air, a few more of the lighter, more airy words fluttered out like ash fragments from a fire. And when it finally hit the ground—SMASH!—it contents exploded in a cloud of ceramic dust. Shards and fragments of the vase remained amongst the words.
Sammi dropped to her knees, her face white, staring at what was left of something that deserved the title special collection. But as Charlie craned her neck to see better what words had been left for her, she wondered why it was deserving of the name special. The vase contained no treasures, no new discoveries. No puzzling words she could turn over in her hands and investigate further. Every last word in there was the same ordinary stuff she saw everywhere. Doing words, naming words. Even little words like ‘if’ and ‘it’. They didn’t seem to go together particularly well. They couldn’t form sentences or even phrases.
What kind of collection was this? What was its purpose?
Sammi sighed and brushed some of the dust under the desk before turning to Charlie. She wasn’t smiling any more.
‘Why did you do that?’
Charlie jumped from the floor and ran. She found the stairs and tore down them as fast as she could. She had done something terrible and now everyone would be angry at her. From below, her mother’s voice rang through the atrium.
‘Where’s my daaaawwwwwtah?’
She couldn’t stand the thought that her parents might turn their sharpened words on her instead of each other. At least they could see what was coming at them.
She stopped on the bridge’s footpath, unnoticed by the people around her. They had their own worries. They were all trying to leave, they talked on their phones (those that could), marching quick step. They talked loudly at each other, asked about transport and carelessly tossed their words around, letting them fall where they may. The wind took their meaningless words up from the bridge’s surface and carried them down to the water.
‘Hey look, a couch.’
Debris from upriver was being carried out to the bay: mostly unidentifiable plastics, kids’ play equipment, camping gear, eskies. And now a couch.
She watched it drift by.
She had been thinking about the words in the vase and about her own collection at home. Unlike the books in the library, Charlie didn’t keep anything ordered. She just liked to have them around her. She liked to think she looked after them better than the people around her. She was just like the person who had left the vase.
And now the vase was ruined. One small stupid act from Charlie and it was gone.
But the words that it contained still troubled her. When the words are everywhere, why keep them at all? A new thought occurred to her.
Maybe keeping them isn’t the right thing to do.
Charlie reached into her pockets and removed the few words she had collected in the library. She turned them over in her hands, watching the sunlight strike them. During their time in her pocket, they had rubbed up against each other. A couple had clung together in awkward compound words. One of the doing words had even attracted un ugly ‘LY’ at the end.
They were always doing that.
Her Dad’s voice seemed like a long way away. Somewhere down at the sides of the river. She was going to be in big trouble when they found her.
Adults don’t seem to like words at all. They smear them over surfaces, slice them, smash them. But maybe that’s what they’re supposed to do with them.
Best to get this done now.
Charlie stepped up on her tiptoes and reached over the bridge’s handrail, tossing the words from her hand down to the angry water below.
She watched them spin and twist on currents, crash into each other and break into pieces as the water swallowed them. They were part of the world again, settling at the bottom of the river, eventually drifting away to the sea.
Maybe one day she would see them again.