Sometimes Dad can’t watch us at his apartment on Thursdays because he has to work. Mom has class at night so she can be a nurse, and she can’t miss class at all because it’s very important. On those days, we go to the library.
We’ve only done it once before, and J.J. and I really liked it. Mom put Goldfish crackers and grapes in my backpack because I’m the big sister, so I was in charge. She said if we were good and ate all the snacks and read five books each, she’d take us to McDonald’s the next day. J.J. didn’t eat all his, though, so I helped.
Mom walked us into the library, through a big hallway from the front door to the desks where you check out books. The carpet was gray and dirty, and Mom said we weren’t allowed to go out there at all because that’s where the homeless people sleep. We went past the checkout desks and the book displays, and into the kid’s books. They have computers just for kids, and lots of toys, and librarians that help only kids and not grownups, and all the books I want. I love reading. I’m not good at it yet, but I’ll be in second grade soon, so I’ll probably get better.
J.J. ran off the minute we got there, but Mom held my hand tight.
“Be good, Amy.”
I nodded. I knew how to behave in public. But when I tried to pull away, Mom held me tighter.
“Make sure you and J.J. stay in the kid’s books the whole time, okay? I don’t want you to wander out into the grownup section, not even to look at the comics in the newspapers. And try to be as quiet as you can. Pretend you’re a spy on a secret mission, and you don’t want anyone to find you.”
This sounded like a fun game, so we did it. Mom let us play in the library until her class was over, and then she took us home. That was the first time.
The second time, Mom cries the whole way to the library. She doesn’t think I can see her, but I’m sitting in the front seat, and she keeps wiping her eyes.
“We’ll go to Chuck E. Cheese’s this time,” she says, “if you two eat all your snacks and read five books each.”
I nod. It would be easy.
“I don’t want to go to the live berry,” J.J. says from the back.
“I know, buddy, but it’s just for tonight. And after that, I promise we’ll never go back again.”
“Ever?” I look at Mom, trying to make sure she wasn’t just saying something for J.J. She does that a lot so she can make him shut up.
She doesn’t say anything, though, or look at me, and I think that maybe there’s something else she’s thinking of. But I’ll ask her later, when she’s in a better mood.
She walks us in fast. We’re always late wherever we go, and I figure she’s probably late to class.
She bends down and pulls us in close. “Remember, five books.” She gives us a big hug.
She walks off into the grownup section, and not to the door like I thought she would. The librarian behind the desk in the kid’s section is watching her, probably because she wants to tell Mom if we read five books or not when she comes back.
J.J. goes straight for the toys, and I grab a Boxcar Children book. It’s too long for me to read it while we’re there, but I think Mom will check it out for me when she gets back. I like the cover with four kids playing in a boxcar together. I decide that I’ll pretend me and J.J. are in a boxcar for the rest of the time we’re in the library.
By the time J.J. has played on the computer and looked at three books on trucks, and I’ve read twelve picture books, we hear an alarm go off. Little red lights on the walls start to blink, and the librarian that was watching Mom earlier stands up and tells us not to panic.
I drop my books—even The Boxcar Children—and put on my backpack. I grab J.J.’s hand and walk fast toward the librarian. We follow her through the kid’s books and into the big gray hallway Mom told us not to go through alone, and out into the parking lot. There are fire trucks there, and the firemen run into the building. J.J. wants to watch them, but we’re supposed to be spies, so I make him come with me toward a bush on the other side of the building. We eat our grapes, and J.J. keeps saying that he wants to go see the fire truck. I tell him we will as soon as they’re done. I don’t mean it. Sometimes I lie to J.J. to get him to do what I want.
We finish the grapes, and I don’t know what to do. I know that Mom picked us up last time when the clocks on the computers said 7:45. I don’t know what time we went outside, or how much time we have until Mom gets there. Most of the people besides the librarians have already left.
J.J. stands up and tries to walk away. I grab his wrist, but he screams really loud. I let him go, and he runs to the fire truck. The librarian sees us. She lets J.J. run by, and stares straight at me.
“Hey there. Are you okay? Did you get hurt in the fire?”
I shake my head no. I don’t get up, but she keeps coming for me.
“Do you need help finding your mom or dad?”
I shake my head no again. I don’t know what to do to make her leave. I’m mad that she found me, mad that J.J. ran away, mad that Mom said we wouldn’t go to the library anymore, and mad that I’m not very good at playing spy.
The firemen have all come outside. They must be done with the fire. I never saw it, though. I watch as they lift up J.J. and let him sit in the truck. He smiles for the first time that night.
“Honey, where’s your mom?”
The librarian keeps getting closer and closer. My insides feel cold and empty, and I don’t feel like I’m a good big sister anymore. I don’t know what time it is, or when Mom will be there. I just want to go back into the library and look at The Boxcar Children books.
“We’re closing the library early, sweetheart. No one can go back in. Someone put a firecracker in one of the toilets and burned a lot of paper in the sinks, so there’s a big mess we have to clean up.”
“But we need to go back inside,” I say, trying not to cry. I feel like a baby. “We have to stay in the kid’s books. That’s where we’re supposed to be.”
“Sweetie, are you here alone?” She gets down on her knees in front of me.
I look at J.J. with the firemen. He’s wearing one of their helmets and showing his arm muscles. All the firemen are nice to him. They aren’t asking any questions. I look up at the librarian, and I realize that she probably didn’t want to tell Mom if we read all five of those books. Then, I just look down at my shoes, and I cry like a stupid baby.