I've had the keys to the roof of the library since I started working here. The fire code says no one's allowed up there, but it's something of a joke: someone keeps a little herb garden in black plastic pots in one corner, and the more popular girls get drunk and bring their friends up here to spit down six stories or egg passersby.
I never went up to the roof, because I don't break rules.
I'm up here now. I shouldn't be. It's late, and it's cold, and there's a lump in my throat that won't disappear no matter how much I swallow.
My mother left when I was six. She went away to do God-knows-what and never came home. I was too little to understand that a year or more away meant she wasn't ever coming back; I still had her promise ringing in my ears, that she'd tell me all her secrets when I was old enough to love them like she did.
Then I came home one afternoon—I think I was eight at this point—and saw that all her pictures had disappeared from the mantle. I knew my father had done it. He and my mother had never been happy together.
I flipped through the photo albums on the table. I still moved from infant to toddler to child too proud of my missing teeth, but my mother was gone as the stars when the sun comes up.
I understood that. She was out there, somewhere, but I was never allowed to see her again. I could live with that.
I do not remember my father and I ever speaking of my mother after she left. We became a unit of two, and it was good. He came to all my recitals, all the spelling bees, all the awards ceremonies. And he loved me, even though I was awkward and stayed away from people, even though we didn't understand each other. He loved me.
My job at the library was a godsend. I could put headphones in so no one would talk to me while I was working, and I could spend too much time putting things in order. I could talk to the people I worked with, because I knew they were like me, a little: they loved things too much, and they were just waiting for someone to listen to them. I could listen, because they didn't want me to look them in the eyes or hold up my end of the conversation.
I never understood that expression. Conversations are hardly ever dialogues: one person talks, and then the other person talks, and then you go your own way and maybe feel good about yourself.
I had to have my picture taken for the library website. I didn't like it, because I know the power of Google. But the job was everything I needed, so I smiled and looked pretty for the camera, and then I forgot about it.
Even when I'm not working, I like to spend my time at the library. I go upstairs and hide in the stacks to study; I sit on the front steps in the sun to eat my lunch. Nobody pays me any mind. I am anonymous. I am free. I nod at the people I know, and they nod back because they know not to expect anything else from me.
It's not like I'm rude. I just like to be left alone, and most people recognize that.
The man today was not one of them. I did not know him from anything: he was muscular and dark-haired, and something about his stance suggested he was not comfortable walking around a college campus, like he'd never had to. I see people like that now and again: they come to school for evening courses and have to ask reference librarians how to use the computers. I don't mind them.
But he wasn't looking for a book. He was looking for me.
I was sitting on my steps, eating my lunch the same way I always eat it: peanut butter and jelly sandwich down to each crust, discard, milk, discard, toffee. The toffee's my favorite part. It takes time to eat a toffee. The toffee was in my lap, unwrapped but not yet in my mouth, when the man approached me.
His voice was hesitant, like he was not used to speaking. "Excuse me?" I looked up, focusing on his lapel instead of his face, like the sun behind his head was too blinding to meet his eyes. I was expecting a request for directions, nothing I had not learned to handle. "…Are you Ana´s Golding?"
No one at the library ever called me my real name. I was always Annie, just Annie. I dropped my eyes to my lunch. I could not think what this man might want with me. I wished I had not looked up, as I always do when forced to talk to strangers. Or almost anyone, really.
But I nodded, and he drew in a sharp breath. "...Can we talk, please?"
He told me there, on the steps of the library, that he'd been trying to find me for years. That he had wanted to call me or my father before trying to contact me, only to discover our numbers were unlisted. He had tried the library, too, but they did not allow personal calls on the work line. And finally, he'd just gotten desperate.
I listened to him through all of that, staring at my lap. My palms had begun to sweat, like they always do, but I just told myself that soon, he would stop talking and I would have a reason to stop listening and walk away. I had to practice these kinds of unplanned interactions, or I would never learn to deal with them.
And then he said it. "Annie…" I lifted my eyes in surprise, because I had not said to call me Annie. I cannot read the faces of strangers; I did not know what he wanted from me. But his voice was soft and weak. "Annie, I think I'm your father."
I do not know how long I will sit on the roof of this library. Sooner or later, I will have to go home and speak to my father. I will have to ask him the questions that weigh down my heart like stones in the bottom of a bag.
But I do not want to, and it is quiet here. No one will tell me to leave.