Short Fiction by Dorianne Emmerton
Just like every other morning, I was heading to my favourite carrel in the library to work on my thesis, a never-ending project that consumed all my time and energy. It focuses on what I call “Pinafore Fiction.” Louisa May Alcott, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, that ilk. I was so sick of bonnets and typhoid fever. It would be so delicious to ignore my laptop and the old, tattered paperbacks in my backpack and instead pick up something from the New Releases shelf. But I also had to finish this Master’s Degree and get on with whatever my life would be.
I glanced at the desk; Hot Librarian was working. I was feeling good about my look today. I always dressed up a bit more than one would expect for someone doing schoolwork. In part, because it made me feel confident at everything, including academics, and also because the Hot Librarian would see me. She looked my way, and I switched my frown to a smile. She smiled back. My heart did a silly little jumpy thing that I knew too well.
She was shorter than me by a few inches and always wore Mary Janes with brightly coloured opaque stockings. She was round as a snowman, three circles piled on top of each other, except unlike a snowman if I were to hug her she would be warm in my arms. She had dimples and horn-rimmed glasses so pronounced I wondered if she chose them as a personal joke about her profession. Her shiny black hair was forever sliding out of whatever ponytail or bun she attempted. From the shape of her face and the colour of her skin, I took her to be of Chinese descent, and I also took her to be straight.
This meant I flirted with great abandon whenever I had reason to approach the desk. I’d learned long ago that straight girls always thought I was just being friendly, no matter how outrageous my coquetry. The bright side was that if no one realized I was doing it, no one could take offense. There are some people out there — straight people — who think that everything is safe for us now that we have marriage. Those people are wrong.
There was someone sitting at my carrel.
There was someone sitting at my carrel.
My surprise turned to indignation. That was my seat. I stood there huffing and glaring at the glossy black hair on the back of the person’s head until they finally turned around.
She was the spitting image of Hot Librarian. I glanced back at the desk. There she was, like always, arranging books. I looked forward to the carrel. She was the same.
“Breathe,” she — the one in front of me — whispered. “Remember to breathe. I’ll explain.”
She beckoned me around to the other side of the carrel, hidden from the main desk. We sat down, and I stared at her face. My mind raced to find an explanation. Twins? They had to be twins, right? She stared back at me but didn’t say anything. Why would Hot Librarian’s twin want to talk to me?
“Well?” I asked after a while.
“Oh yes, sorry! What you need to know is that Be — the librarian — is in trouble. She needs your help.”
“Who are you?”
“That’s your question? Really? Not: What kind of trouble? How do I help?”
“Can’t you answer them all?”
“Not at once,” she said.
“Pick one. Explain something. Please?”
She leaned in close. “We think you’re hot too.”
I hadn’t known before that it was possible to feel simultaneously gratified and creeped-out. My white face blushed up to the roots of my frizzy brown hair. I nervously twisted a lock of it around my fingers.
The twin spoke again. “I — I mean she — will trust you. It’s a weird thing with humans that we are more trusting of people we consider attractive, with no knowledge of whether they’re actually trustworthy. You’d think we’d evolve out of that but …”
I cut her off. “What am I supposed to do?”
“When the time comes, and you will know when it does, you can deploy …” she paused and looked around. I almost expected to hear a Dun Dun Dun. “… your pinafore magic.”
“Huh?” I looked at my backpack, full of tales of feisty girls from years gone by. She put her lips so close to my face I expected to feel her breath, but didn’t.
“Any words are magic if you know them well enough to feel them. And you know these chicks in bonnets pretty well.”
She got up and started to walk away. I grabbed her wrist, but my fingers closed on each other. She looked back at me, at my hand clutching air. My mouth hung open and I blinked rapidly in astonishment. She raised her arms.
“Fully visible. Utterly intangible.” She laughed. “The visibility part is over now though.”
She disappeared. Just poofed out of existence.
That was no twin.
I peeked around the carrel and contemplated Hot Librarian. She read a book cover and typed into her computer, then picked up a pen and wrote a note. She looked tangible enough.
I headed for the desk, but before I got there the front doors banged open in a gust of freezing wind. It was April, but maybe winter was back for a bit. It did that sometimes. A woman strode in, and the doors fell closed behind her. She wore an ill-fitting business suit and carried a green leather purse with big gold buckles and zippers everywhere.
Hot Librarian seemed stuck in place, one arm raised to place a book on a cart. Her eyes were fixed on the woman, who walked with purpose to the desk and leaned over, her purse banging against the wood.
“My dear …” she said, her voice too thick and too sweet, like corn syrup. “It’s time to come home.”
Hot Librarian slammed the book down with enough force that I jumped at the noise.
“No!” she screamed, at the weird woman.
Neither of the two acknowledged me.
“This is my home now,” Hot Librarian said, more calmly but still full of fury. Her hair slipped entirely out of its bun, the elastic falling to the floor.
The strange woman cackled at a frequency that made the hair on my arms stand up. As if she could hear my follicles, the woman turned and looked at me.
Her eyebrows were thin lines of disgust and her fine blonde hair stood out from her scalp in a sunburst frame of her face. She wrinkled her lips with disdain as she took in my red plaid maxi dress and heart-shaped earrings. “Go away little girl,” she said. “This librarian isn’t yours. You don’t even know her.”
“I know some version of her,” the words stumbled out of my mouth. “And I’m supposed to help.”
“You’re a regular knight in shining armour, aren’t you?” she mocked.
“She’s a regular regular,” said Hot Librarian, turning to speak to me. “You’re in here all the time. We talk. I know you.” Her eyes met mine with what seemed like welcome.
“Yes,” I said, and for a moment I forgot about the woman with the ugly green purse.
“So she comes to the library to work on her useless graduate degree, how is that to your benefit?” hissed the woman. “I took care of you. I fed you strawberries dipped in manna every day. I combed and conditioned your hair until it was three stories long and gave you a pet dragon.”
Hot Librarian set her elbows on the desk and leaned forward into the face of her accoster. “You clipped its’ wings so it couldn’t fly me out of the tower.”
“Once a dragon gets to a certain size, you must clip their wings, or else it will keep growing. I’ve told you this before my dearest! It would get too big and have to go live on Dragon Island and become an enemy of all the kingdoms around the Vast Sea.”
“We could have talked to the kings. They’re all afraid of you. You make sure to keep them afraid in just the right amount: not enough not to deny you, but not so much as to attack you.”
“Indeed, I am clever. Is it not a quality you admire?”
“You’re not admirable.”
The whole exchange was unbelievable. This sort of thing never happened in novels about girls living on farms in the 1800s.
The woman screeched and pulled a small oblong device from her hideous purse. It reminded me of a cell phone but the air around it sizzled with pops and flashes.
“Put your power away,” said Hot Librarian.
“You know enough to be afraid of me,” said the witch, drawing out each word.
“I am afraid.” Hot Librarian was tense, but calm. “But that’s better than being alone. Alone, unable to leave, while you went to court, or to the Sorcerer’s Land to see your parents. You preferred to keep me trapped rather than take me out and let people see you love me.”
“You do understand I love you! That is good enough, we shall away together.”
The witch pointed her magical cell phone at the library doors and they dissolved into a swirling oval of purple and black with points of light.
“I said put your power away. Put your portal away too. I’m not going anywhere!”
“You continue to defy me, despite knowing I never back down from defiance.” The witch pointed her cell phone-wand at Hot Librarian.
The Hot Librarian put her fists on her hips. “I went with you willingly to the tower in the mountains. We could have made a home together. But you fed me strawberries and lies, you brushed my hair and imprisoned my body. You love me, yes, but your love is sick and wrong.”
The witch inhaled sharply, and it felt like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room.
“Wait,” I gasped. Both heads swiveled to look at me and then I could breathe again. I had no idea what to say but was tired of being ignored. “Uh … how did you know I was a grad student?”
The witch rolled her eyes, which were surprisingly beautifully blue. “This is the kind of woman you’re interested in now? She’s so … lacking.”
My shoulders sunk with the weight of everything I didn’t have. I hadn’t earned my Masters in English Literature yet, and even if I got the degree it wouldn’t provide much of a career path. I didn’t own a house or a car; I didn’t even have a pet cat, much less a dragon.
Hot Librarian narrowed her eyes at the witch. “How did you know? And how would you know I think she’s cute?”
My blush, which hadn’t yet faded from the roots of my hair, spread back down my face. Despite being the current topic of conversation, neither of them looked my way to notice my reddened face.
“You’ve been spying on me,” Hot Librarian accused. “I told you to stay out of my brain, that was a clear boundary, then I left our entire reality, just to get away from you. Now you’ve followed me and been peeking in my head. That’s … that’s stalking!”
The witch rolled her striking blue eyes and raised her wand. Power coursed from it, forming an arrow in the air, pointed straight at Hot Librarian’s heart. “There is no stalking where we come from, girl,” she said. “Only taking. You came with me willingly once but ran away, too spoiled to enjoy the life I provide. This time I will take you, and ensure you learn to love our life together.”
Hot Librarian and the witch locked eyes in a severe stare. The arrow pulsated with purple light, about to explode into Hot Librarian’s torso, and I didn’t know what it would do — hurt her or send her immediately back to their home dimension — but I didn’t want to find out.
I ran between them, letting the monstrous purple arrow point at my back. It took all my will not to look at the witch. Instead, I focused on Hot Librarian. I remembered what her phantom had told me. “We must join hands,” I said.
Hot Librarian clasped my hand, as tangible as you please.
“This ought to be over running water,” I muttered, trying to sort out exactly what I was doing.
Hot Librarian swept her hand along the desk and the wood melted down into water, a babbling brook streaming across the carpet.
“I have a little magic,” she whispered, her breath warm on my ear. “Just not enough to beat her by myself.”
I didn’t know what to say except, “I solemnly swear to be faithful to my bosom friend – what’s your name?”
“Bethany,” she said.
“I solemnly swear to be faithful to my bosom friend Bethany, as long as the sun and moon shall endure. Now you say it and put my name in.”
“I solemnly swear to be faithful to my bosom friend…”
“My name’s Anne.”
“Of course it is.” A corner of her mouth quirked. I could tell she knew her Green Gables — she was a librarian, after all.
“I solemnly swear to be faithful to my bosom friend Anne, as long as the sun and moon shall endure.”
There was a thump and a huff behind us. I turned and saw the witch doubled over, her rear end sucked into the portal as she reached toward us with grasping hands.
“Noooo! That’s not even a proper spell! She has not been trained!” she screamed.
“There are various ways to gain magic,” spat Bethany. “Ones that don’t involve subjugation and isolation.”
“It’s too dangerous for you without me.” The witch edged an inch out of the portal. Bethany stepped over the brook, standing shoulder to shoulder with me. She broke her gaze from the frightening woman and looked into my eyes.
“You’re a queer girl, Anne,” she said.
I grinned. “I am indeed.”
“I believe I’m going to like you real well.” Led by Bethany, we raised our hands toward the witch and I felt the prickling sensation of magic formed by our touch and the words of Lucy Maud. Power flowed out of us, pushing the witch through the portal.
“You’re mine!” the witch shrieked. Her voice blew wind that knocked books off shelves. “You belong to me!”
Bethany’s hand trembled in mine, but her eyes were clear, dark, and determined.
The witch’s voice became low and brutal. “I’ll kill you.”
Anger flooded my nervous system, every muscle clenched. I gripped Bethany’s shaking hand in mine, until it became stable and stern. Then we raised our arms in tandem, and threw our double fist at Bethany’s abuser.
A bright green light streamed out from our entwined fingers, pushing the witch fully through the portal. We heard her wail as she disappeared. The hole in our world disappeared too. Just poofed out of existence.
I thought of the other Bethany, who vanished the same way after preparing me for what was about to happen.
Bethany and I were alone. There was nothing to think about, nothing to do, but lean into each other and let our lips touch.
“Ahem,” someone said and we broke apart to see the intangible twin.
“What exactly is going on?” I asked.
“I’m not a what, I’m a who!” the phantom said hotly. “I’m Bethany too, and I deserve some respect.”
“It’s a tiny piece of my soul that I detached,” the real Bethany explained. She opened her hand in a particular way and alter-Bethany became mist that real-Bethany inhaled. “If my ex ever found me–”
I cut her off. “Saying ‘your ex’ sounds so benign. She was your captor.”
“I went with her willingly,” Bethany protested.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said, and raised my eyebrows in emphasis.
Bethany grimaced and then nodded and continued. “If she snatched me and took me back, alter-Bethany would remain free, here, and contact … anyone who might help. But the witch is telepathic, so I gave alter-Bethany her own brain. She had to figure out who could help without me knowing, and as long as my … captor wasn’t aware of her existence, all her knowledge was safe.”
“What if that awful woman comes back?”
She laced her fingers together and set her chin on top of them.
“We’re more than friends, right? Because that bosom friends stuff was nice, and it totally worked — any words you know well enough to feel them will work — but I’m kind of done with both towers and closets.”
“My whole thesis is about the friendships in Pinafore Fiction that are actually same-sex relationships. Or sorry, I must be precise and say they can be read as same-sex relationships. Mustn’t interpolate my interpretation.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” she said. “But I think it’s magic.”