The Book Sniffers, by Annie Neugebauer


Kimber held the magazine open in front of her even as she eyed the dictionary in her periphery. She didn’t want to raise too much suspicion by looking directly at it. The plan was to pretend to peruse a periodical—preferably something slightly more intellectual, like the Time issue she held now—until she got to a non-existent word that she didn’t know. Then she would look up in confusion with her brow furrowed, harrumph slightly to herself, and look around innocently for a computer to Google the vocabulary stumper. Only then was she to notice the large, ancient dictionary volume on the floor, propped almost haphazardly against a low-lying shelf (a sign of disrespect, in her opinion). For sheer convenience’s sake, it would appear to any onlookers, Kimber would search for the meaning of her unknown word in this outdated tome instead of tromping over to the computers.

And then she would be in.

Kimber’s nose hairs felt like the victims of static electricity as she imagined the smell of such a big, old book. Her hands twitched on the glossy magazine pages as she resisted the urge to look over her shoulder at Dave. He would be distracting the librarian by now. Kimber’s eyes closed for a moment as she relived that first rush of finding someone like her.

They’d been on the subway, sitting next to a woman reading an eBook on her phone. Kimber had rolled her eyes; Dave had noticed. Before the next stop they’d agreed to go for coffee. It took no time to realize they were both sniffers. She remembered the thrill she’d felt when he’d said, “They still have one at the North Parks branch, you know.”

“Whaaaat?” she’d said in exaggerated doubt. At first she’d thought he was kidding. But his big brown eyes were earnest as he nodded.

“Seriously. It’s the dictionary. The pages are too thin to spray. It’d ruin it.”

Kimber stared at him with her mouth slightly open as she weighed the truth of his statement. For years now, since The Episode that started it all—when that cult in Santa Fe had broken into a university library, vandalized all of the electronics, and stolen the old books for their smell—libraries across the country had taken to lightly spritzing their volumes with vinegar. It warped the pages, but the strong smell adequately drowned out that old book scent that had become so fanatically sought after by the Physical Books Party since the rise of the eBook. Now bookstores and libraries touted signs on their glass doors that declared “ANTI-P.B.P ESTABLISHMENT” and “SNIFFERS NOT WELCOME HERE.”

Was it possible that North Parks was truly unwilling to risk the tissue thin pages of their largest book? And if so, would she and Dave be able to get to it for long enough to take a whiff? Dave had been watching her think. He saw the light in her eyes. She didn’t have to say it aloud, but she did anyway.

“I’m in.”

Now she stood next to a poster that read “BOOKS ARE FOR READING, NOT SNIFFING” with her heart pumping adrenaline through her limbs. She could get kicked out, fined, or even arrested for this. It was a huge risk, but it was well worth it to Kimber. It was time.

She enacted her oh-I-don’t-know-that-word face and proceeded to notice and wander over to the whopping beast leaned against the shelf. As casually as she could with excitement telling all of her muscles to jump, she tucked the Time magazine under her arm and knelt at the altar of possibility. With shaking hands, Kimber pulled the book open, flat on its spine on the Berber carpet, pretending briefly to flip to the mystery word she was “looking up.” She didn’t glance back at Dave. Like a Muslim during Salah, she prostrated herself face-first into the smooth crease between the pages, breathed out once through her mouth, and inhaled—long, deep, and slow.

On the inhale, her olfactory sensors went wild with joy. It was everything she had remembered, imagined, and hoped for. Musty. Smooth. Sacred.

On the exhale, her childhood flooded her in waves of memory so blissful that she teared up, allowing only one moment of reveling before she inhaled again, as much as she could.

This time the smell was truer—more present, and she parted her lips just a bit to let the scent coat her tongue.

It was on the next exhale that she heard someone clear their throat above her. Kimber felt defiance soar even as disappointment sank. She allowed herself one last lingering whiff before she sat back on her heels and looked up. A librarian stood tall and stoic and straight from Kimber’s childhood memories. She was silver-haired, had retaining chains on her narrow glasses, wore a floral dress, and a poorly-fitting bra. She had one, thin eyebrow raised at Kimber as if waiting for an excuse, apology, or explanation.

Only now did Kimber spare a look toward Dave. She could see him near the counter with a second librarian. Silly mistake, Kimber thought to herself. Two librarians on this level for the weekend. The librarian cleared her throat again, demanding a response. Kimber refused to be a villain. Lies and combativeness would only make this worse. With all of the honesty she could muster, Kimber met the old woman’s gaze and said, “I miss books.” Tears filled her eyes as she heard her feelings spoken aloud for the first time. As an afterthought, she tagged on, “I hate vinegar.”

The corner of the librarian’s mouth quirked just slightly. She wiped her long, thin fingers on her skirt and looked behind her to Dave and the other staff member. With a deep sigh, she squatted next to Kimber and whispered, “Let me show you where we keep our Encyclopedias.”

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Posted in 2011, Fiction, Flash Fiction
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