by Lydia Daffenberg, edited by John J. Desjarlais
This story won first place in the Phidian Art Society's annual writing contest of 2004. I thank John Desjarlais for his editing skills which helped polish it enough to gain notice.
My routine at the library was typical. I shook my wet umbrella, unlocked the door, and flipped on the lights. The fluorescents blinked into life. I lay my purse in the usual spot behind the check-out desk. I put away the door keys and grabbed the keys in the Tupperware till in the top drawer in order to check the overnight drop-box.
It held a book and a stick. I tossed the stick in the trash and laughed to myself about the things children do. I often found twigs, stones, and leaves in the drop box, put there by schoolchildren to perplex the new librarian. But I was glad some things entertained children besides video games. I re-locked the box, trapping the younger me up inside it.
When I updated the due-date stamp, I realized I’d been here almost a year. I jotted notes to myself and made my way to the children’s section to turn on the lights. On the way, I noticed a book on the floor. It wasn’t there last night. I wondered who might have been in earlier. The library board members had keys, and some of them had children. So it was not unusual for me to find things out of place when I came in. It was an older version of Charlotte’s Web. Classic, I thought. I replaced the book on its shelf, and returned to the children’s area desk.
After entering titles into the accession log and cataloging several new books, I decided to fix some tea before opening the doors for official hours. In a small town like this, on a rainy day, I didn’t expect much traffic. I crossed to where I kept the hot-pot. When I reached the check-out desk, I stopped short.
A book had been returned to the desk. I hadn’t heard the door or anyone in the library. But someone had been in, before opening time. The book was face down but I could see the title on the spine: Charlotte’s Web. How odd.
I spun and hurried back to the children’s section. I peered down every row of stacks to be sure no one else was present. No one was.
I went back to the desk and approached the book as though it might leap up at me. “It must be a second copy,” I told myself. Picking it up gently, I saw that it was the same version as the one on the floor. I opened the front cover to see if the book’s card was in the pocket. It was. It had last been checked out three years ago. A popular book like that? Well, there was the other copy on the shelf – right? Clutching the book, white-knuckled, I returned to the book’s proper place in the stacks.
The space was empty.
I caught my breath. How could someone have walked into the children’s section without my noticing? My work desk’s placement made it easy for me to see all of the children’s section, intentionally. I didn’t like the thought of someone sneaking around, avoiding me, even if it was a child. To know I’d been watched didn’t sit well with me. Perhaps it was the same jokester who gave me the stick-gift. Perhaps I’d been so engrossed in my work I didn’t hear them come in. But the door was still locked. Wasn’t it? I checked. It was. Perhaps I’d left it ajar somehow. Since it was now opening time, I unlocked it. I must have absentmindedly placed the book there myself. Did I? I didn’t recall. There had to be a logical explanation. I decided to replace the cowbells we hung on the door when Thelma the 80-year-old part-time assistant worked so she could hear people coming in. At other times, the bells were an annoyance, but this time I felt comforted when I picked up the bells and banged them against the glass door while hanging them up. I straightened out some books at the front of the library, determined not to miss anyone again.
Every 15 minutes for the next hour and a half, I checked on the kids’ section, and then returned to the front. When the phone rang in the kids’ section, I ran to answer it. Someone asking about Saturday hours. When I passed the check-out desk in front, I saw the book was back.
This time it was open to the end. I stood frozen for a moment, too scared to breathe. I strained to hear something – anything that would provide an explanation. Nothing.
I noticed the open book had the last several pages ripped out. It seemed that someone was trying to call attention to the damaged book. But who, and why? And maybe it wasn’t a someone, but a something.
Thunder boomed outside and gave me a start. Rain rattled on the roof. I doubted anyone would come out to the library on a gloomy late October day like this. I considered leaving early, but what excuse would I give to library board members? There’s a book that keeps moving around by itself Are you on medications you didn’t tell us about when hired, Miss Manning? And I feel like I’m being watched Have you seen a therapist about this?
I decided to keep busy. It occurred to me I should get accustomed to something strange happening, in case it kept happening. I adjusted my glasses and started with several non-fiction selections, since those took longer to catalog. When I figured out what Dewey decimal number to use on the third book, I felt it.
It was similar to the feeling you get when someone’s watching you. Or when you think someone is. Only this was more intense. The hair on my neck stood up. Goosebumps pebbled my arms. The air chilled. I tugged my sweater closed. I scanned the windows along the east wall of the children’s’ section. All closed and locked. My gaze turned toward the front of the library where a girl of about nine or ten stood. The bells hadn’t rung.
She came toward me, hesitatingly. She moved fluidly, pigtails swaying. She held a book in her hand. Her eyes were full of intent as she stopped about ten feet from me. “Oh, you startled me,” I said, wrapping myself tighter in my sweater. “I didn’t hear you come in. Do you need some help?”
No reply came, at least not a verbal one. She came about five feet closer and held out the book she had been clutching to her chest. It was Charlotte’s Web. She turned the pages to the end and pushed the book toward me.
“Yes, I see it’s damaged,” I said. “Were you in earlier?”
She said nothing.
“I don’t have another copy,” I said, the words fumbling, “but I’m going to order a new one.”
Still she said nothing. Setting the book down with the pages still open, she sighed – or seemed to – with her head lowered, the eyes saddened. She walked to the shelves, turned to give me one more look, and then continued into the stacks. I jumped up to follow her. I turned down the aisle but she was gone. I grabbed my bag and coat, not even bothering to put it on. I ran to my car, pelted by a downpour, jumped in and sat – cold, wet, ashiver. It took me ten minutes to regain an ounce of composure. I realized that I hadn’t locked up and so I forced myself to return to the library. I hastily switched off the lights and locked the door. I did not look around, my fear made sure of that. I sprinted back to my car and drove home. I turned the heat to high, and although I did dry off, I never warmed up.
I hated the idea of going back to the library, I told my friend Elaine on the phone, long-distance.
“Who wouldn’t?” she said. “That’s creepy.”
“You believe me, right?”
“Sure,” she said. “I’ve done some reading on this. Especially since it’s Halloween and all.”
“But you’re a Christian, Elaine,” I said. “I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts.”
“All things seen and unseen, we say. When the apostles saw Jesus walk on water, they thought it was a ghost. It shows they believed in them. They were afraid.”
“I think she’s more afraid of me than I am of her,” I said. “Do you think she’ll be back? Why do they come back?”
“Unfinished business,” Elaine said. “She’s got unfinished business. That’s what the books say, anyway. Maybe she needs help.”
“What kind of help?”
“Who knows? It’s got something to do with the book, though.”
I agreed. After hanging up, I thought I’d like to see her again; she looked so helpless, and afraid, and guilty. I looked like that, too, at her age -- when Uncle Dan came for visits and put his hand up my skirt. He ripped a piece of my childhood away. I wondered if this girl knew what it was like to blame yourself and wish to be dead.
I went back to work. The lights came to life and I prepared for the Day of the Dead celebration coming up on November 1. I paged through material looking for scary stories for the children, but I thought that my own might scare them enough. Still, I’d keep it to myself.
The bells on the door jarred my attention, and I looked up to see Mrs. Larson step in. Her hand reached out for the railing along the entrance ramp and its grip guided her along the way. “Hello, Dear,” she said.
“Hello, Mrs. Larson. Returning a book?”
“Yes.” She found the end of the rail and let go. Her eyesight was failing. Her feet fought for balance and she hobbled toward me. “It was on that Bermuda Triangle place. A load of rubbish if you ask me.”
I took the book from her outstretched hand. “You’re not a big believer in the supernatural, I take it?”
“Heavens, no,” she said. “I just enjoy reading about it so I can pick it all apart. Besides, my granddaughter Jamie loves that spooky stuff. I tell her scary stories when she visits. It gives me a way to connect with her. Oh! That reminds me – she found she has a book that is overdue. Could you look up how much she owes? I want to help her pay for it – her mother’s making her pay for the whole thing.”
“Actually, we’ve decided to have a second amnesty day this year since there are so many overdue books,” I replied. “If she brings it back November first, she won’t have to pay any fines. That’s also the date for our Day of the Dead celebration for children. I’ll be reading some scary stories, the kind she likes. Do you know if she’s coming to that?”
“I don’t know, but I’ll tell her mother about it. I’m sure Jamie would love that.”
“You know, I could tell a scary story of my own.” I thought Mrs. Larson would convince me it couldn’t happen. “I thought I saw something – well, someone in here before. A little girl who tried to return Charlotte’s Web, then disappeared, then tried to return it again.”
“Yes, I’ve heard all about that.”
“You’re not the only one, Dear,” Mrs. Larson chuckled. “There have been sightings of that girl every year since Hannah Cole was hit by a car and killed Halloween night three years ago. She always comes back with that book to return. Because of that, we go through librarians quickly around here. They didn’t tell you, did they? Of course not. Why scare away another? But it’s rubbish. The librarians who left and claimed to see her say she is upset because she can never finish the end of the story, and wants a new copy. Apparently she was on the way to the library to return it when she was struck. You can look it up.”
My breath, stuck in my throat, finally came out. “I will. Thanks, Mrs. Larson.”
“No, dear, thank you – for forgiving the overdue book.” She turned to depart.
“I hope Jamie can make it to our celebration,” I called after her. “We’re asking the children who attend to wear a skeleton costume.”
“I’ll tell her – about returning the book, too. Goodbye, Dear.”
As soon as she left, I rushed to the library’s archive of the town newspaper and there it was: the story of Hannah’s accident, just as Mrs. Larson told it. I entered the stacks to retrieve the book. My fingers traced the worn cover. I opened it to where the ripped-out pages once were. My eyes skimmed to the last page of print:
“What’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
It was November 1. I’d been at the library for an hour now, making final preparations for the Day of the Dead celebration. The children would be here any moment. I arranged the books I planned to read on a table and looked out the window to see several skeletons running up the sidewalk toward the library. I was glad to see that the children had chosen to dress up. Some parents strolled through the stacks and some sat along the back wall in folding chairs. Twelve little skeletons sat around me on the floor. They calmed down, seeing we were about to start. I asked who knew about “El Dia de los Muertos,” The Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico. A couple older skeletons explained to the younger ones what they had learned in school about the holiday. After this brief lesson in culture, I showed them the books I had selected to read to them.
“But before I read,” I said, “do any of you have books to return today? Today is amnesty day. Do you know what the word am-nes-ty means? It means you won’t be charged fines if you return your overdue books by closing time tonight.” I looked toward the parents, to address them as well.
And there she was. Hannah stood behind Mrs. Larson, very still.
Mrs. Larson pulled on her shawl, looking chilled.
Jamie, Mrs. Larson’s granddaughter, spoke up. “I was afraid you’d be angry,” Jamie said, “so I kept putting it off.” She handed me her overdue book.
“Thank you, Jamie,” I said. I lifted my chin and spoke in Hannah’s direction. “It’s important for you all to know that I don’t get mad at you for having a late book – I have late books, too! Sometimes, I don’t even charge the fine if the book is only a day or two late, so bring them in or put them in the drop box. The important thing is for the library to have the book back so others can borrow it, too. And if it is damaged, we can work something out. Accidents happen.”
I smiled at the children, and at Hannah.
Hannah smiled at me. I picked up the first book to read, and began. When I glanced up, she was gone.
After the event, several families returned to bring in books. I was glad I decided to hold another amnesty day. Most of the overdue books were returned in one night. I sat at the checkout and marked off fines for everyone who had returned something. I was tired. I took my time cleaning up. I heard a thump outside and saw a child walking away from the drop box. I’d been so wrapped up in the celebration and the desk work that I’d forgotten to check it.
I took the keys and opened the box. It was dark now, and I had a hard time seeing the contents. Some litter – two books. I took out the books and withdrew the crumpled sheets of paper. I nearly put them in the trash can by the door but noticed they were book-sized. I held a piece up to the light. There were footprints – no, tire marks – on it. The top of the page read: Charlotte’s Web 165. My heart jumped, and I smoothed out the other loose pages like a rumpled skirt. Ten of them. Ten dirty, yellowed, torn, trampled pages. “Thank you, Hannah,” I said.