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Quietly Waiting MAG
The high-pitched mosquito whine drones in the background, a current of electricity from the monitors. It's a silence that's never silent, an incessant hum that makes you painfully aware of your own presence. It slows you as you walk, the wide space echoing with the shift of denim legs sliding cross-texture and feet nervously tiptoeing across the thin carpet. The most penetrating of noises is the percussion of computer keys at the front desk, the librarians with their fingernails pressing down loud and hard on the ancient machines. Occasionally a cough rattles up the vents of this slumbering beast, spitting out dusty, dry air that unsettles the loose lost pages.
When there is nothing to do but stand at the desk, I sometimes wander into the unloved bookshelves: the town records, the histories of New Hampshire – nobody needs to read about their home state. Sometimes I slide out one of these leather-bound tomes and run my fingers over the warty spine, the scaly cover, and remind these books that they are worth being held. Poor things. With their small print full of useless facts and their stretching stitches, they smell of dusty neglect and seldom-opened pages. It's a surprisingly sweet smell, like the cloying decay of flowers. Open a new book and smell it. Nothing. Fresh ink, fresh pages, no subtle histories of fingerprint stains or coffee rings on the cover. Clean and crackling with anticipation, their spines have yet to be broken. Such books are set aside on a special shelf, ready for constant circulation. They circle back quickly and go out again, a speedy spiral until they are old and gently put away on the back shelves where people must search for them.
The back shelves are the guts of the library, a winding intestine that snakes upstairs and around corners. It reaches up to the high ceiling and on a windy night, standing on a stool to reach the top shelf, I can hear the roof sigh as the wind slides against it. On such nights, when the patrons are kept away by the cloudy sky and impending storm, everything is hushed except for the library's breathing. Inhalation in the heavy doors of ancient oak – a slow, raspy intake as the wood drags over the carpet. Exhalation trickling out of the windows in puffs of dust blown up by shuffling feet. The steady in-and-out as patrons cycle through. When the sunset lowers a bar of blinding gold through the windows and the curtains are drawn, I imagine a great animal closing its eyelids as the patrons slow to a trickle. At 8:30 on weeknights it finally sleeps. There's a time of twilight minutes after the last patrons with their last-minute rush to return late books. Usually, those minutes are spent just standing, soaking in the peace of the library, listening to it breathe.
Tonight, a jogger came through the doors and strode up to the desk with the firmly clamped jaw of a person who has news to share. He swung a hand up in greeting to Sarah, the librarian I was working with that night. I'm just a librarian-in-training with the official title of “Page,” as in knight-in-shining-armor sort of page, not a book page.
“Hey, Mike,” said Sarah in her soft librarian voice. “How are you?”
“Good-how-are-you-hey, I came in here to tell you about …,” he lowered his voice conspiratorily, leaning over the desk. I leaned back slightly; his head was on level with the name tag on my shirt. “Have you guys seen anything suspicious around here?”
“Suspicious?” Sarah asked, her tone instantly official. “Like what?”
“Well,” he began and looked around quickly, “there was a guy walking on the street right out here for ten minutes or so. He was checking out the houses, walking up and down in front of them.” He waved his finger past the front doors and drew a line down the street outside, lined with colonial houses and meticulous lawns hidden by a thick layer of autumnal leaves. “Just seemed kinda off to me. So when you ladies leave tonight, be careful, okay?”
Sarah nodded, her wispy split ends bouncing around her face. Under the desk, I drew the sleeves of my sweater down over my hands and held it there as I tried to ignore the groan of the night storm rubbing against the windows. I passed the warning on to my coworker, another teenager like me, and absent-mindedly replaced books in their empty spaces. I kept flashing back to a lecture in my driver's ed class a few months before:
“Always carry your keys in your hand, just in case – like that, with it pointed out. And walk purposefully to your car. Don't stop to mess around in your purse! I know you don't have a purse, Jake. Oh, that story? The other class told you? Well, there was this rapist who hid under cars and cut women's ankles – yes, really, Kathryn. Always check under your car.”
My keys were always firmly between my fingers, a facade of a weapon that gave me the false confidence I needed when exiting the library long past twilight, the building expelling me with a final moan from the doors. The library squats close to the middle of my little town's center, near the white-picketed green and single convenience store. At night, the houses watch from their high windows and the lone street lamp in front of the library glows yellow, a single orb against the dead of a town at rest. I'll do a girly half-run to my car, skirting over the leaves and puddles as I bend over in the middle of the vacant lot to check under my car. I'll stand about a foot away and lean forward until I'm almost at a 90-degree angle, grab the door handle and yank it viciously open. I'll jump in, slam the door, lock everything and check the back seat for rapists. Before judging me, look at my ankles: they're still intact. No rapist is going to get this librarian-in-training.
So that night, as I prepared to close up and go home, I couldn't help but peek out the drapes and try to discern shapes in the wind kicking up candy wrappers and the gesturing branches of the gnarled trees. My coworkers went about their tasks coolly and tiredly, the night's end further impressing the uselessness of our job. Tomorrow, the same books would cycle through, the same people would come in – the same steady river of town life that never ceased and made us, in the end, necessary.
I did my job and kept one eye on my coworker, trying to time my departure with hers. But when I had my back turned shutting off a computer, she slipped out; I was alone. Movies with the same plot line flashed before my eyes in time with my racing heart. Gripping my keys, I took a breath and pushed through the doors. I paused for a second, and the wind and rumbling thunder stilled for a moment.
BANG a screen door and a hostile dog bark and a distant pitter-patter and shiff-shiff of feet on pavement, feet on wet ground, and darkness that held its obscurity, wind screaming at me and the sudden gust animating trees, twisting them into grotesque shapes like the arms of demons reaching ….
I ran. I sprinted, not pausing to check under my car, jumping into my metallic savior, my hands shaking as they shoved the key into the ignition. The car roared out of sleep, and I reversed out of the parking spot, then put it into drive to really crush the rapist hidden beneath, then finally reversed again, shifted, and peeled out and homeward. The entire way I kept turning to check the back seat for a criminal that could possibly materialize out of nothing.
The next night, my car parked as close to the building as possible, I had just entered the library when Sarah called me over.
“You gave Mike such a fright last night!” she said with a small smile. “He was coming back to tell us the ‘prowler' was just a town worker, and he said a huge SUV burned rubber of here.”
We had a quiet laugh, then went back to our meaningless jobs, aiding the slow cycle of a small town with unchanging faces and always-full spaces. The monitors whined, the computer fans droned, and the wind caressed the roof like any night, like every night. Perhaps that's why people keep coming back: time has no hold here, it has no place here except for between pages, held captive by ink and crumbling covers. Even when you think there is something different, it's nothing. It's always nothing. Even so, people are perpetually waiting for the day when it finally really is something.