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Tuesday marked my tenth official day alone at the library, but the heady draw of being my own boss had worn off. I didn't even like the smell of the lilac bushes outside the open windows anymore. The old black circle-dial phone was taunting me. I wrestled the urge to call the number to the Battle Lake Motel, where Jeff was staying. He knew we were supposed to meet last night, and he hadn't come. I needed to find a good space with my emotions where I could be cool, not shrill, inviting but not needy, before I called him.
I tried not to dwell on the fact that the only decent man in town had stood me up. Actually, he may have been the only literate, single man in a seventy-mile radius who was attracted to me and attractive. The warm buzz that was still between my legs tried to convince the dull murmur in my head that it was just a misunderstanding. To distract myself from thoughts of Jeff 's laugh, mouth, and hands, I downed a couple aspirin for my potato chip hangover and began the one job I truly enjoyed at the library: putting away the books.
I glanced at the spines of the hardcovers in my hands and strolled over to the Pl-Sca aisle, thinking the only thing I really didn't like so far about the job was picking magazine inserts off the floor. Certainly the reader saw them fall, but without fail, gravity was too intense to allow retrieval except by a trained library staff member. I bet I found three a day. But as I teetered down the carpeted aisle in my friend Sunny's flowered prom heels, I discovered a new thing not to like: there was a guy lying on the tight-weave Berber with his legs lockstep straight, his arms crossed over his chest, and areference book opened on his face. He was wearing a familiar blue-checked shirt, and if he was who I thought he was, I knew him intimately. A sour citrus taste rose at the back of my throat. Alone, the library aisle wasn't strange; alone, the man wasn't strange. Together, they made my heart slam through my knees. I prodded his crossed legs with my ridiculously shod foot and felt no warmth and no give.
My eyes scoured the library in a calm panic, and I was aware of my neck creaking on its hinges. I could smell only books and stillness, tinged with a faint coppery odor. Everything was in order except the probably dead man laid out neatly on the carpeting, wearing the same flannel I had seen him in two days earlier. I wondered chaotically if dead people could lie, if they still got to use verbs after they were gone, and if maybe this was the best excuse ever for missing a date. Then I had a full-body ice wash, five years old all over again, a nightmare pinning me to my bed as I silently mouthed the word "Mom."
Had proximity to me killed him? My mind flashed grainy, film-reel clips of my father pushing me on the swings before his brutal death. I veered to thoughts of another dead body, one I'd stumbled across twenty years ago. It was a newborn kitten squashed on a gravel road, so little that its eyes never had a chance to open. I wanted to bury the kitten in a shoebox, but my seven-year-old brain was too easily distracted to dig a hole that big. I settled for wrapping it in a pink sock, hiding it in the woods, and saying a solemn, loving goodbye. I was never again able to find the spot where I had deposited it. Now it was kitty bones in the dirt, and Jeff was going to be man bones in the dirt, and some waxy part of me realized that I was losing my grip.
I shook my head once, like a dog, and pinched my ear, yanking myself back from crazy. The horror let up a little, and I found myself bizarrely wondering what Jeff 's face looked like now. His body was neatly laid to rest in a grotesque homage to those of us who fall asleep while reading, and the open encyclopedia shielded his face. I noticed it was the twelfth volume, containing all of the noteworthy L words, and then I was surprised to observe my hand pulling the reference book off him.
His face didn't have that slack-mouthed look of the processed dead. Rather, he appeared to be in an irritated sleep, his lips unyeilding, his beautiful straight nose still, and his eyes tightly shut. Except for the clean circle of a hole in the center of his forehead, I would have thought he was napping. I knelt down, careful not to touch his body, and leaned in. The symmetry of the hole surprised me, as did the complete lack of blood around him. It was like someone took a hole punch to a mannequin's head, except for the angry, reddish black contents I could see inside. I was perched inches from his body and could smell his cedarwood bath soap mixed with something sweet-rotten. Solid coldness radiated from him.
I wanted to touch him. I needed to gather him in my arms and shake him awake and kiss the soft spot under his earlobe until he tingled. Then a buzzing fly landed on his body and danced over the cold earth of his face toward the hole in his forehead. My stomach churned, and I turned away. It was from that precise angle that I spotted the small, darker shape in the shadow of the newest Anne Rice book butting out from the bottom shelf a few feet away. At first I thought it was a...(Continues)