To Be Issued Only on Request
Word Count: 2745
“Not for the open shelves. To be issued only on request.” A simple paper sign, taped up on the door to the room.
Martin couldn’t leave it alone, he stood in front of it three, four times a day–just for a moment, not any amount of time that anyone would take note of. After weeks of mounting curiosity he’d ventured to open the door. At the time, he’d assumed it was locked, a place forbidden, but was astounded to find it open, its hinges neatly oiled and quiet. None of the light from the hallway gained entry to the room and Martin reached one hand to the wall and flipped on the overhead light illuminating a tall bank of shelves in the center of the room, a table along one wall with one lone chair. The air was blanketed in silence.
Nothing too exciting, except, standing in the doorway of the room, Martin shivered once, unexpectedly, as if energy coursed through him. The cold of the empty room pressed at the edges of the doorway and he attributed his shiver to that. The insufficient flickering fluorescent light cast more shadows around the room than illumination. After a moment he pulled the door closed.
For the rest of the day Martin wondered why the room contained a desk at all. After all, who came into this room to read? Who came into the room at all? Not one soul had entered the room in all of the winter months that Marty had worked there at the Grand Old Library. In fact, Marty had noticed that the other librarians walked by the room as if it didn’t even exist. Their eyes never glanced at the sign nor idle hands jiggled the knob. He was alone in his obsession.
The room was unwelcome, filled somehow with haints no eye could detect, but a body could feel. Patrons weren’t allowed in here–probably didn’t even know that it existed hidden as it was in the back hallway, which made it all the more strange. If patrons didn’t know that it was there–how could they request the books therein? Only Marty came to stand in the doorway to pay homage once, twice a week and stare wonderingly at the forbidden books. What treasures were within? He imagined what these delightfully inappropriate banned or secret tomes might share with him. A book of executions maybe? Nazi war crimes? Witch’s spells?
It made his hands tingle.
Two days before Christmas and just before closing time Marty slipped into the room on quiet feet and grabbed the first book at hand. He slipped it into his briefcase, and promised himself that he wouldn’t open it until he reached home. Joining the evening staff at the door he smiled congenially wishing one and all a Happy Holidays and stilled his hands from evidencing a nervous tremor. Inwardly, he scolded himself for being nervous at all. After all, he was a librarian, he belonged there. It was perfectly natural for him to bring a book home. He wasn’t stealing it, at least not exactly.
A thrill went through him when he reached his car and puffs of cold air blew out of his mouth. He closed his door and clapped his hands and patted his briefcase and its treasures.
This Christmas would be one to remember!
At home he made himself wait while he brewed his coffee, added the milk and then sipped it gingerly. Finally, he sat down at one of the two chairs of his white formica table, and slid the book out of the darkness and into the light.
His brow furrowed and he let out a heavy sigh of disappointment.
An Examination and Record of the Prominent Missouri Residents sat before him. Instead of a book of long hidden secrets or sordid affairs, a book of the dead, or a mastery of the lost arts, his treasure had turned out to be an old boring historical reference of no importance. He slid it away from himself, unopened, then stood up to make his dinner.
It would be a boring Christmas after all.
He stared into the dull slow blinking eyes of his pet, Patty-Cat, while slurping up the last of his spaghetti. Patty-Cat laid across the middle of the table and repositioned herself, stretching one paw up and out and extending her claws in a stretch. Just before the claws could scratch across the top of the library book he pulled it out of her reach. Then as an afterthought he opened it and was surprised to see that much of the pages of the book were filled in with pen and not print.
It was a leger of some sort then, an ongoing record.
He flipped around the book randomly then snorted. Prominently displayed at the top of one of page was Best Pie Maker and then names were listed, complete with year, birthdate, and sometimes a brief bio.
Madeline Balino, 3-30-85, of Lee’s Summit, notes that recipe was originally her grandmother’s, found in an old attic box. Scribbled into the side of the column was a barely legible note– must include baby’s tears, 2 tsps. It was dated from three weeks prior.
Marty laughed out loud.
He flipped around, stopping at random, reading bits and pieces, chuckling at some, puzzling over others. Near the end of the book was a section called Soul Streathers.
Marty had never encountered that word before. He took a moment to look it up in his dictionary and found nothing. He returned to the book and turned another page. Across the top was a subsection labelled: Santa Claus.
Whatever a soul streather was, that old mythical fat fella appeared to be one. He ran one finger down the text amused to find names on each line, along with dates. William Cooker was the first, followed by hundreds of names and ending with Paul Phillips on the last line.
Were they department store Santas? Winners of some obscure contest for Santas? Why did it matter enough to immortalize in a leather bound book? Martin flipped to the front cover, rubbed across it as if it might offer some clue and then returned to the page. What were the qualifications for these Santas–what made Paul Phillips one but not Chris, his next door neighbor? Or Martin himself?
As he watched a scritching scratching sound began and in wonder he watched as the plain block letters spelling his name–Martin Mueler– etched their way across the bottom line as if an invisible hand was neatly printing it. Mesmerized he glanced up at his cat as if to say–are you seeing this? And met her wild eyes. She scrambled off of the table, her nails barely finding purchase on the formica, leaving with a terrified hiss and running out of the room with a puff of fur in the air. What was that all about?
He took a deep breath, returned his attention to the bookk. He ran his fingers over the text, he could feel the ink under his thumb. It was real; not his imagination. Did that make him a soul streather–whatever that was? Or had he always been one?
He certainly wasn’t Santa Claus. He was only twenty-four, and didn’t have a single gray hair on his head. He did have a spare tire of sorts, but certainly no beard. He slowly slid the book away from him with one finger, unwilling to touch it any longer.
It was a joke, surely. Or some magic, maybe. A cheap trick. Invisible ink that activated somehow in the air of his apartment–something explainable like that. Or a plain old fashioned mystery and he would happily return the book, mystery unsolved, as soon as he went back to work after the holidays. No harm done, right?
No harm done.
He was halfway through Christmas morning before he realized that Patty-Cat was nowhere to be found. He remembered her abrupt exit the previous day but was used to her erratic cat behavior and hadn’t worried. But now?
He called her making a circuit of the apartment. Had she gotten out somehow? Unlikely, but cats were infinitely resourceful.
She was still missing when he returned to work.
Months passed. He forgot about the book. He forgot about the room, his eyes easily sliding over it as he walked the back hall each day. He began dating a coworker, Coral Lottrel, and often she would spend the night in his apartment and ride into work with him. About the time that he was thinking of asking her to marry him, it happened for the first time.
Well, it had been happening for some time, only he hadn’t noticed, moony as he was in love. But on the Thursday after Thanksgiving he couldn’t avoid it. The eyes across the room pierced him and he turned around as if someone had tapped him upon the shoulder.
Across the room and between the stacks stood a man. He was in shadow, which was impossible given the bright florescent lights overhead but what Marty couldn’t fail to see was his beard. It was magnificent, rounded, looked curly instead of wiry, and was as white as snow on Christmas morning. Which reminded Marty, this old guy could be Santa Claus. All except for one thing– he was skinny. Broad shouldered, sure, but as thin as a noodle. Malnourished, even.
Marty laughed at himself and busied himself at the counter. He saw the guy again the next day but shrugged it off. Perhaps he was a regular in the making– new to the neighborhood but an avid book fan. It was odd that the old man stared at him so intently but Marty had endured worse.
By the following Friday he had to admit that it freaked him out a little bit. Not only was the guy’s gaze intently on Marty but he seemed to be suffering as well, his eyes dark wells of pain. He was definitely getting thinner and Marty couldn’t help but notice that he never had a book in hand, nor took one home when he left. He walked ceaselessly too, never sat in the chairs by the magazine rack, or the sofas or tables scattered throughout the library. He was nearly always in motion, and his head swiveled to watch Marty as he passed him all throughout the day and evening.
Marty took to hiding in the break room as much as possible.
That’s where Coral found him, trying to look busy, and looking worried instead.
“Brecken’s looking for you, Marty.” Brecken was their boss. She stood in front of Marty waiting for his response, then said, “Our page didn’t come in tonight. He wants you to shelve the books. I’ve got to process InterLibrary Loan materials.” He was currently sitting at the ILL table. When he didn’t move she asked. “Marty, what’s wrong with you?”
“Me?” he looked around the room like he had just realized that she was there.
She pursed her lips at him in an expression he knew well.
“That guy freaks me out.”
“That old guy.”
She grinned. “Old people freak you out?”
“I’m serious, Coral!”
“All right, all right.” She sat down next to him. “What old guy?”
“Are you serious?”
“The skinny one. The one that always stares at me.”
“Oh, I don’t think he’s staring at you.”
“I’ve noticed him too. But I think he’s got his eye on Olivia.” She poked him good naturedly. “You know, Olivia, right? Super hot girl that sits at the computer next to you?” She was smiling so prettily and batting her eyes exaggeratingly that he chuckled.
“You’re probably right.” He stood up.
“I am right so get out there and shelve books, wage slave.”
He gave her a wry grin and then slid through the door feeling a 100 pounds lighter.
The old man was nowhere in sight when he left the breakroom. Aisle after aisle Marty shelved books, returning the empty cart to the back hallway for another one that was stuffed full of returned materials. Imperceptibly his shoulders relaxed. He hummed a song under his breath, something Christmasy that he’d probably heard on the radio in the breakroom. He let his mind wander and the hours drifted by like lazy snowflakes.
At closing time Coral came to find him bouncing on the soles of her feet. Her enthusiasm was infectious.
“Guess what?” she said.
“It’s girls night out!”
His enthusiasm dampened somewhat when he realized she wasn’t coming home with him. He rolled the book cart into the back hallway for the next day and plastered a smile on his face. “Have fun, sweetie.”
Three giggling 20-somethings preceded him out the break room door. One turned to him and kissed him on the cheek and he waved and put on his coat. He imagined her as his wife and warmth spread across his belly. Coral Mueler. It had a certain ring to it. Maybe he’d do it for Christmas, ask her to marry him.
“Mueler, did you shut off the back hallway light?” Brecken stood in front of him almost glaring at him.
“Uh… maybe not. I’ll go check.”
“Budget, Mueler. Gotta turn the lights out, okay?”
He was already walking away and Brecken called out to him. “The alarm’s already set. You better hustle.”
Marty waved a hand in his direction and began sprinting towards the back.
He had left the light on. He stood there for a moment annoyed, aware that Brecken had known the answer to his own question but still had preferred to send Marty back like some errant kid instead of just shutting it off himself.
The man was a nuisance.
He flipped it off and noticed down the hall on the right a small light shining from under the door. He sighed and shuffled that way, prepared to open the door, slip a hand through the opening and shut off the light which he heard a cough.
A patron. They had nearly locked a patron in the library.
He swung the door open idly noticing the sign stating that the books therein could only be issued on request and said, “Excuse me, the library is closed.”
The room looked empty which meant only one thing–either the patron was hiding or they were in the back corner and they were half deaf. He stepped around the stacks, clearing his throat and was about to speak when he saw the old man.
He closed his mouth with a click of his teeth.
“Hello, Mr. Mueler.”
How did the old man know his name? “The library–”
“I’ve overstayed my welcome. I understand, Mr. Mueler.” His voice was melodious, deep like tinkling notes on some obscure instrument. Instead of leaving, he turned back around to the shelves, weaving slightly as if he was weak.
The old man slid a volume out and Marty said, “Sir, you aren’t even supposed to be in here.”
“No.” Marty squared his shoulders.“The alarm’s set already. We must hurry.”
“Well, then. Let’s get this over with, shall we?”
The old man took a quick step towards Marty and suddenly Marty knew that somehow he had made a grave mistake. He stepped backwards but it wasn’t soon enough, the old man overtook him and grabbed him by one arm.
“I’m so hungry, Mr. Mueler.”
Marty sputtered. “Well, you can’t eat in the library, sir. That’s the rule.”
“It’s for a good cause. It’s not just because I’m in pain.”
Marty hardly heard him so intent was he on getting his arm back. But no matter how hard he tugged, he could not break loose from the grip of those skeletal fingers.
“A good cause. Remember that.”
Then the impossible happened. As a scream built in the back of Marty’s throat, the old man’s mouth gaped open, his jaw much like a snake, his body twisting and contorting and seemingly with no effort he lifted Marty high above his head and inch by inch he fell down the man’s throat. Too soon to utter any noise, too soon into a wet and endless darkness. The old man’s belly bulged, rounding out. He let out a satisfied smack, nothing so rude as a belch and sighed with contentment.
“I must’nt disappoint the children, Mr. Mueler,” he said. “They expect a fat Santa Claus.”