If he weren’t already dead, I could kill that Dewey dude, I really could. Okay, so someday it may serve me well to know that the Dewey Decimal number for the commercial processing of kidney beans is 664.805652, but it bugs me no end that Maelinda thinks I’m an idiot since I don’t know these things right off. What she doesn’t understand is that I didn’t get a library job because I wanted to organize things. I took the job because I wanted to read. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of reading in a library job. There’s not really enough time to do more than scan jacket copy and make a quick note of the author’s name before I need to put the book on the shelf, otherwise, I get bogged down, and I refuse to give Maelinda the satisfaction of not finishing a cart before I punch out. She already is looking for just about any excuse to fire me.
Usually, because I work evenings, well after school, Maelinda makes me do the crap jobs like re-shelving the archives, or running genealogy tomes out to library patrons, or shooing out the homeless people trying to catch a nap, but today when I punched in, she was waiting for me, her pale skin blotchy, her eyes all jumpy and weird. She said she wanted me to do something else.
“So, Bee? Could you do some work in the study carrels? We had a big group in here from the high school this morning.”
I raise my eyebrows. Bee? “Okay…? It it re-shelving, or anything in particular — ?”
“Just… take a look around in there, and in the YA room,” Maelinda says tensely, giving me a thin smile. “I’ll finish up in Zoology, and be right over to help.”
No one ever finishes up in Zoology, and I know a brush-off when I hear one. I was on my own. I shrugged and pushed a cart past the YA room, meeting the children’s librarian, Regina, behind a shelf.
“Oh, hi Betsy! Did Maelinda tell you what happened this morning?”
“No…?” I pause, straightening. Gina is the perfect children’s librarian, with a low, croaky voice, and a fondness for whacked stories. Her tidbits are usually worth waiting for. “What happened?”
“Maelinda didn’t tell you? We had some drama around here this morning. We had our usual September research groups here from the high schools, and even though they weren’t doubling up — some were down in the periodicals, and the rest of them were getting the basic Dewey drill, there were just too many of them, and it was chaos. Of course, a couple of them had to go off and get it on in the stacks, and of course, not only did Maelinda run across them while she was reshelving, one of the high school girls came at them from the other side of the shelf. Apparently the guy in question was her boyfriend, and she went into this screaming fit, and her friends and the faculty sponsor tried to drag her out, and she was doing the Jerry Springer thing and trying to jump the guy — before everyone had time to get clothes back on — Let me tell you, it was wild.”
“Eeeew!” I laugh and cringe at the same time. No wonder Maelinda is strung out. “That’s got to be a great start to the day. Were the kids from Featherstone?” Featurestone High is the school with the highest number of both dropouts and meth producers in the county. It’s notorious for teaching more than the bargained for ABC’s.
“No!” Beth grins, her sharp features alight with naughty glee. “That’s the best thing — these kids were from College Park!”
I blink. “No way!”
“Way,” Beth insists, leaning closer. Her green eyes sparkle as she adds, sotto voce, “Prep school nookie, complete with uniforms, berets and crested blazers. Maelinda may never recover!”
I laugh and shake my head. Beth, with razor cut, spiky hair, plaid tights and multiple piercings, is the antidote to the stereotypical old lady librarian. Her glasses are appropriately nerdy, but somehow the thick black Buddy Holly frames work. Maelinda, by contrast, wears her hair in a low bun, sports thick white cardigans from the Salvation Army and has cats — seriously. It’s like she’s trying to embody the whole stereotype, trying to put on this look that says ‘Victorian Spinster here, leave me alone.’ I can imagine finding a lurid, sweaty tangle of arms and legs behind the genealogy section would be a bit off-putting to someone who doesn’t look like they know where all the parts go in these scenarios. “Catty, catty,” I said to myself, angling my cart down a narrow aisle. Maelinda probably knows very well where all the bits go — she’s likely to have read a book, just like me…
The study carrels have the usual stacks of books and a bit of trash on the floor. I tidy things carefully, finding nothing more exciting than gum wrappers and crumpled notes. I find I’m a little bit envious of the students who got to get out of school today, even though I’d probably rather drop a bookshelf on my head than hear anything more about the life and times of Melvil Dewey. Since I’m doing Honors and work-study, all of my time these days is taken up with CLEP tests and independent study courses, and nothing normal like class outings, or even making out in public. In some ways, I’ve left high school light years behind me, but that’s how it goes when you’ve got to make it through as much school as possible before you turn eighteen and the government tosses you to the curb. My foster parents were a hundred percent behind me: this is what I had to do for now.
Sullenly, I reach under a desk for an anatomy book someone has wedged under a chair leg, grimacing at a wad of gum underneath a desk. “This is what you picked, Bets,” I tell myself as I straighten the pages and glance at the spine. “You could have had a normal high school experience…” But that wasn’t what I’d chosen, and I was going to get two years of college out of the way, all expenses paid, so I could hardly complain. Much.
I was scrubbing tape off the side of a lamp when I heard a short, sharp intake of breath, and a muffled scream. I glanced up, spooked, then grinned. Was Maelinda getting another little education? Ditching the cart, I raced up the aisle, peering between shelves. I saw no one, but I found a patron lying on the floor. I peered at him uncertainly, walked a few rows up, seeking the source of the gasp. There seemed to be no one on the floor but the sleeping guy. I sighed. If Maelinda came up, I’d have to wake him up anyway.
I feel stupid calling someone close to my age “sir,” but library protocol was library protocol. “Sir?” I repeat, crouching close and stretching out my hand. “Sir, I’m —” I suck in a breath and choke, crashing back on my rear end. The man is cold. Icy, horribly cold. The guy on the floor is irredeemably, unmistakably, irretrievably …dead.
How long has he been lying here ? Why hadn’t I seen him when I came upstairs? Oh, why hadn’t I looked around for …dead people when I’d first started on the floor? Maelinda is going to lose her wig. Sure, it’s not like I killed the guy, but somehow, someway, Maelinda is going to make this my fault, and I know I’ll be out of a job.
I can’t afford to be out of a job. Not when I have books to buy for my college classes, and shoes and bus fare… “Crap. Crap, crap, crap,” I hiss, struggling to my feet. Obviously some patron found the guy, freaked, and was off to get help. I tried to figure out a way to spin my obliviousness, but my mind was gibbering. Was I going to have to help move him? Had he… leaked onto the linoleum floors? Would someone be questioning me for not finding him sooner? Why couldn’t I have been working somewhere else, anywhere else?
I straighten with sudden horror. Wait. Maelinda sent me up here. Could she have something to do with this? Can I trust her? Oh, no, no, no… I shot to my feet and turned — and felt an ice cold hand clamp on my ankle.
I couldn’t help it. You would have jumped, too. As it is, we’re all lucky I didn’t scream louder than the little strangled squeak that piped out of my throat, or the roof of the library may have caved in. I thought I was going to swallow my tonsils.
“Are you another librarian?” His face is fishbelly white, and his eyes a strange greenish gray.
“Yes?” I can’t help the tremor in my voice, but I hate it. I take a deep breath. “Why?”
“Have you heard of Kant’s definition of analytic judgment?”
I straightened my spine. “No, but I’m sure there’s a book on it. Philosophy starts in the 100’s.”
He clears his throat. It sounds like gears grinding. “Wait. I want to know the definition… the definition of…” he slowly looks down, and I see he is lying on a book. I groan inwardly. Maelinda will blame me for that, too.
“You need a definition?”
He looks up at me. “Yes.”
I shiver a little, because even looking into the glassy eyes of a dead guy, I can still spot a lie. “Uh, dictionaries are just past the check-out desk downstairs. If you get stuck there’s a help desk down there.” I try to back away.
He smiles, and his teeth are a sickly yellow against his grayish gums. “By Maelinda’s desk?”
I can’t help it, the words leapt out of my mouth. “How do you know Maelinda?
“We dated. In high school.” He grins again, and I find my toes curling.
“Yeah, I always liked to come to the library. I’d ask her for stuff, and she’d say, ‘look it up.'”
“Oh.” That sounds like Maelinda all right, true to life. I back up another half step. “Well. She’s right downstairs. I’m sure she’ll… be happy to see you… again.”
I admit that it wasn’t the smoothest lie, but running away was weighing heavily on my mind, and I couldn’t focus while his lifeless eyeballs stared through my face. He grunted, and gave half a grin, and I was flooded with the knowledge of the meaning of the phrase ‘death’s head.’ He was gathering himself, jerkily, to stand, when I heard Maelinda’s shrill voice.
“Bets-ey! Betsy, where are you?”
Startled, he loosened his hold on my ankle, and I darted toward Maelinda’s voice, and I hoped, safety. “Maelinda,” I gaped, there’s a –“
“Yes, yes, one of the living dead is in the 500’s, I know,” she said wearily. Her cardigan was off, and I noticed that her blouse was sleeveless, and her arms were wiry with muscles. “I’ll take over from here. Get downstairs and cover check-out.”
I never get to check patrons out. I never get to do anything cushy. I looked at Maelinda again. Her hair was slipping out of its bun, and her glasses… were pushed into her hair. Her eyes were sharp. I opened my mouth. “Ma–“
“Betsy, go now,” she snapped, and I was out the door before I knew my feet were obeying.
It wasn’t until I was behind the checkout desk, my fingers nervously fluttering through a card catalog like a paper rosary that I wondered: was that a stake I’d seen in Maelinda’s hand?