Authors: Mak K. Han
“That's due back in two weeks. Thanks, Doreen!” I handed her the book with a smile.
“You have such a pretty smile!” Doreen gushed. “I should introduce you to my son Brent. You two would make an adorable couple.”
I could feel myself blushing. “That's really not necessary, Doreen. I'm focusing on my professional life right now—.”
“Nonsense!” Doreen interjected, sliding the book into her purse. “I'll introduce you to Brent.”
I watched Doreen walk away.
“Looks like you're getting set up for a blind date.”
I turned to Susan, my co-worker, and frowned. “It's not a blind date. I've met Brent. Doreen was there when I met Brent. She's just senile.”
“Tsk tsk tsk.” Susan shook her head. The tightly woven curls of her short brown hair—which were naturally curly as she'd reminded me on more than one occasion—bobbed back and forth in front of her eyes. “You're going to have to choose sooner or later. I heard Tony Jax thinks you're cute, too.”
“Oh. My. God!” I retorted, putting on my best California-girl voice. “Do you think he's going to ask me to the Fall Formal?” I snorted. “What are you, in high school?”
Susan shrugged and leaned forward. “I'm just saying. You're twenty six and single. You have suitors coming out the wazoo. Most of the girls in Strawberry Shores are married by now, and you're not even dating!”
“Ahem,” I interrupted. “Maybe you've forgotten Gerald?”
Susan made an abrupt brushing motion with her hand. “Pfft. So your boyfriend sent you traipsing into a gas station that was getting robbed—”
“To buy the Coke he was too lazy to buy.”
“Whatever. To steal your purse. The whole situation worked out well, didn't it?”
I could feel the heat rising in my face. I wasn't angry at Susan, but she was getting close to the sensitive issue of exactly how things had worked out well in my favor. “I got lucky,” I blurted out, lying. “I actually didn't know the guy was carrying a pipe instead of a gun.”
“You can't just keep going back to that. Gerald was a jerk. The guys around here are sweet,” Susan responded.
“I beg to differ. Didn't I tell you about Jack Samson catcalling me the other day?” Before Susan could respond, a thought occurred to me. A devious thought. I couldn't help but take a jab—this was Susan, after all. “Or are you talking about older men?”
Susan's face went purple. “That's not funny,” she hissed. “That was a rumor and it's not true.”
The joke seemed to have hit a nerve with Susan. Fuming, she turned to her computer and started pretending to do work.
“Fine, take it easy,” I chided. No response. I spun away from her and surveyed the library. It was a bright and sunny Thursday morning and aside from Doreen, I'd barely seen a soul. It came as no surprise. School was still in session—it would be for another week or so—and everyone's parents were probably at the town meeting down in Hillside Park. They were trying to decide what to do for the Strawberry Days celebration, which was the annual celebration of the founding of Strawberry Shores.
Seeing as Susan was content to sit and simmer—she wasn't the type to take a walk when she was mad—I figured I'd do it for her. “I'll be back,” I said.
Susan responded with a halfhearted wave of her hand.
I could have cared less about Susan. She would calm down sooner or later. I wanted to go outside. One thing I missed about being in a rural area was the outdoors. In the city, I'd always felt claustrophobic. I could smell the pollution and the pavement and car exhaust.
I stepped outside into the bright morning. Birds were chirping. The air was humid and crisp. It had rained the night before, and though the sun had taken care of the puddles throughout the morning, the heady aroma of soil hung in the air.
I meandered around the side of the library and stepped over the guardrail that protected cars in the parking lot from driving over the embankment. For good reason, too, because the slope was a good forty-five degrees and lead straight down into a swamp. Carefully I maneuvered my way around to the back of the library.
The rear face of the library overlooked a small clearing. I liked it back here. It was peaceful, and didn't see a lot of traffic because it was so hard to get to. The right side of the library was the embankment, and the other was thick with trees. There were a couple of beer bottles nearby, suggesting that the local kids knew about this area too.
I wanted a place to sit down with my back to the library, but the back here was largely overgrown with flora. As I scanned the wall, I noticed something unnatural. Sticking out from the overgrowth was something rusty and circular.
Curious, I navigated through the underbrush and pushed the vines aside.
My heart skipped a beat. I took a step back to figure out where I was in relation to the rest of the library. As far as I knew, the library didn't have a basement, and the door lead somewhere underneath the first floor. What was this room?
I cleared the vines out of the way, taking care to watch out for poison ivy or other unpleasant growths. Yes, it was a door. When I'd sufficiently cleared the vines I tried the knob.
The door budged!
Years of humidity had caused the wood to warp and expand. I turned sideways and gave the door a good heave. It budged a bit more. Parts of the door disintegrated along the top, where the wood contacted the frame. I leaned back and gave it one more bash.
The door partially exploded. A cloud of dust rose into the air. Coughing, I covered my mouth and squinted until the dust cleared. It was dark down here, but I knew what I'd found. I could see enough just from the sunlight flooding in from outside.
"No way,” I whispered to myself.
“Susan! Susan! Come here! I found something cool!”
Susan gave me the cold shoulder. “Buzz off, Laura.”
I grabbed her by the arm. “Would you get over it? I found something amazing!”
Susan stumbled out of her chair. “Wait! What about the desk? We can't leave it unattended!”
“Yeah we can! Come on!”
“Okay, okay!” Susan shook free of my grip. “What is it? What's so important?”
I lead Susan out the front door and into the parking lot. Daniel Berkshire's van was there. Daniel himself was opening up the rear doors, revealing an assortment of rebar, two-by-fours, and construction equipment.
“Daniel!” I called. “We'll be right back! You know what to do!”
Daniel waved and I lead Susan around to the back of the library, this time taking the wooded area so neither she nor I would go tumbling into the swamp. I brought her to the door. Panting, I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand and pointed at it. “Look!”
Susan cocked her head. “I've never seen that before...”
“It's a secret room under the library! It's full of old books!” I took Susan by the hand and gently lead her inside. “These books date back to 1778! This place is a goldmine!”
“Holy crap.” Susan blinked a few times, looking over the shelves. There were about twenty shelves total, covered in dust and lined with ancient texts. Bibles, books on shipbuilding, logs—just about everything that had to do with the history of Strawberry Shores was here. “We have to tell Alex's dad.”
So we did. We stepped outside and called him from the back yard. Alex's dad, Jason Shade, was a bit annoyed that we'd interrupted the Strawberry Days meeting, but his irritation turned to curiosity when he heard what I'd found.
“I'll be right there,” he said.
Fifteen minutes later, Jason was there as promised—he and everyone else who had been at the Strawberry Days meeting. At least thirty people congregated around the secret room.
“Good find,” Jason said.
Jason smiled back and headed into the secret room. He was in there for about ten minutes before reemerging. “That's quite the collection we have down there.”
“Well?” Miss Tisdell prodded. “What are we going to do with it?”
I stepped forward at once. “This stuff belongs in a museum. Or maybe we can donate it to the Strawberry Shores Athenaeum.”
“Nobody asked you,” rose a voice from the back of the crowd.
Everyone turned. I could see someone—an unfamiliar man—parting his way through the group, saying things like “move,” and “get out of my way.” He was a tall man with salt-and-pepper hair, dressed in a black suit. He looked me in the eye and smiled. He looked like a shark.
“You're new here. Let me explain how things work. Nobody cares what you think. We've been here longer than you, and we're going to decide what to do with the room.”
Stunned, I took a step back. The man waited for a moment to see if I would respond and then turned to Mr. Shade.
“Did you have something to say, Edward?” Mr. Shade asked.
“Yes. I think we should leave the room as it is. There was clearly a reason the room was locked up. Who are we to disturb it? I say we block off the entrance to preserve our beautiful town as it was meant to be.”
I stepped forward again. “Sir, if we put these books in a museum, we would be able to preserve—”
“What part of
did you not understand?” he snapped.
I could feel my blood boiling, but Jason replied before I could. “Edward, we don't know what we're going to do with the room.” He turned to the crowd. “Everyone, listen, we're all tired from the meeting. Let's all go home. We'll figure this out in the morning. For now, we'll have Daniel Berkshire close it off. Nobody in or out.”
“Daniel's inside, taking care of the mouse traps,” Susan piped up. “I'll go get him.”
The crowd started to disperse.
“That's right everyone, nothing left to see here,” Mr. Shade directed, waving his arms back and forth to get people to leave.
I met eyes with Edward. He gave me a smug grin and then walked away, as though he'd squished an ant.
I waited for a moment for my hands to stop shaking.
“That's just Edward,” Mr. Shade said. “Take him with a grain of salt. He treats everyone that way.”
I barely heard him. I'd already turned on my heel and started for the desk.
“What a jerk! Who does that guy think he is?”
Susan put her hands on my arms. “Laura, calm down—”
I shook off Susan's grip. “I've never been so humiliated in my entire life! Who does he think he is?”
“Laura, calm down.” Susan maneuvered me to the seat behind the counter. “That's Edward Brooks. You're right, he is a jerk. Don't take it personally.”
I was fuming. “I don’t know what I’ll do the next time I see him.”
Susan chuckled. “I'd advise against that. He's one of the library trustees. Spit in his face and you can kiss this job goodbye. Don't worry though. Sooner or later he'll get what's coming to him.”
I took a few deep breaths. My hands were still shaking, but not as badly. I closed my eyes, pushed away the negativity, and when I opened them again Daniel was standing there. He was a big balding guy with a beer belly, dressed in a pair of paint-spotted jeans and a stained white t-shirt.
“The mouse traps are reset,” he said. “Now about this room?”
Susan nodded at the door. “It's out back. I'll show you.” She looked at me. “Are you going to be okay? You're not going to go homicidal, are you?” she asked with a grin.
“No, I'm fine,” I said, brushing her away.
Susan stood and started for the door. I rubbed my forehead and glanced at the clock. Four. Just an hour–
“Excuse me?” a male voice interrupted my countdown to getting off work.
I squeaked and spun around in my chair. Since when was there someone else in the library?
He was a handsome guy, around my age, with wavy blond hair. From the looks of his arms in his tight shirt he worked out. When he smiled it was like staring into the bulb of a spotlight. “Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you.”
I leaned forward, thumping my elbow on the desk and setting my chin in my upturned palm. With my free hand I brushed the hair out of my eyes. “No, it's fine. I mean, you didn't scare me. I mean…hi. Can I help you?”
“I'm Harold,” he said, handing a book over to me. “I'd like to check this out?”
“Sure. No problem.” Without looking down to see what I was doing I groped around for the barcode scanner and then waved it around under the laser until I heard it beep.
“So, what's all the excitement? Why was everyone here earlier?”
“We—I found a secret room under the library.” I heard the computer bleep. It was telling me when the book was due. Without taking my eyes off Harold, I hit the keyboard a couple of times until I hit the 'Enter' key. “Here,” I said, handing him the book. “It's due sometime. Do you want to see the secret room?”
Harold smiled. “Well, I wasn’t—”
“Are you sure? It's really cool. There are books dating back to 1998. Er, 1778.”
Harold chuckled again. “Sure, I guess.”
For the second time that day, the library front desk went unattended. I lead Harold out of the library and around to the back. Daniel had already blocked off the door with caution tape and set up his work space—a tool box sat near the door and with it a radio. “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash was playing. Susan was standing nearby with a man in a suit.
“Can we go in?” I asked Daniel. “Just real quick.”
Daniel shook his head. “Sorry, sweetheart, I got orders from Mr. Shade. I'm supposed to keep this blocked off until we figure out what we're going to do with it.”
“Come on, Daniel,” Susan piped up. “The room belongs to all of us. And we're not going to screw around with anything—I just want to show it to Chester. He didn't get a chance to see it earlier.”
Daniel was resolute. His head shook and didn't stop.
Scowling, Susan turned away from Daniel. That was when she spotted Harold and me. “Oh. Hi, Laura. Hi, Harold. Who's watching the desk?”
“There's no way in?” I asked Susan. I could feel my cheeks growing hot. I'd promised to show Harold the secret room—this didn't seem like a great way to start out friendship.
“Daniel won't let us. By the way, this is Chester Rutherford.” Susan gestured to the guy standing next to her. He stepped forward and extended his hand. His eyes, a dark shade of hazel, seemed to cut through me as his gaze met mine. “Hi, Chester Rutherford.”
I shook his hand. “Nice to meet you. I'm surprised you didn't see it earlier.”
Chester shrugged. “I had to work late. I work at Allied Innovation. Usually I work from midnight to noon, but today I had to work until 3:30.”
I scrunched my nose. “That's a weird schedule.”
Chester chuckled. “Yeah, it is. But, rumor has it, Mr. Brooks is retiring soon. Once he's out of the way, I'm a shoo-in for management. Then I make my own hours.”
I opened my mouth to ask about Mr. Brooks when Harold cried out beside me. I turned. “Huh? What's the matter?”
Harold was looking down. “Sorry. I stepped on a nail.”
I scanned the ground. I didn't see any nails. I did see a mouse, probably displaced by Daniel, scurrying toward the woods. “Are you afraid of mice?” I asked him.
Harold swung around, scandalized. “Are you serious?” he asked coolly. “Me? Afraid of a stupid mouse? No way.”
I heard static. I almost didn't hear it at first. But, I'd been hearing it for the last ten years—ever since the — and it had a very distinctive, unmistakable sound to it. I tried not to giggle aloud as I thought about big, tough Harold afraid of mice.
“In any case, I have to get going. Thanks for the book.”
I hopped after him. “Do you want me to walk you to your car?”
Harold shook his head. “I think I'll make it on my own,” he laughed and disappeared around the corner.
I turned to face Chester and Susan. They too were on their way back. Chester paid me no attention, but as she passed, Susan gave me a glance.
“Shut up,” I said as I fell a step behind her.