Authors: Mak K. Han
“You like him.”
“Be quiet, Susan.”
“Admit it! You like him!”
“Be. Quiet. Susan.”
I sat at the counter with my arms crossed. Susan sat facing me.
“Like who?” rang a familiar voice from near the front door. I looked over. Alex and Emily were there, headed for the counter. Emily had a bow in her hair. Alex's hair was black with a red stripe across it.
“What are you guys doing here?” I asked. Emily looked at Alex who apathetically looked up from her phone for a minute and then went back to what she was doing.
“It's cupcake night,” Emily chirped. “Remember?”
Right. Cupcake night. Emily's goal in life was to start a cupcake business. To perfect her craft, once a week we all met to make cupcakes.
“What were you saying, Susan?” Emily asked.
“Laura's in love with Harold Friedman.”
It’s fine. Susan was going to blurt it out sooner or later anyway.
“Harold Friedman?” Alex looked up and scrunched her nose. “Gross.”
“I didn't know Harold was back in town,” Emily said, tapping her cheek with her pointer finger. “I figured Miss Tisdell would have mentioned it.”
Susan snorted. “Miss Tisdell has plenty of other stuff to talk about. Like the secret room Laura found under the library earlier today. Or the standoff she had with Edward Brooks.”
“Enough,” I said sharply.
Emily hopped up and down on her toes, clapping her hands. “You found a secret room, Laura?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Let me show you. The library's just about closed anyway.”
Susan and I herded Emily and Alex to the door and locked up the library. We headed out into the parking lot. In the time it had taken us to lock the library, two more people—a woman and a man—had showed up. I recognized the woman from earlier. The man, I hadn't met.
“I'm sorry,” I explained in my best sympathetic-but-not-in-the-mood-for-trouble voice, “The library is closed for the evening. You'll have to come back tomorrow.”
The man smiled warmly at me and produced a set of keys. “Not if you can let yourself in. Hi, my name is Dennis Arbour. I'm on the board of trustees. I'm here to check out the discovery that was made here earlier. I trust that you are Laura?”
I smiled. Dennis immediately put me at ease. He stood tall and looked me in the eye when he spoke. He had slick black hair that made him look kind of like a salesman or a politician, but his smile seemed sincere. His suit was crisp and his black leather shoes were shined. As he neared to shake my hand I caught a whiff of cologne—just a trace—and when he released my hand I felt as if I smelled my hand it would smell like lotion.
“I am,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
“Certainly. Now, where's this secret room Edward's been harping about?”
The name hit me like an electrical jolt. I gritted my teeth while the thought of him passed. “Right this way. We'll have to go through some woods to get there. Are you sure you want to risk ruining your pants and shoes?”
Dennis waved away the concern. “If I learned anything in Vietnam, it's that there are more important things than getting a bit of dirt on your pants. Lead on, Laura.”
We rounded the library. The woman that had showed up with Dennis lagged behind. Emily was talking with her quite excitedly, though, so I didn't pay her much attention.
“Yes, that's quite the discovery. I'm surprised you caught it through the vines,” Dennis remarked as we stood in front of the door.
“I saw the doorknob poking through,” I responded. “It was one-in-a-million.”
Dennis approached the doorway. Daniel was no longer there so I stepped forward. “Wait! Mr. Shade wants people to stay out of there until they've decided what to do with the room.”
Dennis looked over his shoulder and smiled at me. “A smart idea. Then again, how am I going to decide what I'm going to do with the room if I don't know what's in there? It'll be our little secret.” He gazed at me for a few moments. When he was certain I'd grasped what he was implying, he ducked under the caution tape and disappeared into the murky darkness.
There was a tap on my shoulder. I turned around. It was the woman. “Hi,” she said. “You were at the meeting earlier, correct? You're the one that found the room?”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“And my husband—Edward—you're the one he spoke to?”
I took a deep breath and crossed my arms tight over my chest. “Yes,” I said, trying to remain polite.
The woman nodded solemnly. “My name is Jane. Like I said, I'm Edward's wife. I'm sorry he spoke to you like that.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
“I mean it,” she pressed. “He's always been a little rough around the edges, but nowadays – especially with work—he's been stressed. I keep telling him to relax and retire, but he won't listen.”
I shrugged. “Maybe he just likes working.”
“He doesn't,” Jane cut me off. “He despises his job, but he's too old to get a new job. At least, one that pays as well as Allied Innovation. So until he retires, he's just going to keep making people miserable. You, me—”
“What do you mean he makes you miserable?”
“Don't get me wrong,” Jane said, backpedaling. She raised her hands to me, displaying the palms. “I mean, he's not abusive. But he's not always pleasant.” She smiled nervously. “What I mean to say is, sometimes you have to let the things Edward says roll off your back. Does that make sense?”
“I guess so.”
“Great. Like I said, I'm sorry about Ed. He's just getting older. He doesn't mean to be nasty.”
I was okay with Jane, so for her sake, I said I forgave him. Secretly though, I wasn't convinced. On the bright side, the conversation was interrupted by the reappearance of Dennis.
“That's quite the treasure trove,” he remarked. “Good find, Laura. There must be books in there at least 200 years old.”
“The earliest date I could find was 1778,” I said. “But then again, I wasn't looking that hard, and it was dark.”
“I agree with you though,” he continued. “This stuff can't stay down here. It has to go in a museum. Or the Atheneum.”
“You'll have to convince the town,” I said.
“I talked it over with Jason and Edward and the other trustees. We're going to have a town meeting tomorrow. For tonight, everyone head home. There's nothing more to do here.”
“Yay!” I heard over my shoulder. “Cupcake time!”
“Tomorrow we can worry about convincing the town,” Dennis said. He locked his eyes on mine. “But I think the real challenge is convincing one person.”
With that, he winked at me, and we left the secret room behind for the evening.
After the excitement of the day I slept well, save for a few nightmares brought on because I'd eaten too many of Emily's chocolate cupcakes, and by noon the next day everyone in Strawberry Shores knew about the secret room under the library. A bunch of kids had been spotted hanging around the secret room in the middle of the night, so Frank Caldwell had to stand guard to keep people out.
The town meeting was at six that night, and everyone was there. I mean
The town hall was abuzz until Mr. Shade took the stand. He stood at the podium, banged his gavel, and the meeting was underway. Emily, Alex and I sat smooshed in the center of the audience.
“All right everyone, let's get this show on the road. We all know what this is about, yeah?”
Hearing Mr. Shade talk, I could see where Alex got her sarcastic streak. As he summarized the events of the past twenty-four hours, it was almost like the town had placed a burden on him to be there leading the meeting. He didn't speak in a 'this is stupid' tone the way Alex usually did, but more of a 'we all know why we're here so let's get this done because we have better things to do' tone.
“Yesterday after we settled on having a carnival for Strawberry Days, we all went over to the library, where one of the girls found a secret room. What was her name? Lauren? Lisa?”
“Laura,” I called out. I waved to the crowd sheepishly.
“Right, Laura. So Laura found a secret room under the library. Some of us want to block it off and leave it as is, some of us want to pack it all up and stick it in a museum, or donate it to the Atheneum.”
Someone up front raised their hand. “What exactly is in there?”
“Dennis and I went through the room this morning,” Mr. Shade said, facing the person who asked the question but addressing the audience at the same time. “Books, mostly. Stuff from the Revolutionary War. We haven't had a chance to really go through them because the bindings are falling apart, but some of them are dated the late 1700s.”
“Why wouldn't we want to give something like that to a museum?” someone else asked.
Before Mr. Shade had a chance to answer, Edward was on his feet. “Because those books are a part of our legacy! Why can't you people wrap your heads around this? It's not complicated. Would you remove a brick from the foundation of a house because it was old? No. In the same way, you wouldn't remove a piece of history just because it's old. The books stay where they are.”
“Now hold on,” Dennis Arbour said. As he stood, he adjusted his tie. “We're not talking about removing a piece of history here, Edward. We're talking about preserving it.”
“So am I,” Edward shot back. There was acid in his tone. “You move those books, you damage them. They fall apart. Leave them where they are and it's the same as leaving them under glass. Nobody reads them either way, but none of them get destroyed either.”
“We'll hire professionals,” Dennis rebutted. “They'll take good care of the books, if that's what you're worried about.”
Edward rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “Okay, let me spell it out for you,” he said, looking up to address the town. “Because apparently you ignorant rubes can't wrap your heads around what I'm saying. The books are staying where they are. If any of you tries to move them, I'll withdraw funding from the library and from the school. The blasted books stay where they are, and that's final!”
With that, Edward pushed his way to the center aisle and made his way to the doors. They slammed behind him, leaving the town in stunned silence.
“He doesn't mean it,” rose a familiar voice. It was Jane. She stood up. “You've all seen Edward go off before. He's just under a lot of stress right now.”
Dennis, who was still standing, cleared his throat. “You know we need that funding, Jane.”
Jane nodded enthusiastically. “I'll talk to him! Look, just give it some time. He'll come around. Just...” Jane paused and massaged her temples. “Please. Don't pressure him. I'll never hear the end of it.”
“We've been over this,” Dennis said. “If he's not treating you well—”
“He treats me fine,” Jane said quickly. “Sometimes though, I feel like I'd be better off without him. Until that day comes though, that's how things work. If you put too much pressure on him, he'll be nasty when he gets home. Let me handle it, okay?”
“So where does that leave us now?” someone up front yelled. “Are we moving the books or not?”
“It's clear that we're at a standstill,” Mr. Shade said into the mic. “So here's what we're going to do. Strawberry Days is coming up in a few days. First we're going to get that out of the way. We're going to push all this business about the secret room out of our heads and we're going to enjoy ourselves. Who knows? Maybe the problem will solve itself. Then, if we still haven't made a decision after that, we'll handle it then. Any objections?”
The hall was silent.
Mr. Shade shrugged. “That settles it then. We'll settle this later. And until then, we're going to recommend that anyone found snooping around the secret room is to be arrested.”
With the bang of the gavel, the meeting was dismissed. Jane was the first one out, rushing past the townsfolk as they exited their seats.
Just because the official meeting was over, though, didn't mean people were done discussing. A few dozen groups popped up in front of the city hall, talking about the meeting. I stood with Alex and Emily.
Everyone tried to ignore Jane and Edward around the corner of the town hall. Though their words were muffled, it was easy to tell they were arguing.
“It almost makes me wish I'd never found the stupid room,” I said.
“Aw, don't be like that, Laura!” Emily chirped. “You found something precious. People are arguing about how to handle the room because it's so special.”
“Emily's right,” Alex added, pausing to give Emily a strange look. “For a change. This is the most exciting thing to happen in Strawberry Shores for years. I think mostly people are milking it for what it's worth. You know why my dad is stonewalling for next week? It's because he knows by next week, the novelty of the discovery is going to wear off, and nobody is going to care either way what happens to the books. He's smart like that.”
“I guess you're right,” I started to say.
“Hey guys!” I turned to see Susan standing beside us. “Listen, my car broke down. Is there any way you guys could give me a ride back to my house so I don't have to walk?”
I looked at Emily and Alex. Emily looked sad. Alex looked at me because she knew the answer, but figured I could phrase it better. “Sorry Susan,” I said. “It's game night at Alex's. Hey, maybe you want to join?”
Susan shook her head. “No, it's good,” she said, smiling. “Thanks anyway guys!”
I watched Susan walk away. Beyond her, Jane was storming off. Edward, frowning, leaned against the corner of the town hall. He lit a cigarette and looked off toward the tree line. A moment later Susan was talking to him. His frown deepened, but I could distinctly read the words on his lips. He said, “Fine.”
I didn't think anything of it at the time.