by Joseph L. Jones
“Oh Emilaz, please take this horrible book off my hands.” The woman with the cliché frames had cornered me between a section of science fiction and her wavy smile before I had a chance to suggest that I had enough books already. The stack of novels teetered in my arms as I bent down, placing them on the floor.
“Here you go. Thanks, sweetie.” Ms. Goldmann didn’t hesitate to place another book on my stack, and she walked away, disappearing in the aisles farther down near the exit. On the way, she mumbled to herself, “Yes, now I don’t have to worry about that anymore. Don’t understand it. Why move just one book and not any of the others? Why only that one book?”
I sighed, picking up my newest friend. Its cooked-green colored skin made it fit in well with the others, but that made me wonder about Ms. Goldmann’s behavior towards it. Maybe it was just my female intuition spreading its wings a little.
I could only wonder why someone would waste time playing tricks on librarians, and why grassy, spacy Peaceful Instruction had been the chosen weapon of nuisance. But, I didn’t care enough to probe further. I fingered through the titles of the other books: From Dirt Bricks; Love Ya, Cretin; Beats and Night; A Slap of Alchemy; My Last Worthless Coin; A Brave Bot; Wax; A Real Scientific Poem; Ounces of Life; and Tickle Pop. Then, I slid Tickle Pop out from the stack and put it on the shelf behind me. I stood up, and with the stack of books again in my arms, approached the checkout counter.
The lady there peered up at me. It seemed she had been busy typing away and smiling. The smile faded off her face when she saw me, though. Or maybe my impressive stack of books did the trick. I understood her pain — no one came to work to actually do work — but she needed to understand mine, too. I judged from her dark, kinky twists that she looked young for a woman, maybe twenty-seven or so. As she began to systematically scan the barcode of each book, I started talking.
“I always check out a lot of books, but I don’t know why I like junk like this,” I began. Her eyes almost rolled, but I ignored that. Something told me she wouldn’t feel such animosity after she found out what I knew.
I continued, not paying much attention to the worried expression she got on her face when she couldn’t find something on a certain book. “Sometimes, I wonder why I bother reading at all. As soon as I get through a book, I feel this eerie wind inside of me. So, in a way, I’m putting myself through unnecessary pain, you know?” I paused, then added, “My parents aren’t at home right now.” She looked up again, the worry lines still on her face.
“Where are your parents?” It seemed she knew I would not stop talking unless she responded. For a second she looked at me, totally drawn in by my words, her lips parting, her tongue almost dying to fall out.
“I’d be lying if I said I knew. They just leave sometimes — well, they leave a lot. They don’t always say where they’re going. They just... go.”
She remembered that she had a job to do at that moment and resumed her previous task of locating the important thing she had been looking for. As I watched her flip through the first few pages and then through some from the back, I realized she couldn’t find the barcode.
“Is this the only book like this?” she asked, her face hanging over its open pages. I shrugged, then realizing she hadn’t seen my gesture, I told her I wasn’t sure. The wrinkles in her forehead remained knotted.
I leaned closer, shoving away the other books so I could see the one that troubled her. Another woman who was plump and had dark hair like the other lady came over and scooped up the novel. Then I saw it: the book that I had received from Ms. Goldmann. It had annoyed her and was now causing problems for me. And I hadn’t even checked it out yet. The round lady made the same diagnosis as I watched. The first woman had returned to her typing and smiling.
“I don’t understand this,” the plump, dark-haired lady said. “It has no barcode and no serial number.” I sighed for the second time that day. I just wanted some books.
“Well, that’s okay. I’ll just take these,” I said with my lips turned up in a cute smile. Nearly every boy I had met said he liked my smile, and that it made me look like a movie star. But I still tried not to smile so much.
“You’re blushing,” the checkout lady said, returning my smile. “That’s so cute.” I turned away.
“Thank you. The books, please.”
“Of course. I apologize about Peaceful Instruction. If you really want it, all you have to do is sign a sheet of paper with your name and the date. Would you like to do that?”
“Okay.” She had no problems finding the barcodes on all the other books, and Peaceful Instruction ended up on the counter, all alone. It felt good to leave it there to suffer as a penance for holding me up. With my arms crammed, I finally left the library on Mayle Street.
My house stood prominently on the corner of that same street, and I had never thought of how convenient that was. I could walk to the library in a matter of a few minutes and get home quickly. However, the return trip usually took a little longer, because I had to carry a stack of heavy books back.
That day, the trip didn’t take very long at all. Before I knew it, I had made it to my room and the books were all spread out across my spotted bed. As I awakened from my daydream of staring at cement and counting globs of gum and jagged cracks in the pavement, the phone rang. The ringing always made the emptiness of the house much more noticeable. I let it echo off the walls for a bit, then went over to the windowsill and removed the phone from its dock after the third ring.
“Is this Emilaz?” said a rough voice. I didn’t recognize it at all, but I did know practical jokesters. Still, I didn’t trust anything. I slammed the phone right back on the dock.
And immediately, as if I had never even answered it, the phone began to ring, picking up exactly, perfectly where it had left off. I chewed on my bottom lip, then slipped my hand around the white phone, growing goose bumps on my arms as I felt its cold plastic. It rang again and I swung it up to my face. This time I said nothing, only listened.
“Is this Emilaz?” The same dry, rugged voice. The same question. I decided to test a theory.
“Sorry, she isn’t in right now. Can I take a message?”
Silence. Not even the faint staticky sound of a person’s breathing came through for a good while. I checked the display, looking to see if the person — it sounded like an older man — had hung up.
Nope. The display remained lit, but both the name and number were question marks. I put the phone back up to my ear just in time to hear a rustling noise, as though someone had run a sheet of paper by the receiver.
“Could you tell Emilaz that she has a guest?” I kept listening for a break in the solid tone, but every word was spoken in the same mood-less manner.
“Excuse me?” I said, preparing to listen with even more effort. I jammed a finger into my other ear. “Could you repeat that?”
And like a playback recorder, the man said exactly what he had said before, precisely pronouncing each word in the same tone with the exact same pattern of dead inflection. I decided then that if this was a prank, whoever had spoken on the other end of the phone had gotten a lot of practice. I held the phone out at arm’s length and swallowed a gulp of air. Placing my other hand across the left side of my vibrating chest, I retracted my arm.
“And when should she expect this guest?” I tried to sound professional, but the thudding in my chest warped my words. Or it could’ve been that I sounded odd only to myself since the drumming in my ears filtered everything else I heard. I pushed the phone up to my ear so hard that I thought I’d get little imprints embedded in my lobe.
The other side had become more silent than still darkness. I didn’t bother checking the display this time. I just waited.
Rustling sounds. Then, a tiny whistle.
While I waited, I peered out of the window. My house sat at a corner, and my room had a direct view of the front lawn. Cars were flying down the street. We did live at the top of a hill, and some of the neighbors like Mr. Newsum — more like Mr. Nuisance — and three of the Stevenson girls were outside at a lemonade stand. It seemed like I had been staring at them for a whole hour before my mysterious friend saw good reason to speak up again.
“Emilaz, your guest is waiting for you right now,” he said. Ice snowed into my veins, and yet my forehead somehow burned with a sweaty passion. I couldn’t move anything after that and kept wondering how he had known that it was me on the phone. Then I thought of some of my friends who knew my voice well, but I couldn’t see why any of them would play such a mean trick on me.
I breathed a sigh of relief when the voice said, “Tell Emilaz that.” And soon afterwards, he hung up.
As if by instinct, I tried to remember whether all the doors in the house were locked, and whether I still had my box cutter and pepper spray. I checked and found satisfaction. The locks were turned all the way, and my knife and spray were in my purse. But the chilly sensation I felt in my mind and body wouldn’t go away. A part of me wondered just how much of a liar the caller had been. To find out, I had to go and check. If I looked and found no one, as I was sure would be the case, then I’d have that closure and the aching in my mind would cease.
I wormed my way down the stairs and to the front door. Once there, I took in a deep breath, leaned up against it, and peered into the peephole.
I could’ve screamed for joy when I saw no one standing there. So a prank it was! Triumphantly, I twisted the lock, opened the door, and stepped out. No one was lurking in the hedges, no strangers appeared nearby, and only the neighbors could be found.
I never looked down. Had I done so, I would’ve noticed a small parcel, no bigger than my hand. But I wouldn’t notice the parcel for another ten minutes, only after having enjoyed God’s loving smile in the form of the sun’s rays cutting through the crystalline blue sky.
Then, I saw it. The parcel. I lifted it up, losing color in my face so that my complexion became as pale as that of the plain, cream-colored parcel itself. I opened it, sliding a piece of paper out of the package. There were no words on the note, only a drawing or doodle of some type of blue box standing on stilts instead. I didn’t realize what it was until I turned it around.
“A mailbox.” Mine stood at the end of the walkway, a constant victim to the crazy town boys. I crept to the mailbox, opened it, and looked inside.
God knew not a relieved sigh as heavy as the one I breathed when I saw nothing inside. I had to laugh then. So much trouble just to make me worry, and whoever had pulled the prank on me had succeeded. I smiled, laughing hard enough to draw the attention of Mr. Nuisance, who waved. I waved back. Then, returning to the house, I laughed all the way to my room. That is, until I reached my room.
The books I had placed on my bed were now in a massive pile on the floor, and only a single one took up residence on my bed. I stood there frozen, staring at the book.
“Where’d that smile go? What happened to your cleverness?” came a voice like moist ashes. I looked around, trying my best to keep the book in sight. Nothing else looked out of place except the books. I checked my pillows, but they were still bunched up at the foot of my bed. My closet door still hung agape, just as I preferred. And my purse hadn’t been touched.
“Just who are you?” I said, the annoyance showing in my voice like patterns in a closely viewed weaving.
“Wouldn’t you rather like to know where I am first?” he replied. I had already thought that over — not where he was, but how he had been talking to me, because I was almost certain he hadn’t come into the house. After all, the books were dangerously close to the edge of the bed and in a pile. They could’ve just made the trip to the floor with a little help from gravity. That is, unless he came into my room, messed up the books, and left. But that, I thought, was quite unlikely.
I kept searching the room. Then, my eyes came to rest on the phone dock, now empty.
Copyright © 2011 by Joseph L. Jones