Midwest BSFA member, Renee, hits us with some flash fiction to celebrate the start of Black Speculative Fiction Month. Check out her short story, “Date Due”!
The city of Tryed Stone may feel like it’s in the middle of Nowhere but Nowhere is actually 90 miles southeast. Although the town is surrounded by farmland, the townspeople of Tryed Stone are proud of their new, but humble, innovations. There is a new strip mall on that sits on the edge of the northeast side of town, juxtaposed by a Home Depot, which is a few years old, and a Super Walmart. The strip mall looks like a small town itself, with the outward façade resembling different storefronts for each store instead of just big wide Plexiglas windows and electric doors that open when you move near them. The strip mall houses stores like Aeropostale, Pier 1, and Wild Oats replacing the local stores on Main Street. Although in the center of town, no one find the need to go to Sammy’s Hardware anymore or Gracie’s Food & Fruit or Momma’s Clothes for Big and Small but travel a whole extra mile (or two) to get to the new happening place which seems to be pulling other shoppers from similar small towns in the area.
The townspeople of Tryed Stone took the change with their usual equanimity. Everything must change; it’s the unspoken law of human life so it stands to order that their town would change, too. It’s just changes slowly. Every octogenarian in the town remembers when Chester Dewes first had lights installed in his home. Or when the Adam’s family destroyed a perfectly good outhouse to put in a new-fangled water closet on the 2nd floor. New things come and when they come they are observed, grumbled over and then everyone moves on. In 2002 when Librarian Cora suggested the town catch up with bigger town Nowhere by installing a few computers with internet access for the local school children the basic rumble at the council meeting was, “Well, if Nowhere has it, then we should have it, too.”
So the library was redone. Not content to just a computer or two with the net on them the board decided to spring for a new paint job with paint bought from Sammy’s Hardware and the local electrician not only rewired for computers but for more light. Soon the two-story (four if you count the closed stack area for book storage which isn’t available for public access) looked so good that people thought it didn’t belong on main street but catty corner to the new Biggs over on the northeast side edge of town.
Cora was also allowed to hire on one more person. The budget didn’t allow for another librarian but she was able to hire a library assistant. The girl she hired, Zaida, had just graduated from college with a dual major in German Literature and philosophy. Which meant, she could discuss the finer points of the Socratic paradox in German, no less, but since no one rarely wants (or needs) a philosopher who speaks German to boot she found herself drifting from temp job to temp job until the Library Assistant one came about. Who cares, she thought, if it’s boring, pays next to nothing or didn’t utilize her skills (which are only two to note: speaking German and thinking deeply). She uprooted herself from Boston and moved to the Midwest.
Before she took the job she had never stepped foot in the Midwest. She knew her mother had ties to a similar town but wasn’t sure of the name. She also had never met Cora. They had conducted a phone interview and in her mind she envisioned the archetypal librarian: austere clothes, hair pulled back tightly in a bun, sensible shoes, and, of course, glasses. When she walked in that day wearing khakis, a sweater and flats she wondered if she might be a bit over dressed and should have worn jeans and a t-shirt. She finds the main desk and sees a young woman, early 30s with shiny hair seated behind it.
“Excuse me. I’m Zaida Turner and I’m looking for Ms. Lathrop. I start today and I need to let her know I’m here.”
“And on time, too,” said the woman as she looked up from the computer screen. She stood up and held out her hand. “I’m Ms. Lathrop. But around here we aren’t that formal. Please, call me Cora.”
Zaida took her hand and slightly raised her eyebrow as she registered Ms. Lathrop’s outfit. She wore a silk black t-shirt and grey tweed pencil skirt. Her makeup was done and her hair stylishly coiffed. She was sexy, not what she expected in a small town library. Is this what they called a Lipstick Librarian?
She showed Zaida around the library. The staff was small: there were only two librarian’s Cora and Phillip who was the Children’s librarian. He was small, mousy and had a soft voice. Even during children’s story hour it was that soft tone that hushed even the noisiest children and enraptured them enough to lean forward to listen to his story. There was Bertha, the security guard, who stood about six foot tall with a strong muscular frame. Zaida thought they pulled her out of the corn patch, stuck her in a blue suit and set her on a stool in the library. She thought she had their sexuality already figured out: Phillip with his effete ways was obviously gay and as for Bertha she had seen more femininity in a Pittsburgh Steelers defense team. Imagine her surprise months later when one evening while carrying down a stack of books to the basement stacks and finding both Philip and Bertha in the throes of making love. They were so into each other that they never noticed she was there although she did her best movie “hems” and coughs that she could. After a moment or two of trying to make her presence known, Zaida simply put on her headphones and re-shelved the three books while trying not to look in their general direction. As she headed up the stairs she turned the music up louder although an “Oh, you stallion” seeped into her ears. Was that him or her? She wondered.
The last person on staff was Noel. In their first introduction Cora took Zaida down to the stack area.
“These are our closed stacks,” Cora said. She had a smile on her face and was obviously proud of the collection. The stack area was a study in contrasts. Where the public floor was light and airy, the stacks were dark and cloistered. It took a few moments for Zaida’s eyes to adjust to the dimness of the lights. “All of the books that can’t go on the public floor are shelved down here. We have some that are really old and those we keep in the caged area,” she pointed to a door. “But only I have a key for that. Those books are rarely looked at; only on special occasions.”
She came to a desk, which had a half devoured sandwich, apple core and a 2-liter of pop that was three quarters gone. “This is Noel’s desk. He must be off shelving books.” She turned and called, “Noel, Noel! Come out I have someone for you to meet.” She heard some music, classical or was it a musical getting louder as soft footsteps approached. “No one can hear you down here,” Cora said her voice raising an octave to be heard over the music. “You can play music loud if you need to come down and work and not worry about disturbing the patrons. The walls are concrete to keep the water out in case the Little Miami overflows. We don’t want to spoil the books.”
As the music crescendos Zaida is confronted with a scary apparition. In front of them stood Noel with pale skin, multiple piercing which made his earlobes hang low, dark rimmed eyes from lack of sunlight and sharp chin and nose. “This is Noel.” From that day Zaida referred to as Noelsferastu. He was their forty-five year old shelver who rarely milled around on the public floor. Whether he was in the basement or in the stacks between the first and second floor he could always be heard before seen because he traveled with a portable radio around his neck.
It didn’t take long for Zaida to get settled into her job. Occasionally she was able to put her beloved skills to work when a high school student came in needing help with a translation or an elderly person called up asking help with their crossword puzzle.
“Philosopher, student of Socrates, five letters.”
She even learned to stop referring to their users as customers and started calling them patrons. Some she loved to see but a few made her cringe when she saw them walk through the door. One of them was Sunny Smiley. With a name such as that one would think she would have the opposite effect on people. But Sunny had a way of turning people off, never to come on again. As the Chairperson of the Tryed Stone Historical and Genealogical Society, Sunny tried every way to insinuate herself into the daily routine of the library. One summer she decided the library should be accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week and stood outside the library with a sign that said, “Free information! Free libraries! All Access!” When that failed, her next agenda became being able to help select the books that Cora decided to buy and after that at one local council meeting she said she thought she, as the Chairperson of the Tryed Stone Historical and Genealogical Society should have a key to come in after hours to continue her research and have a key to the cage so she could have access to the rare books. Time after time each crusade was denied but it never stopped her patronage of the library.
“Oh, what wonderful things you can find here,” Sunny said to Zaida one day. Sunny had an odd way of smiling where all her teeth showed and glistened, her cheeks were a tight apple red but her eyes stayed cold and piercing. “The things you can just learn. Knowledge is power my dear. You aren’t from here, are you not?”
“No, I’m not from here,” Zaida glanced up from the computer. She was checking in books, scanning them onto the computer and then gently shaking to see if anyone had left in stray papers or bookmarks.
“What about family?”
“None around here that I know of.”
“Isn’t your middle name Lawrence?”
“Yes, it is?” Zaida glanced at the clock on the computer. How much longer will she have to suffer this odious woman?
“See, I noted that from the newspaper article on you a while ago,” she stacked her papers and stapled them together. “And I noted you said you had family out this way. Are you from Boston, by way of Charlotte?”
“Yes, I am…”
“Mother’s side has a family name of Lawrence?”
Zaida just looked at her.
“There was a family named Lawrence here awhile back. Very affluent. Intermarried a lot, went crazy I suppose from that. Or maybe it was just bad luck. They owned that big house way out on a hill on Drake Creek road. A lot of land belonged to the estate but it’s a subdivision now with some high priced condos and expensive houses going up. The house still stands. The town doesn’t know what to do with it. Its rumored it used to be a part of the underground railroad…”
“I don’t think we are the same people,” Zaida interjected.
“And it was the…” she looks at Zaida carefully and then looked down. “It was that association that began their demise. It was rumored one of the slaves on the run raped the oldest daughter while in hiding. He moved on and she had the baby. After the baby was born she killed herself in the creek near her home. They gave the baby away to a local free black family. After that the Lawrence’s had a run of bad luck: two sons dead in the Civil war, one killed in the Spanish American war. The house was burned down a couple of times; once by an heir who claimed he could hear the voices of dead runaway slaves in the walls. He killed his young wife and toddler in the fire.”
“And what does this have to do with me?”
“They are all gone, that line, saved one who is old and living in Canada now,” Sunny went on as if she hadn’t heard the question. “She said she doesn’t care what we do with the house and won’t come back to check on it. “But there is another line. The baby that was born and given up. He grew up with the name Lawrence and moved away. Charlotte, I believe. Was there…”
“Do you need any help, Sunny?” Cora was by Zaida’s side. Her voice was cool but her eyes were flashing. Today she had on stiletto boots with a cashmere sweater dress that clung to every curve. Both women’s eyes locked for a second.
“No. I was just sharing some local history with our young friend here. Perhaps another time.”
“Perhaps,” Cora said grittily as she watched Sunny turn away.
Although Tryed Stone was a strongly Christian town they believed in giving the devil his due and so the place was decked out for Halloween. The library had spooky story hour twice a day and Zaida set up a book display of all the latest and scariest books for all ages. Cora told her staff that as a special treat for the public everyone should put on a costume on the 31st.
A couple of days before the festive day, Zaida was restocking her holiday display books when Officer Jacobs came in. He came into the library a few times a day to check for truants and to rouse transients who liked to make the corner nook their napping place. Zaida suspected it was more to see Cora, though. Whenever he came in her purposely kept his ring hand down or inside his jacket and posted himself by the public desk if she was seated there. Bertha, who felt he was trying to usurp her position as the figure of authority in the library, would angrily patrol the library grounds whenever he came in. Today Jacobs looked serious and walked over to Zaida instead of looking around for Cora first.
“Hi Zaida, you wouldn’t happen to know this man would you?” He held out a picture for her to inspect.
“Yeah, I know him. I can’t place the name, though. But he usually talks to Cora,” like most men she thought pettily. He was in here a few weeks or ago I believe.”
“Thanks,” he said and then walked over to the desk where Phillip was sitting and showed him the picture. Zaida watched Phillip shake his head and then Jacobs walked into the back office.
Zaida immediately went over to Phillip to pump him for information. “What’s going on? What is all this about?” Zaida asked Phillip.
“Well,” Phillip put two syllables in the word making it sound more like “wel-yul. “It appears Mr. Oakes, the picture you saw, has been missing for a few days. He could have just snuck off from his wife and went to the casinos in Indiana, which is what a lot of men do around here. But the thing is it’s around that time of year.”
“What time of year?”
“You never heard? Off and on for the last 15 years young men have gone missing and turned up dead, found over on the old Lawrence property.”
At the mention of Lawrence, Zaida felt a chill go up her spine. “No,” Zaida said softly. “I never heard that.”
“It’s been a few years since they found the last body so who knows, it might be Mr. Oakes number is up.” Phillip was speaking in a hushed voice that wasn’t so quiet. “The men are found in various stages of undress—“
“Yes undress and trussed like a Thanksgiving turkey. We just might be seeing more of Old Oakes than he ever wanted us to see if they find his body in that creek.”
Zaida looked at Phillip through squinty eyes and wondered if he really wasn’t gay. There isn’t a door to the back office and it has been known from time to time that conversations from the back to drift to the front. Zaida and Phillip suddenly got quiet and listened in on the discussion between Jacobs and Cora.
“It says on the computer that the last time Mr. Oakes checked out a book was on September 3. I do recall seeing him that day. I helped him search for books on old airplanes. It seems as if the Aeroplane Handbook hasn’t been returned.”
“And he hasn’t been here since the third? His wife says he comes here weekly. Officer Jacobs,
I can’t say for sure he hasn’t been in here. He just hasn’t checked out anything since then and the book is overdue.” Cora’s voice became pitchy on the last word. “I am sure he has better things to do, obviously whatever it is it concerns not returning books.”
“Thanks for your help. I’m just trying to tie up loose ends. We’re just hoping this isn’t … well, you know.”
“We must all hope for the best.”
On Halloween it was Zaida’s turn to open and close the branch. For her costume she put on her best afro wig, platform shoes, mini skirt and frilly blouse, hoping patrons would be able to guess she was Foxy Brown. When she arrived at 7:45 Phillip was waiting for her outside dressed as Raggedy Ann (not Andy).
“It’s a chilly Halloween, isn’t it?” With the face paint Phillip looked sickeningly maudlin. Zaida again wondered about his sexuality.
“It would probably be a bit warmer if I didn’t have on this short skirt,” she tugged at the hem as she opened the door.
“Are you telling me?” Phillip said as a brisk wind quickly flew up both of their skirts.
Zaida walked around the library floor, turning on lights and computers as Phillip went to set up the Children’s room. At 8:30 Zaida heard a faint knock on the staff door. When she went to open it she saw it was Noelsferatu waiting to be let in. “Good morning, Noel,” she mumbled as he walked through the door.
Noel turned slowly to look at her. The dark circles around his bloodshot eyes were darker than usual as the steam from his coffee wafted around his face in a menacing way. It sounded like he hissed a low, “tsssssst”. Zaida thought maybe it was his coffee as she closed the door behind him.
Bertha and Cora both arrived at 9:30, a half hour before the library opened. Bertha had on her usual blue security uniform.
“Oh, you didn’t dress up!” Zaida said.
Bertha lifted her pants leg to reveal orange socks printed with black cats on them with rolling toy eyes. “I’m festive!” she declared.
After her came Cora in a dress so tight it seemed hard for her to walk. Her face was pale and her wig long and black. “Morticia Addams,” Cora said as she gently let herself down in her chair.
Her face looked angelic, though, with false lashes framing her big blue eyes and blood red lipstick on her pouty mouth. The same thought flashed through Bertha’s and Zaida’s mind at the same time: I wonder if her lips are as sweet as they look and each envisioned themselves tasting its sweet nectar.
At 11:30 the first school group of children arrived for story hour, all differently arrayed in various costumes.
“I’m a ghost!” said a little girl to Zaida. She was dressed up as an angel.
“And you are a spooky one, too,” Zaida told her.
By 3:00 the last of the school children had come and gone. No one came into the library for the rest of the afternoon and Noel had left 45 minutes early to get ready for a party he was going to. At five ’til six Zaida did her last walk through the building, shutting off lights and computer screens as she moved through.
“I’m gone!” Phillip shouted from the exit door before he left out. “See tomorrow!”
“’kay,” Zaida hollered back to him. She was headed outside to unlock the nightly book drop. She went back in and locked the door. Bertha was standing inside. “It’s just you and Cora here now. Cora said she doesn’t need me to escort her to her car. She never does although I know I should. You want me to wait for you?”
“Umm, yeah. Just give me a second to drop the keys off on Cora’s desk.”
Bertha had caught a glimpse of Phillip hanging around his car. “I’ll wait for you by the door,” Bertha said as she moved toward the exit. Zaida put on her jacket, picked up her purse and went to drop the keys on Cora’s desk. While putting the keys down she noticed the book, Aeroplane Handbook sitting on the desk. Zaida picked the book up and noticed the publication date was 1920. She carried the book down the stairs, intending to ask Cora if they had found Mr. Oakes.
“Hey Cora!” Zaida called out as she descended into darkness. “Cora!” Zaida walked into the stacks. Suddenly she heard music coming from a corner.
I thought Noelsferatu left for the day already, she thought to herself. She started heading in the direction the music was coming from. As the music got louder and louder she could make out the words.
Because in all of the whole human race Mrs. Lovett, there are two kinds of men and only two
There’s the one they put in his proper place
The music was coming from the cage. The door was cracked and a light was on. She had never got a chance to look inside the room with the chained fence protecting books and this was her turn to peek in.
And the one with his foot in the other one’s face
Look at me, Mrs. Lovett, look at you.
“Cora!” she called out. But the music was too loud. It was drowning her out. Certainly she has to tell her that she is leaving. She pushed open the door.
Now we all deserve to die
Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why.
Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief
For the rest of us death will be a relief
We all deserve to die.
And there was Cora. Sexy black dress, hair now pinned up and stiletto heels grounded firmly in her stance. But in her arms was an ax. Blood had flecked her pretty face and breast as her thin, sinewy arms went forcefully forward with another whack.
Zaida thought she screamed or gasped. She wasn’t sure. She knew there was a compression in her chest. She felt something roll over her foot and looked down. A big round object was at her toe, it had a face similar to the man’s who was in the picture but it was different from home. Cora finally looked up and noticed Zaida standing there. She spread across her blood-speckled lips. “I told him the book was overdue,” she said plainly. “And I wanted it back.”