“People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.”
― Saul Bellow
A day in the life of Esther Williams (no relation to the famous swimmer/actress) was one spent in routine, external monologues, and prayer. And usually, a trip to the library.
Esther was there now, on a quiet Tuesday in March. It was not quite spring yet, but the winter chill had abated a bit, so, foregoing her standard thick jacket, she had dug out her favorite pink cardigan from a cardboard box that was covered in drawings courtesy of her youngest grandchildren. She absently patted the yellow flower on the left pocket as she wandered among the bookshelves. Abe used to sneak little hard candies in there when he would hug her goodbye . . .
She wasn’t searching for any particular book, just whatever happened to catch her eye. Sometimes she didn’t check out anything at all. She just liked to be there: the lights were bright but soft; there was the pleasant smell of bound paper; the librarians always had time for a friendly wave; and though the library was quiet, there was always the slight murmur of conversation and shifting of books — it wasn’t an oppressive silence, like at home.
Esther took a tall, dark gray book from a low shelf, huffing a little as she did so. It was a graphic novel, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The pictures on the cover looked a little intimidating, but Esther always told herself she was never too old for anything, not even comic books. She was about to flip through it when she heard a noise. It sounded like someone who was trying very hard to be quiet but utterly failing. She turned around. A shadow flitted past, behind the nearest shelf, and then there was the sound of a door shutting — slamming, really. Having been to this building as often as she had, Esther knew it must have been the door of one of the study rooms. There were quite a few of them, though this particular one was at the far end of the library and usually taken only if the others were full. She frowned. She hadn’t noticed that many people here today.
Curiosity, like a tiny flame, lit up in her chest. In response, a little warning voice (which sounded just like Abe’s) spoke up in her mind. Be careful, it said. Mind your own business.
“I know, my dear,” Esther said, and patted her pocket again. And she put Batman back on the shelf and slowly walked around to behind the shelf where she’d seen the shadow.
Esther prided herself on not needing a walker or even a cane, but she wished she had something to lean on now. Whoever it was had indeed gone into the study room in front of her, because there was a trail of bloody footprints leading to the door. The floor was carpeted, but the color — and smell — was unmistakable. The warning voice became much more insistent.
“Maybe you’re right . . . ” she whispered. She turned away. After a couple deep breaths, she wondered if she ought to get one of the librarians or perhaps the security guard . . .
There was a presence behind her. Like the sensation of someone walking over her grave (she wasn’t very fond of that phrase at this point in her life). It didn’t last long, but she shivered nonetheless.
Esther turned back to the door. The footprints, blood and all, were gone.
“Well,” was all she could say to nobody.
It was against her better judgment (still in Abe’s voice), but she hobbled over to the door anyway. It had been a long time since her heart had beat this fast and longer still since the fire of adrenaline had burned through her veins. But she wasn’t too old for Batman and she wasn’t too old to do some investigating.
Still, when she opened the door, it wasn’t a grand gesture of “Aha!” but of stealth caused by apprehension. She poked her head inside the room.
She thought she saw a massive, cloaked figure holding something even taller and terribly shiny, but she blinked, and she realized it was merely a tall man wearing a long black overcoat with silver buttons. He had spiky red hair, cut along the sides in a youthful style, but when he turned around to look at her as she came inside, his eyes seemed much, much older. He frowned.
“You should not be in here,” the man said.
His voice was very peculiar. Esther tilted her head to one side and resisted the urge to jam her finger in her ear.
“I heard a noise and saw . . . ” She trailed off. The footprints, and thus any evidence, were gone now. She looked at his feet. His boots were worn but clean, and there was no sign of any blood. Strangely, though, the carpet around his feet seemed to be covered in dust.
“Are you cleaning in here?” she asked.
The man’s lips curled up slightly. “In a way.”
He knelt down, his back to her. “You really should not be in here,” he said again.
Esther straightened her spine as much as she could. “I have every right to be here, same as you!” she barked, feeling the righteous fury singular to the elderly. She even waggled her finger. “Barging in here with all that noise, making a mess all over the carpet! You ought to be ashamed, young man!”
The man stood up suddenly, and Esther flinched in spite of herself. But when he turned around, he was smiling.
“You are quite right, ma’am. I apologize.”
He looked very amused, but his words were gracious and genuine, and Esther felt her anger ebb away.
“Well!” she huffed, feeling wrongfooted somehow. “As long you . . . ” She glanced at the floor and saw that indeed, the dust was gone, the carpet clean.
“Good!” was all she could say. She looked around the room for any other transgressions, but finding none, she turned toward the door, a little hot with embarrassment.
“You live alone,” said the man. “Do you feel safe?”
It was one of the most invasive things that had ever been said to her, but when she whipped around to glare at him, the expression on his face softened her words.
“Now, how do you know that?”
“Your husband was a good man,” the stranger said.
Tears, unbidden, sprang to Esther’s eyes. She stared at him. She would have bet a million dollars that she had never seen this man before in her life, but . . . there was something familiar about him . . . A memory floated into her mind, a memory of Abe’s last days in the hospital . . . The man’s long coat . . .
Somehow, the man had moved without making a sound and was now standing right in front of her, very close. But Esther did not feel afraid. She looked up into his face, his impossible face that was both young and old.
“Something . . . bad is coming,” the man said. His eyes clouded. “Everyone should stay safe.”
Esther’s curiosity lit up once again, but she did not ask any questions. She knew they would not be answered. She simply gave a slow nod.
The man placed his thumb on her forehead. “Go in peace.”
Esther toddled into the library lobby, clutching the Batman book. She glanced at her watch. Heavens, she had flipped through it for such a long time! Funny how she didn’t remember anything about it, though . . .
An older gentleman with a long coat was standing in the checkout line. She had seen him before at the library, but there was something about his coat that gave her pause. She glanced behind her, toward the very rear of the building, where some of the study rooms were. She felt as though she’d forgotten something. But no, she had her purse (wallet and cell phone tucked inside) and the book. And why would she go into one of those rooms, anyway, she asked herself, patting all her pockets. She had nothing to study —
There was something in her left pocket.
Barely breathing, Esther slipped a shaky hand inside.
It was a piece of hard candy. Just like the ones Abe always had. It must have been left in there from before . . .
The man in front of her moved to the checkout desk. Esther quickly unwrapped the candy and popped it in her mouth. The sweet taste was almost overwhelming, but it brought back a wave of memories, all warm and sunny and full of Abe. And she also remembered something important.
As Esther Williams went to check out her book, she made a mental note to call her son when she got home. She was sure he wouldn’t mind an extra houseguest for a few weeks.
There was safety in numbers.
Surely it means something when I can’t stop writing these Memento Mori stories, right? Yeah . . .
This story was inspired by a prompt found in this book: Write the Story