Aspen Winters loves the library. The books. How organized everything was on the shelves. That it wasn’t her father’s pharmacy.
Her first step to independence. A real job and a chance to get away from her father. Soon she’d get her own apartment.
Plus Tony worked at the library. Two years older, with the cutest dimple, she couldn’t wait to work side-by-side with him.
One day she’d run the library and everything would be perfect. Just perfect.
This was one of those perfect blue sky days that came along too rarely in Grays Harbor, even in June. Today the sunshine brought out the bright reds and pinks and yellows of the roses along the front of the Parker library. The green metal roof sparkled with droplets from the brief rain last night. The rain had stripped the mill-stink out of the air, leaving everything fresh and smelling clean.
A perfect day to start a new job. Aspen Winters rose up on her toes, feet in her white pumps, the ones that she normally only wore on special days. Her heels dropped back down to the sidewalk with a click. If she took that step, if she walked into the library, it’d be real. Today she wouldn’t be going in like it was any other day. Today she’d be going in as someone who worked in the library. Like Ms. Rachel, the librarian, or Tony Hill who was two years older and had the cutest dimple on his cheek. She wouldn’t be a librarian, no, not yet. Not until after she finished high school, college and then got a master’s degree, which was all going to take forever. But it was sort of like being a librarian.
It was her chance for everything. To save enough money to get away from her parents for good. Her own money, not the small allowance that Daddy paid when she worked down at his pharmacy. Eventually even her own apartment.
Aspen ran her hands down her blue dress. Not the robin’s egg blue of the sky, but a rich blueberry blue, almost a purple like the blueberries that Mom used when they made jam. It was one of her favorite dresses and came with a wide orange belt. Mom had complained of course, like always, saying she was too pale for such dark colors. Aspen liked bold, bright colors. She had won on the dress, giving in to Mom on her lipstick, going with a light pink instead of the deeper ruby that she had wanted.
She wasn’t about to let that spoil her first day on the job.
Aspen took a deep breath, there was just a faint hint of saltiness to the air, and took that first step. She walked right up to the staff entrance and knocked sharply on the glass with her knuckles.
The door swung out and Aspen stepped back. Tony Hill leaned out, hanging on the door frame with one muscled arm. A tattoo peeked out of the sleeve of his black t-shirt. Aspen had to look up to see his eyes, deep hazel and gold, and his bright white smile.
“Hey there, Aspen! You’re on time, good move!” He winked. “Got to get on the Dragon Lady’s good side on your first day.”
Did he mean Ms. Rachel? She always seemed so sweet. Aspen tried to think of something, anything to say, but her tongue had curled up and died like a salted slug in her mouth. Her gut clenched.
Tony moved to the side, holding the door and gestured. “I’m kidding, of course. Come on in. I’m supposed to give you the grand tour. Ms. Rachel should get here soon.”
Somehow, Aspen managed to walk past him. She kept her hands clasped together. In all the years that she had been coming to the library she hadn’t been back in the staff areas before. The room was bigger than she imagined. With a couple computers, doors that went to other rooms, and then the short hallway that went out behind the front desk. The door clanged shut behind her.
Tony appeared beside her. “Well, this is the workroom. It’s where we hang out and make fun of the people coming into the library.”
He laughed and bumped his arm into hers. “Don’t look so shocked, Aspen. I’m just kidding. Mostly.”
Aspen forced a small smile on her face, hoping that she wasn’t blushing. God, she probably was. Mostly when she came into the library she didn’t say anything to Tony. She was always tongue-tied around him. He was a senior at Parker High, on the swim team and the cross country team. He didn’t hang out with any one group at school, but seemed to know everyone. He was like totally her opposite. Tall where she was short. He had dark wavy, beautiful hair and her hair was so blond it was almost white. He was tanned and she was a pale fish. Plus he was popular with everyone, and no one hardly knew that she existed.
It was so strange that she was going to be working with him now.
Tony didn’t seem to notice that she was at a loss for words. He pointed at a computer sitting up on a computer desk in the middle of the room.
“That’s the processing station. We check in stuff there. All the courier boxes that come from the other libraries, plus whatever people dump in the book drops. You have to watch the book drops. Sometimes people put all kinds of crap in there. We’ve had needles, used condoms, and actual crap, like dog shit bags and stuff.”
“Really?” Aspen blurted the question, horrified at the idea. Who would put that stuff in the book drop?
Tony shrugged. “Sure. Not all the time, of course, but yeah, it happens. One time we had a guy that put mason jars full of honey in the drops at several of the libraries. No lids, but it was actually pretty smart. The jars rolled into the drop and then the honey just oozed out all over everything in the drop. That was a bitch to clean!”
Tony laughed. “Yeah, it was. Lucky for me, I wasn’t working that day, so I didn’t get stuck cleaning it up.”
He turned and pointed to her left. The corner of the room was taken up with something, she didn’t know what it was. There were handles with three grips that looked like they turned, on tall panels of whatever it was. Some sort of track ran along the bottom.
“That’s the compact shelving,” Tony said. “It’s where we store supplies, weeds, and all that stuff.”
Shelving? It didn’t look much like shelving. Tony stepped forward and grabbed the handle on one of the middle sections. He spun it with one hand. The units parted and then Aspen understood. Each section was a bookshelf, but they were on tracks the tracks. As Tony spun the handles, the four units on the right rolled away from the other four and opened up an aisle in the middle. And there were shelves, full of all sorts of books on both sides. The shelving was taller than Tony, rising up almost to the ceiling and it was three sections of shelving deep.
The shelves stopped and shiny red pegs popped out of the side with a loud clunk. “What’s that?”
“Safety lock.” Tony pulled on the handle to move the shelf. It wouldn’t budge. He slammed his hand against one of the pegs, pushing it in. Now spinning the handle moved the shelving unit. He reversed the direction on the handle until the peg popped out again. “See?”
Without waiting for an answer he moved into the aisle and pulled a book down from the shelves, flipping through the pages. He sniffed at it and wrinkled his nose before putting it back on the shelf.
“Smells like cat piss. We get that a lot. Too bad, good book otherwise. Sometimes you get some good stuff that’s being weeded.”
He’d said that before. Aspen took a breath. “Weeded? You mean the books?”
“Yeah. We discard them. They get weeded out when they’re damaged, or if it’s just been sitting around too long and no one wants to read it.” Tony grinned. “Sometimes you get pretty good stuff. Even if you don’t want it, things will sell online.”
Maybe she looked shocked or something because Tony stepped out of the aisle saying, “They’re going to just throw them away. It’s not a big deal.”
Tony hit the safety peg and spun the handle the other way until the shelves came together with a loud clang that made her jump. Tony saw and laughed.
“Hey, don’t worry. I won’t close it with you in there!”
Maybe not, but if she had to go into the compact shelving she was going to make sure to lock it so that no one could turn the handles. Just in case.
“Come on,” Tony said. “There’s a lot more I’m supposed to show you.”
Twenty minutes later Tony was showing her the shelving carts when Ms. Rachel finally showed up. Ms. Rachel didn’t seem all that old, only in her twenties. She was short and fat, with long black hair and was always smiling. She waggled her fingers at the two of them, rings flashing on every finger.
“Are you two getting along okay?”
Tony beamed. “Oh yeah, she’s sharp. She already knows how to put things in order and where all the sections are.”
Ms. Rachel pulled off her jacket, a bright yellow slicker with white polka-dots. “I told you. Aspen has been coming in since she could hardly see over the front desk. I was thrilled that you applied for the job when Jon, well…”
Aspen nodded, saving Ms. Rachel from the awkwardness of saying anything. She knew all about Jon. He had been very old and forgetful. Probably the only reason that he had lived alone in that moldy old trailer was because he didn’t have anyone that cared enough to put him in a home. She didn’t think anyone was much surprised that he had left a burner on. More than once she’d been in the library when he was shelving books and had seen him put the books in the wrong place. Ms. Rachel was probably too nice to comment on it, but it did make things harder on everyone else when they couldn’t find what they were looking for on the shelves. For some reason, people would put up with that from somebody as old as Jon. Not for her. If she messed up that badly, even Ms. Rachel with all her smiles would let her go.
That was something that Aspen didn’t even want to think about. If she lost the job now, it’d make things that much worse at home. She’d never hear the end of it. They’d tell her that she’d have to just keep working in the pharmacy after all, like they’d warned her. At least through high school and probably community college. Maybe even after, if she went to Evergreen and they made her stay at home. The idea of spending the next four to eight years working in Winters Pharmacy, and being stuck at home, was about as appealing as going to prison. If Daddy had his way, she’d keep working for him for nothing except her allowance. Why would she get a paycheck when she got free room and board? They were family, Daddy said. Which obviously meant that he thought she would always work for free.
Not now. She was sixteen and had gotten the job on her own. So what if Daddy didn’t like it? The library was close to school, the schedule was flexible, and they actually paid her. Minimum wage, now, but it was a lot more than her allowance. Not even her mother’s guilt trips over leaving Daddy to work in the pharmacy alone were going to change her mind.
“Just give me a few minutes to get settled, and check my email and then I’ll be out,” Ms. Rachel said.
“No worries,” Tony answered. “I’ll watch the desk. Aspen can start working on her first cart.”
“Great!” Ms. Rachel said.
Then she was gone, disappearing through the door in the workroom that led to her office. It shut soundly behind her.
Aspen looked over at Tony. He tapped the shelving cart. “Almost time to open up. You can go ahead and start putting these away. When you’re done I’ll give you a pull list.”
“It’s just a list of stuff that people want at the other libraries. We pull it off and send it to them.”
Of course. She’d gotten holds in before, many times. “Oh, the holds!”
Tony laughed. “That’s right. Go on then, better get those shelved!”
Aspen pushed the cart. It wasn’t hard. The cart was gray, sort of like a small bookcase with three shelves. There was a different one for each of the three sections of the library, and the first she’d picked was the nonfiction section. It also had the teen books on it, labeled with a “YA” sticker. As she walked away from the desk she had the feeling that Tony was watching her. She resisted the urge to look until she reached the shelves and turned down the first aisle. Then she did glance back at the desk and Tony was watching her. She ducked her head and pulled the first book off the cart.
She really enjoyed putting the books away. She knew all about the Dewey Decimal system and everything. It left her mind free to wander. Was Tony watching her because she was new, or because he was noticing her? She hoped it was because he was noticing her, even if the thought made her all shivery inside. She’d noticed him, of course, at school but there was no reason to ever think that he had noticed her at all. More than once, as she moved through the aisles, she glanced back up at the desk and found him looking her way. She just didn’t know why he was watching.
There was that, and it also bothered her what he had said about the weeded books. Just taking them didn’t sound right. Maybe he was telling the truth, that the books were going to be thrown away. In that case, you could look at it that he was rescuing the books, but it still sounded weird. Why would the library just throw away perfectly good books? Not the ones that stank of cat piss or whatever, but books that you could sell online? That really bothered her. If anyone was going to sell them online, shouldn’t it be the library, and the library getting the money from the books?
Aspen got to the end of shelving the first cart of books without figuring out an answer. It was her first day, after all. Maybe after she’d been working at the library for a while, she’d know more about it.
Three weeks later, on a Tuesday when she was scheduled to work until eight, Aspen showed up at 3:30 and discovered that it was just her and Tony working the closing shift. They were in the workroom when he gave her the news.
“Ms. Rachel had an all-day sort of meeting at the admin building,” Tony said, leaning on the workstation in the back. “Sara’s off at five.”
Sara was an older woman, plump with curly gray hair who spent most of her time with her wide bottom planted in a chair at the desk. She tended to wear baggy shirts and stretch pants to work. And she had one of those mouths that turned down at the corners, which made her look perpetually unhappy. It would have helped if she smiled, but in all the years that Aspen had been coming to the library she hadn’t ever seen Sara smile. Even now, that’s where she was, parked on the chair at the front desk looking at some website on the computer.
Probably Facebook. Aspen had no idea what friends Sara had on there, but usually that was the site she had open.
Working in the library wasn’t exactly the way she had imagined it. Her job was mostly putting away the books, movies and making sure everything was straight and in order. Sometimes she pulled off materials that people wanted. She impressed Tony when she lifted the courier boxes, which were much lighter than the shipping crates used at the pharmacy. Even after only three weeks, Ms. Rachel had noticed how much better the library looked than when Jon was working there and had said as much.
Okay, she hadn’t put it quite that way. But Ms. Rachel did go on about how great everything looked, at how neat all the shelves were, and how much better it looked with books displayed on each shelf. Aspen had done that on her own, because she liked to see the beautiful covers, and figured other people would like it too.
It took work to keep it that way. She hadn’t found any needles in the book drop, but people did make a mess of her shelves. She’d go through a section, like the new book shelves making everything neat and then some old woman would come in and turn it into a disaster area. Books pulled out, falling over, shoved back behind the others.
How hard was it to put things back the way you found them? She wanted to say that and didn’t. Instead, she smiled and put the section back the way it should look.
By the time Sara left at five, without saying anything, she was just gone from her perch, Aspen had shelved five carts of books. And she had fixed the mess someone had made of the cookbook section and pulled a holds list. Today she was wearing a cream-colored dress and she ran her hands down it, checking for any dust smears. When she had started working at the library the shelves hadn’t looked like anyone had ever dusted them. Dusting all of the shelves was one of the first projects she had tackled. Her dress was fine, including the strawberry-red belt that matched her new red pumps, her nails, and lipstick. She had treated herself with her first paycheck.
The library was empty. Even the bank of computer stations along the wall were empty. Usually there were patrons hunched over the stations, but it was late. Other than Tony, she was alone in the library.
She went back up to the desk where Tony was scanning a stack of DVDs into the computer to see if there was anything else she could do.
He scanned the last movie, Psycho, and then moved the whole stack into a recycled plastic grocery store bag. He smiled at her.
“Hey, Aspen. How’s it going?” His eyes moved as his gaze traveled from her face down to her chest. He did that a lot but still hadn’t asked her out.
Why did he have the movies in a bag? “Do you need me to shelve those?”
“No, that’s okay, I was just going to check them out.”
Aspen moved to the side enough so that she could see the screen. She hadn’t been trained on all the computer stuff yet, but she knew enough to know that Tony wasn’t checking out the DVDs. He hit the ESC key to clear the screen and laughed.
“Thing is, somebody beat me to it. Cleaned out all the discs and just left the cases. I had to withdraw them from the system.”
He was lying. His neck was flushed. His smile couldn’t cover it up.
Aspen’s heart pounded. She still hadn’t brought up what he said about weeds with Ms. Rachel. Usually Ms. Rachel seemed so busy, and Aspen had told herself that she must have misunderstood what Tony was saying. Or at worse, he was saving books from the landfill.
Now, she wasn’t so sure. She had shelved those movies recently and they weren’t empty when she shelved them, she was sure of that.
She found her voice. “Do we call the police or something?”
“No.” Tony laughed. “Like they’d care! It’s a few DVDs. Stuff goes missing from here all the time. Nobody cares. I’m just going to take the cases to recycle them.”
It was true that the library didn’t recycle anything. Ms. Rachel said that was because the city was responsible for that sort of thing, and they didn’t want to pay for recycling.
But she didn’t believe that Tony was taking the DVD cases to recycle them, any more than she believed that the discs weren’t in the cases. She leaned on the counter.
“Is there anything else you need me to do?”
He shook his head quickly. “No, that’s fine. I’ll just put these in the back. Holler if you need help out here.”
Tony hurried to the back.
Aspen walked around the counter, trailing her fingers along the smooth surface. No dust. She saw to it that things were kept clean. The library needed someone like her. Even Ms. Rachel didn’t care about the little things like dusting, but they were important. It made an impression.
This thing with Tony, that was a problem. A serious problem. If she went to Ms. Rachel with accusations would she believe that Tony was stealing things from the library? He could deny it. What proof was there?
Aspen ran her fingers along the keyboard. She knew that the system would show the movies as withdrawn, but that didn’t prove he hadn’t found the cases empty, just like he said. And the books he took off the weed shelf? Maybe if she knew where he sold them online, she could show that to Ms. Rachel. Even if she did, would anyone care? Why would the police care about someone taking books that the library was throwing away anyway?
Except no one was going to throw those DVDs out. Tony was just taking them. It wasn’t right.
Accusing Tony, though, that could go wrong. He could deny it. Or claim that she had taken them! What was there to stop him?
Nothing. Aspen sighed and leaned her elbows on the counter. She stretched her right leg back and rested her pump on the shelving cart.
When she saw movement in the corner of her eye she turned her head and beamed at Tony standing in the doorway staring at her.
“Do you have any plans after work?” Aspen asked.
Tony shook his head. “No, not really.”
Aspen arched her back a bit more. “No one’s going to notice if you don’t go right home?”
“No.” Tony laughed. “My dad’s usually good and passed out by the time I get home. I have a six-pack in my car, you want to go have some fun?”
Aspen straightened up. “That sounds perfect.”
She walked toward Tony, keeping her eyes on his. He took a step back into the workroom.
“I just remembered,” Aspen said. “I was looking at the books back here, but I couldn’t reach one on the top shelf. Could you help me get it?”
“Sure. Yeah, no problem.”
Tony turned and went to the compact shelving. He spun the handle to open the discards aisle enough for him to slip inside. “Which is it?”
Aspen reached the shelves and ran her hand along the long metal handles. “All the way back, on the left. On the top shelf. It’s the one with the blue cover.”
She leaned to peek down the dim aisle. The shelves were tall. Tony was stretching his right arm up, finger running along the base of the books.
Aspen kicked off her shoes and slapped her hand against the safety peg.
Tony turned and grinned. “Funny.”
She winked at him. He shook his head and went back to reaching up to the top shelf. She grabbed the handle on the shelving. She spun it to close the shelving. Tony yelped, still almost laughing, then there was a woof of expelled air as it got hard to turn the handles. With her feet planted, she used every bit of leverage she could squeeze from the handles. Every quarter inch she gained was hard.
Something snapped, like a stick breaking.
A gassy, farting smell leaked out of the aisle.
At one point there was a thrashing sound like a trapped animal trying to escape. Then a thudding, flapping sound as books fell.
A final wheezing, gulping noise.
Aspen held on until her arms shook. When she finally let go blood rushed into her hands and she had tingles like they’d gone to sleep.
According to the clock, it was already past time to close the library.
On Monday afternoon, when Aspen came into the library, Ms. Rachel was in the work room. She looked pale and washed out. Her fat hands wrung together.
“Oh dear, I have the most terrible news!”
Aspen clutched her small green purse in her hands. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s horrible. The police called. It seems that they found Tony’s Mustang at the bottom of the cliff off quarry road. It was all burnt up.”
“Tony wasn’t in it, was he?” Aspen asked in a breathless voice.
Ms. Rachel nodded. Tears welled up in her eyes. “He was such a beautiful boy. I know you two kids hit it off right away. I’m so sorry. They say he must have been drinking and smoking up there and lost control of the car.”
Aspen hung her head.
“If you need to take the day off, I completely understand. I’ve called admin. They’re going to send over help. Sara was so broken up, she had to go home.”
Aspen sniffled, then shook her head. “No. Thank you. Tony loved the library. I’d rather remember him by keeping it the way it should be kept.”
“Oh, you’re a sweet girl,” Ms. Rachel said. “I feel so lucky to have you here. I expect you’ll be running this place eventually.”
Aspen shook her head slowly. “Oh no, you’ll be around for a long time. Won’t you?”
This story is the 73rd weekly short story release, written in June 2013. Eventually, I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime, I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point, I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m a bit behind on posting stories but check back next Monday for another story. Hopefully I’ll have it up. Next up is my story Forgotten Opportunity.