Witiko Falls: Disillusion

Chapter 2

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Hazel: One perk to the early wake-up call is that Hazel’s bicycle sits by itself among the gray steel racks as she snaps a lock around the frame. She’d initially brought it along because she thought her dad wouldn’t be able to pick her up, but even then it’s convenient to have the added option of independent mobility. As the horseshoe-shaped lock clicks shut, Hazel’s mind wanders back to four or five years ago as a college freshmen in Spokane when she returned to another rack and found an earlier, unlocked bike of hers missing. It simply hadn’t occurred to her that somebody might take it. It was awkward explaining that to Dad over the phone. Yes, she knew people locked their bikes to stop them from being stolen, she wasn’t an idiot. It’d just slipped her mind, she protested. First day in college, she’d had a lot going on. Harvey had wryly remarked that on the subject of minds, with one like that he could at least tell she wasn’t going to become a career criminal. She couldn’t help but note the ‘career’ rider.’ Her persistent shoplifting had long been a headache of his.

Pulling her mind back to the present, Hazel makes her way inside the high school to report to the head office as per her instructions—but still finds that she cannot wholly escape her past. It was only five years ago she was a senior here. Walking down the school’s wide, empty halls with a backpack’s weight around her shoulders, it’s hard not to feel like a student again. She makes a mental note to find some other means of carrying all her stuff. Her 1997 Micron laptop (a birthday present from Mom). Her papers, for various job-related odds and ends she couldn’t keep on the computer. Her purse. Her meds. Her sack lunch. An umbrella, in case it rains. Her coat. Her bicycle helmet. The simple fact is, she reluctantly has to admit, there aren’t many better means of carrying all that crap than slung over her back. Maybe someday she can at least digitalize all the papers, like she intends to for her lesson plans. That reminder of how she’ll be expected to do actual teaching (and tutoring) makes her groan. She remembers listening to her predecessor Mrs. Griswold explaining how the Dewey Decimal System worked and showing off what scholastic resources the library had to offer. Those weren’t a lot, looking back on things now. The rural school’s library had only a handful of computers back in the early ’90s. She remembers impatiently waiting for other students to “finish their turns” until her mom got her that first laptop.

Hazel frowns. She’s been told the library has more computers now, but she hasn’t been able to see them. Or any of the library. Already back in Witiko Falls for a month, and nope, her employers didn’t want her in the library until her first day. It’s a good thing she’d spent so many lunches there instead of socializing with her peers in the cafeteria, as the place probably isn’t too different. Probably. That’s the thing. Maybe the library has changed. She certainly didn’t spend any time learning the ins and outs of how the library organized its contents, beyond what shelves held her favorite books. Needless to say, that rather impedes her ability to perform her job. She’d chewed out Mrs. Sperle, the secretary who’d debriefed her over the phone, several times. “I need to be familiar with the library’s physical layout. Organizing books is a librarian’s most iconic job. You really can’t expect my performance to be as efficient if I can’t even see how the books are shelved.” Hazel had narrowly resisted adding, Are you wanting to throw a surprise party for me there or something? I hate parties, like I hate your obstructionism.

But Hazel has never been very good at changing people’s minds, and when it came down to ‘you can refuse the job if you don’t like the conditions’, she wasn’t about to. School librarian pays more than online adjunct instructor, the job security looks a good deal more stable, and as her mom told her when she was venting over the phone, it will look better on a resume. Hazel also lucked out (again) not to need a master’s degree, or even a teaching certificate, like being a librarian in a larger town would assuredly entail. She’s lucky to have this job with just an English BA. “Well, actually not lucky,” she’d replied to her mom. “More like fortunate to have an uncle as the vice principal and a dad who’s the undersheriff. So it’s probably family connections as much as smaller towns having lower standards.” She’d immediately regretted saying that. Mom never wanted her to settle for having low standards, much less being a low standard.

But fortunate circumstances or not, the stubborn and inquisitive new librarian is all-too frustrated by the prohibition against familiarizing herself with her own library’s organizational system before her first work day. It’s an error that is being knowingly allowed. There are few things Hazel finds more infuriating. The school administration should have fixed this, they didn’t, and they wouldn’t even say why.

No, Hazel ponders. Backpack slung over her shoulders and ride from her dad or not, she really doesn’t feel like a student. A student would just show up in jeans and not bother to ask Dad how she looked. A student wouldn’t wake up so goddamn early. A student wouldn’t give a crap about the administration’s austerity towards their own faculty and would simply walk into the library to start checking out books, blissfully unaware of how Ms. Bauman (that sounds less weird when she’s so annoyed) was seemingly being deliberately inconvenienced for reasons she wasn’t even informed of.

Welcome to the real world, Hazel, where you must deal with idiots in a professional capacity, the new librarian mentally sighs as the front office’s doors come into view.

GM: As Hazel steps through the main office’s doors, her sense of deja vu only intensifies. The décor is just as she remembers from her four-year stint as a Kelpie. The same nose-burning scent of fresh wood polish and overly strong feminine perfume strikes her as she scans the office’s counter, its array of phones, stacked papers, office paraphernalia, and the toad-bodied elderly woman who squats behind it. Agnes Sperle. Head administrative secretary of Witiko Falls High School. The blue-eyed woman wears a paisley blouse that barely contains her ample bosom, which is vainly buttressed up by a high-riding belt and skirt. The entire ensemble eerily resembles the same outfit she wore during Hazel’s last day of school.

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Hazel: Hazel walks up to the front desk. With her backpack it’s mainly her attire that physically distinguishes her from a student. “Hi, Agnes?” It still feels a little weird addressing the high school’s other adults by their first names, but that… seems appropriate? Hazel’s taking a shot in the dark. She doesn’t know what the proscribed etiquette is for this situation. Or even what she’s supposed to say to say to Agnes, Mrs. Sperle, or whatever she’s supposed to call the head secretary, now that she’s here. The feeling isn’t a new one. “Here I am. In the flesh.”

GM: Agnes’ thin lips purse as she glares up from her reading glasses—or at least her one, non-lazy eye does as it notes Hazel’s arrival. “I understand, to think that—I have to go. Yes, right now. She’s here,” she says into her green phone. “Yes, we’ll talk later, and of course I’ll keep you updated,” she adds, then hangs up the plastic handset into its receiver, right next to the two other similarly shaped phones only distinguishable by their white and black plastic hues. Agnes’ one focused eye continues to give Hazel a withering glare while the other randomly dances dizzying spirals. Without breaking eye contact, Agnes presses a button. After a tell-tale buzz, the voice that has long since become synonymous with the school’s intercom speaks, “Ms. Bauman is here.”

Hazel: Was calling her ‘Agnes’ the wrong term of address after all? Hazel stiffens a bit in response to the woman’s glare, but waits to see what unfolds next.

GM: Behind them, where the main office snakes off into a nest of filing cabinets and private administrative offices, a door opens. Out of it appears a dark-haired young woman about the same age as Hazel. Her short dark hair and collared, flower-printed dress seem somehow ruffled or askew like she just awoke from sleeping in a dyer. Her anisocoria, like all old-generation natives to the town, is severe. Her asymmetrical gaze is both piercing and vacuous. Her mouth likewise seems to slant or droop to her right, as if she has suffered a stroke or suffered at the hands of a drunken plastic surgeon.

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The defect, however slight if still grossly noticeable, disappears as the young woman smiles widely. Her mouth opens as if about to utter a greeting, when she pauses, then awkwardly looks down at a long clipboard in her hands, one carpeted in dozens and dozens of sticky notes of various hues and sizes like a regurgitated rainbow. Looking down at one of them, she reads, “Ms. Bauman, it is so nice to meet you today. Welcome back to Witiko Falls High School! Slight pause. Remember don’t read the pau—oh, um. If you will follow me, I will escort you to Vice Principal Schoening.” She looks back up at Hazel and smiles pleasantly. Agnes grimaces.

Hazel’s expression is altogether different as an initial glimmer of recognition turns to horror. The woman standing before her is Layne Tuttle. Older, yes, since last she saw her as a fellow high school student. But alive. Which is a problem since Hazel’s junior year and life was altogether scarred by the last day she saw Layne Tuttle. The day Layne stuck her father’s revolver to her temple and blew her brains out in the basement bathroom just as Hazel walked in—walked in to hear Layne’s last whispered words, the deafening shot of the pistol, and the wet, sickening splatter of brain against the wall and the thud of her demolished skull smacking the tile floor.

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t gape at the sight in front of her. She just stares. Deer in headlights. Layne Tuttle. She… she saw the girl kill herself. She heard the explosive shot of the gun going off in close quarters. She saw the blood-drenched brain matter slide down the bathroom walls like runny turds down a toilet rim. She smelled the gory stench that was so ungodly as to make her vomit even while the panic attack simultaneously crashed into her like a sack of bricks. The next poor girl who’d needed to use the bathroom and found Hazel lying passed out on the floor had thought she was dead too, in some awful suicide pact. She remembers going to the school-provided therapist, Priscilla Gotlieb-Fromm, to talk about the suicide. She’d been reluctant to at first, never having been one to share her feelings with strangers. She’d started by saying how irrational the other students were being over Layne’s death. She’d never been popular, but she’d endured endless inquiries from peers… who were convinced they’d also seen this walking dead girl.

“L-Layne Tuttle?” Hazel chokes out.

GM: Agnes’ face softens for a moment only to harden like a sudden Idahoan deep freeze. “He didn’t tell you. Typical,” she mutters.

Meanwhile, the young woman who is either Layne’s twin or her resurrected form frowns, looks down at another sticky note and reads, “Yes, I’m Layne Tuttle. I’m sorry to upset you. I am alive, not dead. The doctors were very good. I got better, and I am alive. Please do not be alarmed.”

Hazel: Hazel might be the one with autism, but Layne’s words could not be more woefully ineffectual. Her heart lurches up her throat in an all-too familiar sensation as her vision tunnels and her lungs constrict. It’s too much. This, on top of everything else that’s happened during this nightmare of a morning…

Oh, NOT AGAIN…!

There’s a rational explanation for this. Layne just said so. It’s… Hazel can’t even remember what it is right now, it’s gone in one ear and out the other. But this is Layne Tuttle. In the flesh. The doctors were wrong—no, she, Hazel, was wrong. It was a simple, rational mistake. All the students who thought Layne was alive were right after all. A hundred other nagging questions begin tugging at Hazel’s mind—why the hell she didn’t hear of this earlier, not least of all—but she shoves them aside. She can’t have an attack here. Not on her first day, when she’s about to meet Uncle Leo, a prospect that fills her with simultaneous relief and nervousness—it’ll be a family member and familiar face, but also anxiety because god damn it, she can’t pass out over the office floor before her ‘formality’ of a job interview.

Hazel mostly suppresses the shudder as her heart lurches back down into her chest. She looks over Layne for a moment, and in total absence of anything else to remark, says the first polite-seeming words that pop into her head.

“I’m glad you’re not dead.”

GM: “That’s a nice thing to say,” Layne says with a smile. She then stands there for a while. Agnes interrupts her with a tap on her clipboard. “Oh, yes,” the young woman says, then begins reading again. “Ms. Bauman, it is so nice to meet you today. Welcome back to Witiko Fa-”

“Agh, you already read that,” Agnes interrupts. “Just skip to the last part.”

Layne frowns, but complies. “If you will follow me, I will escort you to Vice Principal Schoening.”

Hazel: “Yes. Please escort me.” Hazel follows after the not actually dead girl, still in a bit of a daze.

“And when Jesus thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth.’ And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave-clothes; and his face was bound about with a napkin,” the new librarian abruptly quotes. It somehow seems fitting, even if the recitation is more than a bit non-sequitur.

GM: Agnes stares at Hazel like she just sprouted another head. Layne frowns deeply and starts flipping through her various stickies, unsure how to respond. Agnes eventually helps the younger secretary with her authoritarian intercom voice. “Take her to Vice Principal Schoening.”

As Layne leads Hazel out of the office and down the main hallway, Hazel spots Agnes picking up the green phone, her one good eye following them. Or her. Just her.

Hazel: Hazel takes some measure of comfort in the Biblical recitation, connecting the bizarre circumstances of Layne’s not-death to… something else, however tangentially. The reference, or at least the context prompting it, seems to be lost on the others, but… whatever. This isn’t the first time Hazel hasn’t made sense to the people around her. Nor is it likely to be the last. Agnes’ watchful eye is a blip on the radar at this point as she follows her not-deceased classmate to her uncle’s office.

GM: The two former classmates walk past signs announcing the upcoming homecoming game against the Sandpoint Bulldogs. “Drown ’em deep!” is a recurrent phrase, but the fight song’s latter line of “Death’s not defeat for the Bone and Green” takes on a new, haunting meaning as Layne strides next to Hazel. Oblivious to the discomfort her ‘condition’ may cause, Layne looks at her clipboard, then compliments Hazel on her wardrobe. “I like your leggings. They look really comfortable.”

Hazel: “Thanks. I found them online. I’m never going to wear tights again.”

GM: “Online?” Layne asks curiously.

Hazel: “Amazon.com,” Hazel elaborates, taking some measure of comfort in being able to explain something within her realm of experience. “It’s a website that sells basically everything. You can buy clothes without ever leaving your house.”

GM: “That sounds great,” Layne says smiling. She takes out a pen and writes on a blank note, spelling aloud “Amazon dot com.”

Hazel: “Ah, that’s where a period goes. Not a literal dot,” Hazel helpfully corrects.

GM: “Oh, okay, thanks!” she replies, scratching out the note, then rewriting it below. “Amazon period com.”

Hazel: “No, I meant… actually, just let me.” Hazel pulls out a pen from her backpack (she’d feel awkward asking if she could borrow Layne’s) and writes down the website’s proper name on the sticky note. She briefly wonders if the addled secretary has it in her to actually access and order something off the site, but that’s out of her hands.

GM: Layne becomes agitated when Hazel touches her clipboard, and starts to stammer something with a tic, but she settles once Hazel quickly returns her notes—including the one she kindly corrected. She runs a hand gently down the side of her clipboard and exhales. “Oh, that’s what you meant. Ok. Thanks.” Her smile is weak, but seemingly sincere.

Hazel: “You’re welcome. You can buy a lot of clothes off there. I never go shopping if I can help it now.” Shoplifting is another matter.

GM: “How do you know if it fits?”

Hazel: “You can choose what size to order,” Hazel patiently explains. “And you can send it back if it doesn’t fit or if there’s anything else wrong with it.”

GM: “Wow, that sounds really nice. I’m going to bribe an AV geek into showing me how it works. I’m sure I could ask Vice Principal Schoening, but I don’t want to bother him. He’s really dreamy.”

Hazel: Hazel isn’t really too sure what to say in response to her uncle being ‘dreamy.’ She’s known him as the haunted Holocaust survivor, the intellectual whose mind she respects, and the substitute science teacher who assigned a groan-worthy amount of homework, but not ‘dreamy.’ “Oh, you can do it yourself. It’s very easy. You just open a browser and put in the address.”

GM: Layne holds the clipboard up to her chest. “Yeah, I’m sure it is,” she says somewhat lamely. Then, after another awkward silence, which between the pair of them is as easy as breathing, Layne reads from another note. “Are you excited to work at the school? I only started this year. I’m still learning things.” She then turns and says without any need of notes, “It’s kinda weird, you know, being an adult and not a student.”

Hazel: “Yes. There is something of a sense of deja vu,” Hazel grants. Boy, is there ever. She then backtracks and adds, “It’s also a needless expenditure of your money if you want to bribe someone. I can show you how to order something during break if you like. Just stop by the library.” Hazel might be taking Layne’s words a bit literally, but she doesn’t miss an opportunity to spread the gospel of technology. And she hates hearing of money wasted.

GM: Layne beams. “Really, oh, wow, that’s great!” She scribbles another note, this time on a lime-green sticky. “Lunch time. Go to library. Ask Hazel to teach you about shopping at-” she looks down at the earlier note, “-Amazon.com.”

Hazel: Hazel briefly ponders as to the effectiveness of any lesson she could impart to this particular audience. Still, she thinks for a moment, that sounded… normal, the way she extended that invitation. She dismisses the thought of being friends with someone like Layne—she has a child’s mind—but an apostle converted is an apostle converted.

GM: Clearly no proverbial mind-reader like Gramps Bauman, Layne cheerfully tucks the clipboard under one arm, then grabs Hazel’s hand like close classmates would. “I’m so glad you’re here, Hazel. It’s so nice to have another student, or well, someone who was a student when I was. Someone I knew as a friend or, you know, before everything happened—or didn’t. It’s so much easier.”

Hazel: Hazel instantly stiffens at the unexpected physical contact, but clamps down on her instinctive impulse to pull away. She’s just simple. She’s trying to be friendly. Like you were. Think of her as an excitable dog that just doesn’t know any better. A mental pause. No, that’s cruel, comparing her to an animal. Some degree of anger briefly flares towards Layne for making her feel this way, but it subsides after a moment, along with most of the shock at seeing her former classmate still alive. Layne was… well, she wasn’t a genius, but she was bright enough. And a lot more together than this absent-minded woman-child Hazel is presently addressing. A new emotion wells in her heart at that memory: pity. And curiosity. Something clearly happened to Layne, with that suicide…

Hazel’s arm eventually relaxes, though she still has to suppress a pained grimace at the continued touching. “Yeah, it’s… nice to be around familiar places and people, isn’t it?” she asks, trying to make conversation, then pauses. “Ah, you’re not sure if anything happened?”

GM: Layne looks forward. Not quite down the hallway as much as through it. “I don’t remember. There are large… gaps. Before and after. Blank spaces like a diary that has pages ripped out. You know they’re missing, but not what was there. But I remember that being pretty common for people in comas with traumatic brain injuries. Anterograde and retrograde amnesia, I think, is what Mr. Atwood’s lecture called it. You remember, from our biology class as sophomores? I remember you sat right next to Harry Neuman. He kept trying to peek inside your shirt that day, as you forgot two buttons.” She manages a smile that somehow seems more like a frown. “Funny how I remember some things so well while others…”

Hazel: “What?” Hazel hmphs upon hearing what Harry (“Dirty Harry” now seems an apt nickname) was actually trying to do. She just thought he was… well, doing something other than that. The memory still irks. But her annoyance fades as Layne goes on, swiftly turning into surprise, curiosity, and if it’s even possible, just a touch more pity. The girl sounds a good deal more together than she did earlier.

“Maybe you should talk some more about the things you do remember, Layne,” Hazel suggests. “You sound very… articulate about them. You clearly do remember a great deal, or at least a great deal about certain portions.”

Also, she thinks with another suppressed grimace, please let go of my hand soon.

GM: Layne turns, her hand seemingly reflexively drawing away as she grips her clipboard in both hands. “Well, sure, besides the gaps, I remember what’s there, at least before what happened. Or didn’t. I mean, it isn’t like I remember what my dad wore on my third birthday party, but I remember getting a rocking horse. It had a pink bow. I named it Strawberry. But I couldn’t pronounce it very well, so it came out like Stawbear.”

Hazel: “Strawbear. That’s funny.” Hazel’s slight smile at the story is birthed in no small part by her relief as the physical contact ends. She pauses for a moment, uncertain how to follow up on that conversational thread, and then continues, “Ah… do you mind if I ask what may be a personal question?” That’s what Mom says is polite to do. Ask first before you inquire about something upsetting. The other person can just say no, right?

GM: “Stawbear. No ‘r’,” Layne mildly corrects. “My dad thought it was funny too. I never really got why.” At the mention of personal questions, she nods, “Yes, I mean, no, I don’t mind. I think a lot of people often have questions. I can’t remember if they do, but I bet they do.”

Hazel: “Stawbear,” Hazel repeats in acknowledgement of the correction. “Well, um… why did you attempt to kill yourself?” Abruptly aware that sounds rather blunt, not to mention insensitive, she then adds, “I simply find it’s best to start at the root cause of things. I remember you… whispering something, when I came in. I’m not sure what.”

GM: Layne looks down at her notes. Hazel is not sure if she is searching for an answer there or if she has just asked one of those ‘inappropriate questions’ her mom berates her for asking. Either way, the secretary’s answer isn’t very helpful. “I don’t remember. Everything close to what happened—or didn’t, well, that’s where the biggest gaps are. I don’t know why I would ever do something like that—but everyone tells me I did. But I don’t know. I don’t know why anyone would ever do something like that.” Her eyes start to well up. “I don’t want to die. I’m terrified of dying.”

Hazel: “You’re—you’re not going to die, Layne,” Hazel assures her. Touching Layne seems appropriate here. Hazel isn’t sure if hugging would also be appropriate, but she has a hard enough time hugging her own parents. She doesn’t particularly want to touch her old classmate (again) either, but Layne really looks as if she could use the physical reassurance. So Hazel tentatively lays a hand on her shoulder and catches her gaze, just like Dad did with her own panic attack this morning. A panic attack. Yes. Hazel’s seen her parents treat those innumerable times. This is a procedure she can follow.

“You’re going to live a long, full, and happy life. You’re safe. The sun is shining.” She repeats her dad’s earlier words, removing the obviously inapplicable bits like “Daddy’s here.” It’s not the perfect thing to say, but Hazel tries to will some of her dad’s… well, everything that made (and makes) his presence so comforting into the poor girl.

GM: Layne dabs away a tear with a shuddering breath and squeezes Hazel’s hand. “You’re so kind. Just like your uncle. I believe you that I’m not going to die. I want to live. I am alive, not dead.” The last part seems almost like a mantra used to convince a doubting universe.

Hazel: Hazel frowns a little inside, wondering if she’s losing the more lucid Layne who started to reemerge, but nods in agreement. “You are, Layne. You’re alive. You’re going to see me at lunch, remember, so I can show you how to buy clothes online?”

GM: Layne starts to say something but stops at the mention of their lunch-date. “I am?” She looks down at her notes, then nods, “Yes, yes, I am.” And then with a great deal of worry suddenly creeping into her face, not fear like before but confusion, she asks, “Hazel, what are we doing here?”

Hazel: “Ah, here in the high school?” Hazel tries to clarify. She relievedly removes her hand.

GM: “Yes. Are we going to class?”

Hazel: Lost her. “We’re going to my uncle’s office, Layne,” Hazel explains. “We both work here now, as employees. We’re not students anymore.”

GM: “Oh, that’s right. That explains why you look so much older. You’re a lot nicer than I remember. Um, sorry, that came out rudely.”

Hazel: “Oh. Well, thank you?” Hazel actually isn’t altogether sure what to make of that notion. “No, it’s… it’s good to hear, Layne. Why wasn’t I nice before? I won’t be offended, I’m simply curious.”

GM: “I, well, maybe I don’t remember things correctly. Sometimes I question what I remember. Most things, actually. But… I remember you, well, you didn’t like to talk to people or have them talk to you. Or you only liked to talk about… demons and ghosts and stuff.”

Hazel: “Yes, that’s… true,” Hazel grants. “I still do like to talk about demons and ghosts. But I won’t if you don’t want to.”

GM: Layne seems to bite her lip in consideration. “Um, maybe another time? I don’t want to get distracted since I’m supposed to, um-” she peeks down at her clipboard, “-take you to see your uncle. He’s really sweet. I hope we haven’t kept him waiting too long.”

Hazel: “I’m sure he’ll understand.” ‘Sweet’ actually isn’t the first adjective Hazel would use to describe Uncle Leo, but upon reflection, she can maybe see ‘kind.’ “But, yes. We should go see him.” Hazel lets Layne lead on, though keeps an eye out to be sure they’re actually headed for the right office.

GM: Hazel likely has her doubts since Layne has been leading them away from the main office and down into the basement. Granted, the library is on the subfloor, so maybe her guide isn’t completely lost.

Hazel: The basement where she killed herself—or, well, tried to. Likely not a coincidence, with those memories being dredged up. Hazel can’t say she’s eager to see that bathroom again. “Oh, look at us. We should be heading back thataways.”

GM: “We should?” Layne confusedly looks at her clipboard. “But my note says to take you to room 013.”

Hazel: “Oh, sorry. Sometimes I get confused too. Lead on.”

GM: Layne sighs, markedly relieved at both someone else experiencing memory problems and at the absolution of her note. Their path, however, takes them right past the notorious bathroom. If Layne feels any recollection or distress at the proximity, she doesn’t show it.

Hazel: Well, good for her. Probably for the best she doesn’t remember much of what happened. Or at least, best for her. Hazel hopes she can get more out of Layne without… upsetting her further. She dismissed her old classmate as a simple imbecile at first, but now… Hazel really does feel sorry for her. That pity is enough to even quell the instinctive panic that rises in her chest as they pass the door to that awful room.

GM: And just like the rising, but not exploding, anxiety, the bathroom door quickly passes. A minute later, they arrive at room 013. Checking her notes, Layne leads them inside and tells Hazel to take a seat. “I’ll be back in a jiffy,” she adds with another squeeze of Hazel’s hand. “I have to, uh–,” she scans her clipboard, “–make some tea.”

Hazel: “That sounds good, Layne.” Hazel still has to suppress a wince at the renewed physical contact, but she doesn’t pull away. She even manages a slightly limp squeeze back.

GM: Room 013 is an auditorium-style classroom built back in the early ‘60s when the school’s basement served as the town’s primary nuclear fallout shelter.

Hazel: Bit of an… odd room, to send me to. But it looks like I’m not late? Hazel wonders for a moment what the intended purpose is. Is Uncle Leo going to give her a physics lesson and have her take notes, as some kind of test of moral character? He never thought she applied herself very hard to subjects she didn’t like, and even Hazel has to admit that he was (and still is) right. She mentally groans at the prospect all the same.

GM: The answer to Hazel’s initial question is not immediately clear. What is clear, is that her uncle is teaching, and that class is certainly in session. What class and for whom remain mysteries initially. Besides Hazel, the auditorium’s audience numbers three. All are adults, male, and much older than her. Their dress and attractiveness range from that of a handsome corporate executive to the shabby, dingy attire of a drunk who’s slept in the woods. Upon noticing Hazel’s arrival, all three men shift with obvious discomfort. One man’s face and neck blush a crimson red. Another pulls down a baseball cap over his face. The last hunches his shoulders up like shutters drawn tight to hide out the sun. None match her gaze, and one by one, all three attempt to redirect their attention back to the auditorium’s lecturer.

The lecturer is a man whose stature is not measured in height, but in the weight of his words. He has the lean physique of one who is well-acquainted with the alembic of deprivation, but has emerged distilled rather than diminished. His face is marked by wrinkles that signify the attainment of wisdom that is yet untouched by senescence. He is bald, with shorn jaw and scalp, but the effect is one of intentional sublimation rather than involuntary loss. But he is not what most women would deem handsome. Mesmeric, but not handsome. He is simply too intense. It’s in the way he walks, his posture, his gestures. But most of all, it’s his eyes. They are as gray as iron-cold oceans, but as sharp as fire-hardened steel. They are no living mirrors that reflect you as you simply are, but are crucibles were you might lose yourself only to emerge as something else. And as Hazel enters the room, his metamorphic gaze finds hers. Perhaps fortunately for the would-be librarian, the weight of those grey eyes does not linger long, but returns to the ‘class’ as well as a video recorder situated atop a tripod in the middle of the room. Vice Principal Leopold Schoening continues his lecture with a cadence that possesses the liminality betwixt cold rationality and fervid mania.

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“The observer may feel passionately about a discovery, but he should endeavor to bridle his passions lest he interfere in the process of discovery. Should the observer prematurely progress to the stage of enacting change rather than studiously observing it, he is unlikely to truly appreciate the effects of the changes he sets in motion himself.”

“But herein lies the great paradox, otherwise known as observer effect and often confused with Heisenberg’s related but distinct uncertainty principle, wherein by observing and measuring something, one also changes it. In particle physics, this paradoxical principle manifests in the detection of an electron, which first requires a photon to interact with it, but this very interaction inevitably changes the path of that electron. In electronics, ammeters and voltmeters are usually wired in series or parallel to the circuit, and so by their very presence affect the current or the voltage they are measuring by way of presenting an additional real or complex load to the circuit, thus changing the transfer function and behavior of the circuit itself. Even a more passive device such as a current clamp, which measures the wire current without coming into physical contact with the wire, affects the current through the circuit being measured because the inductance is mutual.”

“Furthermore, in thermodynamics, a standard mercury–in–glass thermometer must absorb or give up some thermal energy to record a temperature, and therefore changes the temperature of the body that itself is measuring. And of course, we cannot forget the theoretical foundation of the concept of measurement in quantum mechanics, or the wave function collapse, wherein measurement causes a discontinuous change into an eigenstate of the operator associated with the quantity that was measured. What then does this suggest in regards to the quantum Zeno effect, or Turing paradox, wherein an unstable particle, if observed continuously, will never decay? Can it not be thus posited that the observer-effect is both an agent of change and stasis? And if so, what is the common quintessence of these polar sequelae?”

“Now quoting Heisenberg himself: ‘Of course the introduction of the observer must not be misunderstood to imply that some kind of subjective features are to be brought into the description of nature. The observer has, rather, only the function of registering decisions, id est, processes in space and time, and it does not matter whether the observer is an apparatus or a human being; but the registration, id est, the transition from the possible to the actual, is absolutely necessary here and cannot be omitted from the interpretation of quantum theory.’ End quote. But this assertion came from the very man who misunderstood his own uncertainty principle for that of the observer effect! Ergo, could it be that it is the mind of a conscious observer that affects the observer effect in quantum processes? Or perhaps the observer-effect in quantum mechanics is the province of the subconscious rather than conscious mind–and that our evidence for the former is only stymied by the imprecision of our measurement armamentarium?”

“But setting aside such metaphysical inquiries for our next discourse, ponder the following paradox and its respective corollary. Observation precedes interaction, but observation is interaction. Moreover, observation affects both the observed and the observer. Now, applying adaequatio intellectus et rei, or the dialectic convergence of mind and reality, we may apperceive that the epistemological snake simultaneously devours and begets its own ontological tail. Truth is Ouroboros.”

Truth is Ouroboros.”

Hazel: Hazel isn’t sure what to make of the three older men who can’t match her gaze. She’s normally the one who feels uncomfortable around strangers. Her uncle’s lecture, fortunately, provides ample distraction as she slides off her backpack and silently takes a seat at one of the desks. She always enjoyed listening to Leo’s didactics during his classes… even if she didn’t enjoy the amount of homework he assigned afterwards.

GM: His ‘lecture’ complete, Leopold stares into the video-camera with a naked defiance that makes the other men look away, as if ashamed—or afraid.

Layne Tuttle saves them. She reenters the auditorium, juggling her clipboard and a pair of tea mugs. She sets down the latter, then stops the recorder.

The action breaks Uncle Leo’s spell-stare. He smiles at Layne and thanks her for the offered tea mug. “Danke sehr, Fräulein Tuttle.”

Layne in turn blushes with the sweetness of Idahoan sugar beets.

Hazel: Hazel finds herself confronted with yet another instance of human behavior she doesn’t understand. He just said ‘thank you.’

GM: Layne turns and reads another note to the three men. “Class is dismissed. We will contact you and your probation officers when the next seminar is being held.”

The three men slide from their seats and awkwardly try to amble out of the auditorium with as little eye contact with Hazel as possible. She does not recognize any of the three men—but even she cannot miss the look that each of the trio wears like a pillory: shame.

Hazel: Probation officers? Hazel tenses somewhat. She doesn’t associate with those kinds of people. But they seem… well, meek enough.

“I’m not certain I agree with your presupposition that observation is interaction, Uncle Leo. The concepts can coexist—or remain distinct—to relative degrees. But it’s nice to see you,” she remarks once the men have left.

GM: Her uncle, technically second cousin twice removed, turns to regard Hazel with his piercing eyes. “Vice Principal Schoening, Ms. Bauman,” he says with a tone that is more instructive rather than corrective. “Titles and names may be shed and begotten like snakeskin, but they are not lacking in power or significance. It is therefore salient to employ the proper title with the proper occasion as well as audience.”

His tone and gaze only intensify, however, as he continues. “So you contend that observation and interaction are orthogonal?” He takes a sip of the tea and frowns—though whether at Layne’s brew or Hazel’s comment is unclear. “I do not advocate adversus solem ne loquitur, but nor do I spurn it.”

Hazel: “As you wish. Vice Principal Schoening while we’re at work.” Others might find Leo’s choice of address a little cold, but Hazel doesn’t mind. Clearly defined boundaries and protocols are rarely disagreeable to her. As long as she doesn’t find them disagreeable in of themselves.

Hazel does, however, groan inwardly at the thought of committing to a physics debate with her uncle. It’s been an upsetting morning, she’s been seemingly deliberately inconvenienced by not being able to visit the library before her first day, and she isn’t meeting Leo in his office where she expected either—something that discomfits Hazel a good deal more than it might aggravate someone else. But she knows her uncle isn’t going to let her off the hook, and lazy is the last thing she should want to appear on her first day. So the new librarian buries her reluctance and answers, “I do not contend such. Physics isn’t my area of expertise, so I won’t speak as to it. I can even agree that your presupposition holds true in computer science, where observing a process output while the process is running has the potential to cause I/O errors.”

GM: Uncle Leo leans in hungrily, as if by sheer physical proximity he might better pluck Hazel’s understanding of computer science from her mind. “Faszinierend.”

Layne passes the second tea cup to Hazel and smiles fondly. She then coughs and reads a note. “English, Vice Principal.”

Hazel: Hazel manages a distracted nod as she sets the cup down. “Yes. Another example of that would be observing a CPU’s performance by simultaneously running the observed and observing programs on that same CPU, which will in turn lead to inaccurate results because the observer program itself affects the CPU performance.”

“But I would argue otherwise for more social sciences, or simply ‘real life’, where interactions cannot be quantified to a numeric level, that the degree of interaction between observer and observed can be so minor as to have inconsequential effect upon the behavior of either.”

GM: Leo appears transfixed with Hazel’s knowledge of how the observer effect manifests in computer science. He seems about to pursue the subject, but Layne’s ‘reminder’ and Hazel’s turn of topic causes him to shelve his inquiry. For now. Instead, he rises and tells Layne, “Ms. Tuttle, please see that the tape is shipped to the Piedmont address.” He waits to make sure she writes down the note—which she promptly does. Afterwards, he bids Hazel follow him. “It is time to proceed to the library, Ms. Bauman, but like the two disciples journeying to Emmaus, let us continue to speak of such matters along the way.”

Layne sneaks a glance at Hazel and mouths cheerily, ‘Good luck’.

Hazel: “Certainly.” Hazel gets up from her seat and hefts her backpack. Just to be polite, she takes a sip of the tea that was placed before her. She isn’t immediately sure how to respond to Layne’s well wishes, her mind having been distracted by her talk with Leo, so she settles on a brief smile and nod of acknowledgement. That seems like the right thing to do.

“It’s nice to see someone on whom Biblical references to resurrection aren’t lost,” she mutters, more to herself than her uncle. It was a fitting verse to quote around Layne. Granted, the delivery was off. Story of her life.

GM: Leo nonetheless smiles. Taking a sip from the cup, Hazel is now utterly certain it wasn’t Layne’s tea that made Leo frown. It’s without doubt the best tea she’s ever had in her life.

Hazel: “Oh, my. That’s… very good tea,” Hazel remarks as her eyebrows raise. Good enough, in fact, that she takes the cup with her.

GM: Leo nods, sipping himself, but then seems to ignore his cup as he resumes their conversation along the way to the library. “Ms. Bauman, in reference to the topic’s application to the social sciences, let me ask you this. What did you observe about the audience today?”

Hazel: “I’d say they seemed… ashamed of themselves. Though human behavior is even less my specialty than physics.”

GM: “We all must start as slaves to the subject of which we seek to become the master.” The phrase seems familiar to Hazel, but she can’t place its authorship. Perhaps it is simply one her uncle has said before. A lot.

“But shame, you say? By what methodology did you come to this conclusion?”

Hazel: “Empirical observation. The fact they avoided eye contact with me, when I could well be mistaken for a simple student. Their body language as they removed themselves from their seats.”

GM: “And what do you presume, through that same epistemological methodology, was the effect of your observation?”

Hazel: “The Hawthorne effect came into play there just as much as the observer effect, Vice Principal. It’s well-established that subjects change their behavior when aware they are under observation.”

GM: “Oh, and how would you split the atomistic hairs? What in your mind differentiates the Hawthorne effect as a separate rather than subordinate manifestation of the larger phenomenon of the observer effect?”

Hazel: “Nothing, as I have never claimed that observation does not affect interaction—merely that there are circumstances where the degree of change effected by observation is negligible, and renders your earlier statement that ‘observation is interaction’ technically true but potentially misleading to the class you were instructing. Consider a set of circumstances where the degree of change is irrelevant on an atomic or similarly minute level. Such as, say, a neighborhood peeping tom.”

GM: “What may at first be presumed as negligible may in fruition become the very soul of its opposite.”

Hazel: “I think that’s a very generalized statement you’d be hard-pressed to defend. But continuing my example.”

GM: Leo stops at the mention of peeping toms. He smiles, then resumes walking. “Yes, please proceed.”

Hazel: “Say that the tom spies on two neighbors and goes uncaught by them. The very next day, he moves to another city for unrelated reasons, such as a job transfer. Did his spying have consequences? On a physical level, certainly. The footprints he left on the ground. Insects he might have stepped on. Other evidence that trained investigators may be able to observe, but which will go unnoticed by his neighbors and have no effect upon their behavior. As far as they are concerned, his voyeurism never occurred. Its effects are so negligible as to be meaningless upon their lives.”

“And as for the tom himself, let’s presuppose that he’s spied upon many previous neighbors and will continue to spy upon many future ones. The effect of this singular incident upon him, too, is negligible.”

GM: Leo waits patiently for Hazel to finish, then begins ticking off various counterpoints with gestures reminiscent of Layne’s notations upon her clipboard. “Your thought experiment presupposes a duration which may be arbitrary limited. Given time, the voyeur may be caught and penalized, and the news of such may be disseminated either to the original victims or to other audiences, either of whom will be altered by the actualized or threatened violation of their perceived privacy. In singulate, the effect may be what you deem negligible, but in aggregate and given a proper window of time, this change may achieve societal emergence on a grand scale. But even at the intra-psychic level of the individual, the effect of voyeurism upon the observer is far from insignificant or ephemeral.”

“Beyond the three you just met, have you spent much time observing or interacting with voyeurs?”

Hazel: Hazel shakes her head at her uncle’s counter-examples. “I don’t dispute the sociological or psychological effects of voyeurism, Vice Principal. My example pertained solely to a single unobserved and unremarkable incident within the history of a serial voyeur.”

Hazel blinks upon realizing she just inadvertently guessed the trio’s exact crime. “Ah, no. I have not. That was… a purely hypothetical example which occurred to me on the spot.”

GM: “The contention is whether such an incident is indeed unobserved and unremarkable. The degree to which you delimit the incident renders a flaw akin to Zeno’s arrow in flight, whereby one arrives at the logical, but fallacious, conclusion that movement is impossible.”

“To prevent the sins of ecological fallacy, we must expand our time sample. But I am most impressed that you identified the nature of the earlier audience. Did you arrive at that conclusion via induction, deduction, or serendipity?”

Hazel: “No, merely the degree to which it is relevant. An arrow of Zeno’s that moves at the rate of one inch per thousand years is nigh-motionless for nearly all intents and purposes when considered within the time frame of a single year.”

“And it was the last, Vice Principal.”

GM: “A brilliant accomplishment all the same, Ms. Bauman. But as for Zeno, the philosopher’s point is that the arrow does not move, cannot move, either to or from its location. But to address your example, yon arrow’s flight might be most momentous if it is less than one-thousandths of an inch from your heart during a year in which you lay in a coma.”

He then makes a waving motion as if to clear away smoke. “But I see we might easily become mired in hypothetical thought experiments and circular tautologies, when as you have declared, you are an empiricist. So I must ask, Ms. Bauman, are you willing to conduct an experiment of the positivist bent?”

Hazel: “I am an empiricist, Vice Principal. And you informed your class that observation is interaction. It is a technically true statement, but it misleads them as to the nature and relative importance of the relationship between the two concepts. It fails to account for variance in degree. Again, consider CPU usage monitoring against an arrow that is moving at one inch per thousand towards a target who is not lying in coma—but as you say, we are starting to become mired in hypotheticals.”

Hazel pauses. “And yes, I would be willing to conduct such an experiment.”

GM: “To clarify my contention, Ms. Bauman, I posit that observation and interaction are ultimately inextricable. Yes, we may draw p-values of statistical significance and other arbitrary thresholds. I do not contend that the two are statistically or functionally equivalent, but merely that observation always enacts change at some level, and the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence as much as imperfection in instrumentality. Granted, you did miss the initial portion of my seminar, but I recall you were present when I discussed the need for the observer to bridle his passions lest he inadvertently enact change rather than studiously observe it—or more accurately, the imperative to minimize the observer effect even while recognizing that one can never truly nullify it. But as for the experiment, there is laudable merit in experiential learning.”

Hazel: “Then we would seem to be in agreement. I don’t think that either of us is disputing the very real and empirically measurable relationship that can, and all-too frequently does, exist between observation and interaction. My initial point of dissent arose from the phraseology you used towards your students—which I still hold to be misleading. I’ve never particularly been one for philosophy, but I suppose that’s why I liked Wittgenstein. He held that most philosophical conundrums simply come down to language being used improperly.”

GM: “Ah, things may be indeed lost in translation, but they also may be discovered. Now as for this proposition. I would challenge you to watch the watcher. More precisely, to follow and observe Marvin Swenson. You will no doubt remember him as the younger man with the glasses and business attire. He like the others is, as you and Layne call him, a peeping tom. This was his first criminalized or at least prosecuted offense, but I am confident that he will be a recidivist, which will provide you ample opportunity to observe his own voyeurism. Your goal will be to maximize your ability to observe him while minimizing the effect of that observation upon him, yourself, and others. After a sufficient period of time passes, which we may establish a priori or post hoc, we will reconvene to see how the observation has affected, if at all, your understanding of the phenomena in question.”

Hazel: Hazel frowns deeply and even turns a little red, but the frown mostly overshadows it. “I’m not certain I could simply do nothing while he was watching someone that way, Vice Principal. It is a reprehensible thing to do. I would be willing to take his picture and report him to my dad.”

GM: “Violation of privacy is a common societal and criminal taboo, Ms. Bauman. So I do not ask this lightly. But I will remind you that it was you not I who contended that voyeurism when ‘unobserved’ has a ‘negligible’ effect upon both the presumed victims and perpetrator. Or perhaps you are merely asserting that you would wholly be unable to bridle your passions.” Despite the subject matter, Uncle Leo’s tone is utterly clinical and unabashed.

Hazel: “The experiment has already been compromised by our foreknowledge, Vice Principal. I hold that the material effect of the tom’s actions is negligible, even if I find them morally objectionable.”

GM: “As an empiricist, you cannot clam the effect to be negligible when you have not empirically measured it, Ms. Bauman, or not analyzed the empirical measurements of another. Instead, you merely presume via deduction, which is the province of the mystic or rationalist. You must either sacrifice your contention or your philosophy of science.”

Hazel: “No, Vice Principal, I think you’ve inspired me to straddle the epistemological line,” Hazel replies. “I’ll observe him, unnoticed if I can be. And after a suitable duration with which to confirm that his actions have had no empirical impact upon himself or others has elapsed, I will tender the evidence of those actions to my father.”

GM: Leo takes another sip of his tea. He does not frown this time. “And shall we establish a ‘suitable duration’ a priori or post hoc?”

Hazel: “Post hoc. The tom’s actions may have no empirical effect upon him or the woman he is eavesdropping upon, but they may have such an effect on me.”

Hazel is glad for her uncle’s detached manner and formality of language. Watching the watcher could well mean, well, that she watches what he watches too. Invading another’s privacy in that way is abhorrent to her, but she supposes it’s for a good cause if her own eavesdropping leads to the tom being caught.

She is, after all, a moral utilitarianist as well.

GM: “Very well, we shall have to discuss the instrumentality you shall use to measure each construct, but I think we can convene later for that discussion.” He then motions to the library doors to accentuate his point.

Hazel: Hazel heads towards them.

GM: He opens a door for Hazel and smiles. “But I must applaud your zeal for scientific inquiry and your commitment to your philosophy of science.”

Hazel: Although initially somewhat taken aback by the compliment, Hazel smiles back. “Thank you, Vice Principal.”

GM: “No, thank you, Ms. Bauman. Further observation is warranted, but I believe the extant evidence suggests you will make an excellent addition to our institution of learning.”

Hazel: Her smile doesn’t diminish. “Well. Then I will simply say I am pleased to hear your conclusion.”

GM: He motions to the door with his cup of tea. “Shall we?”

Hazel: She nods, her own still in hand.

GM: Together, they enter the library.

GM: True to Hazel’s memory, the Kelpies’ library is relatively vast for the comparatively small town and drastically downsized student body. Once the oneiric playground of Hazel’s youth, the maze-like imbroglio of wall to wall books and shelves now has the foreboding sense of an organizational nightmare for the nascent librarian. Still, the nigh countless books (which she will likely have to count and catalogue) are impressive. They range in subject, age, and language, from recent young adult romance novels to time-cracked tomes made of fish-leather and gold-painted vellum. The patchwork quality of the sprawling collection is highlighted by a similarly variegated lighting: bright fluorescent tubes, vintage green-glass banker lamps, dusty amber-cast globe chandeliers, and what might be a failing blacklight tucked away in an all-but hidden alcove. There is a reason why the students’ nickname for the place is the Chimera.

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Leo leads Hazel to the librarian’s desk—her desk. It, unlike much of the rest of the place, is wiped clean. A relatively new desktop sits atop the long-table, complete with a barcode scanner. A single book, ruler, and sheet of paper sit on the table.

Hazel: The workload promises to be as enormous as the library’s collection. But as Hazel’s spectacled gaze sweeps the shelves, that fact does not stop her from abruptly remarking, “This is wonderful.”

GM: “I am so pleased to hear you say such, Ms. Bauman,” her uncle replies. “We apologize that you have not been able to see it until now.”

Hazel: “Ah, yes, I’d meant to ask… what precisely was the reason I was unable to?” Hazel inquiries, frowning a bit.

GM: The vice principal sets down his cup of tea. A more casual man might lean against the desk. Uncle Leo is not a more casual man.

Hazel: “It was, if I may be frank, a seemingly deliberate impediment to my ability to perform my duties.” Though Hazel does not let her annoyance creep into her voice, it is returning to her memory as her own cup clinks against the wood.

GM: A less clinical man might sigh at this point. Uncle Leo is not a less clinical man. “I suppose it is my responsibility to explain, or at least attempt to inoculate you against the speculative rumors the students and perhaps even staff might spring upon you.”

Hazel: Hazel does not contest this assertion.

GM: “Your predecessor, the late Ophelia Griswold, was taken away by agents of ROSEWATER during the start of this academic calendar. As you can imagine, their arrival and subsequent departure caused quite a bit of commotion and consternation amongst our staff and larger residential community. There has been no sign of her since that time. After a relatively lengthy debate by the school board and a subsequent one by the township council, it was determined to declare Mrs. Griswold dead in absentia.”

“Usually, such a process requires several years to pass; however, the mayor ruled that the appearance of ROSEWATER agents constituted an “imminent peril” akin to a plane crash or an earthquake, which legally allows for the court to forgo the usual time requirement. However, until your predecessor was legally declared dead, the school board forbade us from recruiting or hiring a replacement due to rather obscure but pernicious union bylaws. Prior to today, the state of Idaho still considered Mrs. Griswold alive. Hence the delay and necessary formality of your hiring interview."

Hazel: “She was taken,” Hazel repeats. “I don’t have my mother’s background in law, but that is… the government can’t simply do that. Not legally. She hasn’t even been tried for anything?”

GM: The concentration camp survivor turns to Hazel and says with grave finality, “The strong take from the weak. The ignorant abuse the wise. Arcana imperii.”

Hazel: Hazel shakes her head. “We’re better than that. Or at least we’re supposed to be. And we have legal mechanisms that can enable us to be, even if we have to fight for it.”

GM: Leo neither agrees nor apologizes. “Entitas ipsa involvit aptitudinem ad extorquendum certum assensum. Which translated roughly, means that reality involves the power to compel sure assent.”

Hazel: “And I’m sure that reality involves due process of law. I’m talking to my mom about this,” Hazel remarks, half to herself. “If people weren’t so illogically terrified of the government agents—and had the money—they could potentially fight this up to the Supreme Court. Like anyone who believes they have been wronged theoretically can.”

GM: “Theoretically,” Leo agrees rather dispassionately. “But empirically, there are two data we might consider self-evident but highly salient at the moment. First, Mrs. Griswold is not here. Second, you are. Which brings me to my first interview question. Ms. Bauman, would you like the position of head librarian of Witiko Falls High School?”

Hazel: “Yes. I would like it. Even if someone attempted to hold the government at ROSEWATER accountable for their actions, the legal proceedings would likely take a great deal of time. It’s simply so illogical the way seemingly everyone else at this school behaves,” Hazel huffs.

GM: “It is, isn’t it?” the vice principal asks. From a more trivial man, the question might seem trite or rhetorical. Uncle Leo is not a more trivial man.

Hazel: Hazel opens her mouth, pauses, and considers her uncle for a moment.

“What happened to Layne Tuttle?”

“I saw her. Saw her body. She was dead as a figurative doornail.” Hazel considers her audience for a moment and then presses, “Not to invoke Godwin’s law. But you know this better than anyone, Vice Principal. Hitler could have been stopped if the Allies had simply held him accountable when he reoccupied the Rhineland. They could have rolled over Germany in 1936. And Hindenburg could have simply not made him chancellor three years prior. There were such simple steps people could have taken. Simple, like actually talking about it when their civil rights were getting trampled over. I don’t pretend that what happened to Mrs. Griswold is anywhere near the same magnitude of atrocity—but on some levels, it is. I’m not sure how… what the government did to Layne Tuttle was illegal, but I’d bet a lot of money something about it was.” Hazel then finishes, somewhat awkwardly, “And I don’t bet money.”

GM: Leopold transfixes Hazel with his mesmeric grey eyes. He holds her there for a long moment, impaled upon his achromatic gaze. In the distance, the blacklight finally dies, and the shadows swallow that small corner of the library. Leopold eventually speaks, “Your idiomatic speech discredits the piercing erudition of your earlier question. Doornails do not paint the walls with skull-shards and brain-matter.”

Hazel: “She was dead as someone who shot herself in the head with a revolver and splattered her brains all over the bathroom walls,” Hazel states flatly.

GM: Time skips a Zeno-arrow point. “Nearly all of the students and staff here have asked themselves the same question, ‘What happened to Layne Tuttle?’ However, their minds are too weak to handle the strain of asking it aloud, for fear of hearing the answer. But you, you have asked.”

“Are you certain you wish the answer? Knowledge is power, but power always has a price.”

Hazel: “I ask because I wish the answer,” Hazel stubbornly repeats. “I wouldn’t if I didn’t want to. Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only sane woman in a world of fools. Or at least town.”

GM: Leo does not smile as he replies, “Sanity can be both banal and burdensome. But I accept you, Hazel Attila Bauman.” He then kisses his forefinger and traces a cross on Hazel’s forehead. “Ipsa scientia potestas est. Tomorrow, after school ends, we shall discuss what happened to Layne Tuttle. Upon the Rosy Cross, I give my sacred pledge.”

Hazel: Her uncle’s touch is light, but Hazel isn’t accustomed to sharing physical contact with him (or really anyone besides her parents) and still has to will herself to remain motionless. It’s clearly a reverent motion on his part. She bites her tongue at his initial words to discuss Layne later, then releases it upon hearing his oath. Part of Hazel wants to know right now, but something tells her this isn’t the place to discuss such matters… or the time, with the rest of her work day looming ahead of her. Leo’s promised knowledge is going to aggravate her like a scab she wants to pick off, but the alternative seems likely to disrupt her day even more. Hazel nods simply in answer.

“Very well. Thank you, Vice Principal.” Saying ‘thanks’ seems like the right thing to do here? There isn’t really any prescribed etiquette for situations like this one either. “I am… honored to accept your pledge.”

GM: Uncle Leo nods, then points to the chair behind the librarian’s desk—her chair provided she passes this ‘formality’. “Will you please sit down, Ms. Bauman? I think you will find the angle more illuminating for the final portion of your interview.”

Hazel: After stating “Yes,” somewhat needlessly, Hazel assumes the seat.

GM: The Kelpies’ vice principal then turns over the single sheet of paper on the table. It is a depiction of the canonical Müller-Lyer optical illusion. Besides the stylized arrow and fork junction, the sheet is blank. “Which line is longer, Ms. Bauman?”

Hazel: “They are the same length. It’s an optical illusion,” Hazel states.

GM: Unsurprised at her response, he points to the long metal ruler on the table. Its markings have been laser-scored to fine increments. “As an empiricist, have you personally measured this or do you make an appeal to authority?”

Hazel: “I have not. But I would be willing to resort to the latter and trust your word.”

GM: “I am not,” he answers, then motions for Hazel to measure the lines using the long ruler. “Please.”

Hazel: Hazel does so.

GM: Despite her earlier belief, the lines are similar in length, but not exact. The arrow is slightly but definitely longer.

Hazel: “Is this a lesson on not making assumptions?” she inquires, looking up.

GM: “Which line is longer, Ms. Bauman?”

Hazel: “The arrow, Vice Principal.”

GM: “Replication is a vital, if oft-neglected, component of the scientific method. Please measure the lines using the other side of the ruler, Ms. Bauman.”

Hazel: Hazel does as directed.

GM: She finds that the lines are once again unequal, but now the fork junction is longer, not the arrow. Leo leans in, his face all-too close and all-too intense. “Which line is longer, Ms. Bauman?”

Hazel: Hazel frowns. At first, she doesn’t know. Ignoring her uncle’s presence for a moment, she tries re-measuring the dimensions, and they don’t even match up. This makes no rational sense, she thinks, frustrated. The lines are variously longer or shorter, depending on which side she uses, but not equally so. So she can’t even attribute the incongruity to the ruler having different space-sizes on the different ends.

This is logically impossible. It shouldn’t be happening.

GM: It can’t be happening. But it is.

Hazel: And with that impossible realization, the panic attack hits Hazel like an Idahoan bobcat pouncing upon its prey. Her uncle’s features swim in and out of focus as she haggardly tries to breathe air through her constricting lungs. Leo likely recognizes the anxiety attack’s symptoms. She’s had a few at family functions, where they’re more likely to occur than when she’s alone with her parents.

But, well, fuck that. She’s not having one here. Not now, when she said she could handle another hard truth. Hazel clenches her teeth but doesn’t close her eyes. She doesn’t ride the attack out so much as tell it to shut up and be quiet—she doesn’t have TIME for it right now. “This is logically impossible,” she grits out as the tremors in her hands subside. “What is the explanation?”

GM: Leo smiles with the pride and passion of a silversmith first spotting his reflection in his kiln-tempering craftsmanship. He does not answer Hazel’s question, but instead extends a firm handshake to his ‘niece’. “Welcome to Witiko Falls High School, Head Librarian Bauman.”

GM: After Hazel formally accepts the position as the school’s head, and currently sole, librarian, her uncle goes over a number of other employment formalities.

During that briefing, he informs Hazel that, courtesy of a recent, generous donation, the school purchased a new desktop, barcode scanner, and related equipment for the library, as the school would like Hazel to digitally catalog the library’s prodigious collection, as Mrs. Griswold and her predecessors used an outdated slip-card system. Recognizing the herculean enormity of such a task, the school grants Hazel full autonomy on how she proceeds, including cordoning or restricting sections, so long as at least some books are available to the students, as they have been sadly banned from the library for the past four weeks. After checking with Hazel, he informs her that a student aid will be sent to assist her today, namely one who will serve out his or her in-school suspension for the full day, apart from a mandatory lunch break. Said student will report directly after homeroom.

Hazel: Hazel mentally groans at the size of the workload in front of her, but she also smiles at the prospect of finally bringing the school’s library system into 1998. Away with the stamps of old. Besides, she can always get students to catalog the books they check out—and employ ones facing detention as ‘helpers’.

GM: A more permanent arrangement may be made, depending on Hazel’s desires and needs, but Uncle Leo says that they can discuss the various options after their meeting on the morrow.

Hazel: Hazel fully intends to keep the library open, for knowledge should be accessible to all. She will be in the market for a library aide or two, however.

GM: The vice principal informs Hazel that she will normally be provided a schedule (courtesy of Mrs. Sperle) of classes that will be making use of the school services during the different periods. However, with the backlog of library requests, Mrs. Sperle is triaging those requests and will be sending classes down on a period by period basis until a more formalized schedule can be established.

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t relish the thought of speaking before visiting classes, but comes with the job.

GM: However, Hazel is told that first priority will go to older students who are already well-acquainted with the library and its assets. Consequently, Hazel will not be expected to do any major library orientation instruction for some time.

Hazel: That is to the new librarian’s moderate relief, allowing her to grow acquainted with her work space and new routine before doing something (else) outside of her comfort zone.

GM: But speaking of employee exceptions, Vice Principal Schoening informs his ‘niece’ that all staff are expected to volunteer their services to an extracurricular program. He then goes on to explain the current openings.

First, the Kelpies’ girls lacrosse team needs an assistant coach. This would entail traveling with the team on away games and generally helping with home games and practices.

Hazel: The prospect of serving as a sports coach makes Hazel all but vomit with distaste. And actually traveling with them too. Sleeping in hotel rooms. All to oversee a sports team. Short of actually playing lacrosse, she couldn’t devise an activity she’d loathe more. Back in grade school, Hazel’s natural clumsiness, panic attacks, and stubborn sullenness at being told to do things she didn’t enjoy all combined to make PE a truly miserable experience. And fortunately a brief one, after her lawyer mother went mama bear with teeth, claws, and legalese to set up Hazel’s IEP and get her exempted from school-mandated sports activities.

Pulling her mind back to the present, the new librarian asks in a measured tone what other club openings are available.

GM: There is also the option of taking over Mrs. Griswold’s position as faculty mentor of the Hellbender Club, a relatively new service organization of high school students. Beyond the occasional large-scale projects like re-painting the Shop-Plus’ lot lines (which was halted by Mrs. Griswold’s ‘death’), their regular commitments include reading to elementary students and tutoring kids from the middle school.

Hazel: Her predecessor’s position sounds better, but only insofar as it’s boring rather than actively loathsome. Hazel briefly contemplates the irony of painting parking lines for the store she regularly steals from and derives some small amusement. Tutoring middle school children sounds awful, and elementary students sounds awful in a separate way. The new librarian frowns to herself after a moment. She isn’t trying to devalue the work the Hellbenders do, she just… isn’t very good with kids.

GM: The last current opening is the Youth Model Crime Investigation chapter, otherwise known as the Junior Deputies club. Although its chapter last disbanded when Hazel was a student, she is informed that several students recently petitioned the school to reopen the program. Naturally, re-opening and re-organizing the Junior Deputies would require a substantial amount of work from the new librarian, but her connection to the undersheriff may make her an ideal candidate.

Hazel: While Hazel doesn’t relish the prospect of doing more work, that sounds… much more to her liking than the other options. Growing up as the undersheriff’s daughter and having something of a life-long interest in the odd and unexplained, she’s no slouch as a sleuth. Dad, she’s sure, would love to help out with a civic-minded youth club. Her lawyer mother could lend valuable experience too… although Lydia would probably find mentoring a bunch of local teenagers as loathsome as Hazel finds the idea of serving as a sports coach (and sarcastically quip whether the teens could afford to match the top dollar that Nostrum pays for her legal advice). All things told, however, the Junior Deputies sound like the best choice by far. Hazel can always use the kids to look into matters that interest her if they turn out to be any good, too. She agrees to start once she’s gotten more book cataloging behind her.

GM: Although not outwardly displaying any approval of her choice, Uncle Leo explicitly suggests that she might utilize them as co-invesigators and fellow test subjects for their “experiment” with Mr. Swenson. More mundanely, he tells Hazel that Ms. Tuttle will contact those students who expressed interest in the club at the beginning of the year. Mrs. Sperle will also make an announcement.

Hazel: Hazel requests that Layne contact the interested students. She doesn’t particularly enjoy the thought of approaching strangers to ask about a club.

She does, indeed, agree that the interested students might be of some utility in their little wager.

GM: Otherwise, Vice Principal Schoening re-directs Hazel’s attention to the desktop’s monitor, where a sticky note from the IT has her default login and passwords for the computer, electronic punch-in, and staff email account. She is also informed that the computer has an electronic copy of the school student and employee handbooks and related materials. He lets her know there will be a computer-administered test on the handbooks in a week.

Hazel: Hazel had planned to read them regardless, ‘by the books’ and rules-preferring person that she is. Structure is good.

GM: Hazel is also told to contact Mrs. Sperle to sign all the standard employment forms. Indeed, Mrs. Sperle is to be Hazel’s contact person for all logistical, bureaucratic, and facility related issues, from flooding, broken thermostats, calling in sick, lightbulb replacement, W4 forms, and so forth. On matters relating to educational or behavior management concerns, however, she is to contact her uncle or Principal Gorczak, respectively.

Hazel: Hazel is confident that she can handle any unruly students. She is even more confident that her uncle or the Ursuline principal can.

GM: When Hazel awkwardly asks about how to handle a panic attack in front of the students, Uncle Leo merely quotes from Plato: “The first and best victory is to conquer self.”

Hazel: Hazel feels awkward, unsure what she was even trying to ask. It’s not as if her uncle could simply wave a wand and make her attacks go away during school hours.

GM: After ensuring that Hazel has no more immediate questions, Uncle Leo collects his now-cold tea, the metal ruler, and the sheet with Müller-Lyer “illusion”, and departs, leaving the Chimera’s new librarian alone. As she wheels the chair over to the computer, she notes a rather large, disconcerting stain on the carpet directly behind the desk.

Hazel: Hazel frowns deeply and looks closer.

GM: It appears to be a large dark red stain that has been laboriously scrubbed with bleach, creating a fleshy-pink smear on the otherwise tannish stretch of carpet.

Hazel: Oh my god…

Hazel stares at the macabre sight. She’d presumed the Spooks took her predecessor away… well, away from the school. Little wonder Agnes seemed so on edge.

GM: Perhaps most disturbingly, Hazel can almost make out the outline of a torso and an extended arm. Perhaps it is her imagination, but it looks like the arm was trying to spell or scrawl out something… with whatever caused the stain. Any attempt to read or discern the deduced message is thwarted, though, as that section of the carpet is the one that was most thoroughly bleached and scrubbed clean. No, not cleaned, but exorcised.

Hazel: Someone cleaned this. One of the Spooks? Maybe, if they’d wanted to be thorough, but they could’ve just had the carpet removed. She has a hard time seeing the government agents demean themselves with that sort of custodial work, too. No, it seems more likely this was the work of Psalms, the school’s elderly janitor (so nicknamed for the psalms he likes to sing). And it’s likely a damn sure bet he’d remember scrubbing up that mess.

Hazel, being naturally distrustful of “others” and having been raised in a near-exclusively white community, has never felt very comfortable around black people—though she would vocally deny that she is racist. But Psalms has always seemed so harmless, and she felt sorry for how students bullied him. Likely still bully him. Hmm. She could just offer him money for the information. But maybe she could get the students to leave him alone, in return for what he knows. He’d likely be more grateful. It’d save her a few bucks. And frankly, she’d feel better doing it. She’s never liked bullies.

Hazel walks away from the computer, then looks up at the clock. Oh. That’s right. She’s literally on clock. She just stands there in the middle of the library for a moment, mulling over what to do. Well. Psalms will still be around after school, she admits. So… well… she turns and walks back to the desk computer, likely a somewhat odd sight to any hypothetical observers. It’s not as odd, though, as logging on next to a carpet stained by her predecessor’s blood. But it’s not as if she can get rid of it.

She skims over the handbooks, digesting the most relevant portions, and making a note to read them on her own time later. Remembering her backpack, which she set down by the table, Hazel picks it up and moves it behind the front desk. Looks like she won’t need her laptop after all. She looks around the vast, empty, book-filled space. Just her and the books. How she likes it. Without further ado, the new librarian gets started on her gigantic cataloging backlog.

GM: No novice when it comes to computers, Hazel might be one of the few staff members who can appreciate the library’s new computer. It’s a Dell PC with a 233MHz Pentium I processor, MMX technology, a whole 32 MB of RAM, and a 3.2 Gb HDD. She remembers seeing the commercial, the one with hunky Tom Cruise driving a race car, when it was released last year. As a poor college student in Spokane, she also recalls the sticker tag: $2,499.

Hazel: Geez. This really is pretty nice for a library computer, she admires. The Micron laptop bought by her wealthy mother has some pretty sweet specs, but it’s still a laptop against a desktop.

GM: As she boots up the computer, she discovers that it still has Windows 97, rather than the newest update. After finding the handbooks, changing her login password, electronically clocking in, she makes her way over to Outlook. She finds a helpful calendar—sadly Teacher Inservice no longer means a day off—as well as a staff directory.

Hazel: That earns a frown. So does the computer’s OS. Hazel faithfully uses Linux and RocketMail (operated off Netscape) on her laptop. She’s no fan of Microsoft.

GM: Scrolling through the first third of the alphabet, Hazel discovers that the faculty seems unchanged from her time as a student—well, with the exception of Mrs. Griswold… Her eyes can’t help but glance down at the stain beneath her feet. As she shifts her shoes, she swears she can hear a squish, like something bubbling up from the deep fibers. Squish.

Hazel: Lungs gasping. Head hammering. Vision swimming.

Squish.

I… I can’t… breathe…

Hazel crumples to the ground, awkwardly grabbing the desk’s corner to catch herself as she falls. She folds in her legs and clamps her eyes shut as she tries to ride out the panic attack.

GM: Her hyperventilating, panicking nostrils pick up the indelible odor of bleach…. as well as something else, something deeper. More visceral. Coppery.

Hazel: No one can see her under the desk, it’s okay, she can just ride this out…

Squish. Squish.

She wants to get away. She can’t get away. Can’t get up. Can’t put that awful smell behind her. Her heart hammers in her chest like a drum with a ticking stick of dynamite wired inside.

Squish. Thump. Squish. Thump.

No. Away from the library, she won’t be distracted by that awful carpet. She could run outside. But that’s just… that’s just pathetic. Hiding from her own library. She’ll either get over it here, or she won’t at all.

GM: The school bell rings, announcing that another day at Witiko Falls High School has began. A day that finds Hazel Bauman huddled under her desk, rocking and shaking.

The next half-hour passes in an anxiety-ridden blur. Hazel hardly registers as the intercom buzzes awake with the pledge of allegiance and the morning announcements from Agnes Sperle and her student assistant and AV club president, Stuart Bowcutt. The ritualistic monotony of the intercom proceedings almost snap Hazel out of her panic, but then she hears her name being called out, broadcast throughout the school, as “the new librarian, Ms. Bauman, daughter of our town’s beloved sheriff, and an alumna of the Bone and Green, who is doubtlessly busy preparing herself to help the hordes of Kelpie bibliophiles! That’s right students, grab your bookmarks and pack some bandaids for those paper-cuts, because today’s the grand re-opening of the Chimera!” After hearing such a profuse introduction, Hazel tries to literally rise to the occasion, but her hand pushes against the carpet, and she swears she feels the wetness of the fibers, the squish as her palm brushes against the floor. Far better to close one’s eyes, rock, and shut out reality.

It is in such a condition that her student assistant finds her.

The library door opens, followed eventually by a tentative voice. “Uh, hello?”

Hazel: It is likely to that student’s surprise when a grasping arm suddenly bolts up from behind the librarian’s desk, like a shark’s fin cutting through water.

The hand attached to the seemingly disembodied arm clutches the desk’s edge like a lifeline. Hazel’s head and torso follow after the arm as she hauls herself to her feet with all the grace of a barn being raised. She looks at the student. Caught by surprise after an already upsetting moment, the autistic librarian has no idea what to say. She just stares at the teenager with a blank expression.

GM: “Shit, lady!” the student exclaims as he flinches, then composes himself.

Hazel: A more eloquent individual than Hazel might laugh the whole thing off, fib something about fiddling with the computer’s power cords. Maybe jokingly express their hopes that the sight of a flailing, disembodied arm wasn’t too big a shock. But Hazel is not particularly eloquent, or at least not when caught by surprise. “Things. There were things. That I needed to do,” she states.

GM: “What the hell were you doing down there?”

Hazel: “They’re over now,” Hazel answers as if that explains everything, then abruptly changes the topic. “So. You’re my help.” She nearly asks, Who are you? but has enough presence of mind to rephrase her request as, “What’s your name?”

GM: The tall, lanky youth glances behind, as if considering the door. His dark-blond hair is buzzed tight to his scalp. His eyes are ghostly blue, and his gaze has a charm, patience, and wisdom incongruent with his age and other physical features. Of the latter, the most prominent are his copious tattoos. A large flower fills his right cheek, a cross and the word ‘Skins’ forms an inked window’s peak. A swallow and intricate cross as well as a crude, but elaborate name scrawls over his neck. His left ear is pierced with a silver earring, and the area around his lips and chin are speckled with past and budding blemishes so endemic to adolescence. He wears a simple blue-gray shirt and a light fall polyester jacket with a flannel-print lining. His jeans are ripped, frayed, and re-sewn with red bandana cut-outs. His big boots look equally suited to logging, trudging through mud, or kicking in teeth.

Jacob_Zimmer.jpg

Hazel: Hazel isn’t sure what to make of the teen’s appearance. His tattoos, worn clothes, and other “trappings of criminality” mark him as a future adult delinquent best avoided, or at least as a long-term troublemaker. His eyes, however, give her conclusion pause. Some measure of it.

GM: The youth turns back to Hazel and runs an inked thumb, thoughtfully, as if appraising the new head librarian and finding her wanting. “So you’re Griswold’s replacement.” It’s not a question.

Hazel: Hazel is initially unsure what category to lump him under… but she needs structure. Stability. Adherence to routine. The teenager bucking that routine does not leave her well-disposed, to say nothing of his demeanor in doing so. She lashes out, “Yes. Congratulations on having two eyes to recognize what’s in front of you. Do you also have two ears to register my inquiries?”

GM: “Jake,” he answers with a smile. “Lady, if you don’t mind me saying, you don’t look so good.” He steps forward, swaying his tall lanky head back and forth like a snake charmer as he regards her more closely. “Are you sick… or on something?”

Hazel: “Perhaps you should ask first if you are uncertain whether your audience would mind. I find it is rarely an inadvisable habit in life,” Hazel replies.

GM: He snorts, then throws up a hand in the gesture of a gun and shoots. “Ah, or maybe you need to be on something…”

Hazel: Hazel is already frosty and on edge from the panic attacks and the teenager’s (as well as stranger’s) sketchy appearance. His reference to her need to medicate herself—an all-too false need, in her mind, and not one she would have shared with strangers—however, cements the new librarian’s ill will. She reaches onto the desk, produces a box of scanner labels, and pushes them into the boy’s hands.

“You’re cataloging books to update them to the new barcode scanner system. Start with–” She gives the salient directions and assigns him a place among the shelves to start. “You may also address me as ‘Ms. Bauman.’”

GM: Jake regards the labels as he moves over the desk and leans against it. “Finally climbing out of the stone age. Nice move, Bauman.” His attention, however, skips a beat as he regards the tiny book on the desk. “Ah, no way, Germelshausen,” he says excitedly, flicking open the book. “This your private copy?” He begins reading the first lines aloud, in German. Rather fluently, Hazel may hate to admit.

Hazel: Hazel looks at Jake for a moment as he disregards her instructions, then slowly pronounces,

“The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, ‘Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?’”

She pauses at the end of the bizarre recitation and inquires, “Do you know where that is from, ‘Jake’?”

GM: For the first time since his arrival, Hazel’s ‘assistant’ gives her his full attention. He closes the chapbook, and regards the new librarian, not as if she has suddenly grown a second head, but as if she finally has one solidly on her shoulders.

“Yeah,” he says without a hint of flippancy. He absently touches his neck. “That’s from the Apocalypse. I dream about the dragon. Scary shit.”

Hazel: “It is very ‘scary shit’, Jake.” The language sounds out of place on Hazel’s tongue. She gives a mental frown. She’s remembered the scripture, but not what she wanted to say next. It was… something good. The panic attack still has her mind in a jumble. So she simply continues,

“You may address me as Ms. Bauman. If the prefix is too burdensome for you to recall, I am certain it will make the additional hours of detention I assign seem terribly unfair, but life is not terribly fair. Failure to follow my directions is also qualifying criteria to merit further detention hours. If you would like to leave this library post-haste, you may begin cataloging shelves.”

GM: The teen, who towers over his 5’4" elder, smiles. “Are you kidding me, leave the library? It’s been fucking closed for a month, and I’ve been jonesing to get back in.” He looks her in the eyes. “So go ahead and give me detention, Bauman.”

Hazel: “I don’t think so after all, Jake. It sounds as if you prefer to resolve your problems, shall we, say out of bounds.” But Hazel’s tone is not acceding. In fact, her gray eyes are starting to spark. “Do you recall what details of my life the intercom announcement shared?”

GM: Not quite shaken, but taken back a little by the question, Jake replies, “Announcement? Uh, no offense, lady, but I doubt anyone under eighty actually listens to Little Stuart.”

Hazel: “Hmm, how sad. You’d be surprised what sorts of things you can learn from the most unlikely of sources.” The librarian picks up the school phone and dials a number.

“Why hello, Undersheriff Bauman—I mean, Dad. I am calling to report an incident of drug use at the school…”

Hazel’s eyes cut back from the phone towards Jake’s—who she can smell the mary-jane on. But she hasn’t named any names. Not yet. That is something still within his power to affect.

GM: There’s a split second of hesitation on Jake’s face as he considers whether the librarian is bluffing, and then, like a bolt of heaven from on high, his face transforms into the ‘Oh shit, this crazy lady isn’t bluffing!’ expression. He frantically grabs five baggies from his jacket and slams them on the table. “Geez, lady, er. Ms. Bauman, chill. I’ll start labeling.” He picks up the stack of labels and sulks off.

Her dad’s voice cuts in. “Hazel? What’s going on? I’m off duty, but I can come right over.”

Hazel: “Oh, I’m sorry, Daddy, will you please hold for just a moment?” Hazel snatches the stack of labels out of Jake’s grasp and cups her hand over the phone’s speaker.

GM: “What the fu–” Jake says as his hands are suddenly empty.

Hazel: “Let’s make one thing perfectly clear, you little shit,” Hazel abruptly snarls. Her eyes—and voice—are as hard as the titanium frames of her glasses.

GM: A muted, “Hazel?” comes from the phone. Jake looks back, perplexed, confused, and with a reawakening of fear. He raises his hands in placating surrender.

Hazel: “The line, ‘Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?’ is not originally from the Bible,” Hazel continues. “It was lifted, by John, from another source. And that source was a description of me, when I was sufficiently ticked the fuck off. Like I have just been, right now.”

The librarian’s eyes flash. “Well, you have attempted to wage war against me, Jake. And now that you’ve realized you’re in over your head, you’re giving me this ‘geez, I’ll start labeling’ bullshit. No, Jake. You want to wage war, you’ll have war—or you’ll offer me total and unconditional surrender.”

“I am in charge of this library, you little shit-stain. My name is Ms. Bauman. You will do what you are told, when you are told, and without any attitude or complaint. If you renege upon these surrender terms, I will wage war upon you, and you will learn the true meaning of mankind’s despairing entreaty, ‘who can wage war against the beast?’ Do I make myself PERFECTLY understood!?”

GM: Jake stands there, clearly seeing the Beast’s terrible visage imposed upon Hazel’s. His face goes slack, like it’s been freshly slapped. Despite his severe height advantage, he somehow manages to look ‘up’ at Hazel. “Okay, okay, you win, I surrender! I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”

Hazel:Good.” Hazel’s tone has all the warmth and comfort of an ice pick stabbing through someone’s eye socket.

GM: Harvey’s voice shouts between his daughter’s fingers. “HAZEL?!”

Hazel: She then removes her hand from the phone and smiles, her tone sugar-sweet as she addresses her dad. “False alarm, Daddy. I’ll see you later tonight. It’s a bit of a funny story I can share with you over dinner.”

GM: There’s a long pause on the line. “Okay… we’ll talk about it tonight.”

Hazel: “Yes, we definitely will. Bye, Daddy. Love you,” she cheerfully wishes.

GM: “I love you too, pumpkin,” comes Harvey’s softened reply.

Jake remains staked to the ground. He’s breathing, but not much else.

Hazel: Hazel casually looks up. “Is there something you’re waiting for?”

GM: Jake points a long finger at himself, then shakes his head. “No, ma’am, I mean, Ms. Bauman.” He doesn’t quite run away from her, but his long legs make a speedy retreat. He awkwardly has to turn around when he realizes he doesn’t have any labels. “Uh, can I have some labels, Ms. Bauman?” he says sheepishly.

Hazel: The labels are duly dispensed. “You can start with the shelves over there,” Hazel supplies helpfully. She’s even still smiling a little.

GM: Few find comfort when the Beast smiles. Jake is not one of them. He all but bows to her when she gives him the supplies and direction, and begins labeling, all-too happy to have some shelving and carpet-space between him and the dragon’s chosen.

Hazel: The Beast watches him depart, then pulls up the handbooks on her new desktop computer. Jake could use a little time away from her, and she’s confident he will be motivated to do his job properly. He might start mis-labeling books if he gets any more scared, after all.

Hazel’s smirking reflection stares back at her from the desktop’s screen.

Bring it on, Falls High.

Hazel: An uneventful morning of cataloging passes. Hazel is kind enough to work separate shelves from Jake, understanding all-too well a person’s desire to be left alone… but just near enough that he can see her out of the corner of his eye.

When he asks if he can spend his lunch reading in the library, Hazel is sympathetic. That’s where she preferred to spend her own. She also prefers to spend her lunch by herself, but he can stay, she replies, if he reads in the backety-back—or simply takes a few books and reads outside (she won’t require he check them out).

GM: He thanks her, seemingly surprised by her generosity. He takes a handful of books, all Germanic fairy-tales, she notes, and then, almost as an afterthought, adds the copy of Germelshausen from her desk.

Meanwhile, Hazel regards their progress. At least three hours of hard work… and it’s a drop in the bucket. A big bucket.

Hazel: Hazel frowns. Well, progress is progress, but does she really have to make so much of it? She needs more hands. And by that she means ‘more hands that aren’t hers.’ A thought occurs to her… and one she’ll bring up when the likely imminent opportunity presents itself.

Also, detentions. She’ll have to find someone to punish for something.

GM: As Jake carts off his haul to the nether-regions of the Chimera, Layne arrives a few minutes after the period bell. She carries her clipboard and a sack lunch. She smiles happily upon spotting Hazel.

Hazel: Hazel smiles back. For all the terror she might have inspired in Jacob, the simple truth is, she’d rather just get along with people (when she can’t or doesn’t simply want to be left alone). She thinks for a moment before asking a question that strikes her as cordial. “Hi, Layne. How was the rest of your morning?”

GM: The question, so innocently asked, gives Layne a pause. She frowns. “I, uh…” She looks down at her notes for a moment, reviewing them. “…um, I think it was okay…” After a moment, she recovers and smiles. “How was your day so far?”

Hazel: Hazel feels bad. She’s all-too sympathetic to feeling awkward when poised with ordinary-sounding questions… but it’s all the more sad for Layne’s to arrive from what looks like a simple mental handicap. “It was… eventful at first. But then pretty quiet. Which was good, I prefer things quiet. Sounds like yours?”

GM: “I, uh, I didn’t write it down, so… I don’t know.” She frowns. “Sorry. Can we still eat together?” she asks with some measure of visible apprehension.

Hazel: Hazel is actually equally taken aback by Layne’s own question. It simply didn’t occur to her that Layne would take an invitation to see her during lunch as an invitation to share lunch. She normally likes eating alone. That’s what she did in high school—or rather, when she was last in high school. She pictures herself and Layne eating at the front desk or one of the work tables together, and it makes her feel awkward. Eating. Next to someone she doesn’t really know. But there are a lot of things that make her feel awkward, she has to admit, and Layne seems just as antsy over the prospect of a shared lunch as she does. And, well… Hazel still feels sorry for her.

“Sure. We can look up how to shop from Amazon at the same time, if you want. Or we can just eat.” Giving her a choice seems like another nice thing to do? Hazel isn’t really sure.

GM: Layne sighs with relief, then timidly asks, “Do you mind if we eat first. I’ll need my hands to make notes for…” she peeks down at the clipboard, “…Amazon.com.”

Hazel: “Okay. Let’s eat first,” Hazel agrees, nevertheless trying to hide the reluctance—and apprehension—in her own voice. She would have preferred to look at Amazon while they ate, because… she honestly has no idea what to talk to Layne about. She didn’t sound into demons and ghosts. Hazel doesn’t want to be boring.

GM: Layne laughs, “Oh good, I’m so hungry I could eat a spinosaurus!”

Hazel: “Oh, did you not have breakfast? I sometimes do that,” Hazel remarks. “If I’m in a rush. So I make more food for lunch.” She unzips her backpack and removes a sack lunch. Most of it consists of acronyms: two BLTs and a PBJ, plus a smoothie in a thermos. It’s actually more food than she can eat in one sitting, but true to her words, she suspected she might oversleep and have to dash out the door without any time to prepare and eat breakfast (she put together her lunch the previous night). She might be absentminded, but she’s prudent enough to plan around that fact. It’s also easy to be casual making extra food when she doesn’t pay for many of her groceries.

GM: The secretary grabs a chair from a nearby reading table and moves it across from Hazel’s. She laughs as she sits down, sets down her clipboard, and opens her lunch, revealing a wrapped sandwich, a juicebox, and an oatmeal cream pie. “Oh, I don’t know, but I was always ravenous at lunch-time. I’m probably hypoglycemic. Or a pig,” she adds, pushing up her nose in porcine imitation, and chuckles.

Hazel: Hazel laughs back. Okay, it is a little funny. And she wants to find it so. She picks up one her own sandwiches and takes a bite of crispy lettuce and juicy tomato. It technically isn’t a BLT. Hazel used ham. She was too lazy to cook bacon.

“So, you said you started working for the school just this year? What’d you do aft…” Hazel nearly says ‘after you graduated’, but she remembers, all too viscerally, that Layne did not graduate. At least when she was around. Maybe she got a GED. Or just started working as a secretary.

“…after you got better?” she finishes instead.

GM: Layne starts with her sandwich as well, though she first inspects it. “Let’s see what we have today…” she mutters to herself, “…ah, cheese and tomato, my favorite!” She takes a big bite, holding a finger up in apology as she chews. She then opens her juicebox of Hi-C Ecto Cooler and takes a sip from the straw. After looking at Hazel’s expectant stare, she says, “Did you say something?” She blushes a little. “Sorry, I got so fixated on my lunch…”

Hazel: ‘Have today’. So did her parents make her lunch—is she still living with them? How much do they know? If she… Hazel tries to suppress the flood of questions.

“Oh, yes I did. And I’ll say it. But now I’m saying something else,” she explains eloquently. “Um. Do you have someone to make you lunch? I’m jealous.”

GM: “What?” She checks her clipboard, then pauses at a sticky. “No, I make my own lunch.”

Hazel: “Oh, you just didn’t remember.” Well, that does make perfect sense. And also sounds a little rude of Hazel. She tries to compensate. “That must be nice. It’s a surprise whenever you sit down to eat.”

GM: “It is, isn’t it!” Layne says, beaming. She then takes another bite of her sandwich.

Hazel: “Yes, surprises are nice. Well, small surprises. Like what you’re having for lunch. That’s small enough.”

GM: “Mmhmm,” she says, nodding in agreement.

Hazel: Hazel takes another bite of her own food, lettuce crunching under her teeth. She’s still unsure of what to say. Carrying a conversation is a heavy load. “So, uh. What did you do after you got better and before you started working at Falls High? That would have been for a couple years? Or did you get better more recently?”

GM: Layne picks up her clipboard and begins flipping through the reams of stickies. She takes another sip, and then another bite, and another sip, before eventually putting the clipboard down. Her brow furrows. “I don’t remember. I didn’t write it down, but I don’t know why I wouldn’t have. I’m pretty sure I would have wanted to. Hmm. But, yes, I started this year, which is great! Your uncle got me the job.”

She gobbles up the last of her sandwich and wipes her fingers and face with the napkin. “He’s quite handsome, isn’t he? Or maybe that’s weird for you, since he’s your uncle,” she says thoughtfully.

Hazel: Not kidding about that amnesia. Hazel takes a sip of her strawberry banana smoothie. She doesn’t bother wiping her own face, though, until it’s all finished.

“Um. I don’t know if that’s…” She nods, relieved at Layne’s next statement. “Technically he’s my adoptive second cousin twice removed. But it’s easier just to call him’ uncle’. You know. As an older male relative who isn’t my dad or grandpa.”

GM: “Right,” she replies, taking a nibble from the edge of her oatmeal cream pie. “I didn’t know that.”

Hazel: “Knowledge is power,” Hazel states. She’s at once facetious and serious.

GM: She takes another nibble. “So… do you know if he’s dating anyone?”

Hazel: “Um. I don’t have any power there.” She then adds for Layne’s benefit, even if it’s less funny having to explain the quip, “Which means I don’t know.”

GM: “Ah,” she says, clearly appreciating the clarification if somewhat disappointed by the lack of clarity on the subject matter.

Hazel: “He does seem… a bit old for you? So maybe it doesn’t matter that I don’t know.”

GM: Layne pauses mid-sip. “Hmm, he is, isn’t he? You know, I never really thought about it.”

Hazel: “That may be a productive line of thought,” Hazel offers, trying to sound helpful.

GM: “But you know, Hazel, sometimes, I think that’s the hardest part about all…” she vaguely motions to herself, “…this.”

Hazel: Hazel pauses in mid-bite. Layne’s sounding more together. She can hope. “Oh, what’s that?”

GM: “I mean, I wake up, and I look down at my hands, or I get out of the shower or the bathroom stall and see myself in the mirror… and I’m suddenly… old. I mean, I know it’s me, but not the me I remember. It’s scary. It takes me a while to remember myself, you know, that the reflection is mine. I j-just don’t remember anything from well, before it happened—or didn’t, you know?” She flips up a sticky, then passes Hazel a polaroid.

Hazel: Hazel is a bit taken aback by the sudden rush of clarity, but looks the picture over.

GM: It’s a recent picture of Layne, smiling, standing next to her uncle. They are holding hands—or more properly it looks like Layne has just taken hold of his hand. He is not smiling. Someone has written in sharpie below her picture: “9.01.98. This is me. I am 22.” Beneath her uncle’s picture is simply written: “Leo.” There is a heart shape in the ‘o’.

Hazel: That makes Hazel’s eyebrows raise all the way over her large glasses. I don’t get it, she immediately thinks. Leo’s way too old for Layne, but he’s writing a heart on their picture. I don’t get it. I never have and I never will.

Oh, wait, she thinks upon a closer look. That’s Layne’s handwriting. The world makes some measure of sense again.

GM: “Before I go to sleep, I tape this picture on my bedroom mirror, so that when I wake up, it is the first thing I see, or well, I see it at the same time as I see my reflection.”

Hazel: “So you can be reminded of yourself and how you look at 22?”

GM: “No, well, kinda,” she says frowning. “How do I explain it… it’s more to remind me that I’m me. This me, not the me I remember. The sixteen-year old me.”

Hazel: “I… think I know what you mean there, Layne. You want to anchor yourself in the present. But it’s hard when you don’t remember so much of the past.”

GM: “Yes, exactly! And… and sometimes, I think, sometimes I’m afraid that I will wake up and find myself all of a sudden in a forty-year-old body of me, with no recollection of what has happened.”

Hazel: Hazel pauses. “That’s a horrible fear, Layne. And I can see why you’d feel that way, it’s a logical progression of not remembering a couple years.” She pauses again. She should try to say something comforting here, but she can’t think of anything. So maybe just… something to show she understands? She clears her throat.

“I think I know what you mean,” Hazel ventures. “About feeling suddenly older, time slipping by. It really seems to last forever when you’re a kid. Like during my 4th grade summer, I remember thinking, two months is eternity. And it really seemed like it. But this past year has seemed like an eyeblink in comparison. I just thought ‘time flies when you got older’ was an expression, but it’s proven alarmingly true since I left home. And I… I don’t like it.” More specifically, Hazel doesn’t like that time is passing by and she’s seemingly not going anywhere with it… but that’s more than even she cares to add.

“I don’t have it as bad as you there. But… I think I understand.”

GM: “It’s just that sometimes, my body… it feels like it’s someone else’s… like a nightmare… and I just need to go to sleep, or wake up, and I’ll be back in my body again. The body I know. I have scars on me that I don’t remember. I’m taller than I remember. Not a lot, but a little. I feel heavier in places. It’s…” She looks up, her eyes watering a bit, and the slightest quiver of her chin as she sucks in air.

Hazel: “Really scary, I’m sure,” Hazel supplies. This is a bit outside of her personal realm of experience. Her dad could probably say something comforting. He might not be an intellectual, but he’s gifted in his own way. ‘The sun is shining’ was a comforting statement that wouldn’t have occurred to Hazel. Because of course it’s shining, that’s a given fact.

Hazel hesitates for a moment, unsure of what she’s about to do. The prospect still makes her skin crawl, or at least tingle. But… Layne seemed to like physical contact, if the number of times she’d initiated it was any indication, so Hazel reaches out to squeeze her hand.

GM: Layne looks down, regards Hazel as if they are just being reunited after many years, and smiles. “Hazel, I’m so glad you’re here.” She squeezes back. She looks over their mostly eaten food and their surroundings, and adds with mild amazement mingled with contentment, “We’re eating lunch together in the library. How funny is that?”

Hazel: “Pretty funny,” Hazel grants, managing a smile. “I… usually liked to eat lunch alone.” She hopes her hand isn’t sweaty. She might not like doing all this touching, but it seems as if it’s helping.

GM: She laughs a little, rubs her thumb gently against Hazel’s knuckles, and then lets go. She regards her nibbled dessert. “Oh, oatmeal cream pie, my favorite!” She picks it up and begins nibbling around the edge, devouring the treat in a fond spiral.

Hazel: There she goes again, Hazel thinks sadly.

What’d they do to her? Her uncle thought that question was piercing. But after listening to Layne’s fears and worries, seeing her swing back and forth between lucid and half-witted like a drunken tightrope walker, Hazel thinks another query may be far more meaningful:

WHY did they do this? Who does it benefit? And how do those people… how do they justify it?

GM: If there are answers in the library, they do not announce themselves at this time. Meanwhile, Layne finishes her lunch, cleans up after herself, and then reviews the clock and her clipboard.

Hazel: No, Hazel concludes, she isn’t very likely to find out from poor Layne Tuttle. She wants to press Layne for more about the gaps in her obviously poor memory, but she remembers how Mom has told her to try to talk about things ‘besides business’ with people. Another term Mom used was ‘small talk.’ She never really saw the point for a while. You talk with someone about what you’re there to talk about. But actively asking Layne more would somehow be… Hazel struggles to verbalize it, but one-sided? Layne seems to get upset whenever the memories, or at least what mental scraps pass for her memories, get dragged up, and that’s when Hazel isn’t actively trying to make Layne remember things. Somehow doing that would seem… well, cruel. And Leo even promised her answers. Does she really need to go digging here?

“There should be a note there that says Amazon.com,” Hazel helpfully supplies.

GM: Layne’s face lights up. “It does! I don’t know what it means though.”

Hazel: “It’s a place you can buy clothes online, Layne. Like my leggings. The clothes arrive by your mailbox and you don’t ever have to leave your house. Except to go to the mailbox. Or your front door, if you opt to have it delivered there.”

GM: “Wow, that sounds great!” She looks down at Hazel’s clothes. “I like your leggings.”

Hazel: “Thanks. They’re pretty comfortable. I’m never wearing tights again.” The conversation is easier when it’s literally been rehearsed. “Would you like me to show you how to order clothes of your own?”

GM: “You would, really? That sounds really nice, Hazel. I was just thinking about bribing an AV geek into showing me how it works. I also thought about asking Vice Principal Schoening, but I don’t want to bother him. He’s really dreamy.”

Hazel: “You can save your money, Layne. I’ll show you how for free.” Hazel’s eyes are more sad than impatient as she repeats her earlier words.

GM: Layne flicks Hazel a naughty, impish grin, looks around, then whispers into Hazel’s ear. “Oh, I don’t use money with the AV geeks. Just a banana.” She pulls back and giggles.

Hazel: Oh. She didn’t mean a monetary bribe, Hazel thinks confusedly. Her mom has told her that she tends to take statements fairly literally.

She manages a smile. “Well. I’d be glad to save you the banana. Bananas do cost money too. So you are bribing them with money, indirectly.”

GM: “You know, Hazel, I never thought of it like that.” She stares at Hazel for a moment, her lips slanted, drooping on one side. She smiles, erasing the defect. “We’re friends.”

Hazel: Once again, Hazel isn’t sure how to respond to that declaration. Is it true? Well, she feels bad for Layne after all she’s seen. Including the more together Layne who sometimes pokes through. That Layne still seems friendly and to appreciate what Hazel does. She isn’t sure if she ‘appreciates’ the ‘other Layne’ back, as they haven’t had time to get to know one another. But Hazel would like to see more of her. Certainly, that’s out of intellectual curiosity and moral objection over what ROSEWATER did to her. On a personal level… well, Hazel never really knew Layne in high school, but she seemed intelligent and friendly enough. They haven’t been able to go over a list of common interests, compare their respective… but maybe she’s overthinking this whole ‘friend’ thing. Hazel isn’t sure if she means the words, but she thinks that she’d like to—or at least to make Layne feel happy—as she replies,

“Thanks, Layne. We are friends.”

GM: Her uncle’s words echo in her mind: Entitas ipsa involvit aptitudinem ad extorquendum certum assensum._ (“Reality involves the power to compel sure assent.”)_

Hazel: That actually is… kind of comforting. I am, knowingly, consenting to this. I think.

GM: Layne looks over her clipboard. “It’s lunchtime, and I’m in the library with you. Will you teach me how to shop on Amazon.com?”

Hazel: Hazel smiles. “Yes. Sure.” She walks over to the desktop computer and logs in.

“First you need to create an account at Amazon, which we can do. You’ll need an email address to register the account with. Which we can also set up if you don’t have.” Hazel thinks for a moment. Actually… “You’ll also need a credit or debit card. Do you have either of those?” Hazel isn’t quite sure of Layne’s living situation, beyond that she does, indeed, make her own lunch, but… well, to say that she has doubts over Layne’s ability to manage money is putting things rather mildly.

GM: What next transpires is a harrowing experience that is sure to gain Hazel sainthood, or at least a thumb’s up and look of pity from an archangel or two.

Nonetheless, Hazel manages to break down the initially simple but eventually agonizingly tedious process into all of its singular components, till Layne has a step-by-step instructional manual on how to not only reach, but shop at, Amazon.com. Indeed, Hazel considers the job so well done that Layne might just be able to pull it off. Maybe.

Hazel: I’ll consider that a win, she sighs, mentally (and socially) exhausted. Hazel would probably offer to look over some clothes with Layne at this point, but promises to do it ‘later’ instead. She really needs some alone time right now, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

GM: Ironically, just as Hazel thinks about her ‘time’ to herself, the intercom bell rings, announcing that her lunch hour is over, and a class is due to arrive in a few minutes.

Layne beams beatifically with gratitude. “Thank you soooo much, Hazel. You’re the best!”

“Oh,” she says jumping at the bell, “I need to go to…” She regards her clipboard. “…my office.” She stands, keeping her finger placed on her note for the hour.

Hazel: Hazel groans inside. Really, really groans. She doesn’t want to do this after all that effort spent helping Layne.

She forces a smile as she’s thanked. “You’re welcome, Layne.” With the bell ringing, she has no time to execute the long and convoluted approach to the topic that makes her nervous. Ironically, Hazel’s tiredness and used-up patience is actually to her benefit, as her next words are short, sweet, and direct.

“Ah. Would you like to work in the library as a library assistant? We’d be able to see each other more. I could use the help. And Agnes doesn’t seem that nice.” She then finishes, more awkwardly than when she started, “So we’d both benefit. If all present appearances are any indication.”

GM: Layne smiles delightedly. “Oh, I’d love to help! I’d have to ask Vice Principal Schoening, of course.” She clicks her pen and writes a new note. “Ask Leo about working in library with Hazel. She is my friend. Cross out when you have asked him.”

Hazel: Hazel’s return expression displays no small amount of relief. That was almost as bad as being asked on a date. And fairly painless, the way Layne just… said yes. Like a shot, the fear is a worse than the actual sensation.

“That’s… that’s great, Layne. I’ll ask him too, when I next see him. I’m sure he’ll say yes.”

GM: “He is pretty amazing, isn’t he?” she says with a sigh.

Hazel: “Yes, he is. Though I suspect I consider him so for different reasons, we are united by our commonality of opinion.”

GM: Layne laughs. “You know, Hazel, sometimes you say the strangest things. I like it.”

Hazel: “I’m… told that with great frequency,” Hazel agrees. It’s only a moment, though, before Layne’s words bring a smile to her face. It’s not often that her autism earns her compliments. “But, thanks.”

GM: After smiling for a while, Layne catches sight of the clock, looks down at her clipboard, and says, “Oh, I need to go to my office. Love you, bye!” Then just like that, Layne Tuttle says goodbye and leaves the library, her finger pressed down on her note.

Hazel: “Bye, Layne. See you soon.” Hazel doesn’t feel comfortable saying she loves her too, so she waves instead. The motion seems a little odd when they’re in the same room.

GM: It’s about the same time that Jake returns. He shelves his minor stack of books, looks at the clock, and asks somewhat guiltily, “Can I use the restroom, Ms. Bauman?”

Hazel: Barely one person is out the door before the next one is in. Hazel could well glower he should’ve used it during lunch, but right now she really doesn’t want to deal with more people. Anything that gets him out of her hair. “Yes, take your time. The books will remain,” she bids him.

GM: “Thanks,” he replies, then shuffles out, hands in his jacket pockets.

Hazel: Hazel looks up at the clock as Jake leaves. Once he does, she sinks down on the floor behind the front desk, clasps her arms around her knees and presses her head against them. An onlooker who saw her in the position might think she’s crying, but she’s not. She isn’t upset. Teaching and dealing with Layne was simply… draining. Hazel just wants some time away from people right now. She wishes the clock’s hands could speed ahead to the end of her day, but she settles for glancing at her watch and permitting herself a single minute of her desired solitude.

GM: Solitude is hers for the moment, but the acrid smell of bleach and coppery dark stains robs her of any measure of restful solace.

Hazel: Oh, god… she thinks. No, she wasn’t thinking. She shuffles a few feet away, still behind the desk.

GM: Does the floor squish as she shuffles away? She tries not to think about it.

Hazel: Hazel enjoys the ‘peace’ as best she can, which is admittedly little given the still-fresh memories of the panic attack and knowledge of Jake’s imminent return. Still, time alone is time alone. She picks herself up after a moment and smooths her dress, not rejuvenated, but at least buttressed. When Jake returns, she tells him that he can either catalog books in the far section of the library, or simply read outside the room for five minutes, admittedly brief a window as it is. It’s a mildly peculiar set of instructions, but he’s probably getting accustomed to peculiar from Ms. Bauman by now.

GM: Peculiar indeed, but not a gift horse’s mouth he looks into. He elects to read outside the room.

Hazel: Hazel picks up the library’s phone, dials ‘9’ to get out, and then a full number. “Hi Mom, it’s me,” she smiles. She’s called her mother’s personal cell. She doesn’t like talking to the secretarial staff and it’s a faster way of getting ahold of the often-busy corporate lawyer anyways.

GM: Hazel’s luck holds out twice. First, that her mother is able to pick up, and second, that she is in an area with cell service. The reception, however, is poor. Lydia’s voice sounds like it is coming through a tin-can that is occasionally being rattled. “Hazel! How’s work going?”

Hazel: “That’s… a long story, Mom,” Hazel ponders. “But in summarization, I’ve made several police-related and Biblical-themed threats comparing myself to the seven-headed beast from Revelation, Uncle Leo showed me… oh, never mind, I’ve exhausted my patience showing, well, someone who’s functionally a halfwit but still fairly nice how to order clothes online, and I’ve had three, no, those first several were at home, panic attacks, and the library’s equipment is wonderful.” She pauses and then adds, as if to explain it all, “Taken as a whole, the day has been a positive one thus far.”

GM: “Come again? I’m afraid you’re breaking up, dear.”

Hazel: Hazel repeats her bizarre summary in a somewhat louder voice to cut through any static.

GM: “I see,” her mother’s tin-can voice replies.

Hazel: “I suppose it’ll make sense when explained in more depth and accompanied by the full context,” Hazel grants.

GM: “Well, I am proud of you securing employment, again that is. It’s a step to better things. Not something you want to settle for, dear, but a step in the right direction.”

Hazel: “Uh, that’s right, Mom. It will look good on a resume.” Hazel finds it easiest just to agree with her mother on such matters. Particularly when she isn’t sure what direction she ultimately wants to step towards.

GM: “Yes, so work extra hard today. A good first impression will make it easier to get a good letter of reference when you leave.”

Hazel: “I have been, Mom. I was told the interview was just a formality, but I think I made a very good impression on Uncle Leo.”

GM: The reception warbles a bit like a scratchy vinyl record. “That’s very good to hear.” There’s a sound like… like a helicopter? Voices in the background, too distorted to make out.

Hazel: “Is that a chopper you’re by?” Hazel asks.

GM: “What’s that, dear?”

Hazel: “Is that a chopper you’re by?” she repeats.

GM: “Y-s, we h-ve a b-….” The reception is no longer poor—it’s atrocious.

Hazel: Hazel grimaces. “You’re breaking up, Mom.”

GM: “G-t to g-… de-r… w-re… d-nn-r?”

Hazel: “Uh, dinner? Yes, we’re on for tonight. Yes, we’re on for tonight,” she repeats, just in case either reply gets lost over the static.

GM: “Gr—t… l-ve… m-ke… pr-d…”

Hazel: “I’m sorry, what are you saying?”

GM: The connection finally gives up its communicative charade.

Hazel: Hazel sighs and sets the phone down on the receiver. She supposes she’ll just have to call her mom’s office to confirm their plans. Or maybe she’ll just try the cell again. She’d really rather not talk to her mom’s secretary if she can avoid it.

GM: Outside, the noise of many feet, broken by the occasional adolescent hoot, laugh, or shout, approaches.

Hazel: Ugh, is still Hazel’s first thought. But she puts on her game face and turns to confront this first of many necessary evils.

GM: Two dozen or so students fill into the library. By their height and physical development, they are clearly upperclassmen, Hazel intuits. Compared to her tattooed assistant, they appear relatively clean-cut and well-groomed. Their adolescent fashions range from rodeo aficionado to yuppie-chic.

A deep yet poetic voice cuts through the crowd from the rear of the assembled throng. “All right, you lost generation, let’s put a lid on all that sound and fury, particularly since it signifies nothing.”

The students part, revealing their teacher—and Hazel’s twice-former English teacher, Mr. Murphey, otherwise known as “Murff” to staff and students alike. The tall black man has put on some pounds since she last took his sophomore American literature and senior-year AP British literature class. However, his thick, well-groomed beard is the same, as are his tortoise-rimmed glasses. He wears an untucked dress-shirt of some denim-esque material, with rolled sleeves over a pair of khaki slacks, argyle socks, and comfortable loafers. A cup of coffee is in his hand, as consistent as the small, thick notebook shoved in his breast-pocket.

Cornelius_Murphey.jpg

“Ms. Bauman,” he says with evident mirth at the oh so official title for one of his former students, “Alas, I have here with me a few poor souls adrift in the heady currents of the present moment, yet forced by their cruel taskmaster to consider the harbors of the future they might yet swim to, if they’re swift, wise, or just plain lucky.”

He takes a sip of his coffee, then explains, “They need to use the computers to look up potential colleges and work on their application essays. Are there any words of wisdom you wish to impart to this lost generation, or should I release the plebians?”

“Heh, I resemble that remark!” jokes a tall kid in the back.

“Actually, I fancy myself a patrician,” says a well-heeled girl closer to the front.

“Sound and fury, ladies and gents,” Murff lightly chides.

GM: Hazel smiles with genuine pleasure at her former AP literature teacher’s presence. She hadn’t thought about whether there was a class she’d prefer to have in the library first, but upon reflection, this one is it. And are these kids really high school students? They look so much younger than she remembers being. Comparing their wardrobes to Murff’s and her own turtleneck dress and similar loafers, she actually doesn’t feel that ill-suited to a teacher’s role. And the students sound… nice. Funny. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.

“That’s what they are here for, Mr. Murphey. I don’t know if my words will be wise enough to find a generation so hopelessly lost—the patricians among it notwithstanding–,” she adds in amused acknowledgment to the girl, “–but I can certainly try my hand.”

She turns to face the body of students. “Hi everyone, welcome to the library. A lot of you probably didn’t listen to the intercom announcements, so my name is Hazel Bauman, or Ms. Bauman as I’m still getting used to, and I will be your new librarian. I’m Undersheriff Bauman’s daughter, I graduated from high school here five years ago, and Mr. Murphey was my favorite teacher while I was a Kelpie.” The line after ‘and’ is a deviation from the speech she prepared in advance for the occasion.

“I also remember how boring I found listening to teachers talk about themselves, so I will be at the front desk if you have any questions or other matters you need assistance with.” She smiles, briefly waits to see if the students have any questions, and then steps aside to allow them access to the computers.

GM: The class murmurs a collective if jumbled salutation and expression of gratitude. A few of the students, particularly of the male persuasion, flash Hazel smiles and wave hello. Murff just smiles, genuinely pleased if only slightly surprised. “Better be careful with that praise, Ms. Bauman—my wife says my head’s too big already.” He then turns back to his class and waves a hand. “Fly, you fools!”

Hazel: Hazel laughs a bit at that line and declares with a sweep of her own hand, “You may pass!”

GM: As the students comply, he adds, “So it looks like you’ll have to break into groups of two to three for each computer. Remember you need to complete the rubric five times for schools you think are appropriate and five more times for schools you think aren’t. So just for the record, since I know this isn’t Meierhoff’s class, five plus five equals how many total sheets per person?”

“Uh, negative 5?” a kid answers.

“Try again, Parker.”

“Forty-two. The answer’s always forty-two,” another jibes.

Murff gives up with a mock huff and disowning gesture. He strides towards Hazel’s desk. “So much for the theory of evolution. I blame TV.”

Hazel: “I wouldn’t give up on evolution just yet,” Hazel rejoinds. “Natural selection, after all, will still conspire to kill off those organisms with less than advantageous survival traits. ‘The Laws of Nature are just, but terrible. There is no weak mercy in them. Cause and consequence are inseparable and inevitable. The elements have no forbearance. The fire burns, the water drowns, the air consumes, the earth buries.’”

She then finishes the quote with a particularly meaningful, if amused glance towards the students to answer 5 and 42, "’And perhaps it would be well for our race if the punishment of crimes against the Laws of Man were as inevitable as the punishment of crimes against the Laws of Nature-were Man as unerring in his judgments as Nature.’"

GM: Several students look to one another as if unsure of the librarian’s words, both of their severity and potentially their source. Her former teacher, however, breaks into a coffee-stained grin. “Hazel Bauman, laying down my main man Longfellow! Welcome back, girl,” he says extending a knuckled fist to the new librarian.

Hazel: Hazel smiles as she raps her own knuckles against her former teacher’s. This is… this is nice. Yes, after dealing with Layne she might prefer to be lying in bed at home, either watching a movie or surfing on her laptop… but in fairness, Hazel would prefer to do that a lot of the time. Maybe too much of the time, as her parents often remind her. “I’m glad to have introduced some of your students to him, if you haven’t already.”

GM: Murff takes another swig of his cup and sits down atop the desk. “I had most of these yokels two years ago, but since then, they’ve discovered licensed driving, pubic hair, and looking almost old enough to buy liquor. Longfellow rarely makes the cut.”

“I still might take you up on that offer with my sophomores. But forget them for a moment,” he says waving his hand at the students. “I would have bet all my kids’ Halloween candy that you weren’t ever coming back.”

Hazel: Hazel looks moderately surprised. “Oh? Why was that?”

GM: Murff scratches his beard. “Hmm, well forgive me if my own quotation is a little rusty, but I remember a certain someone’s sophomore midterm essay ended something like… ‘I wish Poe wasn’t dead, and everyone in this school was dead instead…. or better yet, keep them alive so Poe can wall them up alive inside these school walls to rot forever’…”

Hazel: Hazel blushes a bit at that. “That was the essay I titled Fall of the House of WFHS, wasn’t it? It wasn’t even accurate. The sister did come out of the walls, in the end. Well, granted, to still die. So maybe I took some artistic license.” Hazel realizes she’s rambling and concludes, “But that was seven or eight years ago. I’ve grown up. Or at least I hope I have.”

GM: Murff chuckles, “Some of us these days just grow out.”

Hazel: “Movement is still preferable to stasis,” Hazel opines.

GM: “Yeah, the movement of my hand shoving donuts in my mouth instead of dropping buckets. But as exciting as my new pants’ size is, I think we have bigger news. Assuming you’re not here to wall us all up for our many sins, what brought you back?”

Hazel: “On my word of honor, and cross my heart and hope to die, I am not here to murder the school through mass entombment.” Hazel manages a wry smile. “But so far as what brought about my prodigal return, well, I earned my degree. I like what’s familiar, and my parents are here. So when my dad called about the job opening, well, I figured why not?”

Of course, put another way, Hazel was too lazy to go to grad school (despite a rich mother who could pay for it), too directionless to know what she’d want to study, unable to develop or maintain any significant interpersonal relationships outside of her immediate family, and depressed as hell. Moving back to Witiko Falls means she can distract herself and blow off life by investigating the town’s paranormal oddness, only now that she’s no longer living with her parents, she needs to hold down a paying job and being a librarian was the least objectionable one available.

Not that she’s about to admit it. Even to herself.

GM: “Well, I’ll happily inform the staff that our murders will occur through other devilish means. Speaking of killin-”

He’s interrupted by a flannel and jean-wearing teenager. “Um, sorry to interrupt, Murff, but we’re having some trouble with our computer.”

Hazel: Hazel glances her former teacher’s way to first see if he wants to handle it. It’s his class and the student’s talking to him. That kind of context is important. Though upon reflection, she also recalls Murff isn’t much of a computer person. She decides to ‘gamble’ on being polite.

GM: “Your hardware,” he says to Hazel.

Hazel: Did she handle that wrong? Hazel isn’t sure. People are less understandable than computers. Fortunately for Murff’s class, however, computers are something she understands very well.

“Just show me what the problem is,” she says, moving to accompany the student.

GM: The ‘problem’ Hazel quickly diagnoses is that one of the students accidentally stepped on and turned off a power cord’s switch. One flick and a quick reboot later, and the group is back surfing potential colleges.

Hazel: She has to resist an impulse to roll her eyes.

GM: Meanwhile, their English teacher is checking out the scanner. After another student asks him a quick question, he turns back to Hazel. “Frankenstein’s monster is alive and well, I hope?”

Hazel: “Well, he technically still was when the book ended.” Hazel doesn’t get what Murff is referring to, so she settles on literary references and smiling as she indicates the scanner. “It’s wonderful, isn’t it? The library collection already is, for a school of our size. And now we get to bring it out of the dark ages.”

GM: “Sounds like a lot work,” he says looking at the maze of books. “They giving you any help?”

Hazel: She nods at his first statement. “It’ll take a long time. I’ve thankfully had help from a student today, though only today. I might have someone lined up as an assistant librarian. But if you ever give any students detention, well, do please kick them over here. And between us, I won’t be too upset if I have to hand out many detentions myself. The prison-industrial complex at its finest.”

GM: He nods. “Will do, though believe it or not, some of these kids might just help if asked in the right way. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

Hazel: That makes Hazel pause. “Oh. I… hadn’t thought to do that. It’s a good idea.”

GM: He looks around, his eyes taking on a troubled gleam, then all but whispers, “They tell you what happened to Mrs. Griswold?”

Hazel: Her old teacher’s second statement makes Hazel pause for even longer. Her eyes briefly cut about about the various students.

“Yes. That she was taken away, and declared legally dead, with complete disregard for due process of law,” Hazel states, her voice quiet but firm. A more cautious, more prudent individual might know better than to say as much openly. This doesn’t gain her anything. But to the young woman with ASD, that’s what she thinks of the situation, so that’s what she says. The government’s, mayor’s, and faculty’s actions are all so nonsensical to her.

GM: Murff oddly shakes his head twice, as if once to himself and once to her. “Y-yeah.” His eyes shift away from her face. Not so much to anything, just away. His gaze, however, serendipitously falls on the small chapbook. “Germelshausen. Speaking of your uncle, how’d the interview go?” His voice slowly, maybe even forcibly, resumes its normal laid-back tone.

Hazel: Hazel doesn’t know what to make of her new colleague’s reaction. Is he upset? Scared? Surprised? She doesn’t get human behavior any more than she did at the start of the school day. “Very well, I think,” she replies. “I’d thought it was just a formality at first. But he took it very seriously, and I feel proud that I did well.”

GM: “That’s good,” Murff says, eying his former student with a hint of caution that she likely misses. “Did he throw you any curve-balls? I mean, odd questions or whatnot?”

Hazel: “Every conversation with Uncle Leo is a curveball. I don’t think he’d have it any other way. Er, Vice Principal Schoening. I’m still getting used to that. And ‘Ms. Bauman.’”

GM: “Yeah,” he says, chewing on some thought. “Speaking of names, I remember he gave me this long lecture on the symbolic power and mutability of names. At first I thought he was riffing on my nickname and about to tell me that I had to go by Mr. Murpehy or somesuch, but it turned out he was actually talking about my first name and its connection to some Roman centurion who went all born again. He didn’t strike me as a religious type.”

Hazel: “Really? I’d think St. Jerome would be a more fitting saint to bring up for you. Cornelius was just one of those obscure little Ante-Nicene Popes who all got made into saints.” Hazel pauses. “Er, no, never mind. I’m thinking of a different Cornelius there.”

GM: Murff laughs. “He wasn’t very impressed when I told him my mother, mid-labor pains, randomly opened the bible and had my dad read aloud the first name he came across.”

Hazel: Hazel frowns. “Names should be chosen with care. They are what someone will carry for all their life.”

GM: Murff raises an eyebrow. “Cut from the same cloth I see,” he mutters softly.

Hazel: “Oh. Ah. If they liked how the name sounded, there was certainly nothing wrong,” Hazel offers.

GM: “Relax, as I said, he wasn’t too impressed with the story. But truth be told, he wasn’t too phased by it either. I remember he just said something like ‘pain is a common path to enlightenment’. Coming from a Holocaust survivor, I didn’t argue the point.”

Hazel: “That was likely prudent,” Hazel agrees. “And I’d agree with him. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, as conventional wisdom holds.”

GM: “Maybe,” he replies. “Although… it sure made me think long and hard when it came time to name my first kid.” His face lightens a bit as he sets down his cup and fishes out his wallet from his back pocket. He flips it open and proudly displays a picture of two to three-year-old black boy dressed up in a Kelpie costume. “Last year’s homecoming game. My little man.”

Hazel: “He looks very enthusiastic for the sport,” Hazel compliments. “And cute.”

GM: Murff turns the picture to regard it for a moment. “Yeah…” With a small measure of reluctance, he folds up the wallet and stuffs it in his pocket. “Named him Simon, you know, after the apostle who baptized Cornelius.”

Hazel: “That’s very fitting. It certainly had to have been a life-changing event, just as it was for Cornelius to receive his baptism in that time period.”

GM: “Yes. It was.”

Another student interrupts. “Hey, Murff?”

“Yo.”

“We were wondering, what about universities outside the US?”

“So long as you can get all the information on the sheet, go for it.”

“Uh, ok, thanks.” The students quickly go back to their work.

Hazel: Hazel smiles pleasantly through the interruption and preceding conversation. She isn’t quite sure what else to say about her former teacher’s child. Long-dead historical and religious figures are easier for her to talk about. There does seem to be an overriding theme as to the power of names, though.

GM: Murff checks his leather-band watch. “Fifteen minute warning, folks. Make sure you save your work on your floppies.” He then turns his attention back to his ex-student, now colleague. A mischievous light dances in his eyes and at the corners of his bearded lips. “So, is my class first? You know, the first class to make use of the library today?”

Hazel: “Yes. They have deflowered this newly-reopened library,” Hazel declares.

GM: “Uh,” he says, seemingly taken aback by the wording. But then he recalls the person with whom he’s speaking. The smile returns. “Victory is mine. Lounge A had a bet over who’d be the first class to get back into the Chimera.”

Hazel: “Really? I’d think that would be an odd thing to bet over. Everyone could actively try to get their class in first. But I hope it was a large betting pool.”

GM: He chuckles with a big wide, wolfish grin. “Little did they know, but I have a surefire spell with old Agnes.”

Hazel: “Oh, you decided to make your own betting luck?” Hazel inquires, amused.

GM: “Luck is not chance—
It’s Toil—
Fortune’s expensive smile
Is earned—
The Father of the Mine
Is that old-fashioned Coin
We spurned—”

Hazel: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” Hazel quotes back.

GM: Murff frowns in thought. “Hmm, I don’t recall that one. Is it American or British? Poor Richard’s?”

Hazel: “Italian, if we are going strictly by modern geographical boundaries. I believe it was by Seneca. Although whether it is actually by him has been disputed.”

GM: “Ah, outside my usual stomping grounds, so I guess I’ll not kick myself too much. Looks like I can’t escape the Romans. But give me Emily over a whole legion any day of the week.” He thinks for a moment. “You know, she reminds me of you in a lot of ways, or well, you of her.”

Hazel: “How would you say there?” Hazel inquires. “I’ve always preferred novels over poetry.” Well, okay, Emily admittedly was about as social as someone with ASD.

GM: “More in terms of personality than publications.”

Hazel: “Ah. I can see the similarities,” Hazel grants. She looks down at her black sweater dress with its matching black leggings. “I do seem to prefer the opposite color as she did.”

GM: “Yeah, I can se–” he says, halting mid-sentence as he spots Jake returning to restock his pile of labels. “Brother Grimm!” he calls out warmly, extending a fist to the lanky, tattooed youth.

“Brother Murff,” Jake replies bumping fists with the older man in an elaborate pattern. Jake then slips a nervous eye at Hazel.

Murff puts his arm around Jake and asks Hazel, “So this is the cretin they send you?”

Hazel: The ritual is lost on Hazel, but perhaps to Jake’s relief (or at least not his increased apprehension), she does not look particularly reproachful. “Yes. He has been of significant assistance. I’ve had no other helpers today.”

GM: Jake says nothing. Murff playfully punches the lad in the shoulder. “Well, Brother Grimm here is a good guy to have on your team. He might smell sometimes like he’s been playing in the weeds, but he knows his way around this place. Better than I do, I’d wager.”

Hazel: Hazel is initially unsure of what to say. “Really? I can certainly tell he enjoys books. He recognized the one on my desk. Which I actually have yet to get around to reading.”

GM: “Yeah, I think Schoening gives a copy to all the new staff. A weird house-warming gift, but well, that’s the vice principal.”

Jake looks like he might say something, but he holds his tongue in front of the Beast.

Murff jerks a thumb at the tattooed youth. “This guy give you any trouble?”

Hazel: “I was riding out a panic attack when he came in on me. I am certain it was… unusual to witness,” Hazel states with her usual delicateness. “But he took it in stride and has been very helpful.”

GM: The bluntness of the admission causes both Jake and Murff to blink. “Uh… that’s good, Hazel, I mean, Ms. Bauman,” her former teacher says.

Hazel: Oh. Did he forget I have those? I thought my parents told all my teachers, Hazel mentally frowns, still overlooking the larger source of Murff’s surprise. “Yes. So we had a somewhat rocky introduction. I didn’t explain it very well. But our working relationship since then has been satisfactory.”

GM: Murff catches Jake’s odd glance and tries to change the subject by asking him, “So did you tell her what got you your little ISS?”

Hazel: “Why no, I hadn’t thought to ask,” Hazel remarks.

GM: “I think you’ll get a kick out of this,” Murff says to Hazel, then motions to Jake to begin. “Go on then, spin us the yarn, Grimm.”

Hazel: Hazel looks towards Jake, now genuinely curious to know what got him suspended and sent to the WFHS library. Or the Beast’s lair, as he may well now think of it.

GM: Jake, or “Brother Grimm”, looks at Hazel with a tempered wariness. “I snuck into Fleischer’s class and hid all my class’ copies of the Memoirs of Hecate County.”

“The book you were all reading in-class,” Murff clarifies.

“The book we were re-reading,” Jake corrects with a rising edge.

Hazel: Hazel can’t suppress a smile upon hearing that. “I hated Fleischer’s class too.”

GM: “When we finished it last week and still didn’t have access to the library, the slob was too lazy to actually teach, so he made us start over from the beginning.”

Hazel: There aren’t many people at Falls High lazier than Hazel. But there aren’t none either. “So what happened when he found the books missing?” Hazel is genuinely curious. She would place 50/50 odds on him either spontaneously imploding or simply dismissing class. She briefly glances towards Murff, mildly curious as to his own opinion on their colleague’s ‘teaching’ methods.

GM: Murff’s antipathy towards his indolent peer is well-known, and it does not seem to have changed in Hazel’s absence. The bearded man laughs and twirls his finger as if to say, ‘go on’.

Jake continues, his own opinion towards the absent English ‘teacher’ all-too evident, even if he does not join the others’ joviality. “He had us look for the books—while he went whining to the nun.”

“Principal,” Murff corrects mildly. The man’s smile returns again, though, as he goads the student. “Tell Ms. Bauman how you got busted.”

Jake runs a hand over his buzzed scalp, and even he can’t suppress a smile. “When I yanked the class’ reading material, I took it all—everyone’s reading ‘material’, Fleischer’s included.”

Hazel: Hazel has to cup her hands over her mouth to keep from guffawing too loudly in front of the other students.

hazel_laughing.jpg

GM: “But I don’t jack off to tranny-mags from Nixon’s presidency–,” Jake continues, “–so I pawned them off to a guy I know. But that shyza-eating dummkopf started flashing them off in Vosburg’s math class to a bunch of freshmen.”

Hazel: Hazel is still stifling snickers behind her hands. Part of her vaguely says she should project a more composed image around students, but, really. Fleischer had it coming.

GM: “Naturally, she freaked, went crying to the nun, er, principal, and she in turn put the screws on my ex-pal. He squealed and the shit rolled downstream. And here I am.”

Hazel: Hazel finally lowers her hands. “I cannot say that I condone theft, but the punishment’s pain would not appear to outweigh the misdeed’s pleasure.” Her tone is amused, however, rather than reproachful. She does feel a little odd now that the story is over. She’d been gnawing Jake’s head off only a few hours ago.

GM: The oddness is clearly reciprocated by Jake, if missed or mistaken in source by Murff.

“And the ‘reading materials’?” the latter asks.

“The Memoirs all reappeared,” Jake says vaguely. “Fleischer of course denied ownership of his junk. I’m assuming Principal Gorczak destroyed them, which means Fleischer’s hand is probably going through withdrawals.”

“Mind the lady in the room, Brother Grimm,” Murff says with a wagging finger.

“Right,” the tattooed students with a greasy layer of sarcasm.

Hazel: I really shouldn’t be snickering like this, Hazel thinks as her hands go over her mouth again. Even she, though, has enough presence of mind not to add, Well serves him right if it withers into a claw and falls off. Who reads mags when you can find it all online?

GM: The older staff checks his watch, then calls out to his class. “Friends, Romans, countryman… time to wrap things up.”

“Yeah, I’d better get back to work,” Jake says excusing himself. He grabs another handful of labels and heads off to his drudgery.

“Catch ya later, Brother Grimm,” Murff calls.

Hazel: Not for the first time, Hazel isn’t quite sure what to say around this given person. But she is sure of what she wants to say to Murff’s class as she calls out, “One final thing, everyone! It is my pleasure to announce that the library is finally leaving the dark ages behind for the digital age, and phasing out stamps for scanners.”

“There is glory, honor, and praise for those valorous souls who wish to assist in labeling the huge backlog of books. By which I mean there is little besides your librarian’s gratitude, and a few indirect benefits. The sooner the cataloging backlog gets finished, the more time I can devote to the library’s other resources and services, such as research assistance, tutoring, upgrading the computers, acquiring new books, and so on—as well as organizing the Junior Deputies’ club I will be mentoring.” Is that the right word? Maybe she should have said ‘in charge of.’

“Assistance is welcome from all individuals at all times and hours. Before school, after school, or during an open period, is all–,” Hazel grabs the first word to jump into her head, “–equally contributive to bringing our library into the 20th century.” Genuinely not sure what to finish her impromptu speech with, Hazel simply says, “Thank you!”

In fairness to herself, Hazel knows that her teenage self likely wouldn’t have taken up a request by Mrs. Griswold to help catalog books. But Murff said she should try asking, and, well, what does she have to lose?

GM: Her speech’s reception is, well, another mystery to the young woman with ASD. After all, she’s honestly never been good at reading people, particularly strangers. But she doesn’t notice any egregious eye-rolling, snickering, or vacant stares that she might have feared or expected. Or well, a few of the boys might be staring, but their thoughts don’t seem particularly vacant. Tedious, and maybe even prurient, but not vacant.

As the students eject their floppies, logout, and pack up their things, Murff gives Hazel a shrug. “Not a bad start. I’ll see if I can get the ball rolling.”

Hazel: “You already did. The idea honestly didn’t occur to me,” Hazel admits. “But I’ll be most obliged if you can roll it along any further.”

GM: “Don’t mention it. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that I was wearing similar shoes. Metaphorically speaking,” he adds for Hazel’s benefit.

Hazel: The reference still goes over Hazel’s head. After all, it was quite a few years ago that Murff started teaching. So she just smiles.

GM: He picks up his coffee mug, winces a bit at the now cold beverage, but downs the rest in one gulp. “But what I mean to say–,” he continues, “–is that if you have any questions or want any advice about how to make the hurdle from ex-student to staff, shoot me an email or hit me up in the lounge.”

Hazel: Hazel is a bit taken aback by that phraseology. Isn’t she perceived as staff already? She was hired by her uncle, who clearly thought she was qualified, so what else does there need to be to it? Is this another stupid social game? The new librarian’s sourness, however, is tempered by her former teacher’s helpful tone. He did say if she had any questions. And, in fairness, she isn’t sure if she should have been giggling like that over Jake’s story. She can’t really picture any of her former teachers having the same reaction. Then again, none of her teachers were as young as she is.

“Thank you, Murff. I will be glad to do that.”

Or did he not mean in the social sense, but just… Hazel gives a mental sigh. Whether she indeed makes the hurdle from ex-student to staff, understanding other people doesn’t appear to be on the imminent horizon.

GM: He shoots her a thumbs up. “Can you do me a little favor though? Just, when you next see Fleischer, tell him I said, ‘Nevermore’. He’ll get the message.”

Hazel: Hazel grins with genuine pleasure at her former teacher’s request. She isn’t quite sure what that message is, but she doubts it will be one to Fleischer’s liking. “Evermore.”

GM: The period bell rings. Murff gives Hazel a histrionic bow, then ushers his students out of the library. To the last straggling student, he beckons, “Come on, Rip Van Winkle, the world’s moving on with or without you.”

And true to Murff’s words, the world moves on.

Previous: Chapter 1

Next: Chapter 3

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