by M. M. De Voe
The following excerpt of "Checking Out" is from Silver Webb's All Hallows' Eve: The Thinning Veil, an anthology of 13 wicked tales, now available in our bookstore and on Amazon.
Halloween is the worst day to have an important doctor’s appointment, but these days, of course, you take what you can get as regards doctors. Once the rain had tapered off, I took my lunch break, informing Kathy I might be longer than usual.
“Dr. Absheer insisted on a follow-up scan,” I told her. “Never great if they want extra tests, but nice, in a way, that his office is never crowded anymore.”
We laughed but it was a bleak, bureaucratic sound, and she wished me luck and let me know she didn’t take my earlier behavior personally, and I could take as long as I needed at the doctor. She laid this guilt over my shoulders, implying I deserved misery, as if it were some kind of heavy antique coat made of motheaten fur that she blamed me for owning.
“Have a great Halloween,” I said in reply. I knew she hated the holiday. Brought out all the crazies, she said. She wasn’t wrong.
While I was in the library’s vestibule, gauging the dark skies and wet sidewalks, umbrella at the ready despite the lull in precipitation, an elderly figure dragged a vertical shopping cart with two wobbly wheels toward the front doors. The figure was hunched, and not as tall as me, but gave the appearance of great height. I couldn’t understand this strange aura, and it made me linger in the doorway, pretending to fuss with my umbrella.
Possibly the paper pumpkins I had plastered all over the empty community bulletin board this morning had made me alert to weird things. This figure definitely qualified. Street litter swirled in odd little eddies behind him. He looked like a mummy or a shambling mound. I quickly assigned him D&D stats: constitution 5, strength about a 15… hit points unlimited…breath weapon ten-foot radius….
I made the assumption that the shuffling form was male, but it was impossible to know for sure because of the elaborate gray shrouds draping him head to toe. I assumed these rags were an ill-conceived defense against the sudden rainstorm, since the cart was stuffed with a soggy black sleeping bag, which appeared to somewhat protect the mass of old pulp paperbacks beneath—there were dozens of these damp books, with lurid titles like The Eyeball on Front Street and Seasons of Death and The Count of Rat-Infested Alleys and Blue Tentacles and Demons of the Cat Planet. I couldn’t stop reading the spines. Where had he found these crazy old novels? Everything on our shelves these days was memoir and self-help. There were still novels, but they were all realistic fiction.
My young manager had chastised me that morning over my curation of a shelf highlighting old monster books. “Yes,” I had argued, “of course the world is full of real horror stories from astonishing places that are politically important, but listen, Kathy, the human imagination is limitless, and sometimes people want to read about monsters that can actually be defeated.”
I must have been standing and staring because the looming mass of fabric startled me with a piercing West African accent, simultaneously melodic and deeply threatening with its implied layers of French-occupied history and individual age and collective folk wisdom, not to mention clear signs of mental instability.
He muttered a string of words: “Spirit, anger, ramen, stairs, lace, italics, flame. Books. Books. Books.” He sounded, I thought, like a missionary priest who had been disillusioned.
He kicked the puddled sidewalk, and emerging from the shrouds, I saw ancient army-issue boots, worn through at the toes and the heels. He was kicking as if the standing water was offensive.
And then he noticed me and fixed me with dark eyes and started again from the top: “Spirit, anger, ramen, stairs…”
Figuring him for one of the many unhoused seniors who take refuge from the weather and the anger of the city in our stacks, I held the door wide. The library is my domain, and I like to think of it as a sanctuary. Not a shelter of course, but temporary sanctuary from the ills of the real world. I tasked myself to connect to this new guy, offer him haven. We all deserve to be treated with dignity.
He moved slowly, the wobble of the cart’s two wheels sending him off balance.
“Welcome,” I said. “Come on in. Glad the rain’s stopped.”
I pushed the heavy door as wide as it would go, then realized that in this position, I was trapped in a narrow vestibule with my back against a wall between two glass doors. All I had in my hands was a small umbrella and in my pocket a cellphone. No defense against unpredictable rage.
“Gonna take me a minute,” he said and shuffled closer. There was no way to ward off the tang of his lifestyle: his smell crawled up my nose, coating my throat and the back of my tongue like the onset of strep. A breeze shoved little papers into the vestibule behind him, and I kicked to get a wet flyer for a local moving company off my shoe.
“No one can rush me,” he continued, “I take my damn time. I don’t run on human clocks.” I held the door while he maneuvered his cart, and because I had stupidly thought I could hold my breath as he passed, I coughed like a maniac, but I continued to hold the door open because it seemed rude to drop and run. Halfway through the door, he lifted the rags from his head, and settled them around his shoulders, revealing a denim cap that said wind demon in yellow stitching.
I couldn’t stop coughing, and secretly wished him to hurry past, secretly wished I hadn’t been kind in the first place, secretly hated myself for my uncharitable wishes. None of us can control nature. This guy had made his choices. Who knows why? Maybe he, like me, had gotten terrible news from a doctor. Maybe this was how he wished to live his last years on the planet. Who was I to judge? After all, hadn’t I been snarling at people for weeks? Telling them to get off their phones. Throwing shade on their book choices. Making them uncomfortable with my vicious librarian demands, when all they wanted was to unwrap a lozenge or listen to music on our computers or sit in a restricted area because it had more space. I threw away a hand-drawn picture as trash and the action was intentional—hadn’t that third grader called me a witch? I forced my mind calm. This man’s situation was not his fault. He was not being aggressive. I could choose to be kind. My eyes watered but I stopped coughing.
“It’s not contagious,” I said. “My cough, I mean. You’re good. It’s just cancer. Just! Crazy times, right? Uh, Happy Halloween?”
To read more of "Checking Out," consult Silver Webb's All Hallows' Eve: The Thinning Veil, an anthology of 13 wicked tales.
M. M. De Voe
M. M. writes interstitial fiction and poetry. Her work can be found in the 2020 anthology, Delirium Corridor as well as the 2019 anthology The Twisted Book of Shadows, which won a Shirley Jackson Award. She has won top prizes in fiction, and co-wrote a sci-fi musical produced in NYC. She founded the literary nonprofit Pen Parentis then collected advice and anecdotes from more than 150 authors about tenacity and time-management in Book & Baby: the complete guide to managing chaos and becoming a wildly successful writer-parent. (Brooklyn Writers Press, 2021) The book won first prize for writing/publishing at the 2021 Indie Awards.