The cruelest gift you can give to a poor child is a library card. Momma took me to get mine when I was nine. It would have been kinder of her to ignore my education, to let me flounder in our underfunded, backwoods school system just the same as the twenty other kids in my class. But I was Momma’s only child, and only family, as far as I knew, and she wanted better for me than what she had.
She was watching the morning news one day on our small tube television when the local station ran a piece on the importance of reading to your children. Momma never was good with letters, and since she couldn’t read aloud to me, she decided the next best thing was to make sure I read to myself.
That afternoon, she marched me three miles down the dirt road that led into town and right up to the small, dilapidated brick building that housed our sad little library. The old woman behind the counter had looked shocked to see the door swing open, and had scrambled up from her chair and come around to give us more help than Momma had been prepared for. Two hours later, I left with a library card and a stack of children’s books so tall that I couldn’t see over them.
I had been miserable ever since.
My world was small and mean. I had been okay with it, when I hadn’t known better. When I’d thought it was the only one. But books showed me otherwise. They taught me that there were infinite worlds, and that they could be whatever the authors who created them wanted them to be. I began escaping into them to distract myself from hunger pangs, or when I was sad, or scared, or angry, or experiencing any emotion that seemed too big for my little body. They became my friends, my tutors, and my confidantes, and I held the secret of them close.
Children are vicious creatures. Don’t believe me? Leave an unacquainted six and two year old alone together for a few hours and see what happens. But you won’t, will you? Because deep down, you’re not really afraid that the two year old will get into something, you’re afraid of the six year old. You just don’t want to admit it.
Every now and then I would slip up around my classmates, use a word they had never heard before. They didn’t like this very much. It made them feel stupid. And because I was the one that knew the word, I must have thought myself smarter than them, better than them, which made them feel like they had to prove that they were better than me at something. Nine out of ten times, that something was fighting.
So I had learned to keep my mouth shut, keep my head down, keep my grades down. I planned my trips to the library for Sunday mornings, when I knew everyone else would be in church. I took hours to complete my homework, meticulously going every answer to ensure that I got just enough questions wrong to keep my grades below a B. You’d think a teacher or two would have noticed something, but adults see what they want to see. In me, they saw a dirty, scrawny piece of trailer trash with bad teeth and eyes set just a tad too wide apart in my face. Didn’t help that I had allergies, and because of them I breathed through my mouth most of the time. All together, these attributes lent me a vague, stupid kind of resting expression, and so that’s all I ever was to them, just another dumb, ugly kid.
As much as I loved books, I also hated them. Because they had made me aware. And with that awareness came discontent and resentment. By the time I started middle school I was angry at everyone and everything around me. Maybe if I had gotten better grades I could have escaped this nowhere town and done something with my life, but to do that would be to face ridicule, and I was too chicken shit to risk getting my ass kicked every day for being a nerd. At the same time, I realized that this cowardice was the very thing trapping me in a place I hated. It was a vicious circle, and it turned me into a vicious child.
Momma suffered the most from it. “Ruby Lee,” she would say to me mid-tantrum, “You came into this world running from the devil, but you didn’t run fast enough. He caught up with you, girl, and gave you some of his temper before he took off after another poor soul.” Then she would drag me outside by my earlobe, hang a rug over a tree branch out back and have me beat it until I couldn’t lift my arms. In my mind, it wasn’t a frayed old carpet I was laying into, but a knight in full armor. Or a fire-breathing dragon. Or an orc.
Before books, I didn’t have much of an imagination. After them, I didn’t have much of a reality.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t see him when he sauntered in. I was too busy daydreaming about the urban fantasy I had been reading before my shift had started, imagining myself within its pages. The diner I worked at was just off the highway, and so we saw all kinds; families with their screaming infants, road-weary truckers, but never anything like him.
It was the hush I noticed.
I looked up from where I had been absentmindedly wiping the counter down with a wet rag and there he was, sitting in the chair right across from me like he had appeared out of the blue. Behind him, the few patrons we had were openly staring.
I couldn’t blame them. To me, he looked like a movie star. I’d never seen anyone so handsome in real life, so that’s all I had to compare him to. He had thick, dark hair that was just long enough to show it had a little bit of wave to it, suntanned skin, bright blue eyes, a straight nose, full lips, and white teeth, which I could see, because he was smiling at me.
I blinked at him like a deer in headlights. “Uh, hi. What can I get for you?”
“I’ll have a chocolate malt,” he said. His voice was deep and even, with a hint of excitement in it. “You have those here, right?”
I nodded rather stupidly. “Yeah.”
“And a cheeseburger with French fries, please,” he added.
“Sure, coming right up,” I said, turning my back on him.
I rolled my eyes at myself. Coming right up? I’d been a waitress for three years, and that was the first time I’d uttered those clichéd words. I put his order in for the burger first then got his malt ready.
“Thanks, Ruby,” he said, when I handed it to him.
I almost asked him how he knew my name before I remembered that I had a nametag pinned to my chest. That temporary forgetfulness irked me. I’d never lost my head over a man, and I’d be damned if I ever would. Which made me think about Momma. For a woman who never went to church, she had sure liked to talk about sin a lot. She said my biggest sin was pride, and had lamented about it often. In that moment, I was thankful for it, because it was my pride that prompted me to stop staring at a man I could never have and get back to work.
I spent the rest of the time he was in the diner trying my damndest to serve him the way I would anyone else. I didn’t give him preferential treatment, I didn’t check on him too many times, and I didn’t look at him any longer than was absolutely necessary to assess whether or not he needed anything.
He downed the malt in near record time, ordered a glass of water as a chaser, and then tucked into his food with gusto. When he was finished, he thanked me for the service, paid his tab, gave me exactly fifteen percent as a tip, and left. I was happy to see him go. Not only had I been overly aware of my every move while he was there, but the diner had been eerily quiet with him in it for some reason, like everyone was holding their breath. I mean, I got it, he was gorgeous, but even young Bobby McIntyre over at the corner booth with his parents was quiet, and that kid never shut up.
When the door closed behind the stranger, it was like someone turned the sound back on. I became aware of the clinking of porcelain coming from the kitchen, the scrape of silverware on plates, the gentle hush of my breathing. Had the radio been on this whole time?
I looked out at the patrons to see many of them blinking at their neighbors as if they too were coming back to themselves. Weird.
“Order!” Chris, the cook I shared this afternoon’s shift with, called through the serving window.
I shook myself from my thoughts and pushed myself into motion. There were three plates, two adult meals and a kid’s mac n’ cheese. I grabbed them and headed toward the McIntyres. Just as I reached the table, I saw a streak of black out of the corner of my eye. It was immediately followed by an almighty wham! that rattled all the windows on that side of the diner.
I wasn’t the only one who nearly jumped out of my skin in response, but I was the only one trying to balance platefuls of food. They all went crashing to the floor. Bobby McIntyre burst into loud hysterical sobs in response, just as old Tommy Rivers from two tables away stood from his seat and came over to help.
“Goddamn bird flew right into it,” he muttered as he squatted down beside me.
I looked up to see a dark smear where it must have hit, tinged with spots of red and pink, as if it had literally bashed its brains out. I shuddered and looked back at the mess I had made on the floor, trying not to draw comparisons between the two.
Chris came out from the back a minute later, and between the three of us, we got everything cleaned up. I apologized to the McIntyres, but, of course, they wanted their meals for free, and I spent ten minutes arguing with them over it. In the end, I gave them their food for half off, knowing that I would have to cover the difference myself. They didn’t leave a tip.
The first thing I did when I got home that night was turn on all of the lights. I still lived in the trailer I had shared with my mother. When she had passed away, the family we rented it from had offered to switch the lease into my name free of charge. Probably because it was so run down that no one else was stupid or desperate enough to pay for it. But it was the only home I’d ever had, and so, mainly out of nostalgia, I had agreed.
It had always felt cramped to me, but tonight it seemed larger than usual, with too many shadows in the corners. I had eaten before I left work, and I kept the place pretty much spotless, so, with nothing much to do for the rest of the night, I retired to the room I had slept in since birth and disappeared back into the book I’d been reading earlier.
My dreams that night were strange, troubled. Filled with fluttering wings and half-glimpsed creatures made of smoke and malice. They seemed to taunt me from my periphery, but every time I turned my head to look at them, they skittered sideways and out of sight.
I came gasping awake around midnight, cold and sweat-slicked in my bed. A spill of silver moonlight fell across my legs, illuminating the sheets tangled around them. I stopped trying to kick myself free. In my panic, it had felt like one of those unholy monsters had crawled after me into the waking world, hell bent on dragging me back into my fever dream.
I extricated myself from my bed linens with forced calm and stood up, my nightgown falling to my knees. There was a baseball bat propped against my nightstand, and I hefted it in my hands and took it with me to check the locks on the doors and the windows. They were all secured, but the paranoia of my nightmare still clung to the frayed edges of my sleep-muddled mind, and I ended up combing through the whole house, flipping lights on and off as I checked under furniture and threw open closet doors.
There was no one there. I was being ridiculous. Still, it was a long time before I went back to bed, and I slept poorly when I finally fell back asleep, tossing and turning and jerking awake over and over again until the sun finally crept over the horizon and drove the monsters back into the darkness.