A woman who claimed to be a chimera called the library most Tuesdays, on the old line they never got around to disconnecting after the renovations. The call went straight to a yellowed phone hung on the back wall of the staff work room, between the pile of books that needed to be discarded and the discarded books that needed to be pulped. The staff knew the ring by the anxiety in their chests that creeped in a few seconds before the sound.
Whoever was closest to that phone when it clattered had to pick it up; no hesitation, no doubts, just suck it up and do it. The oldest of the staff members were so attuned to the space and the patrons that they could slip away before the call. Before the creeping anxiety, even.
Hamish was not yet attuned like his coworkers. He'd been at the library for five years, but that was twenty years less than the next youngest staff member in this place. So whenever she called, Hamish answered.
He answered the Tuesday before last.
"I wanted to find some more geneticists in the area if I could," she said. The staff, including Hamish, had given her the names of geneticists in the county, in the nearest city, in the farthest reaches of the state and beyond. "They wouldn't speak with me," she said of them all. She whispered the next part, as she often would. The static on the old phone was palpable. Hamish felt it as breath in his ear when he spoke with her.
"I'm a chimera, you see. Do you know what a chimera is?”
He did. She’d told him plenty of times.
"I consumed my twins before we were born."
"I know you did," Hamish said. He pulled his phone out and scrolled through nearby geneticists. "I don't think there are any left in the tri-state area that you haven't spoken with."
"That's okay," she said. "I can travel for the right one. I want to be rid of my twins, finally. We aren't getting along."
Hamish wasn’t really evaluating the listings of geneticists on his phone anymore. He may have given her a veterinarian, a general practitioner, or a doctor for gutters stuffed with leaves.
Before Hamish, Beth used to answer the yellowed phone on the wall. She urged Hamish to humor the woman, as she lived alone in the rural part of the county without much human interaction. She interacted with the wilderness, instead, in old ways that the county once prohibited as "slightly esoteric," according to Beth.
"These calls," Beth said, "and the ensuing calls with fed-up geneticists are all that she has in her advancing years, Hamish. Who are we to deny the patrons all that they have? Our lives and our purpose are tied to these people, you know. If we deny them, we deny our calling."
"Well," Hamish said, flipping through a discarded novel about the 1990s or purgatory or some guy’s 20s or something, "I mean, I'm just working here until my writing career takes off."
Beth shook her head at that, then laughed louder than Hamish would have thought possible before slipping away unseen into the stacks.
Hamish answered the yellowed phone on the Tuesday of that ice storm, just before the library closed early and three motorists in the area never found their ways home.
"I'm a chimera, you see."
She breathed in his ear. Hamish neglected to respond.
"Listen to me, Hamish," the woman said. "I received a letter today that my library card is set to expire tomorrow. Do we need to physically come in to renew it?”
“Yes,” Hamish said. “We need to see identification with a current local address or a student ID or something.” Hamish took some pleasure in telling problem patrons about inconvenient policies they had to follow. He also felt bad about it.
The woman grumbled, then complained to someone in her home about needing to go all the way out to the library to renew her privileges. A verbal fight broke out. One of them didn’t want to go.
Before Hamish could say the library would likely close early because of the ice storm and the motorists who would later lose their way, the line clicked and the power flickered. Some of Hamish's co-workers had gone for the day or had never come in at all. A smattering of patrons roamed the stacks – the ones with nowhere to go. The ones who lived only a block away. Students who were bored. Beth was there, shelving somewhere in the stacks. Hamish heard her speaking to the locals about the ice outside. They commiserated as locals commiserate about things.
The power failed them all. Emergency spotlights sprouted from the walls. Beth emerged in the back room from a secret panel behind her desk. She knew all these passages in the library that Hamish would learn in time if he bothered to care.
“We’re closing up,” Beth said, drawing shades and checking windows. “Get the door, will you?”
The locals and the lost filed outside into the ice, slipping on the sparsely salted pavement, and into the growing evening.
Hamish was locking one side of the front door, when he spotted a shadow roaming outside in the wind and white. It approached, growing larger and larger still.
Beth emerged from the display case beside the door. “Is that the chimera?” She said it with a harsh unease. “What is she doing out here?”
“She needs to renew her card,” Hamish said. “I tried to tell her we’re clo—"
Beth grabbed Hamish’s arm before he could move to open the other door for the chimera woman. She pulled him into the display, then back into the walls of the building.
The shadow grew bolder, blacking out the ice and snow with its stature. It moved faster towards the doors. As she approached, her form became clear to Hamish, who eyed her through the endless cracks in the walls. She was only one third of a human woman, the other two thirds being a lioness and a snake with faces and wills of their own. She held the body of a local veterinarian in her claws.
“Hamish,” she called in three voices that shook the building. “This is no geneticist. I am no dog, no cat, no exotic bird or reptile. I consumed my twins and I will consume you.” She burst through the doors, bringing frigid cold air and shattered glass into the library with her.
“She’s out for blood,” Beth said. “I don’t expect you will live much longer, Hamish. Not out there, at least.” She pressed her aged hand against the elder wood. “But the building is strong, and the walls are deep.” She slipped away.
Hamish smelled the blood of geneticists who couldn’t begin to help the chimera woman. It dripped from her body onto the ice melting into the warm library. The chimera woman kicked the video section into the general fiction section. She then calmed and asked the library—the walls, the computers, the stains on the carpet—if she could renew her card. She dropped the veterinarian, who was only stunned and scurried out into the storm.
Hamish slipped into the walls of the library with Beth, following the line of the yellowed phone away into the earth.
The chimera woman roamed the old library, speaking with her twins. They found ease in the space, the stitching between them fraying and separating until they stood as three people who needed three library cards.
In time, Beth and Hamish emerged from the pristine walls of a new building built from the old. The fresh paint stained their clothes, but neither of them minded. They took to the space. They learned its passages. Hamish learned them quicker than even Beth, who retired one day by slipping between the stacks and never coming back out.
If Hamish found himself working in the new backroom on winter nights, he would sometimes feel a certain anxiety creeping up through his stomach and spine. If he stopped what he was doing and listened hard enough, he would hear the yellow phone ringing under sheets of drywall, paint, and earth. If he listened too hard, he’d find himself in the walls again, digging down toward the muffled ring to feel the warm breath of the chimera woman against his ear, telling him what he already knew.
Nick Perilli, from Philadelphia, PA, is a reference librarian at Temple University's Ambler Campus. © Short Édition