It was chilly but the heater was on. His legs though tiny little sticks, had been cramping from yesterday, when Donald had given him a race when challenged, and given him a drubbing at it as well, a mighty one, to rub it in. And on top of it, there was nothing but cold where he sat. Despite his complaints which reached Miss Pansy's ears but failed before her heart, he was made to sit where he was and nowhere else.
It was the defaulter's seat, and it was his first time. As much as he thought of it, for the life of him he couldn't understand why only that place had to be so cold out of the whole damned library. The place smelled vintage at every corner, more so than even Titanic would if someone took it out. Once when he had pulled out a random book that looked more dead and fragile than his grandpop, a little cockroach had fallen and scuttled away. He had forced open that book to a random page and seen a beast, awash with rage and wrath, and it looked like a cruel cross between the cunning of a hyena and the fury of a tiger. It seemed to be coming out for him right then, as soon as he had opened that book, and his reflexes had decided before he had processed it all, to shut the book, which took some effort on his part. As he did that, a faint cloud of paper dust arose and stayed afloat in the air for a while. It was something one notices in fright and thus remembers vividly, and so he remembered it alright.
Soon after, he heard around from some, that the place in question was always cold. Some said there was a secret hole behind it on the lower right corner, a passage that spit dark venom on those who came too close to it. It brought out the worst in all; rumors were adrift that Lavender had gone home and lost her mind. Avid reader that she was, the one book that was off that shelf was a dare she had been given, which she had in spirit accepted but never really won. Since that day, she had lost her appetite for everything in life but books. Medics had warned she'd starve herself like that, but she read and read, and read.
"I guess they made that place cold deliberately, to gimme and kids like me sneezes. I couldn't wait to have Donald sit there too someday. That time when he had whipped me in the race, he had gone past me with his goonies as I sat there in the cold, and whispered if my sorry ass had cried in the bathroom. I, and cry! Yuh think your gran'pa has ever cried?" Charles asked, and save Pip and Tim, all shook their heads. There was Julie, and Shank and Clip and Rand as well. Save Julie, everyone was from the neighborhood.
"I would have knucled his head, that nasty little punk! I would have tied him up to that shelf, such was my rage then-"
"Gran'pa, but you did tie him-" Julie piped in.
"Oh yes dearie, I did tie him up, that slick little conniver. I did catch hold of him. First, I had to hatch up a plan. That was work, kids, that was work. My little feet ran much faster than the mush in my head."
The children broke into giggles.
Charles continued, "I did come up with how to do it. It was audacious, I tell you all. Now, I was not too sure about it but I had done my share of tricks and all the schemin' that came up in my mind then. Once," and Charles stopped here. Then in a cautious whisper he said, turning his head from Tim who was on the leftmost, to Shank, who sat on the other end, "but I will tell you only if you all promise to stay low on this. Do ya?"
The children, after a second, nodded.
"I had once decided to steal some menthols from the zipper pouch of Mr Lambard. Sneak I did, but when I saw that his pen was leaking inside, I was all red, face and hands. I scrubbed and scrubbed it off later, but the ink of a ball pen is a devil to be reckoned with. It didn't come off much and along with my red hands, I was caught with the menthols."
"What is a menthol," Pip asked.
"Oh you should not know, it is none of ya business son," Charles answered.
"I know what it is," said Tim and acting like a smoker, he carelessly sucked in air through the "V" between his tiny fingers, and exhaled imaginary smoke rings.
All the children broke into laughter.
At this, Charles got up and bellowed, "You sniggering, you damn munchkins? Come 'ere!" and he ran after them. The children all scattered and dashed through the front yard. Hard he tried, bur Charles with his uneven gait and measured jog, was not able to catch even a single one of them, and soon, he was panting and bent down, clutching his knees. Just when they were below the branch of the only tree, a giant, Rand cried, "gran'pa, what happened next?"
Charles, waited, breathing hard and ragged, and then stretching up, went forward under the tree, one slow step at a time. He sank down against the thick trunk, hitting the cool earth with a relief that made the shiny drops on his bald head roll down with a flush. The children all assembled around him.
"This plan, with Georgie, it was the last plan I ever heard," said Charles.
"But, why?" the children cried out in chorus, except Tim, who sat there smiling at the tree and scratching his leg.
"I had decided, in spite, that I would leave Georgy there, sitting against the cold at night. Now that was wicked and your mama will disown me if she knew y'all were hearing this from me so you have to promise that despite getting ideas for something your little mind must be schemin' about at school, don't act on it"
But the kids looked crestfallen. To have them drop from frolicking did not sit well with his heart and he thought upon it: the kids were very much gullible but they were obedient nonetheless. Very much obedient, yes, delightfully obedient.
"Okay, very well. If you shall have to do it, you shall do it, but not without telling it to gran'pa first. Is that right?"
One after the other, the children beamed, like rapid fireworks.
"And askin'! Tellin' and then askin'!" the children broke into raucous laughter.
"The story, give us the story!" they cried together.
"All right, all right, calm down you little horns. I will tell you what 'appens now.
I decided that I shall bet him a cupcake he could not beat me in a race. I didn't know then, but the boy was a drinkin'!"
The children look at him with a new interest, at which he snapped to attention and added: "drinkin' milk, yes milk. Think of it! A boy that old is still drinking milk, with his goonies!" and he slapped his knee laughing raucously. The kids didn't follow, so he stopped abruptly, flummoxed.
"So, intead, I bet that boy a drink. Last time had been for naught. I knew he would fall for it now.
"You know what the drink would do to whoever had it? They would fall asleep! But I won the race-"
At this, everyone gasped.
"It was no good, no! He cheated! That fool, he knew it somehow and he slowed down, he let me win. He was good in the head but bad in the heart. If I had to win, I would have won fair and square and that is how I would have wanted to lose too, fairly!
"So, did you-" Shank asked but Charles cut him off.
"Nah, wait for the whole story son. Do you know about Spunky?"
This received a collective nay.
"Spunky, he was a monkey! He was your gran'pa's sidekick and he would follow him around everywhere in school. Spunky was the little kid, littlest of them all, but he had heart. And I liked that boy. Yet, he was a plain schmuck, that lad. I won the race, but funnily, I didn't know which drink was to be mine and which was to be Don'a. Spunky had done his magic, but this was a trouble."
"You forgot to ask him which was your drink," said Julie.
Charles appeared slightly embarrassed but said with a strong voice, "that is right. But your gran'pa didn't run away from it. He manned up, and had the drink he had won, although that wasn't mine really. But," and a smile curved on his lips, "that drink was the best of my life, for soon after, though I was overcome with worry, and I looked in his eyes as he looked in mine, that dry smirk on his face changed into an unease as he clutched his mouth and ran like he never had before.
"I ran after him shouting, 'what's wrong, Donald? Drink got to ya?'" Charles chuckled and the kids followed suit.
"He ran off to the bathroom, and at the door, he held the handle and retched. I went behind him and encouraged him, till he swayed-"
"Down!" all the kids shouted collectively.
"That's right. Don dear was finally asleep. I had to drag him one floor upstairs, where the library was. By this time, the skies had gone all dark, and I got him inside. That damn hole, it was still terribly cold there.
"I tell you kids, it is one thing to see your school in daylight and a whole different world it is at night. And though dinnertime was still away, the darkness gave it an eerie turn. That place never seemed like it could look so ghastly of all. Even the grounds were far from it.
"So I get in, and that rack of bookshelves stood there, among the rest of its kind, looking more imposing and hulking than it did in the morning. A strange sensation it gave off. For a couple of inches around it, there was this invisible bubble that was terrifying. I didn't want to go anywhere even remotely close to it, but then I looked at Donald, who lay there looking like a goner, and I decided, what the hell, let's do it."
Charles paused here and looked around at the kids. Most of them were frozen, hooked on to his every word. Tim was still smiling at the tree and scratching his leg
"Now you might be wanting for me to tell you all how I did it? I won't. Not even a bit-"
"You tied him to the shelf," said Tim, who was now looking at Charles, with the same smile as before.
Charles wanted to say something, but he didn't know what, so he didn't and instead, pursed his lips and let his head blow up red. He looked like a balloon, and one by one, the kid's little snickers became shrill laughters.
"All right! I ain't gonna give you the rest of the story now!" thundered Charles amid the noise.
The noise died down in a matter of few seconds and all the little faces looked like they had been whipped with something they were not expecting. Then Charles himself burst into laughter, to which the kids joined.
"I tell you kids, the next day at school was not easy. The only thing on my mind the whole time, whether I played or ate or sat on the grass looking at pretty girls my age, was whether the trouble had been over, and if yes, how? I never saw him anywhere that day, none from his gang as much as looked at me but they all were perplexed and lacked the laughter that had been with them, wicked ones.
"A couple of months passed by, the thing had spread in the school, everyone had talked and dissected it and studied it and made grand theories but nothing brought back Donald. For a while, I too felt like this thing had gone too far, but what could I do? He was nowhere, just vanished like it was that easy!"
Here, Charles stopped and meditated as he looked ahead at the porch of his house. He let his eyes focus on the white ledge. Then they ran slowly along its length, at the end of which he closed his eyes, and started again.
"Then he came in the news. They had him printed there and ran a story on him. Kids, I cannot tell you what happened of him, but that is something I never got around to understanding myself. What could that little place in the shelf have done to him? There was only one other person, Martha-"
It was Clip this time who interrupted, "My granny?"
"yeah your granny. You wanna know what she told me?"
Several heads nodded.
"She told me the shelf has a hidden passage behind it, and it does things to those, who come near it."
"Didn't the teachers know it?" Clip demanded.
"This is exactly what I asked her. She asked me to look at the librarian, properly look at her. At first, I dissed her, but when I did, I realized..."
Clip looked at Charles, point-blank.
"I am not gonna tell this to you either, lads. It is too dangerous for ya," said Charles and as he did, all the kids came together and whined and beat the earth around them, clawed at the air to make him go on, but Charles never did, for he had fallen asleep. A little snore announced itself. As it grew in length and depth, the kids stopped with their wailing, and one by one, started roaming around and finally, left the ground and went back inside the home.
As they sat in the dining hall, the four of them in their own unique way, Julie asked her mother, Laura, about what had happened in the story.
Laura was unwilling to tell it like Charles, but Julie promised to finish off her chores for that week in return for it. Laura relented.
"See honey, that boy Donald, he was no good ever. So what came of him was strangely funny but quite pitiable too. They found him roaming around, all cracked and deranged, and this was peculiar, that whenever he came across a mirror, window, steel, anything that would show him his face, he would instantly crack into another round of laughter, louder than the one before, and more forced. It always seemed like he was helpless with it. They locked him in a room with nothing of such kind, no mirror, no window, nothing that would show him his face. They said he was living normally there, living as himself, but I doubt that, really."
Julie reflected upon it as she lay on the sofa with her head on her mother's lap.
"Sweetie, where did you leave your gran'pa?"
At this, Julie jumped up and went running out. As she opened the door and stepped down steps running ahead in a fierece sunshine to the tree under which they had left him, she became acutely aware of a hollow senation in her chest. She knew that gran'pa was missing. Soon she went close enough and confirmed it, and realized it was true. She whirled and ran back at top speed, tripping at a step or two but soon regaining her balance, till she reached her mother, all out of breath but trying to form words.
"He is missing. He is not there!" she cried out.
"Where did you leave him last, darling?" Laura asked.
"Under the tree. He just lay against the base of the trunk and slept."
Laura raised her eyebrows and looked with surprise for a moment. Then she broke into peals of laughter.
"He has gone, he will come back soon though," she told Julie cutting short her laugh, but failing at it.
"He has gone? Gone where?"
"Why, for the race, of course,"
Julie looked at her mother, confused.
"Oh sweetie. He always insisted he could have won that day, no cheating. That wooden shelf? It was made from the tree under which your gran'pa was sleeping."
And Laura went back to folding clothes, humming to herself.