The entire thing seemed like a slow motion film. The old kind that makes flickering sounds as it plays.
Patrick woke up with a start as if a locomotive had burst out of nowhere. His head had been down on the library table resting on his forearm, which was now numb. His shoulder was stiff. He cracked his neck.
Then his eyes landed on the green backpack that laid lifeless on the table in front of him, next to his own black one. Black with a blue stripe. He reached out and grabbed his own backpack, slid it to him, then fished around inside for his phone. He pulled it out and rested his thumb against the scanner until the screen lit up.
He’d done well, he thought. Hiding everything on the third floor, beyond the study carols and out of sight of everyone until the library closed. Hiding himself in the stacks . And hiding all the evidence. He just needed to figure out what to do now.
Evidence. That’s what he called Steve now. Steve was no longer Steve, his best friend and roommate. Steve was evidence.
That’s when the old movie started to play.
“You’re a dead man,” Steve growled as he launched his back pack onto the study table. It slid angrily and came to an abrupt stop against the pages of Fight Club that Patrick had open in front of him.
Patrick remained sitting with Steve fuming over top of him. “What do you mean?” he said, putting the emphasis in the wrong place.
Steve stuck an index finger mere centimeters from Patrick's nostrils. “Don’t screw with me, Patrick. Do NOT screw with me! You know exactly what I’m talking about!”
“Dude. Steve. I have no idea what you’re talking about. Now get that stink finger out of my face before I break it off.”
Steve was a lot smaller than Patrick. Smaller than most men. But he had a temper that could cut granite. Reminded of his size, he snapped his finger back and clenched his hand into a fist. Tighter than his jaw.
“Philomena? Really?” Steve wisped.
“Ok, Ok,” Patrick stuttered and stood up and fanned his hands out in front of him to create a barrier between him and Steve., “Ok, yes. That happened. But dude, it was a one time thing, we were drunk, and we both regretted it.”
“We?!” Both of Steve's fists were now clenched, his arms slightly flexed. “There’s a WE?”
“C’mon Steve, you know what I mean.”
“No, no I don’t know what you mean. Why don’t you tell me? Tell me how my best friend ended up in the sack with my fiancé and now my entire life is a social media cliché.”
Patrick was lost for words. He just moved his stare back and forth between Steve's blue eyes of fire, and the purple vein in his neck.
“Keep your voice down, Steve. You’ll get us kicked out.”
“No one can hear us up here, but they're gonna hear me crack your skull!”
He took an aggressive step forward. Patrick took a humble step back. Their eyes locked like alley cats.
“No skulls are going to be cracked today, Steve. Now come on —”
“Just tell me why. Why would you do this? You know how I feel about Philomena! You — Judas Arnold!”
“I know, I know and it wasn’t meant to happen. We were studying, took a break, had some drinks and it happened. That’s it. Both of us are to blame.”
Steve shook his head. “Not the way she tells it. She says you were all over her from the start!”
“Steve, come on, that's not how it played out.”
It was exactly how it played out, and Patrick remembered every steamy and sordid detail. The entire evening with Philomena went forward and reverse in his memory.
Patrick thought he heard a noise. Not a regular library after closing noise. An intentional noise. A human noise.
He stowed his phone back in his backpack and slowly zipped it back up, so as not to make too much noise himself. He kept his attention on the direction, or what he thought was the direction, of the sound he had heard. All he saw was books, books and more books. He smelled books.
His mouth was dry and his water bottle was empty.
“I’ll just wait until about an hour after people come in in the morning, then I’ll casually walk out,” said he to himself.
But the library didn’t open until 9 am. Six-and-a-half hours away. There was no way he would be able to go back to sleep. No way he could focus enough to read. He would have to sit there with the evidence.
“What's the matter with him?” The security guard asked, motioning to Steve who had his arms folded like an old pillow with his head resting on them. His eyes were closed. “Is he asleep? Man, you can’t sleep in the li-bary. He’s gotta wake up and —”
“Yeah, he fell asleep. Just give him a break, will ya please? The guy had a huge exam and hasn’t slept in two days. We’re just about out of here anyway,” Patrick stayed cool.
Steve did look like he was asleep.
The security guard glared and then glanced at his watch. “Ok, we’re closin’ in like 35 minutes anyway. Just make sure you get gone before then. Don’t want to get locked up in here all night. Spooky place.”
Patrick nodded and pretended to look back at the book in front of him. But instead, he watched the security guard walk away from under his brow. That was a close call. Had that guard been there just a few minutes earlier to watch Steve lunge at Patrick and then Patrick getting him into a choke hold — and holding him there — until his last breath, they would be having a different conversation.
Patrick swallowed hard. “It was self defense,” he muttered half to himself and half to Steve as he fought his pounding panic and posed Steve's body in the chair to make him look like he was asleep. “Yes, self defense! I’ll just plead self def—”
Nah. Forget it. No jury would buy that. He could have stopped. Self defense would have been if he had a gun and shot Steve out of fear for his life, or if Steve had fallen and split open his noodle. Those are self defense pleas. Choking a man to death who by all accounts was already passed out and immobilized well before the death marker, is just plain murder. Hopefully, he could plead down to manslaughter. Sounds worse, but it’s not.
Rage had just gotten the best of Patrick. Extreme rage is not a defense in any court he was aware of.
Patrick sat at the table until after 9pm when the stillness told him that everyone had gone home. He didn’t hear the guard and the librarians lock the doors, but he knew they were locked. He just knew.
What he also knew is they couldn’t find Steve at the same table the guard had already seen him at. No, that would mean guilt for sure. Already exhausted, he got behind Steve and looped his arms under Steve's armpits and around his rib cage. Then he lifted Steve’s body out of the chair and walked backwards pulling Steve along with him. Steve's heels grinding along the carpet.
“They’re going to ask why I didn’t do CPR or something, I know they’ll say that,” Patrick thought. “And when I tell them I don’t know CPR, they’ll say what kind of moron in 2021 doesn’t know CPR? Why not find a book about CPR?”
He dragged Steve’s body all the way to the other side, past the stairs, the study carols, and the old computer lab that is now used for storage. There were more tables back there beyond the stacks that no one used. At least, he never saw anyone back there. And it couldn’t be seen from the main hall.
Once again he propped Steve’s body up, with his head on folded arms, like he fell asleep. Just gently fell asleep and — had a heart attack? At 22? Why not? Stranger things have occurred.
Patrick dashed back to the previous table and grabbed both backpacks then returned to the evidence. He sat down and felt numb. Adrenaline has a way of washing out remorse.
Patrick heard a sound again and this time he shot up from his chair. He turned his good ear in the direction of the sound and put his hand on his backpack. The sound came again. It seemed to be right there. Next to him. He turned his head slowly to look at —the evidence.
“Steve?” he whispered. Steve didn’t move. He hadn’t moved. He was dead.
The sound came again and Patrick’s stomach swallowed itself. Then again. It was right there!
A calm wave of smooth peace came over Patrick and he felt the fear drip away. He realized the sound was the muffled low vibration of his phone, alerting him to incoming messages.
He tore open his backpack, pulled out his phone. He opened his Facebook messenger.
It was a series of chat messages from Philomena.
“Have u seen Steve?”
“Hello, u there?”
“Pat we need to talk plz”
Patrick shut off the phone and squeezed it. Then a light came on in his eyes. He opened his Facebook messenger back up and selected Philomena’s chat.
He typed out his reply.
“WTF? In bed. Left Steve at the library. He fell asleep at a table. Didn’t wake up. He isn't here at home. Not my job to watch him. Talk tomorrow. C U.”
Alabai? Possibly. Just maybe.
Six more hours until the library opened.
Patrick put his phone away and sat back down. He studied Steve’s body; squinted his eyes to see if there were any marks on his neck that would indicate he was strangled. He couldn’t see anything apparent, but the collar of his red flannel shirt was in the way of a real close look. Wouldn’t matter. They’d do an autopsy and it would tell the horror of it all. Fingerprints? There must be hundreds on this table. Fibers and hairs? He wasn’t worried too much about that, either. After all they were roommates. They probably had so much of each other’s DNA on them that any lawyer worth their salt could poke holes in that. Besides, Patrick could tell them they had a play-wrestling match earlier in the day.
Yes! That’s it! Maybe that would fly. He would tell them, whomever would be asking, the police probably, that he and Steve had a play- wrestling match in their apartment earlier in the day and maybe there was some internal damage that didn’t cause him to kick the bucket until later.
That could work! Patrick pulled his backpack toward his chest, hugged it and put his head down. He resolved that would be his story. If it came up. Which he hoped it wouldn't.
Less than six hours to go and Patrick fell into a deep sleep.
Patrick woke up to the low vibration of his phone again. He snapped his head back and off in the distance he heard voices.
He ripped open his bag, grabbed his phone and checked the time.
He opened his Facebook messenger.
“Where r u?”
It was Philomena again.
He hesitated. If he didn’t reply that might make him look guilty.
Guilty. Jesus, what a word!
“Still at home, in bed. Tired.”
“Open the door! I’m outside!”
“Steve isn’t here. I left him at the library. Third floor. Going back to sleep.”
“Open the door”
“Fine. Tell Steve to message me when he gets home.”
Patrick tossed his phone back into his backpack, zipped it up and looked at the scene. He took the strap of Steve’s backpack and gently hooked it under the fingers of Steve's exposed hand. It appeared as if he was holding his backpack when he just fell asleep and died unexpectedly due to injuries from an innocent play wrestling match that all young men participate in.
Patrick was proud of himself.
He scooped up his backpack, swung it around his shoulders, and slid into it. He hitched his thumbs into the straps by his armpits. He looked at the evidence.
“See ya ‘round, dude. I gotta jet.”
Patrick started to be aware of his surroundings. He crept out from behind the stacks, then quickly goose walked to the next row. He heard voices coming from below, but no one was on the third floor. He just knew it.
He made his way to the farthest opposite of where the evidence was, took a deep breath, then barreled out into the open like he was the King of France.
Down the stairs to the second floor where the voices continued on. No one even looked at him. Around the handrail and down to the main floor. Not a soul. He saw the doors to freedom in front of him.
Not too fast, Patrick, he told himself. And not too slow either!
He made it halfway when he saw the glass doors being open from the outside. At three-quarters of the way he realized he knew the person coming in.
He never made it out of the door.
“I thought you were at home asleep” Philomena said. “OK, that’s it! Where’s Steve? Tell me now! I know he was pissed off and I know he was coming here to confront you. Where is he?!”
Patrick began to feel remorse.
“Third floor. Behind the stacks.”