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Contemporary American Fiction

Once a month on a random day, Hazel woke at the crack of dawn with a cup of blood that she had bought at the local butcher shop which she dumped on the steps of the mega bookstore chain—just beyond the reach of the security cameras. Some days she jogged; some days she rode her bike. But she would always stop in the parking lot to catch her breath, and with no one around, she would casually pour out the cup at a height that created a dramatic splatter effect. And then, like every workday, she showered at home and opened the doors to the library at 8:30am to a small group of parents with their toddlers.

At 9am, she grabbed her Spanish copy of Charlette’s Web and read a chapter to the families waiting by the sunlit window in the reading pit. Most of the parents were immigrant farm workers waiting out the winter for harvesting jobs. They sat with their child in their lap, whispered in their ears, and pointed at the pictures. These families were the reason this library existed.

A few years ago, the city of Bethany had a housing boom. Young software engineers, who couldn’t afford to live in Silicon Valley, chose to drive one hour to work in order to live in a home with a reasonable mortgage. The small town had become one of the fastest growing cities in California and the mayor saw this as a great opportunity to build a new civic center. A committee was formed to scout a new area but they couldn’t get approval before the elections. The new mayor altered the plan and the land that had been earmarked for a new library was sold to a developer who turned it into a strip mall. And smack dab in the middle was a large bookstore from a national chain. The logic, the mayor explained, was that a larger library would be costly to maintain while the sales tax from businesses in the strip mall would boost the budget, some of which would aid in the purchase of new materials for the existing library. In the end, all the library got were a few, new magazine subscriptions.

Last year, Hazel hired a group of graffiti artists to tag the salmon-colored side wall of the mega bookstore and asked that they include a few messages of her own: “Shop local,” “Free information for all,” “Demand easy access to all books.” It didn’t take long to find the criminal mastermind behind the messages. She was required to do eighty hours of community service which the judge found difficult to enforce since community service was already part of her job.

At 10am Hazel received an angry call at the research desk from a regular caller who wanted to know what bird made that shrill sound at 5am every morning. Before the man could ask a follow up question, she reminded him that poisoning wildlife was a crime—even in the suburbs. A retired lady of eighty called to ask if anyone had found the pen she lost the last time she was there. Hazel had it in a locked drawer. An Esterbrook Relief fountain pen from 1940. She told Mrs. McGill she would return it to her this afternoon when she dropped by for her book club.

At 11am, an unemployed, software engineer appeared at the research desk requesting help finding a mathematical equation that came the closest to emulating true randomness. He had been displeased with the algorithms found on the internet. Hazel presented a textbook published in 1950 with a formula that pleased him so much he giggled and skipped over to the checkout counter.

At noon, she went to the breakroom to met with her staff who took turns eating lunch at thirty-minute intervals. She wanted to discuss ways they could get more people to come to the library.

“Singles night,” Anna, her assistant, said.

Hazel wrote the idea down on the white board hanging on the back of the door.

“A raffle,” the summer intern, Dylan said.

“What’s the prize?” Hazel asked while writing down the idea.

“How about we give away free books?”

He received four silent stares.

“We already offer free books, numbskull.” Nancy, who was working on her master’s degree, had toned down the insults after Hazel told her not to call the new kid ‘numbnuts.’

“An espresso machine,” Carol said. She was their computer specialist and by the lethargic way she ate her sandwich, it looked like she could use the caffeine.

“That’s an expensive piece of equipment to give away,” Hazel said.

“I don’t mean as a prize. To hell with the raffle. Let’s get a machine in here to have better coffee to offer the patrons.”

That got enthusiastic nods from everyone.

Nancy flipped her hand in the air. “If you want some publicity, we could challenge the managers at the mega bookstore to a duel?”

They all waited for Hazel to respond. The staff knew of her guerilla warfare tactics and even offered suggestions like wiping a skunk smell on the perfume ads in the magazines. Or releasing snakes in front of the cash registers.

“What kind of duel are you thinking of?” Hazel asked.

“Pistols or swords,” Nancy said.

“Water balloons!” The summer intern shouted.

“No, I want to see pain,” Nancy replied.

“How about we challenge them to a trivia contest?” Anna suggested.

“Too easy.” Nancy scoffed. “We’d kick their asses.”

“And show the public where to go when you need answers to difficult questions,” Hazel said. She wrote a star next to the trivia contest idea.

At 1pm, a woman who quit her job in the mayor’s office to become a real estate agent, came to the front desk to complain of a homeless man sleeping on the floor.

“This is a public library,” Hazel explained. “He has the right to be here.”

“Yes, but…”

“Hazel, call for you.” Anna held up the phone at the front desk.

“Just a minute.” Hazel answered. She turned her attention back to the real estate agent. A straight-haired woman who used to be curly before going into sales. “I can ask him to move but I can’t ask him to leave.”

Hazel picked up the phone. A Human Resources manager from the satellite office of a high-tech company called from the business park down the road to complain that, once again, they had received a disturbing fax from the library. An image of…what looked like…a person’s…Hazel had a brief moment of pleasure waiting for the word this business professional would use to describe someone’s butt. Rear end? Derriere?

“Well, it’s someone’s heinie.”

The HR lady waited for a response. Hazel covered the phone and held in a burst of laughter.

The Moon Faxer had struck again. The third time this month.

“We are aware of the situation. We are investigating who could be the culprit. We apologize for this offensive message. We have turned off the machine until these incidents stop.”

Hazel waited for the woman to talk about her surprise at seeing this image. She would then lecture on about this behavior being unacceptable. The past conversations had dragged on for twenty minutes.

Hazel interrupted before the HR woman could get started, “Excuse me. I have to go. I think I see the culprit. I’ll get back to you.” Hazel slammed the phone down.

The staff had tried to discover who did the faxing and narrowed it down to three. Carol suspected the homeless man because he was here every day, but Hazel did not think Oscar would waste his coins to send a fax. Anna pointed out that a tall, body-building mother of two with shifty eyes and a mischievous smirk could use her sons’ butts for a fast scan and quick getaway. The rest of the staff had been convinced the software engineer did it because he’d been laid off at the high-tech company last year. If the target had been the mega bookstore chain, Hazel would have been the prime suspect and she would have gladly confessed.

At 2pm, an office manager from the satellite office called. He explained their HR person had not sufficiently explained the situation. Unlike the previous two times when the image had appeared in a stack of print outs, this time the image showed up in the e-mail inboxes of every employee in his office. He wanted to know how the library managed to send a fax that ended up in everyone’s email. Hazel wasn’t sure if he was asking how it was done or who had done it.

The situation, the manager explained, had escalated into a security issue that was dumped on him because the only employees receiving the email-fax worked in his office. Thankfully it had not gotten to anyone at corporate headquarters and he hoped to solve this problem quickly and quietly. He was convinced one of his employees had done it. Who else would have access to their email contact list? He wanted to drop by that night to review the tapes from the library’s security cameras and see if he recognized anyone. Hazel explained the library didn’t have the budget to install security cameras. The manager resigned himself to reviewing his office’s keycard system to narrow down who had left the building during the timestamp on the fax.

At 3pm, the mayor called to check in on the investigation, as a courtesy call from the office manager. Hazel was not aware she was supposed to conduct an investigation. The mayor had his own theory. Most certainly the fax came from the homeless man. Most likely, Oscar held a grudge for not being allowed to sleep under the covered entrance of the high-tech’s offices and the fax was his revenge. A simple call to the sheriff would have the man in custody and everyone could get on with their lives. Oscar would get a hot meal and a warm place to stay for the night while they evaluated his mental state and determined if he was fit to take care of himself. The mayor spun it as a benefit more than a punishment for the homeless man. A quick and easy solution for everyone.

Hazel roamed the aisles with a cart of books to return to the shelves and came across the body building mom. The woman leapt around a corner. Hazel followed to the end of the aisle when something brushed past her leg—a little boy. He ran around the corner and screamed, “Got you, mommy!” The two giggled and the other boy appeared around the other corner. He held his finger up to his mouth for Hazel to be quiet. He ran the other direction toward the windows but quickly ran back with a fright in his eyes. Hazel checked to see what had scared him. Over in the corner, Oscar had propped his head up on a stack of books and snored loudly. Hazel let him sleep.

At 4pm the vice president of human resources at the tech company’s main headquarters in Santa Clara called to explain that the manager of their satellite office had not sufficiently explained the seriousness of the security breach. The company considered this incident to be a very dangerous threat to the privacy of their internal database. Their security system would have to go through a major review. They wanted to file criminal charges. Their lawyers would be suing the city for damages.

At 5pm, the mayor called to tell Hazel that if she did not solve this mystery by the end of the day, he would notify the police department and have them conduct the investigation. If no proof was found, he’d have no choice but to arrest Oscar.

Hazel went to the breakroom to fill her cup with stale coffee when Nancy entered and shut the door.

“Can I talk to you?” Nancy stared at her shoes.

“Sure.” Hazel suspected this was not a request for time off to complete a research paper.

“It was me,” Nancy said, “I did it. I’m sorry.”

Hazel frowned. “You’re not doing anyone any favors, Nancy. If Oscar did it, he’ll have to be taken in.”

“He didn’t. I doubt he’d know how. A friend of mine showed me how to send a fax to a multifunction printer and instead of printing it out, it stores the image in a PDF file. A script included in the header of the fax tells the printer to send the image as an attachment to every address on its local network, every employee in that office building.”

Hazel shook her head. “What was the point of all this?”

“Do you know what they do in that office?” Nancy’s face turned red. “They collect every click and search result for every user on the internet and use algorithms to deduce people’s health and financial situation and then sell their conclusions to other companies. People with pre-existing health conditions can’t get employment. Small business owners won’t know why they can’t get loans. People with a past history of bad credit won’t be able to clear their names. I wanted everyone that worked there to know they are assholes.”

“And you thought this stunt would bring about change?”

“Has any of yours?”

“Mine’s personal. I know the person involved. I wanted to…” But Hazel wasn’t really sure what she wanted. “Well, it made me feel better.”

“A thrill, right?”

Hazel hadn’t really thought about what she hoped to achieve. Maybe it was just petty revenge. She sat down. “I guess neither one of us thought it through.”

“What should I do?” Nancy asked. “I didn’t think they would turn this into a security issue.”

“Well, if you confess, they’ll want you fired.”

“I can live with that,” Nancy said. “Of course, I’d miss you guys.”

Hazel knew it would get worse than that. “They may make a few phone calls and have your scholarship taken away.”

“What? How? They can’t do that!”

“When you accept a scholarship, you represent the institution that granted that scholarship. They would not condone your behavior.”

“And the university? Have I tanked my master’s degree?”

“Maybe. I suspect they’ll be a disciplinary hearing. You’ll receive some sort of suspension. They might drop you from the program.”

“Just because I faxed my butt.”

“No, because you broke the security of a large corporation.”

Nancy sat quietly and wiped away tears. Hazel sat down next to her and held her hand. Her throat tightened. She hated herself for what she was about to suggest.

“There’s always the mayor’s option. We could say Oscar did it.”

“No.” Nancy turned pale. “I won’t do that to him.”

“It might be for the best. He’d get the help he needs.”

“He’d lose his freedom. He’d be a prisoner and he won’t know why.”

Hazel could not argue the point. It was a crappy alternative.

“Why don’t you go home early today. Think it over.”

“I’m not sacrificing Oscar.”

“Sleep on it, Nancy.”

They stayed in the breakroom until Nancy could compose herself. She washed her face, straightened her blouse and got some of her rebellious attitude back in her stride when she left.

Hazel made a few phone calls and stayed at her desk, tidying up.

At 6pm, there was a knock on her door. The mayor stood at the entrance. Most times he appeared in a polo shirt but it was a suit and tie today. Official business. Carol popped in and handed him a cup of coffee. Hazel motioned for him to sit.

“First off, you’re fired.”

“I expected that.”

“I spoke with the human resources director at that tech company. I convinced them not to press charges. And I assured them you won’t be showing up to their offices with an automatic weapon. I explained that you are a mentally stable person with strong political views who has eccentric ways of expressing those views.”

“Thank you for that character reference.”

The mayor took a sip of coffee, winced, and left it on Hazel’s desk.

“Off the record, I gotta say that was one of your more humorous protests. If we shared the same political views, I would hire you to be my event coordinator. You know how to get people’s attention.”

“But we don’t share the same views.”

“No. We don’t. Which means if you disrupt my plans for re-election next year, just once, I’ll get a restraining order on you in seconds. Should be easy considering you already have one at the bookstore.”

“Point taken. I’ll only act as an advisor to the people who hold our public institutions sacred and wish to keep them alive and functioning.”

The mayor sighed. “I suppose that’s the best I can hope for.” He stood up and held out his hand for a quick handshake. “Have a nice life.”

Hazel gathered her personal items and dropped them in the trunk of her car. She drove to the mega bookstore chain on her way home to pick up a job application. Restraining order be damned. They’d be better off hiring her to keep her in line—punishing her with little jobs that no one wanted like taking out the trash, dusting the shelves, and vacuuming the carpet.

She parked the car and strolled up to the entrance to the bookstore with her tail figuratively between her legs. She had already practiced a humble speech of apology which would end with a request for employment that still held a little dignity.

The doors were locked. An official notice had been plastered on the glass doors. Chapter 7. Bankruptcy. Out of business. All items to be auctioned off this weekend. She frowned. Karma traveled too slowly to be enjoyed. The blood on the steps had dried to a faded brown.

April 22, 2022 21:14

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4 comments

Ashley Cullen
14:51 Apr 28, 2022

Craig, I really enjoyed your story! The dialogue was really strong and I definitely laughed out loud during some of the scenes. Overall, a really well-rounded and complete story that was creative, humorous, and interesting.

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Craig Westmore
20:38 Apr 29, 2022

Thank you Ashley!

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13:02 Apr 25, 2022

I enjoyed the idea of the conflict between a library and a bookstore, and the moral dilemma twists toward the end of the story. The flow was v good in the middle of the story, but in the first sentence I think you could replace 'with' with an active verb to make it more clear.. "woke at the crack of dawn with a cup of blood .. "woke at the crack of dawn and grabbed/fetched/carried a cup of blood .. Nice story with a lot of detail and content, like a mini park&recreation episode of local going-ons.

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Craig Westmore
19:58 Apr 25, 2022

Thanks, Scott! I'll try to rework that first sentence. The most important one in any story. Now that I've reread it, it does sound odd that she woke with a cup of blood.

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