Topics In Modern Imprisonment

Submitted into Contest #91 in response to: Write about someone going to extreme lengths to return an overdue library book.... view prompt

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Fiction Suspense

Jude stumbled across the book while cleaning out his attic. Checked out by his mom. Due fifteen years before. The name of the library branch on the spine and the title page were both worn away and unreadable.

Hoo boy. It wasn't enough that he had to clear out the whole house right after his mom's funeral before he could sell the place – now he had to return a book to God knows what library branch and pay God knows how much in fines? Great.

But at least it was an excuse to get out of that dust-filled attic. He climbed down the ladder and shut the hatch, then jumped into the car without bothering to wash or change clothes. Get this over with. Fortunately, the nearest library branch was only a few blocks away. He didn't have to return this old book to the branch it came from, did he?

Well, yes he did, according to the branch librarian. “Sorry, sir,” she told him, “this book is so old it's not in the computer. The only place with the proper records would be its home branch.”

“How the heck am I supposed to find that?” Jude barked. “The branch name's worn away!”

“Oh, don't worry about it,” the librarian answered with a narrow smile, like what she was about to say left a bad taste in her mouth. “When a book gets to be more than six months overdue, it's automatically marked 'lost' and disregarded. You don't have to return this, especially since it wasn't checked out in your name.”

Jude looked at her for a good thirty seconds. “How did you know I didn't check this out?”

“Uhh...” The librarian wrinkled her eyebrows. “You said you found it in your mother's attic, right? So I assumed...”

“Yeah, well don't.” Jude rubbed his forehead. Headache coming on. “Thanks for your help, I'll take care of this.” He turned on his heels and walked away, leaving the librarian gaping behind him.

Nice. All very well to say he'd take care of this, but how? Jude got back in his car and drove around, trying to think – a little forward motion usually helped him do that.

An idea. He drove downtown to the main library branch. He hated it down there – crowded, hot, expensive – but get this over with. He parked in the main branch lot and went in.

Thirty minutes later he walked out with a slip of paper and a scowl. Sorry, sir, the clerk had said, the records you want are in the historical records building on the other side of the business district. Here's the address. No, I'm afraid you can't leave your car in our parking structure. You'll have to drive over to Historical Records. Yes sir, I know it would be faster to walk than to drive over what with the one-way streets and the traffic out there, but if you leave your car in our structure it's liable to be towed away. With a pounding head and sweaty palms, Jude pressed the elevator button for the floor with his car.

How had he gotten to the parking-structure elevator from the library's entrance? He honestly couldn't remember any of that very short walk. If he didn't snap out of it soon, he wouldn't feel safe driving. And then he'd be stuck with this overdue book, and he'd never get the attic cleared, never mind the rest of the house. And then he'd never get the house sold. And then he'd never be able to...

Enough of that. Get in the car and go.

Half a mile away to Historical Records and it took three-quarters of an hour. And his air conditioning didn't work any too well and the water bottle he always kept in the car was empty. And he got a parking space, all right, but the spot squeezed him over right next to the wall, so he had to climb over the passenger seat and out the passenger door, and then shut the door and had to unlock it and open it and contort himself into some surrealistic shape so he could get the damn book off the floor of the car.

He stood still for a few seconds getting his breath back, then got into an elevator and went up to Reception.

Fifteen minutes later, he came down with a severe cramp in his forehead from scowling at the receptionist. I'm terribly sorry sir , she'd said, there's no record of this book in our system. You see this stamp on the title page, though. That number there is the former branch number for the West Covina branch. Yes sir, I know that's 50 miles away, but unfortunately that's the only location than can accept this book. Yes sir, it's quite possible that they'll refuse delivery of a book this old that's not even in our system anymore. I can tell you that there will be no penalty if you simply keep it, but if you insist on returning it, that's the place to go.

Jude stomped like a toddler having a tantrum back to his car – embarrassing to be acting like such a little punk, but he couldn't seem to help it. He crawled over the passenger seat again, twisted himself into the driver's seat – smacking his knee painfully into the steering wheel in the process – twisted around until he could reach into his pocket for his keys, because he'd forgotten to dig the damn things out before getting into the car, started up, left the parking structure, drove around for a half hour looking for the freeway entrance, and finally, finally, got onto the freeway with a sweat-soaked shirt and a red storm cloud in his head.

Getting down to Covina was actually a pretty simple matter for a change, once he got out of the downtown area and began the trip east. The only problem was that the time read 2:48 pm and the heat attacked accordingly. At least the sun was in the west and not in his eyes, although he did wish for his sunglasses after an hour went by and the rear view mirror reflected the sun right into his eyes. Traffic wasn't bad, though.

He hit Covina twenty minutes after the sun started blasting into his eyes, and twenty-five minutes after that the GPS brought him to the branch library. He took the damn book off the passenger seat and walked up to the front door. The display showed the closing time as 7:00 pm. Plenty of time, thankfully – he'd been terrified that the place might be closed before he got there.

Walking in, the air conditioner blasted him all over. It was a blessing, like an ice bath after the sauna outside. He would take a seat, rest for a while, then go to the main librarian of this branch and get his business done.

And if the librarian made any fuss about taking this stupid book, he'd just leave it on the table and let them deal with it. Enough already, as his grandmother used to say.

The clerk at the circulation desk looked up from a stack of books. “Can I help you?”

“I hope so,” said Jude. I've chasing all over town trying to get this book returned. I found it in my grandmother's attic. She checked it out years ago, and I just want to put it where it belongs, you know? And they told me downtown that it belongs here.” He took a deep breath and looked the clerk in the eye, trying very hard not to lose it. “Are you going to take it or not?”

The clerk looked back, deep into Jude's eyes. “Sir, you know that when a book is that overdue -”

“Yeah, I know, I've heard over and over that I don't need to return this thing.” Jude took another deep breath, trying to keep his temper. “I was raised by a librarian and I don't want to keep it. It belongs here. I'm trying to do the right thing, you know?” His voice was getting louder but he couldn't seem to keep it down. “Are you going to take it or am I going to leave it on a table and let you deal with it that way?”

The clerk paused for about four seconds, then he pressed a button next to the circulation machine. An old man, wrinkled and shorter than average, came out from the back and approached. His gaze went first to the book, then to Jude. “Come with me please, he whispered, and turned and walked the way he had come.

Finally. Jude followed.

The old man opened a door in the back wall, motioned Jude through, and closed it with a hollow sound. Dim lights went on, and Jude saw a staircase leading down into more darkness. He tapped on the door that had shut behind him, but there was no reply. He pounded on it - “Hello?” Nothing.

Well, might as well check it out. He climbed down the stairs. Lights came on as he descended. After a few minutes, he came to the bottom of the staircase. A door in front of him swung open. He walked through it, and it swung shut with another hollow boom.

A red lamp in the ceiling came on. Jude saw a row of jail cells running off into the distance.

Jail cells? In a library? Cold sweat sprang up on his forehead. There was nothing to do but walk down the row.

All the cells were empty but one, where an old woman sat on a cot. She looked up. “Jude?”

Jude blinked. No way. “Grandma?”

Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Oh, Jude...”

“Grandma? You're...”

“No, honey, I'm not. They made it look that way.” She sighed. “I should have known something was going on. They cleaned that cell and left the door open.” She pointed to the cell next to hers. “I never imagined it would be for you, though.” She sobbed.

A burst of feedback echoed down the row. Jude, startled, looked up and saw a speaker in the ceiling. Out of it came a harsh voice. “Sir,” it barked, “get into the cell please.”

Jude gasped. “But-”

“Get into the cell or a guard will have to come put you in it.”

That didn't sound like something he'd want. He walked into the cell next to his sobbing grandmother. It clanged shut.

“Very good,” came the voice. “Now please put that book on the shelf behind you.”

“But-”

“No questions.”

Jude looked at the book, reading the title for the first time.

Topics In Modern Imprisonment: An Experiment.

May 01, 2021 02:34

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