“Martin, can you clean table 4?” Ms. Lucious, the librarian of St. Joseph, ordered in a stern voice.
“Yes ma’am” Martin replied and started piling the books on top of each other. Science encyclopedias, nat geo magazines, reader’s digest; all brainy books at one spot!
Martin picked up the lot, his back straining a bit. He was born under a weak star and was a far cry in comparison to the athletic, energetic boys of his class. Walking slowly to the ‘Education’ section of the library, Martin tried his best to look at his feet from below the pile of books. He reached the shelves without any mishaps and sighed heavily once the books were set.
Working at the library was Martin’s part-time job. Unlike his middle and upper-middle-class friends, Martin needed to work a shift of at least three hours for his fees. When all the boys went out to play and have fun, Martin would be stuck in the library with Ms. Lucious.
He looked at the giant clock on the library wall, it was almost five. Martin’s shift would end in ten minutes. Feeling newly energised, he spun around to collect his school bag from the back of the library.
As he approached the end of the room, something pink caught his eye. A girl with a pink bag, around 10, stood in front of a giant bookshelf, looking up, thoughtfully.
“Self-help section” Martin read to himself as he looked at a sticker on the shelf.
The girl reached out for a book that had a cartoon of a mother and her child. But the book was too far from her and she dropped it on the floor. Flustered, she quickly picked it up and kept it back on a lower shelf. All the while, Martin’s eyes stayed glued to the little thing.
Realising that she was being watched, the girl turned towards Martin. He smiled at her, but the girl was wearing a poker face. Martin walked up to her and sat on his knees so that his face was at the same level as hers.
“Hey! What kind of books are you looking for? This section is for adults.” Martin told her politely and smiled. The girl looked from Martin’s face to the self-help sticker. Then she looked down at the ground, twitching her little feet anxiously. “Is something wrong?” Martin asked, even more softly than before.
“Yes…” The girl finally muttered. Her voice trembled like a chime in the wind.
“Okay, what’s the problem? Maybe I can help you.”
The girl looked at Martin and then around her, as if searching for spies. She blinked her eyes multiple times and licked her lips before leaning into Martin’s ear, and whispered “Mommy is trying to hurt me.”
Martin was taken aback. He was not ready for such an extreme revelation. He got up on his feet and checked the front desk, Ms. Lucious had already left for the day.
“Let’s see what we can do about that, okay?” Martin consoled the little girl and extended his hands towards her. The girl took his big hands and smiled for the first time, a shy smile.
They both went to the front desk and Martin gave her a candy before ringing up Ms. Lucious.
“Yes Martin, what is it?” Ms. Lucious sounded busy. From the Christmas jazz playing behind her, Martin knew that she was driving.
“Hello ma’am, there’s a situation at the library.” Martin distanced himself from the girl and lowered his voice. “There is a girl who is probably being abused by her parents… she came here looking for help.” Martin said.
Ms. Lucious did not speak at once and Martin knew this pause. She was thinking about their options.
“Martin, do me a favour. Take the girl home and talk to her parents once. Don’t mention anything about the abuse, I will take care of that tomorrow. But we should know what the family is like before placing any complaints.”
“Oh… okay, I’ll do that-”
“And in case you feel that the parents are unstable, give me a call. I will contact the authorities tonight.”
With that, Ms. Lucious hung up and Martin looked back at the girl. She was now reaching for another candy on the table. Martin felt his heart tighten. He knew how it felt like to be abused by a parent. In Martin’s case, it was his father.
“So, I just spoke to an adult and she said that she will take care of it. But right now, I need to take you home as it is almost dark. Do you remember the way home?” Martin asked.
“Yes…” the girl said, lowering her head. She did not want to go.
“It’s okay- oh, I never got to ask, what’s your name?”
“My name is Chloe and it's nice to meet you.” the girl replied.
“Chloe, I am Martin and it is nice to meet you too! What do you say we have ice cream on the way back?” Martin smiled at Chloe and she nodded at him.
“Can you really help me then?” She asked one last time.
“I’ll do my best!” Marthin replied.
Both of them left the library and walked out of the school premises. On the way, they stopped at a little ice cream station and Martin bought two chocolate cones for Chloe and himself with his meagre pocket money.
Chloe’s mood had considerably lightened by the time they were done eating ice cream. She even made some witty jokes which caused Martin to choke on his laugh. Soon, they were done with the merriment and resumed their journey home.
The house was not more than a ten minutes walk from the ice cream parlour. Chloe was silent as she held Martin’s hands and walked with rounded shoulders. Martin, too, could feel her stressed-out aura.
For a moment, he felt a heat of anger towards Ms. Lucious. How was he, just another schoolboy, supposed to talk to the parents of this girl? What if instead of talking to him, the mother starts scolding Chloe for involving other people? The possible outcomes of this daring meet were countless and mostly, if not completely, disastrous.
Finally, they reached Chloe’s house. It was not a bad property. The walls were colourful and the lawn was bright green. Martin pressed the bell and looked down at Chloe who was already looking up at him. Her poker face was back.
Martin tried to calm his jumping heart with deep breaths. But the moment he heard muted shuffles and footsteps from the other side of the door, his heart rate went up. The doorknob clicked open and out stepped a man in his thirties. He looked tired with purple rings around his eyes. He was holding a phone close to his chest and the voice of a woman could be heard from the other end.
“CHLOE!” The man exclaimed and hugged his daughter. “Where have you been angel, it’s almost seven! I called up everyone!” The man looked at Martin “Did you find her somewhere?” He asked in a mixed tone of paternal protectiveness and unsure gratitude.
“Um… kind of… she was in the school library. I was just wrapping up and found her there. Sorry, we stopped for ice cream on the way back and got late.” Martin apologised.
“Oh… What was she doing there?…” the man asked and Chloe suddenly hugged him. Sensing that Chloe didn’t have any issues with her father, Martin decided to drop the bomb.
“Sir, can I talk to you about Chloe’s mother?” Martin asked and the father frowned, perplexed.
“What about her?” He asked, distress audible in his voice.
“The reason why Chloe came to the library was that she is scared of her mother. She was wandering the self-help section and told me that her mother wants to hurt her. I have already spoken to-”
“What the hell are you talking about?” The man gasped, horrified. He was almost shaking “My wife- Chloe’s mother… died two months ago…” the father broke down tearlessly, hugging her daughter tightly.
Martin looked down at Chloe in utter confusion. She had buried her entire face in her father’s loose shirt. “But she…”
“I don’t have the time for silly jokes! Please, leave us alone!” The man shut the door on Martin’s face. The sound of feet shuffling and cloth rubbing could be heard outside the door. Martin turned around slowly and walked to the lawn before looking back once.
Now that he payed more attention, the green lawn was mostly plastic and the coloured walls had actually darkened around the corners. Compared to the other houses in the vicinity, this particular one had a cloud of gloom over it. Martin could feel it now.
And there was something else too, that he could feel. Eyes, on him.
He looked up and saw light coming out a window on the first floor. Through it, he saw Chloe, looking down at him with a distant, poker face. Maybe it was all a lie made up by her… Martin thought to himself.
Then, someone behind Chloe caught Martin’s eyes. It was hard to tell if this person was a man or a woman but it definitely wasn’t her father. Compared to Chloe, it looked more like a reflection on the window. A reflection holding onto itself and to Chloe, trying not to fade away.
Martin spun around and walked straight, not looking back even once. And that was the last time he ever saw Chloe. Neither did she come to visit him, not did he go to check up on her. He told Ms. Lucious about what had happened and she was more than happy that she wouldn’t have to call any authorities.
But even now, sometimes, Martin would think about Chloe. Her face which seemed expressionless then, seemed to be full of questions now. The loudest of them all “Can you help me?”...
And he had let her down.