When I was twelve years old, I found myself running through a tornado. The camp counselor said run, the siren that followed him said run, the hellish freight train noise that touched down and ripped apart the woods said run. I listened.
When I was 24, I found myself passed out on a futon while a hurricane passed less than a mile from my apartment after beating the living hell out of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and drowning New Orleans. The newscasters said run, my family said run, and the wind and rain tearing the world apart said run. That time I drank beer, watched television and passed out.
I guess you can say I am pretty calm about extreme weather. After a decade and a half of public service, I am pretty calm about extreme patrons. So when the two come together...
“You think Isaac’ll come near here?” Darling asked.
“I dunno,” I said, looking out the window he was covering in plywood specially made to fit the library’s windows. I kicked the roll of plastic sheeting and watched it spread out in a long wave over the carpet. We were going to board the windows, drape everything near them in this giant sheeting, then lock the place up and go home. I was working on covering the display cases when Betty called me to the computer lab.
Looking back from more than a week later, I should have expected trouble and closed earlier. The Wal-Mart had already been ransacked of bottled water, bread, and frozen TV dinners. People waited hours to get the $30 of gas they were being rationed. Folks were desperate.
And we were the only place with free internet in the entire county.
The computer lab had been full since opening. Most were doing business, updating relatives that were worried about them but could not get through because the phone lines were jammed. Others were checking their insurance, making sure everything was all paid up. A few just wanted to sit and watch the weather reports, track Isaac’s wobbly eye as it crept northeastward. The same instinct that demands you take a glance at car accidents forces the behavior, and I cannot condemn them because one of the circulation computers was tuned to the same channel, so to speak.
“What’s the matter, library man?” he asked me when I told him to get up for the third time, “You afraid of a little storm? There’s other things to worry about. Fires.”
“Look, I’m sorry, but you have to let someone else use the computer,” I said, “There are not enough machines and a long line-. Wait, fires?”
“Oh, yeah. They wait. The fires wait and they take the little forests. They scare the birds til they are dead,” Can Opener Man said.
His bloodshot eyes filled with tears and he looked around him. Drawing stares as he blew his nose on his sleeve, the man with the can opener tattooed on his face almost looked embarrassed. Then he snarled at the other patrons and got up. Head down, Can Opener Man walked away from the computer. I gestured a patron toward the machine and followed him up the stairs.
“Sir, are you okay?”
He kept walking. I do not know why, but I followed.
“Sir. Can we help you with something?”
He spun on one foot and lurched toward me. I stepped back, but he moved in close.
“When can I get back on the ‘puter?”
I had to think about it, “Um... I can check... Probably about an hour.”
“An hour? An HOUR? There’s a storm, big as a house of houses. I need to find the birds! I need to find her!”
“Maybe I can help,” I said, “Let’s just go to the circulation desk and you can tell me who you are looking for.”
“She’s not at no circulation desk,” he said, “never again there. Little bird went and became pinned. Left the forrest alone.”
“Who, sir? Who are you talking about?”
“Her,” he said, waving toward the children’s books, “The one that read to the youngins. The one that... The bird that got pinned.”
“Ava?” I said, “What do you know about Ava?”
He looked at me, right in the eye. Fear caught in my throat as I looked back. I have talked with a lot of people in this job in various states of duress. Mad about fines. Grief stricken over a divorce. Inconsolable after finding out the newest Harry Potter has been checked out. But in the Can Opener Man’s eyes I saw pure sanity. Conviction, purpose from a deep sadness. What he was saying did not make sense, but he was lucid and calm in a way that a rock is calm before being hurled through a window. I knew that calm. I am scared of that calm.
So when he pulled the gun and shot the display case I had been covering with plastic, I could tell we were in for a hell of a storm.