In 1847, George and Charles Merriam published the first of what would be the Merriam-Webster Dictionary after acquiring the rights to the book. They changed little, just testing out the publication. That first book weighed in at around four pounds. Along the way, they refined and added and subtracted to the entire thing, defining what a dictionary could be.
In 1947, a hundred years later, a man named Elvin Granger stood at the end of a long printing press. Elvin had come back from World War II with a slight limp, a stray bullet having hit him in the upper thigh and chipping at his thigh bone. His uncle worked at the printers where they made the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. He held the newest copy of that book, the first off the line for that year, and marveled at the power of the English language to mean so much. It weighed in at six pounds and five ounces, one of the heaviest of the entire line of publishing. Later he would give the book to his son as he went to college, the first person in the family to do so. His son, Jasper, studied law and took the book through six years of schooling, packed away in every move. The book followed him to his law practice where it was given a special place on his shelf. Jasper never married, never had children, but always had the dictionary with him until the day he died in his office on a crisp autumn day in 1986 of a brain hemorrhage. That dictionary was taken from his office and boxed away with other books and given to the library. The library at the time had a funding hardship, and so kept the book in the collection.
If those four men, Jasper and Elvin Granger, George and Charles Merriam, if they were alive and guessing men, they would not have known their book would save my life.
As the knife came down toward me, I grasped for the shelves. The nonfiction collection had not been weeded in quite some time, and the last time it had I had hefted the 1947 dictionary and decided to keep it on the check out shelf.
Now, as the man with the animal tattoos and the grimy shirt plunged a knife toward my chest, I swung that dictionary and cracked him across the jaw. All six pounds, five ounces moved air and flesh and stopped the man cold.
"That's not in the cards," the man said and brought the knife up again.
I hit him once more with the dictionary, this time holding it with both hands and driving it into his stomach. He fell off me with the sound of wind escaping. When he tried to come again, I hit him again, down this time.
I stood up and once again caught him in the jaw, then the hand with the knife. The metal fell to the floor and the man followed. He shuffled and reached for his weapon, so I hit him again in the head. Something shifted and his eyes rolled back. Blood came from one of his ears.
"What the hell?" Chris said. He stood at the end of the aisle. His hair fell in his face.
The world came back to me. I straightened myself. The fire alarm continued to blare. Sirens could be heard coming closer from the outside. The lights filled the space, my vision opening past the shelves near me. The knife at my feet glinted, the bright metal against the tile floor offensive to me. I kicked it and it skittered down the rows of books. Chris watched it pass him.
I said, "Stay here. If he moves, beat him again." I stumbled a little and shoved the dictionary to him.
"Where are you going?"
"To get help. Don't let him move."
I walked down the steps of the library. Firemen were walking in wearing full gear. Their black and bright green uniforms with gas masks seemed foreign to me. Behind them on the steps outside stood two uniformed officers.
I told them the fire was out, they could check upstairs. The firemen went fast. I told the police the same thing, adding the man who attacked me and my employee guarding them.
"You okay?" one of the officers said. He had blond hair cut short and a small metal chain around his wrist.
"Nah. But I'll fill out an incident report," I said, and took a seat behind the circulation desk. My legs were shaking and my hands hurt. I waited for the authorities to do their jobs, to help. I tried to grab a pencil and write down as much as I could remember about the tattooed man's attack, but my handwriting betrayed me.
"There's nobody up there," the blond officer said. His nametag read "Sgt. Dewight."
"Chris and the guy, they were around the 400s," I said.
The officer shook his head. "We went down the whole place, sir. Nobody. Few guys went down the fire exits up there. We'll look outside." The officer fell in with the firemen, all of them looking disappointed. It's a bad day when the library catches fire but nothing burns.
Chris and the man gone? Where could they be? I came from behind the desk and took the stairs two at a time. I found the ashes. Nothing else. No knife. No people. Not even the dictionary or the blood on the floor. I thought about the second floor, all the exits. Only two and the firemen had checked them, the officer had said.
Then Chris and the tattooed man were still here. I picked up another sturdy book, this one a little thinner and meaner, a compendium of bird species. One place two men could be that the firemen would not think to check.
Behind the reference desk, around a small corner was a little room. It was often locked, but a stiff breeze or a key would open it. I used my key.
Chris kneeled over the body of the man. Chris breathed heavy. Blood caked his right shoulder and the hand that held the knife. The knife stuck into the tattooed man's chest to the hilt.
"I had to stop him from screaming, boss… He was gonna bring them. I can't have that," Chris said.
Chris pulled the knife from the man's chest and stood before me. A small amount of blood dripped from the blade. The reference librarian faced me and smiled.
To be continued…