It wasn’t that Neilson Redd was unwilling to pay the fine for his overdue library book. He most certainly did not wish to make a statement about the unfairness of such a program by refusing to pay. He had money in the bank, so lack of funds wasn’t it either. The reason for Neilson’s inability to pay the fine was that he himself was late. As in dead.
As he sat—or rather hovered over the wooden bench outside his local public library, Neilson wondered. The normal existential crisis question—“Why am I here?”—still applied, and it was all he could hold onto now.
There had been no bright light to go toward, though since his demise he had compulsively looked for it every so many minutes. One second he had been in his body, the next he had sighed and slipped out of it, casting it aside as one might a used garment. It had come as quite a shock, dying. But that had been three weeks ago, when he left his body and materialized outside the library as a ghost.
In life, he’d never believed in ghosts, the spirits that lingered to resolve unfinished business. Weren’t ghosts usually victims trying to solve their own murders? And didn’t they tend to linger on the scene where they had died? Neilson was fairly certain he had not been murdered, and he was even more certain he had not met his end at the library, but here he was.
Neilson kicked at a gray pigeon that was bobbling by, but his foot went right through the blasted bird. “Why?” he said into the void. He did not like leaving loose ends. In fact, he had never left anything unfinished in his life, including the dreaded plates of frankfurters and sauerkraut his mother had served him when he was a child. The only thing he could think of was the library book, the one that was late. But how stupid was it that he should linger over that rubbish excuse for unfinished business? It was an outrage. A scandal. If Neilson had the ability to dial a phone and complain to someone, he would. “Ghosts don’t have phones,” he said, patting his pockets. “And they most certainly don’t have wallets with which to pay late fees.”
He knew that. Surely the library must know that and would hold no such thing against him. Then why wouldn’t someone tell the Universe or God or whoever was in charge here?
* * *
The book in contention was a thick, non-fiction tome on the topic of wild herbs growing in the Scottish marshlands. On the back, right above the publisher’s barcode was the sales price: $99.95. The library was not greedy, not by any means. But they had rules about late items, rules that must be adhered to.
So when the library’s director, Inez Bates, called Neilson Redd’s home phone number for the eighteenth time and someone finally answered, she spoke brusquely. “Mr. Neilson, this is Switzdale Public Library calling. Your checked-out item, The Herbs of Scottish Swamps,is now three weeks overdue. You’ve accrued quite the fine.”
There was a silence for a brief moment, and then the man on the other end said, “My uncle died three weeks ago.”
Inez cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. We need the book back, plus the late fee.”
Again there was a pause before the man said with a growl, “Look, I don’t know anything about a Scottish swamp plant book. And I refuse to pay any fine.”
“You could look for the book,” suggested the ever-practical Inez.
“The house and all its contents have been cleaned out by my wife and myself. If there had been any library books, we would have turned them in, believe me.”
“You could look again.” Inez drummed her fingers on the desk in her office. The women in technical services were chatting noisily in the background, but Inez did not need to strain her ears to hear what the man said next.
“Lady,” he shouted, “we’re in mourning here. It’s just a book. Get over it.” And with that, the barbarian hung up on her.
After frowning at the phone for a moment, Inez nestled the handset back in its cradle. “Rude,” she whispered. She wanted to shout her frustration, but she was still in a library, and there were rules about that sort of thing.
“What’s eating you?” asked the head of tech, a young woman whose name Inez never remembered.
“The patron is late. And so is his book.”
The young woman shook her head. “That’s rough.”
“It’s more than rough,” said Inez, “it’s criminal. Something has to be done.”
The young librarian looked at the other tech librarians, whose names also evaded Inez. One of them had the gall to suggest that Inez should talk to the head of circulation.
Inez drew herself up to her full height of five feet and one-quarter of an inch. “This is no longer her jurisdiction.” She pushed her wire rimmed glassed up the bridge of her nose, her nostrils flaring in indignation. “And the book in question is on hold by no fewer than two other people.”
The tech librarians looked at her, incomprehension dawning on their faces. “So?” said the youngest one. “You could ask Karen if she’s going to buy another one. It’s her collection.”
“Or,” piped up the middle-aged one, “you could have upstairs request an interlibrary loan.”
Neither of these options would bring back the book or the money. They weren’t against the rules, but they certainly went against Inez’s principles. “Someone has to pay,” she muttered. “And it isn’t going to be my library.”
* * *
By now, several patrons had complained of a presence outside the library. To be more specific, the wooden bench out front. It was cold, too cold in one man-sized spot, even though the weather was a balmy seventy-five. And the area reeked of regret, unfinished business, and “terrible men’s aftershave.”
Neilson knew he ought to take offense at the last part, but he was too preoccupied with the crowd that had gathered. They were young ruffians mostly, with their too-long hair and baggy clothing. “In my day,” said Neilson, though he knew from his short experience of being dead that they could not hear him, “young men did not dress like hooligans. Boys looked like young men, and girls did not wear their skirts so short.” He looked pointedly at a young lady whose skirt was at least two inches up past her knees.
“Man, whatever is here, it’s hostile,” said a ruffian with a too-small-for-him bike.
The others nodded.
“Twenty bucks says I can make this thing move on,” said the one with the pink hair.
Neilson did not like the sound of this. He rose from the bench, and the children seemed to sense he was moving, because they all backed away. “I am not one to be bullied or badgered. I have a right to remain on this bench until my affairs are sorted and there is no reason left for me to linger.”
The girl shuddered. “Maybe we should go.”
But Neilson wasn’t done with his rant. “I can stay here as long as I please, because I pay taxes, which is more than I can say for any of the likes of you.” He huffed. “Teenagers.”
“Let’s go inside,” said the one with the pink hair. “At least this freak show isn’t in there.”
That made Neilson pause. He did not claim to be the most intelligent person in the world, nor would he admit to being stupid. But only now did it occur to him that he might be able to leave the bench and venture inside the library instead of waiting for someone in authority to approach him about the fine he no doubt had accrued. “That’s settled, then,” he muttered. “We’ll give that a try.” And with that, he wafted toward the library, scattering the ruffians in his wake.
At the circulation desk, the plump gal behind one of the computers shivered and rubbed her hands up and down her arms. “Did you feel that draft?”
The other librarian, a slightly less heavy young man, shrugged. “Maintenance was supposed to fix the A/C yesterday. Maybe they goofed.”
Neilson waited behind the one person in line. His affairs may be pressing, but there were rules, and rules were made to be followed, even if one was dead. Thankfully, he didn’t have to wait long.
“Those are due in three weeks,” said the woman librarian. “Have a nice day.”
Without responding—“Rude,” muttered Neilson.—the patron picked up his small stack of picture books and left.
“I request to speak to the director,” said Neilson, drifting to the counter as the two librarians took a simultaneous step back.
“Is it that thing from outside?” the woman asked.
The man laughed in response. “You can’t believe in that nonsense.”
“I am not nonsense,” said Neilson, pounding the counter. Or, rather, running his fist clean through it.
The young man was on a roll. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, but why would a ghost choose a library to haunt of all places?”
“Because I have a fine to pay, I believe, and once I’ve paid it, I can perhaps move on.”
“I’d haunt a library if I were a ghost,” the woman said.
Neilson nodded grimly. “Finally, someone with some sense. Now, about my fine…” Of course they could not hear him. He hadn’t expected them to, though he had hoped they might. “I have the money to pay it and then some. If only I knew how much I owed.”
Again the woman shivered. “I think it’s here. We should try talking to it.”
“It? I’m trying to talk to you.”
“What do you want?”
“I told you, I want to pay my fine. But—You know what? This is a waste of time.” He looked to the right and spied a door that wore a plaque. The plaque read “ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICES: STAFF ONLY.” Though it pained him, Neilson knew he would have to break a rule if he was going to get the information he needed. He was going to have to trespass.
* * *
Inez sat at her computer, a device she still hadn’t managed to figure out and conquer—not that she would admit it to the others. She stared at the screen, jiggled the palm-sized gadget that made the arrow on the screen move around, and waited for the behemoth to “wake up.” As if the thing was somehow alive. “Preposterous,” Inez grumbled as the screen grew bright once more.
Mr. Redd’s patron account was still up from when Inez had studied it earlier. The fine for the late book amounted to $20, but since it was likely lost, the deceased would have to pay the full price of the book: $99.95. However, she had not reported the item as lost—and couldn’t remember how to—so the fine remained stuck at $20.
“Bother.” Inez pushed her glasses down her nose so she could use the bifocal part of her graduated lenses. She moved the arrow back and forth across the screen, using it to underline what she was reading. Unfortunately, she was no closer to a solution than when she had called the deceased’s residence. The mere thought of that rude man telling her to “get over it” made Inez hold the palm-sized gadget more tightly, and she accidentally clicked something on the screen. A blinking vertical line appeared in the patron fine history box, and Inez scowled at it.
It was then, glaring at the blinking line, that she was overcome with chills. Inez looked up at the ceiling’s air vent, but the tinsel hanging from the grate wasn’t moving, indicating that it wasn’t the A/C bothering her. “Poppycock.”
The electricity flickered, and the computer’s light faded for a moment. Then her speakers crackled and a garbled voice said,
“I would like to know who’s in charge here.”
Nonplussed, Inez looked for the source of the male voice. She did not recognize it, and she knew that no men worked in the back. At least, she was fairly certain they didn’t.
Again the man’s voice spoke. “Can you hear me?”
“Of course I can hear you. Where are you?” she asked.
There was a short pause and then a sigh of what sounded like relief. “I want to pay my library fine.”
Inez peered under her desk. Her stockinged legs were unbearably cold, and she shuddered. She turned her attention back to screen. “You’re inside the computer?” She did not mean that he was literally inside the computer, of course, but with these new-fangled gadgets, one couldn’t be expected to always remember the proper terminology.
“Yes, I’m inside the computer. I’m surprised this actually worked.”
Inez nodded. “Ah, this must be an email. I’ve been told about such things.”
“About my fine…”
“May I please have your name?” Inez asked, jiggling the gadget in her hand. The screen’s light winked again before growing brighter. The vertical line was still there and it was still blinking.
“Neilson Redd,” said the man through the speakers.
Inez’s left eye twitched. “That isn’t funny. Neilson Redd has passed on.”
“I haven’t passed on…not yet. That’s what I’m trying to do. Could you just look up my fine history and tell me how much I owe?”
But Inez was shaking her head. “I’m afraid that’s confidential information.”
“Why is it confidential?”
“I can’t just willy-nilly give out information about our patrons. Here at the library, there are rules about such things.”
The voice groaned. “Look, I’ve had a really bad three weeks lingering here. If I could just pay my fine somehow, then maybe I can move on.”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. You can’t just ask to know someone’s fine history.”
“The book in question,” said the man as though she hadn’t spoken, “is The Herbs of Scottish Swamps. Could you just tell me how much that costs so I can pay?”
Inez blinked. “Is this Neilson Redd’s nephew?”
“I said is this Neilson Redd’s nephew?”
“Why would I be my own nephew?”
The computer screen began to flash like an agitated disco ball. “Calm down, sir. There is no need to shout.”
“I’m not shouting. You’ll know when I’m shouting.”
The head of technical services popped into Inez’s office. “Is everything all right?”
Inez glowered at the screen. “Some rude gentleman is trying to get information on one of our patrons.”
“I just want to pay my own fine, and this old biddy won’t tell me what it is.”
The young librarian entered the office and looked over Inez’s shoulder. “Is this the account in question?”
“It’s $20,” the young woman said. “Inez, I didn’t know you knew how to do video chats.”
Inez was growing flustered. “I don’t do video chats. This is an email and I—”
“$20?” asked the man in the computer. “Oh, that’s what that number right there is about. Huh.”
The young librarian smiled at Inez, as though she had just helped a great deal, and left.
“Bother,” said Inez.
“Wait,” said the man. “There seems to be a problem.”
Inez rubbed her forehead. “What about your pockets?”
“They’re still empty. How am I going to pay your silly fine with no cash?” He sounded more panicked than the situation called for. “Hang on. I have an idea.”
The screen flashed, and a chill went through Inez’s body. The speakers were silent.
“Hello?” Inez asked. “Sir, are you still there?” She jiggled the gadget in her hand—a mouse, she recalled. Silly name for a silly contraption.
There was only silence and the feeling of cold seeping into her bones. Inez shook her head to clear it.
Once more the screen brightened.
Inez leaned forward to better look at Mr. Redd’s account, which seemed to be doing something. The blinking, vertical line in the fine history box disappeared for a moment, and the fine number began to slowly move backward.
“Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen,” Inez counted in horror. She counted all the way down to one dollar and then, the numbers stopped. The blinking line reappeared, and the speakers crackled to life.
“I hate breaking the rules,” said the man again. “But I think this might be the only way. Goodbye.” At that, the fine amount was brought down to zero dollars and zero cents, and the little square that said “SAVE” flashed.
“What in the dickens?” said Inez, clutching her pearls.
“Bingo! There’s the light.”
The electricity flickered, the speakers crackled, and when all had settled down, Neilson Redd’s fine had been erased.
Uncomprehending, Inez sat and stared at the screen. The coldness in the room was gone. The voice in the computer did not return. And though she tried, for the life of her, Inez could not figure out where the numbers had disappeared to. It was a mystery, one that she knew she would be unable to solve without admitting she didn’t know the first thing about computers.
She hesitated a moment before picking up the phone and dialing the front desk. “This is the director. I’d like to speak to the head of non-fiction,” she said brusquely. “There’s a book that needs replacing.”
Rules were rules, but pride was pride. The missing book would be replaced, the fine would remain “forgiven” instead of “hacked”…whatever that meant.
And Neilson Redd would stay dead, as is the proper behavior of a late person.
This short story was originally posted on another blog but has since been deleted by the blog’s owner. Hope you enjoyed!