"I wish it didn't have to be this way, but we need all the extra money we can get." We were halfway through a year fraught with monetary concerns, and the library was feeling the pinch. Eliminating Sunday hours had been the first step. The second step had been to cut the pages' hours until most of them had quit in frustration. The third step had been to close the libraries earlier, which had incensed both teachers and parents, not to mention the students who now had no place to study. The fourth step ... layoffs. I parroted the director's next words in my head--lord knows I'd heard them enough. "If the library is going to survive this, we have to cut down to the bone."
My job was safe. Even a skeleton crew needed an Assistant Director/Building Manager/Technology Supervisor, but I would have given almost anything to remove some of the names from the director's list.
"You want me to fire every single one of these people?" I waved the list under the director's nose. "All of them?"
The director's lips pursed into a frown. "It's kinder to say layoffs, Karen. And I have faith you'll handle this with your usual tact." She picked up a folder and opened it; a clear indication that our interview was at an end.
Of course I would. I'd call the sacrifices into my office--separately--and leave a box of tissues in plain view on my desk. I'd school my features to show utter sympathy, and tell them that their career at the library was over until further notice. And I'd feel like the worst sort of hypocrite, knowing that my job was safe.
There were fifteen names on the list. Of the fifteen, I knew five employees by sight. Seven were pages, the rest of our small system's minimum wage workers. Two were relatively new hires, traditionally the first to go. And one, Ivy Bedinghaus, was listed as a Night Clerk at the Beth-Hill Branch Library.
"A what?" I stopped in the middle of the hallway.
Penny, the receptionist, gave me a startled look. "Ms. Montgomery?"
"Do we have any ... Night Clerks at any of the other branches?" I asked, still staring at my list. Penny's name was not present. Someone had to answer the irate calls about why the library couldn't afford to purchase the newest John Grisham.
"Night Clerks?" Penny tapped a few keys and stared at her computer. "No, ma'am. Just the one. In Beth-Hill."
She said the town's name as if I should have known some awful secret about it. I frowned at her. "What's so different about Beth-Hill?"
Penny hesitated, and a flush of red stained her cheeks. "Oh, ma'am, I don't like to gossip..."
Which was an outright lie. I'd caught her instant messaging her cousin in the next county over more than once. "Out with it. Why is there a Night Clerk in Beth-Hill and not anywhere else? What does a Night Clerk do?"
"Umm, clerk during the night?" was Penny's helpful suggestion. I glowered at her. "Oh, surely you've heard some of the stories..."
"Pretend I haven't." I kept a weather ear out for the click of the director's door, just in case, but I doubted she would emerge from her cave. Give her a pot of coffee and an internet connection and she might not show her face until spring ... I forced my mind away from uncharitable thoughts.
Penny took a deep breath. "Oh, they're a bit ... odd over there."
"Odd how?" Libraries were libraries, right? Granted, there were some strange librarians out there, but a whole town?
"Odd like..." Penny fluttered her hands through the air. "Like, there are stories."
I sighed. "What kind of stories?" Penny mumbled something I didn't catch. "What?"
"Witchcraft stories. Beth-Hill was the site of a witch trial back in the 1800s. They've never recovered from that." Penny shrugged. "You weren't born here, ma'am. I don't expect you to understand."
I didn't understand, but I had lived in the area for ten years. The residents of small-town Ohio mistrusted anyone who couldn't prove that their ancestors had been founding fathers. And I had no way of knowing where mine had been when Beth-Hill had conducted its witch trial.
"What happened to the witch?"
"Oh, she wasn't convicted. If you ask me, she should have..." The phone rang, saving me from Penny's observations of the nameless witch's faults. I heard indignant sounds from the receiver, and abandoned her to her fate.
By Tuesday of the next week, I had whittled my list down to the last two pages and Ivy Bedinghaus. The box of tissues on my desk looked rather worn around the edges, and I had to bite my tongue to keep from sending unkind thoughts in the director's direction. This budget crunch was not her fault. And it was in my job description to maintain the daily workings of the library system.
By Thursday, repeated calls to the Beth-Hill Branch Library had netted me with nothing to report. Ivy Bedinghaus couldn't come to the phone right now. Ivy who? Oh, Ivy never arrived before sunset, and the evening reference librarian would know how to reach her. Employee records left me with an out-of-order phone number and an address that seemed to belong to a cemetery.
I was beginning to doubt that Ivy Bedinghaus existed. Perhaps some enterprising embezzler had created an employee out of thin air to cover their crime. According to her employee record, Ivy had been working for the library since 1954, when the Beth-Hill branch opened. She was well-past retirement age. I pictured a doddering old librarian, bent and wrinkled, carefully arranging the shelves every night in anticipation for the next day's crowd. It was a nice image, but it couldn't continue. Ivy Bedinghaus had to go. And since she wouldn't return my calls, I would have to find her myself.
I waited until dusk, hopped in my car, and drove to Beth-Hill, determined to set things straight. The branch--a tiny little building badly in need of repair--sat in the middle of a strip of storefronts. I saw two pizza places, a bookstore, a cafe, and what looked to be a coin shop vying for space with a movie theater (one screen), a bank branch, and a small general store. Very picturesque.
I pulled up in front of the library an hour before closing and walked inside to dead silence. The library clerk's eyes were closed, the reference librarian was nowhere to be seen, and a tiny wisp of a page pushed a loaded book cart to the back of the room.
There were no patrons in evidence. The daily newspapers sat neat and folded on the reading table, the new books--what little there were, at least--shone with fresh polish. The carpet, although old and worn, did not have a single speck of dirt on it, and even the book drop at the circulation desk looked brand new.
"Oh!" Plump, bespectacled Marla Peterson hurried out of the stacks. "Ms. Assistant Director, ma'am! I'm so sorry ... Janet's allergies are acting up and she's been on medicine..."
The clerk snored. I thought about firing her on the spot, but her name had not been on my list and I had fired enough people this week. "Call me Karen. I'm here to speak to Ivy Bedinghaus. Is she working tonight?"
"Who?" Over the phone, I could excuse this strange forgetfulness, but in person, it was frightening to behold. Marla smiled and shook her head. "Are you sure you have the right branch, Ms. Assistant Director?"
"Call me Karen." I held out Ivy's employee folder. "And I'm positive I have the right branch."
"Oh." I watched her gaze for a spark of recognition as she read the scanty notes of Ivy's long career.
"She has to be close to retirement age, wouldn't you think?" I asked. "I'm sure you've heard about the cutbacks..."
"Oh, yes ... of course. Ivy." Marla tried to smile. "I've been working too many nights, I think. Ivy's a wonderful employee, Ms ... Karen."
"I'm sure she is," I said gently, "but the library's budget has been slashed again. The other branches don't have Night Clerks..."
"I don't expect they do." Marla pursed her lips and stared down at the folder. "I don't expect they do."
"Can I see her?" I prompted. Overtime had been cut as well, and I'd been at work since seven. "I promise it won't take long."
Marla sighed. "If you must." She stayed silent until we reached the children's section. "Ms. Karen, I..."
But I had already spied the workroom door. I opened it and gave her my best professional smile. "I'll only be a minute." I stepped inside.
The room was dark, but a small light burned behind a set of metal shelving near the back of the room. I heard the unmistakable sound of books being put into order, and saw a shadow behind the shelves, hard at work.
The sounds stopped.
"I'm Karen Montgomery, the assistant director. I've been trying to get hold of you..."
"Yes, I know." The voice wasn't old or feeble, but young and firm. I frowned and walked up to the edge of the shelving. The shadow didn't move.
"I'm sure you're aware that the library has experienced some terrible budget cuts."
"We've done our best not to come to this point, but we have no choice. We're being forced to lay off some employees to save..."
When I stepped around the shelving, I saw the same young page I'd seen before. Her pale, wispy hair made her look even younger than she seemed at first glance. But when she met my gaze, I saw something old in her eyes, something I did not wish to examine fully. I stepped back.
"Where's Ivy Bedinghaus?" My voice sounded more frightened than firm.
The girl smiled. "I'm Ivy Bedinghaus."
"You can't be." I held out the employee folder. "Ivy Bedinghaus has been an employee of the library since..."
"February 13, 1954."
I narrowed my eyes. "You can't be more than sixteen."
Ivy tucked a strand of white-blond hair behind her ear. "Seventeen."
"If you're seventeen, then how can you..." I shook my head. "I don't know what kind of scam you're trying to run here, but..."
Ivy held up her hand. "Wait. I'll explain."
I folded my arms. "Please do."
"I've worked in this branch since it opened." For the first time, I saw something other than humor in Ivy's blue eyes. "I'm the one who rescued New Johnstown's books from the flood in '87. I've guarded the rare book room in the main library when Charlie needed a break. I've..."
"Wait a second. You've already said that you're only seventeen. Don't lie to me. And who's Charlie?" The only Charlie I knew of was the founder of the library itself, and he had been dead for fifteen years. And the flood had been before my time, but I did remember an odd story about it. Perhaps Penny would know.
Ivy bit her lip. "I'm sure he'll vouch for me."
"There isn't any vouching to be done," I said. "I have no choice but to let you go, Ivy. I hope you understand."
"But I'm the library's oldest employee!"
At the moment, I could have cared less if she was the library's last employee. "I'm sorry, Ivy. I have no choice. The library just doesn't have enough money."
"I'll work for half of what I make now," Ivy said, desperate.
"You only make minimum wage. Any less than that would be illegal." Although if she truly had worked since 1954, she should have been making a lot more than minimum wage. Yet another odd thing about her employee file. No raises. No reviews. I wondered what minimum wage had been in 1954. Two dollars an hour? Less?
Ivy's chin began to wobble. I glanced around for a box of tissues, but the battered desk was bare, save for the lamp.
"Do you realize how hard it is to find a job in this town?" Ivy wiped her eyes and turned away. The desk lamp threw her shadow against the wall and made it into a monstrous shape, dark and foreboding.
"The fast food restaurants are always hiring," I suggested. "And I'm sure they pay better than the library ever did."
"You don't understand," Ivy whispered.
"I wish I had better news, budget-wise," I said. "But it's only going to get worse. If this keeps up ... I'm sorry."
Ivy's shoulders shook. And although I wanted to pat her back and tell her everything would be okay, that wasn't the professional thing to do. So I left her alone, and avoided Marla's accusing gaze as I walked back to my car and drove away.
That night, a howling storm swept into town and left three thousand inhabitants without power. The library's security system went haywire, and the security company called--you guessed it--me.
I grumbled something into the phone, pulled on a sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers, and dashed through the pounding rain to my car.