Tick-Tock

“Goodnight, Lionel,” he hears through the glass as he locks the door, offering a friendly wave as his response. It’s just him again, his only companion is the boisterous Rolex his father had passed on to him. Each tick seems to echo off the walls of books as he begins to tidy. At first, its ticking had pushed the limits of Lionel’s sanity as he would reorganize the endless mountain of word-homes, now it brought him comfort and rhythm. He likes to call books word-homes to make it seem like all the letters were comfortable with where they were, it gave them a place to stay.

Lionel looks down at the white face strapped to his wrist by a dark, brown band, 9:15. He starts singing quietly along to the metronome of the Rolex, swaying from side to side—his mop becoming his dance partner. He pauses for a second to light a cigarette, he knows it’s against the rules, but there’s no one around to tell his secret—he glares downward. “This is between you and me,” he puffs out, just as he had every night it seemed for the last six years.

Nine years, actually. Lionel has worked as a maintenance manager nine years for the Tacoma County Library. In this time he started to gray, only around the edges above his ears, and a little in his moustache. He stands, a staunch man, just a notch under six feet, with a broad chest and shoulders to match. His glasses are thick-framed, thin-lensed, dark black, and held together only by the tape he replaces every week. His hands have begun to dry and chip from the extensive use of cleaning supplies on the linoleum in the lobby. His face, sunken, making him appear much older than his actual forty-five years of age, accentuated by his nose—large and pointed, like a beak.

Lionel smokes while he vacuums the carpets, ashing in front of himself to immediately hide the evidence. He glances down at his old friend once more, 10:38. He pushes the vacuum now, trading partners with the mop as his hips bounce from left to right. “Two different partners in one night? How’d I get so lucky?” he laughs to himself over the roar of the Hoover. Vacuuming had always been satisfying to Lionel, he relishes the concept of completion—loving the lines in the carpet and the patterns it left behind him.

11:09. “Dustin’ time,” Lionel softly sings to himself. He finds his favorite rolling ladder and steps up to the third foothold. His duster in hand, he pushes: forwards, backwards, forwards, backwards, and then launches. He holds the duster against the shelf as he speeds by, each title, one after another, writing a book of their own as he tries to read them all. “Time!” Lionel shouts, sticking the landing as he dismounts, hands raised—bowing gracefully. “Thank you! Thank you!” he yells to the crowd of novels on the shelves. He catches his breath, pulling out another cigarette. 11:26.

Lionel makes his way over to the book drop-box, jingling his keys—spinning them on his finger as he waltzes. He enters the key into its home, the lock clicking and tumbling almost immediately, the avalanche of books following after. He begins scooping up the books, redistributing them into a cart, carefully inspecting each one in the process. “Which one of you word-homes are having a break with me tonight?” he ponders as he exhales another cloud of smoke. It? No. Slaughterhouse V? No. The Color Purple? No. He sifts through what seems like hundreds of titles before finally finding the perfect book. French for Dummies.

Lionel sits in the break-room, book open on the table, cigarette and sandwich in hand. “Bonjoor, jha maple, Lionel,” he attempts, index finger tracing the speaking instructions on the page. “This French stuff ain’t so hard,” he laughs to himself, taking a bite of his tuna fish sandwich. He continues reading through the first few pages of the book, laughing hysterically to himself as he tries each phrase. “Boy, I better be quiet, this is a library after all,” Lionel can hardly breathe as he leans further backwards in his chair.

The chair tilts beyond its threshold, Lionel feels himself become weightless as he grasps for stability—finding nothing but air with each clasp of his hand, the other hand still holding his book and cigarette. He falls, unhindered, crashing his head into the countertop in the breakroom, rendering him unconscious upon impact—a small pool of blood forming around his head. The book and the cigarette land in unison, paired to one another as the pages begin to catch fire. The flame spreads, the entire library carpeted except for the lobby.

Within minutes the entire collection of literature is ablaze, illuminating the surrounding area as the fire ravages the library. The pages of each book sparking from their corners, begging for relief as they’re consumed by their unrelenting captor. The fire spares nothing, reaching its arms up every shelf—marking its trail behind it. Hundreds of thousands of words, now lost in piles of ash.

By the time the inferno is quelled by local responders, the debris and soot seem to coat everything. As they begin to kick and sift through, they stumble upon Lionel, buried, burnt beyond recognition—motionless. The only thing still in tact on his body is the Rolex, ticking with deafening consistence.

It’s almost closing time, Ellen sits as the lone member of the day staff remaining on shift. Top of her class from Oklahoma State, she is a strong 34 and the only thing that has aged is her eyes—atrophied from extensive amounts of reading, and squinting at Dewey decimal labels, compensated for by thin, wire-framed glasses. Her petite frame offers a sense of ease and patience.

Ellen closes her notepad, content with her writing for the evening, turning off the light behind the front desk. She walks towards the front door as she has every night for the last ten years since she took the job as Head Researcher for Special Inquiries at the Tacoma County Library. She saunters through the fiction aisle on her way out, a small stack of books in hand—returning each to its proper place as she hears the back door creak open and accompanying it, the voice of the watch—the wails of her life’s only enemy. Its resounding ticks and tocks breaking the silence and respect the library garnered, Ellen winces with each reminder that a second is passing.

“Goodnight Lionel,” she says, walking through the front door, a relieved sigh escaping her as she’s welcomed by the sounds of small-city life. He locks the doors behind her, she turns around to catch a fleeting pass of his hand, beckoning her goodnight in return. Lionel glances over the library, the stillness drowned out by the sound of his watch. “Ah shut up, you,” he threatens, as he begins to mop the linoleum in the lobby.

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