a short story by Jerry Zinn
921.5…. 921.5… 921.5. I rolled over onto my back and opened my eyes wide, staring at the ceiling but seeing nothing. There was no amount of sheep I could count to take my mind off that number. It was seared into my brain like a brand on a cow. Despite its persistence, I couldn’t determine its significance. What did 921.5 mean?
Perhaps it was something I had come across in the last few days, seen in a passing glance. I tried to think back to what I had done and where I had been the week before, but after jogging my memory for a mile or two, I was still left wanting. It has always amused me that the simplest of things are often the hardest to decipher. Ask me to explain partial derivatives, and you would think I had a Ph.D. in mathematics, but ask me to define love, humor, or 921.5 and you’d be severely disappointed.
As I continued to psychoanalyze myself, I sat up and took stock of my studio apartment, shrouded in the uniform darkness of the night. I could only make out the larger shapes like my kitchen counter, my desk, and my dresser. The exposed brick wall was revealed by its mortar, which held a subtle glow. The wall was a reminder of what once was, a factory long gone, machines removed and replaced with hipsters. It’s all very “circle of life,” but I couldn’t help but feel the textile workers that filled the building over a hundred years ago would disapprove of my French press and I.
A shot of moonlight filtered through my blinds and fell upon some books trying to sleep on an upper shelf. I could make out the title of one of the larger books, War and Peace, and in a failed test of my vision could almost make out the library number affixed to the spine. It was then that the light bulb flicked on in my head. 921.5. Was it a Dewey Decimal number? But to what book and where? In the age of technology in which I find myself, mastery of the library catalogue system is not as high a priority as it once was. Even if I was wrong, I thought pursuing my idea might lead to an answer, and it seemed the best option for salvaging what little sleep remained within grasp.
With sharpened curiosity, I summoned the strength to get out of bed. I walked to my desk and accidentally kicked over my trashcan along the way, a casualty of my temporary blindness. When I opened my laptop, I was greeted with the “Welcome Peter Anderson” message on my background. With the cursor blinking on the search bar, my brainstorm grew disappointingly quiet. How was I to go about searching for 921.5 when every library has its own unique codes? I sat looking blankly at the screen before becoming, for the first time, consciously aware of the time: 11:45. If I had any hope of solving the riddle before the clock tipped over to March 23rd, I had to start thinking faster. What library would 921.5 be in? Would it be open?
A quick search informed me that only one library within ten miles was still open: The Richard L. Tattinger Library. Fortunately it was also the closest of all the establishments, located only a few blocks away. But with only fifteen minutes to spare until they too closed their doors, time was of the essence.
After a brisk five-minute walk I arrived at the foot of the marble steps to the temple of the written word. The edifice’s six Doric pillars, reminiscent of the cult structures found readily in Greek antiquity, guarded the front in a, “Enter if you think yourself worthy,” kind of way. The doors were glass, frameless, and bearing brushed stainless steel handles. They contrasted with the classical style in the same way the glass pyramid does the Louvre, which is to say, strongly. When I opened the door it let out a creak like Windex quickly wiped away from a drying window. The security guard, a gray-mustached man of considerable age awoke from his light slumber to examine me.
“Library closes in eight minutes at midnight,” he said in a tone that made it seem more like a question than a statement.
“Yes, thank you,” I replied as I followed the star-speckled, navy blue carpet train into the reading room. The space was ornate, a significant change from the gutted factory building from which I had ventured. Sturdy, mahogany desks stood three by three leading up to the librarian’s desk, which possessed impressive floral carvings. Rows of matching shelves filled the remaining space with long-unpolished bronze numerals and letters, the Tattinger code. A further two levels of shelving along the walls on all sides were outlined with hip-height railing. The highest level ran directly to the elaborate crown molding encircling the room, transitioning to the pearl white vaulted ceiling. Artistically concealed behind hand-carved wooden posts were the access roads to the upper floors, tightly wound spiral staircases of wrought iron poised to uncoil if provoked.
Having completed my architectural assessment of the Tattinger, I proceeded to the librarian’s wooden nest, past the large Grandfather clock in the center of the room showing 11:56. As no one else was present in the library at the time, I thought the man would look up on his own volition. However I managed to toe the front of the desk without him so much as throwing a glance in my direction. The deep folds of skin on his face, unkempt white hair, and cartoonish small stature made him look like a Claymation character.
I was about to ask where I could find the book corresponding to 921.5, but before I could, he pointed and said, “Second floor, section seven dash Z, third row from the top.”
“But I didn’t even…” I started to say. After a few seconds I accepted that he had little interest in me, and I proceeded to the staircase nearest the direction he had signaled.
I reached the second floor and looked back to examine the reading room from my new perch. As my eyes scanned the path I followed to enter, my gaze darted to the librarian’s desk. He was gone. A moment of concern overcame me as I wondered to where he could have disappeared. I hadn’t noticed any other doors in the library save for the entrance, and it seemed unrealistic, for more reasons than one, to think he sprinted out of the building without a sound. My consuming quest coupled with a week of sleep deprivation seemed to be getting the better of me.
I about-faced to the bookshelves in search of a section 7-Z. The floor creaked painfully as if it hadn’t been asked to bear weight for decades. I arrived at section 7-Z, counted three rows down, and locked in on the code pasted on the first book: 921.1. My body froze, and I found my extremities tingling at the sight. This was the row on which the book bearing my number would be found, but how could the vanishing librarian have known?
In autopilot, my finger found its way to 921.1. I slowly dragged over the subsequent spines of 921.2, 921.3 and 921.4, feeling each pore of their worn leather covers. Finally my finger came to rest on 921.5. My eyes scaled cautiously up like someone climbing the ladder to a diving board for the first time, reticent to proceed.
N O S R E D N A R E T E P
Like an impressionist painting, overly close examination revealed little, but I brought my gaze back slightly, and the book’s title stopped my heart beating in its tracks: Peter Anderson. My hand shivered, as I timidly unshelved the book bearing my name. Holding it in my still wavering hand, I unhinged the cover to reveal a blank page. I carefully peeled back the emptiness to unveil the next. Printed in its center was one short, horrifying phrase, “In memory of Peter Anderson, November 16, 1989 – March 22, 2016.” Then the clock struck midnight.