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Chapter 05

I leave Ned’s office and with all of the thinking about squids I have completely forgotten about the frigid day that I had left behind. The wind has picked up considerably while I was inside, and threatening rain clouds are whipping by, strafing the tops of still-green trees.

Although I’m not really dressed for rain or cold there is still part of me that rejoices in rain. I grew up in the Sacramento Valley of northern California. Rain there always seemed like a miracle. By the middle of the summer the trees would begin to shed their leaves, but mostly they didn’t change into pleasant colors first. Instead of the reds, yellows, oranges and other colors you see even in a disappointing New England fall Sacramento’s trees all looked like they had died of heat exhaustion. By August they appeared to be ready to spontaneously combust.

Sacramento falls, consequently, looked so much more permanent. In New England you can always look forward to a crisp winter that would, at some future point, end. In Sacramento the weather would get cooler, but there never seemed to be any guarantee of moisture and rebirth in the eventual spring. Sometimes the winters would be so warm that by the time spring rolled around (much earlier than in New England, of course) you might completely forget about it. Winters there seemed sometimes totally without hope.

I wrap my thin jacket around me and button it, despite the fact that suit coats and blazers look kinda stupid that way. And I follow the path that Ned had outlined to the squishy side of campus.

It isn’t squishy in the actual physical sense, of course. The sciences were clustered together on one side of an immense hill, one that had no name, so far as I am aware. On the opposite side, towards the north, was University housing, the dorms, cafeterias and bookstore. On the eastern side were the stadium complex and other athletic facilities like tennis courts and the track. And the western side housed most of the social sciences, the humanities, and for some odd reason, the business school. The social sciences and humanities are usually considered the squishy subjects, so their predominance on the western side of campus makes it seem like the squishy side.

The main campus library, the one that had the kind of books you might actually read, as opposed to the ones that you simply referred to in academic papers or looked something up in, was in the middle of the western campus.

I take a shortcut through a practice field that isn’t being used, one usually devoted to pick-up games of tag football, Frisbee and lacrosse for those not actually on the team. But I am still chilled when I reach the library. By that point I am trying to think about who I could call to pick me up and take me back to my car. But then, you never know, it could warm up by the time I have to leave. Best to wait.

Scott Peterson, the newest hire in the History Department, is supposed to be up on the fifth floor. So I take the elevator like Ned had suggested and then try to figure out where the southwest corner of the building would be. After a minute I decide it is to the right, which leads me into the stacks. As a space-saving measure, apparently the books were on moveable stacks, which had to be cranked to the left or right to open up a sort of temporary hallway. It seems strange to encounter this on the fifth floor of an older building, though. This method of book storage can be pretty heavy. I stand there for a moment trying to figure out the easiest way to open one up when somebody on the other side opens one for me.

A student then enters the hallway from the other side looking for a book. She seems pretty absorbed in what she’s doing, and I don’t want to startle her—the aisle she had created is a narrow one. So I go around a bit, looking for another path.

To my right I find the end of one section of stacks, and it already has a path open to the other side. It leads directly to a glass enclosure that has little green banker’s lamps set up on dark oak library tables. As I walk up to it I can see that the electrical cords leading to the lamps were entwined with other wires, which looked to be network cables for laptop computers.

I look through the windows at the little reading room briefly. It is such a nice, peaceful-looking room. A little dark, perhaps, but with really old, leather-bound books on two of the walls, and really comfortable leather chairs at the four desks. There are other, still more comfortable chairs at the far end of the room, one of which, I notice, is occupied. A man with straight blonde hair, wearing a leather jacket and jeans and reading one of the old books looks up at me as I come into view. He has his feet propped up on one of the chairs from a desk and seems surprised, but not startled.

I smile my best I-didn’t-mean-to-stare-or-bother-you smile and turn to the left, retracing my way to the southwest corner where the History Professor’s office is supposed to be.

When I get there I see that it is closed. Knocking, I discover that it is also unoccupied. “Oh, well,” I’m thinking, “at least I got warm. I turn and walk back to the reading room only to be confronted by the guy who had been reading in the little glass room.

“Are you looking for me?” he asked.

“I don’t think so, unless you’re Scott Peterson?” I venture.

“I am. And you are, . . . wait a minute, no accent. Are you by any chance Neal?”

“Very good,” I say, and he laughs. “You’re pretty quick.” I don’t finish that statement, but it continues in my head with the words “for a historian.”

“I didn’t expect any visitors, so I was in the Quillan Rare Book Room,” he says while making little air quotes with his fingers.

“Oh, I was on my way back to my office after meeting with a friend of yours, so I thought I’d drop by and see if you were in.”

“A friend,” he said. Must be Ned?”

“He couldn’t be your only one?”

“No, but nobody else seems to know where my office is. Nobody ever really just drops by here. They’re a little more . . . formal or something.”

“Yeah. I’m beginning to think that what it is is more like they’re too polite. They would see that as an imposition. I told somebody recently that nobody had ever invited me to their house here in New England. This native told me that it would be presumptuous to think that I’d want to be invited to their house.”

He appears to consider this for a moment. Then “Do you have time to chat?”

“Yup.”

So we go to the comfortable leather chairs.

“I don’t see any sign on the door. Why did you call this, somewhat mockingly, the Quilling Rare Book Room?”

“Quillan,” he said. “Guy was a professor here. Still is. Emeritus, I guess. He packed up a few years ago and moved to Idaho, after recommending my hire on the personnel committee. I’ve got his old office. And they locked off his books in this room. Since I’m right next door I get to open it up when people want to look at the books. But nobody ever does.”

“Seems a pity that nobody ever does. They look like some cool old books.”

“Yeah. They’re not in the electronic catalogue, though. I suspect they weren’t in the old index cards either. But those have been gone for a while. Anyway, most of these aren’t even rare, which was why I was joking about the name of the room. They’re just his old books from the 1970s when he started teaching. He got the Library to buy them as hardbound books and then took their covers off. They just look older because they’re dusty.”

I stand around for a few seconds and look at some of the titles. “But some of these are leather-bound.”

“And some of those are rare, although mostly not. Just old Modern Library editions of different literary works.”

“Still a nice look. A pleasant spot,” I said, and he nods, flopping into the chair he had occupied when I first saw him.

“Yeah, it’s one of the many benefits of this job,” he said in a mock-bragging sort of way, putting his hands behind his head and stretching back in the chair. “New on the faculty but I’ve got the biggest office in the building.”

I point to a sign on one of the tables. “You can’t eat or drink in here, though,” I said. “So it isn’t perfect.”

“Truth be told,” he says, “you’re the first person I’ve seen on this floor since the semester began. And even if there was a good amount of traffic, you’ve probably noticed that nobody reads signs here.”

“Well, I guess you win.”

“So, you met Ned?”

“Yeah. He called and I thought that he wanted to talk about funding a project. Seems like a pretty nice guy, very enthusiastic. But it turns out he was just looking to meet another displaced westerner. Is that why you called?”

“Actually, no. The Department Chair said I had to check with Development for travel funding before he would consider giving it to me out of the Department budget.”

“That’s right, you said as much on the phone.”

“Not that I don’t want to meet displaced westerners, too.” He holds up his right hand. “I know the odds of finding travel money through you are slim to none. I just had to check. “In a week or two I’ll call him and tell him you couldn’t find anything. Then he’ll give me the money. It’s not as if its his anyway. We are each supposed to get a travel budget for research. It’s just that I’m the only one who ever uses any. The rest of them are doing local research, Boston, Cambridge. Oh, every once and a while somebody goes to DC, but most of them have forgotten there’s a travel budget, the Chair’s so stingy about it.”

“What’s he want the money for, historical re-enactments or something?” I ask.

“Don’t think so. Although that would be pretty cool. He specializes in the French Revolution. I know lots of parts I’d not want to play, lots of parts I could recommend for others, though. I think he just likes to have the money around, on the books, even though he usually ends up forfeiting it when the budget gets tight at the end of the school year. He funds some scholarships out of it though.”

“Okay, so you’ve talked with me. Do you want me to call you in a couple of weeks to let you know I couldn’t find anything?”

“No need. He’ll take my word for it.”

“Where are you doing your research?”

“Back in Idaho, actually. Ever been there?”

“I’ve seen most of the State, actually. Which part?”

“I’m flying into Moscow.”

“Doing something with the University archives?”

“No,” he said softly and then was quite for a few seconds. “I can only tell you about my research if you won’t tell anyone else here.”

I pause for a second. Not because I am actually thinking whether I should hear his secret, but because I want him to think that I am taking him seriously. I can’t think of anybody I’d tell about anything. Finally, I smile and hold up both of my hands in sort of a gesture of surrender. “What were you reading, anyway?” I ask, reaching for the book he had put down earlier. He shoots up out of his chair and with a scared look flashing briefly across his face says “I’m serious.”

Hard to know what to do with that. The Advancement Office is a weird, repressive little place where nobody can talk about anything real and now it turns out that even the History Department has secrets. My heart sinks a little and I instinctively remember my early training in the ways of the Californian. “Whoa, dude.” I say with my hands up. “Secret’s safe with me.” I can’t immediately think of anything that could be so important. “What, is it a job interview?” I ask.

“No, it’s kinda strange. And I wouldn’t even bother with the secrecy or anything, but I’ve been told by the Chair specifically not to do what I’m about to do. So it wouldn’t be like I don’t know any better if they ever find out.”

“I guess that’s why I decided not to get an academic job in History.” I said. “I just can’t muster up this kind of passion about anything that happened in the past.”

Continued
 

“Have you met with any other faculty besides me and Ned?” he asks.“Just this electrical engineer, Lisa Wurzer, you know her?”“No. She live in town?”“I don’t know. She seems to live in her office.”

“What, like literally?”

“She’s got a cot there, and she seems pretty engaged in her work. Why?”

“What did she want?”

“She wanted to work on a grant proposal. Something wrong?”

“You tell me. There’s some strange stuff going on here, and it’s not the usual strange stuff you get on a University campus. She didn’t have any strange requests?”

I’m a little stumped by that one, so I just stare at him for a bit. “Look, no offense, Scott, but how is this any of your business?” I finally ask.

“Fair enough. I’m going to assume that she asked you not to talk about it. Do you live in town?”

It’s beginning to seem like prying. So I wonder briefly if I’m picking up some of the local attitudes about privacy. “No, we couldn’t get a place close in a good neighborhood. But we’re looking.”

“You might want to hold off on moving here for a little while. I’m going to tell you a few things because I think I can trust you, because you wouldn’t tell me what Lisa is up to. This trip I have to make is not job-related, or at least not in the traditional sense of the phrase. And it’s not about history, or at least not just about history. I think that something’s happing right now, right here in town. Something I need to look into.”

I just sit there looking at him for a few heartbeats. I’m thinking how things could not possibly get any weirder here. And I can’t help but ask questions, I guess. It’s in my nature. “What’s happening?”

“Have you noticed that lots of people look a little pale, lately, on campus?”

“No offense, but they mostly look pale out here, except when they look sunburned or ruddy.”

“On average, though, this semester, people look paler. And they are more tired. Like they aren’t sleeping well. Isn’t everybody, though. It only seems to be the people who live in town.”

“So, they aren’t sleeping well. Think there’s something in the water?”

“I don’t think there’s something in the water. I actually checked that out. The water’s good.”

“Then . . .”

“I don’t know. But old Quillan, the guy whose office I have, whose books these are, Quillan said to keep a look out for this kind of thing. Odd thing, that. He told me in a letter, couple of months after I showed up, that I should keep my eyes open and not to move to town. Not to sleep in town either.”

“Weird.”

“Practically made it a condition of my employment, though. Although I don’t know how he would find out if I didn’t listen. And weirder still, he took a bunch of books with him when he left. All of the actual rare books he took with him.”

“But you said there were some rare books here. Are they yours?”

“Now they are. But he sent them to me. At home. Several months after he had gone. And he told me not to let anybody in the department get ahold of them.”

“Strange old guy.”

“Yeah, but not as strange as the books.”

I look out the window and, sure enough, the sun has come out of the clouds, and the trees aren’t shaking in the wind anymore. I am thinking about finding a quick way out of this, because I’m just not sure I want to know any more. I take my pen out of my pocket and begin to twirl it around my fingers. It helps keep some distance, some perspective.

“So what kind of books?

“The books are old local histories, most of them. Some of them are considerably older and are, um, religious in nature.”

I look over at the book I had reached for a little earlier. It definitely looks old, and is in longhand, like a journal of some sort. The pages look dirty and mottled, and it is in that old blackish/reddish/brownish ink. “Did he leave you some handwritten journals, too?”

“No, that’s one of the religious ones.”

At that I’m sort of stopped in my tracks. I look away from it at back at Scott. “So what kind of religion are we talking about here?”

“None you’ve heard of, probably. There was an old cult that apparently stretched from a few miles west of us here all the way to the sea. They apparently claimed descent from an old Sumerian faith. It’s not really my area. I certainly never had heard of it before.”

“Does it have a name?”

“Makatonic or Katonic, I don’t know the language, but they seem to be used interchangeably in this thing,” he waves toward what I had taken as a journal.

“That sounds Indian, though. Isn’t it?”

“Again, I don’t really know. There’s too much I don’t know about this stuff.”

“But you said things were happening.”

“Did you know that thirty people forty-five years old or younger have died this year in town?”

I’m thinking that that doesn’t sound right. Surely I’d notice something like that in the paper. “In a town of, what, forty thousand-odd?”

He nods and I find myself asking, “anything mysterious in the ways they died?”

“That I don’t know. Most of them had no write-up in the paper, except the obit section, where they didn’t say anything about cause of death, which is a little odd, given the sheer numbers, I think. And then there’s the animals.”

“What animals?”

He looks at me like he can’t believe I haven’t noticed. And I’m thinking about owls again.

“Yesterday when I was walking in from the parking lot I saw a huge flock of sparrows heading straight for a chain link fence. I remember thinking that it was going to be really cool to see them suddenly veer upward when they got close, because they can turn on a dime. They didn’t, though. They went through that fence as if it was made of air.”

He pauses and I can see him struggling with it, he’s searching my face, lightly, but still obviously searching for some evidence that I don’t think he’s a lunatic.

“There wasn’t anything magical about it, “he finally says. “They had just learned to go through chain link. No big deal, but I’ve watched birds around here for quite a while. Quillan asked me to watch the birds. And I don’t remember ever seeing any of them do that before.”

“And people are acting weird. You probably don’t even notice. They probably all act a little strange to you, since you’re just off the boat. Lots of them are in a fog, of course. First week or so that I became aware of this I overheard a bunch of people at the cafeteria talking about strange dreams that kept waking them up. And then, about a week after that, nobody was talking about much of anything at lunch, at least nothing interesting.”

I reserve judgment on this. There doesn’t seem to be anything dazed about the people in my office. They seem as alert as guard dogs. But I don’t tell him that. And nobody ever talks about something as interesting and deep as dreams. Except Sid. Then I think about the owls again and make a mental note to ask him whether he was able to get pictures of them when I get back to work.

“Doesn’t sound like much to go on, although it is all pretty creepy. Why are you going to Moscow, then?”

“I’m not. I said I was flying in to Moscow. The Chair thinks I’m doing some research on Lewis and Clark. They went nearby. I’m landing in Moscow, but I’m going to drive up to Kellogg.”

“Cool old mining town. What’s up there?”

“Quillan, for one.”

“Surely you could just call him up?”

“You’d think, but he doesn’t actually have a phone. And I’ve written him, but I need to know more about all this strange crap he saddled me with here, and why. I mean, my dissertation was on transportation systems in the U.S. I don’t know anything really about the history of this place or the Sumerians, or any of this stuff.”

I’m thinking that he wants something from me, but I can’t imagine what it could be. Just confiding in me to have somebody to hear him out seems so bizarre. Maybe he just wants some confirmation, however flimsy, that he is not going crazy.

“What are you going to do with the rare book room when you go?”

“I’ll just lock it up. Like I say, nobody ever comes here.”

We seem to run out of things to say. He doesn’t have any answers and I don’t have any questions. I get up out of my seat and straighten my jacket. He shrugs his shoulders. He seems a little embarrassed by the weird conversation. I scour my memory for some sort of joke or something, something to break the tension and let him know that don’t think of him as a lunatic.

“Kellogg is pretty this time of year, although they don’t get the color we do,” I say, “too many evergreen trees.”

“Yeah, there’s tamarack, of course, but those just look dead in the fall.”

“You must be looking forward to going out there.”

“Actually, I am. I’m hoping to get in some skiing at Lookout Pass. And I’ve got some family in Coeur d ‘Alene. So it should be a nice break.”

“So you’re planning on going during Christmas?”

“Yeah, or Thanksgiving. We don’t get a week off, but most students take a week, so there’s no reason not to, really.”

“Did Quillan grow up out there?” I ask as we walk out of his Rare Book Room.

“No.” He stops for a moment, shaking his head slightly. “No, he’s actually a local. He just retired there, for some reason.”

“I’ve noticed that a lot of people retire to someplace with winters that are less harsh.”

“Some people have telephones. Some people don’t exact weird promises from junior faculty before retiring. Some people don’t carry their books across the country and then turn around and ship them back.”

“Well. I’ll search around for that travel money for you. I should know in,” I look at my watch, “about two weeks.”

He laughs. “Hey, we should have lunch sometime or something, you me and Ned. Form a little western clique and make fun of people, that sort of thing.”

“Sure, I’ll give you a call when you’re not so weird,” I say, smiling. “Maybe after your vacation,” I hint.

“I do sincerely hope that that helps, somehow,” he says.

I find my way back without any trouble and notice that it is warmer than when I arrived, but it is also getting dark. I hurry to make it back to the office. Automatic lights on the big hill begin to light themselves as I arrive. Backed by the dark clouds that had passed the town looks quaint and weird at the same time.

I turn off my computer and notice that most everyone has gone home already. I look for Sid and find that he’s already gone. There are a couple of lights on down the hall, but I don’t bother to tell anyone I’m leaving.

Driving home I’m thinking that maybe Scott is right. Moving into town seems just a little rash at this point. I should definitely wait until I see if all of the faculty are completely bonkers. My wife never mentioned it before, and the few social gatherings to which we have been invited seemed to offer the usual mix of narcissists, shy myopic nerds, opinionated bullies, and people you’d like to befriend, if you had the time. I resolve to ask her whether she’s heard anything weird. And then I find myself deciding that I wouldn’t be able to give a satisfactory reason for the question without talking about my weird experiences in Lisa Wurzer’s office, which I had already decided not to trouble anyone else with.

Take me to Chapter VI

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