An old man sits at a desk in the middle of a room filled with thousands of books. They are his life–he never could connect with anything more than them. He thought he did, once, with his wife, but she’s been dead now, ten years.
His son appears at the door and lingers outside. He’s tall, wan, with a thick head of blond hair. He leans against the frame and glowers at the person inside.
The father makes no move, no indication that he is aware of the boy’s presence. It’s been like this forever. The son hates it. He’s seen his other friends as they’ve grown up around him – they all with their fathers, learning trades, about women, about life – and he, alone. At seven his mother gone, his other parent absent-though right down the hall-inaccessible, unwilling, always with his books. His precious tomes, which he smiled at, acknowledged, as if they were his offspring. And he, the real one, left to fend for himself. Only the maids would interact with him, pityingly. Poor little one, they always said, Poor child.
The old man looks up, finally, at the figure in the doorway. “What is it, boy?”
The son opens his mouth, pauses, shuts it again. He wants to ask something, anything, but the gray eyes that glare at him from under thick brows scare him. They always have. He hates this too. “I–”
“If you’ve nothing to say, stop wasting my time.”
Bitter, silenced, the youth turns and stalks out of the doorway and down the hall. Seventeen years of this, he thinks, Seventeen years of disdain, of being looked at like I am worthless. And yet those books… a slight chuckle here, a choke, a change of thought …Those books are all the man loves.
In his room, he lies on his bed, facing the ceiling, thoughts racing through his mind. He feels a heat rising in his chest, burning and growing with every breath. He closes his eyes, squeezes them shut, and clenches his fists. How he hates his father, how he hates those books. Why should he be invisible? What had he ever done to deserve this?
And then he remembers his mother.
She had coddled him; given him toys, kisses, chocolates. He’d found it smothering sometimes, found it embarrassing to be hanging around with her at six years old, when his friends would brag about learning to fish or catch a ball…. He asked his mother, once, if his father would perhaps teach him–?
“Just leave him to his books.” She had answered. “Just leave him to his books.”
He had toddled into his father’s library at three years old with a cup of milk and dropped it on the floor, just close enough to the shelves. It splashed, ran into the crevices of the wood floor, and speckled a large novel with white froth.
How his father had screamed, how he’d leapt from his chair, how he’d fumbled for his pocket square, grabbed the book, wiped it off, and cradled it. The son began to cry – his mother appeared out of nowhere, scooped him up, swept him out of the room. He’d not been allowed back until he was ten.
His chest hurt more. Tears burned his eyes, and he opened them again and stared at blurred nothingness. Teeth clenched, the boy resolved he would do something. He would hurt the old man the way he’d been hurt, year after year, day after day.
He awaited midnight. Once the clock struck, he knew his father would finally retire from the library. He would shut the door, put his hand on it, pausing, thinking how he didn’t want to leave, and then turn and slowly walk to his room and be sleeping within an hour.
As soon as he was sure his father was asleep, the boy crept from his room and down the hall. Slowly, carefully, he turned the knob on the door and slipped into the library. It was dark within, and the boy fumbled in his pocket for a flashlight. He clicked it on and headed straight to his father’s desk, where he turned on a dim lamp.
By the hazy light coming from the fixture, the boy was able to make out some of his surroundings. Up and down the walls were books, each leather bound and old, filed carefully away on their shelves. Turning, the boy faced the tall windows, covered by thick red velvet drapes. He smiled – his mother had made these curtains long ago, when he was five. Sighing, he turned again to his father’s desk, made from burnished oak–a solid, elegant piece. The chair was black leather, well worn. He sat down, shut off his flashlight, returned it to his pocket, and looked out to the doorway.
At two years old he had sat on the ground in front of the desk, playing with trains. He wheeled them across the floor, making chugga chugga sounds, and his father had watched silently.
“You like trains, do you?” His voice, deep and quiet, had asked.
“Yes, sir!” The boy had looked up then and smiled.
His father had nodded and, without a word, walked to the side of the room and pulled a large book from one of the shelves. He weighed it in his hands for a bit, as if questioning his motives, then turned and brought it over to his son.
The boy remembered snippets of what followed. His father, sitting on the floor, his suit wrinkling – his lips twitched a frown at this… The book, opened, filled with huge pictures of trains for the boy to see. Gazing at the intricate details, at the colors… His mouth agape… Looking up at his father after he’d asked which was his favorite….. “The red one!”…. The gray eyes, intense and unreadable, narrowing ever so slightly at his answer… The thing that ended the moment, when he reached to touch the page….. His father had slammed the book shut and stood up quickly…. The boy, surprised and scared, began to cry.
The rest of that day was a blur. His mother had come immediately and whisked him into the nursery.
Shaking his head to clear himself of the memory, the young man looked at the shelf that the train book was on. He’d found it once more, at ten, when he was no longer banned, but had never asked his father to look again. The spine glared out at him now – a dark navy blue, the words “STEAM ENGINES” embossed in gold across it. He bit his lip.
A sudden clang came from behind and the youth jumped and turned, eyes wide. The sound came again and he relaxed, realizing it was only an ebony grandfather clock. Two strikes – he’d been in the library an hour now. He turned back to the train book – it still glared at him with its lettering, and he felt his anger rising. Quickly, he stood and marched over to it, then ripped it off the shelf. It was lighter than he imagined it would be, and he grinned at its lack of heft. It is weak, he thought, and I always believed these things to be so much more.
Chuckling quietly, the youth opened the tome. The pictures were still colorful; he remembered them well. After flipping through a few pages, he found the red train he had chosen as his favorite. He grimaced, and in one deft movement, tore the page from the book.