Who Writes the Story

The Johnstone Public Library was unique in many ways. For one thing, anyone could go there to read books. But, unlike other libraries, the books had to remain in the library. Everyone was welcome, no matter who they were or where they came from; whether rich or poor, homeless or from the rich part of town. Outside the establishment, neither group had anything to do with the other. Inside the library, though, another world existed. Mr. Johnstone had wanted it that way. Though he’d come into wealth during the latter part of his life, he’d had humble beginnings. He’d wanted to do something that would become a great equalizer of people. In his library, he’d envisioned people of all walks of life not only reading the books there but interacting with one another about them. Mr. Johnstone had wanted people to experience the other side of life in his library.

#

Newman woke and stretched, the morning sun coming just this side of the overpass. He scratched the stubble on his chin and stomped his feet to get his blood flowing. An occasional car passed overhead on the once-busy street. He barely noticed them anymore, but there had been a time when he’d admired those going to and from their downtown offices. Second Street had once been a thriving thoroughfare–a direct route to the high rise office buildings. City improvements had rerouted traffic. Some improvements, he thought. He’d enjoyed identifying the make and model of the fancy cars, cars that he longed to own, even to sit in. He used to work on cars, though none as fancy as those. Then several years ago the automobile industry took a nosedive and his mechanic job became non-existent. He shaded his eyes and looked toward The Hill. 

“Still checking out your next property?” 

Jake’s gravelly laugh didn’t bother Newman. He just nodded. “One of these days, Jake.”

“Yeh,” Jake got up stiffly, groaning. “Maybe you’ll come into some money like old man Johnstone did.”

Newman realized the absurdity of it. “Right.” Still, who wouldn’t want to live on The Hill? That’s where Mr. Johnstone, Bill as they’d called him, had moved to after an anonymous donor gave him a huge sum of money. No one knew how much or where it came from, but days before he’d been living on the street with Jake and Newman. There’d been something different about Bill, even when he was still poor. Newman had felt like he could confide in him. He was the one Newman had first told about his dream to be somebody special.                                      

“Something on your mind, Newman?” Bill had come over and sat beside him on the ground.

Newman had scratched his stubble and nodded toward The Hill. “Wondering what it would be like to live that other life.” He waved one hand in the air. “People to command, important decisions to make, getting to drive one of those big, expensive cars.”

“Think it would be worlds better than this?” Bill swept his arm across their meager belongings.

Newman paused, digging at a pen someone had dropped. He brushed it off and put it in his pocket, making sure no hole would allow it to escape. “Don’t you?” 

Bill had given him the strangest look. He’d laughed and patted Newman on the shoulder.

“Oh well. What’s the point of dreaming about something that’s not going to come true?” He’d slumped over onto the one side of his coat and pulled the other side around him.

Bill had chuckled. “I’ve dreamed the same thing sometimes. You never know, Newman. One way or the other, you never know.” Newman had turned back to look at Bill. He saw a gleam in his eye he didn’t understand. The man was a dreamer, to be sure. But to think that things could change was beyond what Newman could imagine. He’d turned his shoulder away again. “G’night.” 

Bill’s dreams had turned out after all. Not long after their conversation, he’d received word that an anonymous donor had gifted him a large sum of money. Newman never knew the details of what had happened because, of course, Bill didn’t return to 2nd Street. Instead, he moved to The Hill. Though he hadn’t grown up with wealth, he was able to work his way into the more prominent circles in town. Adaptability was certainly something Bill, now known as William Johnstone, was known for.

Because of their earlier friendship, Newman liked going to the library. They’d visited a time or two until Bill had taken ill. After Bill had passed away Newman somehow felt a piece of him was still there.

#

Newman tucked his few belongings in his coat pockets leaving one or two incidentals to mark his space. Then he pushed against the pain in his back and willed his feet to move toward the library. It seemed to take him longer each day as his old bones fought him at every step. He knew once inside it wouldn’t matter who he was, how he was dressed, or even how he smelled. He’d even forget about his aches and pains. People would look at him with scorn out here in the street, though. He’d had some of the library patrons treat him as if he was untouchable outside the library and a colleague inside. He wondered if the police might arrest him for loitering. Though he’d never had that happen, they had told him to move along a time or two.

Newman waited carefully until no one was going in the front door then quietly made his move. Once inside, his heartbeat matched the tap of his tattered shoes against the perfectly polished floor. He didn’t stop to gaze at his reflection, though he’d done it many times before. No one could stop him now. Today he was anxious to continue his journey. He waved to Miss Novak, the main librarian. He felt as if he knew her from somewhere but he could never quite put his finger on it. He asked her once if she’d ever worked at the mission, but she’d just smiled and said no. It was rumored that she was Mr. Johnstone’s great-niece or some distant relative but no one was quite sure. Her knowing smile sent chills down Newman’s spine. She knew where he was going.

He nodded to Mrs. Wentworth who sat in her usual spot in the non-fiction section. “Different book?”

“Yes,” she said. Her eyes were lit with passion and he could’ve sworn she shivered, perhaps excited to be on a new visit somewhere. He assumed she was ordinarily a woman who showed little emotion, but here in this world, she seemed a vibrant soul. “The Nile is fascinating. You should go there sometime, Mister Bassett.”

When he’d first started coming to the library, he’d wondered who she was talking to since no one used his last name anymore, but now he was used to it. It made him feel important like he was really somebody. “Might just do that. Right now, though, I’m in the middle of solving a mystery.”

“Ah! Elementary, my dear Bassett.” They both laughed. She knew well Newman’s love for Sherlock Holmes stories. “Excellent choice.” She resumed her trip on the Nile and Newman continued toward the fiction section.

He found Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and felt the leather binding on the books. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, relishing the weathered texture and the musty smell of his old friends. As he opened his eyes, his hand rested on “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” right where he’d left it. He removed the book gingerly and walked to the reading couch. Mr. Fresco Beaumont, IV sat, book in hand, but looked up as Newman approached. He smiled and patted the seat beside where he was sitting. 

“Please sit, Master Newman. I don’t mean to ignore you, but I’m right in the middle of something truly intriguing.”

Newman grinned a toothless grin as he saw the title of Mr. Beaumont’s book, “And Then There Were None.” He nodded. “Ah! Agatha Christie.” He had several of her stories memorized.

Newman sat and opened his book slowly. His place was marked, as always. He pulled the corner of his scruffy jacket around his shoulders as the dampness of the moor began to set in. There was something about this place that fascinated him. He’d been here over and over again, 

but the element of surprise never grew old. Soon he could feel the darkness, not only of the evening but of the mystery that engulfed the inhabitants of the Grimpen Mire. He couldn’t help but be concerned for Sir Henry with the legend of the spectral hound looming over him. Would Holmes’s plan work this time? Newman felt more than saw the fog closing in and heard Mr. Holmes’s serious warning that soon they wouldn’t be able to see their hands in front of their faces.

 Newman’s teeth chattered as they waited. Watson had peeked in the window and had seen Sir Henry and Mr. Stapleton. Would Sir Henry come out in time? Suddenly Newman felt someone nudge his arm. 

“Master Newman. I hate to interrupt, but the library is about to close. Your story will have to wait for another day.”

He shook his head attempting to bring his thoughts back to the present. He was so close to finishing. He sighed and nodded. “Johnstone rules us from the grave, doesn’t he?”

“He does, indeed. He must’ve known the hold these books would have on us. Wouldn’t you love to take it home with you, just this once?”

They both laughed. They’d discussed how easy it was to get lost in the story and how they hated to have to put the book back on the shelf.

This evening Newman felt the urge stronger than ever. He was so close to the end of the story. The fog pulled at him. What if something happened and he couldn’t finish it? Would the hound end up overtaking Sir Henry and killing him after all? Though he knew the story by heart, Newman couldn’t stand it. 

He nodded to Mr. Beaumont, stood, and stretched. Mr. Beaumont placed his book carefully on the shelf and bid a good evening to Newman. “Next week then Master Newman?” Though Newman returned every day to the library, Mr. Beaumont could only spare one day per week in his busy schedule.

Newman mumbled a reply then stepped between the shelves where his book belonged. He slipped it carefully under his bedraggled coat. What harm could it do? Making sure it wouldn’t fall when he walked out of the library, he waited until most of the patrons left, as he usually did. Newman nodded at Miss Novak as he walked by the circulation desk. Did she know? 

“Mr. Bassett?”

He froze, sure she suspected. “Yes?” His word seemed to hang in the nearly empty lobby as Newman held his breath. It seemed she was staring at him.

“Have a good evening.”  

He averted his eyes to the nameplate on her desk and read it intently to himself. Dawn Novak. When he glanced up, she was smiling. Now he felt guilty. As far as he knew, no one had ever taken a book out of this library. 

“You, too.” A nervous smile played at his lips as he nodded to her. His hurried pace now came from mixed emotions. If felt strange to be glad to get out of the library, but he was also anxious to read his forbidden book later that evening. 

As Newman waited in line at the mission for his evening meal, Mr. Johnstone drifted in and out of his thoughts. He had always treated everyone with equal respect, yet he had been eccentric both as a poor man and as a rich man. No one seemed to know where he’d come from or whether he had any family. But then Miss Novak appeared out of nowhere to help him toward the end of his life and take over his affairs after his death. Who was she? Maybe she was just someone who’d been close to him and not a relative at all. 

When Newman arrived at the buffet line he picked up a plate and some silverware and nodded to the familiar faces of the people who served the meals. He reminded himself to keep the book carefully tucked beneath his coat as he reached with his other arm to get his plate filled.

“‘Lo, Miss Hannah.”

“Newman!” She smiled as she spooned some rice onto his plate. “The weather’s turning a little nicer, isn’t it?”

“Thank goodness for that,” he said, returning her smile. “Say,” he didn’t know quite how to ask the question, “do you know that lady that works at the library–that Miss Novak?”

Hannah held onto his plate for a moment and frowned, “Let me see. All I know is that she came to town a couple of years ago. Don’t think she has any family, but I think Mr. Johnstone sort of adopted her. She helped him with his business toward the last.”

“I know all that.” He caught himself right before reaching up to scratch at his stubble since his book would’ve dropped. “Seems I know her from somewhere. Has she ever worked here before?”

Hannah shrugged. “Not that I know of and I’ve been working here quite a while.” She handed him his plate.

“Okay. Thanks.”

“Hey, Newman.” Calvin reached to take his plate and fill it with chicken. “Heard any good jokes lately?” Newman and Calvin swapped jokes after supper some evenings. 

“I’ll see if I can’t come up with something.” He felt the lump under his arm. “Can’t stay too late tonight, though.”

“I see,” Calvin teased. “Hot date?”

Newman grinned. “Might say that.”

Calvin wagged his finger with his free hand and handed Newman his plate.

He continued down the line, visiting with each of the volunteers. He didn’t know where any of them came from, but they were a bright spot in his life. Still, it would be nice if he didn’t have to depend on people so much. Maybe if he lived on The Hill he could come and volunteer here. He’d be on the other side of the serving line helping someone else out. Was that asking so much?

 The library book burned beneath Newman’s coat. He dreaded dropping it in front of everybody. Just a little farther now and he could sit down and relax his arm.

The food felt pleasant in his mouth. He didn’t have much sense of taste and smell left but at least it wasn’t dry or mushy. It was better than what he used to eat when he first ended up on the streets. 

Since the weather was mild, the mission didn’t allow anyone to sleep inside except for those who were ill and families with small children. The nights could still get chilly, so Newman was always grateful for his coat. He wore it everywhere since he had nowhere to keep it and since the shirt underneath was full of holes. 

After greeting each of his friends at the overpass, Newman nestled down in his spot. He’d become so used to having the book under his arm that at first, he thought he might have dropped it somewhere. He breathed a sigh of relief when he felt the hard cover. He pulled out the flashlight that the mission gave to each of its first-time visitors, a “light for their dark night” as they’d said. Someone had donated them and even donated batteries for when the old ones went dead. 

He opened the book carefully. Newman planned to treat it with great care and return it in the same condition he’d borrowed it. He’d forgotten to mark his place, but it wasn’t long before he found the chapter he’d begun earlier that evening. 

“Chapter 14,” he mumbled to himself. “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Again he felt the dampness in the air. Newman, Lestrade, Watson, and Holmes lurked outside Merripit House waiting for Sir Henry to be bait for a trap that would either capture the murderer or be Sir Henry’s death. 

Newman hunkered down under the warmth of his coat. The night air under the bridge had cooled considerably but it was nothing compared to the heavy fog settling on the moor. Holmes had just instructed Watson to peek in the window of Merripit House. Newman anticipated the thick fog rolling in as he turned the page just beyond where he’d read earlier that day. The light from his small flashlight shone back at him, glaring against . . . an empty page. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Though the suspense in the book always returned, he’d read it over and over again but nothing like this had ever happened.

He turned the next page and the next. All the remaining pages of the book were blank. He couldn’t understand. What happened? The story was left unfinished. One moment he’d been squatting behind a large rock with the famous detective and, in a turn of a page, he was . . . where? Was he still on the Grimpen Mire or was he at his home on the street? Newman scratched his stubble finding odd comfort in the familiar habit. He turned his flashlight off to conserve batteries. 

As he thought about the blank pages, Mr. Johnstone came to mind. Had he known this would happen if someone took a book from his library?

The idea ate at him; the incompleteness of the story, the mystery upon mystery. He wanted to sleep but it wouldn’t let go. Newman dug around in his pocket for the ink pen he’d scrounged earlier, turned on his flashlight, and opened the book to the first blank page. What if . . . ?

#

Mr. Beaumont waited until Newman went behind the next row of shelves and quickly took his book back off the shelf. His burning desire to take a book home had finally won. Tonight would be the night. He tucked it tightly under his light jacket, glancing to see if the lump was noticeable. All of a sudden, guilt washed over him. He’d never stolen anything before. But this wasn’t stealing. He was only borrowing the book. He’d never broken the rules, though, and he knew that, for whatever reason, old Mr. Johnstone had made this a forbidden thing to do. Why? It made no sense to Mr. Beaumont and yet he hadn’t had to know the reason for rules before. He just followed them obediently, without question. He’d expected the same of others when he made rules to follow. This was so unlike him, yet the book called to him. 

He held his head up and walked his usual pace so as not to command attention. He tipped his hat to Miss Novak still keeping his elbow tucked close. His mind was so intent on his mission that she startled him when she spoke.

“Good evening, Mr. Beaumont.” Her eyes twinkled and he wondered whether she suspected anything.

He willed his voice to remain calm, “Good evening, Miss Novak.”

Hoping his heartbeat wouldn’t give him away, he walked out of the library. 

His driver held the car door open and he continued to hold the book steady. On the way home, Mr. Beaumont thought about old Mr. Johnstone. He’d met him toward the last of his life after he’d come into wealth. Mr. Johnstone had moved into the house down the way from Mr. Beaumont. Occasionally the two of them would meet at the Country Club and have conversations that had begun about finances but had drifted into other areas. Mr. Beaumont had shared something with Mr. Johnstone he’d never told anyone else.

“Johnstone, I know it must sound strange to you, but I’ve always admired those people that live on the street. My family’s been steeped in wealth for years.” He shook his head. “I’ve never known what it was like to live by my wits, to have no responsibilities, to do as I wanted and not have to worry about financial withholdings or whether I remembered to tell some servant something.”

William smiled and puffed on his pipe then turned a knowing gaze toward Mr. Beaumont. “Don’t feel you’re alone, Fresco.”

“But you’ve already seen both sides of life, except you don’t know what it’s like to have grown up with wealth.”

“No, I don’t. But perhaps others share your longings.” William tapped his pipe on the ashtray and looked across toward the city. Fresco didn’t understand the gleam in his eye. William always was an odd fellow but he’d chalked it up to the fact that he’d grown up on the streets.

Now Mr. Beaumont felt even more trapped than usual in his world. Even though he had servants at his beck and call, it also meant he had no privacy, no freedom to do what he wanted when he wanted. His predecessors had dictated to him the structure in his life and the last several years he’d disliked it more and more. His mind drifted to the friends he’d made in the library, particularly Newman since they often sat together in the fiction section. They’d visit now and again about where they lived; their lives outside the library. He thought Newman’s life was the epitome of freedom. He didn’t have a car waiting on him, appointments to keep, people to either satisfy or disappoint. Newman was master of his own fate. The car pulled into the driveway and Mr. Beaumont disembarked. 

“Will you require me anymore this evening, sir?” his chauffeur asked.

Mr. Beaumont sighed. “No, Charles. I don’t plan to go out again.”

After a light supper, Mr. Beaumont dismissed the servants and locked the door to his room. He settled in the armchair beside his bed, book in hand. He’d forgotten to mark his place, but he knew what chapter he had started earlier in the evening.

Though ten guests had arrived on the island, someone was murdering them one by one. He’d read the book over and over again, but it still held him in its grip. As he turned the page next to the one he’d gotten to in the library, there were only two people left. He felt his heartbeat quicken and his breath came in short gasps. What would happen? Holding his breath, he turned the next page.

Mr. Beaumont let out his breath with a puff so loud he wondered if the servants heard it. He held his book closer to the lamp. The page was blank. Quickly he flipped through the final pages of the book and found that they, too, were blank.

He was thoroughly disgusted. That Johnstone! He’d had something up his sleeve when he made that rule about no one taking books out of his library. He must’ve known this would happen. But how could he? Did he know for a fact that no one would ever take a book out of the library, or did he know for a fact that someone would? The guilt returned and Mr. Beaumont felt like a common criminal. 

He slid the book between his leg and the arm of the chair and shook his head. His butler had laid his nightclothes across the bed, so he put them on, his mind spinning. He hoped he could sleep and that he would find when he awoke that this had all been a dream, even the fact that he’d taken the blasted book.

Mr. Beaumont woke with a start. A noise? He turned on the lamp beside his bed and tried to focus on the small clock on his nightstand. A howl broke the silence of the night. Now he was wide awake. It was some kind of animal yet there was something about it that seemed to be not of this world. He had no neighbors since Miss Novak hadn’t moved into the Johnstone house, so he couldn’t imagine where the sound was coming from. At that moment his eyes lit on the book in the chair. 

So he hadn’t dreamed it after all. He didn’t know which was worse–a book with blank pages or some mysterious noise in the middle of the night. He sat in the chair, picked up the book, and flipped to the blank pages. As he did so, an idea began to grow. He didn’t know if it was because of his need for structure or because of his insatiable curiosity, but he couldn’t stand to see a story unfinished. He placed the book in his lap and reached for the pen he always kept in his nightstand drawer. Staring at the first blank page he thought, What if . . . ?

#

As Newman put the pen to the page, it seemed the words had a life of their own. It only took a few words for him to realize where he was. He’d read the story before and it wasn’t the one that belonged in this book. How did he get to this island? There were only two of them left. He could taste the terror. The story wrote itself, word for word, and Newman found himself buried in it, as usual.

#

Mr. Beaumont carefully pressed pen to page. With immaculate lettering, he began without thinking, allowing his hand to take control. His mind knew this was not the story that belonged in this book, but he left the muse flow. He felt the fog close in and felt the presence of Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade as they all waited for Sir Henry to exit Merripit House. Now he knew where he’d heard the spine-chilling noise before. He knew the story by heart and his hand did not fail him.

#

The next day Newman waited until there were only a few people outside the library before he entered. He nodded to Miss Novak, knowing his task was almost complete. He’d put the book back on the shelf and she would be none-the-wiser. He didn’t know what would happen with the words he’d written in the last part of the book. He couldn’t think that far ahead. For now, his job was to replace the book on the shelf. He nodded to Mrs. Wentworth who greeted him in return. It looked as if her journey down the Nile was almost complete since she only appeared to have a few pages left. 

She saw that he noticed. “I shall hate to finish, my friend. But there will be other journeys–other places to go. Maybe somewhere very mysterious and unusual next time, though I dare say my travel down the Nile has been quite interesting.”

Newman chuckled to himself. He understood mysterious and unusual journeys. He felt like he’d been on one just last night. He walked on to the fiction section. He was curious, though not surprised, to see Mr. Beaumont there. Mr. Beaumont sat, book in hand. He looked as though he’d been waiting for Newman.

“I see you finished your book, Mr. Beaumont.” 

He nodded, holding the book up. “As you have yours.”

Newman started. He still held the book beneath his coat. 

Mr. Beaumont looked directly at Newman. “Yes, Newman, we are two of a kind.”

Newman walked slowly around to the shelf where his book belonged. Then it was true. Mr. Beaumont had written the ending to his story as well.

He could hear Mr. Beaumont replace “And Then There Were None” on the shelf. 

“Newman,” the older man whispered. “Johnstone had to know. He had to know that this would happen if anyone took a book out of the library.”

Newman grunted assent. He was still processing what this meant. 

Mr. Beaumont’s voice grew quieter. “Who did he change places with?”

Both men grew silent as the realization hit them. They would never know how he had talked her into it, but they had no doubt who he’d switched places with.

At closing time, both Newman and Mr. Beaumont walked slowly by Dawn Novak’s large circulation desk. Mr. Beaumont hung back a little. This would take some getting used to but he’d always wanted it this way. Newman smiled broadly.

 “Good evening, Mr. Bassett.” Miss Novak nodded toward Mr. Beaumont. He regarded her carefully, reaching his hand to his chin.

“Good evening, Mr. Beaumont.” She nodded toward Newman. When his hand moved automatically toward a non-existent hat, he gave her a little salute. She had a very knowing look in her eyes. “Did you enjoy your books, gentlemen?”

Yes, the Johnstone Public Library was unique in many ways. For one thing, anyone could go there to read books. But, unlike other libraries, the books had to remain in the library. Everyone was welcome, no matter who they were or where they came from; whether rich or poor, homeless or from the rich part of town. Outside the establishment, neither group had anything to do with the other. Inside the library, though, another world existed. Mr. Johnstone had wanted it that way. Though he’d come into wealth during the latter part of his life, he’d had humble beginnings. He’d wanted to do something that would become a great equalizer of people. In his library, he’d envisioned people of all walks of life not only reading the books there but interacting with one another about them. Mr. Johnstone had wanted people to experience the other side of life in his library. In addition to those lofty goals, he’d had a few other things up his sleeve.


Mary Ellen Main

Mary Ellen Main grew up on a small farm in north-central Oklahoma, traveled extensively after college, and now has lived in a small town in the Oklahoma panhandle for the past 17 years. She has written two series of articles for the local newspaper, “Postcards from Abroad” and “Homegrown,” sharing an entertaining view of her family’s life when they lived overseas and her own Oklahoma roots.