Wednesday, 15 May 2019, Afternoon
Paxwood, Whatcom County, Washington, USA
I didn’t see Char for the entire school day. Our class schedules annoyingly didn’t line up, and even though we’d usually eat lunch together, she texted me to let me know she was going to hole up and review her math notes because she’d failed a quiz.
She may have been avoiding me after last night’s chat with Officer Morgan. She probably hadn’t gotten grounded like I had. Unless she actually told her parents that we’d been somewhere we weren’t supposed to be, she wouldn’t be in any trouble at all. But she didn’t like to be trouble-adjacent. (And, if we’re being real, she probably told her parents. She also didn’t like to lie, tell a half-truth, or omit details.)
Close to the end of the school day, though, she sent me a text.
Char: I’ve got to stay late and do this quiz
Char: Dinner at my place after, or does that break your grounding?
Me: It’s fine, as long as I don’t stay too late
Char: Text you when I’m done with my test
Me: I’ll go do some library research in the meantime
Char: Bad idea—You’ll lose all track of time!
Me: laughing face emoji laughing face emoji
That settled it. I was going to the library. First, the school library, then the library downtown.
After I’d gotten kicked out of the school newspaper class over creative differences my freshman year, I found my backstage pass into the school library as a library student aid, and I have to say, I got the better part on that one. The school newspaper continued publishing drivel articles about our sports teams, dances, rivalries or friendships between local schools, with occasional puff pieces about students volunteering at the elementary school, while ignoring significant current events, local politics, and Paxwood history. One of these days, teens would be voting adults, so knowledge about city council mattered.
The school library had an excellent records room, at least for the teen experience in Paxwood. Student-made zines and chapbooks, filled with long-past teen voices. School newspaper back-issues, yearbooks, pretty much every pamphlet about anything that had ever been distributed en masse to the high school populace. The coolest pamphlet I’d found dated from the ’70s, protesting the Draft. During the ’90s, there’d been a whole organized poetry club publishing a yearly anthology and everything. I doubted anywhere but the school library, and maybe the original poets, still had copies.
Unfortunately, the school library’s back room lacked illumination on Paxwood House. I took the opportunity to at least find Tricia Anholts’ senior yearbook. Oddly enough, same year as Roy Coleman and Mx. Cardoso. Anholts had a whole page spread, memorializing her deceased parents and siblings, and their historic bed-and-breakfast, all lost in a tragic fire. I remembered the scent of smoke heavy in the air that day, eight years ago.
Why would someone come back to their hometown when they carried such a tragedy?
Maybe it wasn’t her choice? Maybe someone at her company found out about it and because she had local ties, they had selected her to help establish roots. Because she grew up in a historic home, she could have insider Paxwood knowledge. I put looking into the Anholts family to my mental list of threads to pull.
After my TA period, I endured sixth period with one eye on the clock and only a quarter of my focus on the classwork in front of me. Fortunately, it was an independent workday, so I wasn’t dragging anyone else down with me. The freedom permitted by the bell arrived after a molasses hour oozed by.
I pressed my way through the flow of students. The one perk of my bicycle? I avoided the student parking lot traffic jam. Despite the rainy Western Washington weather, Paxwood at least tried to keep up a bicyclist-friendly environment. Probably got to the library faster than a car.
Most people stuck to the first floor of the library, freshly remodeled just five years ago, to incorporate open floor design and the increased importance of Wi-Fi access with your own devices. Accommodating tables with built-in power strips occupied much of the space, inviting locals and tourists alike to use the free Wi-Fi in a temperature-controlled space. Six public computers, each with their own study carrel, lined one wall. These, by default, opened to the library’s searchable catalog. The large wooden bookshelves that had dominated the first floor throughout my childhood and gave the library an air of mystery were completely gone. Short shelves, no taller than four feet, stood in their place, letting natural light flow through the oversized windows.
Some days, without those old sturdy shelves, the library felt more like a coffee-less cafe, but it was admittedly nice that it felt a lot less like something was constantly stalking you as you navigated the secluded shelves. (Yes, the library was haunted, but by most accounts, it was primarily the spirits of library cats past given shelter by Paxwood librarians in the winter. I never saw a single mouse trap or a single mouse on the property, so maybe the ghost cats still provided rodent management services in exchange for the shelter provided to them.)
The library’s second floor remained classically claustrophobic, with tall shelves in long rows, and one locked records room. The on-duty librarian informed me the records room was open.
Unusual. I rarely ran into anyone in the records room.
Inside, an unfamiliar individual at one of the two long tables leaned back in their chair. Classic teenage goth vibe—dark eyeliner, long dark hair, black clothes that had a certain feminine Victorian flair, porcelain-pale skin. The stranger gave me an appraising up-and-down.
“Rarely see anyone else up here.” They flashed a smile and waved at the chair across from them, inviting. “It’s like everyone thinks the second floor might swallow them whole.”
“No, this building doesn’t eat people.” I accepted the invitation. “That’s the basement of the Clarksen Theatre. And it only eats the lead when it believes the understudy is more highly qualified. The lead usually emerges after the show.”
“I hadn’t heard that one. Is it actually true? Sylvestri, but my friends call me Sly, and you can, too. She/her.”
“Kerry, also she/her.” I started unpacking my laptop. “It’s happened on three separate occasions since the theatre opened. Twice with the same understudy. I’ll fish out the local papers about it if you don’t believe me. Is… there a reason I feel like your name is familiar?”
“The Paxwood Chronicle did a little human interest story when my adoptive family took me in last year.” She tilted her head. “Somehow you strike me as the type who’d read that sort of thing.”
I held up my hands in mock surrender. “You’ve got me pegged. Okay, human interest story, a year ago… That’s right! Doctor and Mrs. Vogel adopted you.”
The Vogels regularly took in children who needed a home. Sometimes, our town dentist and his wife fostered, other times they adopted. Usually, they helped teens who’d lost their families under tragic circumstances—like Tricia Anholts.
“Yeah, that’s me. The good doctor has me doing a primary source project to meet my independent study program’s history requirements. And… don’t get me wrong, but this stuff is pretty dry. Please. Save me from the doldrums of inconsequential local history. What brings you? School project?”
“Not school, but definitely a project.” I tried not to feel too much disappointment. For most people, this sort of records room wasn’t exactly a candy store. “I’m trying to find stories about Paxwood House. Either the original Paxwood family, or from when it was the mayor’s house. The city council’s trying to decide whether to sell it to an outside corporation, and my mother’s on the opposed side. You know about the sale?”
Sly gagged. “The only thing worse than local history: local politics.” She gave me a little wink before my heart sank too much further. “When Tricia came for dinner, she and the ‘rents got deep into Paxwood House talk.”
Would asking for details ruin any chance of making a new friend? The curiosity nipped at me like an ankle-biting chihuahua. I barely kicked it back as Sly shuffled through the books sitting in front of her.
She clicked her tongue again. That was an adorable thinking quirk.
“This one.” She pushed an old dark brown leather-bound book toward me. “It’s the actual diary of the youngest Paxwood daughter. Mostly typical girl stuff. Dinner parties, jealousy toward her older sisters, fawning over the latest eligible bachelor visiting town. Sometimes she writes about her mother’s seances, which can be entertaining. Close to the end, she gets into some stuff about how she thinks she’s being haunted by the ghost of the dead dad and sister.”
My mouth might have been hanging open like a shocked cartoon character, but could you blame me? I knew the records room had at least a couple of journal shelves, but they wouldn’t have been my starting point. Now Sly held out the words and experiences of a Paxwood on a silver platter for my taking. With luck, I’d find hints about whatever Anholts and the Silphium Lawyer (not a vampire) were so interested in.
“It’s ninety-five percent dry, like most things in this library.” Sly leaned back in her chair again, hands tucked behind her head, her knee against the tabletop, keeping her from spilling backward. “The seances aren’t even that thrilling. Ooh, we talked with Uncle Bartholomew, who died of dysentery on the Oregon Trail.”
“Did he, really?” I raised an eyebrow, and we both broke out laughing. When I caught my breath, though, I nodded. “Most of what I’ve read about historical seances make them sound more like Tupperware parties than horror story material.”
“Exactly. Old rich ladies with crystal balls, tea, and cucumber sandwiches. If people died as much as they did in the movies whenever they dabbled unwittingly with the dark arts, you’d think they wouldn’t dabble.”
“Some people eat laundry pods.” This garnered another laugh from Sly.
She had a point. With all the stories about ghosts, faeries, demons, and magic, if any of those carried an actual threat, Mx. Cardoso wouldn’t need to compare Paxwood House to Chernobyl. Its haunting alone would be enough.
“Life would be more interesting if ghosts actually messed with people doing seances.” Sly’s gaze fell back upon the book in front of her. I recognized the local history book written in the fifties by a town historian and resident librarian. I knew that look—torn between focus and an interesting conversation.
I tipped the journal to Sly like a glass of fine wine in a toast. She raised her book to meet mine, and then we both settled into our reading.