By Tim Nutting
Kieran stared at his hands for an eternity. The enormity of the choice upon him seemed too huge to be grasped by the simple digits of a mere human being.
A few lines of flowing cursive script, faded with age, lay on the tiny scrap of paper in his treacherous hands. Someone could have taken the paper from a corner of the original Declaration of Independence, it was that old. Only a trained professional wearing latex glove sitting in a dry room should handle something of this antiquity, not by some fool in a dark room, who let all the oils on his fingers and all the bacteria he carried literally destroy the paper molecule by molecule!
The cold and damp of this room had already done enough damage! His mind raced down the paths and procedures of his training, the years of handling old documents, caring for words written before his country had even existed, then the reality of it set back in.
What was he doing here? What was he even considering? Could the words be right? Could the chase, this ongoing obsession he’d hidden for these last five years finally be over?
No. This had to be another puzzle. The words were too simple, too direct. What he was looking for could not be this simple.
But what was he looking for? He’d found that one of the greatest truths of all time was that the truth was simple. Complexity existed to hide answers, to obfuscate solutions, to contain and restrain power.
Kieran exhaled carefully. He respired in shallow, careful breaths, willing to only break his training by handling the priceless treasure with hands coated in the filth of being human, but not to let the carbon dioxide from his body further damage the treasure.
With slow movements, he opened a protective bag and transferred the scrip of paper into it. He pushed the air out of the container gently, sealing it slowly. Once he got back to the lab, he would seal the scrap between two pieces of glass, completely sealing it off from the outside world.
A tiny bit of the paper flaked away in the bag as he sealed it. Kieran’s soul shrank just a little.
He remembered Mere’s laugh, the softly pitying one that cut so deep, when he’d told her he thought the treasure might be here. She was convinced that his leads would end in disappointment, as so many before, but he retained… what? Faith? Hope? Were not both pointless, especially now? He gazed at the scrap of paper and sighed once.
He would see now, he would see for sure.
Kieran tucked the paper into a heavy hardbound book. Something by John Grisham he’d picked up from the student library on his way out to this remote location. He hadn’t read the book and didn’t plan to, but it served as the perfect protector for his treasure, especially in its waterproof bag. With the scrap contained, he breathed much easier
The remains of the library around him spoke of age and neglect. The building was abandoned more than 16 years ago as the city went bankrupt and the property fell into receivership. Whoever had taken it over hadn’t seen fit to do anything, even bulldoze the building, a choice that now seemed fated to him. He brushed a long fingered hand through his hair and peered about in the dark for his exit.
He made it six steps when he heard a voice from behind him.
“Kieran Jefferson Magnus,” it said. The was androgynous, calm, and precise. Melodic. It spoke his name the same way he would, in such precise syllabic similarity he thought he might have said his own name aloud.
He turned around and saw no one, just the vacant room he’d been pawing through for the last three hours, the antique books that should be treasures on any other day, piled haphazardly and forgotten by people who didn’t know the true value of though let alone the written word. Light filtered in at the ends of the corridors made from mouldering stacks of books, and water dripped steadily into a pool somewhere. The odor of mildew and rotting history suffused his senses.
“Who’s there?” he ventured.
“It doesn’t matter who it is, Kieran.” At the sound of his name a mild shiver ran up his back. He hid his discomfort and turned again to try to find the voice.
“What do you want?”
“You know what I want.”
“No, I really don’t. I think you’d better spill it out.” He paused, peering about, raising his LED lantern up to shine light all about. It had to be some other person, or a trick of his mind. This could not, in any wise, be real.
“But we are real, Kieran. You have known this your whole life since you were that cute towheaded child who cried when his mother read him ‘Dumbo’.”
The voice was silent for a moment while his throat closed up and one of those moments played out in his memories. A tear emerged from his right eye. He wished his mother could be around just a little bit longer so they might read together once more.
“You have only recently chosen to forget,” the voice continued, soft concern radiating in its gentle tones.
He wanted to put a name to the voice, but he suspected, with all the learning he’d had, the depth of his philosophy studies, that whatever he’d learned about them defied such labels. He could call it an angel, he supposed, or a djinn. It might even be a demon in the most general sense of the word.
“Are you going to stop me?” he finally asked.
“I thought you were all powerful.”
The voice was sad when it answered. “The order of the cosmos does not allow us to intervene, more than this, at any rate. What you do from here on out will be your choice, but what you found has brought no joy to any mortal who has used it.”
“But I will not use it selfishly!”
“What you use it for will be up to you, Kieran. I… We… can only urge you not to. Live the life allotted to you, find joy and meaning as you may.”
He took a step toward his exit path. As he moved, a sense of weary sadness descend upon him, and somehow knew it was not his own, but the sense of the being whom he conversed. He hunched his shoulders and continued.
After all these years it was in his possession. He could prove, finally, every one of his theories. He could do so much with it, and the voice all but confirmed it. But what else could it do? No, now was not the time for doubt.
Kieran hugged his prize close and left the remains of the library and its ghostly inhabitant behind.