There was a quarter on the corner of the carpet. That was the first time I saw him, peeking around the side of an old fairy tale collection on the bottom shelf. The tips of his ears were purple, and his tunic was brown.
Then he was gone, and I didn’t see him again for a week.
It had not been a particularly profitable year for us, hence the noticing of stray coins on the carpet. Henry’s company was laying people off, and while there was little chance of him actually losing his job - they never fired the clever finance boys - there was always the looming possibility that the job might not be there for him to go into one day. My tentative forays into jam-making and a barely-there income from freelance articles for local papers in the surrounding towns would be our only source of income. The mortgage wouldn’t stand it.
As a result of our fear, we had been cutting back, squirreling away money in the most natural places. Savings accounts, the occasional envelope stuffed behind my underwear in the dresser, and an old mason jar on the counter where we threw all of our change at the end of every day.
He’d said to me one Friday, “I don’t think we should make that trip to Boudin’s this weekend, love.”
And I had known, intellectually, that he had been right. We really couldn’t afford the new books I insisted on piling all over the house whenever he was looking in the other direction, pretending that he didn’t see them, slowly rising and threatening him with suffocation should a pile collapse while he slept.
I had agreed sadly at the time. When I snuck off to Boudin’s the following week - I just wanted one novel I’d read about in the newspaper, and I didn’t see how one book would hurt us too much - I had buried my purchase on a top shelf, hoping he wouldn’t notice.
A few days later, there was the quarter, and there was the creature.
He was only three inches tall. I didn’t get a good look at him that first time. It was only in the following months, as he grew more careless, perhaps convinced that I was not as observant as the other human who loudly moved about the house, that I actually gathered enough detail to describe him well.
Three inches tall, knobby, like a twisted branch, and his skin was mottled. His ears were tipped in purple so deep and dark that they faded delicately into his black hair. He would have blended right into a shadow had an observer not been looking directly at him when he moved. His eyes were solid black. It made reading his expressions and moods as we later became friends difficult, but I liked the way they stood out on his face. We would discover later that he blended perfectly into the shadow my hair created against my neck - black hair and skin dark enough to create few if any highlights. We were almost a matched pair if you took away the distinctly twig-like appearance of his body and the purple highlights he was sporting.
“Hello,” I murmured one morning when I saw him skirting the spine of Great Expectations. I had briefly thought of pulling it down to read that morning but decided ultimately that I did actually want to know what was going on in the world. The book had stood there, half pulled from the shelf and nearly flush with the edge of the shelf, when he crept from the shadow over the volume next to it.
I watched him clamor up the spine of Middlemarch easily. Like Spider-Man, his hands seemed to naturally adhere to the cloth binding of the book he was descending, and he was soon on the shelf, edging around the Dickensian spine carefully, his bare feet just fitting on the space between pure air and leather.
He jumped so at the sound of my voice that I reached out a hand next to the shelf so he wouldn’t fall. There was the slightest of pressure on the edge of my palm, one bare foot had barely landed before he was leaping back to the Eliot, and he was gone, disappeared before my eyes could even process what I had seen.
“I only wanted to say hello,” I whispered to the empty room, sure that small, purple-tinged ears could hear me somehow.
“Love, have you seen my cufflinks?” Henry asked from the bathroom. “Well not both of them.” I could hear him fumbling through the small dish of accessories on the vanity. “I seem to have one but the other is gone. Is it on my table?”
“No, I don’t see it.” I answered, shuffling through the detritus of his evening reading, water glasses and eye drops. “Did you leave one at the office?”
Henry’s tall bulk blocked the light from the bathroom. He was fastening another cufflink - not the normal plain gold pair with a small leave embossed on its face - to one wrist distractedly. I found my husband to be a handsome man. Others have told me he’s too imposing, too tall and broad and bear-like, but the skin around his eyes is gentle and soft, and he smiles easily through a smattering of beard.
“These will do, I suppose, but can you take a look today?” He was across the room in a moment, one arm wrapping around my waist and the other my shoulders before he dipped me and smacked a kiss to my cheek enthusiastically. “You always can find the things I misplace, absent-minded professor that I am.”
“Of course,” I said with a smile as he set me back on my feet. “I’ve got to run into the library, but I’ll have a look when I return.” Henry winked and released me with a gentle squeeze.
My day was structured for once, and I was looking forward to it more than normal. My computer was silent on the desk in the study where it had been mocking me for days, and I wanted out of the house with a project on my hands rather than to be derided again by Siri and her peers as they railed against my procrastination.
A few more minutes and Henry was out the door, and my bag had a stack of books piled in the bottom, a sweater for what was sure to be an over air-conditioned library, and at the bottom, a light snack that I’d have to smuggle past the dragon lady at the front desk.
I volunteered regularly enough to have my own plastic pin with my name cut into the blue front in sharp relief. The guards had gotten over formalities months ago and called me Penny instead of Mrs. River. And the circulation kids had been pulling new releases for my previewed glances for years. No matter what I did or how much I was there, Mrs. Devonshire would not bend. As head librarian, she policed all comings and goings, check outs and check ins and made sure that no rules were broken.
How this single woman managed to strike such fear into my heart, I couldn’t explain.
I was completely convinced she hated me.
She’d probably sniff the stupid apple and crackers out before I even reached the circulation desk and then slipped past her into the back room.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary when I slammed the door to the old red Fiat in the driveway. Later I wondered if I hadn’t heard another breath hitch as I dropped the bag unceremoniously onto the passenger seat, but at the time I pretended it was just the wind.
We lived on the outskirts of a big town. There were shops, restaurants and easy access to the main thoroughfares to get into a nearby city. But there were also quiet tree-lined streets with sidewalks, and further out, silent, meadow-lined streets with no sidewalks so that I could claim country living even if those meadows butted right up against a freeway. The town itself was as depressed as the economy. On a sunny day, it was almost adorable. But this was New England in the fall, and days were usually borderline grey.
The streets were empty this morning. Leaves muddled the gutters and the sky threatened rain but aside from a damp chill to the air wasn’t actually dropping anything on the car. I pulled into the library slowly, smiling and waving at Mrs. Kalry as she slowly made her way to her own vehicle, one hand on the car beside her for balance. The window was up so I could pull past without getting a full update on all the grandchildren. I dawdled gathering my things until I saw her car door slam before slipping from the warm exterior with my tote clenched in one hand.
I had to get research done for a commissioned piece on the local holiday festival that was only weeks away now. The city magazine wanted five hundred words on the traditions and the history of the carnival that included costumes and a parade with small children caroling through the town. And I had to return all the books I had been hoarding for six months. I was starting to get dirty looks from the other volunteers.
“No coffee in the research room, Penelope. You know the rules.” Her crackly voice voice followed me past circulation.
“Just water, Mrs. Devonshire,” I answered with a timid smile. Like I would break her precious rules that openly. I dropped the seven hardbacks on the desk and pushed them towards Kelly to check in while I slipped the now empty tote into my purse. Henry would crack jokes later tonight about how the bedside table looked downright sad without its towering stack.
My hand clenched momentarily around the handle of my purse, snapping the ribbing together unexpectedly. A small gasp made me glance over my shoulder, but no one was there. The research room called my name, and I thought little more of it as I turned towards the microfiche disks that would hold the town records I was after. Hours would pass before I looked up again.
That’s the only reason he stepped out of my purse, I think. He was so sure that I wouldn’t notice - that I wouldn’t see movement from the corner of my eye let alone see the small figure creeping from the darkened corner of my bag around the edge of the ribbing.
He sat down slowly, back to my bag, and stayed under the shadow of the dark leather, blending in perfectly with wood of the table and the camel-colored wall behind him.
I did everything in my power not to move, not to jump, not to turn my attention from the words flying by on the screen in front of me. We stayed that way for an hour. Me pretending not to see him and barely moving. Him looking around the library from his fold of my purse. I got next to nothing done except hitting the print button whenever I saw a year I thought was relevant and hoping no one made off with my stack of papers.
This was by far the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me and nobody would ever believe me.