Tom toasted the Canadian bacon on a cast iron skillet for me while I gripped the metal food tray as tightly as my fingers could curve. I had half an hour to eat, check the board in front of my dorm and return books as well as pick some up from the library.
Really? I almost shoved the tray into poor Tom's face when he picked up the thick piece of meat. He dropped it in surprise as I shoved my way through the line of stupid frocks and sat at the corner of a bench closest to a trash bin. The milk barely made it into the bowl as I loaded the spoon with cereal. It was dumb of me and I'll reprimand myself later when I had the time, but passing to check the board was out of my way and the only thing I could look forward to during my stay here was reading the new books that came out and that the Ash Program was very willing to purchase for us. As my luck would have it, today was a holiday, Labor Day. Which meant they library would only be open in the morning, for 4 hours until my booking with Frederick, which meant, of course because my streak of luck was everlasting, that I would be stuck with nothing to do the rest of the day if I didn't get to the stupid library before it closed for my booking.
Running in the halls calls attention to you whether you like it or not, all the women live in a floating state because there's not much to do, and the guards/ servants hate their jobs so I seemed of great interest to the gossip groups while I dodged people with my swinging canvas bag that bounced with the two novels I had to return. The main hallway which led to my dorm was clustered; it was late in the morning and of course the women moved slowly which made it my attempt to reach the schedule board that much more difficult. I followed my name across this week and found no lettering beside Frederick's name. That was generally unheard of, but assuming his last visit wasn't exactly where one was supposed to meet, I could only assume that a lack of a letter meant the library.
Through no explanations whatsoever, the girls in my dorm, who arrived with me, had to figure out how to use the board. Our first week, it was empty although someone had inscribed our names in groups on the left by alphabetical order. The following week the grids began to fill up with the dates of the new month and slowly each day, someone had a booking scheduled on a week that aligned to their group. Those two weeks of bookings were what the girls and I referred to as admissions. That was when we were only booked once that week and had to fill paperwork and the questionnaire with Will, Reid or Major. Most of us either had Will or Major and the few that had Reid didn't want to talk about him and it seemed that out of the three, interviews went best with Will. I was a lucky one I guess.
After that our dates began to fill up with bookings, there wasn't a single girl who didn't have at least one booking on all her available days. The system worked like default in some ways, most of the time you got the same room throughout the week, but you always had to check the board, Will could be cruel if he found out we were late or worse, if we didn't show up. We think they take from his pay whatever the guy who booked us wants refunded. In your booking there was always the time frame, the name and until now, the letter and number. The letter signified whether you would have the booking in the building with the whitewashed rooms or the gardens. (P) Signified the building. It was white all over and three stories tall with a rather large (P) on the side, there were other buildings with other letters but we only ever got (P).The number that followed (P) was always two digits, if it said (P17) it meant you had a booking in that building's seventh room of the first floor or if you had (P32) you had the second room on the third floor, and thankfully they at least numbered the doors for us, otherwise we'd all be bruised up by Will. The gardens were a bit more difficult to figure out. They were strewn in a courtyard of sorts so we nicknamed them the secret gardens, considering we weren't allowed to check out what the garden looked like until the day of the booking. The gardens are closed off to everyone else and so very few of us know what they're like. I've seen maybe two garden bookings on the board ,for girls I don't recall, since I got here but I know it's the garden because it's an (S) followed by a color. I'd only seen Rose and Violet. I don't know how many more there are but I heard that being taken to the gardens requires permission from you beforehand.
And I have the library. I should have been thrilled. I know I should but the library was a personal place for me and I'm sure for several other women. Frederick coming along and imposing like that just made me want to skip out on the booking. If they found out it was my fault I could get lynched. The library was the only access to internet.
So I bolted to the other side of the building to get to the Library. I managed to get inside and dump my bag on the counter by the main check out/in computer, only no one was there. I stifled a growl of frustration and called out for someone of the library staff.
I covered my face in my hands as a women garbed in white came from behind a bookshelf. "The Library is closed, if you need to return books, please place them in the drop in slot."
"I know I didn't get here on time, but the booking is mine, I just need to pick up some preordered books." I dropped them in the slot assigned for return.
She shook her head while moving around the desk. "Sorry, but I was just about to leave. Only you and your moderator are allowed to be here during your booking."
"But I still have twenty minutes left!" I pleaded as she continued on walking away. When the door closed I slumped against the desk. Damn it all.
I had to wait in the lobby for my moderator who ended up being an old hag. When I asked her where the booking was supposed to be, she just gave me this look…..
"Where in the library?" I asked slowly as if in were talking to a child. She held her arms out, trying to read what was on the clipboard and tilted her glasses.
"In the Fiction seating area. I suppose it's the darkest." She muttered the last bit to herself and shuffled towards the back of the Library's first floor where Fiction took most of its space. I watched her go with angry eyes. This lady was acting as if she was doing me a favor.
"Well come on, there's paperwork to fill out you know." She chided from the background, I could hear her drawing the curtains closed.
The door opened and a large silhouette fit the doorway. He was tall, taller than most people and built like a solid rectangle. I shifted uncomfortably in the chair and shifted my gaze to the Persian rug under me. The old hag sat behind a bookshelf and I could feel her eyes on me.
"Good morning Ms. Johnson." His voice leaped from the darkness that he had merged into."I hope that you have slept well."
I strained my ears as he pulled something from his pocket, trying to figure out what it was. "Good morning and I think if I'm to call you Frederick then you should call me Alerik."
"Well then, Alerik, have you made the list?"
I took a moment to think and remembered his request yesterday afternoon. "I'm sorry, I forgot. "
"Hmm, I imagine you were busy with that Piers Anthony novel you wanted to finish." His footsteps echoed across the floorboard across the sitting area till he settled in a small sofa for two.
"You do keep your tabs don't you?" I was gritting my teeth and trying to hide it by chewing on the tip of my thumb, Frederick chuckled.
"I apologize if it bothers you but it's the quickest and safest way to know more of you. I have a feeling it would take some time for you to warm up to my bookings."
"Warm up to your bookings? You've made it so that there were no others. You fill my entire two weeks! You take the library which is supposed to be off limits and you've deprived me of the one thing that can bring me happiness, why would I warm up to you?" My head was pounding and my fingertips felt hot at the touch of my forehead. I just wanted to get this over with so I could leave.
"What was it that I deprived you of?" His tone was gentle and curious, not at all upset at my outburst.
"Having this stupid booking so early in the morning on a holiday!" I clenched my fists.
"I deprived you of sleep?" Now he sounded confused and I wanted to leap across the coffee table and beat him with a decorative pillow.
"NO. The Library you dimwit. The Library was only open for a few hours."
"Ah." He murmured, he shifted to his side and I could hear his hand brushing across his face and into his hair. "Well, not much that I can do about it now, but I apologize for intruding on your time with the library. I have a feeling that that won't mean much to you but I really am trying to get to know you more beyond the reports I get. You're not as easy to read." He sighed. It was a soft wisp of nonchalance.
I glared at his general area of darkness. "Why do you care?"
"I rather like this library. I enjoy the company of those who enjoy being literate and take advantage of the freedom in the written word. You have a strong dedication to these things which makes me admire you."
"Then why me? There are several other women here, the world even that like to read."
"I suppose. It's not for the lack of search that I settled with befuddling you, you know. I find myself in a situation where I cannot travel much and I'm needed at the home base of my business. You are also not my first booked girl in the Ash Program."
I sat back and breathed in through my nose loudly. "And what were they missing that you're looking for in me?"
He was silent. I wondered if he had left the room while I was speaking when I heard the shift on the cushion of his chair and his slow footsteps. "Chemistry? They were all ladies, beautiful and intelligent but in the end, I could not be honest to them." He sorted through pockets. "Do you mind if I smoke? It helps the nerves."
"Not at all." Frederick had lit a flame to turn a cigarette on but his back was turned and I couldn't get a glimpse of his face. "Do I have any secrets left?"
He inhaled and let smoke emit into the bleak rays of sunlight that gathered by me, which meant he was closer. "I only looked into your public information and the paperwork of the program. Your pretty forward for such a shy woman."
I watched the smoke and imagined him to be the caterpillar of Alice in Wonderland sitting on a large mushroom. Could he make letters?
"It's not common for my nerves to be shaken." He snickered. "Would you mind if I asked something of you?"
I said nothing and he went on. "Could I perhaps touch your hair?"
My confused "What?" hurried him into an explanation. "I'd just like to touch it. It looks unbelievably soft."
"I guess." Was my bright reply as I stiffened when he suddenly appeared behind me taking hold of my ponytail. I sucked in my lips to prevent myself from making a fearful sound as he slid the elastic band off.
"Do you like to have your hair brushed?"
"Umm…" I tried to concentrate as his fingers worked up my scalp.
He chuckled into my ear and I shivered, my eyes were closing and my head swayed with the movement of his hand. I was completely in a hypnotic state. "This is what I was hoping to find in you." A warm softness pressed to my cheek and his nose lightly touched my skin. My heart beat began to pick as he pulled away chucking his cigarette into my glass of water.
"I didn't forget the surprise I promised you, Alerik. I sent it to be delivered to your room." A hand came into the sunlight and I watched it in wariness as it went to rest on mine and lightly rubbed my wrist. "I'll see you tomorrow." The hand withdrew and I took hold of it.
"Wait." It stayed there, between my two hands, large and flawless with his veins pulsing slightly. "I…want to see you."
He withdrew his hand. "I'm sorry Alerik. I can't. Not yet." And before I could articulate another thought, he was gone and the hag had already begun to open curtains.
I sauntered to my dorm wearily holding my canvas bag over my shoulder. I was at such a loss in what to feel. I wanted to hate him, or in the least be angry, but the emotion felt so foreign and forced that it left my brain and stomach jumbled. I considered going to lunch and dropping off my bag. Should I check the board for any changes? I drew back the drapes of my bed and held my breath at the package wrapped in glossy paper that had been awaiting me. I dumped my bag on the bed and pulled the package closer to me. What could he have gotten me?
Books? I tore at the paper and sucked in a tearful scream recognizing the airport stamping and stickers that littered my box. I clawed at it to find the contents from home that had been stolen from me over a month ago. The only sign of my previous life.
I turn the box upside down and watched all the contents tumble unto my bed in the condition I had last seen them. My blanket, the family portrait the paperback trilogy I would read over and over again, The stuffed bear my godfather had gifted me on my first birthday and the spiral notebook with matching pens that my father bought me a few days before I had left.
The tears were coursing down my face as I touched the wooden frame of the portrait. I pulled my cell phone from the pocket of my frock and flipped it open. Still no signal.
I fell to my knees and cried bitterly hugging my belongings to my chest. They were mine again.
My hand brushed a flat object I couldn't remember and pulled from the other contents an envelope with my name scribed in penmanship. I wiped my eyes and broke the plastic seal and weeded out the letter that had been stuffed inside.
It has taken me a while but my sources were finally able to locate the woman who attacked you. Her name is Lauren DeFranks. She accepted her first booking, the son of a famous tycoon in machinery for harvesting spices and left before she could be found by the program. I know this box must have meant much to you and to have your life torn from you when you've already been torn from it must be more than any human should bear. I hope that in this, you'll find that if nothing else, I can give you some of what you thought you had lost.
With regard, Frederick.
I leaned forward and pressed my face into the quilted coverlet.