A Fire, a Lathe, and a Knife

by Sean Denmark

I can’t remember why I was out so late, but at that hour the only way back to the dorms was one of Prague’s slow night trams. This was during my semester abroad. The tracks crossed the Vltava as they left behind the city center and wound up the hill past the castle before submerging into a suburban sea of panelaky, the Communist-era cement housing on which the Old City bobbed. Rows of seats lined each side of the tram’s long aisle. There were two doors, one in front and one in the rear.

Seated across from the back door, I could track the few drunks boarding and exiting, and no one had sat behind me. But when I looked in the reflection of the door across the aisle, I noticed a pale man facing forward, staring at the back of my head. His eyes caught mine in the window, and I looked away. He was too close to glance at covertly. If I turned to face him, I would be inches from those eyes, and so I waited as we swayed along. Everyone else sat towards the front, half or fully asleep. At last I worked up the nerve to look over at the window again, but he was gone. We hadn’t stopped; then he must have changed chairs.

I turned to find him, but found the back of the tram empty. Looking in the window once more, it was my reflection. The hinged door sat at a slight angle, and its glass had been displaying my image while seeming to show the seat behind.

Upon my return from studying abroad, I told this story to a friend. We were in the dorms playing cards. It must have been late on the weekend; everything was quiet. My roommate was gone. The guy couldn’t stand me. He hated when I sat in his chair, but I had forgotten his pet peeve and let my friend use the seat. My roommate would confront me a few days later to tell me he knew I’d sat there again.

The room was dimly lit, the windows cracked open. Infrequently a wind rustled the cards. After I finished my tale, my friend reciprocated with one of his own. He worked late shifts as a student aide at our university’s fine arts library, checking out CDs and monographs in the main lobby and shelving books in the hushed, cramped stacks of the floors above. The circulation desk looked out on a large open area covered on the top and sides with glass and brick. This expanse housed the magazines, a study area, and the audiovisual equipment, a nest of cords. In the daytime, it was an airy space that revealed the trees and grass of campus outside. After dark, the windows cast back the lobby’s light, and the room felt confined and still. During his breaks, my friend would sometimes go to a bathroom on an upper floor, find a book of nude photos, and jerk off in a stall.

Near the turnstiles of the main entrance stretched the main desk, which wrapped around and enclosed a few offices for the librarians. Behind the desk were also thousands of CDs; student aides would find a CD by the number the patron gave them. Near the desk was the elevator to the three dusty floors of books crouched atop the lobby like an enormous paperweight. The aides worked with their backs to the elevator, which had some error in its program. Sometimes its doors would open and no one would enter or exit. On slow days, before it opened you might already know no one could be in there.

One quiet night, my friend was startled by the ding of the elevator bell. He hadn’t seen anyone go up to the stacks all evening. As he turned in his seat at the desk, the doors slid away. Out walked this cadaver, all muscle and skeleton. Its skin had been removed, like in an anatomical drawing. It walked up to the side of the desk closest to the elevator and stood before my friend. As it spoke, you could see muscles glide over cheekbones; the tongue inside was normal. “I couldn’t find the book I was looking for,” it said. “Can I come behind the desk?”

“No,” said my friend, “you can’t.”

It looked him in the eyes. “Beware the third visitor.” Then it ran from the desk, jumped over the turnstile, and sprinted into the dark. Its backpack was blue.

My friend looked around. No one sat in the study area or at the audiovisual machines or by the racks of magazines. His supervisor was working behind the desk in a little office where she would not have seen the student. He went back to speak with her, but after knocking and opening the door only said hello and closed it again.

He waited in his little chair, and began to consider the walk to the dorm he would soon take. Occasionally, as he crossed the grassy spaces and dank fountains after the library’s closing, a raccoon would dart away and slip down some grate, or into a pipe leading to a building. Myself, I was once walking the silent plaza in front of the university’s tower when a tree began to speak. As I approached, it called my name, and I found in its branches three of my friends.

You never know what you’ll stumble across on a college campus after hours.

The elevator rang a second time, and my friend swivelled around. The doors hit something one, two, three times as they attempted to close. He stood, but could see nothing. There was another sound, a rustling; he walked to the end of the desk and looked down. Half a student was crawling from the elevator’s floor, using one hand to clutch at the meager carpet. With the other hand, it dragged its separate lower half by a foot.

When at last it had cleared the doors, they shut. The student released its leg, backed its torso up, and rotated like a crab until its two halves aligned correctly. Tightly gripping its hips with both hands, it kneeled, raised itself, and turned. It strode forward until it hit the desk and its front thumped onto the counter.

Its hands gently propped its legs against the desk and then began to feel along the counter, streaking the protective cover. It had to crane its neck to see my friend. “Do you have a pair of suspenders?” it asked.

“No,” said my friend.

The student looked down, as though reading the announcements under the glass, then up again. “Can I come behind the desk?” Gripping the edge of the desk closest my friend, it slowly pushed itself up.

“No,” my friend replied. “You can’t.”

The student pounded the counter with a fist, which made everything jump, including itself. It slowly reached back with both hands for its legs. After gripping its waist and pulling its chest aright, it muttered, “Beware the third visitor.” Its exit was ungainly, stuttery and swaying. The problem of the turnstile was solved by thrusting against it with all the student’s force as it departed.

My friend looked for something to occupy him. He thought about those students out there, the parsed and the flayed, while he shelved CDs. When a CD is catalogued, it’s given a number one higher than the last CD entered, until CDs stretched from ceiling to floor in row after row behind the desk, each case with a tiny number on its side. He first sorted the CDs by number from lowest to highest, and then began wedging them into place one by one.

Upon hearing the elevator ring for the third time, my friend tried to walk slowly. As the doors opened, he was standing at the edge of the desk. The fluorescent lights above cast thin shadows through the metal shelving. The librarian was ensconced in her office. No one sat in the lobby reading a magazine.

Not long after he told me this story, we lost touch. You know how it is. Someone gets a different schedule or moves to another dorm and it’s as though they’ve disappeared. Also, I no longer go to the fine arts library.

Nothing walked out of the elevator. The doors stayed open. In the lobby, it became a different kind of quiet, the kind where there’s something sitting wordlessly behind you. By the time his story was over, we’d finished our game. Soon after I would close the windows, return my roommate’s chair, and slide the cards into their box.

He stood there, he’d said, waiting on the turnstile to mark one last absence.

While living in New York City, Sean Denmark has taught in its public schools and earned a MFA from New York University. Originally from Alabama, he has been a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon. His work can be found in Jersey Devil Press and is forthcoming in EcoTheo Review.