Jeremy winced when he got out of his dad’s truck: mostly because the long step down jostled his arm. He wiped the pained expression from his face immediately, though, and turned around to give his mom his most reassuring smile.
“I’ll be back to pick you up at six,” his mom said firmly. “So you just wait inside until then, understand?”
“Mom, you don’t have to…” Jeremy tried to protest — but of course his mom cut him off.
“You got attacked by a rabid dog!” She exclaimed. “You are not walking home alone anymore.” She scowled. “I knew the neighborhoods were going downhill, but honestly, Jeremy… don’t you argue with me on this.”
Jeremy sighed like every teenager who has ever been beleaguered by an overprotective parent. “It was just a freak thing,” he said. “I didn’t even get scratched up that bad.” He knew his mom had the best of intentions, but she’d always been a little overprotective. That had been awkward enough when he’d been the kid getting dropped off at the church youth group meetings by his mom every time, but now that it was outside his place of work — even if it was volunteer work — it was just embarrassing.
“No. Arguing,” Jeremy’s mom said — and Jeremy knew from her tone that if he tried he’d actually get in trouble for it. Since he’d already known that arguing wouldn’t work and had only made the token protest out of wounded pride and feeble consideration for what little scraps of independence he held on to, he let it go.
His mom held his gaze with a long glare, and then abruptly she determined that she had won and her expression softened. “Six o’clock,” she said. “And if you feel at all unwell or need to come home you better call your father.”
“Yes, Mom,” Jeremy said with a roll of his eyes. But then he smiled at her. “Don’t worry so much,” he said. “I’ll be fine. I already got enough shots at the hospital to keep me for a few years, I promise. I don’t need a return trip.” Actually, it wasn’t the shots that had bothered him about his brief trip to the hospital. Jeremy could handle stupid stuff like that.
No, it was everything else that had made him feel sick. Like the cop that stopped in to ask where exactly he had been and what exactly he had been doing to get attacked by a dog. Except the cop had said ‘guard’ dog instead of ‘rabid’ dog. Like he figured Jeremy had been breaking into someone’s house or something, just because his skin was dark.
A shadowed expression crossed his mom’s face, probably in reflection of his own. She’d been almost as pissed as she’d been scared when Jeremy mentioned that a cop had stopped in his room at the hospital. Jeremy schooled his own expression to something more cheerful. May as well take one for the team, he thought.
He could deal with being that kid with the overprotective mom if it helped her feel better after all the stress of finding him in the hospital and hearing that the cops had been grilling him. Heck, it wasn’t like he had much of a reputation to uphold: he volunteered to work in a library. Jeremy had never been one of the cool kids. Fortunately, times being what they were, ‘nerd’ wasn’t quite the stigma his dad sometimes still seemed to think it was.
Besides, being home schooled kind of meant that he didn’t really have a big crowd to impress, anyway. And all of his friends from church knew his mom.
“I’ll see you at six,” Jeremy said with cheerfulness that didn’t sound forced. “Now I gotta go or I’m gonna be late.”
This time Jeremy’s mom rolled her eyes. “It’s not like they pay you,” she said. “I think they can afford to give you a little leeway on the hours.” But she was smiling, and she waved for him to go before putting the truck back into gear. Jeremy waited until after she’d pulled out of the library lot before turning around and walking into the building.
The librarian on duty was supposed to be Mr. Noyes, so Jeremy left his wind breaker on until after he got into the employee lounge behind the main desk. He grimaced again when he took the coat off and hung it up — even though the bite hadn’t been bad, it still hurt. And it had been swaddled in enough bandages that he had to tug the sleeve of his jacket in order to get it off.
After that, Jeremy sighed and went back out to face the piper.
“Hey,” Jeremy said in greeting while walking up to the shelving carts. He wasn’t really willing to say more than that to Mr. Noyes.
“Hey,” the librarian answered back, equally reluctantly. He didn’t look at Jeremy, which was just as good in Jeremy’s opinion. He didn’t want to have to explain the bandages around his arm.
“You’re late,” Mr. Noyes continued without looking up from his computer. “And you’ve already got a couple stacks to put up. Get to it.” Mr. Noyes never seemed to be impressed with Jeremy’s work ethic. Which Jeremy was perfectly fine with, since he wasn’t particularly impressed with Mr. Noyes.
A glance let Jeremy know that the returns cart was almost empty — except for a stack of books that had been set aside and labeled with a sticky note the night before. “Those were requested by a patron,” Jeremy said. “Mr. Stuessy said he’d be in to pick them up today.”
“Mr. Stuessy?” Mr. Noyes asked derisively. “That bum from yesterday? Did he have a card? People who don’t have a card aren’t patrons, and we don’t do reserves for people who aren’t patrons.” He turned around to glare at Jeremy. “Now do your job already and put those up so actual patrons can find them, or…” He trailed off, his gaze suddenly fixated on Jeremy’s arm.
“What?” Jeremy asked defensively. The bristle in his tone made the middle-aged librarian start.
“Nothing,” Mr. Noyes said. “Just that that looks nasty. You get in a knife fight or something?”
Because I’m totally the kind of person who gets in knife fights, you racist asshole. “It’s just some scratches. Someone wasn’t following the leash laws while I was walking home last night.”
Mr. Noyes muttered something that Jeremy studiously ignored. His mom and his dad had both explained to him in very firm terms: some people are assholes, and if you get angry about it you’ll be the one to suffer for it. Life was just unfair like that, and it was better to keep your head down and intact than to take offense. Or, at least, than to express offense.
But this time… the bite seemed to be throbbing angrily itself, and Jeremy actually took a half-step toward Mr. Noyes before he arrested the movement. The librarian stared at Jeremy in shock — and possibly a little fear. Jeremy was young, fit, and fairly tall after all.
Oh, and an African American. And Mr. Noyes was exactly the kind of dick who would think anyone with dark skin was dangerously violent. After all, even the ones who worked as library volunteers in their free time got into knife fights, didn’t you know?
Mr. Noyes’ reaction startled Jeremy out of the surge of anger. He recoiled, himself. He’d been angry at people before — hell, angry at the unfairness of the world before — but he’d never been so close to lashing out. What the hell? “Uh, I’m sorry,” Jeremy hastily stammered. “I thought you, er, said something. To me, I mean.” He hastily backpedaled toward the cart with Mr. Stuessy’s books on it. “I’ll, uh, just go take care of this, alright?”
Without waiting for an answer, Jeremy wheeled the cart out from behind the desk and toward the stacks. He didn’t stop until he was in the most obscure corner he knew of: a tiny alcove of shelves on the second floor, back in the nonfiction section. Then, shaking a little, Jeremy sat down next to the cart.
What the hell? he wondered again. For a moment, Jeremy seriously considered calling his mom and asking for that early ride home, after all. He had gone through a lot the previous night, and he hadn’t been able to sleep what with… well, he couldn’t really remember them, but he knew he’d had nightmares.
I was just tired and hurting, Jeremy finally told himself. Tired, and hurting, and tired of that asshat’s comments. He took a couple breaths and then scanned the contents of his cart. There wasn’t really much for him to do, other than make sure Mr. Noyes didn’t have someone else put up Mr. Stuessy’s books before the old guy got a chance to come in again. But, really? Calling Mom just because I’m tired? Jeeze, get a grip, man. It’ll be fine, Jeremy chided himself. I’ll just keep out in the stacks. After all: it wasn’t like he wanted to spend more time around Mr. Noyes than necessary. And Mr. Noyes would be just as happy not to be reminded Jeremy existed, too.
Jeremy picked up the handful of early returns that were on his cart and went to shelve them. It would only take a couple minutes, and then he could just hang out somewhere quiet until Mr. Stuessy came back in. Getting stuck in a study room with the old guy again actually seemed a lot more pleasant than working around Mr. Noyes, anyway.
Maybe after I put these up, Jeremy thought, I should go through Mr. Stuessy’s books some more. ‘A study of superstitions regarding faeries and how to keep them at bay.’ It was a weird topic for a bum to be interested in, but that sort of made it interesting on its own. Besides, if he spent some more time getting sections bookmarked for Mr. Stuessy, he wouldn’t feel like he was cheating the library. Jeremy grinned to himself. Because maybe Mr. Stuessy isn’t exactly a patron, he thought, but I’m not exactly an employee, either.
And if Mr Noyes has a problem with that, Jeremy thought, he can just suck it. This time, there was no one around to startle Jeremy out of the surge of anger that welled up inside of him. He wasn’t even aware of the unconscious curl of his lip and baring of his teeth and narrowing of his eyes. He was barely aware of the throbbing in his arm, or the way his whole body seemed to ache in response, like all of his muscles were tensing up for something.
And then, an instant later, the low growl Jeremy didn’t realize he was making stopped. The moment passed and Jeremy was just himself again, going to shelve some books like he always did — and the entire incident remained unregistered by his consciousness.
Almost like it had actually been experienced by someone else entirely.