Timeline: Late November, 2007
John walked into the Library, not really sure what to expect. While he had been there before he had been focused on the task at hand. This time he could just look around and browse. John walked up to the desk looking for someone to answer his questions.
An attractive caucasian woman, perhaps in her early thirties with long black hair gathered into a single tail and wearing a comfortable if not very fashionable light blue sweater over a white blouse and tan slacks, looked up from a entering some returned books into a computerized catalog.
“Hello Dr. Beckett,” she said with a smile. The challenge of a person who sees many people in a week was that it was often difficult to match faces with names after a while. However, he did remember faces well and was sure he hadn’t seen her at the office before.
“Hello”, John smiled he wasn’t really a social person but he knew smiling was good. “You have a remarkable memory, I was only in here once before. I wish I could do that. I am okay with faces but names often escape me. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember your face either or I would have been back sooner.” John said with a twinkel in his eye. I came to ask about a Library card. What do I need to do to get one?”
“Just fill this out,” she said as she slid a form to him from a small stack sitting on the counter top. “Then it’s a ten dollar fee to help with the cost of replacing worn out books.”
While he worked on that, she said, “My name’s Alice, by the way,” she said with a smile. “I knew your face because I remember reading an article about you in the town newspaper. You’re the newest doctor at the hospital, aren’t you?”
John looked up from filling out the form, “Hello Alice, yes I am the new doctor. I still think you have a better memory than I do. Some days the only way I remember my name is by looking the security badge the hospital gave me. On worse days I actually look like the picture.” John chuckles, then says, “does this library have a friends of the library club or a fund to help pay for new books”?
Alice joined him in the chuckle for a moment. “Yes, we do, in fact,” she said after a moment. “That’s a variable donation and of course your name gets added to the Friends list. You can even specify what you’d like your donation to go toward; children’s books are popular, as is the historical and philosophy sections right now. And of course Sci-Fi and Fantasy always has a solid fan base. If you decide not to specify what you want your donation to go toward, I’ll use it as needed to fill out whatever sections need it the most.”
“Would you be willing to give me a tour of your wonderland, Alice?”
She laughed a little at that. “Well, it’s not a very big place, but I can show you around a bit.”
She came out from behind the tall front desk and walked him about the place. It had a lot of books for its size because the walls extended vertically for a good two stories. Rolling ladders were placed strategically for people to use, though there were warnings on the ladders that no one was to play on them, nor were they for use by people under the age of 16. Still, it was unusual for even a library to allow use of ladders by the public. It was most likely just another difference between small-town sensibilities and big city caution and insurance entanglements.
John enjoyed the quiet and almost homey feel of the library. Alice seemed very nice too.
“I have sort of eclectic tastes. I like westerns and mysteries, fantasy and science fiction. I am also interested in folk lore relating to medicine. I believe in a more holistic approach to healing and I find some of the old wives tales fascinating.”
Alice looked a little surprised. “Pardon me?”
“You are pardoned of course, might one inquire for that which you believe you need to crave pardon?” John asked with a tilt of his eyebrow and a puzzled look on his face.
“Oh I see. You were telling me what your favorite sections of the library were,” Alice replied.
John’s face brightened at once,”Yes, you said you would give me a tour and I thought I would tell you the things that interest me, also does the library have a section on the paranormal and the occult?”
“Yes of course. It’s near Philosophy and New Age,” she pointed out. From the middle of the library, John could see the layout of the place allowed one to go directly to any subject.
“So how long have you been a librarian in Eldonwell”?
“Five years here at this library,” she said, “plus another three as librarian for the high school.”
Alice paused, then said, “I take it you have some unusual patients Dr. Beckett?”
John gave her a quizzical look and said hesitently, “unusual patients”?
“Well, I may have assumed too much,” Alice admitted. “You mentioned your interest in paranormal and occult books, so I wondered if perhaps you were interested in alternative medicine as well as mainstream medicine. People around here seem as likely to ascribe illness to a powerful hex as they are to disease — and with good reason, after all.”
“Yes, I am. As I said, I am interested in folklore relating to medicine. I believe in a more holistic approach to healing and I find some of the old wives’ tales fascinating. Frankly, I am interested in what works. It would be nice if it worked for everyone without a lot of training. For instance, I find meditation and biofeedback helpful. It can be easily taught and everyone can do it. Hypothetically, if someone were to invent a some ‘magic bullet’ that would cure cancer but you had to have a special ability or years of training before it would work for you, that would be of less interest to me professionally but still of interest to me personally. As for hexes, I don’t have very much experience with them but that is one of the things I would like to learn.”
“Hm. Hexes are tricky creatures, from what I hear,” Alice said. “There are some around here that might be able to work one,” she added thoughtfully.
“If you lived here for 5 years then I believe you know what was haunting, for lack of a better word, this town. It is not the first such creature-spirit that my friends and I have encountered. It seems that once you have encountered such strangeness that you are more likely to encounter it again or at least more likely to recognize it when it happens again. There at times I feel like my friends and I have become weirdness magnets. Before I encountered all this weird shit, sorry, my mom tried to teach me not to use bad language but …” John shrugs obviously embarrassed by language.
Alice smiled. “Language doesn’t bother me; I’m a librarian. If I haven’t heard it, I’ve read it,” she chuckled. “So, do you actually practice these ‘holistic’ arts in addition to regular medicine? Or in preference to?”
“It may not bother you but I was raised better. Anyway, to finish my thought and answer your question, before I encountered all this stuff, I would have said hexes and voodun and stuff like that was all the power of suggestion. You have to see the hex, you have to know you are being cursed. Its all in your head. Well I know better now. It’s not all in my head and some people can tap into a power source and do things.
“To answer your question, yes I practice holistic medicine whenever I feel it will do as well or better than conventional medicine. Did you know that when penicillin was first introduced it would wipe out most bacterial infections like that.” John snapped his fingers then continued. “Now doctors give it out like candy and there are more and more strains of disease resistant to penicillin now. I think we need to give the body aid in over coming disease on its own and treat the whole; body, mind and soul as one, so incense and magnets and crystals can all have a place in medicine today.”
“As a person who has studied acupuncture for many years, I’m happy to hear that,” Alice remarked.
“Alas I have not studied acupuncture, aversion to needles I fear.” John gave a small mischievous smile, “I have, however, studied acupressure and massage.”
“Where did you study?”
“A man named Le Duc Tho taught me what he knew when I was in Vietnam and I have read several books on the subject. I wouldn’t say I am a master but I do give a mean back rub and foot massage. How about you? Library book? or somewhere exotic like Kuala Lampur or Tibet?”
“Tibet,” she said. “I travel any chance I get.”
John stared at her for a second, “You kidding me, right? I don’t think I have ever met any thats actually been to Tibet. Why Tibet?”
“The study of acupuncture was actually secondary to my primary field of interest while I was there. I’m a Taoist and I went to study from the original texts of Lao Tzu, such as the Tao Te Ching. An isolated monastery there had been hidden and preserved from communist purges of the 20th century, you see.”
“Two questions”, Jons said with a smile. “Why Tao and if the communists couldn’t find the monastery how did you?”
“They reveal themselves to those they want to learn of it,” Alice said with a smile. “And you can find a good book on Tao in the philosophy section.”
“Confucius say ask a scholar a question and she will give you a book,” John said with a wry grin, “I guess I should have been more clear. I do not believe that I can take over the Universe and improve it. I what meant was what drew you to Tao?”
“At the time the communists had just reduced the millions of Taoist monks to only thousands, I was fascinated with Chinese philosophy and religion. That led me to the teachings of Lao Tzu and Chiang Ling where I felt I found some very real truth,” Alice replied. “I decided to take some risks and headed to Tibet. Of course, the Chinese suppression of Buddhism is well known, but they almost eliminated Taoism because they felt the philosophical and religious teachings that encouraged people to live in harmony with nature inhibited progress and divided loyalties. So, I took some risks to get there, but I made it to Tibet and studied beneath some of the wisest Taoist monks the order had.”
John fell silent and just stared at her for a second and then another second, a look of furious thinking going on furrowed his brow for a time and then he said, “Are you pulling my leg? That would have been what 58 to 62? I would have been 10 in 61, now I have seen enough to know that what you say might be true but you don’t look a day over 30.” John comes to a quick decicision and says “I can read minds would you permit me to attempt to read yours?”
“A man who would try to take something from another person’s mind is a man that trusts not the word of the person he is speaking with,” Alice stated. “And no, you may not. For your information, it is not polite to ask a proper lady’s age.”
Alice turned and walked back to her library desk and began working on entering the returned books back into the library computer.
John stared after her for a long moment and then silently cursed his lack of social skills, once again he had ruined everything. When would he learn to keep his dam mouth shut? A feeling of anger and frustration washed over him to be replaced by despair. Just like the Bob Dylan song ‘All ways on the outside of whatever side there was when they asked him why it had to be that way he answer just because…’ John browsed the Library for a while and choose three books then headed for the circulation desk and Alice.
“I am sorry if I offended you,” he said in a quite voice with a lump in his throat. He felt on the verge of tears. He had to get out of here now.
“I didn’t ask because I didn’t believe you, I asked because I did.” Then with a swift move he set the books he had been holding down and started to run from the library, blinded by tears and with every intention to head for the high country, to be alone as always.
Alice was startled by the emotional response but she reacted with startling speed. Her arm snaked out and touched his shoulder as he rushed by.
“Doctor,” she said. “I’ve lived alone my entire life, and believe me, I’ve had a longer one than it appears.” She paused a moment to look down at the books he’d left on the counter. She saw a book on Tao, a book on herb Lore, and a book by John Ringo called Ghost. “I’m a very private person.
“Listen. I didn’t mean to upset you, but I’m a private person. I like to choose what I share and what I don’t. I know what I said is hard to believe, but I have no reason to lie to you. What you said to me is just as difficult to believe, yet I would take you at your word. All I was asking was to be afforded the same courtesy I show you,” she told him. “I didn’t mean to stomp on your feelings.”
John choked the words out without looking at her, “I didn’t mean to upset you. I wouldn’t take what isn’t freely offered that was why I asked permission. One of my friends explained that it was like rape, I am forcing someone to give up what they might not want to divulge. I would never do that, unless you were an enemy threatening me or mine and I don’t think you are that.” Wiping at his face with the back of his hand, John said “I don’t do well in social situations, it wasn’t .. I can’t … taking a deep breath John said fighting for calm and composure, and finally looking Alice in the eyes, I do believe you. I did believe you. I wanted to see it through your eyes because I thought how wonderful it would have been. I need to go before I disgrace myself even more.”
Alice looked troubled, but didn’t wish to delay him if he really wished to go. “I… see. I hope you don’t stay away long, Doctor. I think we may have a lot to talk about.”
John nodded and walked out. Once outside he stared at the far blue mountains and then took a deep cleansing breath of air. He started to walk away but for once the pull of the mountain wasn’t as strong as the pull of the woman waiting. Something was drawing him back, some resonance of loneliness perhaps or maybe it was wishful thinking, but one thing was sure; faint heart never won a fair maiden. And to have a friend you have to be one. So, a little hesitantly, John walked back into the library. His last thought before the door closed behind him was, crap I hope this goes better than the last time.
Alice looked up and smiled at him as she placed the book titled Ghost neatly atop of two others. She hadn’t moved from the spot he’d last seen her, though the books he had earlier collected were set in a stack at the edge of the desk. “Doctor,” she greeted him. The way she called his title was warm, friendly and open. “I hope you don’t mind. I took the liberty of putting these on reserve for you. You can borrow them any time.”
She paused a moment as she contemplated something. The space granted John time to look at Alice again. The librarian was blond, perhaps 30-ish, and attractive. There was no wedding ring on her finger, though she did wear a simple, silver band on her right hand. It was matched by a similarly humble necklace consisting of a delicate but plain silver chain from which a yin-yang symbol hung. The symbol itself had some shiny white stone matched with a black stone, all set in the silver backing.
Her words shook drew his attention again. “Would you like to sit and talk a while?”
“Thank you, Miss …. Alice I had forgotten about the books”, John paused “I would love to sit and talk with you for as long as you like.” John was acting toward Alice as if she were his grandmother, an elder entitled to respect from a Junior, definitely not as an equal. His manner was stilted as if he were trying to do everything right, while walking on eggshells, eager to please but hesitant to act, such a mix of opposing forces that it was a wonder he didn’t spontaneously combust.
She smiled and chuckled lightly. Someone came in through the front door and a bell rang. “Good morning Alice,” said an older, grey-haired man.
“Good morning, Geoffrey,” Alice returned.
The senior citizen made his way into the center of the library where stuffed chairs stood and the latest newspapers were stacked.
Alice told John in a quiet voice, “He’ll be fine over there on his own. Would you like to take some tea in the back room? We’ll be able to talk more freely there.”
John blinked slowly several times as if coming out of a trance, which in fact he had. He would now remember everything said in the conversation. “Yes ma’am, tea would be fine.”
Alice led him to the back where they were able to close the door and sit on stools at a kitchenette counter. She put some water in a ceramic pitcher and set it to heating in a small microwave. At the far side, a small black and white monitor showing the front door allowed Alice to monitor things so that no one tried to take off with the library’s books.
“I’m very curious about this mind reading thing you mentioned,” Alice said. “How did you come by this ability?”
“Well I don’t know for sure. I guess I was born with it but it didn’t wake up until about 6 months ago when we fought the spirit that was haunting the town. It was after that when I first noticed it. People would say something, only their lips wouldn’t move and then they would deny saying anything and look at me strangely. It got overwhelming and I started trying to block it out. I got curious after a while and then I learned that I left a small gap in the wall I built and focused really hard I could hear just one person. At first it was just surface stuff. You know: ‘I’m hungry’, ‘Wow that guy is hot’, ‘I hope he asks me out’, ‘I’m bored’, and thousands of other trivial little things that people thing everyday.
“I practiced. It was kind of neat like a shiny new toy. Sit down to lunch and listen to what people were really thinking. People watch, but all in the head so to speak. After a while I guess just like any skill or muscle, you practice it and use it and you get better. Suddenly, I could read people deeper and clearer, and some people that I couldn’t read before I was getting surface thoughts from now. It was like I reached some plateau. Surprisingly enough, it works to some degree on plants, too. You get feelings from them. Plants really grow well for me now. Anyway, I worked on it more mainly on my friends, because they were going through some problems and I was trying to watch over them and help them and I got so I could read anybody. Don’t get me wrong it doesn’t work every time. And sometimes I find out things I really didn’t want to know, deep thoughts that should never see the light of day, urges that people suppress, things that people would never act on are there hiding in the subconscious.” John gave a small shudder.
“I can help people heal faster too and to some extent I have control over my body, I can be stronger or remember things, go for days without sleep, ignore wounds. Heal faster, lets say a normal person can heal a serious wound in 3 days. I can help someone else heal that in about 16 hours. I can heal it in 8. Poisons can have less effect on me. But all these things require a certain amount of concentration and I can usually only do one thing at a time. Sometimes when everything goes well I can get two or more of them going at once but its sort of like juggling; eventually I drop a ball. To a certain extent I can delay aging, not as well as you but better than most people.
“So what is your secret? Do you use dove soap or noxima? Or do you follow of a strict regime of diet and exercise? Enquiring minds want to know but I will never tell them.”
Alice said, “The answer to that is not simple. Power you come by naturally is an amazing thing to me, though I have read some things about people with similar powers.
“Arresting aging is a bit of vanity, I suppose. If the Tao monks have a failing it tends to be one of pride and I suppose I am not so different.” She gave a self-deprecating smile. “To arrest the aging process entirely requires an understand of the Tao, the force of creation itself. To understand why entropy exists, is to understand how it works. The next step is to understand there is a place both within oneself and without where entropy does not exist. Understanding that fully, allows the entrance of this concept into reality.
“So, in understanding Tao as well as one’s body and your place in the universe, one is able to eventually master it on a physical and spiritual level at once. So, longevity is a blessing granted to Taoist masters via understanding and this is an internal thing. Yet there is more. True mastery comes with a realization that the rest of the physical world is but an extension of the self. If you can master yourself, you can learn to master the world around you. Longevity, then, or even immortality, is a gift that comes with understanding — a gift a true master can grant herself or those around her.”
“It sounds so simple and yet mastering can’t be that easy or there would be more Taoist than any other religion in the world if for not other reason than they wouldn’t die. Is that the real reason behind the communist aggression when you were in Tibet? Chairman Mao getting older and feeling his life was ending, decided to try and extend it and was persecuting and torturing the Tibetian monks until someone would bow to his will and give him immortality?”
“No,” Alice shook her head. “Such longevity is believed to be a myth. The Communist regime simply felt that such religions were counter to their concept of a new, strong China. They sacrificed their cultural heritage on the altar of progress. Of course, today they are beginning to take pride in their culture again. That, in my mind, is real progress.”
“So what is a Tao Master doing here in Eldonwell? Other than being a Guardian of Knowledge?”
“This is my home, where I was born and raised,” Alice said. “What made you want to stay in Eldon Well?”
“My friends,” he answered. “I have never put down roots anywhere and I have never truly had people that really cared about me just for me. Never really fit in even in the Army. When we are together as terrifying as it sometimes gets, those are the best times for me. They need me, outside of a emergency surgery, no one else really does.”
Alice’s eyebrows rose with a mix of surprise and sympathy. “I’m sorry to hear that, John. May I call you John?”
“Of course Miss Alice, I would be pleased if you did.” John replied with a small grin and hopeful eyes.
“I take it that your friends lead some exciting lives. Is their adventure to rid this town of that evil spirit an exception or the rule?” Alice wondered.
“I don’t know what you would consider exciting, but I do remember the old arabic curse of, ‘May you live in interesting times,’ ” John replied. “Let us instead say that my friends and I tend to lead interesting lives but no the evil spirt is not the first such encounter, nor will it be the last. What about you Miss Alice do you live an exciting life? I know you have been to Tibet and some would say that is exciting. Were else have you been?
“Nepal,” she said, “and parts of China and Thailand. Then I lived in San Francisco for a while before returning to my home town, here. I’ve made a few private trips to Europe, since then. But I wouldn’t call any of my experiences ‘exciting’ perhaps. I’m not a… trouble-shooter so to speak but rather a student, looking and collecting knowledge that is perhaps a bit less than common.”
“So you have visted exotic places and met interesting people. Sounds exciting to me, and you can’t really tell me that going into communist occupied Tibet wasn’t just a little bit dangerous, Miss Alice.”
She smiled. “Perhaps. It was a long time ago. But I really think there are more ‘interesting’ things going on here.”
“When we first came to Eldonwell,” John replied, “we were hunting a greater evil, one we call the Dark Man. It acts very much like the evil that haunted this town but it is not tied to one place. More accurately, it seems to manifest around places on the Appalachian Trail. We have faced it before and thought we had defeated it but it has risen again. I guess I am one of the ones that walks the borders and tries to keep back the things that live in shadow. I have dedicated the time I have left on earth to doing it. Not because I want to be but because I can’t do otherwise. As I said before once you cross the line and veiw the unseen world, it seems it looks back at you. One becomes more aware of it, and I am not made to sit and watch bad things happen if I can prevent them, so yes interesting things are happening here. But how far down the rabbit hole do you want to go Alice?”, John sighed deeply, and just looked at her.
Taking his question to be figurative, not literal, Alice replied, “Good question. Once you go down, there is rarely a way back out. That is, it is difficult to unlearn what you have learned. It seems as if it marks your soul.”
“So where do we go from here? You know that I am not a normal person and I know that you are not a normal person.” John took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “For my part I would like to get to know you better, but I don’t want to presume, I find you absolutely fascinating.”
Alice laughed lightly. “I think that’s a first; someone thinks a librarian is fascinating.” She smiled. “Well, you can always stop in to visit, or if there is some knowledge you are seeking, maybe I can help point you in the right direction.” She was so used to living the life of a spinster herself, she didn’t seem to recognize that he was fishing for potential dates.
“Well, Harold Hill seemed to find Marian irresistable and after all I am just a simple country Doctor. I have some clients that pay me in chickens. I think I will have to start checking books out one at a time so I can visit with you more often. I think its time I left before I overstay my welcome or put my foot in my mouth however. Thank you for the tea and the conversation Miss Alice.”
Alice smiled widely and then walked with him back to the main library. “I’d… like that, John,” she said. “Take care of yourself, too, Doctor. And come back any time.”