The main library on campus stayed open late on weekends. The theory was that students would need access to research materials for papers due on Monday morning. In practice, Saturdays were spent at parties, not the library, so students were scarce until Sunday evenings.
This Saturday was no different. For Mark, this is why he liked working in the library on weekends. The study carrels were occupied by a few serious students who kept their work areas clean or at least picked up their trash when they left. In the hour before closing, the janitor ran a vacuum cleaner over the carpets and swabbed out the restrooms. What little noise this generated was a soothing hum from a distant part of the building, leaving Mark alone with his thoughts at the front desk.
The sun had set hours ago, and the large glass windows in the lobby reflected the interior lights against the blackness outside. Trees sheltered the front entrance and blocked the view of the campus beyond. From where Mark sat, he felt enclosed by the walls of a sacred space, a temple for those who worship the ancient texts, a solace from the mundane daytime world.
After closing time, Mark took his usual walk through the building, making sure that everyone else had gone. He started with the top floor, shutting off the lights and walking down the central staircase. He had done this for so many nights that he could navigate the building with his eyes closed. But he enjoyed looking over the railing and onto the floors below. In part, he was checking for stragglers, people who either ignored the announcement over the P.A. system that it was closing time or who simply did not hear it. He could look down into the aisles between the stacks and shelves and scan for anyone or anything out of place. It was like being a god looking down on creation.
This night he did see something out of place, something different, something which should not have been there. At first it looked like a simple shadow, but in a corner where no lights were aimed. He squinted at the sight and kept his eyes focused on the spot as he descended the stairs to the next landing. The shadow took the form of a small cloud of gray smoke — could there be a fire? No, it was more like a fog or mist, and it did not rise with any heat or currents of air. It hovered. It beckoned.
He walked right up to it. Behind the mist, he thought he saw shapes. He tried to walk around the spot, but it shimmered and flattened when he did so. It had no depth, no dimension beyond the flat image now floating next to him. The images within the swirling fog grew sharper and came into focus.
A hand reached out of the fog, holding a book. An arm followed, then a body, then a student. “Is it too late to return this book?”
Mark took the book from the apparition’s outstretched hand. It was a textbook on the history of alchemy. He sighed, “Some people will do anything to avoid paying the fines.”