Mr. Sweeney sat alone on the fourth floor of the library almost directly underneath the sign for the expired books that read ‘PUBLIC DOMAIN’. He sat with his legs crossed and the lid of his pen between his teeth. His hair was overgrown and the humble beginnings of a poorly-kept beard were visible. Outside it was warm. Inside he wore a dark tweed jacket and trousers that rested on him loosely. The sun was bright and illuminated the threadbare carpet. It glared on the dust that came from the carpet with every step.
“Good afternoon”, the librarian said. The wrinkles around her eyes smiled at him. He had known her for years but didn’t bother to learn her name. He had no reason to.
“Is it?” he replied. The librarian tensed quickly and returned to her screen. She should be used to him by now. The ageing woman addressed him slyly. “You should be out, no? You’re wasting a day like this.”
He glanced at her as she spoke mindlessly at him. He hadn’t ever looked at her long enough to see past her tired blue eyes. She had a face that seemed to fade as quickly as the cries of a hungry child. Her fingers were long and told of her age. She wore a modest ring, likely engagement, but had no wedding band. He got back to his work.
Some time had passed. He had flicked through a number of children’s novels before returning ‘We’re going on a Bear Hunt’ and deciding to leave. His eyes pointed from person to person. Students sat, just as countless others had for years, studying for the same exams that occur each year. ‘Why them?’ he thought. A life so easily replicated. He stopped himself. He didn’t want to think this way during the day. They shifted in their seats as he passed them like a cold breeze from the warmth of outside. He noticed but did not care. The door before him opened politely but he didn’t move. He heard a shyly muttered apology and saw the reflection of a young woman in the door. His breath shortened. She seemed just years younger than him but he felt decades older. Her hair was long, like her’s was. Like her’s, her hair was perfectly curled at the bottom to rest just above her waist. He remembered that day they came home from the library together. She wasn’t behaving like herself this day. Her steps were nervous and her eyes wandered from him tentatively. It was the day she decided to abandon their studies and it was the last time they would see each other. She announced with ease her departure.
“What?” he muttered.
She repeated herself. His jaw tightened as he shrunk under the weight of the news.
“I’m leaving,” she said coldly. She explained how she couldn’t ‘fix’ him and that he needed help.
“I’ll call you,” she promised. He waited for her to call but she never did.
His feet remained still as he stared blankly at the woman in front of him, trying to swallow the lump building in his throat. She had crossed her arms before reaching into her bag. She seemed awkward and wanted to look busy. She excused herself and he kept moving, but his mind stayed right where she left him.
His head hung low as he walked home against strong winds. Leaden clouds were moving above the trees that lined the pavement. It had gotten dark and he could not escape the echo of her final words to him. The streetlight was very bright in the darkness of his cul-de-sac. It cast light on the impressive home he occupied, and the dignity that he had lost. It was once a fine home. It hosted respectable parties. The walls, plastered blue, had heard the sound of first words and honest laughter. His car that sat parked across the street wasn’t always that dirty. The ivy growing over his windows was once kept at a careful length. The grass outside his home hadn’t always crept up beyond the windows of his front room. The nursery, now with four yellowed walls, was once home to teddy bears and tired eyes at 3 A.M. awake for feeding.
He knew he had veered off course but didn’t bother to straighten himself out. What was the point? He never stopped going to the library, but he would sit at night alone. The TV would play something he wasn’t interested in. His books would collect dust and lay untouched. Sometimes, looking at the dull cards that had sat for years on the mantelpiece, he would think. Initially, he would think of the gifts of clothes that would “fit when he’s a bit older” that went to waste. He would think of the money innocent relatives spent on a life never to be lived. He would blame himself for not thinking to donate what was left. And then, he would blame himself for not being the one that was taken. They called it ‘survivor’s guilt’. But he was only a child. He was so harmless and vulnerable, yet so overlooked. How could he be wrong for wishing it was him instead?
The evening had passed and with it the winds grew fiercer. By now he had drunk so much that he didn’t know if he was sweating or crying. The winds on the door grew into a knock and he struggled to his feet. It was his sister. She tried to see him often but he rarely complied.
“Hi, Jill,” he said. She immediately embraced him and his attempts to forget the significance of the next day failed. She welcomed herself into his home and handed him flowers from the nearest shop and a small card. A cartoon bear held a sign that reminded him she was “Thinking of you!” They sat together for some time but he could never recall what they were talking about. He could tell she was growing frustrated but hid it well.
“Do you want anything to eat?” He realised he hadn’t offered her anything yet. She followed him into the kitchen.
“I’ll help myself. Sit down, will you?” She replied as she rummaged through his cabinets. She was wearing an expression that told him she had news she didn’t want to share with him. He was right.
“I’ve met someone. Finally.” she confessed. “I’ll be moving again. Further, this time. I’ll come and visit when I can, but it won’t be as often. I – I’m sorry.” Her words trailed off as he tried to find something to say. He gave a slight, involuntary sigh. He had the urge to tell her all that he was feeling. He wanted to make a joke of it, lighten the mood, prove to her that he was better. But he would never get better, nor would he ever want to be, he thought. What was the point?
At last, she left. As she floated out the door she rhymed off that he could “call me if you ever need anything” and that he was “doing him proud”. He heard her car door slam shut as the headlights of her car beamed in to his front room. As her engine roared into the distance the silence returned and once again engulfed his home. As he shut the door he threw the supermarket flowers away. But he couldn’t bring himself to toss the card. He read it over and over. Eventually he sat down again and reached under his sofa for the only toy he kept. He held the old teddy for a moment. Its glossy eyes seemed to stare at him and he could see his reflection. He thought of all the toy bears he had been given since he passed. With every one, he was told it would get better with time, but he knew it would never really leave him. He knew in that moment that people would leave and find happiness, something he couldn’t provide, and no one would really stay. But, at least, this would.
He lay alone with the stuffed bear by his side. It had gotten cold but he hadn’t bothered to pull up a blanket. He looked at his alarm clock, whose red lights read 02:36. The cold night breeze outside rattled onto the windows of his bedroom as his mind drifted. He thought of the bear that comforted his chest, moving as he breathed. He marvelled at how animals of such force had been reduced to this. How his son’s life had been reduced to this. He thought of their struggle, always alone and never settling down, but always ready to escape. He thought of how they were lured in with promises, only to be shot down. His chest swelled as he imagined their helpless defeat displayed as a human victory. Like them, he lay exiled from the peace and life he longed for as he submitted to the fatal listlessness that would consume his tomorrow.