Hannah was late with the beer because they kept her late at the library. One of the other student assistants had found her in the stacks, shelving Japanese lit at her Friday afternoon pace, and told her the manager needed her in special collections.
They were short staffed because the normal work-study girl made that viral tweet that spawned its own listicle and she was reassigned to scooping mashed potatoes in the dining hall. The special collections team clocked out around four-thirty and let their assistant lock up at five. Nobody was pulling science fiction pulp magazines or Shakespeare folios thirty minutes before closing.
One of the library managers gave Hannah the tour – reception counter, computer to clock out, phone, flip this switch and the door locks behind you. Thanks for helping us out, should be pretty quiet.
Hannah usually found a deserted corner on the third floor around this time, watched the students and professors retreating across the green as the clock tower chimed and dusk fell over the brick buildings. The special collections reading room had no windows, just wood paneling and some dim spotlights over the tables.
She was failing another hand of solitaire when the woman pushed the door into the reading room. A little chime went off. The woman wore a cream pantsuit, had soft kohl eyeliner and three sapphire studs on each ear. She was grad-student age, but didn’t carry the normal academic bundle of bags – computer, book tote, lunch box.
Excuse me, she said. I know it’s late, but I recently learned there may be something of my late husband’s in your collection.
Oh, well, I don’t know a lot about this department. I’m just a substitute student assistant. Hannah scanned the counter for a business card, an email or number she could pass along.
It was in the news recently, the woman continued. My husband was a famous playwright.
The playwright. Who made the news recently because of that listicle, “10 Librarians Share the Weirdest Stuff in Their Archives.” Inspired by that viral tweet the student assistant made when she found his dried pinkie finger in a jewelry box in special collections.
I’m sorry, Hannah said, but the collections staff have all gone home –.
It’s not that I want it now, the woman said. I understand I’ll have to negotiate with the university. My husband lost the finger in a card game, then his hosts kept it and bequeathed it to your institution.
The woman walked towards Hannah, set her oxblood handbag down and leaned her clasped hands on the edge of the counter.
My lawyers are making arrangements, but in the meantime, I would really like to see him.
Like I said, I don’t usually work here. If you can come in next week?
But you’re open now, aren’t you? Until five?
Isn’t there someone in charge who can help me? The woman hardly blinked. She was so close Hannah could smell her hairspray.
Let me try calling downstairs. Hannah turned and dialed for the information desk. It rang and rang. The woman shifted. No answer.
Let me try the checkout desk. It rang more, until another student picked up. The manager was on break. Hannah hung up the phone.
I was his third wife, the woman started. She studied her French manicure, convincingly downcast. He didn’t bother to change the will. His ex-wife was in charge of the funeral. She had him interred at their old estate. Private property.
She raised her eyes to Hannah again. I didn’t get to be there, at the funeral. Since he died it’s like all my insides are gone. I’m hollow.
Hannah tried to nod sympathetically, like she was watching a movie. She didn’t trust herself to speak.
The manager showed her where the finger was. He said they moved it off its catalogued shelf to prevent theft, and if she said or posted anything they would know and pursue disciplinary action. Get her kicked out of school.
If that was possible. Probably. She hadn’t read all the fine print in the code of conduct.
Just one look, the woman pleaded. I won’t tell anyone. Her wedding band winked on her hand.
It was fifteen minutes to close, the managers had abandoned her, and the clock was running on the solitaire game. Hannah sighed and nodded, went for the back storage room.
It really did look like a jewelry box – black velvet, brass around the seam. Hannah brought it to the counter and placed it exactly between them.
The woman opened the box and inhaled at the sight of the desiccated finger. Then she snatched the finger and stuffed it in her mouth. Hannah watched her close her eyes and chew, the bones crunching like butterscotch candy. The woman swallowed.
All she said was thank you and walked out, Hannah said. She was late with the beer but brought two cases. She didn’t touch the pizza Jack ordered. He announced that biting through a human finger used the same amount of jaw strength as eating a carrot stick. Everyone stopped eating.
Do you have any of that peach rum left, Hannah asked, and someone got her the bottle.
I hear at the dining hall they let you take the day-old cookies home, she said.
They all nodded, like yeah, cool. It’s just work-study. No big deal.