"To everything, there is a season, and every season has its work of the day. Do you know what today's work is, Toby?" Mr. Miggles hovered over my desk like the Ghost of Christmas Present.
I glanced at the date on my computer screen. It was Friday, November 18th. I groaned. "No. No, please. It's too early for that."
"Nonsense! There's far too much to be done to let it wait until the last minute. Come along! We're off to plunder the hidden treasures of this noble edifice."
"This place? Noble? What, have you been tasting the eggnog already?" I put the computer on screen saver and got up from my seat at the front desk with a show of great reluctance.
"The Sandy Lake Library is as noble as the Vatican. After all, it's filled with books."
I rolled my eyes behind Mr. Miggles's back as I followed his dramatic sweep toward the back of the library and the steps that led up to the unfinished attic. It was time for the annual—and far too early, in my opinion—ritual of Bringing Down the Christmas Boxes.
It wasn't that I really minded the task all that much. It was slow in the library after lunchtime during the week, and I could use a break from the endless work of digitizing our archives. But this was a game he and I played, our familiar roles.
He was the buttoned-up, tie-wearing head librarian and my boss. He acted older than he actually was. He was probably in his thirties,
but he dressed up for work every day in a suit and tie. The honorific, “Mr. Miggles,” aged him too. The previous librarian had been Mrs. Wisener, and she’d been there since the dawn of time. No one ever called her by her first name. I’m not sure she even had one. So when she died and a new librarian was appointed, everyone called him “Mr. Miggles.” It suited him. He was always serious, often sad, and he had an ageless, professorial thing going on. I thought of him as the Socratic ninja of the Sandy Lake Library. He moved around stealthily, getting invisible shit done. And when he did speak, he sounded like he was reading from one of the high-brow books he loved.
It was kind of awesome.
My role, on the other hand, was to be the smart, hip, and mildly jaded young employee. I played it to perfection, if I do say so myself.
"It's not even Thanksgiving yet," I muttered, tromping up the attic stairs behind him.
"You've mastered the calendar. Good for you, grasshopper."
I rolled my eyes again, even though his back was to me.
That wasn't a retro Kung Fu reference, by the way. He's speaking of Aesop's fable, the one with the ant and the grasshopper. The grasshopper is the lazy one who doesn't store food up for the winter but spends the summer playing around instead. So you can see where he was going with that one. Or maybe the shade he was throwing.
The attic of the library was an unfinished space that managed to be hot even in November in Ohio, and we both had to duck our heads to avoid hitting the bare struts in the roof. There were cobwebs and spiders too. I was not a fan of the attic.
"Now then." Mr. Miggles took a clean rag out of a pocket and dusted off some boxes. "All these. And this whole stack. Don't be shy."
"Are grasshoppers shy?" I feigned innocence. Honestly, it was entertaining to hear Mr. Miggles talk when he was in a philosophical frame of mind, so I hoped for more. But no such luck. He gave me a hairy eyeball.
"Lift, Toby. Don't think you can talk your way out of this."
"Who, me?" I grabbed a couple of cartons. They must have contained ornaments because they were light.
"Put them in Santa's Headquarters."
"You do realize it's just you and me, right?" I asked. "So there's no reason to call it 'Santa's Headquarters' right now."
"You're missing the spirit of the thing. And it's always best to start as you mean to carry on."
Bit by bit, we moved all the Christmas boxes down to the small conference room, which no one ever used this time of year and was, therefore, our temporary Christmas closet aka “Santa's Headquarters.”
After the last of the boxes were put on the table, Mr. Miggles looked them over with a satisfied smile. "There! That's all for now, Toby. Thank you for your assistance. Tomorrow we'll start the Christmas Surprise Box."
"Sure thing. Oh, and if I caught Hantavirus in the attic, you'll be hearing from my lawyer."
"I wouldn't expect anything less," Mr. Miggles replied cheerfully. He opened a box, clearly already thinking of other things.
I left him to it and returned to the front desk. No one was waiting. There were a handful of people in the library at this hour, but they were all occupied. I returned to my archiving work with a sigh, glancing toward the conference room now and then. I could see Mr. Miggles through the small window in the door as he opened the boxes and checked the contents.
Why did I keep looking at him? Procrastinating, probably. Anything to avoid buckling back down to archiving. I was tempted to check my email, see if there was anything from Justin. I resisted the impulse and tried to focus. Inexplicably, I had a craving for Christmas music to listen to in my earbuds while I worked.
Ugh, Mr. Miggles. It was his fault. He had a thing about Christmas. And even though I'd only been working at the library for two years, it was starting to rub off on me.
Not a shred of tinsel ever appeared in the library until the Monday after Thanksgiving, but the groundwork began in mid-November. Mr. Miggles liked to review the boxes of decorations as though they were troops and he was mapping out a battle plan. He was so serious about it, so engaged. There was a light in his eyes and a slight smile on his face that wasn't there at other times of the year. Honestly, it warmed the little cockles of my heart to see him like that.
Through most of the year, Mr. Miggles had a sadness about him, as if he carried around an invisible cloak made of some suffocating weight. But this weight seemed to be lifted in those few weeks between mid-November and December 24th. He insisted on keeping the library open until noon on Christmas Eve day. It was always with a great show of reluctance that he locked the door for the holiday break, wished me and my family a very Merry Christmas, and trudged away through the snow. Alone.
Sitting there watching him unpack boxes in Santa's Headquarters, I remembered that moment last Christmas Eve. I'd felt a niggle of guilt and worry as he'd walked away. As far as I knew, he lived by himself and probably didn't have anyone to spend Christmas with. Maybe that's why the library's Christmas was such a big deal to him—because it was the only one he got.
Last Christmas Eve, I felt guilty, as if I should have invited him to share Christmas with my family. I always spend the holiday at my parents’ house with my four brothers, my boyfriend Justin, and about a gazillion other relatives. But I hadn't invited Mr. Miggles. That seemed like a line you didn't cross with your boss.
Why didn't he have a family? He was a bit of an odd duck, but handsome enough for, you know, an older guy. He was tall and in decent shape, had curly brown hair and wore sturdy horn-rimmed glasses that were retro enough to be almost cool. But, like I said, he had this sadness to him most of the time. I had a theory there was something tragic in his past, something mysterious and painful. He reminded me of a brooding character in a Charlotte or Emily Bronte novel. Sort of a Mr. Rochester meets the Phantom of the Opera only with invisible scar tissue.
In case it isn't obvious, I freaking love those books, so that does not put me off in the slightest. Quite the contrary. I found my boss intriguing.
But whatever his story was, Mr. Miggles wasn't talking.
* * *
A little before 5 o'clock, Justin walked into the library. His blond hair was shoulder-length and naturally turned up at the ends. His beard was close-cropped and his eyes were pale blue. He wore his lined denim jacket, a red T-shirt, and tight jeans. I admired the view, as I always had. Though these days, I had to admit, the view had less effect on me than it once did.
Wasn't there a theory about diminishing returns from repeated exposure to a pleasure source? I'm sure Mr. Miggles could quote me a volume on the subject if I asked him.
"Hey." Justin came to a stop a foot from the front desk. He put his hands in his back pockets, which was a bit of a trick given how snug his jeans were.
"Hi. I thought we were meeting at Al's.”
Justin looked frustrated. "Yeah. Well, the truck was making a weird noise today so I took it over to Simpson's, right? Wouldn't you know it, turns out I need new plugs. Three hundred bucks! I was hoping I could borrow it and go get that taken care of before he closes. I have to drive to Clinton tomorrow and don't want to risk it."
My insides twisted into a sour, miserable knot. "I'll be done in ten minutes." I looked at the clock. "Can we talk about it then?"
Mrs. Rosenberry came up to the desk to check out her books. She stood politely behind Justin, waiting.
"That'll be too late," Justin insisted with a note of petulance. "I want to get this done before the shop closes. Can't you just write me a check or something? Then I can meet you over at Al's later. Like in an hour."
The knot in my gut intensified. I lowered my voice. "You already owe me a lot of money you haven't paid back."
His handsome face flashed with annoyance. "Don't be a dick! I don't get paid until the 15th, and I need to get this done today. Do you want me to break down on the highway somewhere? Don't be so selfish!"
Mrs. Rosenberry looked extremely uncomfortable. She studied the library carpeting. I felt a rush of shame. I pulled my checkbook from my backpack under the counter.
"How much exactly?"
"Just make it out for $300. To me."
I paused, looking up at him. "Why not Simpson's?"
He rolled his eyes. "Because it's not exactly $300, that's why. I'm going to add a little from my account. Jesus, do you seriously not trust me?"
I made the check out to him, ripped it off, and handed it to him.
"Hello, Justin." Mr. Miggles stopped at the desk, a frown on his brow.
"Hey, Mi—uh, Mr. Miggles," Justin said flatly. He folded the check, his gaze returning to me. "See you in an hour." He winked at me, flashed his cheeky grin, and walked away.
I checked out Mrs. Rosenberry’s books. My cheeks felt hot with a noxious mix of annoyance and embarrassment. Part of me thought Justin did that on purpose—showing up just before the end of my shift, knowing I wouldn't be able to argue with him while I was at work. And another part of me thought that was unfair. He’d probably just found out he needed the new plugs. Why did I doubt him? Maybe I really was selfish.
Two years ago, I'd finished my master’s in Library Sciences and moved back to Sandy Lake. I started going out with Justin shortly afterward. We'd gone to high school together, only we hadn't exactly been BFFs back then. In high school, I was out to two of my closest friends, but otherwise mum on the subject. I never dated girls, though. Justin, on the other hand, had been a jock. He'd dated a cheerleader.
It's not like Justin was my big high school crush or anything. My life wasn't that much of a Nicolas Sparks book. But Justin Tremont was seriously hot, and I'd definitely noticed him back then. So when I moved back to Sandy Lake and learned he’d come out as gay, and then I saw him at the diner and he showed an interest in me, it had been pretty thrilling. It seemed like another indication that my decision to work for my hometown library had been the right call. Go me.
It was true we didn’t have a lot in common. My passion was English Lit and Justin hoped to take over his dad’s hardware store one day. But opposites attract. Right? Plus, I was young and healthy and horny. It's a medically known fact that if you don't use your penis regularly it will wither and fall off. I firmly believe that.
I scanned Mrs. Rosenberry's books—six Regency romances and a book on comfort food casseroles—and put them in a paper bag with handles for her, the way she preferred. She was a tiny thing, Mrs. Rosenberry, and probably in her seventies. She thanked me and tottered off, already trying to read one of the books as she walked and nearly bumping into a pillar. It made me smile.
There were some very nice people living in Sandy Lake. And I had a theory that the library saw all of them.
"Are you, uh, all right, Toby?" Mr. Miggles gravitated to the front desk. He looked worried, and he swayed awkwardly, hands behind his back. There was a knowing, dare I say pitying look on his face that made me feel embarrassed and angry all over again, as if he were judging my relationship with Justin.
"Of course. Why wouldn't I be?" I boldly met his gaze.
He swallowed, looked like he was going to say something, then nodded. "Very well. Have a nice evening." He wandered off.
What had he been about to say? Whatever it was, I was pretty sure I didn't want to hear it.
It was after five, so I grabbed my bag and headed out. The November day was overcast and cold, but I decided to walk around the town park until it was time to meet Justin at Al’s. I spent too much time sitting at work.
Sandy Lake has a Main Street, like most American towns. The town park is right in the middle, and it's across the street from Al's Pizza, the bank, the clock tower, and the J&J Shop. It's a big park with a bandstand in the middle, a playground area, and lots of wandering paths and benches. I ignored the benches and walked around, trying to get a little exercise and stay warm.
Do you ever have that feeling something's wrong, but you don't know what it is? Like, your stomach and your body are all tense and tight and stressed, as if there's something important you should do, or some life-altering plot point is about to smack you upside the head, but your conscious mind has no freaking clue what it is?
I'd been feeling that way lately. It had something to do with Mr. Miggles. Or at least, that itchy do-something-itis was worse around him. And after that stupid scene with Justin, I was particularly tense and unhappy.
There was nothing wrong with my relationship with Justin, I reminded myself. He was gorgeous, fit, and gay, and that was a hell of a lot of check boxes ticked in a small Midwestern town like Sandy Lake. So he wasn't an intellectual giant. Or particularly ambitious. Or conscientious about things like borrowing money—he owed me almost two thousand dollars now. But that was only because he didn't think it was a big deal. And money wasn't a big deal. Not in the larger, utopian, Thomas More-ish, nonmaterialistic view of life. Which was an admirable way to think, really.
If you wait for perfect in life—the perfect job, the perfect house, the perfect love—you'll never do anything. All relationships have their challenges.
The butterflies in my stomach continued to vomit regardless. With a sigh, I headed to Al's. I'd have a beer while I waited.
"So, then Jimmy was like 'I ordered ten packs of them! I know I did!'" Justin took the last slice from the pizza pan. "Of course, when I checked with the distributor, no order had been placed. Big surprise."
"Hmm. Maybe the order got lost." I tried to sound empathetic, though it was hard to get worked up over M6 bolts. I filled both our glasses from the last of the pitcher of beer.
"I'm sure he just forgot. Fucking Jimmy." Justin gave an exasperated shake of his head. Jimmy was an older man who worked at the hardware store with Justin. Justin was always complaining about him. "I swear he can't remember jack shit. Probably has Alzheimer's or something."
"He's not that old, is he?"
Justin gave me a look. "He's, like, in his fifties. Sort of like Migs, I guess."
I gave a gasp of surprise. "Mr. Miggles is not in his fifties!"
"How do you know?"
"Because he's not!"
"Well, he dresses like an old man. He looks like my grandpa."
"He dresses like a professional. He's the head librarian. What do you expect him to wear? Jeans? Rolling Stones T-shirts?" I tried to keep my tone neutral but wasn't super successful. Justin liked to rag on Migs. That is, Mr. Miggles. I didn't like it.
Justin studied my face. "Christ, Tobe, I just said he dressed old. Why do you always defend him? I swear, if I didn't know any better, I'd think you have the hots for him."
I let out a breathy huff of derision. "No. But he's a good boss. I don't see why we're talking about him in the first place."
When in doubt, retreat. I changed the subject. "So… the weather's supposed to be nice on Sunday. Sunny and 60 degrees." I smiled. "We're still on for Columbus, right?" We'd planned to drive to Columbus for lunch and an early movie, maybe some shopping.
Justin rubbed his beard, his face guilty. "About that."
"Sorry. We're expecting a big shipment Saturday afternoon, and Dad wants it unpacked and shelved by Monday morning. We're low on all kinds of stuff."
"But it's Sunday!" I gave him a pleading look.
He huffed. "You know those big blue eyes won’t work on me. It's my job, Toby. I can't just blow my dad off. Jesus, what do you want me to do?"
I picked at my pizza with my fork, but my appetite was gone. "Can't you do inventory Saturday afternoon or really early Monday morning?"
"I don't know what time the shipment's going to arrive, do I? And Dad wants it out first thing Monday morning. You know I'm not a morning person. And it might take hours."
"So we can't do anything on Sunday?"
"I didn't say that." Justin's voice was thin, like I was being unreasonable. "I should be done by five or so. We can watch a movie at my place."
"That's what we always do. I wanted to get out of here for a few hours." I liked living in Sandy Lake, but sometimes I needed time away. I loved big cities too.
"So go, Toby, Jesus. No one's stopping you. Text me when you get back into town. If I'm still around, you can come over." Justin ate the last bite of his pizza, watching me with a wary expression I'd come to think of as his “is Toby going to be a baby?” face. I hated that face.
I swallowed down my irritation. I could argue that it was a date we'd arranged weeks ago. I could argue that he always wiggled out of going out of town with me. Justin didn't really like Columbus and seemed more than happy to hang around Sandy Lake until he grew mold. That was his right, obviously, but it annoyed me that he seemed to make less and less of an effort to do the things I wanted to do the longer we dated. But I'd just sound like a nag if I said any of that. I finished off my beer and said nothing.
"You coming over tonight?" he asked. He nudged my thigh suggestively with his knee under the table.
What can I say? I was twenty-four and my body responded instantly to the nudge. I sighed in resignation. "Yes."
Justin grinned and wiped his beard with his napkin. "Cool. I'll see you over there." He winked, stood up, tossed a ten-dollar bill on the table, then strode away.
I finished my beer a bit more slowly and paid the bill. It was almost thirty bucks with the tip, but at that point, I wasn't thinking about much other than driving over to Justin's apartment and getting naked.
For the moment, the butterflies fell silent.