Jay loosened his collar and gulped in the stale dusty air. Why did he have to be the one to do the rounds in this creepy old building? It’s because I’m the newbie. The Freshman. The one that gets to do the work no one else wants to do. Joseph is just a scaredy-cat is what he is. An upperclassman, not willing to help out an itty-bitty freshman. I mean, come on, he’s my roommate after all, shouldn’t he help me out?
He tiptoed quietly through the rows and rows of old, crumbling books, newspapers, academic journals, diaries, novels… no one ever comes up here. It was always dark. Where was the light switch? The only lights on this floor were emergency lights, which only illuminated a patch of room large enough to walk to the next circle of light.
On the top floor of the university library there was a room that was always dark, always dusty. It was an attic storage space that no one ever visited. A place for all the old and insignificant artifacts of professors, presidents, and other important people that had long passed. The library had existed for what seemed like forever. It was a giant brick building, firm and unshakeable. But why the student workers had to check this area when doing rounds at the library, Jay did not know.
Gingerly walking as if on eggshells, he crossed the archive room. The piles upon piles and rows upon rows of items reminded him of a haunted house or an old abandoned storage building.
Something rustled in the corner. Why did it have to be the darkest corner? He wanted to run away, but he was no chicken. If he came running from the archive room looking like a scared kid, he would never hear the end of it. The other student workers would give him such a hard time. Work would become misery. No, he was determined. He would be the brave one.
He rounded the corner of the precariously leaning bookshelf with false confidence displayed in every step.
At the sound of the greeting, Jay released a timid shriek that died in his throat before it had time to rise to fruition. He stumbled back and barely avoided knocking over a stack of programs from an event that probably happened fifty years ago.
As Jay skillfully avoided a collision, the source of the greeting peered at him with curiosity. He was an aged and wrinkled old man with a cane and rounded glasses perched on the edge of his nose. His trousers hung somewhat loosely from his suspenders, evidence of recent weight loss. He looked tired, and his eyes showed an unspoken sadness as he gazed at the young man before him, who was still attempting to regain his composure.
“Back again, eh?” the old man croaked.
“Again?” echoed Jay, who was beginning to regulate his breathing again. “I–uh–have you seen me up here before?” Jay’s mind flashed quickly back to the previous few times he had been told to clear this room. He sheepishly remembered his fearful “check” of the room...with his eyes closed...at a run. No, he had never truly checked this room before. He was always too scared. This old guy must have seen him. He lost all the previous confidence that had carried him this far. It was replaced by embarrassment.
“Oh, yes!” replied the wrinkled man with a smile. The smile seemed genuine, but did not erase the pain behind those eyes, the windows to that soul. “You’ve come here a few times. I live here, you know...These artifacts are my joy. Plus, I occasionally get to see young students come up here and conquer their fears. How old are you, young man? And what is your name?”
“Jay. I’m 19.” Jay replied, still trying to figure this old guy out. He seemed familiar? No, that wouldn’t make sense. But the old man still intrigued him. There was something about his presence that seemed different from himself. Almost as if he were from a different time.
“Well Jay, my name is Richard, since you didn’t ask,” the man continued, returning Jay’s curious gaze with one just as intense. “My friends call me Rich.”
Rich? Jay thought, that name sounds familiar. But nah, there must be tons of guys on campus named Richard. He still felt uneasy. There was something off.
Rich turned around and began to walk away. The corner of his thin lip turned up slightly in a smile when he saw Jay begin to smile. “You know, there’s rumors of a ghost that lives up here.”
“What?” Jay squeaked.
“Oh yes, he supposedly haunts the artifacts of the long-dead keepers of this campus, protecting their belongings and helping students conquer their fears. But I have a different opinion on the story.” He trailed off. With his back turned to Jay, Rich’s eyes glinted with a hint of tears.
Jay was slightly uncomfortable. Why was he telling him this? What was his motive? He cleared his throat. “Ehem, what–” he choked on the words. Rich turned around at the sound.
“What is your opinion?” Jay resumed. They were now on the other side of the artifact room, farther than Jay had ever been before. Why did he trust this man?
“I think he’s waiting on someone.”
“Oh, yes! A man who is waiting on his friend to come find him. He’s lonely up here.”
Oh man, this is freaky...I don’t like this, Jay thought. He glanced behind at the way they had come. Great, he was lost. He didn’t know the way back to the door. He had been so focused on learning more about this strange man that he had not paid attention to where he was going. Fear began to rise in his chest as he looked back at the old man. A ghost? Was he....?
“You know, I had a friend that looked a lot like you when I was your age,” Rich stated pointedly. “We were very close. Or at least as close as we could be for only being roomates for a few weeks. It was here at this campus, actually.”
Why is he telling me this? Jay wondered. Is he a ghost? Is he telling me his story before he kills me? Am I to become a victim of a story that will be told for years at school? Or will I be lost forever in this scary place? I hope Joseph will come find me. He would, wouldn't he?
“My friend and I worked at the library, too,” Rich continued as he studied Jay’s scared face, “and he was always terrified of coming up to this archive room. I was an upperclassman at the time, and shamefully, I took advantage of that. My other friends and I would always make him do the rounds in the archive room because, deep down, we were too scared to do it ourselves. My roommate was easy to pick on, so we made him do it.”
That sounds familiar. I guess things haven't changed much since then, Jay pondered. Was this guy a ghost? He seemed a bit too real. Joseph wouldn’t do what this old guy did. He’d come find me if I didn’t show back up.
“It was a shameful act, and I have regretted it every day. Because, see, my friend never came back, and I had forgotten all about him. I was selfishly hanging out with my buddies and so preoccupied that I locked up and never went looking for him. I went to bed that night without a second thought. It wasn't until I was awoken that night by my dormitory supervisor asking about him that I realized I had abandoned him.”
The old man was silent. It did not appear that he was going to continue the story. But Jay was curious now, and quite a bit uneasy.
“So,” Jay chimed in, “what happened to him?”
Rich closed his eyes as a single tear tracked a path down his wrinkled cheek. He looked away.
“He had fallen while up in the archive room. Hit his head. He was dead by the time we found him.” The tired old man sighed heavily and wiped a gnarled hand against his cheek to brush away the tear that had escaped his lids. He turned away as if to leave.
A sense of doom suddenly descended on Jay. He was alone. His head began to ache.
“Sir? What did you say your name was, again?”
“Richard,” he replied, his back turned to the young man. “Richard Joseph Branwell.”
“And what was your friend’s name?” Jay continued, his voice shaking.
Rich didn’t reply immediately. He slowly turned back to face Jay, his eyes filled with that sadness that Jay had noticed from the start, and seemed to gaze straight through him.
“His name was Jay.”