by Fran B. Giuffre
The elevator door creaked like old bones as it opened at the sub-basement of the New York Library. I stepped out, onto a reddish concrete floor. It was October 1972.
I was the first girl page sent to retrieve a book from the lowest level of the stacks.
I jumped when the elevator's time-worn door rattled to a close behind me. The old conveyance whooshed as it rose up the shaft.
I had started work that summer, running slips on seven above-ground floors and the regular basement under stack one, but never the sub-basement. When I asked what the library stored down there, the boys told me that's where they keep dead pages. The all-male supervisory staff winked at such tales, but followed the boys-only tradition.
Then Women's Lib kicked in; the time for over-protecting girls was over. When a supervisor handed me a patron-request slip for a book shelved on the lowest level, I took my assignment fearlessly. I was nineteen.
I stood under a naked light bulb screwed into a rusty fixture on the low ceiling. The place was dead silent; the dumb-waiter delivery system did not service the sub-basement. My supervisor had told me to wait in the square lighted area outside the elevator for assistance since, on that level, regular pages did not retrieve the books.
A special staff worked down there--and only down there.
Footsteps treaded toward me from the unrelieved darkness. As a boy emerged into the lit area, stopping three feet in front of me, I knew the tales were true.
The sub-basement was the place they kept dead pages.
Or at least one. The boy was in his teens, tall, wiry and pale as paper. His transparent irises revealed shrunken, bloodless veins. His head was matted with stringy, dull hair that fell to sunken shoulders covered by a torn tee shirt proclaiming Yes, the logo of the progressive rock band.
He was kinda cute for a dead guy. A weird attraction to him stemmed my initial nausea. I wasn't upset about meeting a dead guy--it was the early seventies; if a guy looked lively he was taking the wrong drugs. I was more concerned that his fate could be my future if I didn't learn more about how the library functioned.
Had he fallen down the dumb-waiter shaft to the regular basement then had his body dumped into the sub-basement to cover up the faulty mechanism? Had the ratty old elevator crashed? Were there other pitfalls to avoid?
"Can I help you," the dead boy asked. His bored voice shook me from my reverie.
I placed a small white slip with the call number of the patron-requested book into the boy's lifeless hand. He looked down at the slip, then up at me.
"They aren't supposed to send girls down here," he said flatly. He turned away to do his task.
"Can I come with?" I asked.
"Sure," he said, waving a thin arm over his head.
"What's your name?" I asked, following him down an inky-black corridor, feeling the way with my hands. The walls were dusty and cold, smelling of must and decay. The cement floor was sticky, forcing me to lift my feet.
"My name was Kitred," he said.
He had referred to himself in the past tense. That made me feel safer having learned in Psych 101 how self-acceptance made for good mental health. He probably did not ask my name for lack of interest in the living. I offered it anyway.
When we reached the end of the corridor, a dim bulb turned on automatically over a worm-eaten, wooden trunk with a broken iron lock. If that wasn't creepy enough, when Kitred opened the trunk, it moaned as if tortured.
"Don’t let the noise bother you," Kitred said, lazily. "This old trunk has a ghost that complains whenever we open it."
"The trunk is possessed by a ghost? Whose ghost? And what does that make you?" I asked, hoping my last question had not offended the dead boy.
"The ghosts are leftovers from the nineteenth century when Bryant Park was a cemetery for the poor. When the authorities transferred the bodies someplace else, a few of the ghosts stayed behind. They moved down here."
I bent forward to hear Kitred's voice while he leaned deeply into the trunk, rummaging through decrepit volumes. His tee shirt rose up his back, exposing sheet-white skin and a cool Yes tattoo. Despite his smell of decay, I liked this guy; he was totally invested in his favorite band!
Finally, Kitred stood and turned offering me a heavy tome.
"The patron must use this in the reading room enclosure. He'll know why."
As I took the book from Kitred's hand, pieces of the tattered black binding fell to the floor, turning into spidery forms that skittered away. I looked up to see the dead boy walking toward the corridor.
"How far back does the sub-basement go?" I asked.
He gazed at me dully then pointed into the darkness beyond the trunk. "It goes all the way under Bryant Park," he said. "There's plenty of room for more dead pages, if that's what you're wondering."
I wasn't. But since he brought up the dead I asked him again, "How did you end up here like . . . whatever you are?"
"I'm not a ghost. I'm just one of the living dead. Curiosity got me here, I guess," he said vaguely. "Back when only boys were allowed down here, we dared each other to leave the lit area by the elevator. You know, to find out things like, where the books were stored, how deep was the sub-basement, how the dead pages got here . . ."
Well, I hadn't left the lighted area on a dare, but I had walked down the corridor to satisfy my curiosity.
"Didn't you wonder why some guys never came back?" I asked, edging around Kitred so I could rush away if I got too scared.
"Sure. But the supervisors told us the kids got fired and escorted from the building for smoking joints down here," he said, giggling for the first time. "We thought that was cool."
Cool, yet not true. How many other dead boys were down there? I decided not to ask. I had been gone too long retrieving one book and didn't want to give the supervisors another excuse to lie and cover up what they knew about the sub-basement.
"Well, thanks for the info, Kitred. I better get this book to the patron. You know how the bosses hate for us to delay delivery."
He smiled, sort of, more like a pursing of his lips that forced the edges of his mouth to rise slightly.
"You can try to go back upstairs, Catherine. Maybe since you're a girl . . . I'm right behind you."
I stared at him for a second, horrified by his suggestion that I might not be able to leave; I had worked in the Library for less than three months and was not going to join the living dead!
I hurried down the corridor, hoping Kitred was teasing me. I ran as fast as I could. The corridor was pitch-black but it was a straight path to the elevator so I didn't bounce off the walls. When I reached the lighted area, I banged my hand against the elevator call button. A moment later, it thumped to a stop at my level.
I tried to enter, but from my side an un-penetrable fog filled the entrance. From my side. I turned around feeling faint. Kitred was watching me.
"Welcome to the sub-basement where they keep dead pages."
"What about this book? A patron is waiting," I argued, holding up the tattered tome.
"A supervisor will come down when you don't return. They aren't curious like kids so they go right back up the elevator."
"Why didn't you tell me when I asked to follow you that I would end up dead?"
"Living dead," he corrected. "Yeah, I'm sorry. We used to tell the new pages not to follow us, but the ghosts punished us, so we stopped warning people."
"Punished you how?"
"They told us stories. Ghost stories are really awful."
"OK. Then why say the patron had to read the book in the enclosure as if you expected me to pass that on to someone upstairs? You knew I was trapped here. Why didn't you tell me then?" I asked angrily. I had had my fill of library secrets.
Kitred looked slightly ashamed as he made another excuse, "The ghosts prefer people find out for themselves when they can't get past the elevator door; they like to watch the blood drain out of your face when you realize you're stuck here. Personally, I don't get it, but whatever the ghosts want . . ." he shrugged.
I felt increasingly cold and moved closer to Kitred.
"What is this?" I asked softly. "I'm suddenly dead because I was curious?"
He gazed at me with lifeless eyes, offering a dull sympathy for my plight.
"The supervisors send the curious pages to the sub-basement when we ask too many questions about how they run the library. It's just a management thing."
I shook my head saying, "This isn't fair."
"Listen, Catherine, if it's any consolation, you asked to come with me. I didn't invite you."
"I know. I don't blame you, Kitred, at least not entirely. When was it too late for me to save myself?"
"Once you walked down that corridor," he said, pointing in the direction we had traversed together. "The ghosts of Bryant Park made you a living dead so you can live down here forever."
"Ghosts are lonely and bored. They need new kids so they can learn about what's happening upstairs. It makes sense, when you think about it."
Actually, when I thought about it, my fate made a bit of sense. I was one of those pages who planned to be a real librarian after college. I was a curious person who liked sharing information about happenings "upstairs" in the world, with people in general and patrons in particular. Only now I was destined to exist--if not live--forever, telling centuries-old ghosts everything I knew about 1972.
My blood drained out of me, painting the ground a fresh coat of red. I had learned too late that even a liberated woman must think twice before following a dead guy down an unlit corridor on a floor built under the basement.