Part XI

The day after his trek up and back down the hallway, Thom struggled through the fire doors leading to the library. He managed to make it to the other side without incident and was greatly relieved to find a working prop foot for the massive door once he had it wedged open. It hadn’t occurred to him before starting the endeavor, but halfway through he realized how much more trouble pulling the door open on the way back would have been.

Nearly the entire day was spent rummaging through the remains of the school’s library. It turned out to be a high school, which was a lucky coincidence. A library intended for teenagers meant newspapers, some magazines, and more importantly, stacks of books containing pages full of words rather than colorful pictures. An elementary school would have had him pulling at the stubble on his head.

He perused the card catalog, noting the new books his favorite authors had published while he slept, and picked out a couple to spend the day with. He also found that several series he used to enjoy reading had progressed with the addition of new books. Well, they were new to him, anyway. At least there was that as a minor benefit to a decade-long coma.

The hours slipped past, and soon the sun was nowhere to be found in the few windows available on this side of the building. The light outside was a pale grey, which meant the sun was close to setting. He thought about trudging up the long hallway to watch it slip below the horizon from the viewing area windows, but decided to pass on that today. He’d been out of the room for long enough and had eaten nothing all afternoon but a few strips of jerky and bag of trail mix he’d barely remembered to pack into the pockets of the tattered robe Ana had recently left for him.

He shuffled back to the room with a couple of books, thankful to finally have something to do at night besides consider the possibility that he was actually already insane and living out an elaborate apocalyptic hallucination. Or worse, that he wasn’t. The unrealistic lives of the characters in the mystery he’d chosen for the night were a welcome diversion.

The IV disappeared a few days later, although he couldn’t figure how she had removed it without waking him. Regardless, having the thing removed brought a new sense of freedom. Especially now that he’d made making daily trips to the library and was beginning to feel strong enough for a slightly more extended tour of the building.

Just beside the library entrance was a double wide set of steps that led down into darkness, obviously intended for use by large groups. He desperately wanted to see what was at the bottom, but didn’t relish the idea of being stranded down there, or worse, losing control and taking a tumble. So he instead contented himself with sticking closer to “home”.

Over the course of the next several weeks, he developed a kind of pattern that seemed to help ward off insanity. In the morning he’d have a light breakfast, often consisting of something his mysterious caretaker had left for him the previous night. If she hadn’t, it would be dry oatmeal packets made with water heated from an electric burner plate she’d gotten at his request. He’d then freshen up as much as possible given the circumstances before strolling down the hallway to the library.

A few hours later, when the legs began to feel the stiffness of sitting still for too long while reading, he would have a small lunch of dried meat and stale granola and then stretch himself out before going for an exploratory walk through the halls. By this time, he’d made his way through every door and hallway to be found on this floor.

The school was laid out in a simple grid pattern, with six parallel halls of classrooms, each ending in two long hallways running perpendicular to them. One of the “end” halls, as Thom thought of them, was made of a wall of windows providing a view to the outside world. As he had guessed earlier, it overlooked the courtyard and also offered a view of an empty and overgrown parking lot. The other “end” hall ran adjacent to the library, and had large matching staircases at both ends.

Four of the halls of classrooms seemed to be dedicated largely to a particular subject each, specifically English and other languages, mathematics, social studies, and the sciences. The remaining two halls were comprised of a kind of hodge-podge of other topics, including everything from home economics to what must have been health, judging by the posters of reproductive organs all over that room’s walls. He considered those two halls, which were the ones farthest from “his” science hallway, to be the “elective” halls.

Without spending a significant amount of time in any one classroom, he made a point to open the door of each room at least once over the course of those weeks. Each day a different door would swing wide, and he’d step in for a moment or two to survey the room. Occasionally, doing so would trigger a foggy memory of his own days in high school, which he thought should have swept over him in an emotional wave of nostalgia. Instead, he just stood in the room a moment or two longer, with the feeling that he was watching an old movie of someone else’s life, from long ago.

Finally, seven weeks to the day after waking up in an unfamiliar room with a thirst that surely meant death could not be far off, Thom stood at the top of the large stairway next to the library doors. Much of his strength had returned, making it a relatively simple matter to walk the whole of this floor without having to stop for rest or recuperation. He’d seen everything there was to see at this level; it was time to find out what secrets, if any, hid in the darkness below.

He checked the large, police-style flashlight Ana had given him, flicking the switch on and off a few times to make certain it was in working order. He chuckled at his own foolishness; it was a simple flight of stairs, not the path to Hell. There was likely nothing to find down there but a few rats and some yellowing textbooks.

Taking the first step, he began his descent.

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