Rowan banged his left knee against the return bin and spilled the stack of mystery novels he'd been clutching to his chest. Perfect. Not only was he a dead tired librarian, he was a clumsy one too.
"Who put the return bin out here?"
Nobody answered him, of course, because he was only one of two employees left to see the library's night shift to its end. The other was Neil, a senior librarian. Rowan more often than not found him face down on his desk around this hour.
Rowan stared at the mess of books on the carpeted floor and sighed. The teens from the neighboring school had probably shoved the bin into the middle of the floor. Is this what kids did for fun now? Didn't they know they could watch porn on their phones?
After gathering up the mystery novels, Rowan pushed the bin back into its rightful place. Through the intake slot he noticed a lone book had been deposited inside.
"The Time Traveler's Wife," he grinned. One of his somewhat guilty pleasures. This copy was worn and dog-eared, the cover nearly coming off its spine. He brought it back to the circulation desk to fill out a repair request form just as a folded paper fluttered from the pages and landed at his feet.
Rowan's slender, delicate face gathered into a smirk. Patrons had left worse things in books, such as the strip of bacon that had thoughtfully been used to bookmark aHarry Potter paperback last year. As a newbie librarian, he wasn't yet hardened to the trials of public service, but he couldn't imagine seeing anything stranger than that.
Before his green Converse shoes could step on it, Rowan scooped up the fallen paper and unfolded it. It wasn't so much a letter as a short note, unaddressed, and composed with strong, purposeful handwriting.
I'm not ready. Don't think I'll ever be ready. Just stop asking.
I'll always love you. I'm sorry.
Rowan brushed the mousy brown bangs off his forehead as his smirk curved into a frown. This wasn't exactly a list of groceries, he'd seriously infringed upon someone's privacy. A couple's privacy...
"Yet that didn't stop you from looking."
He snapped the rubber band he kept around his wrist.Talking to himself had become quite the embarrassing compulsion, honed from countless nights of copy cataloging and straightening up shelves.
Rowan scanned the book's bar code. The system displayed the name of the patron who had last borrowed it: WOLFE, GRANT.
A hard pit formed in his stomach. If Grant borrowedThe Time Traveler's Wife, that meant Tatiana - whoever and wherever she was - never saw the note he'd written for her. Guilt struck him low in the stomach, followed by a flood of questions. Her feelings may have been spared but didn't she still have the right to know? Had this note been shoved into a book by mistake or in the false hope that whatever feelings inspired it would dissolve into nothing? Out of sight, out of mind?
'I'll always love you. I'm sorry.'
The immediacy laced into every word made Rowan's chest tighten.
"This is is none of your business," he scolded himself.
Rowan placedThe Time Traveler's Wifeon the intake cart where one of the student pages would shelve it the next morning. He slipped the note itself into a blank envelope and searched for the lost items bin under the desk. He noted with a trace amount of irony that it was nowhere to be found. Throwing the note away or leaving it sitting around didn't seem right either. If he was never meant to read Grant's words, he certainly didn't want to turn it into a point of gossip with the entire branch.
As a child, his mom had always warned him about kids with sticky fingers. Not one to rock the boat, Rowan managed to live his entire 27 years without ever knowingly stealing from another person. Turning the envelope over and over in his hands, he wondered how morally upright it would be to take it home with him. It was almost like taking home someone else's bad dream.
"Just for safekeeping," he muttered. "Just until I figure out what to do with it."
Rowan eyed the clock. Half an hour until closing.
It was only a piece of paper. No monetary value, just a serious declaration of emotions that he had no right to see. He'd bring it back to his next shift, of course.
He hoped by then the lost items bin would be found.
"Grant Wolfe," Neil read off the computer screen. "Hell of a name. Sounds like he should be raiding ancient temples in Peru."
Rowan sat opposite of the senior librarian's desk, nodding along as he fidgeted with the Iron Man bobble head beside the stapler and pencil tray. It might have seemed odd for any man pushing 60 to have accrued a set of Avengers knickknacks, but it made sense for Neil, who had an almost manically youthful energy to him.
"His record doesn't indicate anythingétrange," Neil continued. "Toronto resident, adult patron. Blah blah blah. This account is so ordinary it should be writing articles about the latest thing millennials have killed."
"Age?" Rowan didn't know why he wanted to know, but it seemed like a thoughtful thing to ask.
"Date of birth puts him at 32."
Iron Man bobble-bobble-bobbled his huge head.
Neil lowered his glasses. "Why the sudden interest in this Mr. Wolfe?"
"He, um, misplaced a personal possession in a book he returned last night."
Neil's brows, bushy and dark silver, bunched up on his forehead. "And this is why you came into my office with all the gravity of a young man who just witnessed a murder?"
"I didn't lookthatserious."
"Care for a mirror?"
"He left behind a very, very personal note, which I happened to read. I didn't know if it was appropriate to get in touch with the patron to let him know I had it."
"Is the note urgent? Life or death? The Joker's got all of Gotham's orphans trapped in a school bus full of dynamite?"
"Not urgent in that way, but..." He trailed off, unsure of the words he needed, unable to communicate the vague but pressing nature of what he'd read.
Neil watched him carefully. These silent gaps hadn't been unusual during their working relationship; Rowan often found himself at a loss for words during difficult conversations. It was by no means a knock against the boy's intelligence. Neil was part of the committee that hired him to their small neighborhood library branch. He'd seen Rowan's grades - they were bursting with so many uninterrupted 'A's it looked like the transcript was screaming. No, Rowan's silences were more of a social affliction. The young man was inside his head so often that when it came voicing his thoughts to another person, they butted up against roadblocks that took a little longer than average to be removed.
"Allow me," Neil gently chided, "Perhaps this Grant Wolfe caught your attention while you were on circulation duty but you were too shy to-"
"Because you tend to be a little quiet around certain men in the library. Usually the tall and handsome ones-"
"Neil!" Rowan's face flared a bright emergency red. "I never saw this man at all."
"Also, I don't recall you speaking of any gentleman callers at all lately. Am I not allowed to be worried? "
"Oh my god, I'm actually gonna have to throw your own Iron Man bobble head at you."
"I'm sorry. I'm doing that thing you hate. What do you call it?"
"So it's not a meetcute you're reeling from. It's a crisis of conscience."
This is what they both referred to aslanding the plane- when one of them helped the other reach a conclusion. More often than not, it was Neil doing the landing.
"There's nothing in the library policy that says you can't contact a patron to let them know their forgetful ass left something in a returned item. I would leave out the part about you being a nosy little jerk and reading it, though."
"I think I'll be a little more diplomatic than that."
"Diplomatic?" Neil sighed at the ceiling. "Youth truly is wasted on the young."
"My next day shift is Saturday, I guess I can do it then."
"Hmm. Hold that thought," Neil raised a finger and squinted at his screen. "There's a laundry list of admin notes attached to Grant's record. I must have missed them."
"You might have been too busy accusing me of gawking at all the tall handsome men to have noticed."
"That's an accusation rooted in fact, my boy."
Rowan tamped down the very sudden and very real ache of sadness that always clutched him when the subject of men came up. Though he had no time to date, he told himself it was a waste of time, and thus he did not care. And yet he couldn't deny the accuracy of Neil's words... particularly how awkward and short of breath he became around a certain kind of man.
Once, a long time ago, he was different. Outgoing. Free. But the person he used to be had been locked away in a chamber he'd long since lost the map to.
"So," Neil said, startling Rowan from his thoughts, "Grant's record indicates the phone number he used to register for a library card no longer works. A couple of letters have already been mailed out to request an updated number but he hasn't been answering."
Hrmph. That dashed Rowan's plan to call him.
"Here's the strangest part: just yesterday he submitted a request to use our Home Library Services."
"You mean our home delivery program?" Rowan thought he'd misheard - those services were used almost exclusively by senior citizens.
"His application is on hold. Looks like he forgot to tick any of the option boxes for eligibility."
"What would those be?"
"Age, illness, or disability. Attention to detail isn't this fellow's strong suit."
Rowan breathed out with a little more force than normal. Grant being possibly sick or disabled put his note to Tatiana in a new and bracingly uncomfortable light.
"What happens with his account, then?"
"We can't accept Grant into the program until we verify his eligibility. And we can't do that until we speak with him or a caregiver. And we can't dothat-"
"-until we have a phone number," Rowan finished. "But is there nothing we can do until then? We can't let his application just sit in the system."
"The initiative has to start with the patron."
"But there might be an issue or a circumstance we're not aware of. Maybe he's not able to use the phone or his caregiver gave the wrong number or, or..."
He stopped when he noticed Neil's eyes on him, intelligent and searching.
"You want to give him back that note, don't you?"
A deep breath.He knows me too well. Rowan forced himself to push through the discomfort. "I know what it's like to put something off. To feel it fester and grow until you can't take it back or repair the damage. I know what it's like to see your entire life derail because of something as small and inconsequential as a series of words you could never bring yourself to say. I can't let that happen to anyone. Not even a stranger."
Neil, usually so full of quips and comebacks, let the silence sit between them like a fog that needed a moment to lift. He returned to his computer screen.
"I used to work in Home Library Services. There was the rare occasion, in the case of lapsed communication, when someone on staff would need to visit the patron at their home to verify their eligibility."
Rowan's slim chest puffed out. "Do you think this constitutes a rare occasion? In your incredibly professional opinion?"
"Ah, suddenly I'mincrediblyprofessional!"
Rowan smiled and twisted the Iron Man figure into a heroic pose. "I think Tony Stark would agree."
"All I need to do is call the department head and request to put one of my own staff on this application. They're always backlogged over there. They'd appreciate it, trust me."
"You would do that?"
"Hell, if I'm gonna abuse my seniority it might as well be for a good cause." Neil printed out Grant's record, complete with his address, and held it aloft with a knowing grin. "But this is all up to you, my boy. Say yes and the case is yours."
A flash of doubt rippled through him. Rowan could only see himself navigating such a delicate situation with the grace and subtlety of a spooked hippo.
"I would need to visit him in person?"
"You would. And I hope you realize this investigation will actually require you totalk."
"Yes, that crossed my mind."
"You might even need to, egad, make eye contact with someone."
"Is it a yes?"
I could try, Rowan almost offered. And rather unexpectedly, the voice of Yoda invaded his mind.
Do or do not. There is no try.
Put in those terms, his choice seemed clear. Stay on course as a junior librarian toiling away on never-ending night shifts or maybe, possibly going outside his comfort zone to make a difference for someone who might need it.
"Yes," he exhaled and took the printout right from Neil's hand. "I'll do it."
"And you'll talk?"
"I'll talk his ears off."
Neil smiled at his protege. He took a flick at Iron Man and made it nod in agreement. "Tony Stark would be so proud."
Rowan was starting to get a little scared.
The rhythmic grind of the library delivery van's wheels on the road helped him shut out his chattering thoughts, but didn't do much to dissuade his anxiety.
A bright Saturday morning like this was usually spent working his one and only day shift at the library, but now he was heading into a completely uncharted area of Toronto (to him, anyway) to talk to a total stranger. Who had no idea that he was coming.
Yep. Just alittlescared.
Grant Wolfe's address placed him off Crothers Woods, which a quick Google search told him was one of the city's 'hidden gems'. The pictures were pleasantly beautiful and that's what made it so strange. A downtown kid all his life, Rowan never realized Toronto was home to something so quaint and rural looking.
"Just hope I still get cell reception out here," he muttered at the steering wheel.
Beyond the windshield were trees upon trees, green with scarlet and gold licks at the blue sky. The residential road he'd been driving on opened up to reveal a small bungalow home sitting by itself at the end of the street. 112 Tyre Lane. Grant Wolfe's address.
Rowan pulled into the empty driveway and adjusted the rear view mirror onto his face. He noted his eyes, the color of the sea, inquisitive and wide and (surprisingly) only somewhat panicked. Summer had come and gone in a flash but you couldn't see it on his face - which was still pale as snow. He looked as out of place as he felt.
Gradually he left the comfort of the delivery van and faced the bungalow. It looked very much like a home: golden squares of windows, red brick, and a rustic yet immaculate porch.
Rowan steadied his breath as he walked up the porch steps. He knew why he was here. He'd come all this way. No use turning back now.
Before he even had the chance to knock, a nearby sound interrupted. A dull thwack. Silence. Another thwack. More silence. Yet another thwack! Kind of like... like...
Wood being chopped?
It seemed to come from behind the bungalow, perhaps the backyard. He retraced his steps back to the driveway and around the side of the building. Nothing fenced in the property, it was simply a wide clearing of grass that led into the forest.
The first thing Rowan saw as he rounded the corner to the backyard was a man, barechested. He was facing the woods, an axe in hand and a pile of split wood at his feet. Rowan could only see the broadness of his shoulders and the sweat dancing down the deep olive tan of his extraordinary back muscles.
His first thought was that this couldn't possibly be Grant, couldn't be the man struck with illness or a disability who needed the services of their delivery program. It was similarly difficult to imagine this man kicking back to readThe Time Traveler's Wife. Maybe he was Grant's caregiver or a... very resourceful brother.
Rowan cleared his throat. "Excuse me, sir?"
A moment passed and the man raised the axe skyward. Though he was nowhere near it, Rowan took a step back. With one smooth and studied motion, the man brought the axe down and split a chunk of wood with that familiar dull thwack. Impressive, but he'd made no effort to acknowledge Rowan's question.
"Sir? I'm sorry to bother you. Does a Grant Wolfe live here?"
Rowan tried very hard not to notice the man's sweat dripping into the low waist of his jeans. The man stood panting, muscles clenching and relaxing, clenching and relaxing. He raked his fingers through his hair, which was damp and dark as the night sky.
Puzzled, Rowan moved a cautious step forward. He didn't understand why he was receiving the silent treatment, he hadn't said anything rude. He was certainly speaking loud enough to be heard.
"Sir, please, am I at the right address?"
He moved closer, raising a friendly hand and even waving it to grab his attention. Then movement, finally. The man's head turned a quarter inch, enough for Rowan to finally be seen in his peripheral vision.
After what seemed like an impossibly long and awkward pause, the man turned around and fixed Rowan with the most intense grey eyes he'd ever seen. His bare, hairy torso was slick with sweat and heaving with the physical effort of the wood chopping.
"Hello," Rowan pushed out. His entire body quivered. Nerves? Excitement? Even desire? He couldn't tell which was which. He just knew they were all there. "I'm looking for Grant Wolfe. Does he live here? Can you tell me where he is?"
The man's eyes lowered to Rowan's lips as he talked. The intensity of his gaze sharpened, as if he were following along to a story only he could read. Then he nodded and tapped his chest a couple of times.
Grant, he mouthed.
"Oh, okay. Hi, I'm Rowan Watson from the Toronto Public Library. I'm here to talk to you about your application to our home delivery program."
The silence returned.
He stared up at Grant, his entire being engulfed by his presence. This man was damn tall, six-foot-five at the very least. Though much of it was obscured by the dark forest of his beard, his face was sculpted and ruddy, with a strong nose and firm lips. His torso was almost too much to take in at once, so Rowan processed it in stolen glimpses: the swell of his furry pecs, a stomach he could do his laundry on, and an enticing, damp line of hair that divided his abs and disappeared into the wilderness of his tight jeans. He looked very much like a man of the woods, sawdust and dirt clinging to his wet skin.
And he needed books delivered to him?
Grant's attention had been at Rowan's lips again, and when he continued to say nothing, the young librarian tried a second time. Nerves made the words come faster than he could control. "I'm from the Toronto Public Library, and I need to verify a few details about your Home Library Services application to determine your eligibility and..."
Still no reaction. When Rowan started a third attempt, Grant interrupted.
"I can speechread." His voice was deep and booming, like a tree trunk hitting the forest ground. Rowan felt the vibrations right in his chest. But there was a halting, careful quality to it. "You need to speak slower." He gestured one hand over his arm and trailed it up to his perfectly sculpted bicep. "Slower."
It all clicked together. 'Speechreading'. Then the gesture -Slower. That was American Sign Language.
He's deaf, Rowan finally realized.Or hard of hearing. Oh my god, you idiot. You couldn't have figured that out before? And he's a patron! Who you were ogling! The audience watching the movie about your life is throwing popcorn at the screen right now.
"I'm so sorry. I didn't know."
"That's okay." Grant then fingerspelled the lettersOandK.
"I know... a little signing. I took a class once." Rowan tried to signlearnandlittleandsigningbut his movements were hesitant and slow. That class had been years ago and it was for beginners. His brain was now full of comparatively useless things: the Dewey Decimal system, circulation policies, and where all the Jojo Moyes books were shelved.
Grant watched him try and seemed to understand, though his face portrayed no emotion. He extended an arm toward his bungalow. "Do you want to sit?"
"Sure. Thank you," Rowan exhaled, grateful that the attention was no longer on his terrible signing. His face was boiling hot, he could only imagine how anxious he must have looked. As they headed toward the house, Grant's back muscles glistening in the sunlight, Rowan found himself desperately trying to recall the sign forHelp.