As Thomas O’Connell sat with a cup of steaming Earl Grey, and the Sunday Newspaper spread out in front of him; he knew that life had been good to him. Him and his wife Sarah had met when he was but twenty-two and had married a year later. They had been married for just over fifty years, and he still found her as beautiful and kind as when he’d first laid eyes upon her.
They’d gotten three equally beautiful children, who had each gone out and been successful in their own way – Riley as a mother of three, Sam as an environmental lawyer and Tobias as a pilot.
It was just a few years back Thomas quit his job as an architect, which he had loved, and they had enjoyed their golden years ever since.
Yes; life was good when your name was Thomas O’Connell.
“Darling,” shouted Sarah to him from the other room; forcing him out of his musings. “There’s a library book on the little table in the hallway I’ve forgotten to turn in – would you mind terrible to go down with it? It’s due Tuesday.”
“Not at all, honey,” he answered, good-naturedly not reminding her that today was Tuesday. Sarah always returned her books in the last possible minute, and there was less than a mile to the library. The walk would do him good.
Outside the sun was shining brilliantly; lifting his already high spirits. Fighting back the urge to whistle as he walked down the street with half-closed eyes, he enjoyed the feeling of the sun on his face and the melodic sound of birds singing.
That was, until he felt a strange tuck in the book in his hand.
Opening his eyes in surprise they fell on a brown Labrador; eagerly trying to get him to play. With an indulgent smile he patted it on its head, and gave the book a sharp tug. The only visible change was the energy behind the waggling tale of the dog.
“No, Po,” a voice said in exasperation. “I’ve told your once, I’ve told you a million times. If you don’t want me to use the leash, you have to walk properly. I’m terrible sorry, sir,” said the young girl, as she quickly got the dog on a leash.
“That’s quite all right,” he said, never one to be easily annoyed. “But if I could only get my book back?”
“Of course! I’m so sorry, sir!” She gave the book a tug of her own, and the Labrador almost couldn’t contain his excitement as he got yet another playmate.
In the end the young girl had to force the dogs mouth apart as Thomas gave the book a strong yank, before they finally got it free; albeit a bit shiny with Po’s saliva.
Thomas discreetly wiped it in his trousers as he repeatedly told the girl that it really hadn’t been a problem at all, and she shouldn’t worry about it.
Still; his grip on the book was a bit tighter as he continued on his way. But as nothing risky happened as he continued he slowly loosened his grip, and allowed himself to relax. After which he promptly stumbled and fell.
With a swear word he’d learned during his duty in the military, he fell as long as he was; dropping the book as he did so. With a stroke of luck in an otherwise unfortunate event, the book landed directly next to a puddle of water, which was left behind by the storm last night.
Ignoring his bloodied palms for the time being, Thomas picked up the book; realising that it wasn’t without risks to walk without some sort of protection in case of these kind of things.
A problem which was promptly solved by going to the nearest store and asking if it was possible to get a plastic bag. And just like that he had eliminated the risk of ruining the book by getting it wet, and feeling quite satisfied with himself, Thomas continued on his way.
The plastic bag was swinging from side to side next to him, and the rest of the trip to the library went without problems. If only he’d also been able to actually get inside the library before someone stole his bag.
It happened so quickly he wasn’t sure what had even happened. One minute he’d been dangling the bag next to him, and then, with a sudden yank, a young man was running away with his plastic bag containing his book. Well, his wife’s book, anyway.
Now, Thomas had lived a pretty active life. When he was younger, he and his wife had travelled the world together. He’d been Captain of the local water polo team, and in the last few years he’d taken up golfing. He was active. He wasn’t the type of man, who’d stood around waiting for someone to solve his problems.
So without thinking he took off after the young man.
He was pleasantly surprised to find he was still capable of running, even though it’d been years since he’d moved faster than an energetic walk. But his legs remembered better than he did, and judging by the shocked expression of the young man’s face as he looked back, Thomas wasn’t the only one who was surprised.
“Give me back my bag!” he yelled, furiously; not about to let some punk make him break a promise to his wife. The punk, however, obviously decided to ignore his order, and even though Thomas might have found himself still capable of running, he wouldn’t be able to catch up to someone fifty years his junior.
So he did the next best thing and threw his shoe at him.
In the last few years Thomas had started to wear yachting shoes, which now came in handy as it slipped off as easily as nothing, and within half a second it had left his hand and flew through the air in a graceful curve, before hitting the young man straight at the back of his head.
“What the fuck!” cursed the young man, before he evidently deciding it wasn’t worth it, throwing the plastic bag to his side with the sole intent of getting away from the crazy, old man.
Despite this, however, Thomas found himself forced to keep on running. The plastic bag had landed in the back of a pick-up truck, and despite shouting at the driver to stop, it did no such thing.
Thomas quickly found himself short of breath, but damn him if he just gave up now! Instead he forced himself to feel thankful that there was so many red lights in town, otherwise he was sure he could never have kept up.
Nonetheless, when the truck finally pulled over to the side, Thomas was gasping for air and his knees were buckling under him. Explaining himself to the young driver, he finally got his book back and out of the cursed plastic bag, which had brought nothing but trouble. With a firm grip Thomas resolved not to let anything else remove the book from his grasp.
Turning around to make his way back to the library, he ignored the cold feeling of the asphalt, seeping through his left sock, as he wondered if his shoe still was where he’d left it.
Not that he’d let one cold foot remove his newly re-found good mood. He’d gotten his book back and taught that unpleasant young man a lesson. Hadn’t the young man’s mother ever taught him that it was wrong to take what wasn’t yours?
He got halfway back to the library before his thoughts of shoes and victory were removed from his mind at the sound of a growling behind him.
Turning around, feeling quite unfortunate, his eyes met with the glare of the meanest-looking pitbull he’d ever seen. Thomas usually loved all kinds of dogs, but even he couldn’t help but feel somewhat unnerved as it started to bark furiously. Looking around he could see no possible owners, so Thomas reminded himself how much bigger he was than the dog. Even though its teeth did look frighteningly sharp, and Thomas was a lot frailer than he used to be.
Then, suddenly, it attacked.
With a little yelp, Thomas did the only thing that seemed sensible and started to run away, not getting more than a few feet before he found himself stuck.
For the second time that day, the book found itself in the mouth of a drooling dog, though this time it wasn’t with the idea that it could be used as a toy. Tugging furiously the dog fought over dominance, but Thomas wasn’t one to give up, no matter how mean the dog seemed. Not after everything he’d been through. So he held on; wishing himself young again. If he’d been twenty the dog wouldn’t have stood a chance, but at seventy-four his strength wasn’t what it used to be.
But he held on. He even tried to growl back at the dog, hoping he could intimidate it into giving up. Not that he was terrible shocked when it didn’t work. But he held on, even though it got harder and harder to maintain his frail grip on the book.
Finally his hands gave after before his will, and the dog was left victorious; holding the book as a trophy.
Thomas swore once again, this time one his son had taught him, and made a move to get a hold of the book. The dog merely growled and shook the book with all its might.
“Bad dog!” Thomas told it. The pitbull ignored him completely, completely absorbed by its desire to shake the book as thoroughly as possible. And just like that it flew from the dog’s mouth in an impressive curve, landing on the second floor of a scaffold.
Thomas looked at it in desperation. How was he supposed to get the book from up there? He, whose back creaked, when he got out of bed in the morning?
But still. The thought of going home empty-handed and admitting defeat didn’t sit well with him.
Sarah had always called him too stubborn for his own good.
So he stayed and looked at the scaffolding and remembered when he’d been forty-two and Sarah and him had climbed the Kilimanjaro. Sixteen thousand feet high and almost twenty thousand feet above sea level. Five days of constant climbing, and even though he hadn’t thought himself young back then, he’d done it in only five days. Only a fourth of the climbers who attempted it in five days made it, despite being often twenty years his junior. But they’d made it. Every damn one of the sixteen thousand feet. And if he could do that for no other reason than to find out if he could, surely he could get a damn book down from a teeny tiny scaffold.
With this inner declaration he started to climb. His limbs felt stiff and unused, but they followed his demands as he told them to stretch, to grip, to push off. And almost before he was even aware he’d made it, he stood on the second floor with the book in his hand.
Now the only problem was getting down with a book in one hand. Contemplating his situation, he decided it was an impossibility, and with an unnerving feeling in his stomach, he dropped the book to the ground.
As he struggled his way down to the pavement once again, he couldn’t keep himself from imagining all the ways the book could have disappeared in before he made it down. He concentrated too much on his hands and feet to look down, so when he finally made it, it was with a pleasant surprise he discovered the book was still there.
Less pleasant was it to glance at his watch and discover the library closed in ten minutes. Getting more exercise in a day than he’d gotten the entire previous year, he started to run.
Falling down, he just barely managed to keep the book out of the giant puddle in which he had fallen, before he was up and running again.
Eight minutes and seventeen seconds later he stood in front of the doors to the library, only to be stopped by a young man, who was currently closing the doors.
“Wait,” said Thomas, gasping for air. “I need to turn in this book.”
The young man gave him an odd look. “You’ll have to come back tomorrow,” he said. “The library is closed.”
“But the book is due today! And according to my watch I still have ninety seconds!” he said, triumphantly holding up his watch as evidence.
The young man gave a sigh. “Fine. But hurry, would you? I’d like to get home soon. It’s been a long day, and my girlfriend promised she’d cook lasagne.”
With a grateful smile Thomas hurried past him, making his way to the librarian and dumping the book on her desk with a feeling of utter victory.
“I’d like to turn in this book,” he declared.
The librarian, an elderly woman, looked at him in amazement. “You must be kidding?”
“Not at all,” he said, wondering how she could think such a thing. Wasn’t she aware what he’d gotten through to be there?
“I apologise,” the librarian said. “But I cannot accept this book.”
“Why not?” asked Thomas, looking down at the book, which had caused him so much trouble. Since he’d left home, it’d been used as a dog toy, had been dropped, stolen, thrown, driven halfway across town, been at the mercy of the meanest dog, Thomas had ever seen, and been at the top and the bottom of a scaffold.
It was first now that Thomas saw that one could actually see all of this on the book.
It was wet, muddy, torn and utterly unreadable. Destroyed completely.
It looked quite a bit like Thomas himself with his torn clothes, missing shoes, bloody palms, and dripping wet.
With a sigh he reached for his wallet; desperately hoping it wasn’t as wet and ruined as rest of him.
“What do I owe you?” he asked, resolving not to tell his wife this part of the story.