On a cold-throttled January afternoon, shortly after the holidays, library trustee Susan Greene walked in on an intruder in the Woodbury Library. Minutes before, a neighbor had messaged Susan after spying a local man named John Baker[1] hurrying around the back of the library. Though the library was closed, the lights had briefly blazed on, and she guessed Baker had broken in again. When Susan rushed through the front door and saw Baker, she grabbed the desk phone and shouted that she was dialing 911. Baker then fled through the side door. Then Susan called me, the librarian of this one-room rural Vermont library. 

I was home folding laundry. That Thursday, the superintendent had cancelled school, with a forecast high of 14º below zero. At that temperature, buses couldn’t run reliably, and some kids who lived in the village and walked to school lacked winter clothing. When I hung up the phone, I told my 12-year-old daughter, Gabriela, who was rolling out biscuit dough, that I would be back as soon as I could.

She paused, her floury hands on the marble pin. “You okay?”

“I’ll call. Your sister will be home soon.”

Rushing out of the house, I forgot my gloves. As I drove the seven minutes from Hardwick, where I live, to Woodbury, I blew hard on one hand, then the other, to warm my fingers. 

Over the past year, John Baker, a rumored heroin user, had repeatedly broken into the library. I hoped the camera I’d hidden in the library bookshelves had snapped a photo of him; the state’s attorney had bungled a previous charge, and I needed evidence to reopen the case.

When I arrived at the library, Susan’s husband Randy and their two teenagers were standing just inside the front door. Her willowy hips leaned against my desk. The fluorescent lights glared. With the heat turned down and the day so cold, clumps of snow tracked in by our boots hadn’t melted into the hard-worn gray carpet.

“What happened?” I asked.

Each of them stared at different places — Randy at his wife, their daughter Rachel at a spider plant on the windowsill — but avoided my eyes. No one said anything. 

I had known Susan for several years and knew she had a habit of pausing to stare right or left before she spoke, judicious with her words.

I repeated, “What happened?”

Randy answered, “The dispatcher on the neighbor’s scanner said Baker shot himself. The ambulance is on its way.”

“What? John Baker shot himself?”

Randy shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “That’s what was called in.”

“But he was just here?”

“He ran home and shot himself.”

Less than half an hour had elapsed since Susan called me. I pulled my hat off my head and turned it around and around in my hands. My daughter had crocheted it from chunky turquoise yarn. “He shot himself over such a minor crime?”

Randy tugged on his insulated leather gloves. “Come on, kids. We’re going home.”

“Dad,” his son Ben protested.

“I said, we’re going home. Don’t argue.” He opened the door and held it while the teens walked out in the dark. 

Shivering in the chilly room, I turned on the heater. Without removing my coat, I pulled up a chair on the public’s side of my desk. 

Susan hunched in my usual chair, facing the dark computer screen. “I doubt the state police will come here,” she said. “They’ll be too busy at his house. I’ll walk down to the fire department later and ask what happened. You don’t need to stay. I’ll call you later.” 

On the desk between us, a face-down phone buzzed.

I unzipped my coat. “I’m staying.” The phone vibrated again. “Do you want to answer that? Maybe it’s your family.”

“It’s his. He dropped it in the snow when he ran out. I followed him — I was yelling — and found it.”

The heater whooshed on. I walked around and watered the plants. Pausing at the window, I cupped my hands around my eyes near the cold glass, peering into the darkness, and saw nothing but the reflection of my two eyes staring back at me. 

Susan stood up. “Did you hear? Is he alive?”

“I don’t know. Let’s go ask the chief.”

We zipped up our coats. In the darkness, I fumbled sticking the key in the door lock. The exterior library light had blown out before Christmas, and I hadn’t replaced it. We walked in silence to the fire department, a short distance down a slight hill. I cinched my scarf tighter around my face. Clouds screened the stars and the moon. At the fire department, we filed in the back door, where we found the chief, Paul Cerutti, sitting at a desk so large it dwarfed him, filling out paperwork. 

He set down his pen. When not serving as the volunteer fire chief, Cerutti works as a fire safety inspector.

Susan asked, “Is he…?”

“It’s not your fault,” Cerutti answered calmly.

“He’s dead?”

“He’s dead all right. Did it in the room where his parents keep firewood. My guys are cleaning up.” 

Susan shuddered. I was afraid she would fall over. Rachel and I wrapped our arms around her.

“Go home,” Cerutti said. “The state police don’t need anything from you. You’ve done nothing wrong. Listen, I’ve spent years trying to help people. The problem, mostly, is the people.”

Susan stepped out of our arms and placed Baker’s phone on the edge of the chief’s desk. “It’s his. I don’t know what to do with it.”

“I’ll get it to where it needs to go.” Cerutti leaned back in his chair and studied Susan. “Don’t beat yourself up. If you need help getting over this, just ask. No shame there. Sometimes, the hardest thing is to ask for help when you need it.”

On the verge of crying, she crossed her arms over her chest and headed for the door. Following her and Rachel, I said over my shoulder, “Thank you.”

Without standing, Cerutti opened his desk drawer, deposited Baker’s phone inside, and slid the drawer shut. “I mean it about help. We’ve all been there.”

Outside, we paused under the upside-down luminous cone of the door lamp. In our bulky jackets, the three of us embraced. Then Susan drew back and told her daughter, “Let’s go home.” They crossed Route 14 and disappeared into their clapboard house.

I walked back to my car, hands jammed in my coat pockets. Passing the unlit Episcopal church, my bootheels struck the icy road, the sole sound in the night. Above my scarf, the cold clawed at my eyes and forehead. 

Driving home, my headlights split the darkness as I left the village and headed down the mountain pass. On this frigidly hostile night, the roads were empty. After I pulled into our driveway, I sat for a few moments. The cold crept into my lap and slunk beneath the collar of my coat. I imagined Susan standing outside the library, shouting, watching Baker run away, his phone falling from his pocket. 

Wait, I thought. But it was too late.

*

That January, the bitter cold lingered. I imagined Baker’s parents — people I had never met — walking into their wood room every day, gathering fuel to heat their home. Had they money, I wondered if they would have left that house and town.

*

North to south, state highway Route 14 bisects Woodbury, a town flanked by mountains on either side. Eons ago, the incremental shifting of glaciers sheared off the prehistoric peaks that once towered higher than the snowy Himalayas, rounding their jagged tips to rocky humps. A wetland glimmers on the village outskirts; in the summer, the glassy water sparkles with a covering of velvety pearl-and-gold waterlilies. Along the edges, beavers build and rebuild their dams, and muskrats lay claim to this marshy space with their stick homes. Moose, herons, songbirds, and insects thrive here.

Just beyond the wetland, the town raised a two-story red schoolhouse shortly after the beginning of World War I. Today the Woodbury School, its student population diminished over the years, has fewer than fifty students from kindergarten to grade six. Perched on a hill and surrounded by forest, the school overlooks a playground, vegetable gardens, and ballfield. A right-hand turn from the school’s gravel parking lot leads to Route 14. The pavement switchbacks down a shadowy mountain pass to Hardwick, where I’ve lived for three years since selling our Woodbury house. Turn left from the school instead, and the dirt roads meander for miles among woods and ponds. 

My younger daughter graduated from the Woodbury School in a sixth-grade class of three girls and three boys. In her class, one family vacationed in Portugal and Aruba. Another frequented the local food shelf. Gabriela knew who wore the nicest clothes, who had a passion for dirt bikes, and who had a fine singing voice and wanted to study music. She also understood how each classmate’s family reputation fit into town — whose mother ran a popular daycare and whose older brothers got into trouble at high school.

Like many others, I arrived here as a transplant. As a child and into my twenties, I moved frequently, from deserty New Mexico to New Hampshire’s red-brick mill cities to mountainous western Washington. Gradually, I became smitten with this tight-knit town. I joined the five-member school board and chaperoned walks into the wetlands. Our world was stitched together by carving jack-o’-lanterns, giggling at sleepovers, voting yay or nay on town and school budgets at community meetings, and baking surprise birthday cakes for friends. When I discovered the library had been broken into after-hours, what remained was a lingering residue not only of cigarette smoke but also of fear. I began to wonder if maybe this world wasn’t so fine.

*

The first time I suspected an intruder had entered the library I was bewildered.

I discovered the break-in on a sunny Monday in early September. I had recently taken the job as librarian to supplement my income writing for a parenting magazine. That morning, when I unlocked the library door, I walked into cigarette smoke so dense that I coughed and propped open the door to air out the room. I checked my desk and discovered the cash bag and its twenty-dollar bill were missing. Stepping outside to escape the smoke, I phoned Susan. “I know this seems bizarre, but I think someone broke into the library over the weekend. The petty cash is gone, and the space reeks like someone was smoking cigarettes for a prolonged period.”

“Call the police. We’ve had this problem before. You know John Baker? Lives in the village with his folks?”

“I don’t think so.”

“A few years ago, before you were hired, the school board chair caught him one night in the library. The school’s lawyer had a ‘no trespass’ order served, so he isn’t supposed to be on the grounds. He must be at it again.”

“Why didn’t I know this?” I paced in a tight circle on the grass.

“I thought everyone knew. I mean, we figured he’d been breaking in for years, before he got caught. Anyway, give the state police a call. If they’re not too busy, they might come out. Either way, we’ll need a record of this.” 

As a small rural town, Woodbury has no local law enforcement. When Susan hung up, I dialed the state police barracks, a forty-minute drive away in Middlesex. When the dispatcher answered on the third ring, I said, “I’m Brett Stanciu, the librarian in Woodbury. It’s not an emergency, but our town library has been burglarized.” I explained about the smoke and the missing money.

 “There’s no immediate danger, is there? No property damage, no evidence, no reason for a trooper to drive all the way out to Woodbury?”

“Well, what am I supposed to do?”

“We’re going to need more than your suspicions. Maintenance could have been smoking a cigarette. Maybe the money was misplaced?”

“Really?”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’ll need something more. Some kind of solid evidence.”

I hung up the phone with a bang. Solid evidence or not, I knew someone had been in the library that weekend.

*

As the September days slowly cooled, cigarette smoke greeted me randomly every two weeks or so when I unlocked the library door, but I didn’t call the state police again. Why cause a fuss when the police wouldn’t come out, anyway? Recently divorced and unable to collect child support, I relied on the income from my librarian salary to pay my bills; I was working hard to succeed at this new job. I replaced the missing money with a twenty from my own wallet and started keeping the petty cash hidden in a DVD about the history of Jesus. 

One day, a patron handed me a dollar to pay for an overdue library book. Distracted, I set the dollar inside my top desk drawer, under a pair of scissors. When I looked for the money a few days later, the bill was gone. 

Really? I thought. Who would take a dollar from a public library? But I said nothing. It was just a dollar, and maybe I had misplaced it. 

At trustee meetings that fall, between discussing the budget and upcoming poetry readings, we gossiped about Baker. In his early thirties, he still lived at home. Rumors circulated that he had overdosed in a car in Hardwick’s Tops Supermarket parking lot, and the rescue squad had revived him with Narcan.[2] During the library’s afterschool program, a parent confided to me that he had seen Baker one weekend walking behind the library with a six-pack of beer clutched under his arm. He drove with no registration or driver’s license and worked for a construction crew that allegedly hired drug users. Baker, the parent told me, was a problem I didn’t need. 

The next Saturday, Chrissy Skelton, a church-going stay-at-home mother with twin kindergarteners, stopped in before noon. As she approached me, her girls disappeared behind the tall wooden dollhouse, murmuring a make-believe story about plastic piglets who slept in the bathtub. 

Wearing a calico A-line skirt well below her knees, Chrissy stood beside my desk and said quietly, “I hear you’re having troubles with a certain person again.” She winked her right eye once, as if we shared a confidence.

I glanced up from reading email. “Maybe. Or maybe it’s nothing.”

She leaned over my laptop. “I’ve lived in this town for years.” 

“What are you saying?”

“Once a junkie, always a junkie. Be careful, is all.” Chrissy smiled conspiratorially.

“I am, of course. I mean, I called the police.” Before I could ask if she had more information, a woman who had requested the newest Louise Penny book walked in. 

The truth is, I was afraid. What if I found Baker unconscious after an overdose?

Another month passed. Some days, cigarette smoke met me at the door; other days, the library smelled of its usual elementary school scent of crayons. The inconsistency was unnerving. Finally, Susan borrowed a small game camera, triggered by motion to snap photos. At the end of every day, before I went home, I hid the camera in the bookshelves. Within a week, I had photos. The images showed Baker sitting at my desk, the worn wood surface cluttered with picture books and a flock of misshapen colored clay chickens made by a boy named Trevor, a note written in magic marker to Miss Brett taped to the computer monitor.

Until I saw the hazy, black-and-white photos of this frowning stranger sitting in my chair, I hadn’t entirely believed he had been in the library. But he was.

This time, a trooper drove to Woodbury when I called. He took copies of the photos but warned me the legal system would likely be lenient. 

“What does that mean?”

“He’ll probably get off. Just letting you know.”

Later that week, Susan stopped in. “I got gossip at the post office.” 

“Hold on.” I held up my hand, saved where I was in a grant application for children’s books, and then closed my laptop. “Let’s hear it.” 

“After the trooper came out that morning, he drove over to Baker’s parents’ house and arrested him. He’s out of the lock-up now, of course, but he’s moved out of his parents’ place, and he’s sleeping in his truck in the post office parking lot. With a court date coming up, I doubt he’ll be back here. Good thing, as I have to return that game camera. Hunting season’s coming up.”

*

As the foliage transformed from green to pale gold to flaming red, the state’s attorney’s office sent occasional letters or emails about the case. I submitted a statement. Then one day I received an email notifying me that the charges against Baker had been dropped, with no explanation. 

On that exceptionally warm afternoon, I took the phone outside with me and called the state’s attorney, Scott Williams. Scott had roomed down the hall from me in our freshman dorm at Marlboro College near Brattleboro, Vermont. When he picked up, Scott asked, “You mind talking to me while I walk out? I’m late to pick up my daughter.”

“Okay, fine. In brief, I’m calling about charges you dropped against John Baker, who broke into the Woodbury Library. I’d like to know why nothing’s happening. I had photos for evidence and everything.”

“I’d have to look at the case again to get the details. What’s the story with this guy? I don’t want to saddle him with something serious if it’s not a big deal.”

“I’m not trying to get revenge. But he’s been breaking in for months now. And he was doing the same thing before my time. It’s a public library, Scott, on school grounds.”

I heard him breathe heavily as he walked.

“Look, Scott, I’m asking for something serious enough to keep him out. There’s a playground around the library. What if someone sees him tumbling in through the window? You get my drift? What if something bigger happens?”

“Okay. Got it. Look, do me a favor.” I heard a beep as he unlocked his car. “Send me an email reminding me what we discussed, and I’ll re-open his case tomorrow.”

“Thank you. I appreciate it. We’ll talk soon.”

I sent the email, but I never heard back. Instead, a few days later I read in the paper that Scott had unexpectedly taken personal leave. I called the state’s attorney’s office but couldn’t get past the receptionist. 

The case was never reopened. Nonetheless, I hoped the charges — even though they were dismissed — would be enough to deter Baker from returning to the library. 

For a few weeks, I believed this was possible. As the days shortened and the November gray descended, the library remained free of cigarette smoke. A single mother working two jobs, my life churned along — keeping my checkbook in the black, meals on the table, homework done, the laundry perpetually cycling. In my garden, the sunflowers’ green and gold ebbed to brown. Birds raided seeds from the flowers’ heavy faces. Autumn dulled to bleak December.

Then, early one morning, shortly before Christmas, I was reading email on the couch and drinking coffee. The school’s grounds and maintenance man wrote that he had seen footprints in the snow around the library. “Our friend appears to be back.” I closed my laptop. I was beginning to wonder if I was a minor character in a much larger story, where the plotline wasn’t clear to me. 

That morning, when I unlocked the library door, the room reeked of cigarettes. Without taking off my coat, I stood at my desk and phoned the state police. After a few minutes, the trooper who had arrested Baker that fall came on the line. 

“Did that camera get any more photos?” the trooper asked.

“I removed it. Why would I need more evidence?” With my blue pen, I wrote “evidence” on a sticky note, drew a rectangle around it, and then surrounded it with question marks. “Then the state’s attorney dropped the charges. I don’t know why. I never got an answer back from the office, although I called and called.”

Over the line, I heard the trooper sigh. “I can’t do anything about what the state’s attorney’s office does.”

“You need another photo?”

“That would be helpful.”

“Fine. We can start this all over again.” I thanked him for his time, hung up, and groaned.

The art teacher had wandered in during a break between her classes and was browsing the shelf of new adult fiction. She lifted one eyebrow. “Trouble? I’m sensing some frustration.”

“Some? Try a tidal wave. The library has an intruder again.”

“Again? What are you going to do?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. What are my options, anyway? Am I supposed to nail the windows shut?” I stood and lifted up the coffee pot. “Want some? I’m about to make a pot for the afternoon.”

“That sounds wonderful. I’ll get the fifth and sixth graders set up and come back.” She disappeared into her room next door.

While the coffee dripped, I pulled out the manila folder I’d labeled “Break In” and picked up the phone. Months ago, the victim’s advocate at the state’s attorney’s office had called me about the impact statement, and I wondered if she could help me now. Luckily, she was in her office when I dialed and picked up. “Why do I need to get another photo?” I asked. “The state police already has evidence. Why can’t they just re-open the case?”

“I understand your frustration.”

“Do you really? I know this guy has been breaking in. The rumor around town is that he’s using drugs. Still, the state police won’t come out. One of my trustees is so mad she’s planning to sleep here at night until she catches him. What if one day I walk him and find him dead of an overdose? This situation is totally out-of-hand.”

“I’ll see if I can talk to the interim state’s attorney. I’ll run down the hall now, as I think she’s here today. Hopefully, I can get the case opened. I’ll call you back, okay?”

But she didn’t call back — not that day, or the next. She never returned my call, and the case stayed closed. 

*

My days were crammed with learning to host class visits and filling requests for mysteries and biographies. When hunting season ended, I borrowed the camera again and hid it in the row of adult biographies. Weeks passed and the camera caught nothing. Still, I had a perpetual sense of unease. When would I unlock the door and walk into cigarette smoke again?

My daughters and I shared a Christmas dinner of roasted turkey with friends. After my divorce, I anticipated the end of the holidays, that sweet spot where presents of puzzles and art supplies had satisfied everyone. There, I could breathe, relieved, that we had surmounted another holiday. In that season, everyone else’s family but ours seemed intact, much as I knew that was ridiculous.

Then, shortly after the new year, on that frigid afternoon, Susan phoned me from the library.

I have what I believe are the final photos of John Baker. In one, he’s walking across the room to turn off the motion-activated lights which must have flashed on when he tumbled through the window. The next photos are fuzzy; the lights are off. In these, Baker is standing behind my desk. What he’s doing I can’t determine. The final image captured by that camera shows Susan leaning against the desk, talking on the phone — to me or the state police — her face haggard.

*

The night John Baker died, snow dusted around our house. The next morning, Friday, school was cancelled again due to the frigid cold snap. When I left the house, my daughters were still sleeping.

As I unlocked the library door, the phone was ringing. 

“Yes?” I answered. “Woodbury Library.”

“It’s Chrissy. You heard?” she snickered. “I read the news in the paper this morning. Sounds like that Baker character won’t be bothering you anymore.”

“So I understand.”

“I didn’t mean — you know, I didn’t mean…”

“I know.”

“Actually, I called for a friend, not about that. The McConnells who moved in down the road from me? They have a baby boy, and I heard you’re having a family library social tomorrow morning, right? I wanted to let them know the time.”

“Ten-thirty.” 

“That’s so great that you’re getting these families together. I’d come with the twins, but it’s Bob’s mother’s birthday brunch.” 

I stared out the window at the trail of my bootprints in the snow.

“His mother will be seventy-three. Just to break up the winter blahs, we decided to do a tapas brunch. I’m baking these phyllo spinach and feta spirals…” She said, “He was just a junkie, you know.”

A few snowflakes the size of nickels spun earthward. The forecast predicted snow all day. “So I understand.” I hung up the phone. 

Without turning on the lights, I stood in the dark, quiet library, studying the table where Baker had been sitting when Susan walked in. On its back corner sat a white china teacup, factory-painted with a faded pink rose, a thorny vine, and two unopened buds. The cup was part of a set of five that were usually stored upside-down beneath the microwave in the adjacent art room. The children used them to hold beads and sequins. Pieces of a now broken-apart set, these cups held a hidden history, a reminder that this library and this town had countless stories I didn’t know — and never would.

I walked over to the table, lifted the cup, half-full of water, and turned it around and around in my hands. The last time I had seen John Baker was a sunny October afternoon. I was walking from the post office to the library, my arms wrapped around packaged books and envelopes, taking my time in the autumn warmth and admiring the sugar maples glowing scarlet and gold. Baker, wearing a plaid shirt and work boots, in need of a shave, sat on the front granite steps of the Episcopal church. The church holds sporadic services for a handful of elderly parishioners during the summer months and closes in the winter to save on heating costs. I lingered across the dirt road, watching Baker poke at his phone. A single crow flew overhead. We were the only people in our tiny village square that afternoon. Within months, he would be dead. 

What if, instead of passing him in silence, I had ignored all the gossip and sat down beside him on that sun-warm granite step? 

But I didn’t. I walked up the dusty road and carried on with my life.  At the end of that day after Baker’s death, I took the cup home with me and set it on my desk. Inside the cup, I noticed scratches from rough washing and a residue of something I couldn’t determine. I seem to have been emptied out, too, and what remained were traces of things I couldn’t recognize.


[1] Some names have been changed in this creative nonfiction work.

[2] A nasal spray, Narcan is the brand name of Naloxone — an opioid antagonist designed to rapidly reserve an opioid overdose. Since 2014, the Vermont Health Department has offered free Narcan at designated sites.

Brett Ann Stanciu
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