Bernadette moved through the stacks in the History of Science collection, a cache of priceless books. Undetected, although the vault was equipped with redundant security sensors, Bernie felt in tune when she touched an old velum – bound volume. The feeling was something like floating in the ocean close to shore just outside of the breakwater, feeling your body lift and fall and listening to the rush of the waves as they break toward shore. It comforted her, but nagged her memory. Why this book with its drawings of a Copernican solar system?
She’d spent years wandering the university library with its old gargoyle-covered façade moving through the book stacks resonating with certain books, but couldn’t remember ever feeling such a strong pull. The library hummed with the intention of many authors and readers, some of which had moved Bernadette. This was different. She owned this feeling. She found herself hugging that feeling and in doing so, resonating with a familiar yet distance energy. She was hooked and dove into the volume like one would an ocean pool, rushing through the paper and ink molecules like a cliff diver pierces the water.
Then the book began to sing.
Patty entered the library through the old addition by using the curved handle of her umbrella to pull the door open. She smiled, internally congratulating herself on her antiseptic technique. It always felt good to avoid the germ-ridden door handles on campus. Making a mental note to swab the umbrella handle with a wipe, she made her way down the old staircase and stationed herself at her favorite table in the basement. She spread her belongings out in a fastidiously organized fashion, arranging a tablet, laptop, pencil, pen and manuscript. Lastly, she retrieved a plastic container of sugar cookies with green icing that she had purchased long after the St. Patrick’s holiday and stored with a dozen similar containers in her small apartment freezer. Patty always made the most of sale opportunities and she would be eating green cookies until the July 4th holidays, after which she would capitalize on red, white and blue leftovers.
She settled in and began reading the dissertation manuscript she’d been hired to edit. Years ago, when she had first been “inhabited” by Bernadette while under the unfortunate influence of an outdated computer screen’s electromagnetic emissions, Patty had lost a series of different jobs. After all, her strange ramblings and extreme OCD, which still lingered in her precise sanitary movements and penchant for wearing white cotton gloves, made her a disturbing character to most people. Disturbances on campus had landed her in the state mental hospital for about nine months. Now, she lived on a disability check and a monthly deposit from her aging mother, a bribe to stay in Oklahoma, far from her mother’s social network. This she supplemented by placing handmade posters on the bulletin boards outside the student union. On these she advertised copy editing for grad students struggling with their dissertations. It didn’t bring in much, but it helped, and she had developed a reputation for careful, accurate work. She was particularly popular with international students. They were less troubled with her odd fashion sense and thrift store wardrobe.
Sarah changed everything. Patty now knew she looked odd, but wasn’t bothered by strange looks. Observing her own odd appearance in the mirror, Patty decided to stay the course. No longer mentally ill, Patty pretended. After all, her sanity was newly won and Patty was not yet sure how to make use of it. Besides, her OCD habits were comforting, like a dish of warm macaroni and cheese. Although frankly, the stint of crazy had been very, very hard.
Sarah, the pragmatic freshman physics major who also shared Bernadette’s electromagnetic intrusions into her psyche; helped. Rescued, after years of strange thinking, Patty now recognized Bernadette’s influence on her synaptic web – or at least she thought she did. Confidence is hard to maintain when odd thoughts pass through your mind like a light breeze riffling a field of wheat.
It reminded her of a plot from a B sci-fi movie, where invading aliens control the brains of zombie-like humans. Was it her thinking or Bernadette’s thinking? Somehow, Sarah bridged the distortion, served as a witness or maybe co-habitant? Whatever, Patty was grateful and absently munched a cookie savoring the sugar and a feeling of calm that now permeated her peculiar existence.
As the sugary icing melted in her mouth, Patty unconsciously began humming. The image of a solar system appeared in her mind’s eye. Blocks away in her dorm room, Sarah found herself thinking about planets, in the midst of studying for her calculus final. She looked up from her math text somewhat confused, but relaxed when she unconsciously began humming tunelessly. She closed her eyes trying to align the planets with a formula. It didn’t seem to fit, but since her awareness of Bernadette began, Sarah was beginning to see links between math formulae and everyday life. Before Bernadette, or BB, Sarah got A’s in math because she easily worked the problems. Now, she saw math differently. She couldn’t explain how, but she could feel it down deep. Math was more than just memorizing formulas and applying them. It was magical thinking.
Sarah didn’t say that aloud, for fear of sounding a little too peculiar, a little unhinged. But now, math problems and physics seemed to expand her mind and cause her to think improbably. She wondered if Stanley, the shaman security guard who communicated with his own version of a Bernadette, combined his unusual clothing combinations because his mind had become improbably magical after years of being with Blanche, Stanley’s spirit guide? Spirit guide is the term Stanley used, but Sarah was still unsure what to call Bernadette. Sarah was sure about one thing; she didn’t want just anyone to know about Bernadette. Sarah’s inherent down-to-earth thinking made her still question Bernadette’s existence and if she thought the whole thing was odd, what would other people think?
A little anxiety crept into her mind, as she imagined trying to tell her roommate, Jennifer, about Bernadette. After all, what could she say? She’d linked up with a former mental patient and an alien entity in the basement toilet at the library? Not likely. No, she could imagine that going South pretty fast…
Jennifer wasn’t like Adam. Adam seemed drawn to unusual events and different thinking. He listened, tried to analyze and then stayed open to possibilities. She smiled to herself, as she remembered Adam’s defense of Stanley’s shaman-based observations. Sarah was comfortable that Adam wouldn’t judge and might even offer an idea that was really far out; maybe even further out than Bernadette.
Jennifer was more mainstream. She was sweet and a good roommate, but interested more in fashion and Zack. It was like Jennifer was interested in what was going on in a movie and Adam was more interested in how they put together the special effects. Hmmm, she forced herself to drop that line of mental floss and focused on working an example problem in the back of her textbook. She didn’t have time to indulge this anxiety when she needed to worry more about her grades. As she began to unconsciously hum, the solution to the problem popped into her mind and she was pulled into the flow.
Stanley checked in after depositing his book bag in his locker in the offices behind the circulation desk. His long auburn braids hung against the pink polyester bowling shirt with the name Lefty embroidered on the pocket. It was garish, and he wore it supplemented with a bolo tie held together by a fossil clasp highlighted with an intricate beaded design. It was topped off with a set of elaborate and beautiful forearm tattoos that somehow complimented the odd combination of fashion and wearable art.
He’d just come from a student art show. As a graduate student in fine arts, he assisted his major professor in organizing the display of undergraduate work and he had barely broken away in time to make his security guard shift at the library. The art show was wrapping up the semester for the undergraduates, but it had slowed his own thesis project and he was worried that he would not complete that until the following fall semester.
His girlfriend, Lubna, had just been admitted to medical school. Practically, they lived together, but Lubna’s parents didn’t know about their relationship and they’d planned to tell them after he was finished with his thesis and had a fulltime job, a career. Now, it was looking like it would take him another semester and he’d been hoping to have a job before the summer ended.
Lubna’s family was originally from Pakistan. Stanley was worried that his appearance, which he thought of as creative expressionism vital to his life work, would be a handicap. Family was important to Stanley. He was use to looking different than the norm, but was more conservative than his appearance suggested when it came to being in a family. Maybe it was tribal, but he needed to be valued by family, even if he didn’t care at all about the rest of the world.
“Stanley, they’re shifting books out of decks three and four into storage off campus, and they’re having trouble with the East elevator. Can you go up there and see if you can help?” Luke, Stanley’s boss and the security supervisor asked as he rounded the corner by the lockers.
“Sure. Let me check in and I’ll head up there right now,” replied Stanley.
“Did you see the Thunder game last night? Durant was flawless,” said Luke.
“Man, I was up most of the night trying to get everybody’s art project ready for the show. But, I’m glad to hear it. The Thunder’s on a run and maybe I shouldn’t jinx them by catching the next game. I haven’t had a chance to see them the last three games and they won them all.” Stanley said. “Last game I caught they lost.”
“Yeah, maybe you should just hang back and wait for the streak to be over. I’ll keep you posted,” said Luke as he seemed to contemplate the winning streak like any superstitious athlete might.
“On my way upstairs. I’ll radio if we need to get physical plant to service the elevator,” Stanley said as he turned and headed toward the back office door, exiting soundlessly in his handmade moccasins.
Adam stood outside the door of Dr. Sizemore’s office hesitantly. The professor, on the phone, waved him in and finished his note about grocery shopping.
“Hi professor Sizemore, I’m the guy who emailed you about instrumentation to measure geologic anomalies. I’m Adam.
“Come on in Adam. I’ve put together a couple of instruments for you,” said Sizemore.
“Wow professor Sizemore, I really appreciate this. I wasn’t sure what you’d think of my ideas about measuring the magnetism of the geology under campus,” Adam stated a little sheepishly. “I’m not doing this for a course over in meteorology, it’s really to help a friend.
“How does looking for magnetic anomalies under the library help a friend? Seems like you have some pretty unusual friends.”
Adam thought for a moment. He knew Sarah wasn’t comfortable telling people about the Bernadette phenomenon. She was pretty concerned about getting labeled as crazy and he’d promised to keep it confidential.
“Well, I work as a security guard over at the campus library and we’ve had some electrical malfunctions with elevators and some other funky things happen. A group of us who work over there were trying to analyze the problem and I’d read a book recently that mentions geologic anomalies. It said that some rock formations concentrate electromagnetic energy. A couple of us thought it might be interesting to see what kind of electromagnetic readings you might get on formations that run under the campus,” he stopped to take a breath, figuring that what he’d said was true, even if it wasn’t the complete story.
Sizemore looked at Adam quizzically for a moment and with a brief grin said, “Ghost hunting?”
“Ghosts are one explanation, but I’m convinced that we might be able to prove something else. I’m a meteorology major. I like working with instrumentation. It’s just interesting to me. Seemed like it would be cool to map the campus, whether we prove anything or not. It’s a chance to get some experience with field instruments that might come in handy on another project. I’m kind of an instrument geek and I could work on it this summer,” Adam said truthfully.
Professor Sizemore liked initiative. He’d had a few undergraduates pursue a hunch, but lately seemed like most students were just worried about getting their assignments done. He liked this kid. “Are you planning on taking readings in the library or outside? The library stacks have a lot of metal. That could interfere with some measurements depending on the measurement scale you use. I don’t think this campus has ever been mapped for magnetism, but that’s probably because the underlying geology isn’t particularly interesting. I don’t think you’ll find much.”
Adam seemed a little deflated, but replied, “I think I’d like to find out how much the building structure affects the electromagnetism of the space compared to the readings you’d get outside of the structure. Would that be of any interest?”
“Probably not to a geologist. I expect the power lines in the campus tunnels might have a more measurable effect on a voltmeter than any formations at lower levels,” the professor replied frankly. He could see Adam’s enthusiasm flag and momentarily halted his list of reasons why it might be a pointless exercise. “The movement of water underground actually can generate electric current. I have a graduate student interested in measuring that kind of current to see how it’s affected by the injection of water in the fracking process. If you’re willing to work with him as a volunteer and commit to 40 hours of helping him take readings, we can use the campus as a test site to establish our protocol for the bigger project.” Sizemore explained. “The results might be turned into an educational website to be used by high school geology teachers. And, we can throw in some measurements inside the library for kicks.”
“Cool,” said Adam as his eyes lighted up. “I’m willing to commit ten hours a week over the next few weeks to learn more about the instruments. Thanks!”
“You’ll need to use an electric field detector and a low impedence voltmeter. If you have a few minutes, I’ll take you down to the lab and introduce you to the graduate student I mentioned. You two can work out a schedule to take the readings,’ explained Sizemore.
“Sure. I have a couple of hours before I have to be at work,” said Adam. “I think my friend is going to be pumped about this.”
As Stanley climbed the staircase he could hear the elevator alarm. A tall international student was standing by the elevator trying to converse with its occupant through the crack in the door.
“Who’s in the elevator? Let me see if I can use the bypass key to get this thing moving,” said Stanley.
“Sarah’s in the elevator,” replied Fotis. As Stanley put the key into the call plate, he felt an odd shift and books spontaneously began to fall off the surrounding shelves. Fotis grabbed hold of a support beam and Stanley wobbled as he spread his feet, trying to stabilize his footing. The feeling lasted for about 10 seconds and Fotis and Stanley both looked at one another with surprise. Their eyes looked upward as they both ducked unconsciously.
“I think that was an earthquake,” said Fotis inhaling deeply still looking overhead as if he expected falling debris.
“I think you’re right,” said Stanley. “Sarah, it’s Stanley. I think we just had a mild earthquake. Are you ok? The bypass key isn’t working and I’m going to have to call physical plant to get a service person over here,” Stanley yelled, trying to be heard over the alarm. The alarm suddenly stopped.
“Stan, I’m okay. I’d rather be out of here sooner than later, but I guess I’m developing a resume that includes experience in small spaces,” replied Sarah yelling upward toward Stanley, since the elevator appeared to be positioned halfway between the lower floor and the level Stanley was standing on.
Sarah looked around the elevator, sighed, and sat on the floor, legs akimbo leaning against the back wall. She’d come to work right after her last final in Calculus, and like all college students, was operating on very little sleep. She pondered the earthquake and its effect on the elevator, but mentally calculated that the elevator shaft was probably a pretty safe place to be. She was too tired to be scared and Sarah wasn’t easily rattled. Anxious about kissing and thoughts of sex, sure, that she found hard, but earthquakes and elevator malfunctions, nope. Moments later her head nodded and her chin gently settled on her chest.
Two levels below, Patty was under a table calmly munching on a sugar cookie. She wasn’t at ease with earthquakes, and had thrown herself under the table faster than a jack rabbit jumps. The cookie, though, had a calming effect and as she hummed a sense of security pervaded her.
It was Bernie, driven by the earthquake. She was instantly transported from the archive to the old basement eyeing the package of cookies as she hovered over the table. Entangled with Patty and Sarah, Bernie’s presence, whatever that actually was, resonated harmonically with the two and in doing so, strengthened them all banishing Patty’s anxiety as surely as the presence of a friend makes things right.
Something had changed in the old steel decks, with the suspended flooring and low ceilings. Bernie moved upward through girders, skirting molecules and paused on the 4th deck near Stanley and the work crew. Stanley was describing the elevator problem to the service man, when Bernie, grasping the issue, moved through the wall plate of the elevator and “vibrated.” The elevator hummed alive and dinged as the doors opened, delivering Sarah to the 4th deck and a non-plussed Stanley, who informed the physical plant radio operator that the elevator was back to working.
“Sarah, interested in getting out?” Stanley smiled as he looked at Sarah, who hadn’t awakened even when the elevator moved and the door opened.
“Praecipuus,” Sarah mumbled as her eyelids fluttered briefly and she drew a deep breath.
“That sounds like Latin,” said Fotis. “Do you know any Greek?” Fotis missed hearing his native language and was always hungry for a good debate over a beer, a pastime he missed dearly.
“I don’t know any Latin or Greek,” Sarah grumbled as she awoke somewhat disoriented.
“Maybe it just came out funny because she was half-asleep? Maybe she was saying precipice? After all, the elevator was moving and maybe she had the sensation of falling in her sleep?” Stanley said as he felt an odd fluttering sensation overhead. Distractedly, he looked up and around, wondering if there was a fly buzzing in his peripheral vision.
Bernie was sniffing, smelling the books, the dust, the residue of years. As she did so, she inadvertently circled Stanley’s head
Sarah yawned as she stepped through the doors. “Whoa. I didn’t realize the building shook that hard,” she said as she observed the books that had tumbled from some of the shelves. “That’s going to take some time to clean up.” Just as she said it, a slight shaking occurred, an aftershock. They all reached out grabbing each other for support. The moment was brief. They steadied themselves and all laughed with relief, gingerly looking overhead.
“I thought some of the injection wells were shut down recently because of the drop in the price of oil,” said Stanley. “I wonder if this is a fraking quake?”
“Sure hope they don’t lay off any more people,” said Sarah thinking about her mom, who’d been laid off by an oil company a few months earlier. “I’d better start picking up these books. Stan, can you radio Luke and tell him we’re going to need some help up here?” Sarah sighed as she dropped to her knees and began stacking volumes in a pile as she scooted down the aisle, slipping some books onto the shelves.
Fotis pulled the book truck from the elevator and rolled it to the next aisle following Sarah’s lead, while Stanley radioed Luke, as he began inspecting the flooring for cracks.
Something was bothering Bernie. She hovered, observing the books that had rattled to the floors. She smelled the space and again had a tinge of something. The books were different. Many old volumes that had been on the shelves for nearly a century were gone; moved to storage off-campus. Bernie’ attention was pulled away from Sarah and Patty as she followed her nose, curious about the changing feel of the old decks.
As she floated by a coed with earbuds stuck in her head, Bernie felt the waves of music. Then she realized that the choir had changed. The songs she’d heard for years in the stacks, the murmurings of the books were different, like the change in a choir when certain voices are silenced.
As Fotis moved the truck down a couple of aisles, Stanley came over to Sarah and kneeled beside her picking up books as he said in a lowered voice, “Is Bernie around? I keep having this feeling like something is hovering around me. It might just be the quake, but it feels different.”
“I’m never sure.” Sarah whispered. “Sometimes I think I feel her and sometimes I think I’m hormonally challenged. Right now I’m hearing music in my head, but I don’t recognize the tune. Feel like dancing?”
“Interesting. When I first met Blanche at the springs, I’d listen to the waterfalls and think they sounded like music. Sometimes I’d bring a flute and sit by the creek and try to play what was in my head,” Stanley said.
“Maybe it’s the ‘music of the spheres? Patty told me she is seeing planets and I keep having recurring visions like that myself. Do you think Bernadette is trying to tell us something? I can go downstairs and see if Patty’s by the bathroom. She hangs out at a table down there a lot. I’ll run down there. Besides I don’t want Fotis to overhear. I’m thinking we sound pretty odd.” Sarah’s neck hair raised, and she had the feeling someone was watching.
“Since we discovered The Creep and he was caught by the campus police, a couple of the people have been making some jokes about you, Adam, Lubna and me. We’re the Scat Patrol – always looking for shit, or that’s what I heard.” Stanley laughed as he said it.
Sarah saw movement in the next aisle as someone got up and walked away, their footsteps moving quickly toward the door between the two building additions and Sarah could feel the air move as the door swung shut. Great, Sarah thought. I wonder who that was? Her anxiety made her raise her voice and say, “Fotis, can you bring the truck over here?
“Sure Sarah, on my way.” Fotis’ voice came from the other direction several aisles over and Sarah knew whoever it was, it hadn’t been Fotis. Surely it was just someone doing their own thing. They probably weren’t paying attention to Stanley and her at all… although that thought didn’t feel quite right.
Bernadette witnessed the coed exiting and sensed a negative vibe. She followed into the newer addition, but passed a computer screen that provided directions to lost researchers in the labyrinthine building. The electromagnetic field from the screen disrupted Bernadette’s intent and instead she followed her nose toward the coffee pot in the basement offices of the old addition. Thoughts of the sugar cookies on the table with Patty captured her thinking, like a crystal captures light, bouncing it within. For the time being, Bernie was lost in the sparkle.