‘Bastards!’ Tom shouted, ‘Sons of bitches, do they think that they can keep me out? Yeah, real fucking likely. I know what you’re fucking doing…’
The voice trailed away into an angry, wordless murmuring. Glancing up, Matheus saw Tom’s slumped and rounded shoulders at one of the computers. The screen was showing that the machine was restarting, something that the library computers were not meant to do.
Matheus glanced at Sharon, but she either didn’t notice or was pretending not to see.
He tried to return to his work, sorting through the lines of names to figure out where he’d lost himself. However, even without looking, he couldn’t tear his attention away from Tom.
After a few seconds of silence, he heard Tom’s voice start up again. A brief burst of gruff obscenities targeted at the computer.
This time when Matheus looked up, he saw that Tom’s machine had completely restarted, and was now showing a log-in screen with an error message over it.
This time when Matheus glanced up at Sharon, he saw that she too had noticed Tom, and was fixing him with a narrow gaze.
‘What should we do?’ Matheus asked, quietly, but without apprehension.
‘Well,’ said Sharon, ‘One of us needs to tell him to keep it down. After that if he’s still noisy, we’ll call security. Nothing else we can do really.’
Tom had now stood up. Thrusting his chair roughly under the table, he moved down a spot to the computer next to him. He angrily pulled that chair out and sat down hard. Matheus could still hear him murmuring to himself.
The interest of the other patrons had been piqued by the commotion, and they were glancing at Tom. A few eyes flicked up from computers, one or two even turned around in their seats. The man who earlier had been twitchily scanning the room was now glancing continuously from Tom, to Matheus, to his screen, and then back again. The young woman who Tom had sat next to seemed not to have reacted at all. She was purposefully and fixedly staring at her screen, her earphones in, trying to pretend that nothing was happening despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Matheus had always found it astonishing just how much people were willing to ignore in the library.
After staring at Tom for a few minutes, listening to the rise and fall of his angry, directionless rambling, Matheus breathed out heavily through his nose.
‘I shall ask him to keep things quiet,’ he said at last to Sandra.
‘Are you sure?’ she said, frowning a little, ‘We could always just call security.’
‘No, it’s not an issue,’ Matheus said, standing upright from the desk, ‘Tom usually listens to reason.’
As he lumbered towards Tom with a pace that was intended to be neither threatening nor meek, Matheus felt eyes on him from every direction. Most of the eyes would flicker back to their screens soon enough, he knew.
Tom on the other hand didn’t notice him approach. Logging on to the new computer had totally absorbed his attention. Tom was dressed in the same large polo-shirt and shorts that he seemed to wear every day, as far as Matheus could tell. On his head was a baseball cap pulled down low. As Matheus approached, he noticed the sour smell of sweat mixed with cigarettes that always followed Tom around.
The young woman next to Tom had begun packing away her things, ready to change to a new spot.
Matheus reached Tom at the same moment that he began launching another torrent of curses at the computer. There was a second error message on the screen.
‘Sir?’ said Matheus.
Tom either did not hear or chose to ignore it. He was tapping furiously on the keyboard of the computer with no effect.
‘C’mon, c’mon…’ he was saying.
‘Sir,’ said Matheus, his voice still calm, but with a note of firmness to it now, ‘May I be of assistance?’
Tom turned his head, but barely made eye-contact with Matheus. ‘No. Look, I just want to get logged into the computer so I can get on with my shit. Is that so hard? Is that so fucking hard that I have to sit here all day trying it?’
Matheus glanced at the error message on Tom’s screen.
‘It would appear,’ he said, ‘That you have used all your allotted time for today.’ The computers at the library only permitted users a certain amount of time per day, after which they would be logged out and then would be unable to log on again. Tom was clearly testing that capacity.
Tom rubbed his eyes. Without looking at Matheus he began speaking. ‘It’s hacked, is what it is, okay? I can’t use a computer if it’s fucking hacked. That’s why I moved to this one. And now I find this one is fucking hacked too.’
By this point the young woman next to him had completely packed away her things, and was leaving, without even bothering to log out of her computer. Matheus could hardly blame her.
He felt a cold emotion building up inside of him. A frustration that he was having to take time out of his day to deal with this man. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘I’m afraid that I am going to have to ask you to stop swearing. You are in a public space.’
Seemingly ignoring him, Tom repeatedly tapped on the keyboard. Periodically the error message would vanish, then Tom would try to log on again, and it would reappear. The cycle continued several times more, with Tom becoming increasingly agitated each time.
Tom suddenly noticed the recently vacated seat the young woman had been using. He pulled his chair out of his desk and rose once more to his feet. As if Matheus simply wasn’t there, he walked past him to the now open computer and sat down heavily. Immediately, he pulled the keyboard and mouse towards himself and began typing again.
‘I’m afraid that your allotted time carries over from one computer to another,’ said Matheus, doing his best not to let his frustration show in his voice, ‘It won’t matter how many times you change computer, you are not going to be able to log in again today.’
‘Don’t talk to me,’ said Tom, not bothering to hide his frustration, ‘I’m a computer expert, and I know when I’m being hacked, alright?’
The error message popped up, confirming what Matheus had said.
‘Shit!’ said Tom. He didn’t quite shout it but his words had enough volume to turn heads all through the room.
Matheus didn’t have time to count to ten, so instead he counted to three. He still felt angry, but at least he was confident he could speak calmly.
‘Sir,’ he said, taking a step towards Tom, as unthreateningly as he could, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.’
Tom turned to fully look at him for the first time, his eyes red rimmed. He stood up from his chair and thrust an angry finger into Matheus’s face.
‘You don’t tell me what to fucking do!’ Tom shouted, spittle flying. ‘I have a right to be here in this building, do you hear? This is a society, and this is a public space and I am a public member! You do not tell me where I can and can’t go! I fucking pay my fucking taxes to keep shitholes like this open, and now you’re gonna tell me that I have to fucking leave? My taxes pay your salary!’
Matheus didn’t react as Tom spoke. He kept completely still. His eyes were fixed on the tiny square of skin between Tom’s eyes.
Matheus let the energy of the rant dissipate. Breathed in and out.
‘You are going to leave now or security is going to escort you out.’
‘Fuck you,’ said Tom, ‘Do you think you fucking frighten me? You’re a fucking freak! You’re one of them, I fucking know it. Son of a bitch.’ As he spoke, Tom angrily turned back to his desk. He roughly packed away the notebooks, pens, books, and other loose odds an ends, throwing them into his backpack.
Matheus stood and waited. Fists clenched. Body unnaturally still.
Tom finished, and threw one strap of the backpack over his shoulder. He turned to Matheus once more, getting even closer, thrusting a finger up at him. ‘Don’t think I don’t know you. You’re with them. You’re in on it, and I know it. And one day this it’s all gonna fall down around you.’
Matheus was barely listening. His eyes had shifted from the square of skin, and they were now glued to the tip of Tom’s finger. His finger was very close.
He couldn’t let Tom touch him, but he knew that if he backed away it might just encourage Tom to get in closer. Matheus held his ground, hoping he wouldn’t move.
‘You, and the government, and the post office, and Jeremy, and the fucking landlord – you’re all in on it. But it’s all gonna break down one day. And you’re gonna break down too, you freak.’
As he said the word ‘freak’, Tom sharply poked his index finger towards Matheus. Matheus in turn was too slow to dodge away.
He felt the index finger push into the soft, elastic skin of his abdomen.
Felt his flesh at first give way. Felt it harden. Felt it push back.
Absolute terror gripped every inch of Matheus’s body as he stared at Tom’s expression. The terror froze him, keeping every muscle locked in place. Suddenly, Tom looked slightly confused, his eyes a little unfocused, as if trying to remember something he’d forgotten.
The mingled anxiety and fear felt like a mountain in Matheus’s mind, but in the split moment he waited for a reaction, his perspective changed. It wasn’t that the fear was shrinking, more that he was moving further away from it. In its place, he felt new plans, new ideas, new futures for what he would have to do if Tom realised what Matheus was.
Tom shook his head, turned, and angrily stormed away. He was still muttering to himself about ‘freaks’ when he left the double doors to the technology department, and disappeared from sight.
Matheus stood still. He stayed there for longer than was normal, he knew, watching Tom leave the room.
There was a brief buzzing against his leg. Matheus didn’t jump – he never felt surprise in that way – but it brought him back to his surroundings. He realised that his phone had just received a message.
His hands were still clenched. His arms were bulging nearly to the point of ripping his button-up, sky-blue shirt. Matheus glanced around, and came back to the room for the first time in minutes, feeling the futures evaporate into nothing once more. He noticed a few people quickly turning back to their screens. Embarrassed, Matheus coughed lightly, pulled off his spectacles, and cleaned them off using a microfiber cloth that he kept in his breast-pocket.
Turning, he was surprised to see Sandra only a little way behind him. She was holding the wireless phone that was kept at the desk to communicate with other staff members.
‘Well, at least that’s Tom banned at last,’ she said, raising an eyebrow, ‘Are you alright, Matheus?’
‘Yes. Quite alright,’ he said, without emotion.
‘I was calling security when you talked him into leaving,’ she explained on her way back to the desk, ‘I knew that Tom could be an asshole, but that’s the worst I’ve ever seen him.’ She smiled, ‘And hopefully, it’ll be the last.’
Matheus didn’t respond as they walked to the desk. He could feel people looking at him. He felt like his clothes were too tight around his body. That he was bulging out in every direction. Matheus breathed deeply. Tried to let go.
When they reached the desk, he couldn’t stop himself from taking one more look around the room. Nobody was looking at him now. Everyone had either moved on or had the good grace to pretend they’d moved on.
Sandra was sitting down, and Matheus was about to turn back to his computer, when something caught his attention.
The twitchy young man who’d been sitting at the opposite end of the room, the one who Matheus had marked as a potential trouble-maker, had vanished. That in and of itself wasn’t altogether that strange, but he’d left his computer logged on and a chain coffee cup next to the keyboard.
This lack of courtesy added to the fog of negative emotions Matheus was feeling. He wanted to leave the library. Leave the patrons. Leave the city, and never have to deal with any of this ever again.
‘Are you sure you’re alright?’ said Sandra. Matheus was pausing, one hand on the back of his chair. ‘You know, you can’t let them get to you.’ Her voice was quiet enough that the guests wouldn’t be able to hear.
Matheus sighed and nodded. He even managed to feign a smile. ‘Honestly, Sandra, I am quite well.’
‘If you need to take a walk,’ she said, reaching under the table and lifting out a stack of books from a drawer with some difficulty, ‘These need to be taken back to the Reference Department. May help clear your head?’
Matheus found himself feeling oddly grateful for the task. ‘Certainly, Sandra, I would be happy to do so.’
The stack was composed of heavy reference books that had been either returned to the technology desk, or had been left behind at a computer. There were encyclopaedias, dictionaries, and a few textbooks in the stack. Matheus lifted them up in one enormous hand, and tucked them beneath his arm, where they practically disappeared.
As he left the room, Matheus made a point of walking past the space where the twitchy young man had been sitting. He thought for a moment that he may have just been saving his space, but as Matheus passed he saw that the computer had not only not been logged onto, but had not even been switched on since this morning. Looking down at the coffee cup, he noticed that it was full and untouched.
Matheus didn’t know why it had struck him as so peculiar. Deciding to leave the things there until he got back to see if the man would return for them, he left the department.