The Book Assignment

After another round of aimlessly running his index finger along the dusty row of books, Thomas sighed and slumped down in the uncomfortable plastic chairs which were dotted around the school library. He was running out of time now, the library closed at 4pm and it was pushing 3.40pm. He had been here since lunch time and was yet to find anything he was remotely interested in.

Mr Graves had been clear about the assignment. Pick a non-fiction book, preferably an autobiography, written about someone you’ve never heard of. The 3 month assignment then required pupils to read the book, do some follow-up research then submit a report to Mr Graves about who the person was and what you’d learned about them. Tomorrow, Thomas would be required to tell Mr Graves the book title and subject, right now he was looking at failing the assignment before it had even began.

His friends had been so excited to come along to the library after class had finished. They were all having a great time picking out all sorts of weird and wonderful titles, laughing at the strange characters who adorned the front covers. Mrs Mayer, the head librarian, had warned them that if she’d heard anymore laughing and shouting when there were people trying to study they’d all be banned for a month. She explained to them in great length how she she’d happily tell Mr Graves why none of them could complete their next English assignment. As their heads dropped and they apologised in whispered grunts and shrugs, she returned to her task of stamping a large pile of returned books with a smug look of satisfaction on her face. This ticking off had resulted in the group grabbing books in the ‘biography’ section of the library at random and trudging out one after the other like a conga line of extras from Night of the Living Dead.

Thomas, though, couldn’t find anything that interested him. That’s why he’d decided to use his free afternoon to find something and someone he could get lost in. He had an obsessive behaviour type and he felt there was no use spending 3 months researching, reading and probably obsessing about someone if they’re as dull as dishwater.

Sat there, drifting off into thought, Thomas cursed Mr Graves. Why couldn’t they have done what his brothers class had done only 2 years ago? That would have been so much better. They had each got to pick a book and research someone they classed as their hero. Thomas’ brother, Barry, had ended up actually meeting his hero, footballer and infamous granny-botherer Wayne Rooney, after messaging him on the social media site Twitter to tell him all about the assignment.

These thoughts vanished suddenly as Thomas was jolted backed into the present when the library bell rang out to signal 3.45pm.

“15 minutes children! grab your books and bring them to me at the desk” announced Mrs Mayer.

She pursed her lips and seemed to be making a particular point of looking directly at Thomas. He acknowledged her with a nod of the head and pushed himself out of the small, uncomfortable chair. The plastic arms clung to his thighs as he tried to make his way out of it, almost as if to try to coerce him into sitting back down again. He shrugged it off and gave it a little kick back under the small desk.

He had been sat opposite the ‘autobiography’ section and as he stood up the pitch-black spine of a book caught his eye. It was tucked in between 2 brightly coloured books which each had small square pictures of their subject with bright, witty titles dancing down the sleeves. This one, however, was completely black. He placed his finger on the top of the spine and gently pulled it out, blowing the dust off the front cover. It was completely black. No title, no author – just black. He flipped it over to check out the blurb on the back, but to his surprise the back was the same as the front – completely blank, pitch black. This was clearly odd but it was also really intriguing to Thomas. The mysterious cover had drawn him in, he needed to find out more. His quiet surroundings and the ticking clock evaporated as all he was concerned with at that moment was opening the first page and finding out more. His eyes danced across the page as he took in the introduction.

“My name is Frank McQueen. I’m 25 years old and I’m a Newark native. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve walked up and down these streets my whole life, as a kid and as an adult. If you’ve lived here and walked these streets too, we’ve probably bumped into each other once or twice. But, you wouldn’t know me. I’m no-one. No-one has ever given me a second look. I’m a boring-looking average Joe. I look like every other dumb schmuck who sleepwalks his way through his life from being a gormless kid beat up at school to suffering through some dead end job to make ends meet. No-one will remember me. No-one.”

Wow, thought a dejected Thomas. That’s about as boring as it gets. That’s the dull dishwater he was looking to avoid. Mr Graves had said they should look for a book that would challenge them. Thomas thought the only thing challenging about this book would be staying awake to read it.

“Ouch!!” shrieked Thomas. Pain radiated between his shoulder blades as something piercing struck him and burrowed into his muscles. He spun, switching his focus from the words on the page of disappointing mystery book to the cause of the pain. Mrs Mayer was stood staring down at him, hands on her hips, lips pursed like she was sucking on a lemon with a solitary long red nail pointed directly at him.

“2 minutes Thomas.” she squawked. “Some of us have homes to go to you know.”

He looked down and realised, in his haste, he had dropped the black book at his feet when he had been prodded in the back by the stuffy librarian. As he reached down to pick the book up with the intention of disappointingly putting it back on the dusty shelf, he noticed it had landed open on the following page from where he had been reading. Putting Mrs Mayer and her oddly sharp, painted talons to the back of his mind, he read on.

“My name is Frank McQueen. I’m 25 years old and I’m a Newark native. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve walked up and down these streets my whole life, as a kid and as an adult. If you’ve lived here and walked these streets too, we’ve probably bumped into each other once or twice. If you’re a dirtbag, a scumbag peddling drugs to our kids or fancy yourself as some kind of kingpin, well we’ll have definitely bumped into each other. You’d know me. I’m the guy you met in the dark. The guy who made you rethink your career choices. I was your worst nightmare. I’m the man they called the New Jersey Devil and I stalked the streets of our great city from 1982 to 1987 wiping scum face-first from the earth. This is my story.”

“Wow” said Thomas out loud into the silent room. He grabbed his bag from his feet and ran to the check out desk. Mrs Mayer sucked her teeth and tutted as he snatched the book back from her and flew out the library door in a haze of excitement.

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