The following was my submission to the Short Fiction Contest recently put on by the Society of American Archivists. I highly recommend checking out the winning entries– they’re fantastic and deserving. While this is not the finest piece of writing, I had a great deal of fun doing it. I leave it here to remind myself to do more of this sort of thing.
I’m the archivist at a boys’ day school. It’s a unique position, allowing me the chance to research more than a century’s worth of stories and tell them to boys whose families have been a part of the school since the beginning.
But I would not have a job without Hamlet Stanley Philpot. Mr. Philpot was a renaissance man- he was the first Librarian of the school as well as a teacher of Latin and Greek. He is credited with designing the school seal and writing the original lyrics for the school song. During his tenure from 1904-1913, Mr. Philpot kept a careful register of all of the boys names, the years they attended the school, and where they went off to college. Mr. Philpot did not know it at the time, but his materials were the basis for what later became the school’s archives.
There is only one picture in the school’s records clearly identified as being Mr. Philpot. It is an image of a man wearing a mosquito net over his head and standing on a chair under a tree on campus. The legend is that he donned the netting to climb up and remove a bee nest that threatened a group of the younger boys.
Sometimes I dream of Hamlet S. Philpot.
Last night, my dream took place as I worked away in my office. Suddenly Mr. Philpot came banging at the door. The mosquito net over his face muffled his voice and hid his expression.
In my dreams, he is always wearing the mosquito net.
Was he excited? Scared maybe? It was impossible to tell. Before I could get a word out, he took off.
I nearly lost track of him as he scampered up the steps. Even in my dreams, I am not the young man I once was. From time to time, I even struggle with easily lifting 35-40 pounds.
My breath was ragged as I fell through the door leading to the third floor hallway. I looked up to see mosquito netting nearly snag the wall sconce as Mr. Philpot rounded the corner.
I didn’t recognize where I was at first. A century of renovations means the building I know is far removed from the architect’s vision. This version of the third floor was filled with boarder’s bedrooms, not classrooms as it is today. The tiny rooms with steeply slanted ceilings were living quarters for the few boys, and some of the masters, who lived too far away to commute every day. I peeked in a few of the doors to see the spartan accommodations- a bed, a desk with chair and a lamp left little room for anything else.
Mr. Philpot didn’t live here though- according to his diaries, he and his wife owned a house in a nearby neighborhood.
So what was he doing up here?
I turned to find him and realized he had disappeared into what is now a meeting room through which one can see the inner workings of the building’s large exterior clock. It’s one of my favorite rooms now, but in this world it was behind a wooden door, clearly off-limits.
A firm shoulder knocked the door open, and I was in an attic space lit only by the moonlight passing through the clock face. My eyes adjusted slowly as I tried to focus on the rustling in the far corner. The identity of the hunched figure digging through an open chest was given away by his mosquito netting.
“Mr. Philpot? Can I help you?”
He waved me over and pulled on my hand to bring me down to his level. The chest he rummaged through was a marvel. It was enormous on the inside, holding sheafs of documents, school jackets, sports uniforms, and even several hooded cloaks I knew were worn by students of the experimental Open Air School.
It was the archive of my dreams- a full accounting of the early history of the school, evidence of the day-to-day activities of the boys beyond the few meager scraps in my collections.
I began to salivate, and then I began to grab whatever I could reach. I wanted- no, NEEDED- these materials to be mine.
From under the mosquito net, Mr. Philpot let out what sounded like a growl. He swatted at the arm that held my riches, scattering everything to the floor. We were both silent for a moment, the only sound a brass button spinning on the wooden planks. Suddenly I was lifted up by my collar and Mr. Philpot was carrying me towards the door. I kicked, but he was far too strong. I tried to drag my feet, but I couldn’t find the ground.
As he threw me out the door and began to close it, I grabbed a handful of mosquito netting and pulled. His face was clear as day in the instant before the door slammed shut forever.
I could swear that he looked just like me.
I awoke with a start, in my own bed. I sat in the dark for several minutes trying to process it all. I was so angry with my dream-self for getting greedy, for trying to loot instead of document. I laughed at the absurdity- it was a dream, doofus. But in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but wonder…
I sprang out of bed with purpose, unable to think of anything but getting to the office.
Arriving at school, I bounded up the stairs to the third floor, fumbling with my keys to find the master. After what seemed like an eternity, I was inside the mechanical area adjacent to the attic and the clock room. Scurrying through a crawl space, I recognized the corner where Mr. Philpot’s chest had been. Of course it wasn’t there. I’m not sure what else I expected.
I took a deep breath and looked around at some of the illicit graffiti scratched out by rebellious boarders, or maybe some bored teachers. Silly and obscene, it made me smile.
And then I looked up. My knees buckled as I read in perfect white chalk handwriting:
Everything is gone.
If you had only asked politely, you could have had it all.