It was a gloomy, wet, Wednesday morning as we all trooped in through the staff entrance, shaking our umbrellas and tracking water all over the floor. It was only after a few minutes, as we stripped off our raincoats and changed out of our galoshes- that someone noticed it.
“Hey, what’s that?” someone said as we all ran our fingers through our wind and rain-mussed hair. We all looked. The scene recalled an image of a group of gazelles on the savanna who have just picked up the scent of a hungry lion. The silence was equally ominous.
There, on the big table in the staff break room, was a daintily-wrapped caramel apple, covered in peanuts and tied with a bow. Beside it, a note.
Someone stepped forward cautiously and leaned to read the note.
“Free to a hungry stomach.”
Someone else laughed nervously.
“What could it mean?”
“Is it signed?”
“Who brought it?”
After a few minutes of murmuring and nervous giggles, we dispersed to our posts to open the library. The apple was left on the table- we didn’t want to touch it.
As the hours passed, our hopes that someone would claim the apple as their own began to dwindle. Each time someone passed the table and saw that the apple was still there, that person’s heart shrank a bit and their steps quickened. It almost seemed to grow, feeding off of our fear and distrust.
By lunchtime, we’d stopped looking at it entirely. We spoke about it only in hushed tones, and not in its presence. The table that usually hosted a cheerful and bright lunch group sat empty- devoid of everything but the note and the apple, that apple that sat resolute and unflinching in the center of the table.
By midafternoon, a small cohort was arguing for the removal of the apple. The rest of us were unconvinced.
“Look, we’ll put some gloves on. We’ll get a brand new trash bag, dump the thing in there, and take it right out to the dumpster”.
It seemed like an alright plan. They drew straws to see who would be the one to touch the apple. We all stood back. The one who drew the short straw pulled gloves onto his shaking hands. He stepped to the edge of the table and began to reach for the apple. Somebody else held the trash bag out. His fingertips brushed the stick and he jumped back.
“I’m sorry, I can’t,” he muttered as he pulled off the gloves. He went to the sink and began to feverishly wash his hands, “It just doesn’t feel right“.
After that, everyone kind of gave up on the idea of removing it, and the rest of the day passed in the same vein as had the morning, in a thick and oppressive quiet. Instead of sharing the easy and cheerful conversations of a normal Wednesday, we traded dark looks and quiet whispers. It was with much relief that we closed the library at six and ushered the remaining customers out of the big sliding doors, then hurriedly went to don our galoshes and retrieve our umbrellas, for it was still raining and had, in fact, been drizzling mildly for the entire day.
As we pulled on our raincoats the night custodian entered through the staff entrance and shook off his umbrella.
“Still coming down out there,” he said, smiling brightly. We murmured a bit about cozy weather that was good for reading a book by the fireplace with a glass of merlot. None of us knew his name.
We were headed out the door when we heard a crinkling sound behind us, like a caramel apple being freed from its cellophane enclosure. We turned, gazelle-like. He took a bite of the caramel apple. We were frozen. He chewed and swallowed, then turned and smiled widely when he noticed us.
“Thanks for saving me one! I missed dinner,” he said.