La Fantasma

by Faye D. Fischer

Preface: Every library has a ghost story. The State Library is no exception. The following is an adaptation of true events. Some liberty has been taken, but many of the staff walk a little faster past the stacks at dusk and dawn or report feeling like they are being watched when they work late at night.

The cold October air followed me into the library as I bustled in with my morning bags and packages. I went straight to my desk without turning on the lights. The library was still dark; only the tiniest sunbeams sneaking in between the closed blinds. I was almost certain I was the first one in that morning. I sat down and busied myself with the mundane tasks of starting the work day, nonplussed by the relative gloom. Someone would turn the lights on eventually. I had too much to do.

I looked up almost instinctively as I felt the presence of another human being enter my personal space. It was the lead of the morning cleaning crew.  She stood silhouetted in my office door with her back to me, hiding behind the large clunky cart.  I whispered a small hello and she startled, turning to meet my gaze.

“Do you see her?”

“See who?”

“The women in white looking out from behind the shelves,” she paused, “la fantasma.”

“La fantasma?” I repeated in my mind with a disdain that I would never have expressed out loud. I stood up reluctantly and looked beyond her into the shadowy stacks. I saw nothing. But I felt a bit of a chill as I contemplated the cold and dismal predawn spaces untouched by the light.

 “Can you describe her?” I said thinking it could be one of my coworkers here early to do some shelving.

“She has dark hair pulled back in a braid and is wearing a long white dress.”

That description didn’t really match any state library employees. I shrugged. “Doesn’t sound like anyone who works here. I don’t know who it could be. I’ll ask around.”

“She is angry. I don’t like it when she is here in the morning,” she said as she pushed her cart away and slammed every light in the bank of switches with the back of her hand illuminating the cavernous, arched ceilings of the stacks.

“Mornings make me angry too,” I thought, but it isn’t a good reason to frighten the janitorial staff. I dashed a quick reminder on a post-it to ask if anyone could have been in the building.

The next days passed in the relative calm of expected stress as I worked to meet an important deadline. I didn’t think much about la fantasma, expect for those water cooler moments when recounting the anecdote to my coworkers seemed appropriate for the Halloween season.

The post it note was buried on my desk under reports, applications, unopened mail, and unsigned invoices. A week’s worth of work put on hold for my special project. It was the night before Halloween and with my deadline of the 31st looming bleakly before me, I again found myself in the library alone.

In a daze I said simple goodbyes to my team as one by one they left in the autumnal dusk. Finally I saw the cleaning lady, her cart long since stowed away, her jacket hanging over her arm. “Do you want the lights on?” She asked, pausing briefly at my door. I shook my head. The light in my office was sufficient.

It must have been several hours before I came out of my work induced coma. The final task completed, my deadline met with time to spare. I sighed and sat back in my chair, sipped a little water that had long turned tepid, and closed my laptop. With a glance at my cell phone I discovered it was only a little past 8:00 p.m.; plenty of time to get some takeout, take a bubble bath, and still get to bed on time. I looked at the papers scattered on my desk. So uncharacteristic of my usual organized habits. I stacked them in tidy to-do piles I could conquer the next day. A post-it emerged from the wreckage, stuck awkwardly to my desk. “Who is in the building?” I read out loud remembering my commitment to ask around. I crumpled the note and tossed it in the garbage can. No one else had been complaining about someone in the building that shouldn’t be, or any apparitions. It had to be a fluke. 

I gathered up my purse and my coat and realized that I would never make the thirty minute drive home without a pit stop in the restroom. I walked past the dark stacks to the employee bathroom tucked away in the far back corner of the library. The lights in the bathroom turned on automatically when I walked in the door. Like everything else in the bathroom, they operated on a sensor. I locked the stall door and sat down, clenching my teeth as my body shook with a deep chill. I had worked too much this week. I couldn’t wait to get home. I hoped I wasn’t getting sick. I blinked and yawned and the faucet turned on. One stream of water followed closely by another like a cascade as all the sinks rippled on and off again.

“Hello?” I peeked through the crack in the stall. No one. I flushed and stepped out to the sink staring myself down in the mirror as I washed my hands; mentally cursing myself for my current state of exhaustion. It was then that the paper towel dispenser on the other side of the room activated, spewing out a length of clean, and crisp brown paper. I walked past that paper, swinging widely around the machine, shaking my hands in the air. Somehow I knew the towel wasn’t for me. I left the bathroom on high alert, fear beginning to take over.

I only remember two things after I exited the bathroom that night. First, the floor of the stacks was littered with books. I could barely take a step without stubbing a toe on a twisted spine, or splayed pages. I bent to pick up an armful of books, affronted by their mistreatment despite my soul’s desperate desire to get as far away from the space as possible.  Second, I remember the profile of a women with long dark hair pulled into a loose braid in a long white dress, her head buried in old hardback. The volume lowered and her head turned in one fluid movement, her face tightened in a scowl as she threw the book over her shoulder and began to wail.   

 “La fantasma,” I said, as my eyelids closed and trapped me safely within my own head.

I came to laying on my back, looking up at two vertical walls of books surrounding me. All perfectly shelved with impeccable Dewey accuracy. The predawn morning light was just beginning to peek through the windows. The building creaked and groaned and so did my bones as I sat up and stretched.

“How long have I been here?” I questioned myself. My purse and coat lie in a heap close by.  I gathered them up and headed to my office where I sat for some time unable to make the decision to walk to my car. The library director stopped on her way in.

“Have you been here all night?” she asked with concern.

I nodded, choking on a feeble “yes.”

“Go home! And have a happy Halloween.”