The next day, Rowan continued his work on the 6th floor. He had hardly slept the night before because he could not stop thinking about the tapping he had heard coming from the vent. What he normally would have assumed was just an old, outdated cooling system, he now thought was something else. He was not sure what exactly, but in his heart he knew he had to get to the bottom of it.
He had decided that he would come back after his shift was over and hide in the same aisle to watch and see what the man would do. The library closed at 7 pm every day, so if he could stay hidden until after the last check, he would be pretty much alone, save for the occasional security guard. If the man was going to do anything, it would have to be after hours.
The minutes ticked by while Rowan waited for his shift to be over. He looked at the clock numerous times, always expecting an hour to have passed but really it had just been 5 minutes here or 10 minutes there.
Any time that he would hear footsteps approaching, his heart would sink, and he’d look over to the mechanical room doors. Each time, though, it was just a patron looking for some little-known book or manuscript. Rowan began to worry that he wouldn’t see the man again, but as time dragged on, he slowly started to feel less apprehensive.
Maybe he had just been paranoid that something horrible was going on. Perhaps he had spent too much time watching true crime shows and reading too many books in the Thriller genre. For all he knew, the man really had just been doing his job, and that weird stain on his cleaning rag had just been paint or something. He began to think that he had just escalated the whole scenario and was overreacting.
He had just been on the verge of abandoning his plan for the night when he heard what sounded like someone sliding slowly through the vents above him. This sound was very different from the one he had heard the day before. It sounded weak, labored. Again, he followed the sound with his eyes, and again this sliding, dragging sound was making its way towards the mechanical room. He watched and listened for what seemed like eternity.
Rowan wanted more than anything to run into the room and investigate, but this time it was closed and locked. The doors could be opened from the inside, but a key was needed to enter the room from the outside. He stared anxiously, waiting for this mystery person to emerge, as he knew it wasn’t the maintenance man. Rowan had been there all day and hadn’t seen him once.
Finally, the sliding sound reached just where the vent’s opening would be. He heard the grate rattle as this mystery person tried to loosen the two screws, which proved to be relatively easy. The man must have just placed them in far enough that the grate wouldn’t fall because in moments, he heard the vent clang to the floor. He ducked behind his cart, the light overhead already having been dimmed because he had been still for the past 15 minutes.
His breath caught in his throat as he saw the door begin to open. What he saw caused all the color to drain from his face. Out stepped a girl. She was bony, pale, and covered in blood. She looked like she had been scratched and whipped, as there were scars and lacerations covering her arms and legs. Her light brown hair was stained a rusty red and was tangled around her sweaty face.
She wore a white, soiled nightgown that came to her knees, but rowan could see that she was malnourished. She wobbled slowly out of the open doorway, and she looked terrified. She collapsed suddenly, but Rowan was frozen in place. His blood was ice in his veins and his entire body was shaking.
The girl began to moan painfully, and this set Rowan to action. He quickly made his way down the long aisle to where she was, and he picked her up and helped her walk back to his secluded nook behind his cart. She was startled but too weak to put up any sort of fight.
When they reached his nook, he set her down gently but could not even begin to form any words. There were too many thoughts and questions racing through his head. All he could do was stare at her; her green eyes were unfocused and glazed, and she looked like she was going to pass out. He couldn’t tell if it was from blood loss from her open wounds or from starvation. Instinct took over and he began to check the wounds for bleeding and infection. From what he could see, most of the wounds were shallow and seemed to be from her struggling against whatever or whoever had gotten her into the air ducts in the first place.
He looked at her face once more and noticed that she was now focusing on him. When she realized that he was not her captor, she weakly tried to talk, but her voice sounded cracked and dry. Rowan offered her a drink of his water, since he assumed she hadn’t had a drink in quite a while. She accepted and guzzled greedily. When she had finished, she was finally able to strain a few words out.
“He’s going to be coming back for me.”
Those words seemed to sap her energy, but Rowan insisted on keeping her conscious. He offered her some of his snack crackers that he kept on his cart, and she swallowed them without hesitation and without breathing.
Rowan could see that she was getting a small amount of strength from this meager sustenance.
In the distance he heard the ding of the elevators, and again his blood ran cold. He quickly placed the cart in such a way that the girl wouldn’t be seen and told her to keep quiet. He could see the fear and panic playing across her face, and she muffled the sounds of her hyperventilating. Rowan pretended to work, placing books on the shelf and glancing towards the end of the aisle every few seconds.
Rowan’s hands were shaking profusely. He was worried about what would happen when the man opened the doors to the mechanical room and saw that the grate was open. Would he know she escaped? And would he know that I had helped her, that I knew?
Sure enough, it was the maintenance man again. Rowan made eye contact with him as he passed by the mechanical room. He initially reached for the door handle, but quickly moved his hand when he saw Rowan. His face carried pure anger as his plans were obviously thwarted by Rowan’s presence. He continued walking, and when he was out of sight, Rowan glanced at the girl. She looked like she was going to faint, but she remained quiet, staring at Rowan to see what was happening. She was too scared to even move.
Rowan could hear the man’s footsteps recede, and they heard what sounded like the door to the emergency stairs opening and closing. A few minutes later, Rowan and the girl cautiously made their way to the elevator. He still had about 3 hours left of his shift, but his priority for the moment was getting the girl to safety. They descended to the ground floor, and Rowan led her to the side entrance accessible only by library employees and took her quickly to his car in the parking garage.
Once they knew they were safe inside the car, Rowan finally asked her what was going on. The girl still didn’t have much strength, so she could only get out a few words.
“I was kidnapped. Tortured. There were others.”
Rowan asked her if she would be comfortable going to his apartment, as he felt that would be a safe place for her for the time being. She agreed, and they made their way there. The whole drive, the girl didn’t say a single word. She just sank into the car seat and seemed to be dozing off. Rowan was mostly left with his thoughts, and he was anxious about how events would unfold now that this girl had escaped. Not to mention, the man had now seen him twice on the 6th floor.