Nick Klaus and the Room of Lost Footsteps

Below is the opening chapter of the novel, by Frederic Colier © 2023.

My name is Nick Klaus. I realize that telling you my name may not the best way to start a story. But if you only knew what a strange world I live in, you would understand that I’m saying it only to avoid confusion. You may already know me . . . If you don’t, then you should also know that I’m about ten-twelve years of age. It is important that I tell you because even that is a strange thing to say. No one knows my birthdate, and that included myself . . . Since I don’t know when I was born, I can’t invite anyone to my birthday party. So, no one invites me to theirs. I can’t remember ever having been to a single birthday party. To this day, when I see a group of kids my age in the park, with banners dangling from branches, balloons swirling at the back of chairs, gathered by a picnic table with colorful plates, cups, and hats, and candles flickering on a cake, I have to walk away . . .

It’s strange not to know your birthdate, but this is nothing compared to the strange I meant a minute ago. What I mean by that is precisely what I’m trying to tell you. Strange things have happened to me. Strange things continue to happen. And when I mean strange, I don’t mean weird, I mean really really strange . . . Best if you judge for yourself as I’m curious to hear how strange you think these things are, and if there is hope for me to escape this place. One thing I can tell you is how these things started.

They started some time ago, about a couple of months ago. I was running down the street with my sister, Charlotte, and a group of friends when we passed by a hairdresser parlor. The store was closed, but a birthday party was taking place inside. I couldn’t help but stole a glance, despite the large brown sheets of paper taped to the windows. Music blasted inside, and I could hear kids clapping and singing along. My heart churned. I don’t remember how long I must have peeped through a gap in a torn paper, but when I looked up again, my sister and all my friends were gone. I waited on the street corner, hoping that at last Charlotte would realize I was not with them. I walked around the block a couple of times but found no one. Where did they go? They could not have gone too far, at least that is what I thought.

I remember too that it was a cold day. The sky was crispy clear, but a strong icy wind was blowing through town. It made the tallest trees sway and knock against each other. Branches creaked as if in pain, while snow blustered through the streets. No one was in sight. Getting cold, I walked back to the hairdresser parlor. The front door was now locked, and the lights were off. It was as if the birthday party had never taken place. There too, everyone seemed to have vanished.

I crossed the street and walked into the nearest building with lights on to take shelter from the cold wind. It was the town library. Maybe my friends had the same idea. Though the place was warm, it was just as empty. No one around, not a sign from my sister either. Only a couple of old, long stringy gray-haired librarians worked behind the Welcome desk. With their tattered clothes and long bony fingers, which looked like the claws of crabs, they looked scary as if they came out straight from a cabin in the woods, like in a fairy tale. I don’t even think they noticed me.

I found an empty armchair at the back, took my coat off and walked randomly through the tall bookshelves. I figured the snowstorm would not last more than an hour and, since there was nothing else to do except reading books, I decided I would read one. After a minute, I came across an intriguing title: “How to Change Your Birthday in 10 Lessons.” What a strange book this was. How is changing your birthday possible at all? And what could be the reason to change your birthday anyway? Then, I remember I didn’t even know mine (or else I had forgotten it) and so there was no way I could change it. The book made clear in lesson #1 that in order to change your birth date, you had to know your current birthday date in the first place. Which meant what? That if your current birth date didn’t come in the first but in the second place, you couldn’t change it at all? This was absurd. Birthdays can’t come in the second place.

Now you may think I’m twisting words and am not really answering the question, but I would only ask you to wait a little longer before passing judgment. In the strange world I live in, words don’t stand still. They are slippery. Deceiving. Cunning. Dangerous even. Just when you think you mean something, they change meaning on you. And you don’t even notice when it happens. You only know it happened when you get confused or when people get angry or walk away from you—for no reason. It’s as if you’re talking to people changing shapes or clothes as you speak, and by the time you’re done, they are not the same people standing in front of you. You don’t know who they are and what you were saying to them. Don’t believe me?

Take for example the next book I picked up: “10 Things to Do Before Growing Ups.” This was also a rather strange title. I couldn’t understand it. The publisher must have made a mistake while typing the title. Did it mean 10 things to do in front of grown-ups? 10 things to do before growing up? Or 10 things to do before growing ups, as the title suggested? If it was correct, what on earth were ups? I eat an up every day for breakfast. She takes her ups for a walk in the park. My parents left their ups at the theater. Was an up a plant? A type of food? An animal? An activity? A machine? Which made me think if you had to do 10 things before growing them, that meant, probably, ups were dangerous or needed lots of care and preparation before growing them. Which made me think, what would happen if you did the 10 things after growing them? Would the ups bite me? Eat my books? Would I or they get sick? But I wasn’t interested in knowing why it was so important to grow ups, so I put the book back on the shelf. The truth I was irritated with my friends, especially Charlotte. How could she leave me alone without telling me?

But I know what you’re about to say: the cold outside was making me feverish. Pea-brained. I had caught a nasty cold. Maybe I was hungry after skipping lunch, and all these symptoms were making me think weird things. It did cross my mind. There was only one way to find out if I was getting ill. I picked up another book, a mystery called, “The Room of the Lost Footsteps.” Though I couldn’t quite tell what exactly the title meant, it was inviting. If I couldn’t make sense of the book again, then I’d know I was coming down with something, a flu or a stomach virus. My mother, who isn’t a doctor, always knew when I was getting sick, because I’d refuse to read. Maybe you’re like me, I can never read anything when I’m sick.

I looked out the window, and the storm was blowing strong. The trees disappeared under a veil of white rain. The snow stuck to the window frames like white tape, and I was stuck at the library. I promised to myself to make my mother proud of me. To prove to her I could read a book, I’d challenge myself to finish an entire book before the end of the snowstorm.

Sitting back in my armchair, I opened to the first page. This is when the most curious thing came to life. I discovered that it wasn’t only words that were unstable but just about everything else too. The first words on the first lines of the first page talked about me! This is what I read: Before I tell you about Nick Klaus, the mischievous boy who was stuck in a library . . . I leaped up from my seat. How was it possible, a character in a book, written by an author (the cover said his name was Anonymous) could talk about me when I was a real person sitting quietly in a library, waiting for a snowstorm to pass before going back home, to have dinner with my parents and my sister and then go to bed? The fact that I wanted to read proved that I was not sick. Something was not right with all these books.

I rushed to the Welcome desk to check with the two gray-haired librarians if they could take a look at the book and tell me if there was something wrong with it. The old woman got up from her seat upon seeing me. She had dark shiny eyes. I heard her say to the old man: ‘Goodness, there’s a boy in the library,’ which was a rude thing to say. Do children go to libraries and say: ‘Goodness what are these old people doing here?’ The old man lifted his head and grinned upon seeing me with long yellow teeth. She hurried into the back office as I slipped my book on the counter. The old man glanced at the cover of the book. He had piercing, blue eagle-like eyes and a long pointed nose. He moved his head with brief movements like a bird.

“Could you tell me if there is something wrong with this book?” I waited wide-eyed for his answer. The old man picked up the book with his long bony fingers and weighed it. He surveyed the spine, flicked through the pages and glanced at a couple of lines here and there.

“Not as far as I can see. Nothing wrong. Perfect shape. It has two covers, a front and back, and the pages are filled with words. And there are lots of them . . .”

“I meant the book talks about me.”

He frowned and leaned over the counter to better see me. The brightness of his eyes scared me. He lifted the book and clamped it against his ear as if it was a seashell.

“I’m sorry young man, I don’t hear anyone talking or saying anything.” He push the book back towards me.

“I meant the story of the book is about me. The words mention my name,” I said growing impatient.

“Well does the book say nice things or unnice things?”

I had never heard of the word unnice, but that was beyond the point. So I replied. “I’m not sure . . . I haven’t finished it yet . . . but the first line said I was mischievous.”

“Oh, I see now.” He scratched his chin and pondered for a moment. Then he thumped the book a couple of times with his knuckles. “There, that will teach you calling people who read you nasty names,” he said reprimanding the book.

“You can’t teach a book. It’s the other way around.”

“Meaning what? You’d like me to reprimand you the same way?”

I nodded at once. “No, I mean books are here to teach us,” I said to avoid confusion.

“Meaning what then? You’d like the book to reprimand me?”

“No, I mean—”

“Really who’s the librarian here?” He frowned, and his thick grey eyebrows crept like silver slugs up his forehead. I stepped back, feeling his piercing glare capturing me. “If you don’t want me to hit the book, don’t complain about it.”

“I was not.”

“Sounds to me like your mother told you to go to the library to pick up a book, but you don’t want to read.”

Since I wasn’t going to get a straight response from this strange librarian, I snatched the book back. Even though this librarian was responding in a strange way, I refused to believe I was sick.

“Don’t you think it’s kind of strange that a book has a story about me when I’m standing in front of you,” I said as a last resort.

“I see . . . You should have said so before, instead of wasting my time.” He mulled again for a brief instant. “I’ve seen similar cases in the past. I can’t quite remember how we solved them . . . The best way to fix this kind of situation would be either to file a claim that some of the pages have been added to the book, or to arrest you for writing your name in the book.” He tightened his jaw and sneered.

I thought he was joking or trying to scare me. I simply mumbled that I hadn’t written my name, staring at the book cover to avoid his captivating eyes.

“Are you going to check this book out or not?” he added opening a drawer, from which he seized a set of clattering keys. By now I was too afraid to ask if there was something strange with the library too. Working for it, he would have accused me of being mad. When I rose my head again, he was gone. I looked over the counter but couldn’t see him anywhere. All I could hear what the rattling of the keys, somewhere. I walked back to my armchair puzzled.

I’m not sure if you’re like me, but I’m curious by nature. My father often gets irritated when I ask too many questions. “Dad what do you think is more stable? A birth date or the anchor of a ship at the bottom of the sea?” “Dad, is it possible to have an emperor with no clothes? I heard someone say our mayor was an emperor with no clothes. Which is strange since our mayor manages our annual coat drive. “Is that why mayors do it? Do they get to keep all the coats for themselves?” My father doesn’t talk much. He is always very busy. He hugs me when he doesn’t have an answer, or he grunts and goes back to his saucepans and chops something. My dad is a manager in a large factory, but he loves cooking.

If you’re like me and like to go to the bottom of things, you can guess what happened next. You bet I wanted to learn more about what this Anonymous was having his main character, me, say about me. How could someone possibly know more about me than my parents and me? After getting over my strange encounter, I sat back down and re-opened the book.

Before I tell you about Nick Klaus, the mischievous boy who was stuck in a library, let me tell you about myself, and how I came to meet him. I know that this book is a new adventure for this precocious tenish-year-old boy, but it is critical that you learn about me first. Otherwise, the rest of the story will make no sense, unless you know the strange circumstances that brought us together.

I tried not to get upset. I didn’t know who was talking in this story, but whoever she or he was had a nerve to call me mischievous. But I wanted to make my mother proud. There was nothing like running back home and seeing her joyful face when I tell her that I had read an entire book in one afternoon.

I realize too that if I keep interrupting my reading each time something annoys me, we’ll never get to the end of this book, and you’ll never find out who is who. So, I’m going to let you read the book on your own, and I’ll see you at the end, hoping you agree with me. I’m not getting a flu or coming down with something. The strange world I’m stuck in for the moment is simply crowded with even stranger unstable words, events, and people than you could ever imagine. You’re in for one special kind of a ride. Still, pay attention, because if you don’t, this world will make you believe all kinds of strange things about me and my world—or worse yours . . . and trust me, you don’t want that to happen to you.