By Stephanie Sanders-Jacob
I was fifteen when I got the job at the library. I’d been going there since I was a kid, sitting cross-legged on worn carpet, listening to old women read picture books. I guess I’d been hanging around for so long, nagging even the janitor, that they figured they might as well hire me. It had always been my favorite place.
They called me a page. After school, I carried books to the shelves, bent down low where the aging librarians couldn’t, climbed stools where they wouldn’t. Sometimes they gave me a duster and I ran the feathered plume along the spines. I cleaned up after big functions in the meeting room, scooping stained paper cups into garbage bags after the garden club was through. It had been my dream to work there and I did it well. Everyone told me I was doing a good job. Everyone smiled when I came plodding through the door, schoolbooks under my arm. Everyone but Janet.
Janet was against hiring me from the start, so I guess I don’t feel that bad about what happened to her. I know I should. But I just don’t. I’ve tried closing my eyes, remembering the way her face looked all screwed up and scared, but I can’t muster up one scrap of sadness for that stodgy old girl. When the director announced that I was to help out around the place, she raised her hand and asked why they couldn’t hire an adult, someone responsible. She asked if the job wouldn’t interfere with my schooling. She looked at me with enough disgust to smite a man. No, I don’t feel sorry one bit.
I was nice to her, don’t get me wrong. Her niece worked with my mom at the bank. I didn’t want to complicate things for my mom any and I wasn’t a mean kid — I smiled and did as she told me — but I avoided her best I could. When she was working, I spent a lot of time back in the stacks, straightening books, reading some.
I was hiding from Janet when the blue-eyed man came.
I smelled him before I saw him — a tangy scent, like sharp cheddar left to rot. I closed up the book I’d been reading, something about wolves, and slid it back onto the shelf. I pulled my shirt up over my nose. I figured someone had spilled something and I better go see. The janitor had already left for the day, but if I could handle it, I would.
Leaving nonfiction behind, I turned into the main aisle dividing the sections and barreled right into the blue-eyed man. He was short, coming up to my shoulders, and his head knocked against my collarbone.
“Jeez,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I adjusted my shirt, tried to wipe the smell off my chest.
He looked up at me, eyes all icy and gleaming, and smiled a gap-toothed smile.
“Um, can I help you? Help you find something?”
“You’re the kid.” His voice was a winded whisper.
I looked down the aisle, but no one was at the desk and the carrels were empty. “I guess,” I said. Sometimes the librarians sent patrons to me, knowing I had a good sense of where things were. Janet didn’t trust me with a task as large as helping someone find the Agatha Christies, but the others did and it gave me something to do.
“This way,” he said, gnarled fingers wrapping around my forearm. “Back here.”
He pulled me back into the nonfiction, pressed me up against the political theory.
“Hey, what’s this about?” I asked, struggling though he was small.
He let go of me and his arms fell to his sides. He was breathing hard.
I rubbed my arm where he’d grabbed it. “Maybe we ought to go up to the desk.” I hadn’t seen anyone up there, but the librarians couldn’t be far. I could ring the little bell and they’d come and I wouldn’t have to be alone with this man.
“No,” he squeaked and reached for me again, but I pulled away.
“Stop that,” I said. “I’m going to ask you to leave if you keep grabbing at me like that.” It made me feel better to pretend I had some authority in the place. And it worked. The blue-eyed man shrunk back, pulled his arms to his chest.
He was old, face all craggy and gray, and his clothes were too big. In that moment, I felt sorry for him. Murray wasn’t a big enough town to have a whole lot of homeless folks, but he was clearly one of the few. Being a public place, the library saw a lot of people in need of a place to sit for a few minutes, a hushed, temporary respite from whatever bombarded them on the other side of the door. Maybe I could help him.
“You need a drink of water? We got books on writing resumes, car repair. The ladies up front have papers with the numbers of local services on them. You could use our phone.”
“What?” he frowned.
“We have typewriters for rent,” I offered.
“I don’t want a typewriter,” he gasped. “I want to talk to you.”
“Me?” I scrunched up my eyes. “I’m just a page here, sir. I think you want to talk to a real librarian. Come on.” I tried again to move toward the desk.
“Stop,” he snarled. “Won’t you just listen? It didn’t tell me you’d be so damn impertinent.”
Impertinent — I didn’t know what that word meant, but I knew where the dictionary was. I turned back toward him. “Who’s it?” I asked.
He looked over his shoulder, shrugged. The movement was nonchalant, but my arm hairs stood on end all the same.
“Gosh,” I said. “What is it you want, mister?”
“Just to show you something. Come,” he begged.
I followed him. I shouldn’t have, but I did. I let him lead me to the back of the stacks. Books lay lopsided on the shelves and I made a mental note to straighten them when I could. “There’s nothing back here,” I said.
“There wasn’t before but now there is,” he explained. “There’s something here now.”
I shivered, smoothed my hands over my goose-bumped arms. “What?”
“Everything,” he said.
“And nothing,” he said. “All of it.”
He ushered me toward a door. I knew the closet behind it held colorful paper, pens, ribbons for the typewriters. “There’s nothing in there,” I said.
“Right,” he said. “But there’s something in there, too.”
We looked at each other for a long time.
“I’ll show you,” I said at last. “It’s just some supplies. It’s probably unlocked. You been poking around in there?”
I reached for the knob, felt it turn easy in my hand. The door swung open and, instead of neatly organized boxes, I saw nothing. It was vacuous black, a darkness so thick it stole your breath, crept down your throat. I took a clumsy step back. “What happened?” I asked.
The man spoke, but I didn’t hear him. I couldn’t take my eyes off that void, velvety and eternal. I reached out, let my fingers disappear. I leaned in and felt for the shelving, but my hands just passed through that improbable night like it was nothing, and I guess it was.
I felt his hands on my waist, pulling me away from the dark with a gentleness that surprised me. I looked down at him. “You shouldn’t go in yet,” he said. “There are some things you should know.”
I closed the door and the room brightened. Sound, which I hadn’t realized had left me, returned with a buzz. My breathing was strange, erratic. “What is it?” I asked.
“I told you,” he said.
I shook my head. “How did you know it was here?”
“It’s always somewhere,” he said. “I can taste it, track it down.”
I looked at my hand, rotated it in the light. It looked normal, felt normal. “What do you want?”
The man smiled, the space between his teeth a cavern. “It’s not what I want, but what it wants. Did you feel it?”
“I didn’t feel anything,” I said. I wanted to run, to bolt back to the desk, through the exit, out into the hissing, vibrant world, but I was pinned. My feet wouldn’t move. Maybe I didn’t want to leave, after all. There was something about that door, a sucking magnetism. “There’s nothing in there.”
“Good,” he said. “Before you go in-”
“I’m not going in,” I said. “Not all the way.”
His eyebrows raised. “Someone has to go in. That’s how you get it to go away.”
“Why don’t you go in, then?”
“Me? And then who would find it next time?”
“I could do it,” I offered.
He laughed, a single bark, and I jumped. “No, no. You could never taste it. Your palate is unrefined, juvenile. No, you have to go in.”
I didn’t tell him how I had felt it sliding through my teeth, forcing its way down. I ran my tongue along my top lip. “What will happen?”
“Well, I’m not sure. But the important thing is that you don’t try to come back out.”
“Ever,” he said.
“I’m not going in there,” I said. I turned, free of that shadow, and made to walk away.
His hand shot out, dirty nails digging into my skin. “Ouch,” I gasped.
“I thought you were a curious boy,” he spat. “I didn’t think I’d have to force you in.”
“Let go,” I shouted, and when I pulled away, his fingernails left bright streaks down my arm.
He lunged for me, grabbed at my shirt.
“Quiet.” He climbed up me, legs wrapped around my own. A filthy hand pressed against my lips. “You’ll go in now.”
I spoke into his hand, breathed in the fungal scent of him. I was dizzy with it and the edges of my vision wavered.
“Shh,” he soothed. “Shh. You’ll go in now.”
“Mmhmmph mmp hmm,” I said into his palm. I pointed, finger trembling, toward the front of the library. “Mmm.”
He slid down my body, let his hand fall away. “Who?” he asked.
“Janet,” I said, gulping in the fresh air. “She’ll go in.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “I thought it should be you,” he said.
“Oh no,” I bluffed. “I’ll try to come back out. I’ll fight, you know. I’ll come right back out. But Janet, she’s old. She’ll stay. And if that doesn’t work out, I’ll go in then.” I wasn’t sure if he’d believe me, of if what I said made any sense to the odd old man, but he stilled, chewed the corner of his mouth.
“You’ll go in if it doesn’t take her?”
“It’s worth a try,” I said.
He nodded, straightened his jacket. “Alright,” he said. “I’ll let you try it. It couldn’t hurt, feeding two in.”
I was shaking all over, but I tried a smile. “Deal,” I said. “I’ll go get her. You stay here.”
He didn’t say anything, so I turned, walked up to the desk. The doors stood just beyond, sunlight glowing in the leaded windows. I could just keep on walking. I could walk forever. But I could feel that old man, could smell him still. “Janet?” I called, leaning across the polished wood desktop. “Janet, you up here?”
“What?” she snapped from some nearby crevice. “You didn’t finish shelving already did you?” She came out of the back office patting her hair.
“Well, I got distracted,” I said, voice all wobbly.
Half her mouth bent up into a snide smile. “That’s no surprise. Get back at it, then.” She bent and brought up a stack of papers, began sorting them.
“No, you see, I need your help with something,” I said.
“Of course you do.”
All the fear lit out of me and was replaced by something harder, something angry. “Will you just come back here and help me?”
She blinked at my gruffness. “I suppose,” she said, laying her papers aside. “Just be quick about it.”
I led her back to the closet door and the little man was there, waiting. “Oh my,” she said, fanning the air around her face. “Who’s he? What’s this about?”
The blue-eyed man looked down at his feet.
“He’s been snooping in the closet,” I said. “You better look and see what he’s done.”
“He has? You left it unlocked? I swear, if anything’s been taken or tampered with, I’ll-”
She pulled the door open. All the light drained out of the world. She was quiet for a moment, then she turned. Her voice was small, unbelieving. “Why, it’s all gone.”
I looked past her shoulder, stared into that empty space. I felt a familiar choking, a strange sense of anticipation.
“Where has everything gone?” she asked.
I pushed her then and she fell backward with a grunt. She reached out for me, fingers grazing mine, face contorted into a look of sad surprise.
The darkness ate her whole.
I blinked and when I opened my eyes, the closet was there, stocked with all the usual things. The shelves were tidy and undisturbed. Janet was gone.
I turned to ask the blue-eyed man if it had worked, but he had disappeared as well. I looked for him, ducking beneath tables, opening and closing the closet door several times, but I never saw him again. His smell did linger, but, with enough time, that went away too.
They looked for Janet. They put posters of her up in town, dredged the reservoir. They held search parties that turned into candlelight vigils that turned into nothing at all.
The library stays quiet, I make sure of that. I still run my duster along the spines. I open the door to the closet and I look inside. I run my tongue along my teeth. I taste the air. Nothing.
Stephanie Sanders-Jacob is a horror and weird fiction author from Sandusky, Ohio. Her writing has appeared in Mixer, Mosaic, and Ether Arts magazines. Her debut novel, Singing All the Way Up, is slated to come out in July from No Bad Books Press. She can be found online at sandersjacob.com, on Twitter, and Instagram.