Kate unlocked the door to the library basement, and the chill of stale air conditioning escaped into the hot summer sun. She climbed down the stairs one by one, passing librarians on their way out after the long work day.
Night shift, she sighed to herself.
Even Ms. Caparelli was leaving for the evening, her portly frame passing through the exit by the basement stairs. Ms. Caparelli had been working at the library longer than anyone else there, and Kate often mused about her. How many things had changed over her years in the building? And what on earth had driven her to stay so long? Kate liked to imagine what her personal life must be like, although she often found it difficult to muster a realistic image. The woman seemed such a staple of the library that she may very well have just ceased to exist when the building’s doors closed for the night.
Kate settled into her desk chair, the hurried sounds of last minute shuffled paper and shuffled feet turning to silence – silence and the tick, tick, tick of the clock on the wall. The second hand occasionally moved lazily, failing to make that satisfying tick during intervals of silence as it rounded out the minutes. Kate was attuned to these sorts of things.
She checked her e-mails and fidgeted in her chair. A co-worker had explained the night shift duties to her when she first began the post. You’re there in case anyone calls – in case anyone needs anything. But mostly you’re just a body at the desk.
The words echoed in her head. A body.
She looked through her e-mails again. People did call on occasion, but only to ask what time the library would close. 10PM. Kate could recite this fact with unmatched skill and fluency. They had until 10PM to bring in overdue books, to haggle fines, to pray forgiveness from the library gods. 10PM.Then silence.
She resisted the urge to browse the internet, uncomfortable with whatever level of surveillance had been placed on her, if any. Although she was alone in the fluorescent-lit room, she felt that if she dared to check personal accounts, Ms. Caparelli would somehow know. Kate’s lack of professionalism would be revealed, and the eye of judgment would come crashing in.
Kate checked her e-mails again.
Tick, tick — tick.
Kate rose from her chair, stretching her antsy legs with a slow lap around the room. Right to the wall calendar, left to the copy machine, and left again to the desk. She stopped to look at a cart of new books, all shiny and ready for cataloging stickers to indicate where they would belong. In the storage room just beyond were the discarded volumes. They had once lived on the shelves but had been pulled, either due to lack of use or an abundance of it. Here, the books sat in a state of purgatory, waiting for dismissal or long-term preservation. Kate ran her fingers along the frayed spines, thinking of the molecules carried by these books from long-passed eras – dust from before she ever existed.
Bronte, Stevenson, Verne… What have these books seen?
Her curiosity got the better of her, and she pulled open a file cabinet drawer to pore through the titles. She was grateful to have something to occupy the hours. The top drawer held children’s books, their illustrations faded to pastels. The second drawer was filled with local history documents – tangible proof of what once was. The third, however, was curious.
The latch jammed, and it took Kate a bit of force to pull the drawer free. Inside sat only one book, a small, beaten, black tome. It seemed to hum, Kate thought, not in an audible sense but in a low, reverberating tone. It was as if the book held an electrical charge.
Kate reached out a finger to touch it, aware of how ridiculous this precaution was, but cautious all the same. She felt nothing beneath her finger but grit and binding. The pages, she found, said nothing at all. Every sheet was weather-worn and brittle, but they were all blank.
What a disappointment, Kate thought. She placed the book back, careful to give the drawer a shove, and returned to her desk.
Tick — tick — —
The second hand had stopped completely this time. Kate suddenly felt more uneasy than when she had arrived.
The next day, she greeted her co-workers as she passed them, hyper-aware of her previous night’s snooping.
Do they know? …Do they care? Why would they care? Kate wondered. She had done nothing wrong, but she still felt guilty, like she had seen something she shouldn’t have. This was heightened all the more by her desire to look again. There had to be something in that book. Why would they keep it here if it didn’t mean anything?
Kate sat at her desk without budging. She checked her e-mails and answered the phone, comforted by the treat that waited for her, locked away in the back office. The clock didn’t tick it’s maddening tick anymore. The room merely hummed.
At 9:45 she walked back, sat on the floor by the tall cabinet, and unlatched the third drawer. The little black book sat inside, just as it had the night before and all the nights before that. She pulled the book into her lap, and when she let the cover fall open, she saw words – light at first and then scrawled darker, more furiously.
She couldn’t understand any of it. She couldn’t make out the handwriting. It seemed to be concerned more with rhythm than with the formation of any real letters. It was like the text read as a song, and she saw pictures – diagrams of rituals and illustrations of bodies dismembered before a great fire. She turned each page slowly, cautiously, horrified of what she might see but still so curious of what was next.
Finally on the last page was Kate’s name, the only thing she could distinguish. Bewildered, she ran her finger over the text and found the ink was still wet. The black smeared over the page, and she rubbed her marred finger as if the ink was a poison. She pushed the book to the floor where it lied open.
Kate didn’t have time to move before she heard the metal bar shift as the door plunged open. Standing before her was Ms. Caparelli. She was naked, her grey flesh hanging like a shroud. Behind her were all of Kate’s co-workers standing silently, blocking the exit. They stared down on Kate with the open book, and Ms. Caparelli walked forward, her eyes wild like ancient fires burned behind them. She held a small knife in her hand, and she slowly pressed the tip to Kate’s throat.
Kate froze. She looked back and forth from the catatonic librarians, to the book, and back to Ms. Caparelli’s burning eyes that never moved. The knife handle sat cold and hard on Kate’s clavicle.
Kate slowly raised her hand, and Ms. Caparelli did not move. She only shifted her fixed gaze to Kate’s hand which carefully grasped the knife handle. The old woman smiled, and the crowd behind her simply waited. Kate took the knife and sat on the ground before the book. Slowly, she pressed the blade to her palm, and with a sigh, she bled into the pages.
I am never a fan of going first, but here is my current creative writing attempt for all to see. This story was inspired by, in fact, having a summer library job, and while my co-workers are not (as far as I know) involved in the occult, I do sometimes work in a basement that lends very well to Argento/Polanski-esque daydreams.