A new week, a new challenge.
The flash fiction challenge set by Chuck Wendig this week involved “this” versus “that” in what would be a “Freddy vs Jason”, or “Alien vs Predator”, or “Flesh Eating Ants vs Donald Trump” style battle of the elements.
You can see the full list of creative options here on the Wendig blog (as well as other stories using this prompt). Of the twenty vs twenty choices to pick from, I opted for some delightful options:
X (13). Librarians
Y (9). Cannibals
This week’s flash fiction challenge has a relatively cool origin story. I was reading through the roster of nominations for the SFWA Nebula Awards (which can be seen here) and fell in love with Caroline M. Yoachim’s short story entry (which happens to be a pretty cool Choose-You-Own-Adventure story) called “Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station│Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0” (which can be found here).
So I took it on myself and demolished the ~2000 word limit Chuck has set for this week’s challenge. I have taken a decent stab at this Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style of writing, and created the above mashup of Librarian(s) vs Cannibal(s) in this week’s story.
(note: depending on what route you take, this easily fits under the 2000 word limit 🙂 )
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…
A READER, DIGESTED
by Benjamin “Sertysh” Roughton
The midsummer rain lashes with force on the library roof above, but the late setting sun oozes through the stained glass windows with equal intensity, warming your cheeks. Columns of rainbow heat, untouched by the bitter cold outside, splits through the ancient mahogany shelves before you like highlighter pens on essays; purples, pinks and greens, drawing your eyes away from vast collections of words and towards the exit, where you have so desperately been waiting to go.
You check your watch, and the time is approaching 6 pm. Time to lock up.
You ask yourself; are you certain everyone who visited has left? You have certainly committed yourself to working the extra half hours this week, and for what? You’re on minimum wage, and today is Friday! You deserve this weekend, so why don’t you lock up and leave (and go to Z.)?
Or, does your conscience get the better of you? You decide to leave the confines of your countered desk, and search the library for any stragglers, most likely losing time amongst the many books and tomes that you so kindly serve. (You, begrudgingly, continue to B.).
The low sun, still cutting between the book shelves and corners in warm rainbow beams, blinds you occasionally as you wander the aisles and sections, turning corners and carefully navigating the empty labyrinth that is the library. Your ears, usually sharp in listening for footsteps from noisy pad-footed patrons, are foiled by the pitter-patter of rain.
What a day, you think to yourself, to not have your coat.
You peek around the corner of Botanical Sciences and Buildings. You are a good five minute walk away from Zoological Sciences, and that’s if you bypass the sections from Mining Engineering to Political Science.
But you should do your job, you tell yourself, and check every aisle; one by one (go to C.).
However… you know nobody will be there, because nobody is ever in those boring sections. It’s usually kids in the fiction area, or sex-starved teenagers in the biology sections, or… you know, forget it…today has been oddly quiet, and more importantly, you really can’t be bothered (so you go to D. instead).
This is a long walk. That rain isn’t giving up either, so you’ll be getting wet anyway when you leave. What a good librarian you are, staying late again. You decide to give the fiction aisles more time than you needed, and also another check of the Social Problems and Services section, in case you lock in a crazy person.
You find nobody. But you do find a lost shoe, a coat and also a makeup bag. Guess the lost property box is getting bigger by the day.
But just as your turn the corner of Palaeontology, the low hanging sun blinds you. A blur of purple from the stained glass stunts your gaze, and as you escape the burning glow… you… was that someone in the back, there? You are certain you saw something zip around the corner in the back, towards the Foods and Recipe Book section… you think…?
…it can’t be anything. You have already spent (or rather, wasted) time scrutinising all these sections, and the time was now ten past six.
You pull yourself around and start walking back to the main desk (and head to F.)…
…but it did look like a person… and what would your manager say when they find a person… no, a crazy person!… locked in here overnight? You must turn around (and head to E.) to check it out?
You are walking back to the main desk, with the thoughts of that key locking the doors, and doing a little dance as you celebrate the start to your weekend. But as you turn around the corner of Botanical Sciences and Buildings, you find a shoe. A singular shoe. And socks too! And… eugh… dirty underwear!?
Bloody teenagers! What is so sexy about hook-ups at the library?
Since you have decided the head back, and also because you don’t fancy hepatitis either, you simply kick the shoe and other bits under the bookshelves. Let’s worry about that on Monday.
(Go to Z.)
You step lightly, trying to separate the sound of rain from footsteps… that is, if that was indeed a person. You dip beneath the glowing beams of sunlight, desperate not to have that mind of yours play tricks on you again.
You turn the corner of Foods and Recipes to find… nothing. You sigh a breath of relief, especially as this section was a dead end. No more chasing shadows.
You catch the smell of something bitter in the air. Maybe damp from the roof? No, you don’t have time to worry about that. You turn, and you follow the beaming sunlight pointing you back to the main desk.
You walk ten paces from the small corner you had walked from, and as you watch your shadow in front of you stretch ever longer along the floor ahead, you see the shadow of… something else… next to your silhouette.
Your body freezes.
Your mind, ever used to stories and tales of fantasy and horror, starts its own scenario where you are alone in library with… no… this isn’t fiction! This is real! The shadow beside you, a lurching outline of a skinny figure, cut against the dimming sunlight, is looking at you.
Do you run? (Go to G.). Or do you turn around, and face it? (Go to H.).
Your mind plays tricks on you all the time. You certainly do enjoy reading thrillers, and mysteries, and horrors; in fact, you had been dipping into a few novels between assisting folk at the main desk today.
And you’re tired, you tell yourself, because your mind plays tricks on you all the time…
…like just then, when you hear knocking on the floor.
Knock, knock, knock.
You turn your head quickly, and hope to catch a glimpse of whatever it was making that noise, but all you see are shelves and books again. You pause. You catch the sound. It’s coming from back there, back at the Foods and Recipes section.
A part of you feels afraid, and watched.
Your imagination plays wild, and as you continue walking towards the main desk, the knock intensifies. You avoid looking behind you, just in case you see a pair of eyes looking back at you. You are being watched, you tell yourself. You can feel it. Cold eyes, staring back at you. Somewhere.
But what should you do? You should leave (and go to Z.) because it was probably nothing.
You can stay, if you want. If you are crazy enough to look around one last time (so go to E.). Go ahead. Waste your time.
Your heavy feet pound at the wooden floor below, echoing down the library as you watch your shadow get closer and closer to the main desk. You can’t hear anything else, other than you and you alone.
The bookshelves whiz past you.
Before you know it, the main desk passes you in a blur. You daren’t stop for your things, the keys, or anything.
You just run, straight through the library doors, and onto the street outside. You don’t stop running until you get back home, with your chest in agony and your skin wet with sweat.
You must have gone to sleep as soon as you got, because all you remember is a feeling of dread, the reaction to run, and waking up to the sound of the phone.
It’s your boss.
“What kind of an ass are you! What do you mean “scary shadows”? You’re a frickin’ liability, you! You’ll never work in a library again, asshole!”
Three years later… you eventually get diagnosed with a psychological fear of shadows, bought on by post traumatic stress from something you can’t quite explain. You spend the rest of your days locked in your bedroom at your mom’s house, with the light always on.
Thirty years later, you die alone.
You turn around… slowly.
You are careful not to let the setting sun blind you, but as you feel the warm heat on your cheeks, and then on your face, you see it.
A staggering, hunched child, with arms folded in, and hands crooked and red raw. It is a little girl, keeping her arms held close to her narrow body as she shivers in the light. Her face is hidden under her straw-like blonde hair.
Your heart sinks.
You bet she’s scared, and lonely. Where’s her mother, you wonder. How appalling a sight, it breaks your heart… but just as you are about to ask where her mother is, or if she was okay, she says something…
“The hand…” she mumbles. “You’re the hand that feeds us, aren’t you!”
You know what you just heard, but it didn’t make sense. She’s probably been here all day, suffering from delirium. You wonder if you should try and hold her hand… comfort her… and try and lead her to safety at the main desk so you can call the police. You reach for her fingers (and as you do, you head to I.).
But maybe something doesn’t feel right… you would have certainly noticed this girl if she’d walked in, being the state she is in. She’s just… not right. Her arms are so skinny and pale, it’s like looking at a skeleton! She looks diseased… so you do nothing (and go to J.).
She lunges at you, and grips her talon like fingers around your arm. She lifts her face up, and peering between the straw-like hair are burning red eyes, unlike anything you have ever seen.
She overpowers you, and throws you to the floor.
You try and fight, but it’s too late. You are now lying on your back, and as she crawls over your frozen body, she lunges her head, shaking and twisting, straight towards your neck and sinks her teeth into it.
A pain, unlike any you have suffered before, cripples you into submission.
You can’t look down. Your body refuses to move.
All you can feel is your neck being torn inside out, and all you can hear is flesh being ripped apart by her needle-like fingers, and her little sharp teeth.
The last thing you see is the library ceiling, and the orange setting sun, and the occasional whip of the child’s blonde hair as she tears out another ribbon of flesh.
Your death comes slower than you had hoped for.
You look at her. You feel you must say something.
You ask her if she is okay, but she clearly isn’t. She is trembling like an addict, and stinks of something rotten. You try and urge her to follow you back to the main desk. You have some boiled sweets she can tuck into whilst you can decide who best to call.
But it’s no use.
She simply stands there, shivering. She mumbles more nonsense at you.
“No, no, you are the hand. You feed us. This is my home”
You are getting frustrated. Stupid kid, what’s wrong with her? Well… other than the fact she looks like crap and stinks of it too.
You can’t just leave her here. You keep enticing her to follow you. Clean clothes? Free books? Some tasty foods?
“No, no, the hand has already fed us today” She replies through her tangled hair.
What?! This is so weird. But, just as you huff in frustration, you see something behind the aisles, most likely from where she was hiding. Then, you notice the red rashes on her arms and hands aren’t rashes… it’s blood. She’s bleeding, bless her. Are you injured, you ask her. What have you done?
“They won’t stop squirming around”
Who won’t, you ask? What are you talking about?
She giggles again.
“The peoples… they didn’t like me… when I start to eat thems”
You see it now.
Behind the bookcases, you catch a glimpse of the horrors hiding in the shadows. You see an arm, shining against the diminishing light, covered in deep bites and gashes. A pair of dead, disjointed eyes are staring back at you through a gap where books should be.
You cannot… you… you cannot think straight.
Surely, a girl so tiny… she’s just a child…
Are you… next?
Run now, if you can pull your frozen body. Run (and go to K.). Run, bloody run, and get out of here, now!
But, what if you can’t?
Surely, if she wanted to… she would have killed you by now?
You can’t run… because if you wanted to run you would have done so by now!
You ask her, “Why do you call me ‘The Hand’? Is it because I…”
You gulp in fear, and before you can finish your sentence, she speaks…
“You feed me, yes?” she whispers. “Will there be more next time?”
So… will there be more next time?
What do you say? Tomorrow is the weekend. The library is closed!
This is ridiculous… you can’t help this freak!
Do you lie? Say yes, and then leave… and never return to this library… never return to this nightmare… (so go to L.).
Do you get help? Say yes… maybe if you tip the police off? An ambulance, maybe? Surely she would have been sorted by Monday morning. Let the authorities deal with her? That sounds like a good idea (so good an idea, you go to M.).
…anything you do from this point onwards… knowing every time you have replied to a patron “the recipe books? Oh yes, towards the back of the library”… then you have unwillingly sent these people to their grim fate…
…say yes… because it’s like you thought… if she would have wanted to kill you (no… eat you!) she would have done so by now!
(Go to N.) – because you want to! Because you pity her. You fear her. You are, after all, “The Hand” that feeds her.
You jerk your body, kicking your legs upwards, and swinging your arms around. It is almost like she has paralysed you on the spot, but you resist.
As you turn, you roll your ankles, but you press your weight on them as you try and break from her spell. Your mind is clouded. Tumbling backwards down the aisle, you finally gain momentum in your stiff legs, and run. The thud of your heavy feet against the wooden floor echoes around the library. THUD THUD THUD, and you know those thuds are your own feet; not hers.
Is she behind you?
Do you think you can out run her?
What, that skinny demon of a girl? You placed your bets long ago! There’s no going back, so keep going forward, and fast!
You see the main desk in the distance, still lit by the evening sun. Your breaths are sharp and fast, and your chest feels heavy as you tell yourself “Don’t stop! Don’t slow down!”
You feel numbness on your left shin.
As if… something had caught you…
…gripped around your leg.
It pulls hard, swinging your body down to the floor. You hit the ground with a murderous crash. Your forehead takes much of the impact, your arms doing nothing to break the fall.
You close your eyes.
Your ears ring.
Your head feels like a teacup, being swirled by a spoon.
“Why does you all run!” She cries, before jumping onto your back, landing on her knees first. You feel her hands run through your hair, from the back of your neck upwards. She tugs hard on the back of your shirt, and as fast as the fall… you feel a pinch of teeth, bite away at your skin.
Pain, like a raging inferno, encapsulates your body, and spreads long before you could stop it consuming you.
Her hands stay nestled in your hair, pushing your head down to the floor, and pulling back on the top of your shirt. It chokes you. You want to throw her off, but as she goes in for another bite, your head gets ever lighter.
You struggle to tell the difference between the pain and the urge to sleep.
You pass out… never to awaken.
You lock the library doors behind you, knowing she is still inside. You have everything you had ever bought to the library since working here; your cell phone, a book you took in to read during your break, some knick-knacks and pencil toppers… and your own life, potentially?
You don’t turn up for work. Your boss gets rather irate about this, but not as much as the riot squad who bursts through your door, pinning you to the floor and thrashing you through the street into the back of the van.
“We got the sick freak”
“Roger that, he’ll be going down for a long time”
You see, it turns out that they think you are the one that “mutilated” those you saw behind the bookshelf. You try and explain the little girl who lives inside the library, who killed them.
It was her! It was the little girl! With the blonde hair!
You get the death sentence a year later, following some convincing evidence from the crime scene. Five women, three men, twelve children, and two previous librarians were found, stuffed into the walls around the Food and Recipes section.
You hang yourself in your cell as soon as you get your hands on anything strong enough the hold your weight.
You lock the library doors behind you, knowing she is still inside. The second you get outside, you reach into your coat pocket and pull out your cell phone.
You look at it.
You start to tremble with fear… because there are dead people, stuffed into bookshelves back there. You can’t call the police with that!
You walk slowly to the nearest phone box; one with no CCTV nearby, or in a well lit area.
You slide in a quarter, and dial 999.
“999 State your emergency”
You are succinct with your call. You tell the operator you noticed some masked men breaking into the library. Flashlights shining through the window.
You hang up, and you head home.
You hear nothing from your boss over the weekend. You struggle to sleep, eat or do anything. But you are sure the cops will have sorted the little girl out and those dead bodies by Monday.
Monday rolls around. You arrive a little late to work; you told your boss it was traffic. He didn’t seem too bothered…
“Don’t come in today… it’s a bloodbath here…”
You see… I forgot about Sandra! She was on the rota with me today, and she always opens up early. Looks like Sandra found a dead cop crudely tucked behind the Tom Clancy novels.
“Yeah, you’ll probably get a call from the cops. Just want to check if you noticed anything when you left. You don’t remember seeing anything unusual when you locked up Friday?”
You reply with a firm no.
Weeks pass, and you have taken to alcohol and pain killers to help you sleep. You quit your job at the Library, saying it was nothing to do with working at the “library of death” because a cop was killed there…
…it’s because you engineered that mausoleum, from your own hands.
One night you choked on your own vomit after another vodka and aspirin bender.
At least it beats being eaten alive, you think to yourself, as you struggle for air.
You lock the library doors behind you, knowing she is still inside.
You sigh… knowing what you were about to do was beyond anything ever imagined. How could you do this, you thought…
You spent the weekend tormenting yourself, unable to sleep as you fought with your conscience. You struggle to eat, because every time you look down or take a bite, you think of the little girl.
Monday rolls round sooner that you’d like.
You go to work because you’re a coward, and you are sick. You see Sandra, who arrives early whenever she is working. You can’t look at her… you can’t look at anyone who walks into the library today…
“Excuse me, sir. Where are the Martha Stewart cook books?” a lady asks, with her daughter holding her hand.
You pause… and you point her to the back of the library.
“Oh that reminds me” says Sandra. “There’s a terrible smell coming from the Food and Recipe Books section… should we call someone in to look at it?”
You tell her it’s probably nothing.
With a reverberating clap, you turn the lights off.
The sun still glows through the windows to the back of the library, with the beams of light now perfectly showing you the way to the doors.
You jingle your keys, twist them, and lock up the library for the last time this week.
You enjoy your weekend, knowing all and well that life in a library will resume on Monday. And you like it when life is simple and quiet, because nothing bad ever happens in a library.