The shades of bright yellow deepen on the mahogany reading tables, and the lamps automatically turn on. 58. 59. 9:00 p.m., one more hour until closing. I stare down the last bent heads in the library. The past few hours moved slowly without someone else on shift. The two-person policy no longer applied now that the second library assistant position had been scrapped, so the night shifts were excruciatingly lonely. Budget cuts, they said. Based on seniority—in my case, an extra six months of experience—I got to keep my job while Sarah got canned. And thank gosh for that. I liked Sarah, but if not for this position, I’d be begging the bank for another loan to pay off tuition or, worse yet, begging my parents. Plus, it was a stepping stone to librarian, my dream job.
A black shape flits along my peripheral vision. I glance over to the side nearest the door. Nothing.
I start. The patron standing in front of me is shaking his head. I try to hide my jumpiness with a welcoming smile.
“Hi, how may I help you, Josh?”
“There are some high school students pulling books off the shelves in the back corner and shelving them with the spines facing inward. I just thought you should know.”
“Okay, thank you.” Once Josh is far enough away, I let out a long sigh. My bangs scatter.
Muffled giggles coming from the stacks in the back catch my attention. Hoping I can use the element of surprise to intimidate the high school kids who must be wreaking the havoc, I purposefully walk along the forest-green rug to the back. Stack 1, empty. Stack 2, empty. Stack 3, a bright-blue backpack leans against a bottom shelf. Sure enough, the books next to the bag are a mess—all spines face inward. I head to the next stack and catch a glimpse of a sneaker rounding the corner.
“Hey!” I hear snickering to my left. I retrace my steps. The blue backpack is still there, but all the books are back to normal. I blink and count. Yep, six shelves of books with spines suddenly visible. How could they have righted them so quickly? On impulse, I glance at my watch. 9:05 p.m. Nope, time isn’t playing tricks on me. I shake my head. With the books safe, I feel as though I can return to the circulation desk.
“Hi, pardon me.”
I nearly sprain my ankle turning to face the voice directly behind me.
“Sorry, but the students. They’ve done it again. Aren’t you going to do something?”
I take a step back, and my eyes narrow instinctively. I walk back to the circ desk, while Josh follows me. I let the swinging door hit the back of my knees as I stop to scan the floor, and I’m grateful for the seclusion afforded by the walls behind me. I smile politely at Josh.
“I’ll speak to them about their behaviour once they leave the library.”
Josh frowns. “By then, they’ll have moved all the books on the shelves!”
“It’s okay, Josh. Don’t worry about it,” I say in an attempt to defuse the situation. Don’t need him to start swearing up a storm tonight. “I’ll take care of it.”
“They’re those damn private school kids. So entitled. They know nothing of respect. Their fathers are probably investment bankers. The one girl is wearing a short skirt. How do her parents let her leave the house? Everyone knows when a female dresses up for work or school, she’s looking to date … everything is so oversexualized today .…”
Josh continues, while I berate myself. His criticism of women has me regretting my choice to put on mascara this morning. Don’t apologize! I grit my teeth and look at the clock again. 9:20 p.m.
“Not quite. Women don’t grow up in a bubble; they’re a product of their environment. She may have grown up with the association that short skirts are pleasing. The way a woman chooses to dress is not always directly related to men.” I want to say more, but if I don’t stop now, a speech, or more accurately a tirade, will escape me, and then Josh will never leave me alone.
A scream cuts his next words off. I jump up and rush to the stacks in the back. I walk down each row. Twice.
Josh is still leaning on the circ desk when I return. “You heard that, right? A scream?”
“Yep. Came from the back, where the teenagers are.”
“Except no one is there.”
“I saw them there. There are four or five of them.” Josh straightens and approaches the back. He disappears down the second row.
I wait. “Josh?”
I grab my cell phone and follow the path he took. I hesitate at the head of the second row. No one. “Josh, are you there? Where is everyone?”
I refuse to go farther. I turn to head back to the desk. Let them figure out these shenanigans when I’m kicking them all out in 30 minutes.
There’s shuffling in the stack to my right. Goosebumps spread over my body. “Hello?” That reptilian part of my brain tells me I’m being watched. I don’t wait for an answer; instead, I walk away. Then it dawns on me: the maintenance closet! I make a sharp turn and nearly rip the door to the closet off its hinges. Tense, me? Shock and mischief in their eyes, the students snort and cackle.
“Out! This closet is off limits.”
They pass me as if I’m not even there. “Leave the Febreze in the closet!” I reach for the bottle clutched by the last teen out of the closet, but I’m too slow. He’s halfway across the library before I’ve taken two steps.
No one pays them any attention. Heads still bent, the other three patrons continue to study.
“Excuse me.” I keep walking to the circ desk. “Yes, Josh?”
“I need to start closing the library. Can we walk and talk?” A hand descends onto my shoulder. I abruptly pull away and turn. “No, that is not—”
It’s not Josh. My brain can’t comprehend the mass of writhing black goo standing before me. Limbs seem to jut out of the twisting blackness, but they are not human—claws on six-fingered hands and feet. The scream bubbles up my throat but stops there. I’m paralyzed. I want to run but can’t. Its total nothingness hypnotizes me. Then a snakelike tongue juts out of a gaping hole.
Suddenly, I’m falling, falling awake. I gasp and blink—at my screen? 9:05 p.m. I rub my eyes. The sharp stinging in my eyes and black streaks on my fingertips remind me that I’m wearing mascara.
Feature drawing by Frances Gao.