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Fiction Suspense Urban Fantasy

What am I doing here? Sherry thought to herself, slotting yet another large, old book into its place on the scuffed metal shelf. With the squeak of rusty wheels, she pushed the cart a few feet farther down the aisle, paused to check her list, then hefted another heavy tome up onto the shelf. As she slid it into place, a puff of dust arose, billowing into her face. She backed away, coughing.

This was awful, and totally not worth the extra credit toward her journalism major.

Sherry paused in her work, catching her breath again, and looked around. The university library was an absolute anachronism. Row upon row of old industrial shelving, looking like something from a Soviet archive, held reams of decaying books, on every academic subject imaginable. All of it was meticulously organized and catalogued, using—of all things—an ancient index card system. The air was close, thick with floating dust motes, lit by fluorescent tubes in recessed fixtures, which buzzed and flickered constantly. The whole place stank of rotting paper and mildew, which seemed to have seeped into the worn carpeting beneath her feet.

And, for the next two terms, keeping it all in proper shape was her responsibility.

“Sherry?” a strident voice called out, muffled by the intervening shelves of books. “Where are you? Haven’t you finished with that load yet?”

Sherry scowled, hunching her shoulders. That was probably the worst part: Professor Willman. She didn’t know much about the man or his past, and until she’d started at the university library, he’d been little more than an occasionally glimpsed figure, shuffling down the halls or across the cafeteria. He was such a nonentity around the campus that few people even engaged in speculation about him. Just another tenured middling academic, living out his career at a state university. No one was even sure what subject he taught; Sherry had never met anyone who attended his classes. No, he just hung around the library all the time, making life miserable for anyone actually trying to get a book, or—in her case—work there.

This was so not worth the extra credit.

“Almost, Professor,” she called back. She hurriedly pushed the cart a few more feet, shelved a few more books, and hastened on. Maybe if she got these done quickly enough, she could beg off early, plead a headache or something. Then she could think seriously about this arrangement, maybe come up with another way to fill out her quarter.

The light overhead gave a pronounced flicker, momentarily plunging her into gloom. Sherry looked up at the humming tubes in annoyance. This place was so… weird. Unsettling even. She was deep in the stacks now, so far from the front that she wasn’t even sure of the way back to the entrance.

Who even uses a library anymore? she thought, grimacing in distaste as she lifted another book, its spine broken and edges frayed so badly that it shed loose fibers with every touch.

The university had several computer labs, free Wi-Fi, all of it fully connected to the internet. If you needed to know anything, it was much easier and more convenient to look it up online than to go hunting for it in some obscure, hard-to-find old tome. Especially if that meant dealing with Professor Willman. Last week had been the first time Sherry had set foot in the library in the year she’d been attending the university.

“Sherry!” that astringent voice called out again, sounding even more annoyed than usual. “You need to work faster. This assignment isn’t just to give you a free period to play with your phone.”

Sherry shot her darkest glower in the general direction of the voice. She was not playing with her phone. She was doing the work she was supposed to be doing, and if she wasn’t doing it fast enough for Professor Willman, maybe he could get off his—

Then, as she gave the cart a forceful shove, one wheel stuck, and the entire thing veered into the nearest shelving unit. Hard. The shelf bucked and shuddered, and at least a dozen heavy books jarred loose from their perches to rain down around her. Sherry flinched away, covering her head with her arms, until the fall stopped. Then she automatically froze, listening for footsteps.

“What was that?” Willman’s voice rang out, rife with suspicion.

“Nothing, Professor,” she called back, thinking fast. “I just… tipped the cart a bit. Dropped a book or two.”

She could hear the sigh even from a distance. “Sherry, those books are valuable. Some of them are irreplaceable. You have to be more careful. Now, hurry up. I have more books here for you to catalogue.”

“Right. Just a minute.” Sherry pulled the finicky cart out of the way and hastily started scooping up books, hurrying to return them to their places. As she bent low for the last one, she noticed that she had somehow knocked the entire shelf ajar when she ran into it. That was odd; the thing had to weigh a ton. How could bumping into it have moved it?

She gave the shelf an experimental push, to see if she could put it back into place.

It moved easily, with just the faintest squeak. Like it was mounted on hinges or something.

Like it was meant to be moved.

Grasping the edge of the shelf, she gave it a gentle tug. It swung out into the aisle, revealing that what she’d thought was just another shelf was actually a door. A hidden door, deep in the library.

Now that was interesting.

Sherry glanced over her shoulder. No sign of Willman, or anyone else. Slowly, she pulled the secret door open, far enough to poke her head into the space beyond.

At first, she couldn’t make anything out. The light leaking past her didn’t give much illumination. But as her eyes adjusted, she could see that it was a small space. Almost disappointingly so. It wasn’t even really a room, or even a closet, for that matter. It was narrow, no more than three feet wide, and maybe twice that long. Maybe it was just some forgotten leftover from a long ago expansion or remodeling project.

She was about to back out and shut the door, maybe go ask Willman about it, when a glint of metal caught her eye. Sherry peered more closely, and saw that it was a safe or lockbox of some kind, a small rectangle of metal, its finish dulled by time and dust. It sat on a little table, set against the back wall.

Now she was really interested. With another cautious glance behind her, she slipped into the hidden space and over to the table. Reaching out, she brushed away dust and cobwebs, grimacing in disgust. There were no labels or identifying marks on the box, nothing to indicate whose it was or what it contained. Curiouser and curiouser. Sherry took hold of it and lifted it, leaving a lighter patch on the table’s surface.

Again, disappointment stole over her. Whatever it was, it wasn’t very heavy. Not nearly heavy enough to hold a fortune in gold coins or something. And, of course, it was locked, with a combination dial set into its front. She gave it an experimental shake, and something within it slid from side to side. Something solid, and a single something.

Now what can this be? Sherry stood there, thinking fast. Overpowering curiosity had her in its grip. She just couldn’t resist the pull of the mystery. It was one of the reasons she was going into journalism, that need to know everything about everything. A secret room, hidden away in the most disused place on campus, containing a locked box… well, she couldn’t just walk away.

Experimentally, she hefted the box, ran a finger over the seam of the lid and the lock. The metal of the lockbox wasn’t terribly thick or heavy. It just might be possible to pry the lid open with the proper tools. Briefly, she thought about taking the box, smuggling it out of the library. But that would be next to impossible with Professor Willman puttering around, already suspicious of her base existence. No, it would be better to leave it here, come back later with what she needed. Clearly no one had been in here in a while; the box would be safe until she returned.

Setting it back down, Sherry stood, brushed off her hands, and stepped out of the room, careful to shut the secret door behind her. It was amazing how well hidden it was, behind a row of boring old textbooks on a shelf that looked just like all the rest. To help her find it again, she pulled out a book on zoological classification a couple of inches. There, even Willman couldn’t notice that.

Sherry turned away and gripped the cart’s handles, pushing it back toward the front of the library. She emerged from the stacks to find Willman standing at the desk with a sour expression on his face.

“Well, you certainly took your time,” he grumbled, glaring at her over the rims of his bifocals. “What happened, fell into a hole or something?”

“Or something,” she quipped back, bringing the cart to a halt beside the desk and starting to load more returns onto it. Despite her boss’s grousing, there really weren’t that many. Sherry bit her lip, thinking fast and hard. “You know, I just remembered that I have some work to do on a project. Can I come back later and finish up?”

Willman’s scowl deepened. “This library keeps certain hours. It’s not open for you to do your work whenever you feel like it.”

“I know, but this is really important,” Sherry said, putting on her best wheedling tone. “I promise I won’t stay too late. If you just leave me the keys, I’ll even lock up for you.” She stopped herself from batting her eyes or doing anything else too weird.

Willman glared at her for a moment longer, his eyes narrowing further. Finally, however, he grunted. “Fine. But make sure you properly catalogue all the returns and give the floor a good vacuuming. Got it?”

“Sure thing,” she said, scooping up her backpack, already heading for the door. “See you tomorrow.”

Willman was still looking at her, an unreadable expression on his face, as the door to the library swung shut.

*

Even knowing the library was deserted at this hour, with Willman gone for the day, Sherry felt like a thousand eyes were watching her. She kept looking over her shoulder, peering down each intersecting aisle, as she made her way to the back wall.

Why am I so nervous. No one’s here, and it’s not like I’ve done anything wrong. Yet. But the feeling refused to leave.

The secret door was just as she’d left it, the single book jutting out. With one last glance up and down the aisle, Sherry gripped the edge of the shelf and pulled. The door swung open as easily as before, revealing the deeper darkness of the hidden room. She leaned into the gap, holding up her phone as a flashlight this time.

The box was still there, sitting right where she’d left it, only the freshly disturbed dust to show that anyone had touched it in years.

Eager now, Sherry slipped into the chamber, pulling a small prybar from her bag. Setting its flat end into the gap along the lid, she worked it back and forth. As she’d hoped, the cheap metal gave, widening the seam. It was the work of less than a minute to bend it enough that the lock catch popped free. She examined her work, satisfied that any damage she’d done would be barely noticeable.

Even more eagerly now, Sherry set aside the tool, picked up the box, and opened its lid.

To find a book sitting inside.

Now this is seriously disappointing, she thought, blowing out a sigh of annoyance.

Of course, what could she have expected? This was a library after all.

But why was it hidden? The book was old, that much was clear. The binding looked expensive, some kind of leather, stamped with gold foil spelling out words in a language she didn’t understand. But its edges were worn from handling, the pages discolored with use. This book had been read. A lot.

Sherry wasn’t much of a reader herself. She preferred audiobooks or podcasts, for both education and entertainment. Picking up a book and just reading was so boring. But she’d gone through all this effort, she might as well see what was written here.

Flipping open the cover to a random spot, she shone her light on the page.

“Sherry wasn’t much of a reader, preferring a medium that let her just listen while she kept herself occupied with other things. But she could tell right away that this book was something special.”

Sherry froze, her eyes going wide. What the actual…?

“She couldn’t believe what she saw written there at first. It was too incredible, too unbelievable.”

This was too incredible. Too unbelievable. This had to be a trick.

“But it was no trick. This book was no text on zoological classification, or some work of fiction. No, this book told stories, all right, but the stories it told were true. Revealing the past, and conducting the future. This book was a book that could change her world. All she had to do was keep reading.”

Sherry dropped the book with a gasp. It fell to the dusty floor, pages fluttering. She started to back away, but her foot slipped, and she fell, landing hard. She lay, breathing heavily, for a moment, then bent closer to look at the book again, where it lay open on the floor.

“Lying sprawled on the dusty floor of the hidden room, Sherry peered at the book, wondering what its pages would say now. Part of her wanted to run, to shut the door, forget about this place and what she’d found here. But another part of her, that part that grasped for something more, that allowed the possibility of the unknown and inexplicable, that refused to accept limitations on understanding, told her what she had to do: keep reading.”

With another gasp, Sherry rolled onto her hands and knees, ready to scramble to her feet and run. Yet she paused. There was a part of her that wanted to stay, wanted to do as the book said. Wanted to keep reading.

Then a shadow fell across her, a shape filling the doorway to the hidden room, blotting out the light from outside the secret space.

“Well, well, well,” said Professor Willman, his brows arched and a strange gleam in his eyes. “What have we here?”

Sherry gazed up at him, sudden fear choking off any words she might have spoken.

“Been poking and prying about, have you?” He leaned closer, looking past her, as if to see what she’d found. “And you’ve made quite a discovery, now haven’t you?”

Sherry didn’t know what to expect next, didn’t know what this creepy man would say or do. Either way, she couldn’t think of anything to say, any response she could make.

Oddly enough, Willman didn’t seem angry. He just seemed… curious. It was almost as if he’d expected something like this, and now waited to see what would happen next.

“So, do you like the book?” he asked.

The unexpectedness of the question made Sherry blink in surprise. She glanced back at it, then looked at Willman again.

“Fascinating, isn’t it?” he continued. “I can still remember when I found it, all those years ago. I was actually warned about it. Warnings that I chose not to believe. It’ll make promises, some that it will keep, and others it won’t. You might spend your whole life just reading it, losing sight of everything else.” He stepped closer, and picked up the prybar that Sherry had set aside. “In the end, nothing will matter beyond keeping the book safe. Keeping the story yours. Until you’ve forgotten everything else that ever mattered to you.”

Sherry’s eyes widened, and she shrank away from him.

Willman’s grip tightened on the prybar, a cold look in his eyes. Then he held out a hand. “Give it to me.”

With fumbling fingers, Sherry picked up the book. She hesitated, fighting the urge to look at the page, then handed it to Willman.

Willman took the slim volume, his gaze still on Sherry. He tapped the prybar against his thigh. Then he looked at the page, hesitantly, almost as if he didn’t want to see what was written there.

Sherry held her breath.

Willman blinked. “Now, that I didn’t expect.” He ran a hand over the yellowing paper, pressing it flat. “‘Willman didn’t want to believe what he saw on the page. His time with the book was over, his part in the story played. Maybe it hadn’t made his dreams come true, but it had given him a new dream, and he’d lived it. Now it was time for someone else to enter the story, to make it her own. To live the tale the book told.’” He sighed again. “I see.”

He tossed the book to the floor in front of Sherry, and dropped the prybar next to it. “It’s yours now, your story.” He started to turn away, then paused, his thin lips stretching in a mocking grin. “So do what the book says, and keep reading.”

November 10, 2023 15:56

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