It was a twenty-minute walk from the subway to an unassuming boulder underneath a busy motorway. You wouldn’t even know that you were in a special place if you passed it by on the street. I could hear the sounds of engines far above me, but the street was deserted down here. I could have taken my car instead of taking the longer journey by subway, but I didn’t know how long I would be gone and I didn’t want to leave my ride in some random part of town, where it might get towed or broken into while I was away. I gently rapped my knuckles on the boulder, with no answer. “Hello?” I said, a little uncertain if I was in the right spot, “Open sesame?”. Still, no answer. I sighed, reached into my jacket, retrieved a small Tupperware box, and shook it, the contents rattling inside.
For a second, nothing happened, I shook the little box again and the ground started moving. A rumbling went through the earth and a large rock next to the boulder slowly began coming apart, cracks appearing all over and shifting until you could make out individual limbs, a torso, a faceless head, slowly unfurling. The feet found their place on the ground and the creature rose up, in an aching, lethargic motion, dust and dirt crumbling off it as if it was just remembering now what it was like to be anything but a rock. It was long and gangly, towering over me at more than 8 feet, and it eyed the little box in my left hand curiously.
“Siz ihz no phasssage for uhhh, uuuhman.” the creature sighed in a waifish voice. It sounded like wind blowing through a canyon with a whisper carried on it that you could only barely make out and only if you listened for it.
“And yet I caught your attention,” I replied, shaking the little box one more time.
“Hooow dihd uhhh geht thoose?” the creature asked.
I opened the lid of the box and spilled the baby teeth in it out onto my open palm, took a single one of them, and held it out to the creature. “Craigslist,” I answered.
The creature took the tooth. A crack opened up on its torso, slightly below where a human's collarbone would have been. The golem dropped the tooth into the opening and it closed again, with a sound that reminded me a little of the grinding of a mortar and pestle.
“Sooooh krunhchii, Soooh frreehss,” the creature whispered, a hint of delight in its voice. “Kreehgslisss?” it asked.
“It’s an online platform for the exchange of goods and services, the services mostly of a nefarious and/or sexual nature. You can buy almost anything there, including unused baby teeth from people who don’t ask questions. So, are you going to open the door for me?”
“Ihhht ihz fohhrbidden.” the creature answered, but I knew I already had it hooked. The first little taste was always free if it left you wanting for more.
“I’ll give you the rest of these if you let me in,” I said.
“Aaahl ohf zhem?” the creature asked. There were no facial expressions to read, but I knew greed when I saw it. I relied on it to make a living, after all.
“All of them,” I replied.
The gateway boulder began to crumble before me, chunks of stone falling off it as if an invisible pickaxe was chipping away at it, revealing an archway beyond. The space in between its pillars was glowing in the library's signature brownish-green wyrdlight that told me I was on the right track. I poured the teeth into the creature's outstretched hand and stepped towards the archway. I grabbed the gas mask I had strapped to my belt, took one last deep breath of fresh air, and fastened it tight around my head, then rummaged around inside one of my many pockets until I found the dandelion bud I had picked on the way here and kept it in my hand. Sometimes I wondered if I had picked the right career. Maybe I would have been happy flipping burgers or driving people. I could still turn around now, do anything else, go anywhere else. But then I remembered the number of zeroes at the end of the bounty offered to me for just one book. There was a reason I had such an intimate understanding of greed and how it drove everyone, it’s what drove me too. I gathered my courage and stepped through the archway before I could give myself enough time to change my mind.
The direction in which gravity was pulling me changed by about 90 degrees as I took my very first step into the library. It felt a bit like being suddenly yanked forward by an irresistibly powerful rope. I stumbled a few feet down the corridor before I finally lost my balance and fell to the floor. Wyrdlight was shining at me from everywhere, from little cracks in the shelves, from some of the books, and from the floor itself. I could more than just see it, I could feel it creeping in on me, like a weight pressing down on my very soul. I rose to my feet, dusted myself off, and took in my surroundings. If I’d had any doubts, I was sure now that I had found it, the actual infinite library. Shelves upon shelves of books stretched out in every direction, the corridor I stood in went on farther than I could see. Looking up, I could not make out a ceiling, only endless amounts of books stacked on top of each other until they disappeared into the wyrdlight. “Every thought that ever was and ever will be, all in one place,” I whispered to myself.
Something pricked at the inside of my hand, the dandelion bud I had picked up on my way here was opening up and beginning to bloom. Time was already running faster, I had to hurry. I picked a shelf at random and began picking my way through the books as fast as I could, not even bothering to put the ones I had ruled out back. A pile of books on the ground grew larger as I quickly discarded one after another. Most of them were written in unearthly letters I had never seen before in my life, in strange languages that had yet to be invented or had died out long ago or maybe didn’t even belong on earth but some other plane of existence altogether. I had no time to ponder the greater questions of time and the universe though, I wanted to be out of this place as soon as possible. I could feel the wyrdlight grinding away at my nerves with every passing minute, this place knew I didn’t belong here. I was a foreign organism, a bacteria in the body of a much larger creature.
The few books of which I did manage to gather the meaning were all of little interest to my buyer: horticulture, poetry, a diary, a couple of novels, and so on. I worked as fast as I could, trying to do my best not to look at the dandelion blooming away, growing so fast you could almost watch in real-time as it unfurled its petals. The gas mask didn’t help, the eyeglasses kept fogging up and I would have to wipe them, but I did not dare take them off in this strange place.
I had already spent the better part of an hour looking when I felt something tugging at my senses. Something was calling to me, luring me. I had a gut feeling that I was supposed to leave the shelf I was currently rifling through, and walk down the corridor. It felt natural, following that pull. I didn’t even notice the book I had currently been trying to make sense of fall out of my hand. I stepped over it, my feet carrying me away from the pile of books on the ground and the archway I had come through, until I stood in front of another shelf, so far wholly untouched. I should climb, I thought, and so I did, stepping on shelf boards and kicking books aside to make room for my feet, climbing up one row of books at a time. The tugging on my senses grew stronger as I climbed, until after a few minutes, I came to a halt, panting through my mask. A book, bound in a strange blue leather made out of an unknown creature's skin, rested in the upper left corner of the shelf. “Take me.” it seemed to say, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Get me out of here.” I reached over and pulled it out. A shudder went through me, the second my fingers touched its spine. This was the book, the one my client wanted. I was as sure of it as I had ever been about anything. I shoved the book into my coat and began climbing back down again. I only noticed now, with the book's pull finally alleviated, how badly my muscles were already burning. Sweat stung my eyes beneath the mask. I hadn’t even considered the downclimb as I went up, usually I worked with a litte more foresight than that. I made a mental note to be on guard the next time I felt the books pull. Of course, that would only matter if I made it back down before my arms gave out and I broke my neck on the floor. I had been climbing for another few minutes when it happened. A groove I placed my sweaty hand in was a little slicker than it had looked, before I knew it I was only squeezing air between my fingers, and my other arm, already trembling with exhaustion, couldn’t hold my weight alone and slipped as well.
I fell with a scream and a desperate grasp, managing only to rip a few books out and have them fall alongside me. My mind lurched. For a second I saw myself falling instead of being the one who fell. My consciousness burst into pieces, I had been one and now I was infinitely many. The many all had their own path to follow, so each of us departed along its own way, and me, alone again on my path, was just one again. I somehow flipped over my own axis midair, saw the ground rushing up, and managed to drop into a roll out of pure reflex. I thudded into the opposite bookshelf midroll and came to a halt, dazed and bruised, but I was alive and hadn’t broken anything. I could see the archway I had come through shimmering in the distance and pulled myself back up onto my feet. I’d had luck so far, it was time to leave before it ran out. I could feel the weirdness creeping in on me from every angle, every nook, and cranny. The blue book told me with a gentle tug on my nerves that it had fallen out of my coat during the fall and I was all too happy to pick it up and make my way back. I thudded into the opposite bookshelf midroll and came to a halt, dazed and bruised, but I was alive and hadn’t broken anything. I could see the archway I had come through shimmering in the distance and pulled myself back up onto my feet. I’d had luck so far, it was time to leave before it ran out. I could feel the weirdness creeping in on me from every angle, every nook, and cranny. The blue book told me with a gentle tug on my nerves that it had fallen out of my coat during the fall and I was all too happy to pick it up and make my way back.
I stumbled out of the archway I had walked through less than an hour ago in my time, the book in one hand, a wilted and dried-up dandelion pinned to my chest. I crumbled to my knees, lacking the strength to stand, and just breathed. I dropped the dead flower and tore at the straps holding my gas mask in place. It slapped to the ground between my knees and I took my first ragged breath of fresh air since I had gone down into that beautiful, cursed library. The sun was warm and welcoming on my face, and a pleasant breeze blew through my sweaty hair. I was out and I couldn’t believe I had made it. “Never again,” I told myself. I should have listened to the creature guarding the entrance when it had warned me that this passage was not meant for humans.
The beeping of a smartphone ripped me out of my stupor. It sounded like a mobile game with the volume turned up. I turned my head, and to my surprise, found the golem idling on a lawn chair, in the middle of something best described as a well-furnished outdoor living room. Other than a couple of lawn chairs, there was a wooden armoire, a small solar panel connected to a charging station and a mini-fridge, a parasol, a glove-box-sized safe, and other small furniture. The sound came from a new iPhone in the creature's hands.
“What the fuck?” was all I could whisper, I was too exhausted to try and make sense of the scene. I dragged myself over to the vacant lawn chair next to the creature and dropped onto it, it didn’t seem to mind. I just lay there for a while, listening to the sounds the game made, the furious screen-tapping of the creature, and the gentle rustling of the wind. “How did you get all this stuff?” I asked after a little while when I was rested enough to begin thinking about my next steps. “Kreehgslisss”, answered the creature. “Of course,” I thought, “why wouldn’t a rock-golem-tooth-fairy figure out how to use the internet because I mentioned Craigslist to it once and then use that knowledge to buy a bunch of random shit.” For a second I thought about how it had been able to afford all this, maybe it had figured out that gold was incredibly valuable to people or it had offered some unique services to those who were willing to pay for them. On second thought, I didn’t want to know.
“How long was I gone?” I asked. The golem didn’t answer, instead, it pointed to a stack of papers on a small folding table. I got up with a groan and stumbled over to them. The most recent one was from February 2023. “Fuck.” I said. Only an hour might have passed for me, but I had been gone for five months. I found a small mirror among the random furniture and looked at myself in it. My hair was serval inches longer and there were a couple of new wrinkles around my eyes that had not been there before. Apparently, time hadn’t stopped for me. I’d just spent almost half a year of my life in one short trip to the library. For a second, all I wanted to do was scream, but I kept my composure. There was nothing to be done about it now, I had known the risks before I had even accepted this job, and I had been successful after all. I looked down at the book in my hand, it was time to cash in before anything else could go wrong.
I gave the golem a little nod. “Thanks… I guess. See you around.”
“Ghhhoodbhie,” whispered the creature without looking up. I picked up the gas mask I had dropped and tied it back against my belt. Then I took one last look at the archway and the creature, wholly consumed by its game, and began walking back to the subway.
Note from the author: I had a lot more planned for this story than I managed to squeeze into 3000 words or less. My apologies to the reader, I feel like the story is all setup and little pay-off in its current state. I'll post a link to the complete version in a comment below, once it is finished.