Don't Get Caught

Submitted into Contest #91 in response to: Set your story in a library, after hours.... view prompt


Fiction Crime Thriller

They couldn’t catch him in the library. It was against the rules. No dragging anyone from class, no dragging anyone from the library. Five minutes to closing time they paced around the only exit, inspecting every face that passed as if he might have disguised himself. They no longer looked like they were having fun. 

     When they’d chased him to class that morning smiles had cracked their faces. They thought they had him. He escaped because he hadn’t spent the night before drunk. During class their heads popped up in windows. Still smiling. When the professor accompanied him out of the classroom, pretending to expound upon a term paper he’d not yet written, they laughed. They trailed him and the professor through the quad, across the green, past the dining hall. They shook their heads in disbelief. 

     Before the office building, he bolted. It was unfair to have the professor take him right up to the library doors. Not against the rules, but unfair. He leapt a hedge, scaled a low wall. Their hangovers were fading, their hands grasped his backpack and he let it slide off just as he slipped into the library. 

      They followed him into the library, one of them wearing his backpack. Still smiling. They followed him as he wove through the stacks, pulling down dark bound books with hard to read covers, books that nobody touched because everyone had to buy the latest edition of this or that textbook. They followed him to the second floor, to a study nook where he stacked the books: one on interwar economics, another on gender fluidity in the Polynesian archipelago, another on mollusks unique to the Gulf of Mexico, complete with 19th-century line drawings. Other books. They filled in the nooks around him, watched him page through each book until he found a word he didn’t know and set the book aside. RadulaNonparametricNodal. He stacked the splayed books on top of each other, piling the unknown words. They guffawed as though he were making a joke. When he had gone through every book, he went through them again. This time he looked for words that began with and ended with y and contained a different word in the middle.

     ThermoregulatoryMore. The hours ticked by. Okay, enough, they said. Tonsillectomy. Ill. One by one the smiles disappeared. The windows began to fade into mirrors. You’re already the last one, they said. TestamentaryMen. One by one the faces disappeared. Laptops were shut down, backpacks zipped. It’s just a game, the last face said. 

     It wasn’t just a game. It was a challenge. Don’t get caught. A game had a winner, a first place, a prize. This had none of these save some honor they bestowed. It was a challenge. The same fate awaited everyone caught: to be paraded like a sacrificial beast, held tight by the wrists and the ankles through the quad and across the green, past the dining hall. A reference to the ancients, though no one knew which. Performative humiliation, but one both parties desired. They wanted to humiliate, the caught wanted to be seen suffering humiliation. 

     He did not fear humiliation. He also did not desire it. Even if he had, a challenge was a challenge. Don’t get caught. In each book he found a word that began with and ended with with another word in between. 

     Theocentrism. Cent. When he found a word, he took the book back and shelved it in the wrong place. Threadworm. Read. They were prowling the stacks, hands in their pockets, tongues rolling in their cheeks. Terrorism. Error. After returning each book, he paced back to his nook with its stack. They counted how many books he had left. Thallium. All. One by one, the slunk out the only exit to the library, waded in among the shadows to wait. Transcendentalism. End

     At a minute to closing, he stepped into the vestibule. Their smiles returned. The smiles were different. One of them held his open backpack. Printouts and notebooks and binders lay across the pavement, wet with a recent misting. 

     He turned around, wove a labyrinth through the stacks past the dust covered periodicals and the books on loan with cards sticking out of them to the stacked study nooks used only during finals week. He climbed into an elevated nook and wedged himself into a corner beneath the built-in desk. He was taking it too seriously. But he had not made the rules. The library was off limits. 

     Five minutes after closing the lights shut off with clicks that echoed through the emptied space, stones tossed in a system of caves. First the fluorescents above him, then tracking to the only exit. Between the thundering clicks, the quick shuffle of feet. It was them. They were taking it too seriously. 

     The dark was pregnant with waiting. There was the pop of the metal bookcases, the wooden bookcases cracking in the relaxed air, the pings of the dying air-conditioner, the murmur of dust settling among the echo of words. Waiting. Maybe he had mistaken the footfalls. Maybe he was alone. 

     Then the jangle of keys. Keys like chimes. His dark-adjusted eyes stared at the electrical socket beneath the built-in bench of the nook. A boot heel scraped across the carpet of the library floor. Far away. The keys chimed again. Two scrapes, two chimes. He sent his breath into the darkness of the socket, hiding it there. The scrapes and the chimes gathered rhythm. Scrape. Chime. Scrape. Chime. The rhythm circled closer. He sucked in the air through his nose as though he could steal his own scent. Scrape. Chime. This had all gotten too serious. Scrape. Chime. Scrape. The sudden band of movement, the flutter of pages. Hey! The rhythm began to dance. He held his breath. You’re not— The flutter of more pages, a flock of them, a whine ascending to a crash. Chime

      Nothing. A curse word. Nothing. Nothing. The shuffle of feet whipped up by whispers. The disappearance of the footfalls. He sent his breath again into the electrical socket. He breathed until it was a face breathing too. Then a face humming. The humming put him to sleep. 

     He awoke to vacuums whirring, groaning, rolling across the carpet. They were a chorus singing to each other. They were singing the day into existence. A normal day. A day after bad dreams. The whirring chorus told him it was all right not to have climbed out of his study nook, that he must have failed to hear the key chiming after the foot falls. That nothing had fallen over, nothing had stopped moving. They wouldn’t just be vacuuming. 

     Then one vacuum shut off. There was a human sound. 

     In the swell of noise to come, he did not move. Don’t get caught.  

April 30, 2021 19:33

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Corbin Sage
15:35 May 05, 2021

This was a haunting story. Good job!


Austin Diaz
04:48 May 06, 2021



Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

Bring your short stories to life

Fuse character, story, and conflict with tools in Reedsy Studio. 100% free.