The Volume

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Review Chain

Nothing like curling up with a good book.

The Volume

 

by

 

Harris Proctor


 

“Not everything is possible,” Elise said. She was frustrated. She felt her cheeks flush. Though ten years old, she could see through the condascension of adults. She was getting better at dishing it back to them. She didn’t bother to look at the librarian or library-assistant or whatever they were. Someone trying too hard to inspire a solitary child. Elise couldn't wait to be a grown-up. For now she was the only patron of the third floor reading room.

“I didn’t say that everything is possible,” they said. “I said the right book can make anything possible. Do you see the difference?”

“Do you work here?” Elise didn’t look up. 

“Why, yes. Yes I do.”

“Is your job to disturb children who are trying to read?” She spoke as adultly as she could manage. The trick, she had learned, was either looking like you cared far too much- or not at all. She went with the latter.

“I’m here to help,” they said. Adjusting some clattering necklace and returning to the book-laden cart, they hummed a lumbering tune that Elise tried to place. It faded as they maneuvered out of the Young Adult Room into the main stacks beyond. Elise looked up from Dictionary Dan and the Case of the Stolen Pencil Box to see their clothing disappear behind a corner like a curtain being drawn offstage.

“All the same,” she muttered softly. Adults liked to mutter things that sounded important, especially as others left the room. Elise was already a better adult than the ones she knew. But she still struggled to play their game. The game was a difficult one. Harder than chess even. The rules were unwritten. If the grown-up rules weren’t made up as they went along, then they were squishier than fresh gingerbread.

Elise turned back to her book. She was reading a volume of a juvenile mystery series that was written before her grandparents were born. The protagonist, Dictionary Dan, solved simple crimes with basic logic and unnecessary etymologies.

She looked at the clock. Seventeen minutes until the next bus. Afterwards they ran by the hour. Elise had to make a decision.

Through the windows, Elise saw twilight approaching.  It was her favorite time, when neither day nor night held sway. When anything seems possible, she thought fleetingly. Brushing the thought offstage she returned to reading. Her father’s girlfriend, Shonda, had started it. Elise would rather read Orloff Pushkin’s Coneys of the Gonebye World. But Shonda had stumped her with a riddle. Elise was certain that Shonda had gotten it wrong. There was some piece she was leaving out.

“I guess you don’t know everything. Dictionary Dan,” Elise sneered like her ersatz stepmother.

“I’m sorry,” they said, poking their head out from the stacks. “Are you speaking to me?” Their head formed a small eclipse before a distant light behind them. Elise observed the phenomenon peripherally. 

“No,” Elise said. She glanced up and the head was gone. Fifteen minutes remained until the bus pulled away from the library. The books were written simply, but they were long. Elise couldn’t help but read each one to its conclusion. She had solved each one by the end of the chapter, but she couldn’t find Shonda’s stumper.

She thought of the bus. She could feel the night crawling toward the city. The bus was a horror show after dark. Elise had seen three fights- real fights with punching and kicking and hair-pulling. The driver never even stopped. On most of the night rides, she had sat next to booze-breathing strangers who ranted about inconceivable things. Once she saw a body. A real-life dead person, slumped in a seat, open-mouthed. Everyone knew. Not one person said anything. If she had been a grown-up, she would have said something.

She had to choose between the answer to her riddle and the ride. Between winning a round with Shonda and returning empty-handed.

Elise put the book down and walked toward the main stacks. She had spent much time there. She loved the smell of mouldering books, though the space was disorienting. Shelves stretched out endlessly, seeming to defy the geometry of the building. The floors were constructed of old metal plates, like sewer grates. Inch-square holes were everywhere above and beneath her. If she stood on the highest floor, where the vaulted ceiling of the library made some adults stoop, Elise could drop a pencil from the top straight through to the bottom.

The wheels of the book cart were bumping along the grated floor, pausing and resuming. The person was nearby. Elise regretted being short with them. She wasn’t certain if they were a man or a woman, only that they seemed old. She followed the sound.

“Hello?”

Silence. The wheels kept rumbling and stopping, rumbling and stopping. Elise moved about the labyrinthine shelves, each with a red, hand-painted “3” on the ends to let the lost know what level they were on. The rattle of the wheels fanned out in every direction. Beneath her one moment. Above her the next.

“Hello!”

They poked their head out from the last row of books. The sickly orange-warped glow of the lights didn’t appear to have any interest in illuminating their features.

“Are you talking to me now?” they asked.

“Yes. I’m sorry to bother you. Are you familiar with the Dictionary Dan series of books?” Elise found herself unable to step forward. She looked to her feet, then through the floor. She could hear book carts all around her.

They stepped out from the stacks. She thought she looked like an old lady, but they seemed to have a full beard. Somehow their face remained in shadow.

“The riddle isn’t in those books. Your stepmother is confused.” They turned back into the stacks. “Confused about a great many things,” they added.

Elise’s feet loosened. She shuffled down the aisle, trying to stay parallel to them. “How…”

“It’s written. It’s all written down,” they said.

Elise came to the end of a bookshelf. The rumble of the book cart paused before emerging partway. It was empty, save one object. A book the size of a shoebox. It was laying flat, its spine facing her. The letters shone golden, but illegible. She wasn’t sure the words were in English.

“Who…”

“You’re welcome to read the book if you like. It has the answer you are looking for. It has more answers than that. All the answers to all your riddles. Like how to make your night rides magical. How to make your stepmother go away. How to be a real grown up. More. So much more. We ask only two things…”

Elise inched closer. Her sights locked on the shining letters.

“First: you must take this book up to the top of the stacks. Read it in the darkest corner where nobody can see you…”

The word nobody bounced around the shelves. Repeated by other voices. The thunder of book carts sounded and receded like a wave. The thought of fleeing rose and fell with it. She wondered how many they were.

“There, alone, you may ask what you wish. When you open the book, the answer will be on the page. You may come back to consult it, but you may not take it. Second, before you ask your question, you must believe. Give your mind over to the power of the book. Give your self over to it. Say it. Like a little prayer.” Their spotted, crooked fingers caressed the cover as they spoke, dragging their long nails across it gently.

A new voice rose from the bottom floor.

“Hello?” a man called up.

The hand withdrew from the book and disappeared into the stacks. The sound of the carts reported like a gunshot and were gone.

“What is it?” a woman asked from the depths.

“It was that sound again. Rumbling and hissing. I swear I hear someone speaking.”

“It’s the furnace. And don’t underestimate the power of the imagination.”

Elise tiptoed to the book and lifted it. She clutched the heavy, warm volume to her like a foundling and skittered up the stairwell. The top floor was empty. She looked around for the deepest recess in the corners of the building. She found it and withdrew, her heart pounding. Anything is possible, she thought. Anything.

She looked around. She was alone. She closed her eyes and folded her hands in prayer. Elise softly promised all that she was or would ever be to the book. She opened her eyes and sifted through all the questions in her mind. She landed on one.

“What will I be like when I grow up?” she whispered and opened the book.

A hollow, bearded face, mouth agape erupted from the page.

“You won’t,” it rasped. It wrapped gnarled fingers around her skull and dragged her inside. A cart thundered across the grated floor. They retrieved the book and disappeared into the stacks. A voice rose from the depths.

“There’s that sound again!”

 


Submitted: January 19, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Harris Proctor. All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:

Comments

XCulletto

Wow, creepy as heck. Not the ending I expected at all. I love the atmosphere you created with this story.

Tue, January 19th, 2021 7:20am

Author
Reply

Thank you! I'm all about atmosphere :)

Tue, January 19th, 2021 6:11am

shika

I should say that ending there scared me. Totally unexpected twist and the way you describe her death in the end and then changing the tone of the story back to a normal tone as if nothing serious had happened 'There's that sound again!" is a good prompt to subdue the reader's fear. Liked this one, keep up the good work!

Wed, January 20th, 2021 8:28pm

Author
Reply

That you for your time and your appraisal! I know this sounds weird, but I'm happy you were scared :)

Thu, January 21st, 2021 6:11pm

Archia

As I was reading this I was trying to decide if it was going to have a really positive happy end, or really creepy. I think I was leaning towards creepy, but I didn't expect it to have such a sudden end. It was a great shock. I really enjoyed your story, and I liked the childhood naivety of wanting to be a grown-up that Elise had. The only thing that slightly irked me was why a ten year old would be allowed to be out that late by herself, but that's only a small matter. It was still very enjoyable and had a great built up tension to the shock ending.

Sun, January 31st, 2021 7:16am

Author
Reply

Thanks Archia :)

I edited out most of the reasons she was unattended that late. I love and hate word counts. They streamline a story so well, but there are some true darlings lost in the slaughter! Thanks again for always having great prompts and contests. And thanks for your kind words!

H.P.

Thu, February 4th, 2021 6:06pm

Matthew Hair

You have a great story with a nice shocking ending. The scene was very well built and the descriptions are wonderful and just vague enough to keep the creep factor up. As I was reading, I couldn't tell which way it was going to go.
A small nitpick would be why is a little girl out all by herself, but it doesn't really matter for the story you're telling here.
I had to reread the last few lines over a few times, the abruptness of the ending is great and terrifying. the way you cap it off with the simple "There's that sound again!" As if this wasn't anything huge or important, just an everyday occurrence. That's scary. I love it. :)

Sun, February 21st, 2021 5:42am

Author
Reply

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Matthew. I understand your question and it's completely fair. This piece just made it under the word count for a Review Chain contest. The reason she's there, neglect, was more overt in the first draft. You raise a valid point, and I feel I need to make that aspect less vague.

Thanks again :)

Thu, February 25th, 2021 10:26am

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