That’s not a metaphor, by the way; under every library is a literal world of terrors and delights. That’s why they were created. To contain that world. It’s horrifying.
Dierdre was six and a half and damn proud of that fact. Turning six had been a major milestone in her life; it meant she was allowed to browse the children’s books at the Lowertown Library unattended. It meant the librarian – a round, pleasant woman with sticky-outy hair – trusted that she wouldn’t get dirt on the books or pull out the pages or drop them on the ground and stamp on them. Like her little brother. Honestly, she’d known to not do this for years – well, for months. But, rules were rules. So, she’d patiently waited and on her birthday – February the third – she’d walked with her mom to the big gray building on Haver Street and exchanged her light blue card for a dark blue card. One day, she’d get the red card. But that was a far-off dream.
Today, Dierdre had selected, of her own accord, three books on reptiles and amphibians. They were large and flat and full of photos and not baby books, either. They were big kid books, but, and this was something she was super DUPER proud about, she could read them! Yes. And, most importantly, she could understand them. So, while momma was off looking at books in the boring part of the library – ie, the rest of the library – Dierdre was sitting on the cushioned bench by the back wall and reading about salamanders and how they ate with their sticky tongues. The bench ran the length of the back wall. There was another bench under the big picture window, but it always made Dierdre feel like people were sneaking up behind her when she sat there.
“The Hy-dro-man . . . man-tes salamander has the fastest tongue in the world,” she read out loud. Normally, you weren’t supposed to read with your mouth at the library, but they liked it when you did in the children’s section. It proved that books made you smarter and that was good for business. “It is also the longest tongue,” she continued, happy with her newfound knowledge. She couldn’t wait to get home and throw these facts at her little brother, who wouldn’t understand them but would appear suitably impressed nevertheless.
“The tip of its tongue -”
“Tongue . . .”
Dierdre paused. Someone had whispered the word “tongue” somewhere near her bench. She had definitely heard it. She looked around. The children’s section was empty. Even the round librarian with the sticky-outy hair was away from her desk in the center of the room. Dierdre suddenly felt very alone in a way she hadn’t felt since she was small and afraid of the dark. But, this wasn’t the dark! It was the library. The safest place in the world. And, she wasn’t alone. Momma was in the big person section with a bunch of other grownups. There were two heavy doors between the children’s section and the rest of the library, but if she leaned way over, she could just see through the long windows into the rest of the library.
She looked down at her book. A drawing of a salamander with its long tongue grabbing a bug splashed across two pages. A small blue box in the corner described the action.
“Here,” she read out loud, “the salamander uses its sticky tongue -”
“Tongue,” the voice said again.
It was close. Near her ear. She whipped her head around, blonde hairs slapping her face. There was no one there, of course. That “all alone in the dark” feeling began to creep over her again. Maybe, she thought, it was time to go find momma and check out her books.
Something had her leg.
It was a hand – gray, bony, with rough skin and scratchy nails at the ends of long long too-long fingers – sticking out from under the bench cushion. The hand was gripping her upper thigh and the horrible fingers wrapped all the way around.
“Momma!” she called out. The hand squeezed her leg a bit harder than was necessary.
There was a noise. A commotion. Something was happening in the rest of the library. Muffled sounds, blocked by the two big doors.
“MOMMA!” she yelled, and the hand slipped back under the cushion dragging it’s sharp nails along her skin and leaving three angry red scratches.
Dierdre bolted from the children’s section, burst through the doors and stood in the safety of the general reading room. She was panting, her reptile books still clutched to her chest, looking around for the comforting shape of her momma.
But, her momma wasn’t there.
No momma’s were there.
The library, so full of life and energy and people when she’d arrived, was quiet as a tomb. Dierdre held perfectly still, her breath coming in quick, hitching gasps. Finally, she managed to calm her breathing enough to listen. There was a sound. A wet sound. It was coming from behind the Information Desk.
On size eight feet, clad in her favorite white shoes (perfect for twirling! she would say) Dierdre crept over to the Information Desk. She knew she wasn’t supposed to go around to the other side – that was for employees only – but, the wet sounds seemed urgent, like an animal in need.
The round librarian, with the sticky-outy hair, lay behind the desk. Her pretty white blouse, the one with the ruffles that Dierdre thought of as a princess blouse, was stained red and torn all over. The librarian’s hair was more sticky-outy than usual and her body had sticky-outy parts where there weren’t supposed to be sticky-outy parts. The wet sounds were coming from her mouth, which was also stained red.
The round librarian looked up with wide wide eyes and saw Dierdre.
“Ca – ca – ca . . . ” she stammered, “ca -”
Dierdre leaned down. It was scary to see the round librarian like this but also sad. Oh her white princess blouse (now stained red oh dear so so red and torn) was a name tag. It said “MISS EMMA” on it. Dierdre had never seen this tag. She had probably been told the round librarian was named Miss Emma when she first started visiting the children’s section, but htat was too long ago to remember.
“Ca – ca -” Miss Emma croaked.
“Do you need help,” Dierdre asked, “Miss Emma?” she added.
“Ca – ca – call. N – number. Desk,” Miss Emma spat out, “Call. Please. Please.”
Dierdre stood on her tiptoes and craned her neck. The top of the desk was smooth and clean save for a few long gouges drawn across the end. She saw no number.
“Miss Emma,” she said looking down, “there’s no number here!”
Miss Emma’s breathing was growing shorter. She gazed with fading eyes at Deirdre. She had known Dierdre for all six years of the little girl’s life. Had met the tiny baby when she was only three weeks old and Dierdre’s momma (that poor poor woman the things they did to her before dragging her away and off and down down down) had brought her in to meet the staff and announced “I want everyone to meet a future bookworm!” Miss Emma had watched little Dierdre grown into a whip-smart toddler, reading at three and comprehending at three and a half. The little girl was smart. She could understand. She would “get it.”
“The – the whole desk. Hidden. On. Top. Hidden. In. Wood.”
Dierdre looked at the desk, but it was too high to see the whole thing. Setting her books down – careful to avoid the expanding pool of blood around Miss Emma – she climbed up onto the Information Desk’s chair and knelt on the soft seat. She gazed at the swirling pattern in the fake wood desktop. It looked like a desktop. She was about to ask Miss Emma for more help, when the pattern resolved itself into recognizable shapes. Numbers. A phone number.
“Who is it? Do I call them? What do I say?” Dierdre was feeling overwhelmed. She wanted to cry. She wanted to pee. She wanted to leave.
Miss Emma, nearly gone now, even a six year old could see that this kind woman was not long for our world, stared at the beautiful child poised above her like and angel. Like a last hope.
“Breach,” she said.
“Beach?” Dierdre asked, confused.
“Brrrreeeach!” Miss Emma sighed out. And died.
Dierdre heard scuffling behind the stacks. Under the floor. In the ceiling. She needed to call the hidden number and say the secret word.
She didn’t know what it meant. But, it seemed important and scary.
The man who answered the phone sounded mean when he answered. But, when he heard the little girl on the other end say “breach,” his voice softened. “Are you in the library, little girl?” he asked.
“Yes,” Dierdre replied. “Are you going to come help me?”
The man on the other end, didn’t respond.
Under every library is a hidden world of terrors and delights. That’s why they were created. To contain that world. Books contain magic and that magic usually works. But, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes – rarely oh so rarely but sometimes – things happen. Things get breached. And things come out. From under the stacks.