This story is by Rowan Rook and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Her eyes stare through me, shedding tears she doesn’t acknowledge. The first time she saw me like this, she screamed. Now all she has for me is silence. I must look like a shadow—no matter how many times I shout, she doesn’t seem to read my words, and I have no voice for her to hear.
Every few minutes culminates in a twitch of her lips, then they twist to mouth my name: “Henrique.”
I’m ashamed that I never believed her when she’d said she could see ghosts.
“Go,” I want to tell her. “Please, just go, Ami.”
She’d first returned to the Trogsdale University library almost a week after my death. I’d been forced to watch her cry. When she’d glimpsed me in this mirror, I’d thought it a miracle. My best friend, my lover, knew a part of me remained. She visited daily, updating me on her life as though I still shared it with her. I’d expected her to spend less time here as the months passed; instead, she’s spent more. I’ve watched her cry again. Worse still, I’ve watched her wilt, unable to stop her as she takes the same books that killed me from the shelves. She hasn’t left the library in days now. It’s as if her physical needs have vanished, as if a part of her is already dead. Perhaps it’s true. As the books pulled me in, I don’t remember eating anymore, sleeping anymore, I’m not even sure I’d breathed anymore.
“You need to go,” I make what feels like a gesture toward the library’s door and pray she can see it. “You need to break their hold over you.”
Her eyes seem to follow my signal, and I swear the heart I no longer have skips a beat.
Then she shakes her head. “I won’t leave,” she promises. “I’ll save you.”
I wish I could remember how to cry.
“You can’t save me. I did this to myself. Even if you could, you shouldn’t.”
There are forces not meant for human influence. I learned that the hard way.
Ami turns and walks back toward her desk.
I follow her, moving without moving, my awareness shifting throughout the library. A couple of freshman shiver as I pass, though they certainly don’t understand why. They simply plop their books down on the wrong shelves and scurry off. It hurts me more than it should to see those books misplaced. The new librarian, Cain, won’t bother fixing them.
I wasn’t like him. I’d loved my job as the University librarian. It’s a small library, tucked into a single room, yet it was mine. I’d cared for it day after day, arranging the books until their spines aligned like piano keys, dusting off ancient shelves, highlighting especially wonderful tomes in intricate displays. Trogsdale has a fondness for the strange books other libraries might scoff at—might even fear—and their pages held me in their clutches for hours beyond my shifts. Some nights, I never went home to Ami. The books became my family, all those familiar names on familiar spines filled with familiar words.
As I worked here, as I read here…it all became too familiar. I wanted more. All the stories and knowledge in my mind thrummed like a song I couldn’t quite hear. I felt my palms resting against an internal window. If I could break through it, I could reach another reality. The Universe itself would flow through me. I could know everything. Be everything.
I imagined—Did I imagine it?—that the books themselves started to speak to me. They promised me messages inside them, secret meanings hidden in their letters and margins, meant just for me. Messages that would show me the path to the other side.
In a way, I suppose they did. I performed the ritual they taught me—all candles and knives. I died. I fell out of my body—or rather, it fell away from me. I saw it hit the floor face first, heard the splash of blood, smelled the rot before my students found it in the morning and screamed.
I’ve been trapped in the library ever since.
No Universe opened up to me; instead, I may have damned my soul.
Yet the library still hungers for a spirit less selfish than mine.
So when I see Ami snatch a book with the title Sunset Sentinel etched in gold, I want to shout. I want to shout so badly that books shake in their shelves. Pages rustle. Dust plumes, left neglected by Cain, burst into the air.
“You’re far too old for tantrums, Henrique,” Ami scoffs. “I know how much you value your independence, but let me help you, just this once.”
Where I heard the library’s siren song as a promise of knowledge, she hears a hymn she believes can bring me home. Yet as she sits down and opens the book, I see her eyes trace the same trails across the pages that mine took. It’s a trap. And even if it wasn’t, I’m not worth it.
Soon, the library goes dark. Ami looks up at Cain as he approaches, “The exam I’m studying for happens tomorrow. Can I stay past closing one night longer?”
Just one more night? A jolt of dread fogs up the library’s windows. Those words sound too much like an ending.
Cain, fool that he is, agrees.
We’re alone in the library, my Ami lost in those pages. After an hour of silent reading, she opens a box she’s left sitting on her desk for the first time. Candles. It’s full of candles.
With the strength of my horror, I blow the book she’s left sitting open to a page where my living hands once wrote in the margins. Her eyes go wide.
“I should stop,” my handwriting admits. “In search of the unknowable, I fear I’m losing simple human understanding. I can’t remember why I ever wanted to go home. I can’t remember what it felt like to love Ami. I can’t remember how. That scares me more than anything.”
I see the words hurt her, see the tear drip from her chin and blur my ink.
What feels like a sigh courses through me as I scour myself for what emotions I have left. My twinge of sorrow turns the pages. She’s scavenging a novel for patterns, yet I remember one particular passage of prose.
“Do you think he could rest in peace while you aren’t living in it?” ask the words at the top of the page.
Perhaps my understanding of the human heart has faded more than I know, because Ami doesn’t react how I hope. She grits her teeth and slams a fist on the table. “You don’t have a right to say that to me,” she hisses. “Not after you’re the one who left me like this!”
Her right-hand reaches into the box and grabs a candle; the other pulls a match from her pocket.
“I’ve learned enough for the ritual. If you’re going to make this hard, I’ll do it now. I’ll save you whether you want me to or not!”
She lights the candle—its flame casting strange orange shadows against the shelves—and sets it out on the floor. Then she does the same to another. Another. Another. Soon, she’s formed a circle of firelight.
She gets on her knees. She clasps her hands as if in prayer, but it’s nothing of the sort.
She says my name.
This time, my scream is real enough to take the form of sound. I hear my own voice again, as human as ever. Ami screams, too. Our horrified harmony shakes the room. One candle falls sideways. Her eyes turn wild as flames spread to the carpet.
I had no choice.
I think…I think I’m crying as the fire reaches the bookshelves. All those pages, full of those stories and theories that I’d cherished—that I’d loved—all curling black.
I think I’m crying as I see Ami search for me and not find my reflection in the smoke. “Damn it, Henrique!” With a final look over her shoulder, she runs.
I wait—for what, I’m not sure—as the flames grow around me, summoning the sting of singed paper.
Do ideas leave ghosts like me? No one will ever read these books again. I should be angry at my library for what it did to me, but instead, it’s like watching my child burn.
Yet my Ami is safe.
Yet my cursed library’s siren song will fall silent.
Perhaps as the librarian, this was my final duty.
As my prison falls to the fire, a weight shifts inside of me. The aroma of acacias in bloom replaces the stink of burnt pages. I imagine starlight. If I reach eternity yet, I’ll bring it all with me.
I won’t forget all that I read in those pages.
I won’t forget Ami’s blue eyes.
I won’t forget the knowledge I had all along.