The ancient wooden sign nailed to the wall behind the librarian’s desk always struck Hailey as strange. It looked slapped together in haste, made with with rusted nails sticking out at all angles and rotting wood that stunk of decay. The sign was a permanent fixture in the old building, hung at a time the town of Elmwood had long since forgotten. No one could remember when it was placed there – or why. Yet no one could ever bring themselves to take it down. Even though it was hideous and required constant treatment for mold, it remained proudly displayed.
But the strangest thing about the sign wasn’t its vague history or Elmwood’s over-protectiveness of it. It was the peeling white paint, scrawled across the splintered surface by an obvious trembling hand.
DO NOT SPEAK ILL OF THE BOOKS. THEY CAN HEAR YOU.
It was clearly a wisecrack made by the establishment’s founder. A clever way to remind the patrons of the golden rule: no talking in the library. But it was so odd to be phrased in such a way. Like some type of warning – to keep lips sealed for more than just the sake of others trying to read.
Guess they would figure it out one way or another tonight.
Hailey pressed herself flat to the scratchy carpet between bookshelves, peeling her eyes from the sign as heeled footsteps rapped up the aisle on the left. They echoed around the vaulted ceiling, passing the bookshelf she hid behind on their way to the desk by the front door. The librarian came into view between the heavy oak cases, sniffing heavily and pulling open a drawer. She retrieved an alcohol wipe from within, turning to the sign and standing on tip-toe. Manicured fingers gently pressed the wipe into the divots and cracks in the planks. It came away black; she instantly dropped it into the trash can beside her desk.
“Disgusting,” the librarian mouthed silently, disdain pulling her features taut.
Rubbing the remaining filth from her hands, she plucked the parka from the back of her leather chair and slung it across her bony shoulders. Then she pulled the front doors open, to the wintry blizzard beginning to kick up outside. Without looking back she punched a code into the alarm pad, took a ring of keys from her pocket, then slammed the heavy wooden door closed. The lock clicked loudly into the silence that followed.
After a full minute of waiting, there was movement three aisles over.
“Took her long enough to leave.”
Hailey tucked her knees beneath her, shimmying her way to stand sideways between the tightly spaced bookshelves. Several slow shuffle-steps later, she emerged into the darkened library’s main aisle. Coming up between the rows, Tina brushed flecks of dust and lint from her jeans.
“This place is disgusting,” she grumbled, coming to stand at Hailey’s side.
“It’s old,” Hailey remarked, gazing around. The dim streetlamp outside was the only source of light, and it wasn’t much. It cast a pale, sickly glow across the leather-bound tomes that lined sturdy shelves on both floors – and across the creepy old sign, too. Like a ghostly presence, waiting for the girls to make a false move. The hair on her arms prickled. “I don’t think we should be doing this…”
Tina’s brown eyes narrowed into a frown. “You’re going to chicken out now?”
Hailey shrugged. Unable to take her eyes from the sign.
“Well, it’s too late, now,” Tina snapped, stepping around her. She stomped toward the librarian’s desk, tugging on pants too tight for her bulky hips. “Mrs. Lackey set the alarm, so even if we wanted to leave we can’t. We’d get caught and have our asses creamed by our parents. You’ll just have to wait until morning.”
Hailey swallowed, watching Tina pull the office chair from the desk. She thrust it against the wall, steadying its wobbling frame before planting one foot on its cushion. Then she hoisted herself to both feet. Fat hands reached for the decrepit sign, grasping it firmly on both sides.
“Tina, stop,” Hailey mumbled weakly.
“No,” Tina grunted, tugging on the boards with all her might. They creaked, but didn’t budge. “This piece of garbage is coming down tonight.”
“We’re going to get in trouble…”
“We’ll be doing Elmwood a favor, Hailey. This thing stinks – just like all the books in this godforsaken place.” She struggled, tugging harder. “Ugh, why won’t this thing move!”
A heavy slam from the upper floor thundered around the library. Hailey’s heart plummeted to her feet; she clapped a hand to her mouth, peering up through the railing above. Trying desperately to see through the thick, swirling shadows.
“What was that?” she whispered.
Tina didn’t answer. Hailey turned to find her frozen to the spot, listening intently with wide eyes. Her fingers slowly slipped from the sign as she lowered herself from the chair, eyes fixed to the upper floor above Hailey’s head.
“It sounded like something fell,” she replied softly. She brushed mold and splinters from her hands onto her jeans, moving around the desk – heading for the stairs. “C’mon. It was probably just one of these shitty old books.”
“Are you crazy?”
Tina ignored her, disappearing up the stairs two at a time. After a long pause Hailey followed, clenching her fists nervously as the darkness thickened. Ahead at the landing, a bright spot of light told her Tina had turned the flashlight on her phone to see. Hailey walked faster as the light disappeared between bookshelves.
“Wait for me!”
The light stopped moving just inside the aisle. Hailey reached it in three strides, turning. Finding Tina standing at the entrance, her phone light focused on a book that had fallen from one of the shelves. Its yellowed pages were open, a fresh cloud of dust pluming between them. An inked illustration filled one of the pages. Hailey narrowed her eyes; once the dust settled, she was finally able to see what it was.
Hansel and Gretel, pushing the witch into the oven.
“How did it fall?” she asked quietly.
“I don’t know.” Tina took a step forward. Shining her light closer to the ancient pages. “It’s a big one…someone must have left it on the edge of the shelf or something.” Another step closer. “Probably some dumb kid, seeing as it’s a fairytale.” She shut the book with her tip of her toes, expelling another cloud of dust into the air. “Where does this thing belong?”
Hailey glanced at the shelves to either side. A variety of spines, old and tattered, stared back at her from the shadows. “I’m not sure…this doesn’t look like the children’s section at all.”
Tina pocketed her phone and leaned forward, picking the book up with both hands. She flipped it back open, yellowed pages falling from her fingertips. Returning to the page they had discovered it on. Her cheeks dimpled as she chewed them. “I’ve always hated fairytales. Have I told you that?”
Tina’s rubbery lips pursed. “My mom always read them to me at night when I was a kid, then would rag on me about whatever ‘lesson’ the story was teaching. Red Riding Hood earned me an hour lecture about how I never listened to her and went my own way, like Red did. Cinderella was that I never worked hard enough.” Her lips spread into a scowl, tapping the illustration angrily. “But Hansel and Gretel was the worst. Not only was she always on me about my weight, but she was convinced that my ‘bad attitude’ was because I was apparently studying witchcraft. She’d always tell me that I’d be burned at the stake one day for it.” The fingers curled into a fist. “Guess that’s what happens when you have a controlling, religious bitch for a mother.”
Hailey frowned. “I…never knew that. I’m sorry.”
Tina shook her head, shifting the book in her hands. Testing its weight in her palms. “Whatever. I’m used to it. I’m just going to hear it again tomorrow. And the next day.” Fingers shifted up across the pages, grasping the book on either side of the spine. Her face darkened. “At least she doesn’t read me fairytales anymore.” Cracks spider-webbed across the ancient spine, snapping as Tina began to pull it apart.
“Tina, don’t!” Hailey shouted, throwing up a hand.
Tina didn’t respond, but she appeared to heed Hailey’s plight. The book slipped from her fingers, slamming to the floor in another cloud of dust. It took a moment for Hailey to realize her friend was trembling. Terrified. Staring at the open pages. Confused, she leaned forward for a better look. The inked illustration of Hansel and Gretel on the page was moving. Black lines slithered across the time-worn parchment, like snakes through the grass. Rising across the page to form scratchy words; words similar to the ones scrawled across the old sign downstairs.
WITCHES GET BURNED.
The obese witch being shoved into the flaming oven turned her head back, mouth open in a silent scream – but it wasn’t the witch at all. Her face was youthful, with a button nose, chubby cheeks and wide brown eyes.
It was Tina.
The pages of the book burst into angry, sputtering flames. Thick, black smoke curled upward, filling the vaulted ceiling in a dark, brooding cloud of death. Flames licked outward in all directions, scalding Hailey’s arms and cheeks. She screamed, throwing herself backward – landing on her backside, just out of danger’s reach.
But Tina wasn’t so lucky. Charred arms, blackened to the gristle and bone, shot from the depths of the hellfire and grasped Tina’s ankle as she turned to flee. The girl fell flat on her face, a blast of air escaping her lungs in a scream. The bony hands began to pull her backward.
“Help me!” she squealed, nails tearing jagged lines into the bristly carpet. A few of them were ripped clean from her fingertips.
Too frightened to move, Hailey could only watch as her friend was slowly devoured by the book. Flames lapped Tina’s body, singeing hair and cooking flesh. Her screams became sharp, wailing; and then, all at once, they were gone. She disappeared into the smoke and fire, extinguished along with the flames as the book snapped itself closed. The acrid cloud caught in the triangular eaves above dissolved, leaving nothing behind but silence and a bloody trail of scratches and broken fingernails on the floor.
Hailey’s throat went dry, squeezing closed as she stared numbly at the cracked leather cover of the book. It lay still, waiting patiently to be returned to its place. Tears burned themselves from Hailey’s eyes, a terrified scream erupting from her lungs.
“What the fuck!”
To either side of the aisle, the ancient bookshelves began to rattle threateningly. She scrabbled to her feet, pounding back down the stairs as fast as her trembling legs would allow. She slammed against the front door, searching for the deadbolt to free herself from the nightmare. To her horror, she discovered the door could only be unlocked one way – from the outside.
Swallowing around the lump in her throat, Hailey pressed her back to the cold metal. Above the librarian’s desk, the rotting sign and its peeling paint glowed softly, framed by light from the windows. Hailey sank to the floor, clammy hands clamped across her mouth. Staring at the sign and its one golden rule: do not speak ill of the books. A warning sign indeed.
T.L. Beeding is a single mother from Kansas City, MO. She is co-editor of Crow’s Feet Magazine and Paramour Ink, and is a featured author for Black Ink Fiction. When she is not writing, T.L. works at a busy orthopedic hospital, mending broken bones. She can be found on Twitter at @tlbeeding.