By Bernard McGhee

From the December 2021 issue of CHM

Sometimes there’s no box to check when the person who died was just your best friend. So I helped put Quentin in the ground, gave myself a few minutes to cry and then reported for my evening shift at the Library.

Of course, no humans were allowed to read the books there. They didn’t call it the Library of Forbidden Knowledge to be funny. But the Librarians needed people who still had physical bodies to shelve the books, handle new ones that came in and do other little odd jobs. That’s where clerks like me came in.

I tried to smile when I saw Drake in the coatroom but I was hoping to not have to talk to anyone else that day. His shift over, he was zipping up his lunch box and getting ready to leave.

“I finally did it today, Alex,” he said, straining to keep his face straight. “I read one of the books. I’m serious this time.”

“And what did you learn?” I asked, not looking at him. It was a running joke we had been batting around for the last few months. Obviously, he hadn’t actually read any of them. He probably wouldn’t be standing there if he had.

“I learned that no matter how hard you try, you’re never going to be able to make that denim jacket look cool,” he said and looked at me, waiting for a comeback.

Quentin had been with me when I bought the jacket last year. He always teased me about it too. I knew I was supposed to laugh or say something back. Instead, I remembered how Quentin’s face twisted in mock disapproval as I paid for the jacket. He could be such a dick sometimes. It was funny.

Drake frowned. “You okay?” Then his eyebrows jumped. “Oh shit. I completely forgot your friend’s funeral was today. I’m sorry. How are you holding up?”

“No problem. I’m fine. It was a nice service.” I didn’t know what else to say.

He mumbled something about being available if I needed to talk and hurried out. I was relieved when I heard the Library’s heavy double-doors open and then shut with a loud echoing thud, locking automatically to anyone who wasn’t a clerk.

In the dark, empty lobby, my footsteps echoed on the black marble floor. I pushed through another set of doors and was standing on an iron catwalk that overlooked a fluorescent-lit underground sea of bookshelves that stretched beyond what I could see. The cool air smelled of dusty old paper.

I looked around. As far as I could tell, none of the Librarians were nearby. I took in a deep breath, held it, and let it out in a slow sigh. After a long day of tears and condolences, it was just me and the stacks now. I sat in an armchair by the door and closed my eyes. All I had to do was wait in the silence for a new book to come in. Wait and not think about Quentin.

I didn’t have to wait long. On the floor under the catwalk, a conveyor belt came to life with a whir. I walked down the rickety metal stairs to the stone floor and waited at the end of the conveyor, which came out of a square hole in the stone wall. A blue, leather-bound book wobbled down the conveyor belt and stopped when it reached my waiting hands. I never knew what was at the other end of the conveyor belt or where the books came from.

The writing on the cover appeared first as strange symbols and drawings. But after staring at it for a few seconds, the lines blurred into letters. These books wanted to be read. The cover now showed the title: “What Kerchulger Did.”

“That would probably sound more interesting if I knew who the heck Kerchulger was,” I said to no one. “I guess that part’s forbidden too.” I sat behind the steering wheel of a golf cart parked a few feet away. “Now to find a Librarian to tell me where to put this.”

The air around me got colder. “Or they’ll find me,” I muttered.

A tall, ghostly figure hidden under a red shroud appeared in front of me.

“Where do you want it?” I asked, holding up the book.

“The Forgotten Deities section,” a soft, raspy voice that seemed to be coming from all around me said.

I almost missed what it said. I was remembering how when we were kids, Quentin and I would stay up late to watch bad horror movies we weren’t supposed see. We would have loved a movie where the monster looked like the Librarians.

“Can you tell me what happens to people after they die?” I blurted out. But the Librarian was already gone. “The Forgotten Deities section then,” I said and drove the golf cart into the sea of shelves.

It took nearly 30 minutes to drive to the Forgotten Deities section. Some of the shelves really were about a mile long, with ladders built into them at various spots for clerks to climb up, walk along the top of the shelf and climb down on the other side without having to go all the way around. I never knew exactly how big the Library was. Sometimes I’d find a wall at the end of a row of shelves. But the next day, that wall would be gone and there’d be more shelves packed with books.

Drake said a clerk once got lost in the shelves and they found him starved to death six weeks later. I always had my doubts about that story but I also kept a map on me that illustrated roughly where each section was.

When I got to the section, I stopped the golf cart and stepped out. Far away from the conveyor belt and without the hum of the cart’s motor, the Library was deathly quiet. Every movement I made sounded too loud as I scanned the shelves for an empty spot to put the newest book.

About 20 feet down the aisle, a young girl in a tattered, blue dress was crouched on the floor with her back to the bookshelf, hugging her knees to her chest. She looked up at me through strands of filthy brown hair. Her eyes were filled with terror. I looked away and when I looked back, she was gone. From the next aisle on the other side of the bookshelf came a burst of manic laughter in a man’s voice. Then silence again. Phantoms. The Library was full of them. The rules said to ignore them.

I slid the book into an empty space next to one titled The Talking Shadows and froze. What if Quentin ended up in a place like this? Was he wandering around in an endless maze of shelves stacked high with books no one would ever read? Was he yelling for someone to find him? Or was he in a worse place? What if he hadn’t gone to church enough? What if some of his jokes were too mean? What about the time we snuck into his parent’s closet to look at the porno magazines his dad hid there?

Tears blurred my vision as I walked back. I stopped. Someone was standing a few feet behind the cart. I jumped back, wiping my eyes to see them clearly.

The gray, naked man looked at me with white, pupil-less eyes. His arms were too long, hands hanging past his knees. He opened his extra-wide mouth and smiled, showing a set of tiny writhing black tentacles where his teeth should have been.

“I can help you,” he said in a cavernous voice.

Another phantom. I got into the cart and started driving away.

“I can help you find your friend named Quentin,” he called out behind me.

I slammed on the brakes. In the back of my mind, a part of me was screaming not to talk to him, that it was against the rules to acknowledge him in any way. I ignored it and stepped out.

“What do you know about him?” I demanded. “How do you know anything about him?”

“Knowledge is not the only thing the ones you call ‘Librarians’ keep locked away here,” he said. “I am one who finds unmet desires… fascinating. It makes my existence inconvenient to them.”

“Who are you?” I asked, taking a step back.

“I am someone who wants to help you know,” he said. “I don’t have a name; only many nicknames.” He lifted one of his long arms toward the shelves around us. “There is a book here that can tell you what you want to know.” He looked back at me. “You just have to read it.”

For a second, just a second, I imagined myself taking a book off the shelf, opening it and looking at the pages. My heart jumped in my chest.

I glared at him. “That’s against the rules and you know it.” I turned my back to him, got in the cart and drove away, keeping my eyes forward until I had turned the corner where the row of bookshelves ended and headed back toward the conveyor.

I should have kept looking forward as I drove past shelf after shelf. But movement in an aisle to my right caught my eye as I drove by. A man in the middle of a cloud of wasps staggered down the aisle. For a few seconds, his screams and the wasps’ buzzing drowned out the sound of the cart’s motor. Then I was looking at another shelf and the next aisle. I stopped. Everything was quiet again. I reversed the cart back to the aisle. There was nothing there. But the screams and buzzing still rang in my ears.

“That wasn’t Quentin,” I told myself. “That’s not happening to him. He’s in a better place.” But was he? Why do we all just assume that if there’s life after death, it’s a life you’d want?

I tried to call up a memory of us sneaking into R-rated movies or the hours we’d spent playing video games together. All I could see was him screaming and flailing under a swarm of wasps that covered him like a second skin. I closed my eyes and threw my head back as hot tears rolled down my cheeks. I could still hear the buzzing. I could still hear the screaming. I banged my fist on the cart’s dashboard. A dull pain blossomed in my hand. It wasn’t enough. Quentin was still screaming in my mind. I brought my fist down again, harder. And again, this time feeling something slick on the dashboard. I opened my eyes and looked at my bleeding hand. It still wasn’t enough.

I looked down the aisle again and the gray man was standing there. His white eyes shined like two lanterns in the dark as he smiled at me with his tentacle grin.

“You still want to know,” he said.

I hid my bleeding hand behind my back and stepped off the cart. “What you’re suggesting would break the most important rule of this place, the only rule that really matters here,” I said. “It would probably get me killed.”

“But you would know,” he said.

I opened my mouth, then closed it. I had no answer to that. I looked over my shoulder at the cart. If I got back on it now, I could make the long drive back to the conveyor belt and the armchair on the catwalk and forget this ever happened. But in that moment, the thought of spending the rest of my life wondering about Quentin terrified me.

“Okay, assuming I believe you, which book is it that I’d have to read?”

“Follow me,” he said. He jumped up, grabbing the top of a bookshelf with one hand and vaulted over it, disappearing as he went down onto the other side.

I sprinted to the nearest ladder and scrambled up it to the top of the bookshelf. I got to the top just in time to see him jumping over the next shelf.

“Wait,” I yelled. I climbed down the first few rungs of the ladder to the next aisle, then jumped down, turned and ran across the aisle to the next ladder. This time, when I got to the top and looked down, he was running down the aisle. I ran across the top of the shelf, keeping him in sight. The shelf ended at an intersection of aisles between four shelves. He took a left and then another right into another row of shelves; out of sight.

My head swiveled around. I’d have to backtrack to get to the nearest ladder and that would let him get farther ahead. I crouched down, dangled my legs over the side of the shelf and jumped down. I fell to my hands and knees when I landed, sending a spike of pain into my right knee. Gritting my teeth against the pain, I got up and chased after him.

He was already halfway down the aisle when I started running down it. “Hold on for just a second,” I huffed but he didn’t seem to hear me. He turned and turned again as I struggled to keep following, barely keeping him in sight. I didn’t even know where I was in the Library anymore. All around me were just rows and rows of bookshelves I couldn’t remember having seen before. I thought of the clerk Drake said got lost in the stacks. Would I be able to find my way back before starvation made me too weak to walk? How long would it take for someone to find my emaciated body? Did these shelves ever end?

I looked ahead and slowed down. He had stopped in the middle of the aisle and turned around to face me. I stumbled to a halt, nearly limping now on my throbbing knee. He held his hand over the spine of one of the books on the shelf, his fingers stopping just half and inch before touching it.

“Here,” he said. “This book will tell you what you want to know.”

He stepped back as I walked up to it. I started pulling it off the shelf, then stopped. In three years of working here, I had never once taken a book off a shelf. I realized I never really knew when the librarians were or weren’t around. Never really knew when they were or weren’t paying attention. I took a deep breath, pulled the book the rest of the way off the shelf and held it in my hands. Nothing happened.

Of course, the cover just showed strange runes and symbols. They blurred and I looked away and then up at the gray man. His smile was even wider now. His empty, white eyes were wide with anticipation.

“Hold on a second,” I said. “What do you get out of this? Do you just want me to open a book to see what happens?”

“Never,” he said. “You wanted something. I helped you fill that want. Your satiation will be nourishing to me.” He opened his mouth and licked the air with a long, dark green tongue. “But there is one more thing you should know. When you get farther out into the universe, you will find that time becomes a… subjective thing.”

“What does that mean?” For an instant, the book quivered in my hands.

“You will understand when you read it,” he said.

I looked back down at the cover of the book. The symbols shifted and slithered across the surface, becoming still when they formed the words: “The Galaxies After Flesh.”

So far, all I had done was read the title. No big deal. We always read the titles. The librarians seemed fine with clerks knowing all the general topics we weren’t allowed to know more about. I could still put the book back and walk away.

Where was Quentin?

I opened the book, resting it on my inner forearms, and stared at the page. More strange symbols, written in red on light-brown parchment. The book got warmer in my hands as the symbols unraveled and moved across the page. Like I said, these books wanted to be read. The lines glowed and floated off the page, twisting in the air. A drop of sweat ran down my forehead. So much heat was radiating from the book.

Quentin whispered “shhh” then tiptoed out into the den, which was dark except for the glow of the TV screen. His mother was asleep on the sofa An old action movie played on the TV. Hopefully, the gunshots and explosions from the movie would be enough to cover any noise we made as we took cookies and potato chips from the pantry. I looked around, waiting for the moment when I would snap out of this memory from when we were 10 years old. But all I could see was Quentin, crouching down and crawling behind the sofa. I wasn’t holding the book anymore, just the gym bag we were going to use to hold our stash of purloined snacks. The room even smelled the way I remember the inside of his house smelling when we were kids.

“Come on,” Quentin hissed at me, impatiently beckoning me to follow him past the sofa.

I was back in the Library. The lines from the page swirled in front of me, moving faster and faster. The book was getting so hot I wanted to drop it.

Quentin glanced over to make sure his mother was still asleep. Then he stood up and waved his arms in elaborate kata motions. His impression of a ninja. He dashed toward the kitchen and dropped down into a baseball slide across the hardwood floor.

The smell of smoke filled my nose. How did I not notice how much hotter the book was getting? I opened my mouth to scream.

“Go on and talk to her,” Quentin said, yelling to be heard over the blaring music at the dance club. “Take a risk for once in your life.” The woman at the other end of the bar was talking to her friend and hadn’t notice me looking at her. I had forgotten how pretty she was in that purple midriff top and black leather miniskirt. “What’s the worst that could happen?” Quentin continued. “You have to shoot if you want to score.” I remembered that I did eventually go talk to her. I think she said her name was Tonya. I didn’t get her phone number that night, but Quentin had been right. He usually was about such things.

Back in the dim light of his parents’ house, he glided across the floor on his leg, foot extended out as he continued his slide. I could tell he’d practiced it. His mother was still sound asleep.

I didn’t know how long I had been screaming. The book was white hot against my hands and forearms but somehow I was the one on fire.

Raindrops tap against the windshield as Quentin drives down a city street. The song playing on the radio just came out a few months ago. Why don’t I remember this moment? He’s wearing a black and gold skull cap. I remember the last time I saw him wearing it and a knot forms in my stomach. A screech of tires pierces the air. Headlights spring up outside the driver’s side window. Quentin’s side of the car crumples in a burst of broken glass and bits of metal as the world outside his windshield turns sideways. Then upside down. Quentin’s arm wrenches at an unnatural angle. His head slams into the ceiling and then comes down onto the dashboard like a falling meteor. The gear shift handle punches into his torso. Then he’s thrown to the side. Blood fills the air.

“Why am I seeing this?” I wail, but no one hears it. I don’t even hear it.

The car comes to a rest on its side. Quentin lands in the passenger seat, looking like a ragdoll that’s been thrown down a flight of stairs. He twitches for a few moments. Then he looks up with eyes that aren’t seeing; eyes that aren’t blinking.

Light explodes around him. He shoots up into the air. He’s above the rain-soaked smoking wreckage of his car and falling upward into the sky. His eyes are alive again. He looks around, confused. The city looms beneath him for a second and then sinks under a field of clouds. Quentin reaches with both hands back toward the ground. He doesn’t want to go but even the sky is falling away from him. Everything around him is black. He’s still struggling to swim back to the earth that’s getting smaller below him but he’s moving away even faster now. Asteroids and planets zip past. Then stars and nebulas. He tumbles through space going far beyond light speed. He’s lost sight of Earth. Lost sight of anything in the heavens he might recognize.

When he finally stops, he looks all around at the endless, cold void of stars that surrounds him. I can see in his face that he knows it’s hopeless. Earth could be in any direction now. He could float alone out in space forever. He cries out. I feel even sadder than I did when his sister called me in tears to tell me Quentin had been in an accident.

Flames from my chest tickled my neck. The sickening smell of burning meat was so thick, I could taste it through the heat sizzling the inside of my mouth. The book was still in pristine condition. The lines were still dancing and swooping above the page.

Quentin was still in the middle of his baseball slide across the floor as the movie watched his mother sleep. There is nothing I wouldn’t give to go back to the days when our biggest worry was getting caught sneaking junk food from the kitchen.

The pain was too much. The flames ignited my hair, turning it into a crown of fire. I had made a huge mistake. Nothing was worth this. I let go of the book but it didn’t fall. The fire had fused it to me. The lines on the page were coming together, beginning to form a picture. I didn’t know how I was able to see it. I was pretty sure the liquid running down my cheeks was what was left of my eyes.

Quentin is walking along a rocky beach as blue and purple waves splash along the shore. His back is to me. Ahead of him, the sun is setting, making it easy to see the two moons in the twilight sky. One moon is green. The other is orange. Quentin turns to me and says something I can’t understand.

“What’s going on?” I ask. “Where is this?”

“Come on, man,” Quentin says. “You’re not going to be able to have a conversation with anyone on Atra if you don’t learn the language.”

Why don’t I remember this moment? I struggle to remember it. Then I realize. Tears fill my eyes and a smile sprouts on my face. Time becomes subjective. This is a memory that hasn’t happened yet.

“But I saw you lost in space,” I say. “What happened?”

“Honestly, I just picked a direction and started moving,” he says. “A lot happened. I visited some really crazy places. There’s stuff out there you can’t even imagine. And then I found you floating around. But I still don’t think you’re supposed to be jumping ahead like this.”

He says something else but I couldn’t hear it. I was burning on the inside and outside. Melted eardrums kept me from hearing anything. Crisped vocal cords kept me from screaming. I couldn’t even see the book anymore. Just a searing haze of orange and black. And yet, the fire didn’t hurt that much anymore.

Back in his house, 10-year-old Quentin finished his slide into the kitchen. The tip of his foot stopped just before the door to the pantry. He spun on his backside and jumped to his feet. Very ninja. I had to hand it to him, it looked pretty cool. I gave him a thumbs up.

The book fell to the floor amid a cascade of smoking ash and blackened bones. It would probably be Drake who’d have to clean it up and put the book back. I wondered for a split second if the gray man was still around. Before I could look, a white light filled my vision and then I was surging into the sky. I tried to keep track of where Earth was but realized how silly that was. I had already lost sight of the star that had been the sun.

I didn’t know how long I was flying through space. It might have been hours. It might have been years. When I finally slowed to a stop, I looked around. Cold darkness in every direction, even above and below. But also stars and planets. Asteroids and moons. And somewhere out there, also everyone else who had ever died.

For a while, I was lost. For a while, I was scared. Then I picked a direction and started moving in it. I had no idea where I was going but it was okay. I was armed with the knowledge that I would eventually see my best friend again.

End.

*~*~*

When not writing fiction, Bernard McGhee works on the editing desk of a busy newsroom, which provides a constant source of inspiration for horror and other stories of unusual mayhem. He was raised in the New Orleans area but has lived all around the country. He currently lives in the Atlanta area with his wife and son and is looking ahead to the next death metal concert. You can follow him on Twitter at @BMcGhee13

Burning Death Amid the Mile-Long Shelves in the Library of Forbidden Knowledge

By Bernard McGhee

Sometimes there’s no box to check when the person who died was just your best friend. So I helped put Quentin in the ground, gave myself a few minutes to cry and then reported for my evening shift at the Library.

Of course, no humans were allowed to read the books there. They didn’t call it the Library of Forbidden Knowledge to be funny. But the Librarians needed people who still had physical bodies to shelve the books, handle new ones that came in and do other little odd jobs. That’s where clerks like me came in.

I tried to smile when I saw Drake in the coatroom but I was hoping to not have to talk to anyone else that day. His shift over, he was zipping up his lunch box and getting ready to leave.

“I finally did it today, Alex,” he said, straining to keep his face straight. “I read one of the books. I’m serious this time.”

“And what did you learn?” I asked, not looking at him. It was a running joke we had been batting around for the last few months. Obviously, he hadn’t actually read any of them. He probably wouldn’t be standing there if he had.

“I learned that no matter how hard you try, you’re never going to be able to make that denim jacket look cool,” he said and looked at me, waiting for a comeback.

Quentin had been with me when I bought the jacket last year. He always teased me about it too. I knew I was supposed to laugh or say something back. Instead, I remembered how Quentin’s face twisted in mock disapproval as I paid for the jacket. He could be such a dick sometimes. It was funny.

Drake frowned. “You okay?” Then his eyebrows jumped. “Oh shit. I completely forgot your friend’s funeral was today. I’m sorry. How are you holding up?”

“No problem. I’m fine. It was a nice service.” I didn’t know what else to say.

He mumbled something about being available if I needed to talk and hurried out. I was relieved when I heard the Library’s heavy double-doors open and then shut with a loud echoing thud, locking automatically to anyone who wasn’t a clerk.

In the dark, empty lobby, my footsteps echoed on the black marble floor. I pushed through another set of doors and was standing on an iron catwalk that overlooked a fluorescent-lit underground sea of bookshelves that stretched beyond what I could see. The cool air smelled of dusty old paper.

I looked around. As far as I could tell, none of the Librarians were nearby. I took in a deep breath, held it, and let it out in a slow sigh. After a long day of tears and condolences, it was just me and the stacks now. I sat in an armchair by the door and closed my eyes. All I had to do was wait in the silence for a new book to come in. Wait and not think about Quentin.

I didn’t have to wait long. On the floor under the catwalk, a conveyor belt came to life with a whir. I walked down the rickety metal stairs to the stone floor and waited at the end of the conveyor, which came out of a square hole in the stone wall. A blue, leather-bound book wobbled down the conveyor belt and stopped when it reached my waiting hands. I never knew what was at the other end of the conveyor belt or where the books came from.

The writing on the cover appeared first as strange symbols and drawings. But after staring at it for a few seconds, the lines blurred into letters. These books wanted to be read. The cover now showed the title: “What Kerchulger Did.”

“That would probably sound more interesting if I knew who the heck Kerchulger was,” I said to no one. “I guess that part’s forbidden too.” I sat behind the steering wheel of a golf cart parked a few feet away. “Now to find a Librarian to tell me where to put this.”

The air around me got colder. “Or they’ll find me,” I muttered.

A tall, ghostly figure hidden under a red shroud appeared in front of me.

“Where do you want it?” I asked, holding up the book.

“The Forgotten Deities section,” a soft, raspy voice that seemed to be coming from all around me said.

I almost missed what it said. I was remembering how when we were kids, Quentin and I would stay up late to watch bad horror movies we weren’t supposed see. We would have loved a movie where the monster looked like the Librarians.

“Can you tell me what happens to people after they die?” I blurted out. But the Librarian was already gone. “The Forgotten Deities section then,” I said and drove the golf cart into the sea of shelves.

It took nearly 30 minutes to drive to the Forgotten Deities section. Some of the shelves really were about a mile long, with ladders built into them at various spots for clerks to climb up, walk along the top of the shelf and climb down on the other side without having to go all the way around. I never knew exactly how big the Library was. Sometimes I’d find a wall at the end of a row of shelves. But the next day, that wall would be gone and there’d be more shelves packed with books.

Drake said a clerk once got lost in the shelves and they found him starved to death six weeks later. I always had my doubts about that story but I also kept a map on me that illustrated roughly where each section was.

When I got to the section, I stopped the golf cart and stepped out. Far away from the conveyor belt and without the hum of the cart’s motor, the Library was deathly quiet. Every movement I made sounded too loud as I scanned the shelves for an empty spot to put the newest book.

About 20 feet down the aisle, a young girl in a tattered, blue dress was crouched on the floor with her back to the bookshelf, hugging her knees to her chest. She looked up at me through strands of filthy brown hair. Her eyes were filled with terror. I looked away and when I looked back, she was gone. From the next aisle on the other side of the bookshelf came a burst of manic laughter in a man’s voice. Then silence again. Phantoms. The Library was full of them. The rules said to ignore them.

I slid the book into an empty space next to one titled The Talking Shadows and froze. What if Quentin ended up in a place like this? Was he wandering around in an endless maze of shelves stacked high with books no one would ever read? Was he yelling for someone to find him? Or was he in a worse place? What if he hadn’t gone to church enough? What if some of his jokes were too mean? What about the time we snuck into his parent’s closet to look at the porno magazines his dad hid there?

Tears blurred my vision as I walked back. I stopped. Someone was standing a few feet behind the cart. I jumped back, wiping my eyes to see them clearly.

The gray, naked man looked at me with white, pupil-less eyes. His arms were too long, hands hanging past his knees. He opened his extra-wide mouth and smiled, showing a set of tiny writhing black tentacles where his teeth should have been.

“I can help you,” he said in a cavernous voice.

Another phantom. I got into the cart and started driving away.

“I can help you find your friend named Quentin,” he called out behind me.

I slammed on the brakes. In the back of my mind, a part of me was screaming not to talk to him, that it was against the rules to acknowledge him in any way. I ignored it and stepped out.

“What do you know about him?” I demanded. “How do you know anything about him?”

“Knowledge is not the only thing the ones you call ‘Librarians’ keep locked away here,” he said. “I am one who finds unmet desires… fascinating. It makes my existence inconvenient to them.”

“Who are you?” I asked, taking a step back.

“I am someone who wants to help you know,” he said. “I don’t have a name; only many nicknames.” He lifted one of his long arms toward the shelves around us. “There is a book here that can tell you what you want to know.” He looked back at me. “You just have to read it.”

For a second, just a second, I imagined myself taking a book off the shelf, opening it and looking at the pages. My heart jumped in my chest.

I glared at him. “That’s against the rules and you know it.” I turned my back to him, got in the cart and drove away, keeping my eyes forward until I had turned the corner where the row of bookshelves ended and headed back toward the conveyor.

I should have kept looking forward as I drove past shelf after shelf. But movement in an aisle to my right caught my eye as I drove by. A man in the middle of a cloud of wasps staggered down the aisle. For a few seconds, his screams and the wasps’ buzzing drowned out the sound of the cart’s motor. Then I was looking at another shelf and the next aisle. I stopped. Everything was quiet again. I reversed the cart back to the aisle. There was nothing there. But the screams and buzzing still rang in my ears.

“That wasn’t Quentin,” I told myself. “That’s not happening to him. He’s in a better place.” But was he? Why do we all just assume that if there’s life after death, it’s a life you’d want?

I tried to call up a memory of us sneaking into R-rated movies or the hours we’d spent playing video games together. All I could see was him screaming and flailing under a swarm of wasps that covered him like a second skin. I closed my eyes and threw my head back as hot tears rolled down my cheeks. I could still hear the buzzing. I could still hear the screaming. I banged my fist on the cart’s dashboard. A dull pain blossomed in my hand. It wasn’t enough. Quentin was still screaming in my mind. I brought my fist down again, harder. And again, this time feeling something slick on the dashboard. I opened my eyes and looked at my bleeding hand. It still wasn’t enough.

I looked down the aisle again and the gray man was standing there. His white eyes shined like two lanterns in the dark as he smiled at me with his tentacle grin.

“You still want to know,” he said.

I hid my bleeding hand behind my back and stepped off the cart. “What you’re suggesting would break the most important rule of this place, the only rule that really matters here,” I said. “It would probably get me killed.”

“But you would know,” he said.

I opened my mouth, then closed it. I had no answer to that. I looked over my shoulder at the cart. If I got back on it now, I could make the long drive back to the conveyor belt and the armchair on the catwalk and forget this ever happened. But in that moment, the thought of spending the rest of my life wondering about Quentin terrified me.

“Okay, assuming I believe you, which book is it that I’d have to read?”

“Follow me,” he said. He jumped up, grabbing the top of a bookshelf with one hand and vaulted over it, disappearing as he went down onto the other side.

I sprinted to the nearest ladder and scrambled up it to the top of the bookshelf. I got to the top just in time to see him jumping over the next shelf.

“Wait,” I yelled. I climbed down the first few rungs of the ladder to the next aisle, then jumped down, turned and ran across the aisle to the next ladder. This time, when I got to the top and looked down, he was running down the aisle. I ran across the top of the shelf, keeping him in sight. The shelf ended at an intersection of aisles between four shelves. He took a left and then another right into another row of shelves; out of sight.

My head swiveled around. I’d have to backtrack to get to the nearest ladder and that would let him get farther ahead. I crouched down, dangled my legs over the side of the shelf and jumped down. I fell to my hands and knees when I landed, sending a spike of pain into my right knee. Gritting my teeth against the pain, I got up and chased after him.

He was already halfway down the aisle when I started running down it. “Hold on for just a second,” I huffed but he didn’t seem to hear me. He turned and turned again as I struggled to keep following, barely keeping him in sight. I didn’t even know where I was in the Library anymore. All around me were just rows and rows of bookshelves I couldn’t remember having seen before. I thought of the clerk Drake said got lost in the stacks. Would I be able to find my way back before starvation made me too weak to walk? How long would it take for someone to find my emaciated body? Did these shelves ever end?

I looked ahead and slowed down. He had stopped in the middle of the aisle and turned around to face me. I stumbled to a halt, nearly limping now on my throbbing knee. He held his hand over the spine of one of the books on the shelf, his fingers stopping just half and inch before touching it.

“Here,” he said. “This book will tell you what you want to know.”

He stepped back as I walked up to it. I started pulling it off the shelf, then stopped. In three years of working here, I had never once taken a book off a shelf. I realized I never really knew when the librarians were or weren’t around. Never really knew when they were or weren’t paying attention. I took a deep breath, pulled the book the rest of the way off the shelf and held it in my hands. Nothing happened.

Of course, the cover just showed strange runes and symbols. They blurred and I looked away and then up at the gray man. His smile was even wider now. His empty, white eyes were wide with anticipation.

“Hold on a second,” I said. “What do you get out of this? Do you just want me to open a book to see what happens?”

“Never,” he said. “You wanted something. I helped you fill that want. Your satiation will be nourishing to me.” He opened his mouth and licked the air with a long, dark green tongue. “But there is one more thing you should know. When you get farther out into the universe, you will find that time becomes a… subjective thing.”

“What does that mean?” For an instant, the book quivered in my hands.

“You will understand when you read it,” he said.

I looked back down at the cover of the book. The symbols shifted and slithered across the surface, becoming still when they formed the words: “The Galaxies After Flesh.”

So far, all I had done was read the title. No big deal. We always read the titles. The librarians seemed fine with clerks knowing all the general topics we weren’t allowed to know more about. I could still put the book back and walk away.

Where was Quentin?

I opened the book, resting it on my inner forearms, and stared at the page. More strange symbols, written in red on light-brown parchment. The book got warmer in my hands as the symbols unraveled and moved across the page. Like I said, these books wanted to be read. The lines glowed and floated off the page, twisting in the air. A drop of sweat ran down my forehead. So much heat was radiating from the book.

Quentin whispered “shhh” then tiptoed out into the den, which was dark except for the glow of the TV screen. His mother was asleep on the sofa An old action movie played on the TV. Hopefully, the gunshots and explosions from the movie would be enough to cover any noise we made as we took cookies and potato chips from the pantry. I looked around, waiting for the moment when I would snap out of this memory from when we were 10 years old. But all I could see was Quentin, crouching down and crawling behind the sofa. I wasn’t holding the book anymore, just the gym bag we were going to use to hold our stash of purloined snacks. The room even smelled the way I remember the inside of his house smelling when we were kids.

“Come on,” Quentin hissed at me, impatiently beckoning me to follow him past the sofa.

I was back in the Library. The lines from the page swirled in front of me, moving faster and faster. The book was getting so hot I wanted to drop it.

Quentin glanced over to make sure his mother was still asleep. Then he stood up and waved his arms in elaborate kata motions. His impression of a ninja. He dashed toward the kitchen and dropped down into a baseball slide across the hardwood floor.

The smell of smoke filled my nose. How did I not notice how much hotter the book was getting? I opened my mouth to scream.

“Go on and talk to her,” Quentin said, yelling to be heard over the blaring music at the dance club. “Take a risk for once in your life.” The woman at the other end of the bar was talking to her friend and hadn’t notice me looking at her. I had forgotten how pretty she was in that purple midriff top and black leather miniskirt. “What’s the worst that could happen?” Quentin continued. “You have to shoot if you want to score.” I remembered that I did eventually go talk to her. I think she said her name was Tonya. I didn’t get her phone number that night, but Quentin had been right. He usually was about such things.

Back in the dim light of his parents’ house, he glided across the floor on his leg, foot extended out as he continued his slide. I could tell he’d practiced it. His mother was still sound asleep.

I didn’t know how long I had been screaming. The book was white hot against my hands and forearms but somehow I was the one on fire.

Raindrops tap against the windshield as Quentin drives down a city street. The song playing on the radio just came out a few months ago. Why don’t I remember this moment? He’s wearing a black and gold skull cap. I remember the last time I saw him wearing it and a knot forms in my stomach. A screech of tires pierces the air. Headlights spring up outside the driver’s side window. Quentin’s side of the car crumples in a burst of broken glass and bits of metal as the world outside his windshield turns sideways. Then upside down. Quentin’s arm wrenches at an unnatural angle. His head slams into the ceiling and then comes down onto the dashboard like a falling meteor. The gear shift handle punches into his torso. Then he’s thrown to the side. Blood fills the air.

“Why am I seeing this?” I wail, but no one hears it. I don’t even hear it.

The car comes to a rest on its side. Quentin lands in the passenger seat, looking like a ragdoll that’s been thrown down a flight of stairs. He twitches for a few moments. Then he looks up with eyes that aren’t seeing; eyes that aren’t blinking.

Light explodes around him. He shoots up into the air. He’s above the rain-soaked smoking wreckage of his car and falling upward into the sky. His eyes are alive again. He looks around, confused. The city looms beneath him for a second and then sinks under a field of clouds. Quentin reaches with both hands back toward the ground. He doesn’t want to go but even the sky is falling away from him. Everything around him is black. He’s still struggling to swim back to the earth that’s getting smaller below him but he’s moving away even faster now. Asteroids and planets zip past. Then stars and nebulas. He tumbles through space going far beyond light speed. He’s lost sight of Earth. Lost sight of anything in the heavens he might recognize.

When he finally stops, he looks all around at the endless, cold void of stars that surrounds him. I can see in his face that he knows it’s hopeless. Earth could be in any direction now. He could float alone out in space forever. He cries out. I feel even sadder than I did when his sister called me in tears to tell me Quentin had been in an accident.

Flames from my chest tickled my neck. The sickening smell of burning meat was so thick, I could taste it through the heat sizzling the inside of my mouth. The book was still in pristine condition. The lines were still dancing and swooping above the page.

Quentin was still in the middle of his baseball slide across the floor as the movie watched his mother sleep. There is nothing I wouldn’t give to go back to the days when our biggest worry was getting caught sneaking junk food from the kitchen.

The pain was too much. The flames ignited my hair, turning it into a crown of fire. I had made a huge mistake. Nothing was worth this. I let go of the book but it didn’t fall. The fire had fused it to me. The lines on the page were coming together, beginning to form a picture. I didn’t know how I was able to see it. I was pretty sure the liquid running down my cheeks was what was left of my eyes.

Quentin is walking along a rocky beach as blue and purple waves splash along the shore. His back is to me. Ahead of him, the sun is setting, making it easy to see the two moons in the twilight sky. One moon is green. The other is orange. Quentin turns to me and says something I can’t understand.

“What’s going on?” I ask. “Where is this?”

“Come on, man,” Quentin says. “You’re not going to be able to have a conversation with anyone on Atra if you don’t learn the language.”

Why don’t I remember this moment? I struggle to remember it. Then I realize. Tears fill my eyes and a smile sprouts on my face. Time becomes subjective. This is a memory that hasn’t happened yet.

“But I saw you lost in space,” I say. “What happened?”

“Honestly, I just picked a direction and started moving,” he says. “A lot happened. I visited some really crazy places. There’s stuff out there you can’t even imagine. And then I found you floating around. But I still don’t think you’re supposed to be jumping ahead like this.”

He says something else but I couldn’t hear it. I was burning on the inside and outside. Melted eardrums kept me from hearing anything. Crisped vocal cords kept me from screaming. I couldn’t even see the book anymore. Just a searing haze of orange and black. And yet, the fire didn’t hurt that much anymore.

Back in his house, 10-year-old Quentin finished his slide into the kitchen. The tip of his foot stopped just before the door to the pantry. He spun on his backside and jumped to his feet. Very ninja. I had to hand it to him, it looked pretty cool. I gave him a thumbs up.

The book fell to the floor amid a cascade of smoking ash and blackened bones. It would probably be Drake who’d have to clean it up and put the book back. I wondered for a split second if the gray man was still around. Before I could look, a white light filled my vision and then I was surging into the sky. I tried to keep track of where Earth was but realized how silly that was. I had already lost sight of the star that had been the sun.

I didn’t know how long I was flying through space. It might have been hours. It might have been years. When I finally slowed to a stop, I looked around. Cold darkness in every direction, even above and below. But also stars and planets. Asteroids and moons. And somewhere out there, also everyone else who had ever died.

For a while, I was lost. For a while, I was scared. Then I picked a direction and started moving in it. I had no idea where I was going but it was okay. I was armed with the knowledge that I would eventually see my best friend again.

End.

*~*~*

When not writing fiction, Bernard McGhee works on the editing desk of a busy newsroom, which provides a constant source of inspiration for horror and other stories of unusual mayhem. He was raised in the New Orleans area but has lived all around the country. He currently lives in the Atlanta area with his wife and son and is looking ahead to the next death metal concert. You can follow him on Twitter at @BMcGhee13

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