I slid another acid free folder over from the pile on my desk and rubbed the sandpaper scratch from my eyes.
How long had I been at this?
I glanced around the room and realized that the hazy glow of my lamp was the only island of light in a sea of darkness extending as far as I could see. I’d gotten so lost in my research I completely lost track of time, and apparently it was late.
The shuffle of footsteps interrupted my thoughts, and the librarian opened the door to the archive. She was heavy set, her protruding stomach barely hidden beneath a large, flower printed shirt. Her hair was mousy brown with thin streaks of silver striking through in various places. She nodded to me as she always did, her watery blue eyes focused on my face.
“Late night again, huh?” she asked. Her voice had the essence of gravel, as though she’d used it far too long and it never fully healed from the damage. I nodded and sat back in my chair, the bones in my ass protesting from being stuck in a hard wooden seat for hours.
“I’m almost done, I think. Just need a few more resources to finish my thesis.”
“That’s great honey,” she crooned. “I’ve been thinking about you, you know.”
I lifted an eyebrow. The woman was clearly off, but I had no idea what affliction she suffered from. I didn’t want to ask. All I wanted was to finish this damn research so I could get my PhD and move on with my life.
“There’s a collection we have in the back. Very rare, but I think you might find it useful. It might gross you out a little though.”
This snatched my curiosity.
“Why is that?”
She leaned in and held up her hand, like there was anyone else to hear our conversation.
“The books are fashioned with human skin,” she whispered.
The glint in her eye told me she had a clear fascination for the macabre. I glanced down at my table of documents and realized I really didn’t have the time or energy to keep going.
“Another time, maybe. I think I need to go. I’m sorry I’ve kept you here this late.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble,” she said. Why did she sound disappointed? Was I making that up?
I reached across the table and started replacing the documents to put away when her hand gripped my wrist. I looked up at her, but she wasn’t looking at me this time.
She was looking at my arm.
“Has your skin always looked like that?” she asked.
I froze, not sure if I was more offended at her touching me or bringing up my vitiligo. When she didn’t let go, I figured I had to answer her if I wanted to be free.
“Always,” I said through gritted teeth. After a heavy pause, she released me and I jerked my hand back as I stood.
“You’ve been a loyal patron to this library for a long time,” she said.
I needed to get out. The weird librarian was even worse after hours.
“Yes,” I mumbled. I grabbed my satchel and stood with what I hoped was a pointed social cue that I was ready to leave. The woman didn’t move.
“Have you thought about increasing that loyalty?” she asked.
I bit back a frustrated sigh. I couldn’t even go to the library anymore without someone asking for some fucking donation? Was nothing sacred?
“I think I’m loyal enough, thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I walked toward the door, but a vicelike grip held my wrist, and when I turned the librarian was there, her eyes glassy and intent as ever.
What the hell?
“Your skin is absolutely beautiful. I don’t think you realize how perfect you are.”
“I’ve accepted myself fine. Please let me go.”
She didn’t. Her grip tightened.
“You may not want to take my offer, but I’m afraid it wasn’t really an option, dear. I’ve been looking for someone like you for a long time. I’m afraid I can’t let you go, but you can rest assured that your loyal donation will be a great asset to the library.”
I tore my hand from her surprisingly strong grip and stepped back.
“I’m not donating to your fucking library, lady. Now leave me alone.”
She frowned, then turned away. I felt bad having to be so rude, but seriously. She started it.
When she turned back to face me, something glinted in her hand.
A knife. A really, really big one.
“What the fuck?” I shouted.
The sound of my voice dissolved in the ancient room. She stared at me as though nothing was amiss, like we were talking about the weather.
My heart pounded in my throat.
“You won’t be sorry. Your book will be the only one with those distinctive markings. It will be the most beautiful in the collection. It’s a worthy donation-you’ll be a part of this library forever.”
“I’m calling the cops! Get away from me!”
I turned and threw open the glass doorway to the archive. My legs burned as I sprinted through the dark, stacks of books on either side of me. When I reached the front doors I pressed the bar to escape and was met with a sharp stop.
The library intercom scratched on, and the librarian’s voice echoed through the entire building.
“I should have mentioned that we have special locks to keep folks inside now. You know, with all those terrible school shootings.”
I was trapped. The woman wanted my skin, literally, for some weird book collection? My blood pounded through my temples as a drop of sweat escaped my hairline and inched toward my chin. There had to be a fire escape somewhere. There had to be.
I ran away from the front lobby. If I could hide in the stacks long enough I could find a way out. There had to be a way out.
“The truth is,” she droned on the intercom, “you’re also the perfect age. A child’s skin is too pliable-it breaks far too easily. And of course the elderly have the same problem, and their skin is all pocked and marked with age. No. You have exactly the right combination. You will make a beautiful volume.”
I could hear my pulse pounding inside my head as I fought to control my breath. I slid my back along the shelves as my eyes scanned the outer walls for another door-any kind of place I could lock myself in to keep the woman out.
“You really don’t need to hide from me, little rabbit,” she taunted. “I’ve worked here for many years, waiting for my good luck charm to arrive. You should feel lucky.”
There. A door. It appeared to head to the back stairwell and down to the main road. This was it!
I bolted out from the stacks and ran straight into her knife. She knew that was the only other exit; that I’d head straight for it.
Pain seared through my middle as I collapsed onto the ground. She held my body as though I were a friend, gentle as can be.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered. “It will only hurt until you pass out, but I need you alive for as long as possible for your skin to stay in top condition.
I screamed as she pulled her knife from my belly and began slicing at the skin of my arm, like the thin pages of a book. The scent of hot blood filled the room as my vision swam.
“Thank you for your commitment to the library, dear. It is greatly appreciated,” she said.
The pain was unbearable. I screamed once more until my lungs gave out, and my mind could take no more.
In the end, I became a part of the library’s most grotesque collection, forever hidden from public view, sans one.
The librarian ran her fingers along my skin every day until she died. Only then was my murder discovered, and by then it was far too late.
My soul was damned inside those pages, forever.