The Librarian: A Monster Portrait

A Slaughter Chronicles Short Story

(for Suzie, my best librarian friend)

THE big table makes you look smaller than you are. Like a little morsel, a macaroon, a petit four alone on a dinner plate. You twitch, fidget. You curl your spine protectively over your phone screen despite the towers of books that surround you. Ponderous tombs of science, philosophy, and madness.

The World Atlas Extraordinaire sits on a stand older than this building next to you, propped open to the Pacific Islands, resplendently corralled by the cartography of the currents, dancing whorls of sacred scarification.

Each time the door slides open your eyes dart around in your skill like scared rabbits. You’re looking toward the door now; the shining glass, the herald of the morning sun. You are waiting for someone.

I like to pretend you’re waiting for me—but the girl walks in. (Besides, I’m already here.) The girl with the navy blue sweatshirt and hair the color of milky oil sliding off a dead whale. Her face is younger than mine. Of course, she is younger. All of you are. Her uniform skirt bisects her thighs perfectly, exposing her beautifully formed knee caps and the lacy pattern of veins and arteries flowing under her skin. Her sock-less feet are so dainty that her sneakers could easily be mistaken for ballet slippers.

She should be a ballerina with long, tangled hair. But she is a student and so are you. But you are not wearing a uniform. What day is it? Sunday? Monday? Where is the nearest school?

More importantly, what time is it? It must be near Lunchtime. I’m beyond famished. Even when I eat Breakfast and Second Breakfast I’m still a bottomless pit.

She sits as you stand. You do not hug like I expected you to but you do touch her shoulder as you lean over her chair. You ask her if she needs anything. She doesn’t. She pulls out a notebook and her headphones from her pink polka-dotted tote bag. (I have a bag too but it is not made out of polka-dots.) You walk away and she begins to scribble viciously across her blank page, her ears full of music I cannot hear.

Maybe she is a poet. Poets are delicious. They taste like burnt sugar and apricot pipe tobacco. (As opposed to artists, who usually taste like soggy, fermented herbs.)

When you return her head is bowed as if in prayer and your arms are bursting with books. Paris, Venice. Belgium, Madrid.

Travel or History?

What war, if any?

What’s your poison?

And why ignore the atlas? It’s been sitting right next to you the whole time. Just like I have. Surely maps are not obsolete. I know GPS exists now-a-days but you need more than travel diaries to travel. You have to know how to get where you want to go before you even think about going there. (I speak from personal experience, of course, but rarely does anyone listen to me…listen and survive, anyway…moving on.)

She plucks her headphones out of her ears and gives you one of the most dazzling smiles I have ever seen one human give to another. Her pink-frosted lips form the shape of the softest thankyou I have read anywhere, on paper or on flesh.

Maybe you’re planning to run away together. She’s already ready. Her tote has extra clothes and a very sharp knife hidden at the bottom (a gift from an overprotective mother, no doubt. Mothers should be overprotective). And you look like you have the money to buy anything else you two might need for a—what is it called? Funny, after all this time I still don’t know your words for it.

Getaway? Suicide?

When you only live from one meal to the next? No worrying about where to sleep, what to see next? Vacation?

No, you will have nothing to go back to. When you leave it will be for forever. Your family will disown you, will harry you through the halls and hedgerows, mazes and ballrooms and strip the skin from your sorry carcass if you ever return—no wait, that’s me. Not you. Sorry.

I’ve been living from one meal to the next without worrying about where I will sleep or what I will see next, unless it’s food. I eat food, dream food. I always look for food. But my version of you abandoned me long ago.

How long will you wait before you change your mind and leave her?

Good thing you’ll never find out. You’ll never get the chance to betray her. As you sit and study the geography of possibility I creep closer.

The shadows ebb and flow around your feet.

She doesn’t have time to dig out her knife.

(Copyright 2019 by Jessica Halsey)

The Librarian isn’t interested in working today. Don’t bother her.

*

Photos by Oladimeji Odunsi on Unsplash

The Promise: a dystopian short story

The tunnels are deep and full of poisonous fog.

There is no exit, at least not for the very first or the very next.

Would you survive the end of the world? For Pyre and her friends that is a terrifying question. She may not want to know the answer.

For fans of Garth Nix’s Shade’s Children and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

Disclaimer: This story contains mature themes including sickness and death, and the death of a child. Reader discretion is advised.

Continue reading The Promise: a dystopian short story

Little Girls

They carried the baby bird wrapped in a yellow, flowered handkerchief up the ladder and into the attic. Its eyes bulged behind their closed, membranous lids and its prickly down barely covered the stubs of its wings. The wrinkly, peach flesh was damp with perspiration and plant juice. It choked and twitched feebly, beak broken open. “We’re going to operate now,” said the little girl in the red corduroy dress. Her glossy black shoes were scuffed and muddy and her little white tights were ripped by the holly bush. There were no lights in the attic but Mother gave them three candles with the stipulation that Make Believe was not allowed to knock the candles over and burn the house down. The two girls scooted past boxes and trash bags filled with grown up things and tiny baby things from times neither of them could remember. They were like bright, neon fishes, easily distracted by strange movements, strange colors, strange noises. They crawled as one creature with four knees and four paws, dirt smeared and tipped with chewed claws, two of which were clasped together around the quivering baby bird. “On the operating table!” the little girl in the red corduroy dress whispered urgently, snatching the handkerchief from the other little girl and slamming it down on the top of one of the boxes. “Scalpel!” she cried. The other little girl pulled the handkerchief away from the baby bird and lifted it to her nose. There was something there that reminded her of earthworms and pill-bugs. Like the juice that dripped from the knife to the kitchen floor. Like the scolding she received when she stayed out in the sandbox past lunchtime. She reached into the pocket of her blue overalls and held out a sprig of holly.

*

Photo by brabus biturbo on Unsplash

Direction

Take the splintered memory of your father beating you from between your mother’s clenched teeth. If you can still hear his screams, go west. You will come to a ditch cradling a dead cat. If his neck is twisted, proceed north. If his belly burst open like a rotten orange under a motorcycle wheel, go south. You will find the rider’s bloody boot prints scuffing the Black-Eyed Susans. If you mix the pollen with loose-leaf tobacco and roll a cigarette your doppelgänger in another universe will be gifted a front row seat to the next public execution. But that is not the direction you want to go. If you ignore me and walk toward the old Civil War battlefield marked with the city’s slapdash attempts at historical editing. Your old lovers, wherever they are, will turn pale as if a nurse has taken too much life force from the abrasive latticework of a failed experiment. You will taste blood in your mouth. They will fall to the floor and you will not be there to catch them or kiss the languor from their eyes. You won’t want to. If you don’t see a dead cat, continue west as if nothing is wrong. You will eventually come to a fork in the road. Or a river. And you must either cut off all your hair or throw your clothes into the Salvation Army donation bin that washed up on the riverbank after the storm. You have to go bare in some way, your own body acting as a trembling neophyte’s compass, pointing towards the sharpest point away. If fear bites down on you so hard your ribs crack and snap against your heart, you can choose a different direction. You can run, screaming, back home or you can try to walk on water.

*

Photo by Oliver Roos on Unsplash

Home

Home scratches at her shingles with tree branch fingers, pulls the air conditioning unit to her moldy, aluminum ribs and keens a whale song of mourning. We found her wandering the tornado snarled wild three months ago, empty and starving. We fed her pieces of dining room table, gas key fireplaces, and cast iron bathtubs, clawed feet first. We gutted her plumbing, ripped out her nerves and re-wired the electricity, reinforced foundation seams that let the water in every time it rained. She did not respond well. We found rot and mold in her corners, force fed her antibiotics and quarantine standard operating procedures while she belched ladder-back chairs, sofa cushions, wind chimes, and broken bookcases. She still has her bad days. After feeding time Home likes to sit back porch facing east and picture window facing west; Home sits and watches the sun set, sits for hours in the dark. She gets regular walks around the wolf pen—let her mingle with the vultures, I said, let her feel useful and clean up the dead, but no one would listen—she shakes every time the tornadoes come through. She has bad memories and, hopefully, maybe a few ecstatic ones. When it rains, Home hitches up her porch and hops from one corner to the other, splashing in the puddles when she can.

*

Photo by thomas shellberg on Unsplash

A previous version of this piece was first published in Six Sentences waaaay back in 2009. In fact, this was the very first thing I ever got published.

Eating a Strawberry

The strawberry is poison and it pops into your mouth as if by magic.

It is cold and sour. It pricks your tongue like a bee sting. You

chew as if a spider clawed its way across your jaw before stopping to

rest above your lower lip, you chew delicately.

Originally published in 50 to 1 (as Jessica Otto).

Photo source.

Romance

We stepped outside the greenhouse and the lights went cold. He reached out; his palm froze against Saturn’s gelatinous ring and pulled away from his wrist like wet paper. I felt the romance leak out of our suicide as I saw the black hole. I punched him in the face.

Originally published in 50 to 1 (as Jessica Otto) 13Feb2010.