Bogleech.com's 2019 Horror Write-off:
Little Girl Lost
Submitted by D. Matthew Beyer (email)
Ed had no idea what he was doing, only the distinct impression he was doing it wrong. The library’s new arrivals lay in loose constellations around him. He described each item in the black ledger just like he had watched Isolde do so many times before. Every rough scratch he made in the ledger felt like a minor act of desecration.
When he crawled out of his makeshift room in housewhires that morning, Isolde hadn’t been at the desk. He discovered evidence of her all morning; a half-empty mug of tepid coffee in the microwave, the arrivals box open on her desk, even her jacket draped over the back of her chair like a shed skin. Since it looked like she might return any minute, he reheated the mug every so often in the microwave. He even went to the trouble of refilling it when he refilled his own, mixing in sugar and cream until the coffee took on the correct shade of beige for Isolde.
But the clocks ticked ever onwards, and Isolde remained missing.
Ed considered looking for her as he sipped his own coffee—obsidian black and bitter as memory—but that would require leaving the main desk unattended, which he couldn’t do. Shouldn’t do, Ed corrected himself. Nothing prevented him from abandoning the desk and delving into the stacks in search of Isolde, aside from Alistair’s insistence that at least one person must be at the desk at all times. Not that it mattered much as far as Ed could tell, as people rarely made their way to the library.
Things, always. People, not so much.
Today’s arrivals were the epitome of a typical haul for the library. A handful of keys, a couple of socks without mates, and a few tv remotes.
Something pink tucked under a cardboard flap at the bottom of the box caught his eye. It was a crude valentine, probably made by a child judging by the jagged edges of the heart and the messy scrawl on the side without lace. The message itself was too saccharine to be anything other than genuine.
Ed wished Isolde was at the desk. Not just because the task of describing the valentine in the ledger would fall to her, but so that someone else could bear witness to the words written in the heart. It would still be lost, but she would lessen the chance it would be forgotten.
Someone cleared their throat as Ed described the heart in the ledger. He jerked his eyes up, hoping to meet Isolde’s storm cloud eyes. It was a different young woman, with blonde hair instead of brown.
He smiled. if the woman at the desk wasn’t Isolde, she must be looking for something. Which meant he needed to do his job. The woman flinched at this sudden change in expression.
“Sorry about that,” Ed said, laughing at himself. “I thought you were someone else for a second there. Welcome to the Library! How can I help you?”
The woman stammered something to the floor.
“I didn’t quite catch that.”
The woman looked up. “I think I’ve lost something.”
Ed nodded his head in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. “Then you’ve come to the right place. Lost things always find their way to the Library of the Lost. Do you know what it is you’re looking for?”
The woman tugged at the sleeve of her sweater, a gesture Ed had come to interpret as a bad sign. “Um… it’s stupid. Nevermind.”
“You sure? Ledger’s already open, it’s not hard to flip through,” Ed said.
“Well…” the woman stopped herself again. Ed kept his smile plastered on his face even though this type was one of his least favorites. In Ed’s experience, they knew exactly what they’re looking for but a deep—seated spirit of defeatism prevented them from asking.
The woman immediately confirmed Ed’s suspicion. “I was wondering if you had my- um- my way, I guess? Or maybe I should say my purpose?”
“Sorry, we deal more in physical things here,” Ed lied. The Library did tend to accumulate physical things since ideas are harder to lose, but it wasn’t why they didn’t have this woman’s purpose. Something had to first be found in order to be lost.
“Oh,” was all the woman said. “Well… thanks for your time.”
“I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful,” Ed said.
The woman turned away. Ed watched her shuffle her way out of the library, still tugging on the sleeve of her sweater. With that unpleasantness out of the way, he returned to the ledger.
There was a black card sitting on the ledger where one had certainly not been before. “Meet me in my office,” was inscribed on one side in Alistair’s jagged hand. The ink bled onto Ed’s fingers when he picked up the card, dying the the tips of his index and middle fingers a bloody scarlet. Flipping it over revealed Alistair’s trademark “A,” but offered no explanation of how Alistair snuck past Ed and the woman to deliver the card. Perhaps it didn’t need to, as the master of lost things moved in mysterious ways.
Ed tore a page from the back of the ledger like Isolde would have and wrote “stepped out—be with you as soon as we get back! Sorry for the inconvenience.” on it. He left the makeshift sign in lieu of himself and weaved his way through the stacks, searching for the crimson door behind which lay Alistair’s office.
A thought struck Ed right as he passed between cutlery and cultural artifacts. He’d never been inside Alistair’s office before. In the six years since he’d lost himself and ended up in the Library, he’d never crossed the threshold of the red door. This final demystification excited Ed, even if it ended the “speculate on Alistar’s office” game Ed and Isolde played on especially boring days.
Assuming her recent disappearance hadn’t already ended the game, of course.
Ed dropped off the new arrivals in their final resting places as he trusted the Library to guide him to the red door. It felt good to be back in his element. Isolde knew the ledger. Ed knew the stacks.
The library presented Ed with a glimpse of the door as he dropped the valentine in a sepulchral steel square overflowing with lost love notes, forever squandering its earnest intensity in a harsh metal rectangle. It had tucked itself away behind lost letters today.
And a man was painting it.
The painter focused all his energy on the door as Ed approached. The man attacked the door with color, slathering the surface with savage swathes of scarlet.
Ed raised the card. “Excuse me”. The man turned, looked at Ed, and then returned to his task. “I need to see Alistair!” Ed shouted.
The man threw his brush into the bucket at his feet, then stepped back to examine his work. “Looks good, huh?” he said.
Ed examined the door. The wet paint glistened erratically across the door as a testament to the violence of the man’s strokes. “It’s very… red,” Ed said.
“Perfect,” the man said. “It’s the red door.”
Ed and the man stared at each other. “Are you new here?” They asked in unison, and then they laughed.
“My name’s Ed. I got lost six years ago, and still haven’t been found,” he said.
The man nodded. “We must’ve just been missing each other, in that case. Been lost for six too. Name’s Matthias.” The man grabbed Ed’s hand in a wet, sticky sort of shake on account of the paint.
“You haven’t seen Isolde around, have you?” Ed said to Matthias as they pulled away from each other, strings of red paint stretching like sinew between their hands.
“Isolde? Is that the pretty blonde girl who works the front desk?”
“Probably,” Ed said, suddenly aware of how little about the library he knew with certainty.
Matthias shrugged. “Chances are good I’ll see her tomorrow.”
“I see,” Ed replied, even though he did not.
“Wouldn’t worry too much about her, though,” Matthias said as he walked away. “Just keep an eye on the arrivals box.”
The arrivals box! Ed thought. If Isolde had lost herself again, she’d end up back in the library. But would she still be Isolde?
Ed remembered fragments of a time before the library, but they were jumbled and unclear. Like a dream he mistook for reality, or hearing a story about himself he didn’t quite believe. But now was no time to reassemble the mosaic of Ed, as Alistair expected him.
Alistair’s office disappointed Ed from the moment he opened the door. It was neither the grand, gothic study he expected, nor the slick, clean laboratory Isolde believed it to be. It was tiny and tight. It had probably been a maintenance closet in one of the building’s former lives. Ed imagined Isolde’s face falling as he told her about the cramped, messy space that the red door hid. Maybe it was better to leave the mystery alive in the increasingly unlikely event she came back.
Alistair sat behind a grand desk that spanned the width of the room. There wasn’t even space for Alistair to get out from behind the desk unless he vaulted over the top of it. The host of knickknacks and curios would immensely complicate such a maneuver.
A second man loomed in a shadowy corner of the room, leaning in a high-backed chair hastily assembled from a wide variety of books. The stranger smiled at Ed. Dark glasses obscured his eyes, even though the room was candle-lit to begin with.
“You needed to see me, sir?” Ed said.
Alistair nodded. “So kind of you to join us, Edward. I’ll allow my guest to introduce himself.” The stranger opened his mouth to speak.
Ed blinked and things felt wrong. Like he’d briefly stepped out of time, only to come back and find the man’s hand extended to him. “I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t catch your name,” Ed said, bewildered by the experience.
“That is normal and to be expected,” the stranger said as he released Ed’s hand. “Call me Mr. N.”
“Mr. N here is one of the library’s primary patrons. Nothing that we do here would be possible without his continued support,” Alistair said.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” Ed said.
“The pleasure is all mine,” Mr. N said. He flicked open the armrest of his chair.
“Yes, yes,” Alistair said, leaning over the desk and staring at Ed. “This isn’t just a social call, though, my boy. Mr. N here has a problem, and we need your help solving it.”
Ed nodded. The language of problems he understood. “Happy to help, sir.”
“I’ve lost something, Edward,” Mr. N said in a flat voice.
“What is it?”
“Well, something isn’t the right word. Someone.”
“How did they die? Lost souls are arranged according to cause of death—“
Mr. N flipped idly through the pages of his armrest. “As far as I know, she’s not dead. Just lost.”
Words failed Ed for a moment. As far as he knew, there were no living people in the library beyond himself, Isolde, Alistair, and Matthias. Although Ed had added Matthias to the list less than ten minutes ago, so it wasn’t impossible he’d missed her. Then something clicked in his head. “If you’re looking for her, she’s not lost.”
“You’d think not, but I understand she would very much like to be,” Mr. N said.
“I’ll keep an eye out for her. If it would make you feel better,” Ed offered.
“It’ll make me feel less worse,” Mr. N said.
“What does she look like?” Ed asked.
“You’ll hardly notice her at first,” Mr. N said. His voice remained as level as a still lake. “Nobody ever does. This is normal, and to be expected. But keep an eye out for the signs. A bit of movement out in the corner of your eye, that feeling that you’re being watched when you’re alone, maybe a slight giggle after you mess something up and nobody’s around to see it. That sort of thing. She’s shy, my girl. But she’s out there. A little girl lost, Edward. And if you start to notice her, keep your eyes on her. As long as you’re looking at her, she’ll stay right who she is. Nothing will change. The changing only happens when you’re not paying attention. Can you pay attention, Edward?”
“I think so?”
Mr. N nodded. “If you see her, remind her that she belongs to me by consequence, regardless of her choices,” he said as he rose from his throne of books. “Always a pleasure, Alistair.”
“Of course. Safe travels,” Alistair said with a smile.
Mr. N brushed past Ed on his way out the door, but said nothing. Ed lingered in the office, unsure if he was allowed to leave yet or not. Alistair kicked his feet up on his desk and pulled a black book out of a drawer. He started reading, which Ed interpreted as his cue to leave.
As soon as Ed turned around Alistair spoke. “Do you understand what’s at stake here, Edward?”
Ed pivoted back to face Alistair, who eyed him over the book’s cover. “Yes, sir-“ Alistair raised a hand.
“Consider your answer very closely, Edward. Do you understand, completely and without any confusion, why it is vital that you do as Mr. N asks?”
Ed considered this. He had second thoughts followed by third thoughts. Plus he still wondered what had happened to Isolde. If anything, a surplus of confusion defined his life. “No sir,” Ed said.
Alistair sighed. “Good. I was worried for a second. Keep it that way, Ed.”
When Alistair returned to his reading, Ed decided to take the opportunity to ask about Isolde, since he rarely crossed paths with Alistair during the day to day operations of the library. “Sir, do you know what happened to Isolde?”
Alistair arched an eyebrow. “Has something happened to her?”
Ed realized he didn’t actually know if anything had. She wasn’t at the desk, which didn’t necessarily mean something had happened to her. He had evidence of her absence, but no evidence as to why she was absent. “I’m a little concerned about her. She seems to have disappeared.”
Alistair shrugged. “People do that from time to time. If she has, that’s her business. Yours is Mr. N’s task, Edward.”
“Of course, sir. Do you need me for anything else?”
“There weren’t any new stories in today’s arrivals, were there?” Lost tales were a personal favorite of Alistair’s. Most were unwritten, scrapped things. Many of them were surprisingly good, considering the were forever condemned to the library.
“No. Just mundane things.”
“A shame. Well, that’ll be all.”
“I suppose I’ll be getting back to work, sir,” Ed said. Alistair dismissed Ed with a wave of his hand.
Ed emerged from the red door around the children’s toys, which made the path back to the main desk significantly shorter. Sometimes the library could be agreeable, though the times were few and far between.
All was not as it should be in the toys section, however, as someone had moved things around since Ed put them away. Grungy dolls were having in tea parties, threadbare bears hung from the ceiling by ropes, and the plastic animals were now thrown together in a great heap, instead of arranged by taxonomy as Ed had left them. Ed cursed. He searched the stacks for the culprit, but found no-one.
When Ed turned the corner from toys to the main lobby, he was surprised to find Isolde sitting at the desk, writing in the ledger. It was as if she’d been there the whole time. She sipped her coffee as she examined each item, making detailed notes in their great black book.
Her hair was red instead of gold. It wasn’t that drastic of a difference, to be sure. She had the usual build, usual glasses, usual piercing in her nose, but different colored hair. Dying her hair would explain where she’d been.
Ed strolled up to the main desk, not wanting to startle her in case she vanished again. Isolde didn’t look up from her ledger until he was standing where the young woman had not an hour ago.
“Hey,” was all she said before resuming her task.
“Your hair looks nice,” Ed said.
“Thanks. I thought it was time for a change,” Isolde said.
Ed shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck. He regretted it when he felt moist paint on his hair. “Alistair wanted to see me,” he said as he produced the red and black business card.
A mischievous smile crept across Isolde’s face. “So you’ve seen it, huh?”
“Was it creepy and awesome?”
“No, just kind of… cramped?”
Isolde frowned. “Oh. That’s weak. How was the meeting?”
Ed shrugged. “It was a meeting”. He slumped down in his chair. A fresh cup of coffee sat on his side of the desk, courtesy of Isolde.
“Are you… bleeding?” Isolde said, noticing the red all over him.
“No, it’s just paint,” Ed said as he sipped his coffee. Black and bitter, just like he liked it. “So where have you been?”
“I found something weird in arrivals this morning. Had to put it in the children’s section before it could broke anything else.”
Isolde looked up. “You want to know?”
Ed considered Mr. N’s words. Now was the time for him to pay attention. “Nah, that’s okay. As long as I haven’t lost you.”
The rest of the evening passed in companionable silence as Ed and Isolde finished cataloguing the things that had found their way into the Library of the Lost that day. All things that would never be found again. And one, somewhere, that never wanted to be.