by Ray O'Bannon
(Click here for audio.)
Sketch took another sip from his insulated mug. The coffee did little to ease the chill, but still he lingered here in the bitter October wind rather than enter the library. Sketch hated libraries.
He found it ironic that he ended up here so often. The place offered much better research material than what was available online, but the library always made him feel guilty somehow. The endless rows of volumes seemed to scowl down at him, unsatisfied that he hadn't yet taken time to read them all. It didn't help that the place was always so dimly lit, the only bright area being a table under the skylight in the center of the main chamber. And he definitely didn't plan on sitting there. Not when Cain might show up at any time.
He didn't know the man's actual name. Sketch just always thought of him as 'Cain' because the man so strongly resembled the host from House Of Mystery, a classic horror comic from the 70's. The guy never bothered anyone, just quietly came and went, but something about the man's presence always made Sketch nervous. Cain always chose to sit at that brightly lit table, under the skylight, always reading a large ancient looking volume which the librarian would retrieve for him from a locked room in the library's basement.
Hopefully, the strange fellow wouldn't be around today. And it was bright out, in spite of the chill. Maybe Sketch could do some photography later, or talk Shelly into going for lunch. But first he needed the research material. He glanced back to be sure his bike was securely locked to the rack, took another sip of coffee, then closed the lid on the insulated mug, tucked it carefully into his jacket pocket and headed into the library.
Sketch crossed the main chamber, shaking off the chill as he passed the central area. No sign of Cain, at least. Three young girls occupied the table under the skylight, quietly studying. Sketch neared the counter at the back of the room, his spirits falling as he saw Mildred awaiting him with a scowl.
The scowl was no surprise. The elderly librarian was always polite while handing him his reserved material, but there was always that scowl. And that look of disapproval in her eyes. Sketch always wanted to speak up, always wanted to scream "This isn't pornography, these are just nude figure studies!" He always wanted to explain that amateur illustrators like himself relied on this type of material to do a proper job, that drawing a super hero comic required accurate anatomical information, that the human body was nothing to be ashamed of in the first place. But Sketch knew his words would bounce right off Mildred, and her scowl would only deepen.
So he did what he always did when Mildred was on duty. He gave her his card, quietly collected his material and then gave Mildred a mischievous little wink as he turned away from the counter.
He nearly collided with Cain, who was standing directly behind him.
Sketch's blood ran cold as he tried not to stare at the man. What was it about Cain that upset him so? Why did Sketch feel as though he were standing beside a large nest of spiders?
Tall and thin, Cain somehow reminded Sketch of a scarecrow. Dark shaggy hair spilled over the collar of his olive drab trench coat. Unusually heavy eyebrows, sunken cheeks and a goatee beard gave his long face a menacing aspect. A pair of antique spectacles perched above his hawk-like nose. And now that he was standing so near, Sketch noticed his slight smile. Somehow that smile bothered Sketch more than anything else. Sketch turned away, pretending to be interested in a rack of magazines.
Mildred handed the strange man his usual ancient looking volume. He turned, drifting towards the table under the skylight. Sketch absently adjusted his insulated mug, which was threatening to fall out of his pocket. He wasn't sure what Mildred would do if she caught him with the coffee, since food and drinks were strictly forbidden. He certainly didn't want to find out.
Cain had reached the table in the center of the room. He paused momentarily at the sight of the three girls occupying the table, then took a seat between two of them and placed the ancient book on the table. The girls stared for a moment with looks of indignant disgust before gathering their things and scurrying away as quickly as possible. Cain seemed not to notice, already deeply absorbed in the ancient volume.
Anxious to be out of this increasingly unpleasant environment, Sketch glanced towards the exit at the front of the room. Much to his dismay, he now noticed the three girls had settled at a table directly between him and the door. To avoid bothering them, Sketch would need to walk nearer to the center table than he really wanted to. But Cain's back would be toward him, so he could probably pass unnoticed.
Then Sketch felt a surge of annoyance. Why should he worry about walking past this guy? What was Cain gonna do, bite him? This was silly. Sketch gathered his nerves and began making his way towards the center of the room.
He was nearly past Cain when he heard the gentle rasp of a brittle page being turned, and couldn't resist glancing over. The quick glimpse revealed an illustration of some sort, a line drawing surrounded by various symbols. The artwork seemed somehow unusual, and Sketch found himself quietly stepping a bit closer to gaze over Cain's shoulder at the faded parchment page.
His eyes focused on the drawing. At first, his mind refused to accept what he beheld. Then understanding came, a wave of horror leaving him speechless, barely able to breath. Suddenly dizzy, Sketch felt himself falling forward.
His flailing hands managed to grasp the back of Cain's chair. He regained his balance but felt the insulated mug shift as it began sliding out of his jacket pocket. An instant later, the mug was clattering down onto the table top, the lid knocked loose and rolling away as the last few sips of coffee splashed across the parchment.
The room was immediately plunged into shadow, the skylight no longer providing any illumination. Cain turned, staring at Sketch with shocked amazement. The eyes that peered out from behind those antique spectacles were now completely black. There was a faint reddish glow deep within them. A sort of snarl escaped Cain's throat.
Then Cain turned away, his attention returning to the book. Sunlight began to filter down from the skylight as he dabbed clumsily at the damp page with a black silk handkerchief. Mumbling obscenities, he slammed the book closed. Then, tucking the ancient volume under one arm, Cain rose and stalked away from the table.
Sketch, still a bit dizzy, stood staring as Cain reached the counter and handed the damaged volume to Mildred. An expression of nervous uncertainty replaced her customary scowl as she scurried off towards the basement. Cain then came marching back across the room, pausing for a moment to stare coldly at Sketch. Leaning close, he hissed a few words in Sketch's ear, words spoken in a long dead language, words that began fading from Sketch's memory even as Cain slammed through the library doors and drifted off down the street.
Sketch noticed Mildred had returned and now stood glaring at him from the library counter. A few drops of coffee still stood glistening on the table top. Sketch wiped them away with his sleeve, then grabbed his empty mug and returned it to his pocket. He could feel Mildred's frosty glare on the back of his neck as he bent to recover the lid.
A few minutes later he was unchaining his bike and tucking his research material into the saddlebags, relieved that Mildred hadn't actually flown across the library to rip out his throat, though her expression made it clear she'd have liked to do so. His only desire now was to get back to his apartment as quickly as possible. He felt weak, dazed by what he had seen in that book. And yet he could no longer clearly remember the actual illustration or any of it's details.
It's been a while now. Sketch's comic has been published in a few webzines. Shelly's been spending lunch with him most every day. Things are good.
But sometimes Sketch has nightmares that leave him nervous and jumpy. He still can't remember exactly what he saw in that book. And sometimes he feels dizzy. What bothers him most, however, is the weather. It's never gotten quite as bright outside since that day at the library. Sure, there are sunny days, just like always, but they never seem quite as bright as they once did. Almost... sometimes.... but not quite.