We’re pleased to present Ruthanna Emrys’ short story “Those Who Watch” from The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, an outstanding anthology of original stories inspired by H. P. Lovecraft from authors who do not merely imitate, but reimagine, re-energize, and renew his concepts in ways relevant to today’s readers. From the depths of R’lyeh to the heights of the Mountains of Madness, some of today’s best weird fiction writers—both established award-winning authors and exciting new voices—offer fresh new fiction that explores our modern fears and nightmares.
Edited by Paula Guran, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu collects tales of cosmic horror that traverse terrain created by Lovecraft and create new eldritch geographies to explore—available now from Running Press!
Those Who Watch
On my third full day, the library marked me. I should have been holding down the desk—I’d been hired for reference—but instead I was shelving. After a year with an MLIS and no prospects, you don’t whine. Deep in the narrow aisles of the back stacks, the AC struggled against the sticky Louisiana heat outside. I gave up on my itchy suit jacket, draped it over the cart, and tucked Cults and Sects of Eastern Bavaria under my arm while I hooked a rolling stool with my ankle. And felt a piercing sting against the inside of my elbow.
I screamed, almost dropped the book, caught it but lost my balance. My ass is pretty well padded, but now I felt a nasty bruise start up to go along with whatever mutant mosquito had snuck in from the swamps to assault me. I set Cults and Sects gently on floor and examined my arm. The skin swelled, red and inflamed, around a tiny spiral galaxy of indigo and scarlet flame.
I’ve never so much as pierced my ears. I hate pain. A lot of days I hate my body too, but it’s mine and I don’t expect it’d improve anything to ink it up or poke extra holes in it. But I’ve got braver friends, so I could tell this was unmistakably a tattoo, right about the point some people take off the Band-Aid—a little too early—and send you close-up selfies to make you wince in sympathy. I touched it and shrieked again, a little muffled because I expected the pain this time.
I prodded the book, turned it carefully with the tip of my finger. No needles hidden between pages by urban legend psychopaths, or protruding from the spine like some literary assassin’s poison ring. An ordinary book, cloth bound and stamped along the page ends with “Crique Foudre Community College.”
“Elaine! Are you all right?” My boss hurried around the end of the row. I scrambled to my feet, nearly tripping again, left hand clapped over the evidence of whatever screw-up I’d managed.
“Sorry, Sherise,” I managed. “Sherise,” she’d made clear when I started, not Sherry or Miss Nichols or any of the other variants people had tried—she liked her name and she used it.
“Let me see,” she said. When I didn’t move, she pried my fingers away from the offending spot. She hummed as she traced the swollen area. “Better get the first aid kit to be safe. Come on.”
She strode confidently through the stacks, a maze I’d already gotten lost in twice that morning. Florescent light gleamed off her brown skin and the darker maps winding around her arms—hers were probably from an actual tattoo parlor. Her hair puffed over her ears; big gold rings strung with lapis beads dangled underneath. I struggled to keep up.
A few more turns, and we’d come all the way around the shelf-lined halls that surrounded the library’s central reading room, back to the staff office with its institutional carpet and laminate desks. Sherise’s, in the corner, stood out by being bigger and uglier than the others, and topped by sort of an old style wooden card catalog, dozens of tiny drawers with brass pulls. She opened one, pulled out a box of what looked like alcohol wipes. She tore open a sealed pack, labeled in an alphabet I didn’t recognize. It smelled of wintergreen and ashes. She rubbed the cool pad over my arm, and stinging gave way to a softer tingle.
“There, that should keep it from spreading. Be careful with the religion books. Powers want respect, and so do the words around them.”
“Okay.” My last semester at Rutgers I’d applied to jobs all around the country—and the same for a year afterward. It was August now, and plenty of hungry new graduates would be glad to move to rural Louisiana if I didn’t work out.
CFCC had been a miracle of double-scheduling, tacked onto a disastrous interview at the smallest and most obscure branch of Louisiana State University. The LSU staff started by asking whether I had any family in the area and what church I liked. Their library was a disaster too: a modern brick monstrosity that turned off the climate control at night to keep under budget, and never mind if mold ate away their skimpy collection. After that, just about anywhere would have been an easy sell. The CFCC library, endowed by an alumnus-made-good with distinctly non-modern architectural tastes, about made me cry with gratitude.
At CFCC, they didn’t ask about my family. They threw a dozen weird-ass reference queries at me in rapid succession, and seemed pleased by my sample class on databases. They did ask my religion, but “sort of an agnostic Neopagan”—I was through being coy after LSU—seemed like an acceptable answer. By the time they brought out an old leather-bound tome from their rare books collection and wanted to know if the font gave me a headache, I didn’t much care. I was past wanting a job, any job—I wanted to work somewhere that actually cared about being a good library for their visitors. I wanted a space that cared, and never mind if outside the doors waited mosquitoes and killing humidity and drive-through liquor stores.
Sherise didn’t send me home, which I kind of thought might have been justified. On the other hand she didn’t yell at me, which would probably have been justified too. I’d been disrespectful to Sects and Cults, after all, whatever that meant. I retreated to the reading room.
The circular, high-domed room at the library’s heart was a legacy of the generous alumnus. According to Sherise, this benefactor had traveled the world collecting antiquities, and decided that American education neglected the values that had made the ancient world great. “By ancient he meant Greece,” she’d said. “Maybe Baghdad if he was feeling really broad-minded. But still, you won’t find another building this pretty closer than New Orleans.” And she was right: in the middle of a campus of shoebox buildings, the library stood out like a dandelion breaking through a sidewalk.
Each door to the reading room was crowned by cherubim bearing a motto on a banner—in this case: “The temple of knowledge shapes the mind within.” Actual cherubim, not putti; I had to look up the original descriptions before I believed it. Inside, the room went up three stories. The center held the shelves and work stations and computers you’d expect, but allegorical sculptures of Cosmology and Determination and Wisdom, Agriculture and Epiphany and Curiosity, gazed down over the doors. Above them a bas relief ribbon detailed stories related to these virtues. Some I recognized: Oedipus and the sphinx, Archimedes in his bath. In others, humans and fabulous monsters played out less familiar myths. A tromp l’oeil thunderstorm stood over all, making the room feel dim and cool even with the lamps turned up bright. A few professors bent over oak desks, and I felt self-conscious as I craned my neck.
The sculptures had been a definite selling point for the school, one that helped me work up the guts to come out as Neopagan—though it’s not always a trustworthy sign; a guy screamed at me one time for pointing out Minerva’s owls atop the Chicago Public Library. People don’t like admitting they’re taking advantage of other people’s temples, maybe even worshipping just by walking through.
It was Determination I wanted—to get through the day, to do my work right so I’d still have a job and an apartment and insurance when David’s visiting professorship in Chicago ended. There was a little spot between two shelves where I could get near her with no one watching. I sat heavily on a stool, looked up. She wore armor, and aimed her spear down at my seat. In her other arm, she clasped a book protectively, and she gazed with narrowed eyes, daring anyone to come up and try something. But someone had: carven blood spilled from a wound in her side, the only spot of color on the white marble.
When I first saw her, I assumed she got that wound from some enemy’s weapon. But it was awfully close to the book. I opened my mouth to whisper a prayer, and couldn’t get anything out.
The advantage of being agnostic is that you can pray to whatever you like. A stream, a statue, an abstract concept, a fictional character—if it feels like it ought to be a god, if it does you some good to think about how it might see your problems, you can just go ahead and babble. But I couldn’t doubt the muddy multichromatic swirl pressed into my skin. Some power, aware or otherwise, had decided that was a good idea.
I knew enough stories. Gods, if they actually exist and don’t mind letting you see the evidence, are scary fucks. No damn way was I praying to one. My arms slipped up to wrap around my chest and I scooted to the side. I felt ridiculous, but I also felt like at any moment Determination might shift her spear. Maybe she wanted to make sure I didn’t misuse another precious book. My heart sped, and I started to feel dizzy. I pushed the stool farther back, checked the aisle behind me and saw Epiphany, globe upheld in one hand and wings spread, other hand on her robe. But her eyes—like Determination’s—focused on me, mocking. I scrambled up, kicking the stool against the shelf, flinching as it banged into the wood. Backed away, then fled through Wisdom’s door to the staff room, not daring to look either at her or at the professors who might’ve noticed my outburst.
I shouldn’t have taken the prayer break in any case. I should’ve gone to work the reference desk—in the middle of the reading room—or back to the pre-semester reshelving. But I still didn’t know what I’d done wrong, and after a few minutes trying to swallow a growing lump of nausea, knew that I couldn’t face either today. Sherise had left the staff room and I’d only get lost looking for her. I scribbled a note: “I’m feeling sick and need to go home early—I’ll make it up later in the week. Sorry for the short notice.”
As I gathered up my things, I imagined her reading the note. I had no idea what rare sequelae might result from book tattoos—would she call an ambulance? I went back and added: “It’s a problem with the dose on my medication; I’ll get it fixed.” She knew I was on meds; I’d deliberately let her see the sertraline when I took my morning pills. Another thing I didn’t feel like being coy about. And it was true about the dosage problem. After a year with no insurance, my new doctor wanted to start slowly; the amount I was taking now might work for an anxious supermodel, but for a big girl like me it barely made a dent.
Outside, heat slammed my lungs. I squinted against the blinding afternoon sun, trying to catch my breath. Halfway to the parking lot, sweat soaked my shirt; just walking felt disgusting. Skin and cloth stuck to each other and peeled away, again and again. By the time I got to the car, my legs were shaking and my heart still hadn’t slowed. I felt short of breath, and couldn’t tell whether I was hyperventilating or just having trouble with the humidity.
The first blast of AC cleared my head enough for me to realize that no way in hell should I drive like this. After a minute of circling the need-to-get-home/can’t-go-home paradox, I gave in and called David. Skyped, actually—still just in range of the campus wi-fi, I needed to see him more desperately than I needed him not to see me in sweat-stained dishabille.
The phone sang its reassuring trying-to-connect melody, less reassuring as it went on and I wondered if I’d misremembered his class schedule. Or he could be with a student, or in a meeting, or just too busy. But finally, with a satisfied plink, the video came through.
“Hey, gorgeous,” he said. “Are you okay?”
“Hey, pretty boy.” It was ritual exchange, but at least my end of it was true. My fiancé was a beautiful red-haired Nordic type who could rock a Viking helmet or a slinky dress with equal aplomb. What he saw in me was still a mystery. I tried to explain what was going on, managed only: “I hate Louisiana.”
“I don’t blame you.” He leaned closer. “Are you having a panic attack?”
I shook my head, then nodded, then shook it again.
“Okay. Take a deep breath. I’m right here, I’m holding you. Let it out. Breathe in.”
I imagined his arms around me, imagined lying together in the shitty little apartment we’d shared near Rutgers. It made me feel lonely, but it gave me something to think about besides the heat and the tattoo and my boss and the job that might be too weird for me to handle. The breathing helped. My head cleared further, and keeping the car on the right side of the road no longer seemed like an overwhelming prospect.
“Thanks, that helps.” I wanted to show him the tattoo—but the thought made my mouth feel dry again. What if he demanded I quit my job and come to Chicago right away? Or worse, what if he couldn’t see it at all? Hallucination isn’t supposed to be a symptom of generalized anxiety disorder, but it was actually the most rational explanation I could think of. “What do you do when your job gets weird?” I asked instead.
He leaned back, obviously pleased to have been of use. “Research, mostly. Or diagnose my colleagues’ personality disorders on insufficient evidence, depending on the brand of weirdness. Is someone being nasty?”
“No. Just, um, trying to figure out campus culture.”
“Lots of alcohol and not enough drugs, probably.”
We chatted a little longer, and then he had to get back to course prep. I let him go, and didn’t tell him I’d called in sick. Nothing bad happened on my drive home.
Outside my apartment complex, I found the heat still intense, but now that I was calmer (and before I hit the barricade of smokers by the door) I took a moment to breathe. I can’t stand the way Louisiana looks or feels, but the smell is amazing. Silt and decay like endless autumn, overlain with orchids and citrus and cypress and a million other trees and vines and roots bursting from every available surface. I can’t face the swamp in person. Giant bugs to bite you or leap in your face, mud to slip on, alligators just lying around hoping you’re weak enough to be worth a sprint. But I love the smell.
I drowned my sorrows in chocolate and a Criminal Minds marathon, and it helped. Sherise sent an email to say she hoped I’d feel better, and I stared at it for five minutes trying to figure out whether she believed me before giving up and going back to the TV.
* * *
But calling out sick only works for so long, and I’ve learned the hard way that if I let myself do it two days in a row it’s easy to get inertia and stretch it for a week. So the next morning, lying in bed, I tried to put my thoughts in order.
The tattoo remained, stubbornly, on my arm. It still felt tender, but the dim light filtering through the blinds showed that the swelling had gone down. So I would go with the assumption that I wasn’t hallucinating, if nothing else because I wasn’t checking into any hospital without David there to look respectable for the doctors.
If the tattoo was real… then I still wasn’t sure about the statues. I’d been spiraling, and I couldn’t even trust my judgment of live people when that happened. How the hell was I supposed to predict allegorical virtues? But the tattoo, all by itself, meant I didn’t understand how books worked. Probably it meant I didn’t understand how the world worked at all, but I’d always known that. Books, though, I thought I had down.
When his job got weird, David did research. For him that meant digging through sociology databases and endless stacks of journal articles. I didn’t know what database covered this situation—but if the library had untrustworthy books, it ought to have resources to tell you about them.
“Imagine it’s someone else’s reference question,” I said aloud. Talking to myself feels stupid, but never speaking aloud at home feels a lot worse. “Miss, I’ve got a report about book attacks due in three hours. Can you find everything for me? Yes, damn straight I can.”
* * *
Sherise nodded when I dropped my lunch in the staff room, and asked casually after my health. I told her I was fine today, tried to parse what she was thinking. Probably I ought to have gone ahead and asked about the book. But she hadn’t told me when she cleaned the tattoo, and maybe there was a reason for that. Either it wasn’t the sort of thing she could explain properly, or she assumed I already knew.
One of David’s psych grad friends, a year ahead of him, figured out—halfway through his postdoc—that they’d hired him thinking he’d studied under a different professor from the same department. They’d never asked, he’d never told them, and he’d struggled to keep up the whole year. But it wasn’t exactly the kind of thing you could come out and say. Suppose one of the Rutgers library science professors was secretly a Predatory Books specialist? Or more plausibly, suppose Sherise assumed this was something Neopagans just knew about? Either way, I didn’t want to make her feel stupid—or like hiring me had been a mistake. I’d just have to paw through the databases myself until I found what I needed.
Walking into the reading room was hard. My body believed, even if I wasn’t sure, that I’d faced a threat here. Bodies like to preserve themselves; mine wanted me to go back to my cave where it was safe. I told my body that it was stupid, and went in. I couldn’t help glancing at Determination. She didn’t seem about to spear me, but I still sensed something watching. The sense of attention seemed to pervade the room, all the allegories judging our choices of study. I shivered, tried to ignore what was probably just my neurotic imagination, and turned on the ancient reference computer.
The library’s generous funder wasn’t nearly as fond of technology as of architecture or hard copy, so I had far too long to sit in the crossfire of allegorical gazes without the screen to distract me. When I finally got the browser running, I looked over the library’s scant list of databases. Medline? Likely to support the hallucination hypothesis. PsycInfo? Worse. Maybe JSTOR or the always over-general Academic Search Premier? Eventually I decided to start with databases I’d never heard of—if a community college with a lousy budget for online services subscribed to something really obscure, there was probably a reason.
I found a few, in fact. Mostly the weird ones claimed space in world mythology and folklore, though there was one in biology and another in physics. MythINFO turned out to be perfectly pedestrian, though kind of awesome: it let you search by a drop-down menu of Stith Thompson Motif Index entries. Several looked relevant—various “transformation” archetypes, magical books—but turned up only articles on fairy tales, drowned in the deep jargon of literary analysis.
PYTHIAS, though, seemed more promising. Various combinations of “book” and “tattoo,” suitably modified by “AND” one thing and “-” another, got me nowhere. But an exasperated “bibliogenic illness” turned up a long list of books in the Zs. I scribbled down call numbers for those available locally, took a deep breath, and fled the reading room for whatever lurked in the stacks.
My first few days in the library, I could get lost by blinking. The stacks wound back in all directions, and I could never quite figure out how straight rows added up to a circular building—except that the rows seemed to curve subtly, sometimes, and the turns weren’t always right angles. Today for the first time, a map stretched out in my mind; I couldn’t see the edges, but could feel the shape and logic of how the rows spread from where I stood. Beneath my skin, the tattoo pulsed with soft heat. I touched it, gingerly, but felt nothing from outside.
I hadn’t been back to the Zs—the “index” section whose self-referential topic is books and libraries—since the whirlwind tour during my interview. But the warmth in my arm seemed to increase along what I vaguely recalled was the right path. I gave in and followed it, trying not to think too hard about what I was doing.
The AC was managing better today, at least as far as temperature. The stacks felt cool and shadowy. But in the corner of my eye fog seeped from below the shelves, never there when I turned to look though I felt it against my skin. It sometimes seemed about to coalesce into more solid form and draw me to a particular shelf, a particular volume—but it never did.
My map grew as I walked; at last I saw that the stacks were not so much neat rows as a galactic spiral, linear only to the cursory glance. And at the far end of the western arm, I found an alcove lit by buzzing fluorescents and lined with tightly packed mahogany bookshelves. Tiny paperbacks pressed against oversized leather-bound tomes, and the half-imagined fog cleared in favor of archival dryness. A circular stained-glass window, wider than the span of my hands, filtered light through an abstract pattern of magenta and midnight blue. The colors shifted as shadows moved beyond—probably leaves from the grand row of hollies and live oaks between library and parking lot. My arm burned, pain flaring as I stepped into the coruscating illumination. I whimpered and bit my lip.
I wanted to move away from the window and get my books. Instead, unwilled, I knelt. As in the reading room, I felt again the attention of some presence. This one seemed less judgmental, more curious. Not friendly curiosity: a biologist examining a noisy DNA sequence, perhaps, or me with a particularly recalcitrant new database. The attention sharpened, and I felt uncomfortably aware of my body: not only fat ass and weak ankles, but heart thudding and guts clenching and nerves struggling to keep up. All pus and blood and static, acid and slime and brittle bone.
And I felt the examination grow more active, as whatever attended through the window started to prod at my flaws and cracks.
The tattoo had been quick, done before I knew what was happening. Not so, here. This thing wanted to change me, though it clearly didn’t care about my opinion on the specifics—probably didn’t even consider that I might have one. I gasped, but still couldn’t rise from where it held me bent almost to the floor, stomach compressing uncomfortably and legs cramping and falling asleep. Worse, a part of me didn’t want to. I’ve never liked my body, not the ass and ankles and skin and face I deal with every day, and not the inside bits now suddenly forced into my awareness. Any change might be for the better—at the very least wouldn’t be anything I could be blamed for.
But the part that knelt willingly was all conscious. A wave of revulsion and fear surged up to overwhelm any other reaction; My whole body shook and my pulse came so fast it hurt. In the throes of the panic attack, my instincts broke through whatever held me down, as they did everything that might have intent about it. I threw myself from the illuminated circle and scuttled backward until my back pressed against the nearest shelf. If the books wanted to bite me, I’d be ink all over.
Slowly—no Sherise to interrupt my reactions, no David to talk me down—I started to think in words again. I stared at dust motes floating in the light from the window, made swirling nebulae by the colors. The light hadn’t moved while I curled frozen beside it. I’d lost track of time, but sunlight ought to have shifted across the floor. Maybe there was another room beyond this one, even if my unlikely map told me otherwise.
If I got up and went closer, I might be able to glimpse whatever lay on window’s other side. That seemed like a bad idea.
Maybe the books could tell me.
I pulled myself to my feet, terrified every moment of toppling back into the light. My arm still ached with heat. In the panic’s aftermath I felt washed out emotionally, just numb enough to actually consider sticking around for what I’d come to get.
The Nature of the Word was bound in calf skin, fine yellow-edged pages typeset save for hand-illuminated letters at the start of chapters. I winced at the yellowing; this ought to be in the rare book room, not the ordinary stacks. Palaces of History was library bound but looked like a reprint of something much earlier, each page imaged from a neatly handwritten monograph with intricate—if disturbing—illustrations. The simply named Libris looked like a Penguin Classics paperback, except that it came from Sarkomand Translations, a publisher and imprint I’d never heard of.
I found a library cart lurking in a back corner, odd reassurance that the alcove existed for other people too. Maybe they all knew to avoid the window, or maybe it liked them better. Or maybe I ought to report it—like telling someone when you spot a leaking pipe. I trundled the cart back toward the galactic core.
I ducked my head at Determination and her companions as I settled at my desk. Powers want respect, Sherise had said, and until I knew what I was doing it was probably safer to give them at least a little. Epiphany’s gaze stood higher now, no longer focused on those of us below. I caught myself staring at her left hand, the one holding her robe. It wasn’t just a pose, I realized: she stood ready to bare her chest to Determination’s spear, and it was her opposite’s eye that she sought to attract.
I shivered, and forced my attention back to the books. I started with The Nature of the Word: at any minute, I expected someone to come along and tell me it needed to go into protective storage until I could prove my need to touch its fragile pages. Selfish but not sociopathic, I did snag a pair of nitrile gloves from the check-out counter.
Those who believe the universe was created, believe it was created with words. Those who know it for an accident still understand that language, once created, becomes a force in its own right. Fifteen million years before humanity’s birth, the Tay-yug claimed that miserly gods hid favored words in the hearts of stars, making them unstable and scouring life from worlds that spun too close.
I sat back, breathing hard. It was a story, of course it was a story, a myth I’d never heard before. A myth of gamma ray bursts, in a book that looked older than the phenomenon’s discovery—but how much did I know about the history of physics? I ought to keep reading. Would, in a moment.
When I was a kid, for a while I got really into urban legends. Even though I knew better, I’d sit up late reading about chupacabras and the Loch Ness monster. The one that really got to me was the Mothman. It was sort of a humanoid with big bug wings, and people would look out their windows and it would just be hovering there, staring at them. That was it—it never broke the window or hurt anyone, at least not who reported it later. But I’d pull my shades down tight, eyes squeezed shut so that if anything was out there, I wouldn’t see it. Knowing that if I hadn’t read about it, if I hadn’t known it was out there to look for, the windows would have been perfectly safe.
Of course I already knew, now, that there was something outside.
I scanned, sampled, turning pages cautiously but skimming as quickly as I could, looking for what I needed—something that would explain what had happened to me. Instead, I learned about books that started plagues or imprisoned their readers, and others that, read in the right place and at the right time, would let you cast your mind out to travel the stars. Stories that could leave your mind a husk colonized by parasitic characters, single words that could rewrite memory.
I did not slam the book shut. I closed it, carefully, like the rare archival volume that it was. I could not give up reading, wouldn’t blind myself to what it offered, just because there might be monsters inside.
I hadn’t found anything about tattoos, or stained glass windows—maybe another book would be more relevant. You’ve got to focus when you’re doing research, can’t just let yourself get sucked in by whatever seems shiniest. And “terrifying” is a lot like “shiny.” Libris, with its two-tone paper cover, looked reassuringly pragmatic.
“How did you get a-hold of that?” Sherise’s voice, sharp and angry, froze me with my hand on the cover. My eyes shifted toward The Nature of the Word and I felt my cheeks grow hot. But it was Libris that she snatched from my desk.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I found it in the Zs. I was trying to look up something about—” I pushed up my sleeve to show the galaxy tattoo. It was, I realized, the same shape as the stacks, the same colors as the window. And I’d just made my ignorance obvious, too. “I’m sorry,” I repeated.
“I’m not mad at you.” She ran a finger across the cover, frowning. “But this shouldn’t have been shelved in the regular stacks. A bit past anything you need to be handling, right now.”
“Does it eat your brain?” I felt my cheeks flare again, worse for the knowledge that it showed like a beacon.
She smiled. “Not this one, no. But it’s not translated from any human language, and it’s safer to know what to expect before you get into it.” She tucked it under her arm, though not against bare skin.
At this point, she could tell anyway that I didn’t know what I was doing. Still, it took a few dry swallows before I could get the words out. They were angrier than I’d intended. “Am I supposed to ask? Or am I supposed to figure it out all on my own and hope I don’t unleash a plague on the whole Gulf Coast?”
She leaned against the edge of my desk, put Libris back down, patted the offending volume a couple of times as if to reassure herself that it was still closed. Then she pushed her cloud of hair away from one ear. The whole outer curve had been sculpted into tiny scallops, like waves of flesh, and faded to cheap newsprint gray. It stood like a scar against the warm brown of the rest of her skin. She let the hair spring back.
“Happened my first day at Crique Foudre. I can hear the books, and hear people and other things thinking when they mean to do harm. Prophecies, sometimes. And people arguing in whispers down the block when I’m trying to sleep. The gifts have sharp edges. There’s no way to know beforehand who can handle it all and who can’t, and we’ve learned the hard way that you have to find out most of it for yourself. If someone explains everything straight up, it always ends badly.”
“Suppose I quit?” I swallowed, because again I hadn’t meant to speak so bluntly, and because I knew the answer. I’d show up at David’s studio, and he’d support me as best he could—no one in Chicago was hard up for librarians—and he wouldn’t criticize me for not being able to cut it in the real world.
“You could do that. The lady before you left at two months—that’s why we were hiring so late in the summer.” Nothing about how I’d leave them in the lurch if I quit just before the semester started, though it didn’t really need saying. “This is riskier than holding down a desk just about anywhere else. The best I can offer is that if you stick around, you’ll become something special. We all do. Whether that special is more like yourself, or less, depends on luck. And on your own choices, at least a little.”
I didn’t know whether I ought to be tempted by the “more” or the “less”—or whether I was even crazier than usual to be tempted by either. “What can you tell me? Without things ending badly?”
She sighed, fidgeted the beads on her earring. I wondered if they drowned out the voices of the books. “That’s always a gamble, but I’ll give it a shot. You know about our patron.”
“Yeah. Although no one’s told me his name. Or her name. I’d think there’d be a plaque or something—is this one of the things it’s dangerous to know?”
“No, he just likes to keep a low profile. You might meet him, one of these days.” She closed her eyes and inhaled sharply. “Maybe that’s not the place to start. I’m sorry. I don’t feel like I’ve explained this right to anyone, yet. Maybe this’ll be the time—unless you want me to shut up and let you track it all down for yourself.”
I shook my head, a bit spooked by her uncertainty.
“Well. The universe is a dangerous place. It’s not trying to be dangerous, and it’s full of things that have never heard of humans and wouldn’t much care if they did—but not caring can do at least as much harm as hatred, from things that can break you just passing by. The safest way, for a species that wants time to grow up, is to make a few places that can focus the strangeness, draw it away from everywhere else, and help keep it from getting out of control. People have been doing that on earth for millions of years, maybe longer, each learning from fragments left by those who came before, and doing just a little better as a result. This library is one of those places for humans.”
“Out in—” I just stopped myself from asking what—if she wasn’t just making this up—a vital shield against extinction was doing out in the middle of nowhere, in a state that most of the country couldn’t even bother to protect from floods.
She smiled wryly, making me think I’d been pretty transparent. “Safer this way. Crique Foudre is heir to Zaluski Library in Warsaw. Our patron traveled there in the 1920s, and when the Nazis destroyed it he knew we’d need another one. He thought, a place that isn’t the capital of anywhere or the center of anything—it would be a lot safer from other humans.”
“So we’re the quiet heroes who protect the world from terrible cosmic monsters?” I’d seen that show; I would have been happier to leave it on the screen.
“You’ve been to the edge of the stacks. It’s not that simple. Sometimes we just keep the monsters happy, or distract them, or find a use for them, or study them to learn what else is out there. Sometimes we’re bait. Sometimes we can’t do a damn thing other than watch. And eventually we’ll lose the fight—either to other humans, like Zaluski, or altogether, like the three other species on this world that we know about before us.”
I shivered. “One more thing to worry about.”
“That’s one way to handle it, sure.”
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I go for distraction, personally. There are so many things to learn here, that you’ll never find in another library that isn’t doing the same work. Things to become. As long as you’re doing your job, the larger cosmic picture kind of takes care of itself, whether or not you grieve over it.”
* * *
“Do you ever worry about asteroids?” I asked David. I was home, curled up with my laptop on the couch, insufficiently distracted by my pretty boyfriend.
“Like the one that got the dinosaurs?” he asked. “Not really. It doesn’t seem like something that happens very often, and I’m not in a position to do anything about it in any case.”
“Very logical.” I drew up my knees, watched him pass back and forth across the screen as he made French toast. “Suppose you could do something. Or thought you could?”
“You mean like a desperate space mission to steer a comet away from Earth? Yeah, I would worry about that. I worry when there’s something I can try, and it matters if I screw up.” He smiled gently. “You’ve got to pick your battles—there’s only so much worry to go around.”
“Unless you’re me.”
“Even for you, gorgeous.”
Later, I realized that I hadn’t asked if he’d rather be in a position to try something, even if he thought he’d screw up, or whether he’d rather do work he was better at, and not have to look.
* * *
On the first day of classes, humidity spilled over the banks of the sky into a spectacular thunderstorm. I eased my car around puddles half-grown into lakes, breathing slowly through the constant strobe of lightning. I arrived ten minutes late, suit soaked through in spite of my umbrella. The AC set me shivering, but Sherise and the other librarians were talking and laughing in the staff room and one of them tossed me a giant beach towel.
Sherise nodded at me and said, “We’re gonna get slammed even with the rain, so you know. And there are still a dozen professors who need pinned to the wall ’til they hand over their reserve lists.” By the time I got the last math professor to confess the identity of his textbook, and started on the English department, umbrellas filled the foyer and students swirled through the reading room.
Most of the morning’s reference questions were about what I’d expected. Students wanted their course reserves and panicked about their first day’s homework and didn’t know how to manage the catalogue. But a lot of them seemed to realize they were in sacred space. I saw a dozen conflicting rituals. People blew kisses to the statues, or stood under the trompe l’oeil ceiling with arms raised. One student fussed at my desk for five minutes while I grew increasingly exasperated, then asked hesitantly if I could leave her offering “for the loa Epiphany” after the library closed. She slipped me a sandwich bag filled with cookies and tiny slips of calligraphed poetry, then wanted to know whether we’d fixed the PYTHIAS bugs over the summer.
After the students cleared out at last, I stayed at my desk for a few minutes trying to catch my breath. Even the allegories seemed tired. Determination’s spear might have drooped a little, unless it just pointed at where some student had annoyed her. I got up and started to put the reference section back in order, then went to give Epiphany her cookies. In the wall below each statue, just above eye level, were little niches that I’d never noticed before. They were easier to spot now, as plenty of people hadn’t bothered with an intermediary for their offerings. There were flowers and pebbles, photos, cupcakes, a thankfully unlit candle, tiny jars of liquor that I was just going to assume came from faculty. I stuck the baggie in the appropriate spot.
“Hey,” I told Epiphany. I still wasn’t sure about talking with them, but ignoring them didn’t seem wise, and the students knew the place better than I did. “Long day. Keep safe, okay?” I felt her attention on me, and knew that safety didn’t interest her at all—not to give, and not to receive. I trembled: equal parts awe and anxiety, both uncomfortable. Her companions seemed to perk up, their notice sharpening. The air brightened with storm-tinged ozone, and my ears ached as if I’d gone up too fast in an elevator. I felt again the urge to kneel. But I’d spent the day doing my job, and doing it mostly right.
I looked around, found myself alone in the reading room. “I’m not just going to do what you want,” I said. No response. I shivered.
“I’m not ignoring you,” I went on. Then, swallowing. “I’m not running away, yet. But we’re going to work together on this, or it’s all going to fall apart.”
Still no response—maybe Sherise would have been able to hear one—but the pressure lifted a little. My ears popped, painfully.
“That’s better,” I said. I kept the shakes out of my voice, knowing I would pay later—if not through some screw-up here, then through breaking down when I got home and thought too hard about the whole thing. But then, I’d have paid that price whatever I did. “All right. Was there something you wanted to show me?”
I left through Epiphany’s door, and followed the pulse of my little galaxy out into the stacks.
“Those Who Watch” © Ruthanna Emrys, 2016
Reprinted from The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, ed. by Paula Guran