“Although the library was completed in 1936, constructed directly atop the Johnson and Seymour Mill Race, this special collections room was added ten years later at the bequest of a local philanthropist who also provided for the silver-plated clock in the main hall, which has remarkably never needed winding.” The librarian’s voice echoed through the marble-lined hallway as he rolled the brass key in the door lock. He was extraordinarily tall and glaringly bald, undeniably a butler that had missed his calling in life.
He hesitated for a moment, as if something had just occurred to him. I knew what he would ask next, and had come prepared.
“Why are you not in school?”
He would never buy the “It’s for a report” excuse.
“My dad works for Postler & Jaeckle construction, and says that there was history about the house they’re digging under in here. It had some kind of special architecture, and he wanted me to find out more because he couldn’t leave the work site during the day.”
He looked downward and stared right through me.
“…and because I failed my last Social Studies test and I have to do some kind of research so I picked the unique architecture of Rochester.”
He nodded once, demonstrating how easy it is for adults to accept kids getting punished, and aid in any way possible without reservation.
Our local library is unique. I can’t say it was built atop an ancient native burial mound, but the temple-looking monolith in the center of Rochester was built above a channel that once held the Erie Canal, then a subway, and still has an eerie tunnel snaking below it. It stands directly across the street from a Frankenstein structure, an amalgam of what was once a mill and a train station at the side of the Genesee River. That tunnel that comes out behind the old mill would save me from a world of trouble that very night.
The Markesan Special Collections Room contained the “singular collection of leather-bound, original printings belonging to A. Markesan.” The librarian flawlessly educated me, with practiced intonation and grammar, about the place I was about to behold in all its magnificent glory. It smelled like my grandmother’s attic; musty and old.
It was, in fact, Dr. Markesan’s extensive personal library of occult grimoires, ranging from the Tractate Middoth to the published ravings of some lunatic, sky-god worshipping hermit from Siberia they titled The Mercyful Fate of von Juntz. Most of them were priceless. All of them contained the stuff of nightmares. Enough to keep you awake the rest of your life watching the windows for an inevitable doom.
Luckily, I was here for none of those dusty old books. It was a treasure hunt of a sort; I wasn’t seeking a manual to raise the dead, or a curse to even the score with a bully, or even a love potion, but a small handwritten spell that I was certain was to be found hidden inside one of the volumes.
“You have until five ‘pee-em’ when the library closes.”
“I don’t think I’ll need that long,” I reassured him, “but thank you.” He exited, closing the door with a deep, long wooden echo.
I ditched my backpack in the corner, a little doll with a red dress peeking out to watch me, and started perusing titles. Astronomy and geography and crazy-hard math were in separate sections that I wasn’t sure were part of the main collection, but I guess the stars gotta be right to open a gate (or lock one, as it so happens,) to the netherworld. “Ghosts” was what I was looking for. Existentialism… metaphysics… There. Manipulation of the Spiritual Plane with Regard to the Weight of the Soul. It was a normal-sized hardcover, bound in blue cloth, but the type was tiny enough to be eye-straining. I took it carefully off the shelf, let the cover drop onto my thumb, and the pages fell open to the middle of the book.
There was the spell I was looking for, right out of a cheesy horror movie, folded flat between the brittle, crack-edged, pages of a book of magic. I started to read aloud. It was hard to pronounce, but my tongue seemed to take it up like a forgotten language from a childhood long past.
No, I’m not a witch. I wasn’t even pretending to be an occult investigator like Kolchak, The Night Stalker. I just wanted to help someone in need. And it all centered around the Rundell Library…
* * * * *
My life first crossed over into The Twilight Zone just yesterday when my best friend Lacey and I were upstairs in the science section.
“Leslie, come on! I’m supposed to be home now! You’re gonna get me in trouble again!”
“Just a minute. I need to know how strong peroxide to use. I don’t wanna burn the tiny little mouse bones away.” All I had ever found before was books on cleaning fossils. You needed tiny sandblasters and just the right chemicals, and I had neither. But yesterday I had found a taxidermy book that would actually tell me just what to do to clean the skulls and mouse skeletons I had collected from the woods given that my parents frowned on a colony of dermestid beetles in the shed.
“That’s it! I’m gone. You’re a lunatic. Call me on Saturday.” Lacey turned heel and marched off.
I was wondering if Mom could get me some bleach-strength hydrogen peroxide at her next hair salon appointment when the world went dark.
Ah, Jeez! I was gonna get creamed. I was already in trouble for blowing every fuse in the house experimenting with a grounding wire out in the shed. My feet hammered the stairs as I raced the clock’s minute hand.
The lights above my head had snapped off. I had been so engrossed in my reading that I hadn’t heard the announcement, if they even made one. The building had closed, and I would soon be alone in that hollow behemoth of a library.
Sneakers squeaking, I took the wide stairs three at a time because they were so short. On my way down, the sound of the lights clicking off stopped… then I heard the slam of a door and one last tiny click. I took the last corner deftly and sprinted to the front. Closed. Locked. I slammed full throttle into the glass pane doors, and they barely made a rattle. Peering through the windows, I could see my bike still chained to the railing. I slid to the floor against the closest stack while a choice swear word repeated itself in a loop in my mind.
The book-filled mausoleum held an unnatural silence. I could hear the water of the Genesee River rushing outside the windows below. I dragged myself to my feet and started looking around for a solution; a fire-exit alarm would bring more attention than I cared to risk. The “classical beauty” of the marble-walled library took on a cold, sinister aura at night. Brass railings and mahogany inlay loomed as if promising how much trouble I would be in tomorrow.
I wandered from room to room, hoping to find an open window or maintenance exit, knowing I wouldn’t, browsing the shelves to pass what would likely draw itself out into the longest night of my life. A fifteen volume set of The Golden Bough by James George Frazer and Chilton’s Auto Repair guides for quite possibly every car made in 1974 led to biographies of presidents and scientists, and books of poetry and how to write it.
The mist must have been building up gradually before I noticed. It floated down at my knees, swirling as I walked. The air wasn’t cold, but I got shivers down my arms. Why was there a cold fog in the library? I was usually fearless (or so my dad said,) but I suddenly felt how deeply lonely and isolated and dark the old building truly was.
In the open archway that led to the children’s room, a glowing ball rose up in front of me like a giant will-o-the-wisp. Was it there to show me the way out? Like the unwary being led by foxfire into a quicksand swamp, I stupidly followed. The mist thickened as it drew me further into the shelves. From within the glow, the silhouette of a woman gradually materialized, growing clearer until she walked close to me looking just as real and solid as Lacey had been.
The apparition looked about my mom’s age, and wore a light blue dress with a grey sash belt tied in a huge bow at the back. Her thick, dark hair was pulled to the sides in pigtails, reaching all the way to her knees, and she had an aura– a kind of phosphorescent, glowing light that surrounded her body.
“You are locked in; I’m sorry.” she said. “I am trapped here too. You don’t mind keeping me company? My name is Alma. I get lonely.” She reached out to touch my arm.
Oh, I did mind. I wanted to bolt and crash out the front door like Kool-Aid Man. Oh, yeah. I took a deep breath. Running wouldn’t help, the mist was everywhere. I bet she could ride it and appear anywhere in an instant. My best course of action was to engage her in conversation.
“You’re a ghost?” I stammered. “Why… I mean, why are you trapped? What’s keeping you here?” Obviously she knew she was a ghost. I was nervous, OK? I had always wondered what would keep a spirit trapped on earth. Did she do something so terrible she was locked out of heaven, unforgiven?
“By my own brother.” She turned and looked into the distance like an actress in soliloquy. “Guarded, imprisoned for eternity beside him because of what I know. I can’t harm Alan now, only his name, his memory. But here in the library we stay, together, forever. “ Then she looked at me.
My arms and legs were heavy with fear. I couldn’t run now if I tried. I just closed my eyes and wished she wouldn’t hurt me.
“I was killed. Murdered, right here below where we stand.”
I tried to envision being killed. It must have been horrifying, and sad. No wonder she lingered.
“He wanted to be rich and powerful and I knew his secrets. Things that could ruin him, take his name and his money all away.”
“But not now. Why would he keep you trapped after you died?” logic distracted me from my fear. I was also starting to worry that her brother’s hateful and violent ghost might show up at any time.
“I appeared to tell my story, just as I tell you. He felt he had to keep me quiet.” She moved toward me quickly, as if to walk through my body, but I jumped to the side and she continued toward the back of the library. “Follow me!” she said, gathering her skirts as if she was about to share a fun secret.
“Look!” Alma pointed to the top inside of a bookshelf. It was a low shelf in the children’s room, so I was able to reach up to the top shelf and feel a hidden button. It released the entire bookcase from the wall, and it fell away on its hinges revealing a secret room.
The walls were lined with shelves, each one filled from end to end with dolls from all across the world. Creepy, discolored, cracked porcelain dolls packed shoulder-to-shoulder filling the room. “This is my favorite.” Alma was already inside, caressing an antique doll with a red velvet dress. “It keeps me company. The nights are so long otherwise… You can keep her if you like, she was mine once! But… but only if you promise to come back and help me get free.” Tears began to fall from her eyes and she turned away.
“OK,” I answered, not that I really wanted her doll, but I wanted to make her happy. I wanted her be properly laid to rest. “What can I do?”
Alma smiled. “If people only knew what it is like to be cold at night. Help me teach my brother a lesson. I want so badly to be set free from this eternal prison.”
I wasn’t sure what that lesson thing was about, but I didn’t blame her for being mad at her brother.
“What’s your name?” She asked.
“It won’t be easy, Leslie. There’s a spell. Don’t be scared, saying the prayer won’t make you a witch, your soul won’t be lost. It will be an act of kindness.”
I wasn’t worried. I was already on the “Highway to Hell,” as the song said. Alma showed me another doll, and motioned for me to look behind it, where an old brass key hung from a hook.
“The spell will loosen your soul from your body, not enough to leave your body, but just enough to see the world as I do. The clock in the main hall is what holds us here, so you must destroy it’s magic. The spell will reveal what’s hidden. I copied it in ink and had to hide it inside a book when Alan found me looking through his devil’s library.”
“There’s no danger. As long as you’re alive, you won’t give up the ghost.” she said, a smile growing in her face that reassured me, and made me want to help her so much.
I took the doll she had given me, almost fearing to reject her hospitality, and closed the secret door behind us. She took my hand in hers, shockingly cold, but solid, and I followed her back through the building and down to the stacks a floor below, to a trap door in the cement floor.
The crashing of the river’s water was much louder. Below, water poured out from a series of stone arches, a spillway for the river. There was a ladder of thin iron bars descending into the black. I had no flashlight, and would have to trust Alma to guide me safely. I grabbed the cold rungs and descended until I was surrounded by a cavern of darkness. The rungs ended and there was no ground below. I dropped my leg as far as it would go. No bottom. Should I trust her and drop?
“Alma?” There was no answer. I was in a spot. I should have gone back and found a corner to sleep in until the library opened in the morning, but my reliably poor judgement kicked in. I let go.
I hit bottom hard enough to knock me on my butt, but there was nothing broken. I stood and saw a faint glow of light, telling me if I waited a minute my eyes would grow used to the dark. It was an underground passage to the old train station building on the other side of Court Street. The light was bleeding through a line of archways to my right that continually spilled water out into the river.
I thought of what Alma had said. She was murdered below where we had been standing. That meant here, in the old mill race. Her body still lay hidden, buried in shallow silt, her disappearance never resolved. My feet felt the way forward, toward the light, kicking stones out of the way, every step, every scuff echoing. I kept imagining her body crawling to the surface of the water and coming after me, begging to be buried. What felt like years later, my eyes could glean the pathway up and out of the tunnel, finally depositing my own tired bones in the open air.
I was free! My foot-pedals sped me all the way home to Cobbs Hill, no coasting. The hall light was burning in the upstairs window, safe and inviting when I reached my house. My bike crashed, dumped beside the garage notifying my parents I was home. I gave them a line about how I’d been playing with Lacey under the bridge underpass and lost track of time. Just more of my standard inability to follow directions, so luckily I didn’t catch any punishment on that front. But then, I hadn’t relished being trapped with the undead in a tomb of books to begin with.
That night I tried so hard to forget, but it was a lost cause. There would be little sleep, if any. A ghost had begged me for help. I just wanted this night to go away, but how could I? I thought about that doll, and how lonely Alma had seemed, how wrong it was to keep a person’s spirit prisoner forever. I had to free her.
So what did Looney Leslie decide to do? I skipped school, true to form. It’s not like I could expect myself to make the smart decision.
* * * * *
The Pepsi machine cut into my wrist as I reached up the chute to grab a free can, a trick I had learned from the friends my parents didn’t like me hanging out with. I’d been at the library all morning, asking for the special collections room and then trying to convince myself it wouldn’t be dangerous to cast a spell that could screw up my eternal spirit. Reading hadn’t distracted me for long, and I was thirsty. I chucked the pull tab behind the cigarette machine and pulled its lever for some free matches. Not that I smoked, but free is free. You never know when you might get a letter from school you need to dispose of. It took a nice long time to finish that Pepsi.
Funny thing, after I had recited the weird sort-of-Latin-ish incantation, not only could I see the silvery blue threads running all through the library outward from the central clock, but now I could hear the tick-tock of the mechanism knocking between the sides of my head. Whatever I had gotten myself into, I was all in now. It was still another two hours until closing time, but this time I was going to wait it out on purpose. The incessant tock, tock raised a sense of urgency.
When I heard the final door locks echo through the darkness to the secret alcove where I hid, I cracked open the secret door and concentrated, following the sound of the janitor’s oversized key-ring as it jangled toward the side exit. Then I grabbed the hidden key from its nook and moved out. Tock. Tock.
A panel in the wall where the clock was mounted now glowed a strong, deep blue. Its door swung inward when I turned the key, revealing another set of iron rungs going up into a blackness just as threatening as the one leading down to the spillway. Tock. Tock. The faint shimmer of my target hovered dangerously far above me. On the way up I discovered that those sheets of cobweb that they show in old horror movies? They’re real. They don’t come off either. I almost turned back when my hair caught a tent and it wrapped around onto my ears.
At the top was a wooden beam about six inches across that I could use as a ledge, but I could sense how far down the shaft dropped. It didn’t end at the floor below. I tried not to think about what would happen if my sneakers slipped. Tock. Tock. Tock.
The glow came from the back side of the clock alright, but there wasn’t any rear hatch to reveal its gears. None that you could make out, anyway. But the spell made it so I could see with accuracy the otherwise invisible latch that released a copper shield.
Inside, a skull stared at me with evident malice. It was locked into the aging structure of the clock with bars of silver going through the bone. Tock! Tock! Did I need another spell? She said I had to destroy the clock’s magic. Tock! I was hot and the air was hard to breathe. I became very aware of how close the walls were. Tock! Bones inside a clock were certainly suspect as a source of magic. Tock! I lost patience and became destructive.
When I grabbed the skull and ripped it out of its casement it shattered into a dozen pieces or more, some of which fell down the shaft, tick-tacking all the way. An unnatural breath of wind screamed up from below and came near to knocking me for a long ride. But it ended the clock’s ticking both in my head and in the main hall. It would finally need to be wound, I thought as I climbed back down the rungs.
“What have you done!” A furious old man yelled directly into my face as I closed the panel and turned back into the library. His dark shape loomed like an angry principal. And he glowed green just like Alma. Irate authority figures were always yelling at me, so I met his stare. He seemed more of a haggard old man, weak and tired, than a hateful curmudgeon. Boy, was he sore, though. “The witch is free!”
“Why are you still here, Alan?” Alma’s raised voice came from behind me, as angry as his. “It doesn’t matter!” she said to me, “You have released his measure from the clock, he is powerless, now.” Her comforting smile had tightened and changed, growing into an insane grimace of revenge. I guess I couldn’t blame her after all she had been through, but it made me scared.
“I will always be here, Alma. I will always be standing in the way of your evil. Before I created the spirit-clock, I had already relinquished my soul to my books of magic. Without my bones, our blood, within the ghost magnet you might be free to wander and afflict this city with your grief-stricken ideal of revenge, but I will be standing here to dispel your every act!”
Alma screamed. A shattering crack outside shook the walls. I ran to the window and saw the Genesee river frozen at the edges, thickening with ice in September.
The old man looked right at me. “You were fooled. All this. My sacrifice. It was meant to protect us from Alma’s rage– she’s buried, below the running water, below the aqueduct… and now you’ve released her!”
“I’m Sorry!” I shouted, a reflex.
Alma’s true, horribly twisted, disfigured face gradually replaced her apparition’s beautiful sadness. She became an abomination, a reflection of her insidious, horrifying death as she advanced on her brother.
He continued, “I wrapped myself in this eternal cloak of nether to protect innocent lives from her. She’s an evil, hate filled monster!” He glared at her, seething.
“Evil witch! Your anger will be your own undoing! I offered you a chance to find redemption in forgiveness!”
“You’re the witch, Alan! Distorting nature to trap our souls after death! A crime against God!”
“Like the Thing in the mirror, Alma? The thing thing that killed you!”
“It granted me eternal life, just as I asked. Even you couldn’t destroy me then.”
“Yes. Yes, it was all I could do to contain the Markesan Curse forever!”
I knew what to do. Alan had his sister distracted for the moment, so I ran down to the trap door while they fought. I yanked it open, praying the clang would not catch their attention, and climbed down to the tunnel, my limbs shaking with adrenaline. My guess was right. There against the sounds of the slowing current and cracking ice, was a darkness outlined in blue just below the surface of the encrusted water. Alma’s skeleton was laid out like a fossil where it had fallen, splayed on its side as if crawling toward a forever unreachable refuge.
I balanced across a plank that walked out over the spillway, nearly impossible given my shaking legs, and dropped to my hands and knees to reach down into the painfully frigid water. I was glad I was used to picking up old bones. Part of her spine came up with the skull.
As I crept past the main hall, I saw Alma and Alan locked in a physical struggle, her hands at his throat as he clutched her arms. They had forgotten me. Back to the top I climbed, then I carefully steered both silver pins through the eye sockets of the waterlogged skull and slammed the copper circle shut, sealing it forever.
The library was silent and empty when I came back down, but I knew both spirits remained; Alan bound to his wizardly grimoires, each book a spell, the entire library a battery of nether energy… and Alma, again cursed to wander the hallways endlessly alone. As I walked the key back to the secret room, I could begin to hear her crying. She never materialized. Only the sound of her tears echoed through the empty marble-floored chamber. My backpack was there where I had been hiding during the day, and it held the doll with the red dress, which I returned without a word.
The trap door was still the only way out, and this time I’d catch hell from my parents for being out so late, but that’s my life. I could still see the blue aura around anything magical, which helped light my way out, and I suppose could be a blessing if I ever found myself in another haunted house. When I reached my bike, I tried reciting the spell again both forwards and backwards, but no dice. The real trick would be trying to push the infernal tick-tock of the spirit-clock to the background of my mind.
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