Every library was the same, rows upon rows of dusty shelves, each giving off that amazing old book smell, tacky brown carpets, and a creaky staircase with the sticky tape worn off the steps.
Professor Zelwats claimed that the library was the oldest building on campus, prompting campus-wide jokes that he’d been around to help build it.
A pudgy older woman ran the front desk, usually engrossed in a book of her own.
Easy to slip inside unnoticed. I didn’t want people to see me studying or know for how long. The idea made me sick.
Study cubicles lined the top floor, so I picked one as far back as I could, away from everyone. A girl slept in one, curled up in a ball, facing the back, but I didn’t mind her. My physics textbook commanded my attention anyway, and soon, I buried my body, mind, and soul deep inside, trying not to think of how I’d die a virgin.
I studied for probably an hour when the skin on the back of my neck pricked up. The room didn’t get darker, but it felt darker, a black mist of foreboding creeping over the area. Turning, my gaze fell on Loretta standing in the aisle, wearing a floral dress that stopped mid-thigh. Her giant eyes had the same look my mom used when too nervous to start a tough conversation.
“Hey there.” The words dropped from my lips like dead flies. “You okay? You weren’t in class, and the professor got all weird about it.”
But that perfect doll face of hers slowly contorted into a scowl. She stepped forward, unblinking, a vicious frown disfiguring her innocent visage. The closer she drew, the more my stomach knotted, until she knelt in front of me, and I choked down my lunch.
She splayed her fingers across her face. With a slight twist and a shuck of suction, she removed it perfectly at an invisible seam. Beyond that shallow surface was darkness. It filled her head and spilled out into mine, her inner workings hollow and vacuous. I couldn’t look away.
“Poor little Ed. Ed-die D.” Her voice slithered inside my head, still every bit as seductive, but now venomous and sneering, just like the face she’d removed.
“When will little Ed-die grow up?” She spat out each syllable with emphasis almost as hard as the beating of my heart. “When will little Ed-die stop being so weak? Pathetic Momma’s boy, living under Daddy’s thumb.”
Loretta put her face in my open backpack and took hold of my head with her empty hands. “You’re an embarrassment.”
She straddled my lap, legs coiling around me, smothering me with her body’s heat as the unending darkness inside her skull loomed closer. “Like I’d be caught dead with someone like you.”
I turned, throwing myself to the side so fast that it upset the chair.
The creature calling itself Loretta fell, so I grabbed my backpack and ran.
I ignored the desk lady, blew past the people trying to enter as I left, just ran and ran until I was safe from that horror, standing alone in an empty bathroom at Harrison Hall.
I splashed water over my sweaty brow then slapped myself. No one lurked around to hear, so my face took another slap for posterity. In movies, here the hero would wake from a bad dream, but I stood, still trapped in the nightmare.
Her face. The removable one, the mask of corruption, stored in my backpack. My hands shook. The half-zipped bag. Should I reach inside or close it forever?
I opened it.
“Poor fat little Ed-die, running away because it’s all he knows how to do. And he wonders why he can’t get a date.”
E.N. Dahl is a novelist and award-winning screenwriter from coastal NJ. She’s the author of the upcoming Nova EXE, among other works, and her short fiction has appeared with Radiant Crown Press, Helios Quarterly, Sci-Phi Journal, The Literary Hatchet, Thunderdome Press, Pleaides, and Rain Taxi, among others. When not writing, she can be found doing yoga or streaming the worst movies Netflix has to offer.