I am posting this spooky short story, “Late One Night at Berstrums Books,” which first appeared in a collection called Dragonflies: Journeys into the Paranormal. This story is a bit on the lighter side inspired by my time working in retail. Hope you enjoy!!
Late One Night at Berstrums Books . . .
Miranda Shangle nervously clicked her well-manicured nails on the counter at Berstrums Books. It was the checkout counter, and it was well piled with books: books to receive; books to shelve; books to return. There was a hefty bit of work to do, but she didn’t care, not one bit. She was merely content to leave all in chaos, if she could just leave and get dressed up for her sorority’s Halloween party. But it was at least an hour until she got off, and the minutes were dragging by like heavy iron weights shackled to her shoulders.
She was alone, and that in itself pissed her off enormously. No, she hadn’t called in sick to work, but what raised her hackles even more was that she hadn’t thought of it. Damn, so closing the place would take at least another 45 minutes on her own, or maybe thirty if she started early. She clicked the heel of her black boots with irritation on the floor and checked her watch again. It had become a ritual — at least every five minutes.
She sighed deeply. She could shelve the books piled up on the rolling cart near the counter. That would certainly fill the time, but she didn’t want to. She just wanted desperately and unequivocally to be somewhere else.
Out of nowhere, she heard a rustle somewhere toward the back of the bookstore. She glanced toward the entrance, no one lurking at the Mall entrance. They must have slipped by while she was busy bemoaning her miserable fate. She glanced closely at her long black nails. She had painted them this way particularly for this evening. But crap, the end of one was chipped now, an obvious white crack along the flawless sheen of black. Well, maybe before the party, she could do a quick repair, if she ever got out of here.
She glanced up again down the long central aisle. There was a flutter of movement rounding a corner, and then it was gone. Hmm, what to do now, try to put away some paperback romances that were bound not to fit on the shelf or harass a customer with Berstrums uniquely ineffective selling formula, AIE—approach, inquire, and execute.
She swirled her longish black, broomstick skirt around the corner of the cabinet and proceeded down the aisle, peaking around while inconspicuously trying to locate the customer. There was only one, that much she knew. Working here over many months and many long hours had enabled her to pinpoint the level of activity of solo customers or plural ones. Without question, her keen sense of hearing had identified this one as a solo flyer.
She turned a corner and spotted the individual in question. It was a man, although her view was curiously of his backside. He was facing one of the walls — his hands up, sort of grasping the bookshelf, and his head bent. She didn’t know if he was sick, or just a bit strange. From what she could make out, from her obstructed viewpoint, he seemed well dressed, a nice dark suit, and his hair a light shade of blond.
She wondered with disinterested distraction how in the world the clever executives of Berstrums expected her to execute the selling formula in this particular situation. Oh well, who cared anyway, she had time to kill.
With exaggeration, she cleared her throat to let him know that he was not alone. The man in question hunched his shoulders, lowered, and straightened them. Then, with deliberation, he withdrew his hands slowly from their odd grasping position on the shelves.
As he deliberately turned to face her, her breath caught a bit, not at the face, although it was unique, but at something else that lie somewhere in the vicinity of his chest area, held by a long thick silver chain. It looked to be a brilliant shining medallion, made entirely of silver, and inscribed with symbols that she found oddly painful to behold. She pulled up her eyes to his. He was quietly staring at her with a pair of disturbingly pale, blue eyes.
She breathed in and then forced the words outward, “What can I help you find tonight?”
The pale eyes in the nearly flawlessly, sculpted face widened, and he began to laugh at her, loudly.
Heat rose to her face, and her voice took on a steely, but still polite, quality. “Is something funny?”
He frowned and rubbed his chin, which although aesthetically appealing, she was quite sure hadn’t been shaved for several days. Oddly though, it didn’t diminish his appeal. He exuded a sort of a Dungeons and Dragons kind of sexiness—something you didn’t run across often, if ever, in Central Virginia. “Are you heer alone Madam?”
With strenuous effort, she tried to resume her breathing. A million red flags had just appeared before her eyes, and somewhere in the process her heart had jolted with a nasty bump of fear. Mentally, she tried to remember the number for Mall security. Damn, it was back at the desk. If she could just finesse out of this, she could be there in several quick strides.
She smiled prettily, although she knew her lipstick was overly dark in anticipation of the Halloween party, and probably not appealing to most normal individuals. “Oh no, my co-worker should be back any minute. You might have seen him in the Mall, tall guy named John. I mean really tall, probably seven feet.”
Deliberately, she took a step backward. He eyed her with the stare of a policeman who was trying to ferret out the truth from a suspect. Regrettably, that unfortunate drug thing last month at the frat house had put her up close and personal with a few of them, but this guy was no cop. Maybe, he was going to his own Halloween party. “Vere are you going?” What was with that weird accent?
“Um, I have some work to get to unless there’s some book I can help you find.”
He smiled in an eerie way that only increased her agitation. His hands had drifted to the medallion around his neck. Again, her eyes were compulsively drawn to its brightness. It actually made her eyes sting as it caught the light in different ways. “I am looking for something in particular.” She heard his voice, but her eyes remained riveted on the medallion. She tried but it was impossible to make herself look away. The metal changed from silver to white, and the engravings seemed to move, mutate into varying shapes. But they couldn’t really be doing that, could they? He was closer to her now, right in front of her, but it was impossible for her to look away. His voice sounded raspy in her ears, his accent scraping like broken glass. “I don’t have zee time to waste. You are alone here.”
Her head had begun throbbing. His voice sounded so loud. “I’m waiting to close the store. I have too—” And her voice drifted off somewhere. The silver medallion was filling her vision now, sucking her into it. She was falling, tumbling away, far away. And then she felt two hands roughly grab her arms and shake her violently. “Come on,” again she was roughly shaken, “Come back.”
With no strength left, she fell down to her knees. Her stomach flipped violently with nausea, and her vision continued to swirl. But it was gone, the medallion. He’d put it away. She felt him wrap his arms just under her ribs. Then, again she felt his powerful strength as he pulled her to her feet. He grabbed a handful of her hair, actually yanking her head back by it. “I told zyou. I don’t have time for thiz now.”
She stared into the pale blue eyes, finding nothing but coldness there. And then she gathered what miniscule strength was in her and abruptly slammed him in the knees with the hard toe of her boot.
Caught off guard, he grunted and loosened his hold just long enough for Miranda to wrench away and race down the aisle toward the Mall door. Just as she reached the front desk, she stopped short at the entrance.
There was someone standing there or rather something. Two robed figures stood just outside the door with hands outstretched. But what was so shocking was that where their faces should be, she could only see darkness and glowing yellow eyes. Maybe, it was a costume. She hoped desperately. But the growing horror deep inside her told her something else.
She opened her mouth to scream, but a mere fraction of a second before the sound came out, a hand clamped over her mouth as he yanked her backward against the wall of his chest. He continued to hold her with unyielding strength, dragging her back to behind the desk, while she made muffled sounds of panic against his hand. “Now,” he rasped, “Close zee door now. Zey can’t come in yet, not yet.”
Slowly, he removed his hand over her mouth and with terror she stared at him, “Please let me go. Just, just—” she stammered.
“Close zee door now Miranda.” Her eyes widened. How did he know? And then she glanced down at her nametag. Shit, that was pretty obvious.
She reached for the key on the wall with trembling fingers, preparing to turn it to bring down the steel gate that covered the entrance way. But then she glanced up at the clock. It was five until nine. Where had the time slipped to? She glanced at him shakily. He had his hands on her shoulders. “I’m not supposed to close until nine,” she whispered.
And then she felt his breath in her ear. “I don’t think your going to have any other customers tonight Miranda.” Even his breath seemed strange to her, not exactly icy, but not warm either.
She nodded shakily in acknowledgement and turned the key. The steel gate came down in front of the hooded figures. But they made no movement, just remained standing outside. “What are they?” Her voice seemed to be quaking to match her insides.
He removed his hands from her, and she was grateful, although it felt like her knees were going to buckle. “I am a bit surprised you can zee them at all. Not everyone can, you must have zome sight.”
He walked from behind the center to the center of the aisle, and then closed his eyes, touching his forehead with his fingertips. She looked him over carefully. He didn’t seem like a criminal, not that she’d had much exposure to any. Rowdy drunken frat guys yes, but not criminals. He was disheveled from their tussle, but in a weird way it seemed to suit him. He was definitely older than she, at least by a decade, but exactly what his age was seemed impossible to determine. And then, in the midst of her mental inventory of the stranger, she thought about the back door. How stupid, of course! Empowered by this new idea, she straightened up and started to edge from behind the counter. His eyes flew open immediately at the movement. “There are some at the back door too, and yez they will harm anyone leaving this place.”
“Why, why would they want to harm me? I’m just a college kid who works in a bookstore.”
His eyes were focused on her again in that unnerving, penetrative way. “You must help me find it.”
“Find what?” With clueless exasperation.
“Find zee book.”
Her eyes got very large, “A book? All this is about some book?”
“Not zome book, a very important, ancient book.”
“Well, just tell me the title, and I’ll look it up.”
A smile flickered across his pale lips, “If only it was that zimple, it’z hidden and it’z here. And if we don’t find it very soon,” his gaze flicker in the direction of the creatures at the front of the store, “We are going to have company.”
She couldn’t still the trembling in her hands as she counted out the bills from the cash register. “Three hundred and sixty, sixty-one, sixty-two.”
“Aren’t you finished with that rubbish?” He called somewhere from the vicinity of the middle of the bookstore.
“Look, if I ever get out of this, I would like to have a job to come back too,” she grumbled with agitation.
“You are wasting precious time.”
Again, her hands were shaking as she filled out the deposit slips for the bank. He was standing beside her. He seemed to walk around nearly silently. But she could feel him next to her, although she hadn’t looked up. “I’m almost done. Why aren’t you looking for your book?”
Closing off the bank bag, she put it in the safe and closed it. As she headed to the computer, there he was, standing in her way. “If you don’t let me finish, I won’t be able to help.”
With a look of impatience, he stepped aside as she punched the final closing codes into the machine. Well, that was done. She clicked her nails nervously on the counter. “Now I can figure out from here pretty much where anything is shelved in the store. If you could give me some idea what sort of book—” Her eyes drifted up to meet his.
“I told you. It iz hidden.”
He was right beside her, too close. This very dangerous man was way too close. She could actually feel a heat emanating from his body. Well, at least he wasn’t some kind of walking corpse. Her mind had spun out several horrific theories since his arrival. “What does that mean, hidden?” She whirled to face him seized by a sudden fury at all the drama that had been dropped on her. “And for that matter, what the hell or who the hell are you? Is this some sort of elaborate gag? Am I being punked?”
His expression was very cool, “What does thiz mean punked?”
She sighed painfully. No, this was not a setup, by now that would be obvious. So, what did that leave, insanity on his part? But then that wouldn’t explain the creatures outside. “You’ve got to understand how bizarre this is from my viewpoint. I mean you drop out of nowhere and lay some weird story on me about a book.”
As quickly as she’d begun, he grabbed her shoulders and spun her around to face the front of the store. His voice was like a hot rasp, and his hands pinched her in their rough, reckless grip. “Do you still zee them,” he whispered.
There they were as clear as day, but now more, three standing out in the corridor of the Mall. “Yes,” she whimpered.
“They’re hungry,” his breath was hot on her neck.
“Hungry?” she questioned with terror.
“Hungry for souls Miranda. So, let’s not zpend precious time on theatrics.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
Again, he turned her to face him this time. “I need you to find the book. It’s blocked from me, but you have a zight. I felt it the moment I came near thiz place. I knew it waz here, and that you were here to guard over it.”
She yanked herself out of his grasp, not an easy accomplishment considering his determination. “Do you have any idea how insane that is? Do you know who I am? I’m a Fine Arts major, barely maintaining a 3.0 average. I live in an apartment with two other girls and am very close to getting kicked out of my sorority because I’m nearly broke. That makes me a screw-up and definitely not the guardian of some ancient and mystical book.”
He quietly had taken in her emotional explosion. And then smiled in a way that caused a strange fluttering in her stomach. “Well Miranda, I zee you have no idea who you are. But I don’t have a lot of time.” And then he stepped in close to her, putting his hands on either side of her face, and in the next moment crushing his mouth against hers in a passionate kiss.
It was dizzying, smothering, and there was a swirl of colors everywhere around her — and then a powerful pain in her head that made her collapse in his arms.
It glowed in her mind like a beacon. But it was encased in something else, a dark envelope, another magic, but she could clearly see through it. Her eyes flickered open. Her legs covered by her black broomstick skirt lay sprawled out on the floor of the central aisle of the bookstore with the top half of her body resting against the kneeling man. “Did you zee it?” He asked quietly.
His arms felt strange around her, as though they were encasing her in some deep hypnotic dream. “I saw it.”
“Can you find it?”
She shook her head, “I don’t know. What did you do to me?” she whispered.
He lightly tapped her forehead with his fingers, “I opened your eye here.”
She touched her forehead. It was tingling. For the second time tonight, her stomach flipped a bit with nausea. She was definitely going to heave. “I feel sick.”
“That iz natural. It will pass.” And then he pushed his hands underneath her arms and hauled her to her feet. Everything was spinning. “Now focus. Find zee book.”
Her head continued to spin wildly, making it nearly impossible to focus on anything. This couldn’t really be happening. It had to be a bad dream. His voice harsh in her ear, “Miranda you must assert some control, focus now!”
“Leave me alone, you son of a bitch,” she managed with difficulty to get out.
He chuckled, “Good, uze your anger.”
“I’d like to use it on you. I don’t even know who you are. You could be some awful demon from hell using me to get a hold of this book.”
He removed his hands from around her waist where he’d been supporting her. She still felt dizzy but could manage to stand on her own now. Her vision was still spotty, but she was beginning to see more clearly. He was standing a few feet away, his back to her. “I’m not a demon.” He stated flatly.
“Oh good, well I believe that.”
He spun around, “You’re too young to be so jaded.”
“I’m too young for a lot of things.”
With a look of determined impatience, he suddenly took off his suit jacket and dropped it to the floor, and then pulled out his black shirt, and started unbuttoning it. Her mouth dropped open a bit, “What are you doing?”
He said nothing, just continued to unbutton his shirt. “I, I don’t know what you think you’re doing but I,” she stammered. And then he pulled open his shirt to bare his chest. She gasped. There were marks drawn there, as well as deep red scars raised on the flesh. “Oh God, what happened to you?”
He smiled grimly as he grabbed her hand, “Many battles, many, many trials — zpread out your fingers,” his voice was soft but steely in its command.
She did as he asked, and then he took her hand and placed it right on his heart area. “Now close your eyes Miranda and feel the truth.” The hand that he still held on his chest was shaking, “Sssshhhh,” he murmured, “feel.”
In her mind, she could see the book shining like a white beacon, and he was there too, holding it — dressed in a long white tunic with a huge red cross on it, an ornate sword at his side. Everywhere there was light, everywhere. And he stretched his hands outward, toward her. Her eyes snapped open, “Godfrey,” she whispered for no reason that she could fathom.
He smiled, still holding her hand firmly against his chest. “Good.”
Her voice was quaking, “I don’t know how I knew that.”
He pushed her hand away and began to rebutton his shirt, “There will be time for that later, if we get out of thiz. Now,” his face had hardened again in that back to business look, “the book.”
She nodded, “Well, maybe we could look in New Age.” As she started off in that direction, he grabbed her abruptly, but not quite as rough as before, pulling her back against him.
“No Miranda, you can’t find it that way. You must uze your sight.”
“How?” Was all she could manage to say.
“See inside your mind. Let it guide you.”
His hands were still on her shoulders, firmly holding her still. Whoever he was, this bizarre man who was effectively turning her young existence into chaos, was just centimeters away from being desperate. Not truly expecting to see anything, but more than happy to oblige at the moment, given her predicament, Miranda closed her eyes. She could easily envision the bookstore in her mind, but what was odd was that she could actually see something glowing toward the back of the store. A broad smile broke across her face, “I think I can actually see it.”
“Good,” his voice was low and steely, and he hadn’t made a move toward releasing her.
She felt nearly gleeful now. Maybe this nightmare was somewhere close to being over. “Let’s go get it.” With joy, she opened her eyes, and then a wild scream rose somewhere out of the depths of her being. With his characteristic timing, he slapped his hand over her mouth just moments before she could utter a sound. She struggled against him wildly, yelping against his hand.
His voice was eerily calm, more soothing than it had been the whole night, “I know, I know. It’s not as bad as you think.”
Eyes wide with horror, she bit his hand, and he finally removed it. “Oh my God, oh my God, they’re everywhere. Where did they come from? Oh my God.”
“Be calm Miranda. They’re not nearly as dangerous as what liez outside.”
“Are you crazy? They’re awful, snakes and ugly birds and things that look like that Blob from that old horror movie.” Her eyes couldn’t seem take in all the movement—slithering things around her, on the floor, perched on the bookshelves, creatures, sub-human creatures that looked like they were straight out of some low budget horror flick.
His hands tightened on her arms, “You have to get hold.”
“What, what,” she whispered in a mindless panic. It felt like all the breath had left her reed thin body. God, she wished now she’d eaten a bigger lunch.
“It’z your sight. It’z gone a bit overboard. Theze thingz will fade away again soon enough.”
“But what are they?”
He shrugged, “Many have been here all along. Creaturez, parasites really, hanging between dimensionz, taking the energy of those who are unaware of them. Thiz place has been going down for a while. I’m zurprized you haven’t felt it.”
She was trying to mentally slow her panicked breathing. “I, I don’t know. Maybe I have. I’ve been feeling numb to everything.”
“Curiouz thing this numbnezz. It makes you very complacent.”
She kept shaking her head in disbelief. “But there’s so many of them, slimy thingz everywhere.”
“Well yez, I’m sure zome have been sent as an impediment.”
“To stop us?”
“Yes now, zee book Miranda.”
“How can I with all this stuff?”
“You can because you have to.” She felt him wrap his arms completely around her. In a way it was calming. In a way it was not. “Now again, where iz it?”
She tried to block out the slithering and waddling horrors around her and focus. Again, toward the back of the store, she could see a distant glow. “I think it’s back there,” she gestured in the general direction.
“I can’t. I’ll have to walk through all that stuff.”
With a distinct frown, he brought out the large silver medallion that had so mesmerized her earlier. He held it out with his hands and murmured something harshly in a foreign language. The gaggle of creatures before them instantly began to scurry away. “Wow,” she murmured. “Can you part the Red Sea with that?”
With flourish, he indicated the path that was now clear for her. “The book please, unlezz you want them to return.”
When she was a little girl, she used to play a game with her friends. An item would be hidden, and as she drew closer to it, they would say warmer or colder if she went in the wrong direction. Late tonight, in the unimaginable circumstance that she had unwittingly become captured in, this memory suddenly became concretely relevant. She could not see the book that Godfrey, whoever he was, deemed so critical to their survival, but she could certainly and without equivocation feel it—feel its warmth.
She took a step forward, and an iciness covered her fingertips that were stretched out awkwardly. She stepped backward, and a lovely sheen of warmth, as though she were gently holding her hand near a warm crackling fireplace, replaced the previous sensation.
“I think I’m getting close.”
“Good, hurry,” there was a new quality in his voice that concerned her. She brought her head upwards, but harshly he commanded. “Don’t look up Miranda, only focus on the book.”
She didn’t question further but was taken by the horrifying thought that time had run out. Again, she followed the fleeting glow of warmth that was their only trail to salvation.
She stepped directly in front of the history section, and it was as though she were suddenly bathed in a glow of tingling energy — a bit like after she used her loofah sponge to exfoliate during a shower.
Her eyes quickly scanned through the titles hoping to find a clue. Directly behind her, Godfrey’s voice, “You can’t find it that way. Feel Miranda.”
Shakily, she outstretched her fingertips before her, brushing against the titles. And then she stopped. It burnt like fire. It actually hurt, but there was no inflammation, no redness about her fingertips. There was, however, unquestionably pain. She reached out and grabbed the book, turning quickly to look at the title and read it aloud, The Women Behind the American Revolution.
He was beside her, “Ah huh, clever, evidently a book that would rarely, if ever, be sold.”
She frowned, “Not true, that’s very popular,” she lied.
“Here,” she made a motion to hand it to him, but he stepped back.
“No, it’s not for me to open.”
She looked at him with confusion and then with horror as she saw what was just beyond him. The figures from the Mall, the ones with the glowing eyes, were standing just behind him. “Oh no, they’ve gotten in.”
He stared at her very calmly, not even acknowledging what she’d said. “It is for you to open the book Miranda. You are its guardian. Now uze its power.”
She looked down at the volume in her hands. What moments before had been The Women Behind the Revolution was a huge oversized book, looking like an ancient sort of manuscript with crumbling pages, “Uze itz power,” he repeated.
She opened it with some difficultly, as the palms of her hands continued to burn against its heavily textured surface. And in an instant, the fiery brightness that poured forth from it seemed to envelope everything around them.
“Are you going to class?”
She blinked her eyes open in the semi-darkness of the room. “What?” Her throat felt scratchy and wasn’t functioning normally.
“I said, are you going to class today? You’ve already missed a lot. You might not want to cut again.” Miranda focused in on the concerned looking face of her roommate Sarah. Sarah with her huge blue eyes and kinkily permed blond hair always looked angelically concerned about something.
“Umm,” she rubbed her head. That hurt too. Everything seemed more than a bit hazy. Especially the part about how she got into her bed. “What day is it?”
With a crease on her smooth forehead, Sarah frowned at her. “You don’t remember anything do you?”
“I, uhh, not sure. What anything are we talking about?”
She sighed deeply. “Last night at the Phi Kappa party. Jessie said you drank a lot. I don’t know even what time you guys got in. It might have been hours ago.”
She sat up as best she could manage. She was wearing a t-shirt and pair of pajama pants. That was normal, but where was, “Godfrey?” she whispered.
Sarah kind of cocked her head in a confused look. “That’s a weird name. Is that some guy you met at the party?”
Miranda struggled to piece things together, but her memories, her jagged fantastical memories, in no way jived with Sarah’s report of last night’s activities. Maybe it was all an alcohol-induced delusion. That seemed as probable as anything else.
“Look, if you want a ride to class you better get dressed quick. We have a test in Psych.”
Her eyes widened in horror, “No way.”
Sarah abruptly pulled back the covers on the bed to facilitate a quick exit for Miranda. “Yes, but I don’t think it will be hard. I hope it won’t.”
Some thirty minutes and a strong cup of coffee later, they were walking into the large mini auditorium of Psychology 201 class. As they took their seats on the third row, Miranda tried to concentrate on the concrete things before her, like her pencils, the cute guy on the second row, and the test she was likely to fail. Rather than those intangible things like magical books, and foreign wizard-type fellows who kissed passionately and dragged her about a lot.
She glanced up as she heard Sarah whispering to a girl seated on the other side of her. She thought she might be from her sorority, but she had no idea. She hadn’t spent much time with them lately. Nudging Sarah, she asked, “What’s up?”
Sarah responded blandly, “It looks like you lucked out. No test.”
She yawned, suddenly wondering why she dragged herself out of bed. “Why?”
“Maddie says Professor McCauley has been replaced.”
“Yeah, he took a sudden leave of absence.”
“In the middle of the semester?”
“Apparently,” she shrugged looking disinterested. There was a consensus that Professor McAuley wasn’t particularly inspiring.
And then they heard a muffled but conspicuous tapping toward the front of the classroom. Her eyes swept up to the large blackboard behind the podium. A man stood there tapping a ruler softly but continuously on the board. Her breath caught for a moment. And then he turned around with a rather large smile on his face.
“Now that I have your attention. I’d like to introduce myself. I am Professor McAuley’s replacement, Professor Chaney. To most of you I am a stranger, but I do zee a few familiar faces.”
A shiver traveled up her spine as his cool blue eyes locked on her momentarily.
He continued, “The first thing you should know about this class is that you should leave preconceptions behind and understand that nothing, truly nothing, iz as it appears.”
Copyright © 2019 by Evelyn Klebert
First appeared in Dragonflies: Journeys into the Paranormal
A mystical wordsmith entices you into the world of the paranormal with this collection of inspired stories. Each tale takes the journey of the dragonfly imbued with the momentum and energy of change, following a winding and treacherous path that ultimately will lead you to find the truth buried beneath perception. Includes: “The Wizard,” “The Sojourners,” “Late One Night at Berstrum’s Books,” and “The Tear.”