National Library Week Story Contest Winner

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Congratulations to the winner of Northwestern University Library's National Library Week story contest.

The winning story:

The Worm
By C.K. Egbert

To be honest with you, I wasn’t at all surprised that I ended up in hell—although you may think the eternal damnation of a librarian rather banal. So far I’m the only one I know of, perhaps it was because…but no matter.

In that way, I’m better off than most, especially the religious ones who thought that they were heading in the opposite direction and then ended up here. You can always tell them apart from the others; they don’t scream or sob or curse, they just stand there with eyes wide and empty as the fractured dome of a child’s skull—too shocked by their fate to bemoan it. Hawthorne couldn’t construct better ironies. 

I was surprised, though, when the devil brought me to my torment.

“We try to cater the punishments to our guests,” the devil threw its head back and winked at me. It was the Northwestern Library, with its towers rising like a rough-hewn concrete dream. Granted its architecture borders on the diabolical, and no doubt it is considered a prison by many an undergraduate, it still seemed an odd instrument of punishment for me—especially me. I remember one of the first times I sat in that library, my hands caressing the pages of The Picture of Dorian Gray, fantasizing about a life among the shelves.

The library was as I had always known it, only better, because there weren’t any people and it was perfectly quiet. Not even the absurdly placed escalators made a sound. In spite of myself, I kept expecting ghosts to come screaming at me from the aisles or corridors that went on forever, but the devil doesn’t take tips from Hollywood. I plucked Dorian Gray from the bookshelves and sat down at a carrel.

I don’t know how long I was there before I noticed it. I had a fair pile of books at the carrel that I returned to the shelves when I was through—all except Dorian, of course, I read that every tenth book or so—and, as I usually did, I took down a book a few decimal places away when I put one back in its proper place. I opened the cover and there was—nothing. The pages were blank. That first book I went through every page, front and back, and there was not a copy right date, not a careless pencil scribble, nothing. My hand was steady as I put it back, although I felt something dark and hideous deep inside me, like a nightmare I had forgotten. 

I must have known what was coming, it was too obvious, but we usually turn our eyes away from the beast that will devour us. At first it was only a few esoteric books, here and there, that I would notice when going through the shelves. Then familiar names began disappearing—Hemingway, Vonnegut, Steinbeck. Then whole sections; medieval history, bio-chemstry, ancient philosophy. I no longer bothered to put them back, the books piling up around my chair, as though keeping them near would spare them.

Every time I found a new book that had gone, now, I tore it from the shelves and hurled it across the room. I ripped the pages from the binding in my fury, leaving them scattered on the floor. You would be appalled at the state I left the aisles in, in my increasingly futile search for just another sentence, another word…

Northwestern has thousands of books, maybe hundreds of thousands. I watched every one of them go, slowly, the way a very old man watches death take every one he has ever known, and everyone who has ever known his world, while life mercilessly clings to him. Then there was that last, terrible day.

I must have fallen asleep, or perhaps I merely blinked. When I opened my eyes, there were no words left anywhere. The titles themselves had disappeared. I wandered through the library, too shocked to scream or sob or curse.

I knew, the way you know when there’s something with teeth and claws at your back, as I approached the study carrel. Dorian Gray lay there on the there with all the innocence of a sleeping viper.  But even though I knew, my hand reached for the book. Trembling, I cradled it in my hands like a child and softly opened its cover.

The only marks on the pages were from my tears.