Turn the Page
Michael D. Britton
* * * *
Virginia Ward pulled open the heavy wooden door of the Bedminster Library, struggling against the gusting wind, a pile of books under one arm. The brass handle was so cold on her bare white hand it felt like a burn.
Her eye caught the deep, smooth carvings in the door that were caked with grime from years of diesel exhaust spewed by buses that rumbled by on busy East Street. She took a little personal offense on behalf of the stately old building that predated the polluting internal combustion engines.
As the outside door whooshed shut, the soft bristles lining the edge sealing off the wind and the traffic noise, Virginia inhaled deeply her favorite aroma – old books – a cue that she’d soon be transported away from the loneliness, monotony and emptiness of post-school life in twenty-first century Bristol.
She caught her reflection in the glass door that led to the main lobby, and stood in the little airlock for a moment, gently shuffling her brown leather heeled boots on the worn mat that reminded her of dog hair. She briskly ran her free hand through her own hair, several long auburn strands having been ripped from her loose bun by the gale outside.
One more deep breath, and into the main lobby with its mouse sounds – shuffling of papers, soft breathing, a few gentle taps on a computer keyboard behind the massive mahogany reference desk.
She’d been out of school for six months now, and she didn’t miss the snotty empty-headed girls, shabby blue and gray uniforms, or clueless teachers who spent more time fecklessly attempting to discipline the riotous teens than actually instructing. But she did miss the slow trickle of information into her brain, and the opportunity to devour literature in English class. Since June, she’d spent an enormous amount of time at the Bemmie library (as the locals called it) – especially since her parents were killed on the M5, leaving her alone and in a state of shock for weeks after.
Virginia timidly placed her stack of novels on the returns desk and unbuttoned her navy wool coat as she strolled up the stairs to her favorite section: historical romance.
She intentionally walked slowly, casually – to draw out the experience. She could feel her heart beating faster in anticipation – there was an obscure book she knew she had to have – she’d seen a brief review of it online, but had been waiting to read it until after finishing another series.
She meandered past the aisles, gazing down each at the rows of odd-sized spines, though she knew exactly where her book was.
At the far end, left side, bottom shelf, middle of the shelf.
No Time for This.
The tale of a Victorian schoolteacher, and her conflict, pain, mistaken identity, true love, heartbreak, salvation – written in 1982 and set in 1901 Bristol – in the very streets Virginia walked to get to this library, but without the buses and cars and endless retail storefronts.
She could feel the stories that lived as ghosts on the filthy narrow streets of Bristol – the centuries of history, the thousands of lives, with their struggles, joys, and meaning.
This book would suck her back to a simpler era, but would provide a complex world of the heart, allow her to focus on the things that really matter in any era – even if the stories of these characters were not as real as those that haunted her aged city – they were still written by a real person, pulled from some real person’s heart, drawn from a reality that Virginia wanted to drink in and savor the taste of.
She slid the book out of its place in the shadows on the thick, dark wooden shelf, hefted it to a little round table in the corner under one of the narrow windows set deep in the gray stonework, sat in the dark brown round-backed leather chair, and turned back the thick black hardcover with its gold embossed lettering.
The library sleeve inside indicated it had not been checked out in over seven years. Another turn of the page and she pushed the spine flat, the pages of the book jumping open like a lazy fan and breathing their unique musty book odor directly into her nostrils. Lodged between pages 102 and 103 was a makeshift bookmark made from a handwritten shopping list:
romaine lettuce (2)
vanilla crème biscuits
cat food (5)
Virginia’s brain swam in déjà vu for a few moments, then she picked up the note, the paper thin like tracing paper, and squinted at the handwriting.
It was not her own.
But these were the same items from yesterday’s shopping list. Her items. In the same order.
Seven years ago, when this book was last checked out, someone bought the same set of items as her.
Virginia was intrigued, but decided to dismiss the incident as coincidence, eager to begin reading this novel.
She read the first chapter and decided this one required hot chocolate and a roaring fire. She picked it up and headed for the gray marble stairs to check it out.
She passed a twenty-something man with bright eyes under a brooding frown with trim brown beard, wearing a flat cap and trench coat, who was trying unsuccessfully to hide the fact that he was checking her out. She’d seen him before somewhere – perhaps here – but couldn’t quite place him.
Looking away quickly, she took her book and headed home through the increasing wind under a darkening gray sky. The first rain – big dirty splashing drops – started to hit the pavement as she turned her key in the front door of number five Clift House Road.
Squeezed into a row of seven narrow terraced Victorian homes on what had become a major thoroughfare over the last century, the rough-hewn façade of her home was blackened from exhaust and the tiny balconies on the second and third story were rotting away, unused for decades.
She stepped inside and slammed the burgundy painted metal door, the brass knocker bouncing on the other side, and slid the bolt behind her with a shunk sound, opened the frosted glass inner door and walked the long narrow corridor to the tiny kitchen in the back, turning lights on as she went. She immediately set to putting the kettle on, before even taking her coat off.
The air inside was chill, so she built a fire in the small tiled fireplace in the front room, and lit it with scraps of newspaper, the flames growing in intensity over a few minutes, soon crackling and throwing up glowing embers into the blackness of the flue. Wisps of wood smoke smell cut the cold air.
On her way back to the kitchen she was met by a friend.
“Hello, Claude,” she said perkily as her thin Siamese padded down the steep staircase and lithely rubbed an arched back against her legs.
The cat followed her into the kitchen, weaving between her legs and nearly tripping her up. Virginia popped open a can of Fancy Feast, the aroma of liver and fish escaping like a disembodied soul, and scraped the contents into the Claude’s little baby blue ceramic dish beside the old gas stove. The sound of the fork in the little can had the cat raising up onto his hind legs in anticipation. “There you go, sweetheart.”
Claude wasted no time digging into the mushy paste, a breathy purring sound bouncing out of the dish as he devoured his dinner.
The kettle started to whistle, the sound growing like an air-raid siren in intensity, a stream of steam shooting out of the spout like a train going full-bore. Claude paused for a moment to watch as Virginia lifted the pot from the burner, the sound dying back down in a Doppler-like deflated effect, and Claude quickly returned to licking the bottom of his bowl.
Virginia poured the boiling water into the hot chocolate powder in her big blue mug, grabbed No Time for This, and returned to the glowing fire in the front room, heat radiating from the fireplace in a circle of flickering light. The sky was now black and rain was clicking against the window like someone throwing wedding rice in waves.
Claude wasn’t far behind – he jumped up on the deep blue, pillow-laden sofa and quickly settled in with his back to the flickering fire.
Virginia curled up on the couch next to Claude, wrapped in a rainbow-colored crocheted shawl her dad’s cousin has made for her years ago, placed her steaming mug on the little square end table, and ran her finger along the book’s spine.
Time to dig in and be transported away.
She turned to page one, saw the word Prologue and resisted the temptation to begin reading, thinking maybe she’d see what was on page 102, where the mysterious Doppelganger shopping list had been sitting for seven years. Delaying the reading just a few more moments was a game she played with herself – to heighten her excitement and make the payoff more powerful.
As she flipped the pages to page 102 – three terse raps on the front door knocker made her inhale sharply.
She rolled her eyes, irritated at the intrusion.
Since mum and dad had died in May, Virginia had become pretty reclusive. School had just ended. She’s just turned seventeen, had no job, no plans, a small inheritance, and all the time in the world to figure out how to make life make sense.
The little Spar grocery at the end of Duckmoor Road, the NatWest Bank, the Bemmie Library, and that empty three story house – the one that used to be a home – that was the extent of Virginia’s world these days.
That, and, of course, the rich world of her books.
Now someone was trying to invade her world, and interrupt her from entering the story world – both intolerable offenses.
She shuffled past the closed curtains to the hallway, through the inner draft door to the front door, lifted up on her tiptoes to peer out the spy hole.
A stranger. No, she’d seen him before.
The brooding man with bright eyes – from the library.
Why had he followed her? Trying to return something she’d left behind? No – in this city, the self-interested seemed to outnumber the good Samaritans.
She backed away from the peep hole, heart pounding, closed the inner door, and returned to her place on the couch, willing herself to remain calm.
Three more urgent knocks.
She sipped slowly at her cocoa – now cooled to the perfect temperature, but the taste was unsatisfying. She stroked Claude’s back, rubbed her knuckles softly between his twitching ears – more for her own comfort than his.
A last set of knocks.
She knew it was the last set – nobody ever tried more than three times – it was one of those unwritten rules of life.
She got up and moved to the curtains, touching her nose against the rough fabric as she peeked through a tiny crack in them, and saw the man wandering off down the road in the storm. Satisfied the stranger had given up and was not prowling around, she picked up the book once more.
kept catching the corner of her eye and making her think a dark set of eyes gazed upon her menacingly – but every time she looked directly toward the fireplace, it was clearly just a trick of light, an inanimate set of random objects conflated in the shadows to form an imaginary friend.
“Virginia,” he said, whispering like the rain against her window, “it is imperative that we speak.”
Virginia snapped the book closed, her chest gently heaving as she controlled her breathing.
She opened the book again and started flipping through the pages from the beginning. A cursory review indicated that the Virginia character was not introduced until that chapter.
More curious than concerned, Virginia returned once more to page one and dove into the prologue.
She was hooked immediately, feeling the feelings, seeing, smelling, touching the setting – and hungry to know how it would all turn out for the heroine.
Pages turned, and turned, the room silent except for the regular rustling sound of paper on paper. Claude slept soundly, his tail occasionally curling up at the tip. The fire died down. The rain stopped. The last half inch of cocoa grew cold and a thin skin formed on its surface.
Virginia’s eyes grew heavy and started to sting. She pushed through, repositioning her feet under herself.
The sky outside faded up from black slowly, the long orange streetlights outside blinking off just as Virginia turned the last page.
She closed the cover, still warm in her hands, and laid her stiff neck back on the couch, closed her eyes, and sleepily pondered the tale.
It just wouldn’t do.
Virginia walked up North Street past the puddles that had formed in the uneven paving stones. A kid on a BMX bike whizzed by on her right, splashing through a puddle and wetting her boots.
She didn’t care. She was thinking about No Time for This.
Aside from the strangely coincidental duplicate shopping list, and the fact that her name appeared in the pages it was marking, the book was unexceptional. Competent writing, decent structure, nice use of setting, and a sympathetic main character, but despite the engrossing plot, Virginia didn’t feel moved.
And when it came down to it, that’s why she ploughed through books – to have her heart grasped by the author’s invisible hand, to have the writer’s ink be injected into her bloodstream, to be made to feel more than she was capable of in the day-to-day life of an orphan with no life plan and no love in her life.
A book that didn’t really tug at her soul was a book that needed to be replaced as soon as possible. It made her feel like some kind of junkie – always seeking that bigger, better fix – but she really didn’t care. She saw no harm in her choice, so she trudged on determinedly toward Bemmie library amid the street noise.
She passed the butcher, the smell of death wafting out onto the street, then the bakery with its fresh doughy bread aroma, and then the green grocer with his garden of bright veggies in wooden crates smelling fresh as morning dew. Further up the road she passed the public swimming baths, the chlorine escaping with echoing kids’ screams each time the heavy doors were opened.
Then, a ninety degree turn onto East Street, and, at last, into the sacred double doors of her home away from home.
She gently placed No Time for This on the return desk, then made a bee line for her section upstairs.
This time she had an Ellie Tarkenton book in mind, one of the few she hadn’t yet read – Run to the Devil. She figured she could spend the morning here reading it, then grab a couple other books to take home after lunch.
They only had it in paperback, which was a little disappointing – she loved the sheer weight of hardbacks. She brought it to a quiet, windowless, armchair-lined reading room where she could be alone – easy to do at nine on a Wednesday morning. Out of habit, she flipped it open to the library sleeve to see when it had last been checked out – nearly nine years for this one.
A slip of light blue paper slid out partway from the bottom of the book. She turned to the page it was marking.
The slip of paper had her name at the top in cursive, but the other written words were all washed out as if the paper had gotten wet and smudged all the ink to an unintelligible blur. The only other decipherable words were the closing words – I love you, Wendell.
Her hand started faintly shaking and she let the paper drop to her lap. Her eyes focused on page 217.
“Your life is in danger,” he said, gently taking the auburn-haired young woman by the elbow and tugging her in his direction. “You must trust me.”
“But I don’t even know your name,” she said, trying to keep up with his brisk pace through the foggy alley.
“Claude,” he said. “Just call me Claude. Now, we must take refuge before what happened to your parents happens to you.”
Chilled to the bone, Virginia closed the book.
Her stomach felt a little sick. She suddenly did not feel like reading. She just wanted to be home with Claude, behind her bolted door, away from the world.
She fled down the hard library steps, her heels clicking, her hand sliding down the cool steel handrail. She burst out the heavy front doors into the noise and dirt of East Street, and returned home down North Street at a speed-walking pace.
She slammed her front door behind her and bolted it, then leaned her back against it and breathed heavily, her knees feeling like jelly, and little pinpricks of sweat forming around her hairline.
She let out a little high-pitched yelp and nearly hit the ceiling when the knocker rapped three times against her back. Struggling to compose herself, she got on tiptoe and peeked through the little lens.
That man again – the one from the library. The one who’d followed her home last night.
Was he stalking her?
He knocked again. He knew she was there – she’d just screamed. She could just wait for him to go away again, but then where would this end? She rushed back to the kitchen and grabbed a long steak knife, then slid the security chain into place on the door and slowly opened it until the chain was taut.
She held the knife behind her back as she brushed her hair out of her green eyes and came face to face with the menacing man.
“Wh-what do you want?” she said, stammering despite her steely resolve to show no fear.
“My name is Kyle Walker. It’s very important that I speak with you. I’m an investigator.”
“I don’t – I don’t have one. I’m a – a special kind of investigator. I look into paranormal activity. There’s been a rash of strange occurrences lately at the library. I just want to talk to you about your experiences, ask you a few questions – try to understand what we’re dealing with here. Please, just let me in to talk with you for a few minutes. You won’t regret it.”
Virginia took a deep breath, her eyes not leaving his gray-blue eyes for a second.
“Fine. You have ten minutes. But I have some questions of my own, and I expect them answered in return for my information.”
“Oh, absolutely,” smiled Kyle, revealing his yellowing but straight teeth. “I’m free to share whatever I know with you – I don’t work for Her Majesty, so you know, no government regs or whatnot – I can be completely open with you.”
Virginia closed the door to unfasten the chain, then reopened it to usher Kyle in.
“Front room, please,” said Virginia, standing aside with the knife behind her back, and her back against the outdated pink flowery wallpaper to let Kyle pass into the warm living room. “Have a seat.”
Kyle lowered his rear into a soft brown armchair with his back to the window, so his face fell into shadow.
“Your name, miss?” said Kyle.
“I’m Virginia Ward, she said, remaining standing, her right fist on her hip, the other dangling behind her back, wielding the knife. She felt like a deranged killer. “Why have you been following me?”
“It’s complicated. But it boils down to two words: Wendell Young.”
“Did you say Wendell?” asked Virginia, her curiosity aroused.
“Why, yes. Young was a notorious serial killer – he murdered eight young female library patrons between 1893 and 1901. A sad chapter in our city’s very checkered past.”
Virginia’s arms folded loosely across her chest. The now unhidden knife glinted a flash of reflected daylight at Kyle. “So what of him? What does he have to do with me?”
“Whoa, there, luv – mind putting away the weapon? I promise I’m not here to hurt you – if I was determined, your little steak knife wouldn’t help you much anyway.”
She looked at the jagged edge of the blade, then over at Kyle. A sheepish smile lifted the corner of her red lips. “Sure – sorry. I just thought maybe you were some kind of sicko.”
“It’s Wendell Young that was the sicko. He was obsessed with reading. He himself could not read, but women who could read drove him batty. So he slit their throats with his own kitchen knife.”
“Again,” said Virginia, stepping back and sitting in the armchair facing Kyle, “what does any of that have to do with me?”
“He’s trying to get you – he’s been making contact and trying to draw you into his little games.”
“Uh, didn’t you say he was offing girls in the 1890s? I assume this guy is long dead by now.”
“Dead and well, wandering the library to this day,” said Kyle. “And apparently he’s finally learned to read, because he’s using some rudimentary ectoplasmic tricks to write notes to you. To get your attention. Can you show me his notes – or at least tell me what he said?”
Virginia sat stunned.
Ghosts? At the library? A dead serial killer trying to get her attention? This was as crazy as some of those paranormal romances she’d tried to read last spring but quickly put away.
“Well, all right. The first note was just a duplicate of my shopping list from the day before. On the page where it was left, a character with my name was introduced.”
“Mm-hm, mm-hm,” Kyle nodded sagely. “Classic approach – he’s reaching into your mind and grabbing anything he can get a hold of – in this case, your recent shopping list – and using it to make a connection. The specific placement in the book was a nice added touch. He’s getting smarter all the time.”
“Um, can I get you some cocoa or something?” asked Virginia, feeling oddly more comfortable with this guy the more he spoke of ghostly behavior as if it he were discussing last night’s football game.
“You have any tea?” he asked, following her down the narrow white-wallpapered hallway to the kitchen.
“Tea? Uh, no. Hate the stuff.”
“What kind of Brit are you?”
“The half-American kind. Dad was from the States. I never got the tea gene, I suppose. Don’t worry, my cocoa is delicious.”
“Right then. So, what about the second note?”
Virginia put the kettle on, dispensed some cocoa powder into two mugs with a shiny teaspoon, then returned with Kyle to the living room and started to build a fire.
“Well,” said Virginia, “the second note was all washed out, but it opened with my name, and closed with ‘I love you, Wendell.’ It really creeped me out.”
They returned to the living room. Virginia rubbed her upper arms with her hands, hugging herself against the cool air. She started to shovel out her ashes into a little copper pail, sift through her wood for the right pieces, and arrange her kindling.
“What about the page the note was on?” Kyle knelt near the fireplace and started tearing yellowed newspapers to help ignite the fire.
“It talked about danger, and the fact that the girl’s parents had died. It hit really close to home, because my parents di-” She choked on the word. “My parents died a few months ago.”
“I’m sorry,” said Kyle, standing again and moving to the armchair by the window. “That’s just Wendell trying to get under your skin. He’ll try to control your actions by playing with your mind.”
“So, what am I supposed to do?” asked Virginia as the kettle’s whistle started to rise in the kitchen.
“Check out another book, of course.”
“That’s the only way we’re going to be able to stop this unholy madman.”
Virginia walked home that night with the latest book, a thick hardback, clutched to her chest. It was already dark, and the wind was whipping up dry leaves and stray bits of trash as she rounded the corner toward her house.
When she arrived, Kyle was waiting for her, sitting on the low brick wall that divided her house from the pavement, his elbow leaning on the little metal gate latch by the stone steps.
“What did you pick?” he asked with a warm smile.
“It’s actually something I’d never have picked normally, but I wanted to kind of experiment with this, so I chose an epic fantasy. It’s some cheesy dragons-and-wizards story called Gem of Power by some guy I’ve never heard of. I have no idea how they can write six hundred pages about this crap. And it’s the first of a trilogy!”
“I happen to enjoy a good fantasy,” said Kyle. “So, have you opened it yet?”
“No, of course not! I wanted you to be there.”
They went inside, flicked on the lights, and sat in the front room. Claude trotted in then froze when he spotted the stranger, looked up at Virginia. He’d fled upstairs the first time Kyle had come over.
“It’s okay, Claude,” she said, taking off her coat and throwing it over her chair back. He’s a friend. His name is Kyle. Kyle, meet Claude.”
Kyle nodded and threw up a quick, obviously fake smile at the cat.
“Not a cat person?” asked Virginia, not missing a beat.
“Um, not really any kind of animal person. So. The book?”
“Oh, yeah, of course.” She placed it on the coffee table between them, and lifted the cover, then started casually turning the pages.
On page 333 there was a piece of lined binder paper folded into quarters. She caught her breath and reached for it. She unfolded it and began to read aloud:
Thank you for returning. This is becoming easier for me with each attempt. There is something you must know, my love. The man with whom you sit –”
The lights suddenly went out.
But his voice was no longer across from her.
The windows suddenly blew in, shattering shards of glass everywhere. A monstrous wind whipped around the room in a spiral of noise and debris. As Virginia’s eyes began to adjust to the dark, she saw books flying off her tall bookshelves that lined the west wall, opposite the fireplace. She raised her arms to protect herself, started to move to take cover.
Out of nowhere, something huge (the Encyclopedia?) smacked into the side of Virginia’s head with a crunch.
She saw stars, felt the throbbing, swelling, jarring pain for a moment, then the near-blackness became totally dark as she collapsed in her chair.
The air in the library was so cold she could see her breath hanging in the air as she wandered the empty shelves, seeming to float above the white mist that covered the floor like dry ice in a bad 1970s musical.
She tried to call out, but she didn’t know who to call. Her vague plea for help fell about a foot in front of her, the voice that escaped her mouth a hollow, weak whisper with no momentum.
As she ascended the stairs, a man appeared at the top. He slowly descended to meet her half way. He wore a trim suit that looked like something out of the old historical photos of Victorian age business men. His hair was slick and black, combed straight back, but high in front. His pale cheeks were hollow, his jawline a razor. He wore a thin moustache, and his eyes were a piercing, haunting light grey-blue.
He reached out his hand and took hers. His skin was like ice, but his eyes were a flame. His expression was intense.
“My Virginia, there is not much time. Listen carefully.”
“Who – who are you?” she whispered, her belly quivering, her heart in her throat, her breath shallow.
“It is I, Wendell Young. I have longed to tell you directly, how I love you so. But there is no time for this. You are in grave danger, my dear. It is imperative that we speak of only that which will save your life.”
“What are you talking about? You’re the threat!”
“No, no, my love. He has twisted the truth. The one who calls himself Kyle – you must stay away from him – or you will pay the price. You must trust me.”
Virginia stared at this apparition, barely believing her eyes, and not knowing if she should believe the words hitting her ears. “But you’re a killer.”
“Do not believe everything you read about me in the history books. Now, you must return. The time is nigh. Be safe.”
Virginia suddenly felt herself falling, falling through the white formless void of mist, her stomach lurching, the moisture around her condensing on her pale skin.
Falling . . .
She awoke in the arms of Kyle Walker, who had a cool compress pressed to the side of her throbbing head.
“Kyle,” she said weakly. “I had the weirdest dream. I saw him – Wendell Young. He said –” she stopped abruptly as she looked into Kyle’s eyes.
She recalled her vision.
The man in the library. Wendell Young. The eyes.
She caught her breath, tried to stifle the fear on her face.
But Kyle read it, and his face changed.
“So, you see now. My name is Wendell Young the fourth. My great grandfather was the notorious Bedminster Reader Rapist. Eight dead girls. But he never finished his work. There were more – there were girls he missed. I’m here to complete his legacy.”
Virginia reached out for her bookshelf and grabbed a thick, rich, hardback thesaurus and crashed it into Wendell’s face.
He fell backward dizzily, blood streaming from his nose. She walloped him once more, again in the face. He fell back and knocked the back of his head on the table and slumped to the floor.
“What’s another word for ‘don’t even think about it, creep’?”
She dropped the thesaurus and breathed heavily, then collapsed in the chair. Then she spotted a slip of paper poking out of the thesaurus. She tugged at it, and tried to get her wet eyes to focus on the words.
Well done, my dear. By now it is clear to you that my great grandson is insane. He fabricated stories about me so he could prey on women such as yourself. My dear, it is tragic that I cannot give you my love but through these books. But perhaps you could use books to show me your love – by vindicating me, setting the historical record straight – clearing my name. Pity young Wendell there has tarnished it beyond what you and I can repair, but at least it should be known that I, Wendell Young Senior, am an innocent man. Take care my love, and watch for me in your reading. I will always be around.
Virginia looked over at the unconscious man flopped in a heap on her short-pile brown shag carpet in her front room.
She pulled out her mobile and dialed 999, explained the situation briefly to the operator, and hung up.
She grabbed some twine and bound Wendell IV’s hands and feet.
Then she opened the fat cover of Gem of Power, and dug in.
© 2012 Michael D. Britton, Intelligent Life Books
All rights reserved.
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