Read: "Once Upon a Time"

Once Upon a Timeby Robert Gannon

Jamie-Boy loved horror stories. Words like "Prometheus" and "perambulating" made him smile, even if he didn't exactly understand what they meant. Just knowing they were in a scary book kept him reading.

Unfortunately, Jamie-Boy's parents didn't share his love for horror stories. They were afraid he would have nightmares. No matter how many times he expressed his bravery, Jamie-Boy would always have to return his latest discovery.

Even the local librarians weren't sure what to do with Jamie-Boy. They loved to help young readers. Some even considered it their life's work. But Jamie-Boy pushed the limits of their generosity and enthusiasm. They wanted to encourage readers; just not that kind of reader.

As soon as he was old enough to ride his bike alone, Jamie-Boy would tell his parents he was going to play with his friends. He always rode past the pick-up game of baseball and said "hi," though he never stayed. His friends just weren't interested in the horror stories. What could possibly be fun about books? If his friends had to be forced to do their reading for school, why would they willingly join Jamie-Boy at the library?

The librarians always wanted to ask him the same things. Why did he want to read those books so badly? Couldn't he stay in the children's section so he wouldn't need help getting the books down? Jamie-Boy stood vigilant in his requests given amongst the tall stacks of the fiction section, even if he barely stood tall enough to reach the third shelf.

He devoured a glut of horror fiction capable of leaving a connoisseur queasy. An overstuffed leather armchair provided passage on a trip around the world. He witnessed murder most foul in Paris, conspired on meticulously plotted revenge in London, even gazed at grotesque ghosts sowing souls in Salem. There was no stopping him. Jamie-Boy devoured the inked pages of the masters as if his life depended upon the wisdom hidden between the lines.

One cool morning, Jamie-Boy kissed his mother on the cheek and pedaled away on his bicycle. Riding past the field was a mere formality as his friends would be pressing their noses against windows while he read all day long.

Jamie-Boy dripped fresh rain all over the faded carpet of the library lobby. He was glad. Plenty of horror stories took place during storms so he guessed it could only enhance the experience. He wandered down the aisles, gazing at all the authors he read before: Beckford, and Brown, and Bronte, and the other Bronte. None of these were his favorites.

Jamie-Boy wondered if the reference desk librarian moved the Dickens holiday ghost anthology to eye height. She made him read A Christmas Carol in exchange for a James collection one time and he never forgave her. It had ghosts just like she promised but could hardly be considered a horror story.

Jamie-Boy was trying to find Shelley because he watched Frankenstein the night before and wanted to read more of her stories. Another book grabbed his eye. He didn't recognize the name as an author: Cthulhu. Jamie-Boy read across the shelf to Derleth before it hit him. The name was from Lovecraft, some kind of old monster from the sea. The long sentences and New England settings confused Jamie-Boy so he didn't really like those stories. He liked Lovecraft more than he liked Derleth, though. The strange ideas originated in Lovecraft's imagination, so they had to be the best. Jamie-Boy knew the older stories were always better because those writers came up with the ideas fist.

The book charged Jamie-Boy's attention. It stood out like his own presence in the library. The spine was covered in a dull red leather turned brown in spots. Tiny holes disturbed the spine, disguising the title behind the tireless work of small creatures gathering a well-tanned meal. Shelley would have to wait for another day.

Jamie-Boy stretched his body as far as he could to reach the book but only managed to tilt it on its side. The red leather was only on the spine. The rest was covered in a mixed blue and green linen. Gray thread rose above the cover in a marbled pattern of smoke and fog. Jamie-Boy struggled to pull the book from the shelf; the surprising weight wouldn't stop him from reading.

He traced his finger around the book, admiring the silver edge of the pages. A drop of water from his sleeve danced along the reflection in the fluorescent lighting as wandered over to his favorite leather chair. Jamie-Boy always read his stories there. It was close enough to the front desk to ask for help if he needed it but not so close as to draw any unnecessary attention to himself. He liked to be alone when he read.

Jamie-Boy cut his finger on the cover. The blood disappeared in the silver lining as he dropped the book on the floor. He licked his cut finger and looked for a librarian. No one was at the front desk. Jamie-Boy pressed his finger against the cold window and stared out at the parked cars. The lot was full but Jamie-Boy didn't hear anyone, only the crash of thunder outside.

His finger stopped bleeding. The book was still in front of the chair where he dropped it, even though he was sure someone else had walked by.

The cover was stuck with the strength of a high grade adhesive. Digging with all of his might, Jamie-Boy managed to slide his cut finger behind the cover.

Lightning flashed all around him. Jamie-Boy knew from his stories if he counted one two three four five six until the thunder sounded he would know how far away the storm was. The thunder didn't sound right. It was too soft. It felt wet, like an echo in the basement. Jamie-Boy still heard the noise when the thunder barked outside.

The silver edge seemed to change as the storm raged on. It became darker, glossier, less consistent from corner to corner. The pages rustled as Jamie-Boy pried with his finger against the stuck cover. Too heavy to hold any longer, the book flopped against his lap. Only then did Jamie-Boy realize he couldn't remove his finger from the book.

He took a deep breath and tried to relax. He was brave and smart. Horror stories couldn't hurt him. The writers were dead. The characters weren't real. This wasn't a nightmare. Jamie-Boy could control the situation. The storm just had him worked up and sent his mind racing. If he closed his eyes, there wouldn't be a problem. It was all in his imagination.

His arm went limp when he heard the crash. The first thing he noticed was his hand. The blue veins bounced faster than the rainfall beneath his pale skin. Every ounce of his skin shook and no conscious effort could stall the motion.

The fascination didn't last when Jamie-Boy saw the book was open on the floor. The ink dripped through the page in a vortex of words, racing down with the crimson drops from his hands. Pages collapsed into the growing darkness of loose phrases flowing over the edge.

Jamie-Boy met the monster's gaze as the puddle grew around his feet. It licked the dried blood from its largest mouth. Jamie-Boy threw his arm down to close the cover but the tentacle moved to quickly, wrapping his wrist tightly as the creature gained footing in the library. Its scales glistened a random pattern of silver and blue as the ink and formatting rushed to an actual physical presence. Jamie-Boy screamed with all his might, though the sound only registered as a weak whimper.

The creature rose taller than the fiction stacks, slinking the brave child past his idols with a firm grip around his waist. Jamie-Boy drifted through the currents of Cthulhu and landed on the top shelf. A book crashed upon it, opening to a Derleth story he always pushed aside. The monster locked his eye on Jamie-Boy and flashed rows of glistening fangs.

"Read me a good story, Jamie-Boy. This one's my favorite."

"Once Upon a Time" is from the collection Take Out & Other Stories, target="_blank">available on Amazon.

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