Universal Cork – No. 151

I backed into the elevator, dragging my loaded book cart. The casters clunked over the uneven threshold, and the volumes swayed, threatening to topple from the three metal shelves. I shoved the looser books into place with my knee and stabbed the six floor’s button.

“Carrie, hold up!”

Aaron’s shout rose above the clacking of wheels on tile, the soft thump of tomes, and his rushing sneakers.

Biting my lip, I slapped my hand against the sliding elevator door. The panels retracted and I pressed the open button while Aaron neared.

“Thanks.” He shoved his cart inside and grinned.

“No problem.”

I avoided his smile and tended to the close button, sealing the elevator shut. A glance at the call numbers on his cart told me he meant to go to floor six as well, and as the technological gears groaned with our combined tonnage, I debated if his choice had been intentional or not.

“No plans for Halloween?”

His question stalled my mental circling and I shrugged against settling reality. “Paying for tuition comes first.”

“We missed you last week.”

I faced the books on my cart’s top shelf. “I rescheduled ‘cause of mid-terms.”

“Calculus?”

“No. English.”

“How’d you do?”

I sank my gaze into the spine of a tome sporting the periodic table of the elements and concluded sharing my 99% would seem too obnoxious. “Pretty good.”

“I bet you aced it.”

Peeking up from the multicolored blocks, I sought the expected sarcasm. Aaron’s grin simply spread.

“You study enough for the whole University.”

“What’s the point in being here if you don’t?”

“What about having some fun?”

I swept my arm over the carts. “This is my fun.”

“It could be worse.”

The elevator dinged and a thankful gust of chilled air frosted my cheeks.

“See you on the ride down.” With a parting wink, Aaron backed out and headed left.

I waited until his cart’s rumble quieted on the industrial carpet before shoving mine out of the elevator and curving in the opposite direction.

Popping in my ear buds, I tried to ignore his presence on what would probably be an otherwise empty floor. I turned up the volume and willed myself into an extra lecture on Thoreau’s Leaves of Grass.

Between my ears, Professor Johnson’s drone blended with the classification codes and the rhythmic slip of one book after another from the cart into its proper place on the gunmetal shelves. The combination kept my mind numbed from other thoughts until I heard Aaron’s muffled shout. I popped out one pip and scowled as his voice echoed between the stacks.

“…and look at this.”

“Aaron, shhh.”

“I mean it. Come look.” His voice wavered through the stillness, fragile like a thin sheet of glass.

Leaving my half-empty cart, I padded down the aisle, seeking him within the collection. I guessed he’d found another couple making out or perhaps something weird left behind, like the rubber ducks the orientation crew had hidden all over campus for the incoming freshmen’s scavenger hunt. Instead, I found him standing before a stack abutting the library’s northern wall, a two-inch thick book in hand. His eyes, though, remained locked on the space I suspected he’d meant the book to occupy, a dark rectangular shadow staining the shelf and line of spines.

I crept toward him and kept my voice low. “What is it?”

“Watch.”

I cringed when he ripped a piece from the jagged cardboard marker stuck within the book he held. Lifting the yellow scrap, he dangled it before the shadow. When he let go, the paper streaked into the darkness.

After a stunned moment, I inched across the remaining distance and parked at his side. “That’s not possible.”

“I can do it again.” He started to rip another piece but I stopped his hand with mine and leaned toward the gap.
Blackness darker than night and deeper than a hollow pit filled the space. Not even the gleam of the fluorescents managed to escape. Frowning, I tipped closer and sudden suction tugged at my bangs and the front of my fleece. The covers of the two neighboring books flapped open as if pulled by strings and smothered the opening with a loud smack.

At the sound, we both jolted backwards, and when I blinked, I found my hand cinched around Aaron’s forearm, the bunched sleeve of his sweatshirt plush beneath my fingers. I pulled away and hid my hands in the familiar stitches of my jean’s pockets.

“What did you do?”

“Nothing.” Aaron hefted the two-inch book in his hand.”I was making space for this and that appeared.”

Nudging aside one of the splayed covers, he revealed the gap again. A larger draw of air swirled, and I grabbed onto him as we stumbled near, towed by the vacuum. I mirrored Aaron, slamming a hand on the adjoining shelves, our assault stopping our forward progress.

“This is crazy.”

Beyond his mutter, the cover of the book clasped in Aaron’s hand caught my eye and my fingers around his arm tightened.

“Look.”

Black Holes: Possibilities and Probabilities dominated the cover in a raised sci-fi font. Below, a golden corona circled a dot as pitch as the gap between the books.

Aaron frowned at the image. “What does that have to do with anything?”

Another gravitational pull dragged us closer to the shelves and I raised both brows.

He shook his head. “That’s not possible.”

I rolled my eyes and took the book. Aaron kept himself braced while I slipped behind him, shielding myself behind his back.

“I’m going to try putting it back.” I looped my arm under his and with the base of Black Holes, pushed the splayed covers flat and wiggled the missing tome into its slot.

While I worked, a third grasp of suction tugged. Aaron’s sneakers scraped against the carpet, the spines crinkling under his hands. The bookcase groaned and listed against the supporting wall.

“Hurry, Carrie.”

His encouragement wormed past clenched teeth and, giving up on neatness, I pitched the book vertical and hoped it wouldn’t fall. When invisible fingers snagged it from the suction side and pulled it between its neighbors, I ducked behind Aaron’s shoulder but kept my eyes on the book.

The tome rattled, knocking those on either side as it skittered deeper. I thought it might keep going, be sucked into the darkness like the scraps of paper but the book slowed, then stopped. The tail aligned itself with the edge of the shelf and the shaking ceased.

Regardless, we stood there, watching, waiting. Through his sweater, Aaron’s heart thudded in time with mine while I hung on his back and he held the bookcase. Nothing else moved and the quiet of the sixth floor descended upon us.

He glanced away first, peering at me over at his shoulder. “You okay?”

I met his hazel eyes, his button nose so close to mine, his breath adding to the flush of my cheeks. Nodding, I detached myself like a piece of reluctant Velcro. I found the opposite bookcase firm against my back and supportive to my trembling knees.

“I’m okay. You?”

He glanced at Black Holes and pulled one hand then the other from the shelves. No suction drew him near or undermined his wide stance.

“I think so.” He raked his fingers through his sandy shag of hair and a shudder wracked his shoulders. “You saw that right?”

I shifted from his furrowed profile and stared at the book. The spine filled the gap so completely I could barely remember the darkness but the yellow marker with its two ripped edges now sprouting from the pages nagged.

“I saw something.”

“What do you think we should do?”

Mr. Parker’s voice sounded through the speakers, announcing a half an hour before the library would close at the bewitching hour of midnight.

I rubbed the chill invading my arms. “I think we should head downstairs and help close.”

“What about this?” Aaron thumbed at the book. “Maybe we should check—”

I snatched his wrist before he could touch the headcap. “How about tomorrow? Something about tonight seems weird.”

He glanced at my hand then up at me as I released my grasp. “You mean because it’s Halloween?”

“And almost midnight.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.” He snuck a glance through the stacks, toward where the wall of windows would overlook a darkened campus except where costumed partiers imbibed and festivities were in full swing. “I think there’s even a full moon.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me.” I hugged myself in a vain attempt to ward off frigidity. “I’ll look tomorrow.”

“I’ll meet you here.” His grin returned and I had the distinct impression Aaron’s thoughts had swung from the strangeness we’d experienced and into far different considerations.

With a wobbly grin and fire blooming on my cheeks, I inched along the aisle, the memory of his back pressed against my chest suffocating. “See you at the elevator first.”

A flicker of concern reappeared, dimming Aaron’s smile into something more compassionate. “Be careful.”

His tone inspired a similar sense of worry within me and the iciness resurged. “You too.”

I held his gaze for a second longer, then, with a hesitant wave, I returned to my cart, thankful for the inert lines of chemical diagrams as opposed to the apparent volatility of astronomical objects, the closing tasks keeping us from the unstable shelves, and the possibilities awaiting the morrow.

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