The library silence shattered with the shriek of a small child. I jumped in my chair and dropped by book at the noise. I turned my head as a woman, the girl's mother, ran by in a panic, shouting with concern and worry, demanding to know what the librarian had done to her toddler. Readers crept from aisles and peeked to see the commotion; I too stood to get a better view over the tables and chairs towards the front desk.
The librarian ripped a pair of glasses off of the child's eyes with ferocity in the fingers but a calmness of the face. The girl, now crumpled on the floor and batting at the air with her tiny hands, was sobbing hysterically. The mother scooped her up and cradled her, glaring at the librarian, who was a stern middle-aged man. He only stared back at her, his mouth tightly shut, both of his hands holding the thin, round glasses.
"What did you do to my child?! What happened, why is she crying?! What did you do!" shouted the woman.
"I left my glasses out," he said flatly, coldly.
"Well it's not her fault for wanting to touch things, she's just very curious, she's only four after all!"
"I'm very certain she will never be so foolish again."
"Foolish?! She's not a fool, she's just a child! She's just curious, what did you do?! Did you hit my baby?!"
"I never needed to. I took my glasses. You should take her to a therapist."
"Are you saying my child is insane or autistic or something?! She's perfectly healthy! She's completely sane! She only went mental when YOU DID something to her!"
The man very carefully put the glasses into a velvet-lined wooden case; it looked old and hand-carved, with a neat copper clasp that he locked it with. "You should take her to a therapist, and you should believe everything she says." He picked his words carefully, almost with a rehearsed air, resigned to saying them as the priest is woefully obligated to provide last rites.
"If you touched her, I swear, I'll call the police on you, I swear it. You did something to her, then you call her crazy. I'm calling the police."
Another woman stepped up to the scene from nearby. "No, I saw the whole thing."
"Yes? What did he do?"
"Nothing, he was just doing some work with the books. The glasses were sitting there and the girl grabbed them, put them on, started screaming."
The mother looked between them all, then back to the other woman. "He didn't hit her?"
"No, he just took the glasses off."
The mother then glared at the librarian again. "Let me touch those glasses. I bet they have acid or something on them. You poisoned her, didn't you?"
"Why do you want to believe anyone did anything to her at all?" he said.
"Let me touch them!"
"You may touch them but you may not wear them. Understood?"
"Don't condenscend me!"
He didn't respond, but unlocked the case and held it open, with one hand over the glasses to keep them in the box. "You may touch them."
The crowd that had gathered, I included, leaned in close as the woman stabilized her whimpering daughter in one arm and reached out her other hand to the little wire-frame glasses. Her fingertips brushed the frames and then she put her hand more fully on it. She pulled her hand up close to her face to inspect that nothing had caustically eaten away at her flesh. "Why was she crying?" she said in confusion.
"Believe everything she tells you," he said simply. "Everything."
The mother eyed the glasses for a long moment, and he watched her while keeping his hand firmly over them. "Let me wear them," she said.
"I already told you that you may not," he replied, firmly. "There's nothing more you or I can do here that will help her."
"What are you talking about? Let me wear them! I bet there's something wrong with them. Why can't I wear them?"
"What religion are you?"
"What? What's that got to do with anything? Are you discriminating because of my religion?"
He sighed through his nostrils. "If I was discriminating because of your religion, that would mean I already knew what it was, and I wouldn't have asked what it is. Are you going to tell me?"
"I don't see how it's any of your business."
He closed the glasses case. "Then I don't know how these will affect you," he said.
"Fine! I'm atheist. Do you have a problem with that?"
He raised a brow. "None at all, though you're wrong," he said. Before she could begin blustering and shouting, as it was apparent she was going to do, he snapped the case back open and held the glasses up. "You may try them on."
"Good," she hissed, and grabbed them, shoving them onto her face. Her eyes gazed blankly through them, her mouth hanging open, and she did not move. She closed one eye, then the other, then turned the glasses upside-down and then put one lens over her face at a time, then held them at a distance then held them up close again, then tossed them at the librarian's chest where it bounced off his shirt and landed on the desk. "What kind of a joke is this?! Setting those things out for children to look at, you horrible person! I'm going to get a lawyer and I'm going to come back here and I'm going to sue you for this! You've completely damaged her, I hope you know! She'll never grow up right! She WILL need therapy, what's wrong with you?!"
"I didn't make these," he said, turning them so the front of the lenses faced the crowd.
"I wanna go home, Mommy," said the little girl. "I wanna go home, I dawn like it here." The mother said comforting things about how the bad man's bad glasses wouldn't be showing her awful things anymore, and with a final parting glare at everyone in the room, she departed the library.
"So what ARE they?" asked someone.
"Can I see? I want to see."
"Are they like illusion glasses or what? What is it?"
And before the man could hide them away again, a young man had grabbed them and put them on. The youth gave a wail of terror and agony and tore them off again like they were a spider biting him between the eyes, and he threw them down on the desk and shivered and pulled away, hugging his arms. He then darted glances around the room, looking in fear at each person, wall, piece of furniture and book, and then he ran out the door, looked around, and bolted down the sidewalk. No one else wanted to touch the glasses. From where I was standing, and from the way they were laying on the desk, I thought I could catch a glimpse of the images on the lenses--
The librarian took them quickly and put them in the case. "I think it is time you all returned to your reading, or left," he said. He didn't look directly at anyone, but had the sideways avoidance stare of someone guilty of some secret, who couldn't stand being caught in a lie. "Now."
The crowd dispersed and departed; only I remained standing before the desk. I had to know what was beyond those glasses. I couldn't live the rest of my life never knowing what was to be seen through their lenses. The man finally took notice of me and sighed again. "You may not wear them."
"I just can't--"
"What is your religion?"
"They will ruin your life forever, then. You should never know. You CAN live the rest of your life not knowing what's beyond them."
I was startled. Could he read my mind? I didn't ask it out loud but waited for him to respond through telepathy. He did, indeed, speak, but aloud: "I just know that the reason you waited behind is because you think you're special and you have an amazingly open mind and that you're really, absolutely, positively deserving of knowing the strange and awesome secrets of this mystical artifact. You want to believe in gritty fairytales and think you have the willpower to stand against the worst things. But you're going to be the weakest to them because of what you already think you know. I know all this about you because that is exactly what I felt like twenty years ago when someone else let them get out of control, and I just had to look through them before it was too late. And it's ruined my ... 'life'."
I bit my lip. "When you put it like that, I can't just leave it."
"These are not a gift. These are the worst thing imaginable. I can't lose control of them, although..." He sighed. "I suppose I already have. I lost control, didn't I? They always manage to sneak out of their case. I've had close calls before but now I definitely don't deserve to keep them. If you can look through them and understand, you will take them and you will never let anyone look through them, understood?"
"Yes." My heart was pounding like a storm-rattled shutter in my chest, and I could feel my pulse in my fingertips on my palms.
He presented the glasses to me.
I took them and swallowed a shuddering breath and breathed a few more times and counted and then I closed my eyes and planted the glasses firmly on my face, breathed again and opened my eyes.
I wanted to scream but I was too terrified to make a sound because I thought that if I drew attention to myself, they would see ME.
All around me was not the building, not the city, not the country I lived in at all, perhaps not the planet I thought I was on. It was nothing but bitter ice winds over blasting furnace pools and boiling, blistering skin of naked men and women assaulted by all manner of terrible cold-hearted monster, and darkness moved in ripples like water, coalesced here into tendrils and faces and shifted, walking, rolling over the endless landscape of indescribable infinite plains of agony. I couldn't stop watching the shadows, it was like ink, pure black fluid, sometimes like seaweed in an underwater breeze and sometimes the bottomless mouth of a roaring dark creature, and everywhere it went it caused instant death; it rolled through the legs of men like the men were shadows themselves, and their skin rot from the bone and the muscles overflowed with maggots and fell away and the blood oozed out slowly and was filled with fire ants. And the shadow blasted like a hot wind through the bodies of women and they burned from the inside-out like watching paper blacken first and then lines of crackling orange wiggle their way all over to find and destroy the molecules of every nook and cranny. And every one of them was screaming, but I couldn't hear because the glasses only let me see. And then the shadow billowed up like a sail filled with wind from below, and it moved at it, coming at me like the crashing waves of high tide --
I took the glasses off. A shiver went through me. I felt faint itches, somewhere; the sort that crawls under the skin and is never quite scratchable, the kind that itches worse in the deep of your ears when you try to swallow and yawn. I stared with horror at my own skin and I barely managed to fight off a full panic attack. I wanted to curl up and cry and ask that I lose my memory and unsee what I had just glimpsed. Seeing the nightmare is one thing; for the atheist woman, it will be no more than a frightening illusion, and will mean nothing, imply nothing, and never haunt her and question her and force her to question herself. But seeing the nightmare when you know what it means is an entirely different thing.
"Do you understand them now?" said the librarian.
"Y-yes. God, yes."
"I'm not Him. You shouldn't do that. Maybe...if we can stop, we can get out."
"No, n-no, no, you don't...you don't mean...we're..."
"Standing on the hot coals of Hell."
"Y-yeah, definitely...no need to let...let anyone see this. N-no one needs to know, really. Not really. Nobody needs to see."
"I told you they were no gift. How does it make you feel?"
I licked my chapped lips and swallowed mucus out of my cottony mouth, but I couldn't find the words to say to respond.
"Take them away from me, and maybe someday I can tell myself it was only a dream," he said. "But now they're yours to keep. Keep them under control. They want to be seen. I don't really know if...what they show is real, or if it's some netherworldly prank, the devil's idea of a burning paper bag of feces, but whatever it is, it's not something people should see. Whether true or not, people will make their own stories for it."
"I don't think it's a prank," I said, very numbly; my lips were still chapped. I licked them again and again and chewed them.
"I haven't looked through them since the very first time. I want to let them go away and turn into a very bad experience, a dream I once had that never really happened. But now every time I get those tingles, those itches..." He shook his head. "Just take them and go." And I did.
And for a while, I managed to keep them under control. They stayed in the basement. I never tried them on. But somehow I had to bring them with me. They were always in my jacket or my pants or my backpack, and they came shopping and banking with me. They came on dates with me. They went to the mall and movies with me. They started coming to work with me, because I couldn't leave them behind. And then I started leaving them own on my desk, and sometimes I forgot to do the clasp right, and sometimes, for some reason, I would simply take them out and place them on the edge of my desk and forget about them until someone touched them, brushed them, bumped them, and I would lock them up that day, but then the next day I would put them just out of my field of vision and not know they were there at all anymore...