The short fat man stepped into the library from chilly November Main Street, his face flushed and his breathing heavy, and at once the lenses of his glasses fogged up. He huffily removed them and rubbed them with one fringed edge of his scarf. Putting them back on he found them still smudged in places; parts of the world were moderately clear, others were blurry. He wiped them off again and rubbed them in a circular motion, as if buffing the hood of a car. Putting them back on, he sighed heavily at the hazy blotches.
For a long moment, he stood in the threshold, drinking in and cherishing the room, drowsily silent and still, an oasis of sanity among a sea of chaos. Directly across from him was a rectangular window which allowed golden autumn sunshine to spill onto the thin, light blue industrial carpeting. Below the window sat a wooden rocking chair flanked on either side by low free standing shelves packed with numerous children's titles; no doubt this was the area where a woman read stories to a crescent moon of enraptured children once or twice a week. Posters of smiling, personified animals clutching books hung upon the aqua walls. To his left sat a U-shaped counter crammed with stacks of books, a computer, and a printer. A plain white haired spinster in a denim dress and pink glasses stood bent over the computer pecking hesitantly at keys; Dexter and the librarian were alone.
"Hello, Mr. Rodgers."
The woman was looking at him, her wrinkled face was sunny and her smile warm.
"Hey," Dexter returned self-consciously as he removed his leather driving gloves and plaid scarf, stuffing both of them into the oversized pocket of his charcoal overcoat. He removed the coat and hung it on a nearby coat rack; it was unpleasantly warm in the library.
Dexter scanned the room again. The woman was back at her bursts of typing. Beyond her sat several rows of dusty shelves. From the ceiling hung several model planes, one red and sporting a black iron cross upon the wing, another olive with the black silhouette of a tented book on its fuselage. The place was comfortingly ordered and unchanged.
Dexter slowly ambled past the desk and found himself flanked by tall, imposing bookshelves on either side. There was a faint pleasantly spicy smell in the air.
He walked up and down several of the isles, scanning the spines of many multicolored friends; a diverse rainbow of wonder. A sense of hopelessness filled him, though, for he had read all of them, or at least all of the ones that even remotely interested him. He had always been a voracious reader, especially during his school years. Now, he realized that he had pretty much cooked his own goose. He needed to find a book. The thought of doing nothing later but watching TV in his underwear like some kind of slovenly social outcast filled him with dread. If he didn't find something before his lunch break was over he might be forced to go into the children's section and get something like Goosebumps or Captain Underpants.
Dexter snickered thinking of the librarian's expression when she took the book and looked at the cover. Her eyes would widen and her mouth would loosen.
Oh…good…good choice, Mr. Rodgers.
He left his current isle and entered another, the twinge of desperation tightening. He glanced at his watch, and saw with horror that he had only ten minutes. Five or six of which he would spend walking back to the reality office.
Nothing, he admitted sadly to himself and slowly arose with a sinking feeling in his gut. He could go to the library in Warrenton or Bealeton. He hadn't been to either of those in years…
At the end of the isle, Dexter, absent-mindedly scanning the eye level shelves, spotted a slender volume, nearly hidden by its obese neighbors. The lettering on the dull tan spine was white and read: Short Tales from Hell.
Dexter paused, removed the book with his thumb and forefinger, and automatically flipped to the table of contents, the pages yellowed and brittle with age. There was an ancient brown stain covering the words, possibly the spilt blood of a long ago soda can. He saw thirteen titles that conjured up images of foggy graveyards and supernatural monstrosities, such as "Cemetery Things" "The House on the Hill" and "After Midnight."
Dexter liked horror tales enough, but he liked having evening plans even more.
He held the book in his hands a moment more, looking at the thin spine, the back cover, and the queerly thick front cover. The original must have fallen off sometime in the past and had been replaced.
Dexter rushed to the counter, removing his brown leather wallet as he went. The woman smiled as he sat the book down on the counter and handed her his library card. She took it, the cool, dry tips of her fingers brushing his, and waved a wand over the inside barcode.
"Due back December 4," she chirped and ripped his receipt from the computer.
"Thank you," Dexter mumbled.
In his rush out the door he nearly forgot his coat. Quickly he donned it and hurried out into the cold.
He kept the book in his bottom desk drawer until he left at half past five. After turning off the lights and locking up, he rushed down nearly deserted Main Street ; all around him, even though the sun still hung lowly in the sky, town was closing for the day. Most of the vehicles that whisked by were driven by factory workers on their way home and rowdy teens living up the after school hours.
His house was an A-frame sat in the middle of a shady lawn. He let himself in the front door and immediately went about fixing himself a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli. When supper was done he tossed his plate into the sink and hurried into the living room.
Dexter curled up on his tiny sofa and opened the book. On the inside cover was a large black sticker, faded by the years, which depicted a white box of dynamite with large googly eyes, a closed tome clutched tightly in one hand. Reading is a Blast! said the script below, drawn to look like flames.
Dexter smiled and, in a crisp rustling of paper, turned to the first story.
He had been lost within the book for some time, reading by the soft glow of a lamp on a nearby end table, when the old rotary phone in the kitchen gave out a shrill wail, violently jerking Dexter back to reality. It was only his mother, spouting some dementia driven fantasy from her Blacksburg nursing home. He listened lovingly to her every irrational word, huffing to himself as he watched time slipping away on his watch.
With mom tuckered out, Dexter got up, used the bathroom, liberated a Welch's juice box from the 'fridge, and once again lost himself in the book.
He didn't really like the stories. He had read only five, but if they were an indication, they were perhaps the most disturbing works of fiction ever collected and published. The author had a distressing obsession with sex, and in each story so far sexual activity was graphically described. Hot semen dripping from between a woman's legs, a woman being raped by a demon escaped from hell, pretty young cheerleaders accosted and brutalized in bubble baths by walking corpses, a vampire who lived off of women's…juices…
At one point he marked his place with his chubby pointer finger and curiously flipped to the copyright page. The author's name was Jerome Richards. Dexter studied the bold type for a moment, trying to imagine the man. Who spent his time hunched over a typewriter clicking out such abhorrent stories?
Also on the copyright page, in the bottom left corner, Dexter saw with outrage that some vandal had scribbled a message in pencil. Squinting his eyes, he attempted to decipher the cramped, cursive-looking words, sure that it would turn out to be a crude message like the kinds he occasionally found on the walls of public restrooms. Finally he gave up after deducting that the message was: This book is a sinful pece of crap if you are a good christn ayran and no whats good for you you willnt read it. KKK-8/09. Dexter sniffed. He didn't like racists, but he hated book defilers.
After finishing "Loretta", which was about a twelve-year-old girl in an insane asylum who had the supernatural power to escape her confines at night to "love" male inmates to death, Dexter's gaze was drawn to the clock above the TV; he was horrified to see that it was nearly three a.m. He let out a tiny gasp and jumped to his feet…but then remembered that the clock was dead, and had been for over three months. Yet it was ticking; a soft unimportant noise which reminded him of the way that a dog's claws would click on a tile or linoleum floor.
Dexter checked his Timex –it was just after midnight- and then put it up to his ear. The sound could have been coming from the watch, though he could not remember it possessing an audible noise. He never paid any attention to things like that, though.
"Learn something new every day," he figured softly as he stretched and let out a large bearish yawn. He slowly moved through the dark kitchen and down the hall, his back sore and stiff.
He entered the dark bedroom and removed his watch as he went, tossing it onto the bed. He hurried into the bathroom, Chef Boyardee's traitorous cuisine threatening to spill from his bowls.
He quickly shrugged out of his orange and white striped lounge pants and his SpongeBob Squarepants boxers, and sat down on the toilet. He opened the book...
Faintly, ever so faintly, the ticking reasserted itself. Once again, Dexter thought of the sound that a dog's unsheathed claws would make as he scurried across a hard floor.
Oh, for crying out loud!
Dexter looked about himself. The sink stood directly across from him against the wall. It could have been water dripping from the faucet into the porcelain basin, but no guilty liquid was in evidence.
Tick-tick-tick. Slow and un-dramatic.
Dexter closed the book again and reopened it. He raised the cover and planted his ear to the sticker; the tick was louder.
Ever so lightly, he poked the sticker with one chubby index finger. It gave a bit, jolting Dexter's heart.
What in the name of…?
But all at once he knew, and felt stupid. He should have known in the first place! He had seen this type of thing plenty over the years. There was indeed a hole under the sticker where the book's manufacturer had placed a small recorder so that whenever the cover of the book was opened the dynamite could speak, possibly delivering the high pitched message: "Reading is a blast!" Now, after however many years, the battery was dying a long, slow death.
Dexter flipped to the copyright page, and saw that the book had been published in 1974. He had no idea they did stuff like that back then.
He tried to shake the distraction off and finish the story at hand, but now that he was accustomed to the sound he couldn't unhear it. It was all that he could hear, in fact, and it was made reading impossible.
Dexter thought of taking the battery out. Surely the library wouldn't object.
After an indecisive moment, he began chipping at one edge of the sticker with his thumb. It peeled away with surprising ease.
Alright, Dexter thought, ripping the rest of it away like a wimpy child would a bandage, the way he always had as a child.
"Reading is a Blast!"
From The Richmond Democrat, July 30, 2009
MAN KILLED BY BOMB PLACED IN BOOK
VIRGINIA REAL ESTATE AGENT DIES IN FREAK TERRORIST ATTACK; POLICE LAUNCH INVESTIGATION.
A.P: A Fauquier County man was killed Friday when a book he was reading exploded in his face, police say. Dexter Rodgers, 46, a real estate agent from the town of Pickett's Meade, was found dead in his home early Saturday morning after neighbors reported what sounded like a gunshot. First responders, upon entering the premise, discovered Mr. Rodgers in his bedroom.
"His face was destroyed," Sheriff Rusty Parker told the Associated Press, "it was definitely a bomb."
The book, a collection of horror stories, was checked out from the local library earlier that day. Records show that it was signed out to Mr. Rodgers.
"That particular book was last checked out several years ago," the head librarian, who declined to be named, told reporters. "The bomb could very well have been placed in there then."
This story was originally written sometime in the summer of 2009 and is inspired by true events. Partly. Someone gave my sister, who was ten or eleven at the time, a box of books, mainly elementary titles. Bored one day, I sifted through them and found an omnibus of Goosebumps books. The first three, I think. I'd never read Goosebumps, but horror is kind of my thing, so I decided to give it a go. On the inside was a sticker depicting a skull and the word BOO. Anyway, while reading this book, I kept hearing a strange ticking sound. I heard it in my room, the bathroom, everywhere I went. Sounded like a bomb counting down to detonation. Finally, I peeled the sticker off and there was a little battery behind it. This story sprang forth. I haven't edited it since I wanted it to reflect where I was as a writer in 2009. That's the year I went from total trash to just trash. Hooray for progress.