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Care and Feeding

Tim Pratt's fiction has won a Hugo Award, and he's been a finalist for Sturgeon, Stoker, World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, and Nebula Awards, among others. His books include three short story collections, most recently Antiquities and Tangibles and Other Stories; a volume of poems called If There Were Wolves; contemporary fantasy novels The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, Briarpatch, and Heirs of Grace; science fantasy The Nex; steampunk novel The Constantine Affliction (as T. Aaron Payton); various roleplaying game tie-in fantasy novels; and, as T.A. Pratt, seven books (and counting) in an urban fantasy series about sorcerer Marla Mason. He edited anthology Sympathy for the Devil and co-edited Rags and Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales with Melissa Marr. Novella "The Deep Woods" is forthcoming from PS Publishing this fall. He works as a senior editor for Locus magazine, and lives in Berkeley CA with his wife Heather Shaw and their son River. Find him online at timpratt.org.

"Most people can't even see this place." The alley librarian leaned against a five-foot-high stack of wooden pallets like a makeshift counter. He wore a lumpy no-color knit cap pulled low on his forehead, and he had the sallow skin of a meth addict and bloodshot eyes the color of weak tea, but when he grinned, he showed off a headful of shiny white teeth. "They just walk right by."
I stood dazzled, gazing at the books filling the trash bins and piled on the ground all around us, stacked sideways on makeshift shelves constructed from crushed beer cans and empty milk cartons. The volumes were all different sizes, but otherwise had much in common: greasy-looking black covers and titles written in lines of fire that writhed. "So... why can I see it, then?"
The librarian shrugged and spat something black and wriggling onto the pavement. For some reason that didn't bother me at all. Neither did the fact that the sky had changed from midday lunch-break blue to deep black with cold blue stars, or the way the piss reek of the alley I liked to shortcut through on the way back to work had transformed into a deeper stench, like burning hair and tires.
"I'm not sure," the librarian said. "Some people see me, most don't. There are lots of reasons. Maybe you're really stupid."
I crouched and looked at a row of books crowding a busted plastic milk crate. None of the titles on the spines were comprehensible, though some, at least, looked a bit like actual letters. "Uh. No, I don't think I'm especially stupid."
"Hmm. Have you had any recent head trauma? Do you have a history of psychotic breaks, or hallucinations without obvious cause? Were you born with a caul over your face?"
"No... I work part-time in an occult and New Age bookstore, so maybe I've just developed a special--"
"Nah, that's not it. Any recent emotional trauma? What? I'm curious. It's good to know what I'm dealing with."
I stood, shoved my hands deep in the pockets of my jacket, and frowned. "Not trauma exactly... I mean... I think I might be falling in love--"
"That would do it," the librarian said, nodding. "We're talking the stay-up-all-night sort of love, yeah? The cold sweats kind of love. The kind of love where, if the person doesn't love you back, you start to look like a stalker. Restraining order type love."
"It's not like that. We're friends, I mean, I want us to be more, but--"
He waved a hand clad in a filthy fingerless glove. "Whatever, I don't care, I know what I'm dealing with now. So you're here. What do you want?"
"Can I.... borrow a book? You said it's a library, right?"
"I never said that. You just knew it. It is a library, but we're not as trusting as some places are. You can borrow a book, but only one at a time, and we require collateral."
"What kind? Like a credit card?"
"More like a finger. Maybe a foot. Sometimes an eye. Don't worry. I'll give it back when you return the book."
That weirdness, at least, penetrated the strange numb veil that seemed to cover me, and I took a step back. "I don't... I'm not gonna get disfigured--"
"We can take things that don't leave a mark."
I shivered. "You mean... my soul?"
"What's a soul? Show me where the soul is on an anatomical diagram. Point to the part of the brain that controls the soul. No, I mean something real. Your sense of smell, that's popular--a lot of people hardly even miss it."
"I guess, if it was only temporary..."
"What kind of book do you want?"
I almost ran my finger along the row of books heaped on the pallet in front of him, then thought better of it. "Something to impress a girl."
"You want a love spell?"
"No! No, I want her to like me for me. We're almost there, I think. She just doesn't take me seriously. But if I could do something to really impress her..."
"Tell me more about this girl. I have to help you find the right book--it's part of the job--but I need more information than 'a girl.' What would impress her? Do you want to take her flying through the air? Go back in time with her to see Elvis live in concert? Give her a unicorn ride? Some of them aren't too particular about whether the girl's a virgin or not, though the forgiving ones are more like goats than horses. Or--"
"Is there a book," I said, "that will let me summon the Devil?"
The librarian cocked his head, and after a moment, gave me another smile. "That kind of girl, huh? Let's see. The Devil? I wouldn't say the Devil. Call it a devil." He stopped smiling. "Actually, I wouldn't even say devil. But it should get the job done."
He pushed a book the size and shape of a brick toward me, and as soon as my fingers touched the cover, I stopped smelling the burning tires-and-hair alleyway--I stopped smelling anything--and the sky turned blue, and I was back in front of Golden Tomorrow Books.
I shoved the greasy black volume into one of my jacket pockets, happy to have it out of my hands--its surface was oily, fleshy, too warm. When I went into the shop, I wasn't surprised to see I'd gotten back from my lunch break right on time, as if the minutes spent in the alley hadn't passed at all.
In one of the long lulls when there were no customers in the store I called up Tyana and told her I had something to show her, something really amazing, and after some bored sighs she said I could come over to her place after work; she'd probably be around.
Tyana had come into the store once and drifted through the occult section, and I'd been drawn to her like a fish to a baited hook. A tiny pale beauty, bleached hair, dressed in layered blacks, something ferocious and impatient inside her that couldn't be contained in her slight form. "Can I help you find anything?" I'd asked, and she'd given me this look of up-and-down contempt and snorted.
"There's nothing here but bullshit and stuff everyone has." She flicked a black-painted fingernail against a facsimile edition of Crowley's Liber AL vel Legis. "Don't you have anything rare?"
"Sorry. Most people come here looking for books about how to contact their guardian angels or summon fairies to their garden."
"I figured, but sometimes, even in places with crystals and dreamcatchers hanging in the windows, you find something interesting. Oh well." She started to move off toward the door, and I cleared my throat.
"Let me know what you're interested in, and maybe I can keep my eyes open. We get weird used stuff sometimes."
Now she gave me another look, like she was considering what my body parts might be worth if she sold them. "Come next door and buy me a coffee and a scone and I'll tell you what I'm into."
"Ah, I'm the only one working here, and my boss..."
She shrugged and started for the door.
I hung a sign in the window that said "Back in 15 minutes" and went with her.
Tyana was into evil. She wanted to be a witch, but not a Wiccan. She wanted to consort with the devil. She believed firmly in the existence of a higher power--not necessary Yahweh, or Allah, or Ahura Mazda, or anything yet accurately described by humankind, but some creative, omnipotent, universe-creating force.
"And screw that guy." She rolled her cup of coffee between her hands, as if sucking in warmth through her palms. "He--or it, but it's probably a he, let's be serious--created a world of pain and misery and loss and horror for his own amusement, full of traps and tricks and double-binds, full of tests to see if we measure up to some arbitrary celestial standard. Screw that. Our duty as sentient beings with free will is to oppose that creator. I believe there must be an equal and opposite force, an enemy of that creator, and I devote myself to that force. Call it the Devil, or the Adversary, or whatever you want--I'm on its side. Dedicated to tearing down and destroying the world that creator made. What do you think about that?"
I'd been a pagan in my early twenties, mostly because I liked drum circles and the frequency with which pagan girls took off their clothes and danced around bonfires. Now I was getting closer to thirty, and I didn't spend much time in nature, and I had the contempt for all things New Age that can only come from working in a bookshop frequented regularly by New Agers, and Tyana was gorgeous and the fire in her warmed me, even if I thought she was a little bit nuts.
"I think you make a lot of good points," I said.
I stood in the hallway outside Tyana's door, waiting to see if she'd answer my knock. We were friends, sort of--in the past six weeks since meeting we'd had coffee a couple of times, gone out for drinks once (she left with a bunch of her friends without saying goodbye), and she occasionally wandered into the store if she didn't have anything better to do. I still wasn't sure if she had a job, or went to college, or what. She looked maybe nineteen, tops, but had her own tiny apartment with no roommates, seemingly limitless free time, and the money to pay for her own drinks. The mystery of her was half the appeal, of course. But now I had a mystery for her.
The door finally opened. She was dressed in a short robe that might have been made of cobwebs and shadows, just lace piled on lace. I tried not to stare. At least I couldn't smell her--she always smelled amazing, like dark sweet spices, cinnamon and cloves. Seeing her in that robe, I wanted to believe she was trying to seduce me... but I knew the truth. She didn't think of me sexually. Not remotely. Not even enough to bother changing into something more modest when I came to the door. I was just the old harmless guy who worked at the bookstore. Maybe tonight I could change that perception. "So what did you want to show me?" She didn't invite me in, or even step out of the doorway.
"This." I pulled the book from the alley library out of my coat pocket and held it out to her.
She looked at it, frowning, then back up at my face. "I don't get the joke. Why do I want a Des Moines telephone book from twenty years ago?"
I stared at the thing in my hands. It was an old, stained, torn set of white pages from a town almost two thousand miles away. "This... this isn't what I meant to..."
"I'll see you later, Leonard." She closed the door.
I slammed the book down on the alley librarian's broken-pallet counter.
"Returning it already?" The librarian looked even more unshaven and dirty than he had before.
"I tried to show it to Tyana, and it turned into a telephone book!"
"Sure," he said. "When the book's dormant, it protects itself around strangers and tries to blend in, sort of like psychic camouflage. So?"
"I wanted to show it to her, I wanted to let her use it--"
The librarian rolled his bloodshot eyes. "Oh yeah? Look, it's not my fault if you don't know how to read." He flipped the book open. The pages inside were the color of old bone, the letters brown and clotted-looking. "You didn't even feed the thing. Of course it went to sleep--it had to conserve its energy."
"What do you mean, feed it?"
"Basic care and feeding of books. This one, let me see..." He scrabbled through a pile of papers on the pallet, then squinted down at one sheet. "Right here. It likes to eat crickets and mealworms." He scratched at a scab on his chin. "Also blood. Honestly, mostly blood. The crickets and mealworms are mostly garnish."
"Blood?" I said.
"It doesn't have to be your blood."
I had to promise to bring a very good bottle of wine and a bag of weed before Tyana would agree to see me again after the telephone book debacle, but she let me in. Her apartment was tiny, just one room and a bathroom and a miniature kitchen. The walls were hung with red velvet and there were black candles and silver skulls and blackbird feathers and ornamental knives and books everywhere. I unpacked the booze and drugs from my bag, and followed with a little plastic tub of crickets and mealworms I'd gotten from the East Bay Vivarium, a reptile pet shop in west Berkeley.
"Did you get a pet snake or something?" Tyana sounded halfway interested. She was dressed in lots of layered thrift-shop blacks today, so being next to her was a little less distracting than it had been last time.
"Or something." I took out the book again. It was still pretending to be a Des Moines telephone directory.
"Not this again."
I put the book on the counter, opened the container of crickets and worms--making Tyana shout, "Hey, don't let those bugs out in here!"--and tipped the whole thing onto the splayed-open pages of the book.
For a terrible moment I thought the crickets were just going to hop down and away onto the dark carpet, and that Tyana would throw me out and never answer my calls again... but then the book snapped shut on its own, crushing all the bugs, and the cover shimmered and became greasy black, and words slithered onto the front cover and the spine like water serpents crawling onto the shore.
"Oh, fuck me sideways," Tyana said, and I thought, I wish, as automatically and irresistibly as a muscle spasm.
The book gaped open again, and there was no sign of the bugs we'd fed it, not even smears. "Now it needs blood," I said. "Do you have a sharp knife?"
Tyana took one of the many elaborate knives that decorated her apartment, this one curved almost like a crescent moon, and put the blade into the flame of one of the stove's gas burners. "To sterilize it," she said.
We waited a few moments for the metal to cool, Tyana gazing at the book hungrily, her body trembling with anticipation. I took the knife's filigreed hilt in my right hand and pressed the blade against my other palm, opening a line of blood and burning pain. I made a fist and squeezed it over the open pages, and blood pattered down onto the book.
The drops struck, and were absorbed, like rain falling on the desert.
"What happens now?" Tyana whispered.
"I'm not..." I began, but then the book began to bubble, the surface of the pages like the waters of a boiling cauldron, and we stepped away as waves of heat rose up. I snatched up a dishtowel and wrapped it around my bloody hand.
"Gah, that smell." She pressed her hands together over her nose.
"Yeah, terrible," I said, though of course I couldn't smell anything at all.
Light flashed, purplish and blinding, like a transformer exploding, but in the middle of the counter. We shouted and fell back--I crashed into the refrigerator.
The light vanished, and something coiled on the counter. I couldn't really describe it--I could barely see it, or maybe my eyes couldn't make sense of it--but there was the suggestion of many wings, and a central form like a heap of entrails. The thing rose up to stand on the counter, as tall as man, narrow head brushing the ceiling, many tongues flickering and dripping biles and acids in green and red and yellow. "Your command?" it said, only it didn't speak, any more than a crackling fire or an avalanche speaks: there were just sounds, and we somehow made them into language.
"Leonard?" Tyana whispered.
I stood upright, trying to look straight at the thing. "I... I give my power over you to this woman."
The thing turned its attention to Tyana. "Your command?"
I expected... I don't know what. For her to ask for revelation. Or a sword of fire. Or plagues, or the power to become a shadow, or a personal audience with the Adversary.
Instead she said, "Can you do... anything?"
"Many things," it said, but in a tone that seemed like agreement.
"Can you make someone love me?"
I gaped at her, but the thing on the counter just writhed. "The human heart is clay to be shaped."
"His name is Thomas Ellison Rift. He plays guitar in--"
"It is done." The thing coiled down again, curling up, and I saw something like jaws open--or less like jaws and more like a door, or a sinkhole--and the creature devoured itself in one great bite after another until nothing remained on the counter but a reddish-brown smear that might have been a cricket squashed in a drop of blood.
Tyana grabbed me, hugged me, pressed her face against my chest. "Len, that was amazing, I had no idea you had that kind of power, you have to teach me--"
"Tommy Rift?" I knew the name. He was the guitarist in a halfway famous local band, Murmurus, that had recently gone on tour and opened for a couple of acts the average person might have actually heard of. Murmurus played a sort of watered-down, more palatable derivative of black metal, and Rift in particular had the kind of sleepy-eyed charisma and stage presence you saw in real rock stars.
She tilted her head back and looked up at me, beaming. "I have worshipped him forever, since he started playing with International Hemorrhage, I saw him first when I was fifteen, when I snuck into this club--"
Tyana went on in that vein, and I wanted to step out of her embrace, but then again, I didn't ever want to stop holding her, so I didn't move. I did interrupt, though. "I thought... you know, what you said about opposing the creator..."
"Oh, that's still my plan." Now she did pull away, peering at the smear on the counter with eyes wide and shining. "But Tommy's going to help me. Have you ever listened to his lyrics, I mean really listened? He feels the same way I do, the world's a mansion that needs to be burned up, a rotten tree that needs to be chopped down. I wonder how it's going to happen? Will he come find me, or should I try to find him, or...."
While she was speculating, I slipped quietly out of the apartment, and she didn't even notice me go.
"Did you bring the book back?" the librarian asked. He was sitting on the pallet this time, swinging his legs. He didn't wear shoes; his feet were wrapped in filth-blackened crusty rags.
"No, I didn't bring it back. It turned into a monster, and then the book just disappeared--"
"Well, yeah, if you used it up, it's gone."
"So... my sense of smell..."
"That's ours, now, of course. You'll never get it back. That's what collateral means."
"What do you even want with my sense of smell? What good is it?"
He shrugged. "It's complicated. You're not all that stupid, but you're too stupid to understand. Do you want another book?"
"The last one didn't help me. I gave it to the girl I like--"
"That you love," he interrupted.
I ignored him. "And she used it to make another guy fall in love with her."
"You should have gone for a love spell. It's not too late, though if she put a love compulsion on someone else, he's not going to go away. I hope you like guy-guy-girl threesomes--"
"I want a book that I can kill someone with," I said.
"What, you mean like a really heavy book, that you could hit a guy over the head with?" He grinned. "Nah, I'm just fucking with you. I've got just the thing. It eats tears--and blood, but the tears are actually essential. I bet you can come up with a few of those."
"What's it going to cost me?"
"Nothing, if you come to your senses--the ones you have left, ha--and bring the book back unused. But just in case, for collateral... I'll take your color vision."
Tyana wore nothing but black, and her skin was pale, and her hair was so blonde it was white, practically, so what did I care if I never saw colors again? "Fine."
He gave me a book, slender as a poetry chapbook by an adjunct professor of English lit, and the color drained from the world, turning everything into blacks and whites and oh so many shadows.
In my bedroom, while my housemates played video games and pounded beers and hooted and howled in the living room, I let myself feel--really feel--and wept onto the book open in my lap.
It drank my tears with its dry bone-white pages. I put the book down on my rug, then cut my unwounded hand with a paring knife, and my blood--the color of chocolate syrup to me now--dribbled on the pages.
The book slammed shut, rippled and bulged, and became a hideous sort of oblong spheroid, bulging like an egg sac. The sac split open with a hiss, and something crawled out: a mouse-sized almost-human form, naked and gray (of course gray, for all I knew it was bright purple or neon pink), its limbs and face rudimentary, eyeless, with a gaping black mouth. "Name," it said, voice dull and toneless.
I almost said my own name. I almost said Tyana's.
"Thomas Ellison Rift," I said, and the thing sprinted away to my cracked-open window, slithering through the gap at the bottom, and vanished. The egg sac shrank into itself and became something like a dried-up ancient banana peel. It didn't seem inclined to vanish any more thoroughly. I thought about taking the husk back to the alley library, trying to get my color sight back, but that thing wasn't a book anymore--it was all used-up, and I suspected it stank. I wrapped it up in a plastic bag and sent it down the trash chute in the hallway. Then I sat down on the couch with my housemates and started drinking my mind away.
I dreamed of Tyana falling into my arms, weeping, and of me comforting her, and then we were in a garden of roses, hand-in-hand--but I couldn't smell the roses, and everything in the dream, even the flowers, was in black-and-white.
I slept in, and went blearily into the kitchen. It was my day off from Golden Tomorrow. My housemate Danny, the least objectionable of the three, was in his boxers looking at his tablet and eating a bowl of cereal. "Dude," he said. "Don't you know this girl?"
He pushed the tablet across the counter, and I read the top story on a local news website.
I hurried to the bathroom, and puked, and dressed, and went to the alley library.
"She's dead." I kicked the stack of pallets, making it shake. The librarian raised his eyebrow at me. "Tyana. She killed Tommy Rift, the police say she 'lured him' to her apartment, and she tried to do some kind of Satanic ritual, there were chalk marks on the floor and weird symbols and all that. He screamed when she started cutting on him, and her neighbors called the cops. They burst in, and she went at them with a knife, the same knife she used to cut off Rift's fingers and take out his heart, so they fired on her, shot her down, she's dead--"
"So you didn't bring the book back, then," the librarian said. "Guess next time somebody asks your favorite color you'll really have to rack your brain over the answer."
I clenched my fists, but that hurt, because they were both slashed and bandaged. "Did you know this would happen?"
He chuckled. "Did I know? Of course not. I'm not all-knowing and all-seeing--that's not really my thing. But I knew something would happen, sure. Something always does."
I closed my eyes. I couldn't look at him when I asked my next question. "Are you the Devil?"
"I wouldn't say that. I might say... 'The loyal opposition.'"
I opened my eyes again, and all the fight drained out of me, like I was a boil that had been lanced. "Why? She wanted to help you, or something like you, Tyana wanted to do evil, she would have worked for you--"
"Idiot," the librarian said. "She did."
I have never been a very creative person, or a quick thinker. I know that. I know my limitations. But inspiration struck me then--maybe a gift from somewhere above, from the opposition of the opposition, or so I thought at the time. "You said you have to help me find the right book, yeah? You said that's your job?"
"One of my jobs, sure. You're ready to try again? I've got a book here that will let you raise the dead. You've never read a story called 'The Monkey's Paw,' have you?"
"Is there a book," I said, "that will let me kill you?"
That surprised him. He leaned back, whistled, shook his head, and took off his cap. I half-expected there to be horns on his head, but there weren't--horns would have been too easy. I could have prepared myself for horns. He ran his fingers through what he had instead of hair, then, thankfully, put the cap back on. "You don't want to go that way, friend. What's the point in killing me? Besides, the collateral is a bitch."
"I want it. I don't care what it costs. You're done."
He reached down on his side of the pallets and lifted up a book, thick as the Complete Works of some obsessively prolific author, and thumped it down on the counter. "Bad plan. You could still move on. You've got four senses left--okay, three-and-a-half, since your vision isn't great anymore--and you've got your sanity, and your whole life ahead of you, and--"
"You made me miserable," I said. "Took away the only thing I had to live for. You used me. I'm going to oppose you. Give me the book."
"Don't you want to know what it costs?"
"I don't care. I don't even care if I live or die."
He rolled his eyes. "The price is your free will. Do you hear what I'm saying to you? That's the collateral."
I'd been making all my own decisions since I'd moved out of my parents' house at eighteen, and all I had to show for it was fuckups and heartbreak. "My free will hasn't done me much good so far. As long as I get to kill you first--"
"This one just eats blood." He shoved the book at me. "But it takes a lot of blood, buddy, a lot--"
I opened the book right there on the pallet. I felt oddly estranged from myself, as if watching my actions from afar, but I approved of everything I was doing. I tore the bandages off my hands, and bit into the tender flesh, and let blood stream from both hands onto the book, staring into the librarian's eyes the whole time.
The book turned into a hole. Not a hole in the pallets, or the ground. A hole in the air. The librarian tried to back away, real fear in his face, but tendrils of darkness from the hole reached out and wrapped around him
And then he just unraveled, his skin stripped away like he was an apple being peeled in a single continuous spiral. After his flesh was spun away, his muscles followed, and his nerves, and his guts, and after what might have been seconds or minutes or hours the last shreds of him disappeared into the darkness, and the hole swallowed itself.
I stood swaying in the dim alley under those cold blue stars--white to my eyes, now, just like any stars in any sky. I wanted to leave, to run, to scream in triumph or despair or both, but my body no longer recognized my authority. The lines of volition had been severed, and I was unstrung.
After a time--a long time, or no time, it was all the same big empty to me--someone stepped into the alley, an older woman in a fine dark coat, wide-eyed, her expression caught halfway between wonder- and horror-struck.
My mouth and tongue moved without bothering to ask my brain for permission. "Most people can't even see this place," I heard myself say. "They just walk right by."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 22nd, 2014

Author Comments

I mostly prefer to let my fiction speak for itself, but I will say this one was inspired by many encounters with those little free library boxes people put up outside their houses (a la "Little Free Library": http://littlefreelibrary.org/). I thought, "Wouldn't it be interesting if each of those came with its own highly specialized librarian..." and my imaginings became rather darker from there.

- Tim Pratt
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