The Librarian

The cabin slumbered beneath a moonlit blanket of snow. The dark window gave under my shoulder and the first two died together in bed, throats pulled to ribbons before the broken glass settled. The blood’s black humidity hung in the frigid air, inflaming a hunger that bordered on lust, but the indulgence had to wait –another heart was beating nearby. I broke through the bedroom door into a space filled with burnished light.

The woman was silhouetted against the fireplace. Her stance was expectant, the grip on her fire poker relaxed but steady: a stoic, ready to fight for her life. I grinned and flexed a blood-slick claw in mockery of her club.

“Put that down,” she said. “I know what you are.”

My glee evaporated. Cold air from the bedroom window curled around my shoulders. I lowered my arm.

“Remember where you came from,” she said. “There was a life before this.” I heard regret and sadness in her voice, but no fear. Panic crawled up my spine. She was supposed to scream, not… talk to me.

“Remember. Please. There are instincts other than hunger to be served.”

To be spoken to like that, as though I was a real person! Terrified by the sudden sense of exposure, I vaulted across the room, and before she could swing the poker I clawed her from brow to collarbone. A mist of blood stung my eyes and the poker clattered away as she fell. She stared up at me, her remaining eye serene while her life pooled around my feet and scorched on the hearthstone. Only when she died was I able to look away.

I devoured the couple where they lay, but the pleasure was gone, the flesh flavourless. I left the woman alone.

When I woke the next day, the hotel room felt cavernous and somehow menacing. I checked out and hurried down to the highway. The leaden sky began to spit snow as I stood with my thumb out. The heavy flakes brushed against my hair, whispering like the crackle and hiss of flames. The stink of burned blood hung in the air like a ghost. I hadn’t eaten her, but she had still poisoned me.

It’s been seven years since I came back to the world, and just as long since I last killed anyone. In that time I’ve built a life: a home, a career, friendships. But I still want to kill and eat people. The urge never leaves. Strangers or friends, it doesn’t matter — all it takes is the right cadence of heartbeats or the scent of frightened sweat and the desire comes over me in a black wave.

I can sense the biological and emotional condition of anything with a beating heart. Animals emit waves of primary colours and simple textures, like children’s toys. With humans, the pulses are stronger and subtler. The patterns are complicated, often chaotic. The effect is manageable in small doses, but dangerous in places where people gather. Crowds become kaleidoscopes of nightmarish geometry and noise. Bombarded on sidewalks or clangourous restaurants, darkness flickers in the periphery like the aura that comes before a migraine. It teases, beckons, begs for permission to flood back into my life and drown everything.

I have ways to cope.

Twice monthly I drive through the Fraser Valley’s twilight and up the mountain roads of Manning Park. On those nights I hunt deer, and although the chase lacks the tang of danger that comes from the pursuit of human prey, the kill and the blood are enough to satiate me for another few weeks.

On its own, such thin satisfaction might not keep the desire at bay, but I have another source of relief. I’m a librarian.

My desk at the Vancouver Public Library sits near the main entrance, which means thousands of people pass within feet of me every day. I arrived on my first day with a purse full of painkillers and anti-anxiety medication. I was certain that without pharmaceutical assistance the crowd would overwhelm me, but by the end of the day I knew what it meant to be surrounded by peaceful, focussed humans.

Library patrons thrive on each other’s silence. They come to work, not socialize, and the energy of their studious communion cascades from them in sinuous blue-green waves. The whole building vibrates with a sub-audible harmonic that pushes the urge to kill away. It’s better than Ativan, better than sleep.

I self-medicate in this way because I am a civilized woman, and if that notion sometimes makes my skin crawl, another night in the mountains is never far away. Human or deer, a kill is a kill, and when my arms are soaked red from claws to elbows, it’s almost possible to forget I’m compromising.

I was bitten while on a family camping trip. I remember firelight, black fur, teeth. When I awoke, my body and mind were changed. I was aware of only two things: my attacker had devoured much of my family before leaving, and now I was ravenous in a way that redefined my understanding of the word. Part of me grieved, though, and I fled, saving my family the indignity of being eaten by their daughter.

Years later, I would search the library’s archives and find a brief mention of the attack in the Ottawa Citizen. Authorities blamed the tragedy on a rabid bear. The deceased were David and Audry LaPierre and their 13-year-old son Nathan. Their 15-year-old daughter Alexis was missing, but large amounts of her blood had been found at the scene, and she was presumed dead.

Close enough.

The library has always been a safe place for me, but I was recently surprised at my desk by the sudden certainty that something in my immediate area was wrong. The sensation was so unexpected and so intense that it triggered the involuntary onset of the change. Fur began to grow beneath my nylons, prickling my calves with tiny needles. I pushed the change back with a controlled exhalation and looked around.

The source of this profound wrongness was a man in his 40s. Outwardly he was calm, but his heart was racing and an orange cloud with an unsettling pink border surrounded him. He was walking towards the exit, holding the wrist of a little boy. The child was four or five and he was terrified — only the innate trust the very young have in adults kept him from crying.

As I looked from one to the other, the reason for my alarm slid into focus. A shriek built silently in my throat, flooded my mouth with saliva. The two were biologically unrelated, and the pink glow beneath the man’s agitation was lust. I wanted to climb over my desk and tear him open from sternum to navel with claws that were already pressing against the insides of my fingertips. I took another breath and stood up.

“Oh you found him!” I heard myself say. The man’s gaze snapped from the exit to me, and magenta polygons of fear spun out of him. “Thank you! His mother will be so relieved.” I stepped around the desk, amazed at my composure.

When the boy saw me, the ballast of his trust shifted, dragging him away from the strange man and towards the woman who had just said “mother”, the most sacred word a frightened child can hear. His face crumpled into tears.

The man and I stared at each other, and after an endless moment he released the child’s wrist. The boy ran to me, ignored my outstretched hand and clung to my leg, his tear-streaked face jammed against my hip. Would the man run? If he did, could I stop myself from chasing him? I curled my toes inside shoes that suddenly felt too small. The library’s tranquil hum seemed very far away.

“Thank you,” I said again. “What’s your name?”

“Rick,” he said. He sounded relaxed in spite of the jagged thundercloud swirling around him. “Glad I could help. I guess he wandered away from his mom. They sure get around on those little legs!” He chuckled, and in my head I pulled out his tongue and ate it. “He was by the elevator on the third floor. I didn’t see anyone around and he seemed pretty upset, so I brought him down here to you.” He flashed a smile. “You got him? I have to run.”

My face burned. I wanted to drag him down to the utility corridors and wash the sensation off my skin with his arterial spray. But standing there with a scared boy clutching my skirt and the weight of my human life pressing down on me, I was powerless.

“Yes, Rick,” I said. “I’ve got him.” And I let the man walk away.

During those first weeks in the wilderness, instincts surfaced in me like obelisks rising from black water: how to tell bad water from fresh, how to kill quickly and silently, how to run on all fours for greater stability. I would hunt deer or hare in the pre-dawn murk, feast beneath a blushing gold sunrise, and then sleep through the day. I didn’t grieve for my family any longer, nor did I think of my old life. For a while I was content.

Animals live moment-to-moment in an ever-changing present, while my life was still made of discrete moments. My memories were hazy but my thoughts were still lucid. I was bent by the change but sentient, and I began to feel the same-ness of each day as a disappointment. As the weeks turned into months, I grew restless.

The first human I killed was a lone pilot refuelling his Cessna on a tiny airstrip east of Balkam Lake. I simply came out of the dusk and attacked from behind.

I was expecting his scream, but I wasn’t expecting the colours. Fear exploded out of him in a vivid yellow-gold flare shot with streaks of maroon, baking into me with the ferocity of a supernova. I staggered back, my claws pulling shreds of his clothing away from the ragged wounds in his back.

He fell against the wing strut, struggled to turn around. When he saw me, the change in him was like classical music shifting from the strident repeating notes of major key into the ominous profundity of a minor, beautiful and deadly. Intoxicated, I fell on him, and was changed anew.

The boy’s name was Gabe. He calmed once he heard my voice on the public address system, summoning his mother. While we waited for her to arrive, I stared at the phantasmal mark the man had left on his wrist: an inky orange band that saturated his skin, throbbing like an infection in the library’s placid gloom.

Gabe’s mother arrived, buzzing with relief. She scolded him and blessed me in the same breath, mindlessly running her hands over the boy’s arm in an instinctive effort to eradicate the invisible mark on his wrist. I accepted her thanks and even waved when they left, but the gesture was a reflex. I was glad I had saved the boy, but darker impulses were calling my attention elsewhere.

I was pulling books and DVDs out of the return bins when Janice peered over the counter and glared at the mess I was making on the floor. “What’s up, Lex? Lose your Anaïs Nin special order?”

Janice works in the administration office. Around her I feel like one of the girls, which is important to someone with such a fragile grasp on being human, let alone the inscrutable dynamics of friendship. Even in my present state, I was happy to see her.

“Some idiot thinks he used a paycheque to mark a page in something he returned this morning,” I said. “Somehow I wound up looking for it.”

Janice snorted. “A cheque? Who does that? Why not use your car insurance or the deed to your house?” Then she brightened. “Hey, when you find it, make him sign half of it over to you. Finder’s fee! You can buy me lunch at The Naam.”

Janice is always dragging me to vegetarian restaurants. I humour her, and then stop at a butcher shop on my way home. “No,” I said, “I’ll get us a table at that rib place on Commercial.” I dug through another bin. “And you’re buying. You owe me after I got sick at The Foundation.”

She clucked her tongue. “I’ll make an herbivore out of you yet, Lex.” Then she was gone, taking her caffeinated aura with her. That was Janice. I hardly ever felt like killing her.

I was still smiling when I found what I was looking for. I pulled the pocket-sized book out of the pile. “Ski & Snowboard Guide to Whistler Blackcomb”. A rancid orange handprint obscured the skier on the cover. “Hello, Rick,” I murmured. “Nice to see you again.”

But Rick turned out to be as insubstantial as the handprint he left behind. The book’s loan history identified its last borrower as “Martin”, not Rick — Martin Lang. The account was a year old. He had checked out an assortment of detective paperbacks, a pictorial study of Vancouver architectural trends and a few books about skiing. There was a late fee for the architecture book, which he had paid. At the top of the screen were an address and a phone number. Could this really be the right man?

The stained cover glared up at me from my desk. I closed my eyes. Amber tendrils snaked across the darkness, putrid, oily, wrapping around an ancient and familiar shape rising from black water. Yes, this was him. My mouth suddenly felt very full of teeth.

Killing the pilot annihilated my delusions of animal nobility. I was no longer hunting solely for sustenance. People were food, but they were also a wonderful source of pleasure.

Given proper motivation, humans are capable of astounding cunning and endurance. I once stalked a man for nine hours along the shore of Lac La Ronge, breathing his fear and determination like the bouquet of an exotic wine. When he finally stood his ground, he had enough stamina left to break three of my fingers. His flesh was stringy, but I have enjoyed few meals more.

I was gone for eight years, ten months and twenty-three days. In that time I twice traversed the space between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Pacific Ocean, devouring campers, hikers, forestry workers and runaways. I don’t know how many people I’ve killed. If that seems strange, ask yourself how many cigarettes you smoked last year, or how many times you’ve masturbated. Some forms of self-indulgence aren’t quantifiable.

I had seceded from humanity, but I couldn’t maintain my isolation forever. Needled by an inexplicable desire for human contact that didn’t end in violent death, I would shed my feral form and hitchhike along the Trans-Canada Highway, gravitating to the nearest city.

These pilgrimages were always novel at first. Despite my separation from the world of people, I blended in — another hollow-eyed young woman with a donation-bin wardrobe no particular place to be. By day I wandered, transfixed and over-stimulated by the prismatic textures flowing from the city and its people. At night I ate transients, prostitutes or security guards, then slept in dingy motel rooms paid for with money taken from their bodies.

This would last a week or two, and then one morning I would wake choking on panic and loathing. The subsequent flight from the city — half-naked sprints across municipal golf courses and forest-edged subdivisions — was always punctuated with oaths to never return.

Months would pass, sometimes as much as a year, before the desire found me again, but it always did — a distant voice echoing among the trees, calling for a girl who went camping with her family and never came back.

I spent my lunch break investigating Lang’s address, which turned out to be an Indian grocery with an accountant’s office above it. I circled the block, hoping that I had misread the number or missed a stairway to an apartment in the rear, but in the end I had to admit defeat.

At a red light, I looked over the account printouts. Who would answer if I dialled the phone number? A coffee shop? A realtor? I flung the papers into the passenger foot well, suddenly sweating, my back itching as fur rippled and receded under my shirt. Infuriating, to lose the trail so quickly! If I couldn’t have him, I had to get back to the library as soon as possible — back to the soothing green harmony, and that night, a trip up to Manning.

Back in the staff garage, I gathered the papers from the foot well. There was his checkout history: skiing, Lawrence Sanders novels, architecture, the late fee.

Suddenly the sweat was cold on my brow, my mind as still and sure as a knife in the sheath. He hadn’t escaped yet.

Until the woman by the fireplace, I had never been addressed rationally while I was changed. How had she seen through me? How had she been so sure, so impossibly calm in the face of death? Ultimately, it didn’t matter. The effects of the encounter were immediate. The empty ache that always called me back to the world became constant, and I lost the ability to prey on humans.

The desire remained, and each hunt held the same elation, but in the moment between kill and consumption, every person, male or female, became that woman. Eyes bulging with terror would soften and fix on me. Blood-speckled lips would curve into a sad smile. I would feel a cold wind at my back, smell woodsmoke. The memory of her words would slip between my ribs like a stiletto.

My forest years ended in Lytton, with the biker in the woodshed. He whimpered at my feet, but I couldn’t find a reason to kill him. He was alive and I was hungry. If I killed him, he would be dead and I would still be hungry. Part of me wanted to do it anyway — his shaved skull was so white against my dark claws — but I couldn’t face the woman again. In the end I splintered a few of his bones, leaving him immobilized but alive, and bought a Greyhound ticket with the cash from his wallet. Twelve hours later I was in Vancouver.

Suddenly I had a rent-by-the-week room, an alarm clock and a job washing dishes. Responsibilities, unending human contact. These were human things, stifling in their tedium, but they were somehow better than facing another impotent hunt. I hated the formerly mesmerizing psychic onslaught of the crowded city streets, but I kept waking in peace, surprised at the calm I felt, amazed at how unlike my wandering hotel stays this was. I had traded the isolation of the wilderness for a hiding place among millions of faces.

The hollow feeling was gone. After nearly nine years, Alexis LaPierre had returned from the dead.

“It was right at the front. He’s lucky it didn’t fall out.” I tapped the book on Janice’s desk. The ghostly handprint was still there.

“He’s lucky you don’t just tear it up,” she said. “So what’s this about his name?”

“The name on his account here is ‘Martin Lang’, but the cheque is made out to ‘Martin Lange’, with an ‘e’. I know I’m being paranoid, but I’d like to make sure I’m not giving this cheque to a scammer. His account says he used a Visa to pay a fine in November. Can you get the card number from the transaction? I want to call him back, see if he can confirm it and prove he is who he says he is.”

She grinned. “Lex, amateur detective. Sure, I can look that up. What’s his account number?”

I gave it to her and she typed and hummed to herself. After a moment she scribbled a string of numbers on a slip of paper and slid it across the desk.

“That’s it,” she said, and then glanced over my shoulder. “Just get him to confirm the last eight digits. We’re not supposed to keep the whole card number on file. Our payment processor would crucify us.”

I felt a twinge of guilt. The ability to trust others had been one of the hardest traits to re-learn, and I hated to abuse it, especially with one of my few friends. I tucked the paper into the book and drew a cross over my heart. “Thanks, Janice. Friday. Lunch at The Naam, my treat.”

I was halfway out the door when she stopped me. “This is weird.” She squinted at her screen. “The name on the account is ‘Martin Lang’, no ‘e’, just like you said, but the name on the Visa we charged is ‘David Schroeder’.”

The sound of a branch breaking.

She tapped the screen and looked up at me. “Lex, make sure this guy’s the real deal. If he’s screwing us, I’ll kill him.”

I forced a smile. “Don’t worry, Janice,” I said. “I’ve got him.”

Home. I slipped off my heels and took a long drink in the kitchen, stretching my sore feet on the cool tiles. My nylons had ten parallel runs, five on each foot where my toes had briefly grown claws that morning. I stripped them off and threw them in the trash.

David Schroeder had an account with the third mobile phone company I called. The agent, bullied into submission by my “furious wife in mid-divorce” routine, gave me what I was looking for: his billing address and landline phone number. When I heard the address I bit my lip: it was different than the one I had visited earlier that day.

When I looked it up online, the map’s satellite view showed an apartment complex in the west end of the city, near the planetarium. Heart beating hard, I reached for the phone, then stopped, turned back to my laptop and opened Skype. I didn’t want my number in his phone records.

It rang three times, and when a male voice answered with a cautious “Hello?” I hit the quit shortcut so hard I snapped the Q key off the keyboard. That one word was all I needed — it had oozed out of the laptop speakers in an orange spurt. It’s him, it’s him, go get him, he’s yours, go get him –

“No”, I said aloud. “Wait.”

There are instincts other than hunger to be served, the woman had said. I had spent seven years serving those other instincts at the expense of the most fundamental and destructive desire I had: kill people and eat them. Now I was risking everything I had gained through that effort — friends, home and career — for the sake of an indulgence. That’s all Schroeder was, really. An obscene indulgence after a seven-year diet.

I leaned back in my chair and looked around. Earth-toned walls, warm low lights, big shapeless furniture designed to be slouched into or curled up on. There were skirt suits in the closet and steaks in the freezer. Comfortable, yes, but also boring. Safe. Was it worth risking?

A better person might have suffered a moral crisis, or at least wrestled with the philosophical implications. Not me. In the end, it wasn’t a rational human who decided, it was a hungry animal.

I applied mahogany hair dye, showered, dried, dressed in a loose burgundy sweater and long black cotton skirt. No underwear, no bra. Two lacquered pins held my gathered hair in a bun. I left my jewelry and glasses on the dresser. Bare feet in black flats, houndstooth overcoat. I wondered if this was what it was like to dress up for a date.

I ate three tins of tuna, swallowed four ibuprofens and drank deeply from the kitchen tap. My body would need protein and hydration to help the change, and the pills would take effect in time to minimize the post-change aches.

The Tourism Vancouver Visitors’ Center on Burrard Street was closed, but the vestibule was still accessible, and I grabbed a handful of brochures from the racks. A few blocks south at Staples, I bought a clipboard, a marker and a package of HI MY NAME IS: stickers. I smiled at the clerk and paid with cash.

The sun was setting when I pulled into the planetarium parking lot, the spring breeze cool against my ankles as I walked to Schroeder’s building. His name was on the list by the door buzzer, next to the number 404. I pressed another button at random and told the answering voice that I was from 307 and had locked myself out. The door buzzed and I shouldered through.

In the elevator I wrote “Erica” on a name sticker and stuck it to my coat, then filled my clipboard with Grouse Mountain ski brochures. When the elevator doors opened I stepped into a forest.

The hall floor was earth, packed flat down the center and strewn with twigs and bracken along the edges. Gnarled fir branches sprouted from the striped salmon wallpaper and obscured the ceiling, but shafts of cold blue light filtered through. I could see my breath. Heavy green fronds brushed against my skirt as the elevator slid closed behind me.

I followed my pluming breath past apartment doorways framed by bearded moss. Each step brought me more clarity and focus, until I stood in front of 404 with a mind as singular and sharp as it had been when I first awoke in that bloody campsite. The change was pricking at my skin and twisting my muscles. I reached out with an arm that felt full of taut steel cables and knocked.

When Schroeder opened the door, the branches and earth vanished, and we were alone in an unremarkable hallway. The anxious orange plague-cloud still clung to him. The apartment behind him was a field of shadows scored by lines of sunset sky burning through closed blinds.

“Mr. Schroeder?” I said. “I’m from the Grouse Mountain Prize Patrol. You’re a winner!”

He glanced at the clipboard and the nametag, and then looked up at me. “I don’t enter contests,” he said. His voice was a flat grey bar compared to the chipper façade he’d put up that morning. “Fuck off.”

He started to close the door and I stepped forward to hold it open, still smiling but desperate now. “Oh, it’s not a contest,” I said. “It’s a draw we did for this year’s season pass holders. You’re one of five people chosen to receive free lift tickets for next season.” I had no idea if he actually had a pass for Grouse Mountain. I hadn’t expected him to balk like this, and now he was going to shut me out, and I was going to change right here in the hallway, on the wrong side of a locked door.

Instead he produced a wooden baseball bat from behind the door. His shoulders and head bristled with red stalagmites. “I don’t give my address out,” he snarled. “I don’t know who you are, but I won’t say it again: fuck off.” He poked the bat at me, sending crimson darts through my clipboard and coat.

I knew then what I had been craving for so long: the sensory high of human opposition. I needed to feel fear and aggression from something sapient, something capable of presenting a real threat. For years I had been living as a ghost, trying to avoid this exact experience. Now that I had sought it out, there was no denying the familiar impulses it triggered. I didn’t need a muzzle or claws for Schroeder to fear me. His emotional and biological reactions poured through me like blood revitalizing desiccated veins. The change was unstoppable now, twisting my extremities and flowing inward.

I took the bat from him as easily as plucking a flower and crushed his nose with the butt of the grip. He stumbled back, twin streamers of blood unfurling from his nostrils, and I stepped in after him. The hand that closed the door behind me was elongated and dark with coarse hair.

I kicked off my shoes before my feet grew too long, pulled off my sweater, stepped out of my skirt. He was shouting, hands cupped under his gushing nose, but when he saw what was happening to me, he froze. His aura turned piss-yellow. There was no noise except for my laboured breathing and the pop and creak of my bones. I had never changed in front of anyone before, and I took pleasure in showing him what I was. His increasing terror and confusion were gasoline on the fire. He stared at my contorting form while the blood poured from his face, turning his shirt the same colour his aura had been only moments before. When I pulled the pins out of my tangled mane, his paralysis broke and he tried to run. He made it three steps before I was on him, knocking him into the couch.

His hands scrabbled at my shoulders as I pressed down on him, into him, claws twisting and searching for purchase in the slick heat. One of his hands fluttered against my muzzle and I absently bit off two fingers. He tried to scream, but his breath stuttered out in a blood-fogged croak as his ribs collapsed under my weight. He squirmed for a moment, then quieted.

I sat back on my haunches and stared, daring the woman by the fireplace to emerge. His eyes were huge and bright, and they remained the eyes of my prey even after their light faded and I began to eat.

Alexis LaPierre has been gone for six days now. When I’m not hungry any more, I will go and look for her.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.