Last week, I spotted a chilling headline hidden in my community newspaper. It was nested deep within its pages, between an article on tree pollination and a call for submissions on plumbing services – the kind of mind-numbingly boring stuff people tend to skip over. Normally, I would have missed it, but my bus was stuck in a nasty traffic jam, and the paper was my only means of distraction. That’s why the eerie headline caught my attention. It read:
The Human Library – This Weekend Only!
The words Human Library stuck out like a rusted nail in a children’s playground, evoking a feeling of paranoid dread. I envisioned a mad scientist showing off his unethical collection of partially-dissected human remains. Perhaps some of his victims were still alive, unable to move or speak, but were screaming for help on the inside. The horrible thought sent a shiver down my spine. However, when I read the description accompanying the headline, I realized the event wasn’t quite as sinister as its name suggested. The Human Library was a pilot project run by the local library where regular people from various professions were invited to sit down and answer questions. Think of it as a career fair, without the recruitment aspect. You could essentially “borrow” a human to learn about their life. It was an intriguing idea, and I figured it’d be the perfect activity to do with my kid sister.
When Saturday morning came, my little sister ran excitedly into my room to wake me. She was already dressed and ready to go, whipping her library card back and forth while squealing something in a tone so high pitch I couldn’t make out the words. I replied by throwing my pillow at her face and rolling over to doze off. Unfortunately, I left myself open for retaliation. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I should have known better than to give my only weapon to a hyperactive seven-year-old. The one-sided pillow fight that ensued would have given PTSD to even the toughest of men.
When we arrived at the library, we followed the signage to a large conference room at the back of the building. A bunch of families were already roaming about, speaking to the different guests. None was busier than the table in the far corner, which, as far as I could see, featured a firefighter. He wasn’t wearing the full uniform: just a shirt with a logo on it. It would have been unreasonable to expect him to wear the undoubtedly hot get-up all day long. Judging by the flock of children fawning over his every word, and single mothers gawking at his stupidly muscular body, I could tell his choice of attire hadn’t negatively impacted him whatsoever.
My sister, who was dressed as Princess Anna because kids have absolutely no shame wearing costumes in public even if it isn’t Halloween, tugged on my shirt, and pointed to the firefighter. Typical, I thought. Firefighters and other “heroes” were like catnip for kids.
“Y’know, big brother is so much cooler than that guy,” I told my sis, as I tried to steer her towards another guest.
She snickered and nudged me playfully, “You’re so jelly you’ve got peanut butter belly! Jelly-jelly-peanut butter belly!”
“You make a good point,” I relented, unable to come up with a proper comeback to the amazing burn she’d dished out.
If she wanted to be like every other stereotypical kid, then so be it. I, however, had no intention of being the only guy standing in a crowd of kids and moms. It would have been awkward and creepy, so I explored the other tables while she had her fun.
Having never been particularly comfortable around large groups, I gravitated towards the only unoccupied table. Behind it stood a large, burly man wearing a stained beige apron. His arms were crossed high above his chest, feeding the already hostile energy emanating from him. Strong, callused fingers scratched at his bearded chin. When he looked at me, he seemed to sneer at my admittedly inferior form. I felt my throat tighten, my muscles tense, and my head retreat towards my shoulders.
“S-so,” I started, my voice crackling. “…W-what do you do?”
The man shifted his weight, then leaned forward, slamming his massive hands against the table firmly.
“I’m a butcher,” he replied, his tone sharp and authoritative.
Even when leaning, the man towered over me like a Neanderthal warrior. I could feel sweat collecting on my forehead, like dew on a dandelion. Compared to him, I was probably just as frail as one, too.
“Uhn … what … what do you like about your job?” I questioned uncomfortably.
He smirked lightly, barely giving the question any thought.
“Watching the animals take their final breaths.”
The twisted gleam of enjoyment in his eyes made me shiver uncontrollably.
“O-oh,” I said.
“Especially the calves,” he continued, though I wish he hadn’t. “It’s almost as though they know what’s going to happen to them. Their fear makes them even more tender and juicy,” he answered, still smirking deviously.
Meanwhile, I could hear the kids around the firefighter screaming, “ME! ME! ME!” excitedly. At least they were having fun.
I regretted not sticking with my sister. It would have spared me from being forced to listen to what was undeniably a serial killer masquerading as a butcher. Our conversation continued, growing ever more disturbing by the moment. He described, in horrid detail, the slithering sound of guts being pulled and the weight of cow intestines in his hands. He said “cow,” but we both knew he meant his countless human victims. He gesticulated how he cut them open and carved their meat, inhaling deeply as he smelled their fresh organs. He was so into it, that I could even see his pupils dilate and sweat form on his brow. I needed him to stop: I didn’t want to hear this killer’s confessions.
Taking a step back, I hesitantly mumbled, “Ri-right, I uh. I ought to get going.”
As I was about to walk away, he gripped my shoulder tightly. With barely any effort, he twisted me around so he could look me in the eyes. His breath reeked of week-old sausages and beer.
His bushy eyebrows twisted downwards as he gazed at me with his fierce green eyes.
“Here,” he said, slipping something into my jacket pocket.
Oh god, I thought. What had he given me? A human bone? An eye? A photo of his next victim? I was too scared to check. Too afraid that he would drag me out to his meat locker and gut me like he’d done with his other “cows.” I forced a nervous smile, bowed my head respectfully, and mumbled a meek “Thank you,” as I headed towards the other end of the room.
It was then that I noticed the firefighter – and his crowd of eager followers – were gone. I kicked myself for not checking on my sister sooner, but I figured she’d dispersed with the other kids and was stalking another guest. Hopefully she hadn’t found her way to the butcher. I did not want to deal with the tantrum she’d have if she found out what happened to Bo Peep’s sheep. Thankfully, she wasn’t anywhere near him. After a quick scan of the area failed to produce her, I got a little worried.
I walked to the main desk and approached the librarian in charge, giving her a half-hearted wave, “You seen a kid wearing a Frozen dress walk by here, by any chance?” I asked her.
She shook her head, but calmly smiled.
“I bet she’s in the play area. Follow me,” she answered.
She brought me to an open space full of toys, puzzles, and excited kids. I couldn’t see my sister among the group. Hoping one of them had seen her, I knelt down and tried to get their attention.
“Have any of you seen Princess Anna walking around?” I asked.
A boy playing with building blocks smiled and pointed towards the back door.
“She got to ride with the firefighter!” he answered.
I let out a sigh of relief. Of course she’d go see the fire engine. What kid wouldn’t? My relief was short lived, dissipating when I noticed the librarian turning as white as a ghost.
“What firefighter?” she asked, her tone stressed.
“The one you guys invited to The Human Library,” I answered.
I’m not even sure if I heard her reply, or if the look on her face conveyed the message for me. One way or another, I received the message loud and clear: There hadn’t been a firefighter there that day.
Stomach twisting in knots, I bolted towards the door as quickly as my feet could take me, screaming my sister’s name at the top of my lungs. I could hear the librarian and nearby parents gasping. Everything became a blur as I ran into the street, eyes darting back and forth for any clue as to her whereabouts. One of her shoes was lying outside an alley. In an instant, I turned into an adrenaline-fueled Superman, flying towards that alley and ripping through any obstacle in my way.
“LEGGO!!!” I heard my sister scream.
I could see her in the distance, my vision tunneling around her. She was feisty for a little kid, putting up an impressive fight against whoever was dragging her towards the opposite end. My chest was burning with pain, but I ignored it. I had to save my sister.
“YOU LET HER GO, YOU BASTARD!” I shouted.
The next few moments were disjointed and out of focus, as though I was watching a low-quality movie spliced together at random. I heard tires shrieking, I saw my sister fall to the ground, and I noticed the general shape of a car speeding down the road. My momentum brought me staggering past my sister and into the street. I spun on my heels, picked her up, and checked her over while she sobbed loudly. I’d never felt so relieved in my life.
“Heeeeey kiddo, it’s okay. It’s okay. I’ve got ya,” I whispered, petting her head.
She was trying to say something, but I couldn’t understand a word of it through her cries. She seemed awfully upset, but I couldn’t blame her for it. She’d been through a lot.
We headed back towards the library. As I walked, I felt something poking into my side. I realized it was the thing the butcher had given me earlier. I reached into my pocket and pulled it out, emitting an inappropriate laugh. It was a 15% off coupon for a butcher shop in town. I laughed so hard that tears fell from my eyes. After regaining my composure, I pocketed the card, and walked into the library.
A frantic-looking woman shuffled over, her mascara running down her cheeks.
“W-where’s Cynthia?” she asked, in panic.
My heart, which had been beating rapidly seconds before, came to a complete halt. I was so focused on getting my sister back, that I never even considered she wasn’t the only child taken. An influx of guilt at the realization made my knees buckle, and I had to prop myself against the wall to stay upright. My sister continued to cry, her earlier pleas finally sinking in. She had tried to tell me, but I foolishly failed to understand.
I stood there, the reality dawning on me and freezing me in place. The woman begged me to give her any detail – a license plate number, the make and model of the car – anything. I hadn’t even thought to check. The worst is that, as I racked my brain trying to remember, a passing image came to my mind. I had seen her. Just for a second, I had seen the other child biting the attacker, causing him to drop my sister. I’d been so caught up with helping my sis that I failed to realize it at the time. And now, I think Cynthia’s going to be part of a whole different kind of Human Library.