Short Stories

at the stroke of midnight

It smelt like every other library, though it was certainly different after dark. The perfume from the books was stronger at night, sweeter and more pungent, made all the more noticeable by the lingering whiff of coffee.

Mila stumbled behind the others, torch in hand. Andrik led their little group through the shelves, all the while whispering in Tao’s ear. Tao let out a muffled laugh and Mila scoffed; her brother wasn’t that funny.

‘This is stupid, Andy.’ Mila was still every bit as confused as she had been two hours ago when her brother dragged her away from her video game.

We’re going on an adventure, he’d told her and chucked a beige backpack in her direction. Pack supplies.

She didn’t think adventure meant breaking into the town library.

Agong was a very successful suan ming back home in Taiwan,’ Tao insisted. ‘Do you know how much people pay for one of his readings? “Go to the library,” he said. “Find The Art of War. Turn chapter twelve, and, at the stroke of twelve midnight”’—Tao pulled a fold of paper from his pocket—‘”Recite this twelve times”.’

‘Maybe he was trying to tell Andy to read more,’ Mila grumbled.  Then, louder, ‘So why am I here? Third wheel?’

‘Pack horse,’ Andrik said, not bothering to look over his shoulder.

Mila’s eyes rolled so hard she felt dizzy.

It took Andrik several laps of the non-fiction section (which spoke volumes about his familiarity with a library) before he located the Sun Tzu classic. He pulled the book free with an audible crackle; the plastic cover had adhered to neighbouring tomes after years of sitting untouched. They all knelt down.

‘What’s the time?’ Andrik asked.

Mila worked her phone out of her jacket pocket. ‘11:47,’ she said.

Andrik started flicking in search of Chapter Twelve. He paused at a page left grubby with blackened smudges. ‘Chapter Twelve: Attack by Fire,’ he read. ‘Sounds ominous.’

They all exchanged a glance.

‘Well?’ Mila prompted. ‘What’s supposed to happen? You get sucked through the book and end up in Narnia?’

Obviously not, Mila,’ Andrik grunted. ‘And nothing will happen til Tao reads the script, right?’

Tao nodded.

They sat in a silent circle around the book, watching the minutes tick by on Mila’s phone. Andrik was squeezing Tao’s hand and even Mila felt anxiety swell in her chest.  The emptiness of the dark library didn’t much help the rising tension.

11:59.

12:00.

‘Alright, let’s go,’ Andrik said. He reopened the book to Chapter Twelve as Tao began to read. It was an almost religious mantra, a blend of words—Mila couldn’t distinguish where one ended and another began.

The book began to glow. Tongues of flame licked the edges of the open pages. The chant crescendoed as Andrik began to scream. Mila shielded her eyes from the strengthening light.

A flash and then darkness. Tao fell silent. He and Mila exchanged a look, their mouths agape with stolen breath.

Andrik was gone.


This was written for the Australian Writers’ Centre’s monthly Furious Fiction competition: a 500-word writing challenge to be completed in no more than 55 hours utilising the supplied prompt.

October’s criteria was to be set in a library or bookstore and include at least six of the following words: BROKEN; MUSIC; AROUND; MECHANICAL; SMELT; GRUBBY; GAME; COFFEE; BEIGE; HANDS; TWELVE; LETTERS; BACKPACK; NAMELESS; COWBOY; OPERATE; CUPID; TRAIN; PUNGENT; UNTOUCHED

(c) Jessica A. McMinn 2019
498 words

Comments and critiques are welcome and encouraged.

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