Ichor Falls

Study Habits

by on Nov.03, 2008, under Submitted

*ding ding* “The library will be closing in fifteen minutes.”

We call that the “nerd bell,” but it’s not derogatory. Or at least it’s only a little self-deprecating. Most students here don’t stay up until midnight… not to study, anyway. There isn’t much else to do in a small town, though, so the library stays open until 12:15 and every night, I end up reading here until the bell rings and the doors close. This common room is nice for relaxing, isn’t it? Haven’t seen you here before.

Oh, if you want to get real work done, not just chatting and reading novels, make sure you claim a spot in the building. People are creatures of habit, right, so it’s an unspoken custom here that students find spots and stick to them.

The first week of school I actually found this little study niche, framed by the government document section, that no one else uses. It isn’t near either of the computer labs, so the area doesn’t see much foot traffic, and I don’t have to worry about anyone crunching chips or listening to a Walkman set so loud the music bleeds out.

Sure, the heating vent right overhead can be a little noisy now that it’s winter, and the shelves close to both sides of this desk mean you have to squeeze by sideways to sit down, but it has a heavy, padded oak chair that’s really comfortable. I have no idea how long ago someone bothered to carry it down here, but it’s not going anywhere. (They probably stole it from the Provost’s office, anyway.)

There’s also a big oil painting of Edwin Cuthbert, from 1810, that dominates the wall right behind the chair. I guess that could be unsettling to people, since it’s about life-sized, or maybe a little larger than life. I used to think of old Cuthbert as my study partner, since he’s reading over my shoulder as I work.

The detail in the portrait is incredible, featuring Cuthbert standing on the outlook called St. Denis’ Crown, with the morning sun cutting through the mist around him, although the perspective is all wrong. The town’s eponymous falls are painted behind Cuthbert’s right, and the Stillwood is on his left. It reminds me of that “National Geographic” cover where they moved the pyramids to some other desert, but, well, in a painting. And the varnish has a bitter odor, like toasted walnuts, but late at night it’s kind of like caffeine for the nose.

There is, uh, there is one thing to keep in mind, if you want to read down there. Once you sit down at the desk, don’t, uh… this sounds silly.

Don’t look behind you.

I know, that sounds really arbitrary and strange. Laugh if you want to, but I mean it.

I was working on my translations before winter break, getting ready for the term exam. One of the worksheets listed out “imperative” forms of common verbs. “Read your book!” “Listen to your teacher!” that kind of construction. I finished the worksheet, but at the bottom of the page, there was an additional sentence written in red ink.

It translated to, you guessed it: “Do not look behind you.”

Now, this paper was something I printed out from the web, and I figured someone else from my class had scribbled this on the page before I got it from the printer. But it was still kind of odd.

And as I went to check the other worksheets to see if the red-ink-scribbler had sent any more messages, I noticed the same Greek letters were carved into the desk edge in front of me.

I swear, absolutely, I had never seen any damage to the desk at all before this. I traced out the scratches with my finger, not sure they were really there. The marks were shallow and worn, as if they had once been very deep but someone had tried to buff them out of the wood.

It was getting late. Someone was trying to play a trick on me, get me rattled before the exam the next day. The professor grades on a curve, after all. I pushed the chair back, leaned forward to get my bookbag, and stopped short.

Earlier, I had tossed my bookbag under the desk instead of under the chair. So, to grab it now, subconsciously, I had, in fact, not looked behind me. This meant I was staring forward at the underside of the desk.

There were big, long scratches there. Each made of four wide parallel gouges, and another thin mark kind of wavering alongside them. Scratched out letters:

NO T

L O OK

BEH I ND

Now I wouldn’t say I’m an incurious person. I’ll skip to the end of the mystery novel just to find out what happened, that kind of thing. But if someone tells me not to do something, say, “don’t stick a fork in the toaster,” I leave well enough alone. Same deal with people I don’t know, I don’t get involved in their problems unless I’m asked to.

Don’t look behind you.

I realized, in that moment, I don’t want to. I really don’t. I don’t have to. I already know what’s behind me. Good old Cuthbert, standing on the mountainside. Impossible view… behind him.

Don’t look behind you.

It kind of wears on you, trying not to think about something. Not to do something. I continued to pack away my study material without glancing back or down, but also not really wanting to read the huge scratches on the table any more. I couldn’t help it.

Don’t look behind you.

Don’t look behind you.

Don’t look

*ding ding* “The library will be closing in fifteen minutes.”

I placed the last of the folders in my bookbag, stood up, turned sideways to squeeze past the desk, and tried to keep my head turned away from the painting.

There was a flicker of movement in the periphery. My eyes involuntarily glanced to the side.

Don’t look behind you.

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11 comments for this entry:
  1. Kris Straub

    This is a great one. I like the stories that skirt on the edge of actual supernatural behavior, but could easily just be an overactive imagination. Plus you add in the motif of harmful sensation and you have a winner. Every time I read a story that tells me not to look behind me, I get chills. I know it’s probably one of the cheapest devices, but it works.

  2. w_nightshade

    Not “cheap” – simple and effective. Cheap like a big lungful of air is cheap. I loved this tale, well told.

  3. Kris Straub

    Forgive me, I didn’t mean cheap in the lazy way. Some things just work. They’re cheap when someone uses them wrong, but this story was done right.

  4. Dublin Jack

    My word, this was just plain wonderful. The narrator has exactly the attitude I would expect of one who’s grown up in Ichor Falls: he recognizes the supernatural, then cautiously avoids it. No need to understand, no need to confront. Everybody’s happier letting the strange be strange and staying out of its way.

    I believe what Kris means is that this story has an appropriate economy of effort. Nothing here was overdone, and nothing was underdeveloped. Bravo.

  5. Juan

    I heavily enjoyed this story but i don’t quite get the ending… was it that he looked at the picture and something happened? or was he warning us for some reason? if someone could clarify, I’d would be very grateful.

  6. xEmox

    Very good story. The character had a realistic personality and I kind of like that. But I’m also wondering about the last sentence. Is it a warning?

  7. Aazhie

    Oh man, this one is really good! I’m wondering if the person really saw anything. Also, perhaps the narrator added his own set of carving into the desk afterwards? that is just awesome.

  8. Anonymous

    This reminds me of a story that I’ve read before. Basically, it’s said that during an act of torture or rape, the victim will fall into a coma from which they can’t WAKE UP. It’s like a fantasy world and time seems to flow weird and it seems like can spend months, if not years, of time and not WAKE UP. However, their brain keeps trying to get them to WAKE UP so it sends messages to them, but sometimes they just never PLEASE WAKE UP.

    Plus, I like how the impossible landscape is like a mirror – through the looking glass, and all that.

  9. W. E. Layton

    A realistic vignette of concise proportion. I enjoyed this piece especially because I believed it; the character matches the character’s demeanor. I cheer for the character’s casual sort of acknowledgment of his surroundings; he notices what one would in his situation. I believe it is infinitely more effective to disturb an audience rather than shock them, and a simple detail such as perspective being “all wrong” in a painting speaks volumes.

    I adored your effort to hold true to the Ichor Falls mythos, well done.

  10. Halie Gibson

    Wow..i got some chills from this and im a library rat.

  11. Esperanza

    I spend all my time at the library. THis story makes me fear for my saftey. good job,bro.

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