The clawed hand offers her a book. She cannot make out the title on the cover, and she knows that if she gives in, if she allows those shapes to become letters to become words to become meaning, they will have her.
"Try another," says the librarian. "We're sure you'll like this one."
"I don't even know why you want to go," her mother said. Adult fingers on the steering wheel clenched and flexed, as if there was something that couldn't be said beneath that bright, sunny statement. "Who wants to spend all summer inside reading, when you could be outside having fun? Or at camp. Do you want to sign up for the July session at the labor camp? All your friends are there."
Tamika looked away from her mother's hands to stare out the window. A number of angels were painting the front porch of a house, as an old woman offered them lemonade. Everything was perfectly ordinary and everything was wrong. "I don't have any friends here," she said.
The back of her seat thumped every time her little sister kicked it. That wasn't worth objecting to. Little sisters were there to kick seats and whine and be sticky, in the same way that mothers were there to encourage approved extracurricular activities and push their daughters towards making new friends.
"Don't be ridiculous," her mother said. "Didn't you mention some girl you found interesting? Mandy?"
"Megan," Tamika said. "She won't be at camp. Why can't I go to the library?"
"You need to get out more." The car pulled up in front of the community center. "Go swimming, Tammy. Try to be...friendly. It'll help if you're not so bossy."
"No one back home called me bossy." Tamika slid out of car, gravel crunching under her sneakers where they landed. "I was just fine there."
"Night Vale is home, sweetie." Her mother smiled. Maybe for her, maybe for the hidden watchers and the cameras. There was no way of telling anymore; every smile looked like that since what happened to Tamika's brother with the helicopters. "Have fun. I'll be back to pick you up at three."
Tamika hefted her swim bag, and turned her back so that she didn't have to watch the car drive away. Two men in uniform were ripping a poster off the wall of the center, while a woman stood nearby ready with a nozzle. The canister on her back was labeled with warning symbols.
"Keep on moving, kid," said the woman. "Don't you have somewhere else to be?"
"Nothing to be alarmed about," said one of the men. His gloved hands were stuck to the poster, gluey strands binding them to the wall. "Absolutely no reason for concern. Move right along."
Tamika flung her towel over her shoulder, and stalked past them. They couldn't see through her swim bag. They couldn't know about the paperback wrapped in a second towel, down at the bottom of the bag.
Someone is crying. She has lost track of who. She has lost time and names, sense of space and memory of light. The tang at the back of her throat might be blood or saltwater drops.
She is entirely sure that she has never read the book in that hand.
"You have to let us go," she says, slow and distinct so that the librarian will understand. "We've figured it out now. We're ready."
"Let your imagination take you away," says the librarian, "to places you've never been. Imagination gives you wings. Wouldn't you like wings, little girl?"
("Says" is the wrong word. It is not saying any such thing. The words are there in her mind to be read, and she has always been good at reading. The sounds are something else entirely.)
"Define 'wings'," she says.
When it turns away to reach for the dictionary, she is reaching for the metal bookend a second-grader sharpened for her.
Whatever the swimming pool held, it wasn't water. Tamika sat in the shade at the edge of the pool and watched things move under the surface of its contents. Bright shapes darted from one side of the pool to the other; the light shining through cast rippling shadows along the walls of the center.
A girl sat down on the ground beside her. Freckled and white, with curly brown hair pulled back fiercely into a single rabbit-tail puff. "They took my sister away this morning," the girl said, like this was the sort of conversation everyone had with strangers. "Did they take yours?"
"How did you know I have a sister?" Tamika asked.
"I looked at the school records. It's hard, since there's no paper or anything? And no computers? But I like looking at stuff like that." The girl tucked her knees up under her chin. "I'm going to be in the same homeroom as you when classes start again. My name's Jessica. That's my sister's name, too. I mean. Both of my sisters? Except now there's just the one." She scratched her nose, fingernails over freckles. "Maybe now just me. I want to be in the secret police when I grow up. What about you?"
"I want to move away from here," Tamika said. "Do you always talk like this? Just to anyone?"
"Yes," Jessica said. "My father said it means I'll come to a bad end, but just look what happened to him, and he never said anything to anyone, except for that. He said that a lot. Look, Tamika--can I call you that? It's a great name--there's this thing, see, where people come here and sometimes bad things happen, sure, but sometimes great things happen. You can meet all sorts of people. There's good at bad in Night Vale, just like everywhere."
"A whole lot of bad," Tamika said. She had enough sense to keep her voice down.
"I guess it depends on how you look at it," Jessica said. She tugged a strap of her bathing suit back into place. The place where it had lain was a pale line against a pink blush of incipient sunburn. "If you don't like it, maybe you should do something about it. Otherwise it doesn't change, right?"
"Why should I be the one to do that?" Tamika said. She looked around the center, but all the other kids were on the far side of the pool, staring into the spiral in the wall. "Your dad was probably right. You shouldn't say things like that. You'll get in trouble."
And as soon as she said that, she thought, no. Not saying it wouldn't help. Nothing helped.
A staffer came out to the pool, crackling as she walked. "Tamika? Tamika Flynn? Kids, which of you is Tamika? Your mother called, and she wants you waiting outside for her. Your sister's gone and she wants you to come home."
"I bet she's in the library," Jessica said. "Just like my sister."
"Don't you even care?" Tamika asked, as she stood up.
"There are a lot of things to care about," Jessica said, and stood up with her. "Do you know who our homeroom teacher is going to be next year? Because I can tell you, and it's great."
She will not forget the sound of metal and flesh, metal and bone.
She will not forget the sudden complete certainty that what she is tasting is blood.
The tangle of hair between her fingers belongs to a head that no longer belongs to a body. There was a meditation on the concept of ownership in the third book she read. She has forgotten how anyone can read books in the dark, and someone is still crying, many someones are howling, but she is caught for a moment, standing at the top of a staircase, with this thought. Is the head hers?
She took it away from someone. Possession is nine tenths of the law. It's hers. And someone her own age tugs at her hand, the one that is not holding that head, and says, "Let's go, let's go, before they catch up."
"They can catch up," she says. "We're not leaving anyone behind. Tell the oldest kids to round up the littlest ones, and get them in a group. Form a defensive perimeter, up against those bookcases. We'll be ready."
Jessica followed her all the way to the library, bag clanking over her shoulder and flip-flops slapping on the pavement of the sidewalk. "All the doors are gone already," she pointed out, as they approached the building. "See, and even the windows. So there's no way in."
"You don't have to come inside," Tamika said. "It's not like you care about your sister."
Jessica shrugged. "How many Jessicas does one family need? But I want to be in homeroom with you. And we're not supposed to get near books, right?"
Tamika crossed the street to avoid a group of secret police talking to distraught adults who were probably the parents of other children. Her mother was probably back at the community center, trying to find her. "Do you always do what you're supposed to?"
"Different people think I'm supposed to do different things," Jessica said, "so there's no way, so I don't try too hard." She grabbed Tamika's hand. "Let's go somewhere else. How about the pizza place? All the ones that used to explode closed, so it's a great place."
Tamika stopped, but didn't turn around. "I'm going to find my sister," she said. "I'm going to find out what happens in there. Maybe it's just reading. Maybe it's horrible. If I don't go inside, I won't know."
"That's probably how they got everyone else," Jessica said. "Curiosity. Curiosity killed the Katherine. She was my best friend in fourth grade."
"If I don't like it," Tamika said, "maybe I should do something about it."
Pounding in her head and pounding in her heart. She pushes the last sticker into place on the last chart. The words in the book she never meant to read won't get out of her mind, but that's acceptable. They'll stick with her, when everyone else leaves. They'll keep her strong.
"Toward the door," she tells her lieutenants. "One last line to break through, and we'll be there. Form up. Keep the smallest ones in the back. We're clear on that side."
"But there's still no door," says one of her lieutenants. The smallest of the ones she chose for the position, but a fierce one, with blood smeared across her freckled face. Fierce but nervous. Odd how these combine. (The words from the book say one will conquer the other. She doesn't know yet which will win.) "It hasn't come back. What do we do if it doesn't come back?"
"It will return," she says. She hefts her chart and her head. The one she carries, and which thus belongs to her. She reasoned it out. "If it doesn't, we'll make one."
Her people are satisfied with this. They advance, exactly as she's told them.
At the place where a library door used to be, Tamika held up her book. The cover had been lost before she ever reached Night Vale; the rest of the damage came from keeping it hidden. She had read it more times than she could count, and it was hers, and in the most honest part of her heart, she had to admit: she loved the book more than she loved her sister.
Sometimes a person had to do things they didn't prefer. If only so that other things would change.
"I'm here for the reading program," she said. "The summer reading program. I want one of those charts that the posters said I could get..."
The wall opened for her, and showed her the way inside.
"I'm scared," Jessica whispered.
"You don't have to come," Tamika said.
"No," Jessica said, "I want you to be in my class."
They stepped through the door together, into the library.