On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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The book was called Nine Mornings Before Dawn, and it was Emily’s favourite book in the whole world.

She first read it when she was eleven years old, and then she had read it twice more immediately afterwards. She read it again several times each year since, and as she now approached her sixteenth birthday, she had already lost count of how many times she’d finished it.

Emily looked at the copy she held in her hands, and she sighed wistfully. Her greatest wish was to be able to remove all memory of it from her mind so that she could experience it again anew, and recapture the feelings of wonder and joy and satisfaction she derived from it the first time around. It was always wonderful, of course, but it was never quite the same once you already knew the story.

She felt the familiar anxiety building in her chest, all the more so given where she was. It was a beautiful day, but here standing in the courtyard in front of the library, she was in the building’s shade, and somehow it made the great stone temple to literature seem foreboding in a way it never had before.

Emily had visited the library hundreds of times, borrowing books to read or just using the quiet and calming place to study or even just to experience its ambience. It was a sanctuary for her, but like everyone who read books as a primary pastime, she also knew that it could be a place to fear if it wasn’t treated with the proper respect. Librarians were a rare breed, and were entrusted with responsibilities that others were not.

She actually wanted to be a librarian when she grew up — surrounded by books at all times! — but she knew that the training process was difficult. The learning, and the vow, and of course the incredible responsibility of it. In particular, the responsibility for handling the very infraction that she herself was now guilty of. The cardinal sin.

Her book was late.

Emily’s mother had warned her to always return books on time, and the lending periods were very generous. You could keep books for three months if you wanted to, up to twelve at a time. The library even sent you reminders each month, and each week of the final month. It was her own fault. Life had just got in the way, and school, and everything else, and now she was in the position that she had never wanted to be in.

She felt like crying, but a part of her knew that there was no-one else who either could or should handle this for her. The blame was hers alone, and so it was time to face up to the consequences. Perhaps they’d be lenient. It was only two weeks late, after all.

She went inside, moving from bright sunlight to church-like gloom in an instant, and she performed her usual ritual of waiting just to one side of the entrance until her eyes adjusted. The borrowing and returns desk was only a short distance away, but Emily knew that late returns were handled differently. Everyone in the world knew that. In this library, the late returns processing office was in the far left corner, and as she set off towards the small and ominous door, it seemed as if the library stretched out around her, becoming a labyrinth of shelves and volumes.

Emily rubbed her free palm against her trouser leg, wiping away the nervous moisture that had gathered, then she swapped the book to that hand and repeated the gesture with her other palm. She couldn’t bring herself to look at the wonderful and treasured cover of it again here, in this situation. It was too painful. She went in.

The receiving librarian looked up from his computer when she stepped through the door, a small frown on the man’s face, but also a look of empathy. After a moment, he gave her a small smile.

“Kept a book late?” he asked, and Emily nodded slowly. She felt like crying again. The man nodded. “Let’s see what the situation is, then,” he said, and she put the book down in the middle of the desk.

The man took it and checked the inside cover, scanning the barcode there, and after a moment the computer displayed the relevant record. The man winced, and Emily’s lip trembled, but when he looked up at her his expression was compassionate.

“I don’t suppose you hated the book?” he asked, and Emily shook her head.

“It’s my favourite book,” she said. “I read it all the time.”

“I’m sorry, dear,” he said. “But there are so many more books out there, you know.”

Emily could only nod, knowing that what he said was both true and false. No other book would be the same. The librarian sighed, then tapped a few buttons on the computer to update the record. Then he reached for the ornate larger button set into the desk, beneath a brass cover which he had to open first.

“You must always return books on time, so that other library users can enjoy them,” he said, his voice gentle rather than scolding.

“I know,” Emily replied, her voice watery. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” he said. “And I want you to head back out there in a moment and get yourself a brand new book to read. Or several. There are so many. And I know you’ll return them on time.”

Emily said nothing, and after a few seconds of silence the man pressed the large button. She finally experienced the sensation she’d read about — and been warned about — when she first got her library card as a small child. The moment of dizziness, and the sense of somehow being flung high into the air without ever moving. The flash of darkness. But then it passed. She closed her eyes and shook her head, then she opened her eyes once more.

The receiving librarian, who was a middle-aged woman instead of a man in this particular universe, smiled just as sympathetically as her counterpart had, but she said nothing. After a moment, Emily turned and went back out into the main library. It was all just the same. Identical to when she’d come in. Except for the one thing that had changed forever.

Even though she knew the answer, she still went over to the borrowing desk, and accessed one of the public terminals that allowed searching the library’s entire database of volumes, whether they were available to read, on loan, or able to be ordered from another library or a retailer.

She typed in Nine Mornings Before Dawn, and pressed the Enter key. It took barely a second for the result to be displayed.

That book does not exist.

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