The Velvet Quill Society, excerpt

April 1, 2024

The rolling of my eyes is surely noticed by him, but I pay no matter. Good. He should know that he’s annoying me. He should know that he annoys probably everyone in this damn room. 

I uncross my legs and adjust my tie. I resist the desire to tighten it enough that I lose consciousness, just so I don’t have to hear his grating voice anymore. Well, I suppose it isn’t exactly grating. It’s actually rather smooth. Like melted chocolate. Like velvet. Like the surface of an untouched lake. But regardless of how nice it may sound, that doesn’t mean it isn’t irritating. 

The routine is like clockwork. Every day after my afternoon bioinformatics class, I grab a hot coffee (with a splash of almond milk) and make my way to the Harvard library to study into the late hours of the night. It’s my favorite place on campus with its high ceilings, endless aisles of books, the smell of parchment and candle wax, and the beautiful, welcoming silence. 

Until he enters. 

The ceilings stay high. The aisles of books stay stocked. The scent of parchment and candle wax lingers. But the silence is shattered like cracked glass because, for some reason, he feels the need to talk

I sit at the same table every day without fail. It’s close to the window that shows the sky the best once the sun goes down. One of the immunology professors sits three tables from me. I know this because the glare of the sun sometimes blinds me when it ricochets off the back of his bald head. 

And every day, he goes up to the professor’s table and talks his ear off asking questions and sharing research. This happens every day. 

Don’t ask me why I don’t just move tables. Don’t ask me why I don’t put on my headphones and turn up the volume when he arrives. Don’t ask me why I put my headphones away entirely. Don’t ask me why I can’t focus on my schoolwork when he comes and talks. Don’t ask me why I still go to the library and sit at that table even if I don’t have any studying to do. 

Don’t ask me why the one time he didn’t show up because he was out of town, I left hours earlier than I usually would.

It annoys me. He annoys me. 

My heart stops in my throat as he turns to me, locking eyes with me. Oh, gosh. Why is he looking at me? What does he want? 

His stare holds mine, and I want to look away, but in this lighting, the gray of his eyes looks almost blue. The sweep of dark hair over his forehead is mesmerizing, and the way a single one of his eyebrows is arched makes me swallow. Slowly, in utter horror, I watch as he bids farewell to the immunology professor and makes his way over to me. He’s wearing brown pants with dress shoes, a white button-up shirt, and a brown tie. His collar is messed up, and one of the sides is turned upwards. His tie is crooked. 

“Hello, Maxwell,” he greets, sitting down across from me at my table. I swallow what feels like a golf ball lodged in my throat and find myself scooting backwards in my chair ever so slightly. His eyes flick down, then back up to me, their gray absolutely striking. “You don’t have to move away from me if I’m already across the table from you.”

I shrug. “I didn’t.” 

He cocks his head. “I greeted you. Are you going to greet me?” 

I just stare at him, opening and closing my mouth like a goddamn fish. “Hello, Maxwell,” he says again. I press my lips together. 

“Hello, August.” 

He smiles now, his teeth irritatingly white. One of his teeth is slightly crooked in a way that makes his grin look almost boyish. A singular dimple forms on the left side of his mouth, and I look away before he catches me staring at it. 

“See, I knew you remembered my name. You’ve been pretending to not know it for a year now.” 

I scowl. “I haven’t pretended to not know it. I just haven’t said it.” 

“Well, why did you say it now?” 

“Because maybe if I appease you, you’ll go away faster.” 

He sighs and leans back in his chair, resting his hands behind his head. “Ah, yes. Because if it was your choice, you’d never see me again.” He says this pointedly, with an accusatory look in my direction. This is because he knows as well as I do that I come here just to see his annoying face. Just to hear his irritating voice speak. I hate that he knows it. I hate that I do it. I hate that I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. 

“Why did you come to my table, August Knightly? I’m busy.” 

He leans forward, and I force myself to stay utterly still. I won’t show him how nervous he makes me. 

As his body moves a few inches closer to mine, I get a whiff of his scent of vanilla and cedar. He flashes a little half smile, bringing that stupid dimple to the surface again. “You know exactly why I came to this table, Maxwell Hart. It’s the second Tuesday of the month.” 

He’s right. I did know that. Of course, I knew that. That’s why I brushed my teeth twice this morning instead of once. That’s why I opted for my more expensive cologne. That’s why I put on my most recent iron-pressed shirt. Because every second Tuesday of every month, August comes to my table and asks me the same damn question. “Will you be coming to the Velvet Quill Society tonight?” 

The question rings alarm bells in my brain before he’s even finished asking it. I’ll never forget that first night I saw August two years ago, one year into my doctoral program here at Harvard. It was a late night here at the library for me. I hadn’t done any studying that day, because my girlfriend at the time, Ambrose, had visited me at school—unwarranted—to accuse me of cheating on her with a girl in my chemistry class. Her reasoning for this, of course, was that she saw my name next to Kelli’s (the chemistry girl) on the school website after a research article we wrote had been published. Ambrose thought that since I hadn’t told her about Kelli, surely I was keeping my bed warm with her. 

I had broken up with Ambrose that day. I’d been with her for two years at this point, and the breakup was long overdue anyway. She cried and grabbed onto the hem of my jacket, begging me to change my mind, but we had been there before, and I knew at that point if I gave in to her begging, I’d only be making things worse for the both of us. 

That night, I was so overwhelmed with the knowledge that I had an exam the morning after and hadn’t studied, thanks to Ambrose’s unexpected stay, that I downed a homemade espresso and made my trek to the library at nearly two in the morning. It was November, and the air was crisp. I’d be lying if I said the skeletal trees waving slightly in the fall breeze during my walk didn’t frighten me. I had tightened my jacket around myself and sped up my pace ever so slightly until I reached the library. The doors, though, were locked. This never happens. And I was not having it. I had an exam to study for, and the only place I could truly focus on this campus was here. 

So I did what any entirely sane university student would do. I pried open a cracked window until I could throw my backpack inside before barely squeezing myself through it afterward. 

Inside, it was almost entirely dark aside from a few stray candles still alight. I found it odd that the library was closed, as it never was, but I ignored it and made my way to my regular table. 

I was studying for around an hour before I heard a scream. It happened so fast that I wasn’t able to tell if it was a man or a woman. It happened so fast and ended so abruptly that I could barely even tell from which direction it came. I had an inkling it came from behind me, though, so I hastily spun myself around to face that direction. 

I had known there were a few candles alight in the library. But it wasn’t until then when I was looking for the source of the scream, that I noticed the pattern between them. The candles formed a line. Not a straight line; A relatively jumbled one, actually. But still, a line. Going west in the library, each candle was separated by approximately ten feet, but if you followed them with your eyes, they looked almost like will-o’-the-wisps attempting to lead you to something either incredible or something of death. 

The combination of the candles forming a line and the scream was too much to be a coincidence. Surely, they had something to do with each other. And what was I to do? Sit at my table and stare holes into my textbook when someone may need my help? 

I had pushed my chair back and tentatively followed the candles through the middle aisle, past all the empty tables and carefully organized shelves. The library had a different feel at night. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the books had eyes and were following my every move. 

Eventually, the candles stopped. They ended right at the end of the aisle, leaving me entirely unsure of what to do next. 

Until I heard a shrill laugh coming from the corridor ahead. 

[To be continued…]

 

Danielle Koziol has been an avid writer since she could hold a pencil. Currently, she’s 20 years old and aiming to traditionally publish her work in progress, a new adult romantasy novel, Wings of Ash and Ember. In addition, she’s presently pursuing a public relations and creative writing degree at university. When Danielle isn’t writing, she’s drinking chai, attending classes, reading fantasy or romance books, or spending time with her dog Ruby. To follow her writing and publishing journey, and to learn more about her book, follow her on Instagram and TikTok at @AuthorDanielleKoziol.

 

Featured image by Aida Geraeva.

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