Original prompt: You live in a small town and are assigned a school project that involves looking at census data. In the middle of your research you discover that half the population of your town disappeared in a single year two decades ago. There are no records to explain this. You continue to investigate.
— This makes no sense.
As I ruffled through the archives of the library, lit by the faint glow of an exhausted candle, I desperately tried to rationalize the odd figures I had just read.
— The records are clear: 417 people went missing twenty-three years ago, in the span of eleven months and twenty-four days… In the capital, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that as many people leave and come to the city in a few minutes, but the village had 857 inhabitants the year before… Such a mass disparition should have alerted the authorities, and the story should be heard now and then at local events. How come nobody ever talks about it? Everyody knows everybody here, and we seldom have news from the outside… Damn, I should’ve paid more attention to the old folks' ramblings. But then again, they keep on repeating the same tales, so much so that I could almost recite them by heart…
I laid the record on the floor next to me and relaxed my back, with my arms stretched behind me. Sitting for so long in this cramped, dark room was finally starting to make my spine ache. Above me, the endless shelves were disappearing in pitch black nothingness. I could feel the eyes of those guardians of knowledge watching over my tiny figure, unabashed, unmoving, and it seemed as if even the flow of time had stopped.
— I’m fourteen, so it happened around nine years before my birth. However, I can’t think of anything noteworthy that took place at that period. Wait, let me look at this again.
I picked up another book I had used to gather historical data, and I opened it at the time period of interest. Among a few paragraphs about the newly-elected mayor and a painting exhibition by a local artist, a few sentences were curiously half-erased. On closer inspection, it looked like the aging of the paper had made the pen’s creases in the paper more salient, and that was why the markings appeared again. I had trouble reading it but I could guess a few words almost certainly.
“Whoever” “reads” “message” “go” “library” “basement”
— Come to think of it, there is indeed a basement under the library. Was it telling me to go down there?
I almost mecanically rose to my feet but I stopped dead in my tracks. Why was this message erased? I tried to decipher the rest of the enigmatic scribbling.
“Help” “hide” “children” “please” “before” “late”
Those words sent a shiver down my spine. What could they have been fleeing from? The library’s darkness suddenly felt a lot colder, shrouding me in a chilly loneliness. A sense of duty compelled me to go to the basement. As I walked through the shelves, I braced myself for an upcoming revelation. Soon enough, I reached the little wooden door. On it was a “No entry” sign that made me hesitate for a few seconds, but my curiosity won over and I took hold of the handle. I was met with some resistance — obviously, this door had been left unused for quite some time — but the door eventually yielded. The room ahead seemed fairly wide, surprisingly. I held my candle in front of me and carefully scanned the ground, but I saw nothing. I dared to enter, and I caught a glimpse of a few objects lingering in the corner. I drew near, and noticed those were some history books. I took the one at the top and began reading the contents. It depicted a military conflict involving many countries. I was impressed by the author’s ability to seamlessly include historical characters in his novel, but I knew it was fictional because there were a few names I had never heard of.
I kept on reading. How many hours had it been? It was probably past midnight already. I had never felt that immersed in a book before. The cruelty of the antagonist’s grand scheme was above all I could have imagined, and I couldn’t wait to know how the invaded countries were going to retaliate and put an end to his evil deeds. Then, it occurred to me.
— What an elaborate joke! How couldn’t I have thought of it. I’ll have to ask the teacher and the librarians if they were in it together. To think they went as far as to falsify old census records and put that message in it with an eraser effect, all so the curious soul who stumbled upon it could find these books! That was quite amazing indeed. I wonder if the author was from this village? In any case, his imagination is admirable. The Great War was deadly enough, so let us hope there never will be any “World War II”…