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The Borrowerby Rebecca Makkai
I might be the villain of this story. Even now, it’s hard to tell.
Back at the library, amid the books and books on ancient Egypt, the picture the children loved most showed the god of death weighing a dead man’s heart against a feather. There is this consolation, then, at least: One day, I will know my guilt.
I’ve left behind everyone I used to know. I’ve found another library, one with oak walls, iron railings. A college library, where the borrowers already know what they’re looking for. I scan their books and they barely acknowledge me through their caffeinated haze. It’s nothing like my old stained-carpet, brick-walled library, but the books are the same—same spines, same codes on yellowed labels. I know what’s in them all. They whisper their judgment down.
The runaways, the kidnappers, look down from their shelves and claim me for their own. They tell me to light out for the Territory, reckon I’m headed for Hell just like them. They say I’m the most terrific liar they ever saw in their lives. And that one, old lecher-lepidopterist, gabbling grabber, stirring his vodka-pineapple from the high narrow shelf of N-A-B, let me twist his words. (You can always count on a librarian for a derivative prose style): Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what I envied, what I thought I could fix. Look at this prison of books.
Before this all began, I told Rocky that one day I’d arrange my books by main character, down through the alphabet. I realize now where I’d be: Hull, snug between Huck and Humbert. But really I should file it under Drake, for Ian, for the boy I stole, because regardless of who the villain is, I’m not the hero of this story. I’m not even the subject of this prayer.
Every Friday at 4:30, they gathered cross-legged on the brown shag rug, picked at its crust of mud and glitter and Elmer’s glue, and leaned against the picture-book shelves.
I had five regulars, and a couple of them would have come seven days a week if they could. Ian Drake came with chicken pox, with a broken leg. He came even when he knew it had been cancelled that week, and sat there reading aloud to himself. And then each week there were two or three extras whose parents happened to need a babysitter. They’d squirm through chapters eight and nine of a book they couldn’t follow, pulling strings from their socks and then flossing their teeth with them.
That fall, five years ago, we were halfway through Matilda. Ian came galloping up to me before reading time, our fourth week into the book.
“I told my mom we’re reading Little House in the Big Woods again. I don’t think she’d be a fan of Matilda too much. She didn’t even like Fantastic Mr. Fox.” He forked his fingers through his hair. “Are we kapeesh?”
I nodded. “We don’t want your mom to worry.” We hadn’t gotten to the magic part yet, but Ian had read it before, secretly, crouched on the floor by the Roald Dahl shelf. He knew what was coming.
He skipped off down the biography aisle, then wandered back up through science, his head tilted sideways to read the spines.
Loraine came up beside me—Loraine Best, the head librarian, who thank God hadn’t heard our collusions—and watched the first few children gather on the rug. She came downstairs some Fridays just to smile and nod at the mothers as they dropped them off, as if she had some hand in Chapter Book Hour. As if her reading three minutes of Green Eggs and Ham wouldn’t make half the children cry and the others raise their hands to ask if she was a good witch or a bad witch.
Ian disappeared again, then walked up through American History, touching each book on the top right-hand row. “He practically lives here, doesn’t he?” Loraine whispered. “That little homosexual boy.”
“He’s ten years old!” I said. “I doubt he’s anything-sexual.”
“Well I’m sorry, Lucy, I have nothing against him, but that child is a gay.” She said it with the same tone of pleasure at her own imagined magnanimity that my father used every time he referred to “Ophelia, my black secretary.”
Over in fiction now, Ian stood on tiptoes to pull a large green book from a high shelf. A mystery: the blue sticker-man with his magnifying glass peered from the spine. Ian sat on the floor and started in on the first page as if it indeed contained all the mysteries of the world, as if everything in the universe could be solved by page 132. His glasses caught the fluorescent light, two yellow discs over the pages. He didn’t move until the other children began gathering and Loraine bent down beside him and said, “Everyone’s waiting for you.” We weren’t—Tony didn’t even have his coat off yet—but Ian scooted on his rear all the way across the floor to join us, without ever looking up from the book. We had five listeners that day, all regulars.
“All right,” I said, hoping Loraine would make her exit now, “where did we leave off?”
“Miss Trunchbull yelled because they didn’t know their math,” said Melissa.
“And she yelled at Miss Honey.”
“And they were learning their threes.”
Ian sighed loudly and held up his hand.
“That was all two weeks ago. BUT, when last we left our heroine, she was learning of Miss Trunchbull’s history as a hammer thrower, and also we were learning of the many torture devices she kept in her office.”
“Thank you, Ian.” He grinned at me. Loraine rolled her eyes—whether at me or Ian, I wasn’t sure—and tottered back to the stairs. I almost always had to cut Ian off, but he didn’t mind. Short of burning down the library there was nothing I could do that would push him away. I was keeping Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing behind the desk to sneak to him whenever he came without his babysitter. Almost every afternoon for the past week he had run downstairs and stuck his head over my desk, panting.
Back then, before that long winter, Ian reminded me most of a helium balloon. Not just his voice, but the way he’d look straight up when he talked and bounce around on his toes as if he were struggling not to take off.
(Did he have a predecessor? asks Humbert.
No. No, he didn’t. I’d never met anyone like him in my life.)
Whenever he couldn’t find a book he liked, he’d come lean on the desk. “What should I read?”
“How to Stop Whining,” I’d say, or “An Introduction to the Computer Catalogue,” but he knew I was kidding. He knew it was my favorite question in the world. Then I’d pick something for him—D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths one time, The Wheel on the School another. He usually liked what I picked, and the D’Aulaire’s launched him on a mythology spree that lasted a good two months.
Because Loraine warned me early on about Ian’s mother, I made sure he read books with innocuous titles and pleasant covers. Nothing scary-looking, no Egypt Game. When he was eight, he came with a babysitter and borrowed Theater Shoes. He returned it the next day and told me he was only allowed to read “boy books.”
Fortunately, his mother didn’t seem to have a great knowledge of children’s literature. So My Side of the Mountain crept under the radar, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Both books about running away, I realized later, though I swear at the time it never crossed my mind.
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