Andrew Zuliani

James’ feet came down hard on the gravel and he lost his balance, his hand jutting out in front of him to break his fall. He pushed himself upright, tightly gripping a book under his right arm like a football. Neck turned, he strained his sore legs, the muscles burning as he ran from the low retaining wall. His breath pulled against a cotton balaclava that clung to his open mouth with every laboured inhalation of air.

"Hey!" cried the man in the pale linen suit who was climbing down from the ledge in pursuit.

Picking up speed, James sprinted across the gravel parking lot, his heart beating double-time to the pounding of his feet on the loose surface. Thirty feet lay between him and the parked Volkswagen. He found himself wishing he'd left the engine running.

With ten feet left, he fished with his scraped left hand for the keys in his windbreaker's pocket. He glanced backwards - his pursuer, clearly uninhibited by twisted ankles and a habitual avoidance of exercise, was rapidly closing the distance between them.

His pulse vibrating in his ears, James tried to visualize the quickest way to get his body into the car and the car on the road. He wished that he had brought his younger brother along as a makeshift getaway driver. Of course, Jonathan could hardly drive, but he'd only need to go a few blocks and at this point the risk seemed negligible. Besides, the whole situation was Jon’s doing, and he owed James for it.

He was on the waiting car before he had further time to reflect. He laid the injured palm of his left hand painfully against the cold hood, and vaulted up onto the front of the car, sliding across and landing feet first on the pavement. He jammed the key into the lock, and looked up to see the man closing the final distance. He shoved himself into the driver's seat, pulled the keys out of the lock, and slammed the door. His bleeding hand pushed a button on his centre console as the other gripped and twisted the keys in the ignition. The car started, the doors locked with a reassuring click, and the Volkswagen drove off into the night.

All of this trouble could have been avoided if Jon would have just kept his 14-year-old paws to himself. James did sympathize with his brother's intention, having performed similarly misguided acts for the attention of girl, but he was determined to never let Jonathan off of the hook.

He’d nearly strangled his sibling when he confessed to not only stealing - here James refused to use the euphemistic term "borrowing" - his first edition copy of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, but having it confiscated by a grade nine mathematics teacher. Jonathan, sitting skittishly on a chair in James' room, detailed his plot to win the heart of an allegedly pretty French-exchange student:
"I figured, y'know, I could win her over if she saw how much I loved her home country. Didn't you say the book was about Hemingway living in France?"
"Jonathan, you moron, it's a Canadian exchange program. She's from Montréal. This is her home country."

His already flawed plan went even more awry when, while casually reading the book with the Eiffel Tower on its cover placed deliberately in view of the petite mademoiselle, his instructor, much aggravated by Jonathan's plainly exhibited lack of interest over the past months, snatched it viciously from his hands. If it were an English literature teacher, perhaps the man would have acted differently. But this was a mathematics teacher – and, more importantly, an angered mathematics teacher – who, blind to the value of the book, walked out of the snickering room and tossed it into a book donation bin down the hall.

The school's librarian, coming across the book on his daily rounds of the bins, assumed that some kind-hearted collector wanted to share with the children of his community; by the end of the school day it was received, labeled, and filed away on the much-neglected Classic Fiction shelf of the high school library.

That afternoon, James drove to his old high school with the intent of reclaiming his property. However, within minutes of his arrival he reached a stalemate with the well-dressed but ill-humoured librarian, who found it unlikely that a young man would own such a valuable book. What the librarian did find likely, however, was that a young man would certainly see the advantage of owning such a money-fetching item, and would tell any amount of lies in order to ensure the book's expedient journey to an eBay auction.

It did not help that James’ claim to the book – it was a gift from an uncle – sounded like a fabrication when spoken aloud, or that his less-than-glowing reputation from his high school career still followed him like a spited ghost. No amount of persuading on James' part would convince the adult of his rightful ownership. The young man vowed to return to the library that night and retrieve the book through less honest, yet completely necessary, methods.

Several hours later, James frantically searched through the darkened library and found his novel next to an apparently untouched copy of The Old Man and the Sea. Assured of the safety of his property, he doubled back to gather his backpack and assorted breaking-in tools.

He was approaching the end of the Reference section when the lights in the library flickered on. Why was someone in here? James ducked back into the shadow of the bookshelves. Peering through a gap in the bottom row of encyclopedias, he caught a glimpse of a pair of linen-trousered legs as they walked towards the far end of the library. The legs paused in front of an open window, crouched as the man bent to inspect the rope ladder James had used to scale the distance up to the second story, and then swiveled in a sudden about-face.

Abandoning all stealth in a frantic bolt, James weaved through the stacks – first for the fiction section, then the library's main entrance. Dashing to where his novel was imprisoned, he grabbed the blue book and in a hairpin turn made for the glowing fire exit sign. The backpack was unimportant. His father would be at his neck for losing his prybar and gardening gloves – he’d work on an alibi. Not now. Now: escape.

Hopping over the turnstile, he pushed open the double-doors with both arms in front of him. The loud bang of the old wooden doors against their stoppers echoed through the empty hall. The school librarian, cell phone in hand, ran after the amateur book-thief. Having attended this school for all six years of his high school education, James knew the building like the back of his hand. Instinctively, he turned to the right and sprinted down the hallway of the Science wing, knowing that the door at its end would put him out into the gravel lot where his car was parked.

It had been three years since James had last used this particular exit, and he was surprised to find that at some point during this absence the school had elected to expand its parking lot. The gentle grass slope that once ran down to the gravel lot had been removed to clear room for an extra row of reserved parking, and as he ran out the door into the night, his eyes adjusted just in time to prevent him from bowling headfirst off of a five-foot retaining wall. Turning his run into a stumbling jump, James leapt gracelessly. In the second or two of airborne silence, he could hear the clang of the door re-opening behind him; then, the crunch of gravel under his feet and the pain of his sloppy landing. He ran for his car with the shouts of the librarian ringing in the air behind him.

Ten minutes later, James’ twisted ankle throbbed as he pulled into his parents’ driveway. The librarian might have called the police, but James didn't care. A cocktail of adrenaline and endorphins swirled deliciously in his brain. It occurred to him that he was still wearing the balaclava; he removed it and tossed it onto the passenger seat. Lifting the book from underneath it, he opened the car door, his face fresh and cold in the night air. He glanced down at the object in his hands and then dropped it as if it were a handful of burning coals.

No. In the library I – It was dark but I saw – Could I go back? He would have reported – My wallet in my backpack – What was I thinking, leaving that there… It was worth losing for – the book.
The book.

James kicked the book with a curse and it landed, cover spread, on the green turf of the lawn. The endorphins exited his body and held the door open for nausea. James pulled his windbreaker shut and curled his arms around his chest. Struck with the sensation of confinement and the impression that he was a glowing beacon of red fabric, he tore the jacket off and flung it blindly behind him. He shivered in his tee-shirt and imagined a siren in the distance. And for what?

The night was dark, but a nearby streetlamp created a soft spotlight that fell on the driveway of the Fields’ suburban home. The yellow pool of light glinted off of the hood of the still-running hatchback; it rested on the hunched shoulders of James, and, playing out over the well-manicured lawn, it illuminated a glossy blue dust-jacket that read My Brother, Ernest Hemingway: A Biography.

// Andrew Zuliani

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