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Over the top of her reading glasses, Eugenie Pierce eyed the teenage girl sprawled across two chairs at the long table in the Sweetgum Public Library’s reading area. Late afternoon sunlight spilled through the tall windows and fell like a spotlight on the youthful offender. The city council could make noises about forcing Eugenie to retire in six months’ time, but that didn’t mean she would neglect her library in the interim. Not that it was her library personally. It belonged to the good citizens of Sweetgum, Tennessee. But the library had been in her care for almost forty years, and no teenager since the Nixon administration had put his or her feet anywhere but on the floor, where they belonged.
Eugenie moved a step closer to the girl and continued to stare. Usually her narrowed gaze moved mountains–or at least wayward adolescent limbs. But this child was not so easily motivated. Another two steps, sensible pumps tapping against the tile floor, and now Eugenie stood within three feet of the girl.
“Ahem.” She resorted to clearing her throat. Still the girl did not respond. Eugenie moved closer. She tapped the table in front of the girl and cleared her throat again.
“What?” The girl looked up, rolled her eyes, and slumped even lower. She had those white wires hanging from her ears, which meant she wasn’t reading but listening to that awful rap music. The girl finally pulled one of the buds from her ear. “I said, ‘What?’ ”
“Please take your feet off the chair,” Eugenie replied, snipping each word. She lowered her glasses to the tip of her nose and looked pointedly at the girl’s cheap plastic flip-flops and black-lacquered toenails. True, none of the furniture in the Sweetgum Public Library was anywhere near new, but every stick of it was in pristine condition.
“I’m not hurting anything.” The girl spoke too loudly because of the remaining bud wedged in her right ear. “Shh. You’re disturbing the other patrons.”
Granted, the only other people in the library at the moment were Mr. and Mrs. Hornbuckle, who couldn’t hear a train wreck between them, but it was the principle of the thing that mattered. A library was a holy place, like church, and you wouldn’t find people sitting in a house of worship with their feet on the pews and headphones jammed in their ears. At least not in Sweetgum.
The girl looked around, saw the Hornbuckles, and laughed. “You’d have to shoot off a cannon to disturb them.”
Eugenie sighed. She wasn’t up for this. Maybe Homer Flint and his cronies were right. Maybe it truly was time for her to retire. She’d had the same conversation with four decades’ worth of teenagers. Her track record, of course, spoke for itself.
She’d steered any number of wayward youth onto the straight and narrow, although lately not as many as she used to.
“Library patrons do not put their feet in the chairs. And please turn down the volume on your CD player. Others may not share your taste in music.”
The girl bristled. “It’s an iPod.”
“An iPod. Not a CD player.” The scorn in her voice shouldn’t have bothered Eugenie. But she was tired of people who treated her as if she was an ignorant civil servant instead of a well-educated woman with a master’s degree in library science.
And then she saw the book lying on the table in front of the girl.
Knitting for Beginners. Eugenie eyed the girl again. “Do you knit?” she asked in a slightly kinder tone. Eugenie was a firm believer in productive activities, and if this girl was a knitter, perhaps she wasn’t such a lost cause after all.
“Huh?” Finally, the girl removed the remaining bud from her other ear. “What’d you say?”
“Are you a knitter?” Eugenie gestured toward the book on the table.
The girl stiffened, her mouth tightening as if she’d bitten into a lemon. “Why do you care?”
“Well, if you knit,” Eugenie said patiently, “you might be interested in a group that meets the third Friday of every month at the Christian church. The Sweetgum Knit Lit Society. All knitters are welcome.” Although she silently wondered just how welcome the other women would make this grungy girl feel. The ties that held the group together were tenuous at best, yet Eugenie managed to hold them together by sheer dint of will.
The girl shoved the book away. “I was just looking at it.” The angry defensiveness of the girl’s reply caught Eugenie off guard.
“I merely intended to–” But she stopped herself before she could utter the fateful word. Help. I merely intended to help. The unfinished sentence lay between them, unspoken but entirely present. The girl’s blue eyes narrowed in her round face. She shoved a hank of dirty blond hair off her forehead with one hand. “I don’t need your help.”
And then Eugenie heard the telltale rustle of paper from underneath the table.
“What’s that?” More rustling. The girl’s face turned red. “Nothing.” Eugenie reached out and took the knitting book. With practiced efficiency, she flipped through the pages. She saw immediately where the little heathen had defaced Knitting for Beginners.
“You’ve ruined it.” Disgusted by the jagged edges where the pages had been ripped from the binding, Eugenie snapped the book closed. “You’ll pay to replace it.” But despite the iPod–Eugenie had heard they were quite expensive–the girl didn’t look like she had enough money to buy a decent pair of shoes, much less replace a hardback book.
“I didn’t do it. It was already like that.” The girl spoke too loudly, not because of her headphones but because she was lying.
Eugenie extended one hand. “The pages, please.” The girl stared back, mutinous, before finally giving in. “Here.” She pulled the wad of glossy paper from beneath the table and thrust it at Eugenie, who took the pages, glancing down to see what the girl had torn from the book. A pattern for a scarf. Why hadn’t she simply checked out the book if she wanted the pattern?
“I’ll look up the price and let you know what this will cost. There are processing fees in addition to the cost of the book.”
“It doesn’t matter.” The girl slumped farther still in the chair. “I don’t have any money.”
“What’s your name?” Eugenie asked. “I’ll need your parents’ names as well.” She knew the girl heard her question because her cheeks went pale beneath the smear of blush that failed to cover the thicket of freckles.
“I don’t have any parents.”
Again, Eugenie could tell she was lying. “Then who is responsible for you? A relative?” The girl turned her head away. A library was also similar to a church in that it often provided shelter for lost souls.
Temporary shelter for the most part, but Eugenie had found that everyone from latchkey children to battered wives and lonely senior citizens might wander into her library on any given day.
“If you can’t give me the name of the adult who’s responsible for you, I’ll have to call Theda Farley over at Family Services.”
The girl’s head whipped back around to Eugenie. “Don’t you dare.” She scrambled out of the chair. Eugenie might be old enough to retire, but she was still spry. With a quick snag, she caught the girl’s arm.
“Hey! You can’t touch me!”
“Young lady, in my library, I can do as I see fit.”
“This is child abuse!”
“You’ve ruined one of my books. You don’t have the money to pay for it, and you won’t tell me who you are. Perhaps I should call the police.” The girl’s kohl-smeared eyes widened. “All right. All right. I’ll tell you my name. Just no cops.” Eugenie held in a sigh of relief. She wouldn’t have called the police anyway, not for so minor an infraction, but the girl didn’t have to know that.
“So what is your name?” Eugenie demanded, releasing the girl’s arm.
The name rang a bell. “You’re Tracy Simmons’s daughter?” She knew Tracy. Wild. Promiscuous. She’d had her first child, this child, at sixteen. That was the thing about a small town like Sweetgum. Everyone knew everyone else’s business, unless of course you knew how to be very, very discreet. Tracy Simmons had been the antithesis of discreet.
“Tracy’s my mom. So what?”
Well, that explained the tattoos the child had drawn up and down her arms with ballpoint pen, the too-tight tank top, and the cheap flip-flops. She was definitely her mother’s daughter.
And then Eugenie remembered something else. A hazy picture of Tracy Simmons when she was eight years old, sitting on the floor between the stacks in the juvenile section of the library, her dirty blond head buried in a book. Her mother would drop her off at the library for hours at a time, at least until Tracy had entered junior high school, developed a figure, and been left elsewhere to fend off the attention of adolescent boys. Within a couple years, she’d become one of those girls who rode around the town square on a Saturday night in the back of a pickup, a bottle in a plain brown bag in one hand and a cigarette in the other. By then it had been a long time since she’d darkened the door of the library. Tracy was one of the few who had escaped Eugenie’s influence. The memory startled Eugenie, and it changed her mind about how to handle Hannah’s debt.
“If you can’t pay for the book, you’ll have to work off the cost.”
“What?” Hannah had chewed off most of her metallic pink lipstick, leaving only a rough stain around the edges of her mouth.
“You’ll have to do some work for me here at the library to pay for the book.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “You can’t make me work. I’m thirteen. What about child labor laws?”
Eugenie smiled. “Well, you’re welcome to call the police if you think I’m violating the law.”
Hannah’s shoulders slumped. “You’re evil.”
Now Eugenie could laugh. “No, Hannah. I’m not evil.” She paused for effect. “I’m a librarian.”
“So what do I have to do?” Hannah demanded, one hand on a bony hip that jutted out. “Shelve books, sweep, stuff like that?”
“For today, yes.”
Hannah scowled. “I have to work for more than a day?”
“We’ll start with an hour a day on weekdays and a halfday on Saturday.”
“You’re kidding. For how long?”
“For as long as it takes.”
The girl grumbled, but she didn’t protest further. Eugenie thought she looked secretly relieved. Something to do after school. A way to get out of the house on Saturday. Both were probably a blessing to Tracy Simmons’s daughter.
“And one other thing.” Eugenie looked down at the torn pages in her hand. “You have to participate in the Knit Lit Society.”
“I don’t want to be in your nitwit society.”
“And I don’t think you have a choice.”
“They won’t want me.”
“Of course they will,” Eugenie answered, but she spoke with more confidence than she felt. “They’ll help you learn to knit as well as broaden your mind through reading.”
Eugenie’s words were met with silence.
“What do you like to read?” Again silence.
“What were your favorites when you were younger?” she persisted. “Little Women? The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?” She couldn’t remember this Hannah coming to the library before, now that she thought about it. “I never read any of those.”
“A Little Princess? Pollyanna?” Eugenie asked with rising incredulity.
Hannah shook her head. “I tried that one about the girl on the mountain. You know, the one where her mother died and she went to live with her grandfather.”
Eugenie was afraid she could see the appeal Heidi might have held for Hannah. “Well then, I think I know what the Knit Lit Society will be reading next.” She turned toward the information desk and motioned Hannah to follow. “Come on. We’ll start with some dusting. After I close up, we can walk over to Munden’s Five-and-Dime to buy some yarn and needles.”
“I told you I don’t have any money.”
“You can work the needles and yarn off as well. Besides, the Knit Lit Society meets tomorrow evening, so you’ll need them.”
“My mom won’t let me come down here on a Friday night.”
Eugenie doubted that Tracy Simmons cared about Hannah’s whereabouts on a Friday night. Or any other night for that matter. The last Eugenie had heard, Tracy worked as a cocktail waitress at a seedy bar on the outskirts of Sweetgum.
“You leave that to me,” was all she said in response to the girl’s protest. She stepped behind the circulation desk and reached into a cubby for a dust cloth. “Here.” She held it out to Hannah. “Start in the fiction section over there with the A’s. And when you see Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, pull it out. That will be our first book.”
Hannah’s eyes widened. “I can’t read that by tomorrow night.”
“Of course not. That will be next month’s selection. Tomorrow you’ll just meet the other members of the society. And learn to knit.”
Hannah looked skeptical. “Whatever.” But in spite of her resistance, she took the dust cloth. “Don’t forget the lower shelves,” Eugenie admonished as she walked away.
Half an hour later, Eugenie looked around to find Hannah Simmons sitting on the floor between the stacks of the Sweetgum Public Library, her head buried in a copy of Little Women, a forgotten dust cloth on the floor beside her. Eugenie watched the girl from behind the information desk and allowed herself a small, satisfied smile.
Now all she had to do was convince the Sweetgum Knit Lit Society to welcome their newest member.
From the Trade Paperback edition.