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Horrid
Author: Katrina Leno

 

There was a little girl

Who had a little curl

Right in the middle of her forehead.


And when she was good,

She was very, very good,

But when she was bad, she was horrid.

 


—A nursery rhyme adapted from the poem “There Was a Little Girl” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

 

There was a little girl

 

 

She couldn’t remember the first book she had eaten.

What it had tasted like, how it had felt—the scratch of it as it slid down her throat.

She couldn’t remember why she’d done it. She must have been a baby, a toddler, ripping pages out of a picture book about a talking stuffed animal.

Had the smell of books calmed her down then, as it did now?

Outside, the rain pelted down angrily, it sounded like muffled gunshots on the roof of the bookstore, but inside, inside, surrounded by books, surrounded by the smell of them, she felt calm and tranquil, momentarily at ease, like the past five weeks had never happened.

They’d made it to Maine about thirty minutes ago but the rain had driven them off the highway and into this town with the strange name—Kennebunkport—and Ruth had pulled over and idled on the side of the road until Jane searched bookstore on her phone and found this one.

“We might as well,” Ruth had said. “I don’t want to go any farther until this lets up a little.”

She wasn’t used to driving in the rain—neither of them was. It didn’t rain like this in Los Angeles. If it rained at all, it was a delicate sprinkle that lasted ten or fifteen minutes and ended with a rainbow. Nothing as dramatic as this, sheets of water falling so thickly from the sky that Jane couldn’t see a foot outside the window.

The woman behind the counter was unpacking a box of paperbacks.

“Let me know if you need anything,” she’d said when they walked in. “Although we’ll run into each other soon enough in here.”

It was a tiny store, built in a one-car garage behind a big Victorian house. Jane walked down the center aisle, letting her fingers brush across the spines of books until she found one by Raymond Chandler, a collection of short stories called Killer in the Rain. She pulled it out and held it. The cover featured a woman in a sea of blue water, floating on her back, her hands outstretched over her head, one high heel on, one off.

Ruth squeezed by in the aisle and Jane showed it to her. Her mother wrinkled her nose.

“Because of the rain,” Jane said.

“I’ll be in true crime,” Ruth replied.

She slipped past Jane. Jane brought the book up to her nose and inhaled. It had a sweet, musty smell.

No, she couldn’t remember the first book she’d eaten, but she could remember the first book she’d eaten purposefully. And that was maybe more important.

Her tenth birthday. May 4. The book was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Jane had the same birthday as Alice Liddell. A happy coincidence she had locked away inside her heart when she’d first discovered it.

She liked to pretend, back then, that she and Alice shared more in common than just a birthday. That they might have been friends, if they’d grown up at the same time. That they might have been as close as sisters.

Jane had always wanted a sister.

She’d asked for a new bike for her tenth birthday, but her parents had gotten her a bright-blue scooter instead.

“You don’t need a new bike, monkey,” her father had said. “Your old one is just fine for now.”

And the scooter was fun; she’d ridden it up and down their street after dinner. But that night, back in her bedroom, getting ready for bed, she felt a dull throb of anger. She hadn’t asked for a scooter. She’d wanted a new bike with a basket and a bell. Her old bike didn’t have either of those things.

Her breath came quicker and quicker. She felt her face go hot. She felt this warm ball of energy forming in the pit of her stomach, this growing anger that was threatening to spill out of her.

She blinked back tears and stared at the book on her lap, and it was like a little light switch had gone off in her head, and she’d thought, Oh, I know.

And she tore off a corner from the first page and put it into her mouth and chewed it.

When she swallowed, she could feel it very distinctly traveling down her throat. She’d imagined she could even feel the tiniest thump as it hit her stomach.

The feeling it brought was like some sort of liquid calm. Like she was Alice, for real, but instead of growing bigger or smaller she grew less angry.

She tore off another little piece.

And another.

And bit by bit—

She ate it.

Just one page.

And the next night, one more.

And the next night, one more.

After one, she felt full. But not a belly full. A happy full. A warm and tingly full. Like the words had dissolved on her tongue and melted into her blood and fixed something inside her. Smoothed out the edges of her ten-year-old brain, all the silly things she got so mad about.

It took her a year to finish the entire book. A page every few nights. Sometimes none, if she was too tired or if she’d had a good day at school, if she was feeling happy.

After a year, she had been left with just the cover, nothing in between it but air.

For her eleventh birthday, she asked her parents to pay for a bookmaking course at the local community college.

She made a journal. Two hundred creamy white pages. She wrote in it as soon as it was finished, the night of her birthday.


I just turned eleven. I like eleven more than ten. Ten felt very IMPORTANT. (She underlined the word important three times.) Eleven feels more manageable. Here are some things about me. My best friend is Salinger Lane. I’m in the fifth grade, and we have our own lockers for the first time. My favorite class is English. I don’t want to get my period. Julie got her period in class and EVERYBODY laughed at her. I wore jeans to school last week and I cuffed them because my mom said they looked good like that and then Brenna and Andrea made fun of me. I don’t know if I’ll keep this journal forever. But for now it’s nice to have somewhere to say things I don’t want to say to Sal or to my mom. Anyway, I’m Jane North-Robinson. I’ll write more later, maybe.

 

She did write more later, most nights before she went to bed, and for a while that had been enough.

But then it wasn’t enough.

And the second book she had eaten was Peter Pan.

She finished it just as she was filling up the last pages in her first journal.

So she made a new journal.

And on and on and on.

“Have you read The Big Sleep?” asked the owner of the bookstore. Jane blinked herself back to the present and forced a smile.

“Of course,” she said. “Chandler’s first book. It’s genius.”

“Ahh, a mystery fan,” the woman said. “You’ve come to the right place. We only sell mystery books here. A little true crime in the corner and some thrillers thrown in to round everything out. I’ll let in a couple horror books, but they have to be very good.”

“I don’t have a copy of this,” Jane said, holding up Killer in the Rain.

“Appropriate pick for a day like today.”

“Have you read everything in here?” Ruth asked, stepping behind Jane.

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