Hypothetically, if Peter gave A Wrinkle in Time back to Joyce face-to-face, he’d die. All the blood in his body would squeeze and compact right there in his cheeks. There’d be nothing left for his arms, his legs, his spine, his feet. And his heart would sputter, all parched while excess blood would leak from his ears.
Peter plotted wedging the book into her desk but Joyce was always there, muddy tennis shoes tapping the wobbly desk leg, sitting on top like a crow. Her friends perched near enough to make it a tight flock. Except for Kash, who actually didn’t like Joyce so much if you stepped back to see them. Kash was pacing, more like an offended bunny than a bird. But she was still close, in a droopy solo parade along the circumference of Joyce’s little island. Even if Peter was super super stealthy he couldn’t flick a rubber band past any of them without getting caught.
The other option was to operate at recess but his teacher was practically glued to her desk: she taught and she ate and she prepped in there. Maybe she even slept with her nose squashed against the keyboard’s spacebar like a veteran paper airplane.
The librarian asked for A Wrinkle in Time a week earlier. “Joyce, it’s overdue,” he said. “If you can’t find it you can bring ten dollars in.”
Joyce never had an overdue book in her life. She slouched in the bathroom at recess, and her friends who floated in a circle, like the dangling ghosts of past-hanged children, dabbed her eye corners with the bathroom’s scratchy toilet paper.
But Peter found A Wrinkle in Time on the map-of-the-world-carpet. It was stacked between a whole wall of paperbacks, demanding to be snug in their chipped bookcases once again. Peter pulled it out like a brick in a wall and stared at it. A lottery ticket and a death sentence all at once.
“Peter, it’ll be nice to see you with a book, that’s open, and being read, please,” his teacher said, nose behind a laptop and her eyebrows bobbed like overboard squiggles in water.
Peter peeled the book open delicately. The eyebrows were still bobbing in concentration and Peter watched chapter one tangle up into abstract modern art when his eyes went out of focus.
He figured there wouldn’t be any necessary interaction with Joyce if he just returned A Wrinkle in Time back to the library, like an invisible little fairy. Like an invisible coincidence or some accumulated luck. He wouldn’t need to bother her.
Peter shuffled to the back of the school at recess. Where the water pipes whined and the shadow of the fenced-in blacktop made it cold and barren. The chain-link shadows curled still on the asphalt: bubblegum stomped black and shiny like flat, gleaming blisters.
“Can I get through?” Peter’s index fingertip wobbled to the school’s fat back door.
The fourth graders chewed thoughtfully and open-mouthed. Their hoodies coloured like dirt after a fire and their drawstrings gnawed on.
“Some bubblegum and we’ll grant you a safe passage,” the fourth graders murmured. They were separate but one: a barricade of chests and hoods fitted like locks, and the door was so far and so close Peter could taste the rust clasping the handle.
“I’ll be in and out,” Peter offered.
“Some bubblegum and we’ll grant you a safe passage,” the fourth graders repeated.
Peter turned out his pockets and a stick of spearmint gum, crooked like an old movie ticket, plummeted to the blistered asphalt.
“That’s not bubblegum,” someone said.
“We want bubblegum,” said someone else.
“You could practice blowing bubbles with this,” Peter advertised. “It’s harder so you’ll get better at regular bubblegum too. It’ll be so easy once you get used to this.”
They seemed to be chewing away at the prospect.
They stopped chewing in unison. “There’s only one.”
Peter’s mouth split into an anxious smile that accidentally bit the inside of his mouth. “Ummmm. Do you think I could give you all your own tomorrow?”
“No,” they said at once. “Ten. For each of us.” Then they added, “Tomorrow.”
Peter perked up. His mom had billions of gum sticks. They cascaded from cup holders in the car whenever she grittily sped underneath a greasy yellow light.
“Ten,” they pronounced.
“Yeah, no problem. Ten for everyone.” Peter stepped closer.
They were rooted for a second and Peter began to sweat. But then they parted, chewing to mark the milliseconds.
Peter yanked the door and it howled. A flush crept up to his neck.
“Wait.” A foot kicked the door closed and Peter almost rolled his eyes.
“It’s ten extra for not snitching,” they told him.
“Extra ten for each of you?” Peter asked.
“That sounds good too.”
“Wait, what did you mean then?”
“Ten extra for each of us,” they recited sternly.
The door howled again and Peter tossed the single stick of gum behind him—a promotional giveaway—before slipping in like a silhouette. The back of the school was a quiet fire exit with the loudest stairs. Peter leaned what he imagined was 2/3’s of his weight onto the railing and climbed, holding his breath like it would help trim off some gravity.
The door at the top of the stairs was wonderfully silent and Peter breathed deeply at the end of an alignment of lockers. Every single classroom door was gaping open and the library glared from the end of the hall.
Peter lowered to an army crawl, gravel scratching at his chin. He got to the first door. He could hear typing, like an unhealthy heartbeat.
Peter decided it was better to be caught way less suspicious so he got up and speed walked. It was peaceful. He speed walked past the next door. And the next and the next. He dusted his sleeves off.
Peter stopped, turned around, loosening his shoulders.
The vice principal pointed at him with the edge of her binder. “Aren’t you supposed to be outside right now like everyone else?”
“I’m going to bathroom,” said Peter lightly.
She scrutinized him. “Okay. Be in and out.”
Peter went past another classroom door and shuffled into the tiled bathroom. He sat on the heater in the corner. She couldn’t possibly get into the boys bathroom, could she?
His ears worked extra hard to hear her soles shuffle away but they didn’t. Peter went into a stall and smacked the lock shut as hard as he could. He tore off a curtain-length of toilet paper and folded it over a couple of times. Peter pinched it, grimacing, and stirred it around in the toilet water so the water tinkled. He figured a number two would take more time so he dropped the soggy paper in and he waited. Then he spun the toilet paper roll back and forth in its dispenser and flushed with a heavy flourished stomp.
When Peter finally stuck his head out from the bathroom entrance, the hallway was cleared. He reached into his secret coat-interior pocket to squeeze the book for reassurance.
But A Wrinkle in Time was not there in his pocket. Peter stepped on his own left foot to stop it from kicking the water fountain off the wall in a shrill charge like a flare.
He speed walked instead, back the end of the hall fingers crossed so tight in his pocket it cut off half the blood circulation. There was no book on the floor or the stairs.
A Wrinkle in Time was on the map-of-the-world-carpet in Peter’s own classroom, where he regularly dropped everything once the bell summoned chaos and hallway stampedes.
He remembered it after eternity, after sweating rivers and grinding his nails into his head. Peter shed off his coat and stuffed it next to a fourth grade locker to come back to later.
His own classroom was downstairs. On the other side of the world, a million miles away from the library, where his teacher click-clacked click-clacked on her laptop.
Peter scuttled to the library and turned, went down the stairs and trekked the hall with wide open doors for trees. He stopped at his classroom’s doorframe, dreading the inevitable confrontation with his teacher who was glued to her desk.
He went in.
“Ms. Dulbrow,” Peter said, “can I get a book to read outside? Because I don’t have anything else to do?”
Ms. Dulbrow waved dismissively. “Peter, you’re supposed to be outside.”
“Can I though?”
“The bell’s gonna ring soon. Go play with your friends. It’s sunny. Peter?”
Peter picked the book up from the map-of-the-world-carpet.
“I’m going outside, Ms. Dulbrow,” he called.
“Peter, what did I tell you?” For the first time she shut the laptop to display the entirety of her face: a caricature with eyes and a nose done with fine-liners.
“I’ll bring it back, Ms. D.” Peter skipped out.
He spun to the route to the library but Ms. Dulbrow’s shadow dripped onto his.
“Go outside,” she ordered, skewering the air with her index finger at the glass door: the opposite side Peter’s toes were eagerly facing.
She watched until he scampered out.
Peter sprinted to the back of the school again. The fourth graders deadpanned.
“Can I please go through again?” Peter begged.
“Ten extra,” one of them demanded.
“For each of us,” somebody else added.
“And extra no-snitching fee.”
Peter paused. “Same as last time?”
“Same as last time.”
“Yeah, yeah, capiche.”
They divided like a split in the dead sea.
Peter speed walked past sticker-ed lockers, Joyce’s book poking him in the ribs like a weird exterior heartbeat. The hallway was marvellously empty.
Peter opened the library door and set A Wrinkle in Time down on the librarian’s empty desk like a talisman, passed on for someone with a bigger, shapelier destiny.
Their class would float around the library on Thursday, and Joyce would come to know A Wrinkle in Time was all found, returned for her by a truly selfless good-doer.
Peter rubbed his back.
Peter froze in place, like a soldier ant locked in a freezer. Frozen in it’s own misadventure.
The librarian parked the book cart on the side of his desk. “Why’re you inside?”
Peter’s hand fluttered to A Wrinkle in Time and he pointed. “I brought a book back.”
“Well, next time do that with your class.” He sat down and scanned it.
He scanned it again.
“Peter,” said the librarian.
Peter didn’t ever think about how it would look in the end. Him, returning Joyce Scully’s overdue library book. Peter’s face heated.
The librarian held up the book. “This—”
“Ummm—” Peter dragged the word halfheartedly. “I know it’s not mine but—”
“I didn’t think it—”
“I just thought I should return it—”
“Peter!” the librarian bellowed.
The library frayed around the edges from impact. Never before had it contained something louder than a reserved laugh. It was the first time anyone had disturbed its sacred quiet.
Peter smiled and it teetered. “Sorry.”
“This book,” the librarian huffed and shook it in Peter’s face, “is from the town’s public library.”
“Don’t what me, Peter.”
“This isn’t the from the school. Go away.” The librarian held it out stiffly.
“Oh. Oh. Okay. Thanks.” Peter pried it out of his grasp and went outside.
Peter found another A Wrinkle in Time on Wednesday, before library time. Peter’s bellowed name would be floating around in the ceilings if he was there to listen for it, but only Peter and the librarian would be the ones who could hear it and digest its context. This second A Wrinkle in Time—with the school’s library barcode—was encountered in the lost and found: the most logical and hopeful place for it to be. Peter found it after his mom demanded him to dig through the massive bin until he found his coat, because Peter only remembered he’d left it when he got home. The coat wasn’t at the lockers the next day so he turned the lost and found inside out. Peter tore his coat out of the second bin and a patch of vigorously-chewed spearmint gum was stuck in his super secret pocket. And A Wrinkle in Time in the other bin.
He then payed forty sticks to each of the kids he owed and they waved him off, chewing like cows. And after that he also told Ms. Dulbrow about her overdue and very misguiding library book he had sweat all over and found on the map-of-the-world-carpet. But no, Ms. Dulbrow explained she got it at the library book sale and wedged it back into the wall to deceive yet another boy so naive he couldn’t make his brain twist three times and think. Peter tore the barcode sticker from the spine courteously.
The second A Wrinkle in Time peeped shyly up at him. Recess Odyssey? it seemed to say.
Peter held the book conveniently up to Joyce while she perched on top of the desk with her friends, and they were just like birds, like always.
“I found it in the lost and found,” he captioned.
Joyce deadpanned like a crow discovering it grew a white feather.
“You can have it,” said Peter, “for ten sticks of bubblegum.”
The birds descended on him like greedy backup dancers snatching blood roses from the spotlight. They peeled the book from his grip with the same enthusiasm as they would sloppily detach the exhibited ligaments of the deceased.
“Oh wait,” Joyce said thoughtfully. She flipped all the way to the end and studied the grooves in the spine edges like somebody bit them. Her friends watched patiently.
She patted the book back into Peter’s hands. “Give that to Kash," she said. "She’s been looking for it for days. That’s her copy.”