Two Fridays before Christmas, two minutes before close, A.J. makes the rounds of kicking out and ringing up the last customers. A man in a puffy coat is hemming and hawing over the latest Alex Cross. "Twenty-six dollars seems like a lot. You know I can get it cheaper online, right?" A.J. says that he does know as he shows the man the door. "You should really lower your prices if you want to be competitive," the man says.
"Lower my prices? Lower. My. Prices. I hadn't considered that before," A.J. says mildly.
"Are you being cheeky, young man?"
"No, I'm thankful. And at the next Island Books shareholders' meeting, I'll definitely raise this innovative suggestion of yours. I know we want to remain competitive. Between you and me, for a time in the early oughties, we'd given up on competition. I thought it was a mistake, but my board decided that competition was best left to Olympic athletes, kids in spelling bees, and cereal manufacturers. These days, I'm glad to report that we at Island Books are definitely in the competition business once again. The store's closed, by the way." A.J. points toward the exit.
As puffy coat grumbles his way out the door, an old woman creaks over the threshold. She is a regular customer, so A.J. tries not to be too annoyed that she is coming in after hours. "Ah, Mrs. Cumberbatch," he says. "Unfortunately, we're closing now."
"Mr. Fikry, don't you turn those Omar Sharif eyes of yours on me. I am outraged at you." Mrs. Cumberbatch pushes past him and slams a plump paperback on the counter. "The book you recommended to me yesterday is the worst book I have read in all my eighty-two years, and I would like my money back."
A.J. looks from the book to the old woman. "What was your problem with it?"
"Problems, Mr. Fikry. To begin, it is narrated by Death! I am an eighty-two-year-old woman and I do not find it one bit pleasurable to read a five-hundred-fifty-two-page tome narrated by Death. I think it is a remarkably insensitive choice."
A.J. apologizes but he is not sorry. Who are these people who think a book comes with a guarantee that they will like it? He processes the return. The book's spine is broken. He will not be able to resell it. "Mrs. Cumberbatch," he cannot resist saying, "it appears that you read this. I wonder how far along you got."
"Yes, I read it," she replies. "I most certainly did read it. It kept me up all night, I was so angry with it. At this stage of my life, I would rather not be kept up all night. Nor do I wish to have my tears jerked at the rate at which this novel jerked them. The next time you recommend a book to me, I hope you'll keep that in mind, Mr. Fikry."
"I will," he says. "And I do apologize, Mrs. Cumberbatch. Most of our customers have rather liked The Book Thief."
Once the store is closed, A.J. goes upstairs to change into his running clothes. He leaves through the bookstore's front entrance and, as has become his custom, does not lock the door.
A.J. had run cross-country on his high school's team and then at Princeton. He picked up the sport mainly because he had no skill for any other sport aside from the close reading of texts. He never really considered running cross-country to be much of a talent. His high school coach had romantically referred to him as a reliable middleman, meaning that A.J. could be counted on to finish in the upper middle of any pack. Now that he hasn't run for a while, he has to concede that it had been a talent. In his current condition, he can't make it more than two miles without stopping. He rarely runs more than five miles total, and his back, legs, and basically every part of him hurt. The pain turns out to be a good thing. He used to pass his runs by ruminating, and the pain distracts him from such a fruitless activity.
Toward the end of his run, snow begins to fall. Not wanting to track mud indoors, A.J. stops on the porch to take off his running shoes. He braces himself on the front door, and it swings open. He knows that he didn't lock it, but he is reasonably sure that he didn't leave it open. He flips on the light. Nothing seems out of place. The cash register doesn't look molested. Probably, the wind had blown the door open. He flips off the light and is almost to the stairs when he hears a cry, sharp like a bird. The cry repeats, more insistent this time.
A.J. turns the lights back on. He walks back to the entrance and then makes his way up and down each aisle of the bookstore. He comes to the last row, the poorly stocked Children's and Young Adult section. On the floor sits a baby with the store's lone copy of Where the Wild Things Are (one of the few picture books Island even deigns to carry) in its lap and opened to the middle. It is a large baby, A.J. thinks. Not a newborn. A.J. can't clock the age because, aside from himself, he has never really known any babies personally. He was the youngest child, and obviously, he and Nic never had any of their own. The baby is wearing a pink ski jacket. She has a full head of light brown, very curly hair, cornflower blue eyes and tan-colored skin a shade or two lighter than A.J.'s own. It's rather a pretty thing.
"Who the hell are you?" A.J. asks the baby.
For no apparent reason, she stops crying and smiles at him. "Maya," she answers.
That was easy, A.J. thinks. "How old are you?" he asks.
Maya holds up two fingers.
Maya smiles again and holds up her arms to him.
"Where is your mommy?"
Maya begins to cry. She continues to hold out her arms to A.J. Because he can't see his way to any other options, A.J. picks her up. She weighs at least as much as a twenty-four carton of hardcovers, heavy enough to strain his back. The baby puts her arms around his neck, and A.J. notes that she smells rather nice, like powder and baby oil. Clearly, this is not some neglected or abused infant. She is friendly, well dressed, and expects—nay, demands—affection. Surely the owner of this bundle will return at any moment with an explanation that makes perfect sense. A broken-down car, say? Or perhaps the mother was struck with a sudden case of food poisoning. In the future, he will rethink his unlocked-door policy. It had only occurred to him that someone might steal something, not that someone might leave something.
She hugs him tighter. Over her shoulder, A.J. notices an Elmo doll sitting on the floor with a note attached to his matted red chest by a safety pin. He sets the baby down and picks up Elmo, a character A.J. has always despised because he seems too needy.
"Elmo!" Maya says.
"Yes," A.J. says. "Elmo." He unpins the note and hands the baby the doll. The note reads:
To the Owner of This Bookstore:
This is Maya. She is twenty-five months old. She is VERY SMART, exceptionally verbal for her age, and a sweet, good girl. I want her to grow up to be a reader. I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kinds of things. I love her very much, but I can no longer take care of her. The father cannot be in her life, and I do not have a family that can help. I am desperate.
Fuck, A.J. thinks.
Maya cries again.
Excerpted from The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. Copyright 2014 by Gabrielle Zevin. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books.