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 expectsnay, demandsaffection. 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. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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