By Kristen Bealer
"I want this one, please."
The librarian looked up from her monitor to see the ten-year-old brunette with glasses holding out a book. The girl hesitated, then placed her library card on the counter.
Looking at the book, George Orwell's Animal Farm, the librarian shook her head sympathetically. "I'm sorry, Daria. You can't check out the grown-up books with this card. I could recommend some of the more advanced children's books for you, if you like."
"I don't want a kid's book. I'm done with those."
"Just like Matilda, right?" The librarian gave her a smile, hoping to coax one from the girl still holding Animal Farm. Daria had enjoyed Roald Dahl's books years earlier, when she had first started coming to the library, but she only scowled at the remark.
"No. Matilda read all of the kid's books. I just read enough to know I don't want to read any more of them. I'd rather read this one." She put the book on the counter, the faintest hint of a plea in her expression.
The older woman sighed and looked first at the book, then at Daria. "Well," she replied slowly. "I suppose I could issue you an adult library card, since this is a special case. You're a few years too young, but only in chronological years." This time her smile was returned.
Fifteen minutes later, Daria walked out of the library with her prize, a slight smile still on her face.
Daria's not-quite-shoulder-length hair fell forward, hiding her face as she leaned forward to read. Next to her, Jenny fidgeted as she waited for class to start. She glanced toward Daria for a moment, then did a double-take to see the cover of Daria's book.
"Hey, that's one of the grown-up library books!" she exclaimed. "How'd you get that?"
Daria's eyes shot left to look at Jenny. "I have an adult library card." She slowly went back to reading, bracing her shoulders against the expected insult.
Wow? Daria closed the book and turned partway in her seat to scrutinize the more popular blond girl sitting by her. "You like to read?"
"Uh, sort of." The girl stared at the chalkboard as she thought for a moment, then looked back at Daria. "Hey, I'm having a sleepover this weekend. You wanna come?"
Daria toyed with the cover of her book before answering. Since when do I get invited to Jenny's exclusive sleepovers? But I guess it's either that or Mom's every-other-Friday-night bonding sessions. "Um... Okay. I guess."
"Awesome! Can you get a book from the library and bring it with you?"
"I could bring this one," Daria suggested, holding up Animal Farm.
"No, there's this one I heard about that I think would be really cool for the sleepover..."
Blushing slightly, Daria continued to read from Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence as the other girls sat around her.
"He kissed her tenderly.
'Never mind,' he said. 'You should please yourself.'
Suddenly she gripped his arms round her, and clenched her body stiff.
'You shall have me,' she said, through her shut teeth.
His heart beat up again like fire. He folded her close, and his mouth was on her throat."
As she continued, she glanced from time to time at the faces around her. Jenny, Chrissy, Melissa, Stephanie, Nicole, and Amber were all focused completely on her. They'd made her the center of attention from the moment she walked into Jenny's house, yet before that week none of them had ever so much as looked her way before.
I never thought any of them liked reading! I just assumed they were as shallow and stupid as all the other kids. I guess I shouldn't judge people before I really know them.
After the sleepover, Daria became the most popular girl in her class. More and more, girls began asking her to get books from the library for them. Several had become big fans of D. H. Lawrence after the slumber party, but she got plenty of other requests, such as Lolita or The Tropic of Capricorn. Soon, even the boys were asking her for books.
"Muh-oh-om!" nine-year-old Quinn complained one evening at dinner. "Everybody at school is ignoring me!"
"Everyone, Quinn?" Helen asked, one eyebrow raised as she winced at Quinn's shrill voice.
"Well, all the fifth-graders, anyway. Like, Justin gives me his cookies every day for lunch, but all week he's been giving them to stupid Daria! It's not fair!"
Quinn's monologue continued, but Helen didn't hear another word. "Daria," she asked, trying to think of a polite way to phrase her question. "Is something... going on at school?"
"Yeah!" Jake interjected. "Who's this Justin guy?" He frowned. "You don't have a boyfriend, do you? You can't have a boyfriend until you're, um..."
As he paused to remember Daria's age, Helen continued. "Are you making new friends?"
"Any friends, you mean," Quinn muttered.
Daria stared at her plate. "Sort of. Some of the kids started talking to me at school, that's all."
"I told you that sleepover would be a great way to show kids the real you!"
Jake snapped out of his thoughts. "So... no boyfriend?"
Desperate to turn everyone's attention back to her, Quinn whined, "And everyone's reading! It's so stupid!"
"That's great, Daria!" Helen cooed, as though Daria had been the one to speak. "New friends and you're sharing your interests with them!"
"Gawd!" Quinn cried. "Mom, tell Daria if she doesn't stop being popular then you'll ground her!"
That night, Daria was reading on her bed when Quinn burst into the room they shared. "You've got to stop!" Quinn begged. "Popularity is, like, my thing! You can't take that away from me!"
Without looking up from her book, Daria smirked. "I'm not taking it away from you. I'm just borrowing it. Indefinitely."
"Please, Daria? Pleeeease?"
"It's too late to stop now, Quinn," Daria teased. "The others have become addicted to my natural charm and magnetism. Cutting them off now could be disastrous."
"I'll pay you!"
"You don't have any money." Daria finally looked up. "If it'll make you feel better, maybe tomorrow I'll share Justin's cookies with you."
"Oooooh!" Quinn moaned. She turned on her heel and left the room, slamming the door behind her.
I really wish I had my own room, Daria reflected. But teasing Quinn about this popularity thing is fantastic.
She closed her book and stretched out on her back to stare at the ceiling. Am I popular? Do I want to be popular? Making Quinn miserable is one thing, but I always figured I was better off on my own.
Idly playing with the pages, she considered her situation. Other kids haven't liked reading before, though. They're the ones who changed, not me. If that suddenly makes me popular, then what's the big deal? It's not like I'd be selling out or something.
She rolled over onto her stomach and opened the book again. It does feel nice to be liked. And I think I like having friends. It won't hurt to try, anyway.
Although the librarian hadn't said anything, Daria was starting to worry that she might get caught. She wasn't sure if letting the other kids read the books she checked out was actually against the rules, but she had never asked. The kids shared the books, and Daria checked out more than enough of her own books that the extra ones were hardly noticeable, but she couldn't shake the feeling she was being dishonest.
Daria was still thrilled that her classmates were reading, but it was turning out to be less fun than she expected. One morning, she turned toward Jenny and asked, "Have you read Animal Farm yet?"
Jenny stared at her blankly for a moment, then shook her head. "Nah. Sounds like a kid's book."
"It's not," Daria replied. "It's about--"
But Jenny was pawing through her desk, looking for a pencil. Daria sighed and shrugged. They are reading, at least. It's a start.
That day at recess, two girls from the sixth grade approached Daria. "You're the book girl, right?" asked the taller one, a redhead named Reagan who used to call Daria "Morgendorker". Reagan thought the nickname was clever. Daria thought girls named after presidents shouldn't throw stones.
"Book girl"? Daria thought. "Uh, I guess so."
The other girl, a bored-looking brunette named Michelle, held out a list. "Could you get these books for us?"
Daria read the first few titles. "These sound like harlequin novels. Those are usually poorly written; I don't think you'd like them."
Reagan laughed. "Jeez, I didn't realize you were particular."
Handing back the list, Daria shook her head. "I can't. Sorry."
A few minutes later, Daria watched Quinn grin idiotically and hand out brownies to any student who would speak to her. Chrissy came to stand next to her and asked, "Did you tell Reagan and Michelle you wouldn't get any books for them?"
"The books they wanted sucked. I wouldn't even want to touch them, let alone check them out."
"But that's not fair!"
"It's my card. Don't I get to decide what books I get?"
Chrissy didn't say anything for a few minutes. "Well, yeah, but aren't you our friend? It's mean to tell people what they should read."
Daria closed her eyes and sighed. "Look. I think I should stop getting books for everybody. I don't think I'm supposed to be sharing them."
"What?" Chrissy moved to stand in front of Daria. "Just one more, please? I'm having a slumber party this weekend, and there's this one book that I think you'd totally like! It's kind of different from the other ones, but we, um, heard it's really good. Please?"
"I'll think about it."
Daria walked into her room that night to see Quinn holding one of her books. Brow furrowed, Quinn was laboriously working her way through Moby Dick.
"Quinn? Are you feeling all right?"
Quinn glared at her sister. "Go away! I'm trying to read."
"Yeah, that's why I'm worried." Daria considered, then cut back her sarcasm. "Um, if you want something a little easier to read, I could--"
Tossing the book aside in disgust, Quinn's glare intensified. "I'm just trying to fit in at school. I don't know why all those kids are reading, but I'll do anything to get them to pay attention to me again!"
Daria rolled her eyes. "Well, if attention is all you want, you could try shaving your head."
"Just forget it!"
As she lay in bed, trying to sleep, Daria thought about Chrissy's words. One more. They'll still be my friends, but I won't have to lie anymore. Maybe I can share some of my own books with them. She smiled. Yeah. I'll get this one last library book for the sleepover, but I'll bring some of my books, too. Maybe start with Black Beauty. I bet they'd like Jane Austen, too. Anything I've got is probably better than...
"Jackie Collins?" the librarian asked. She stared at the book Daria had just handed her, then at the girl. "Are you sure you want to read this one?"
"Um, I guess," Daria replied. She stared at the floor, chewing on a thumbnail.
Looking back at the book, the librarian cleared her throat. "When I gave you the adult library card, I probably should have set a few guidelines first." Daria's eyes widened. "It's just that, well, some of the books you've been checking out lately have me a little worried. Maybe we should go back to the children's card for a while longer."
"No!" Daria's voice
echoed loudly in the quiet building, and she blushed. "I mean," she said
more quietly, "those weren't really my books."
"Some of the kids at school wanted to read them. They asked me to get them. The books weren't for me. I'm sorry." Daria looked close to tears. "Am I in trouble?"
The older woman steadied herself against the counter as a few things clicked into place. "Oh, dear..."
Daria looked horrified as she took in the librarian's pale face and slight scowl. "I didn't mean to lie." She set the card on the counter. "I'm really sorry. You can have the card back."
Shaking her head, she slid the card back toward Daria. "No, you aren't in trouble. But I think those kids have been playing sort of a trick on you." Seeing Daria's confusion, she spoke cautiously. "Some of these books, you see, have scenes in them that are... sexual. The kids wanted to read those books, and you had an adult library card, so..."
"They used me." The confusion was gone from Daria's face, replaced with bitterness and indignation.
The librarian started to speak, but only nodded. "I'm afraid so."
"But I thought--" Daria snapped her mouth shut, and lowered her head so her hair hid her face. "They're having another slumber party on Friday," she muttered, so quietly the librarian could barely hear. "That's what the book was for. Guess I'm not going after all."
As Daria began to turn away, the librarian held up a hand. "Wait." Daria looked up, revealing cold eyes but quivering lips. The librarian looked into that face and felt a shiver of disgust at the other children. An idea formed. "You should go to that slumber party. I even know what book you should bring."
"When the buckets fell, she was at first only aware of a loud, metallic clang cutting through the music, and then she was deluged in warmth and wetness. She closed her eyes instinctively. There was a grunt from beside her, and in the part of her mind that had come so recently awake, she sensed brief pain..."
Daria solemnly read from Stephen King's Carrie. She had drained all expression from her reading voice, using a flawless deadpan to frighten the girls even more.
"Thank you so much!" Daria told the librarian, excitement edging her voice. "It worked! They were terrified!"
"Serves them right," replied the librarian, smiling. "But didn't the story scare you, too?"
"A little. I kind of liked the creepy parts. And the violence was all right. I wish I could write like that."
"You could try. You might find you like writing as much as you like reading."
"I might. Thanks again, Ms. Powers!"
"Daria, we've known each other for years. You can call me Melody."
Passages quoted from Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence and Carrie by Steven King.
Thank you to Ranger Thorne and RLobinske for beta reading.