by Amy Bee
I started reading Stephen King when I was 11 years old. I’d already worked my way through the Sweet Valley Highs and Nancy Drews and the sad stories of young girls losing their fathers to Alzheimer’s. At my friend’s house, there was a small bookcase in the hallway with glossy, hardback books that looked exciting. One title especially jumped out at me: Night Shift. “Excursions Into Horror,” the caption read under the author’s name. A large gauze-wrapped hand sprouting eyeballs along the finger lines and thumb filled the entire front cover. “Those are for adults,” my friend informed me. I pulled the book out, holding my breath like it was something illicit: a gun or a knife, a rabid animal.
I wasn’t even remotely a sheltered kid. By seven I knew ‘fuck’ meant ‘intercourse,’ and I was routinely telling people to “intercourse off.” At five, my mother explained to me with a drug-induced weariness that, in fact, the Easter Bunny had NOT skipped me that year. There actually wasn’t an Easter Bunny; just my mom forgetting to lay out baskets.
“And, by the way, kiddo,” she added, slumped within the recesses of our frumpy brown couch, “Easter and Christmas? Not really about gifts at all. They’re a religious celebration over a man loved by a lot of people. He ended up being ‘crucified,’ tied to a cross and left for dead.” She shifted deeper into the shadowy depths of faded pleather. “Easter and Christmas didn’t even belong to this religion, anyway. Before Jesus, those days were for pagans to revel in the coming of spring and then harvest. One religion erased for another. Got it? It’s all made up.”
“So…” I stopped. Visions of crosses on a hillside where bloody bodies swung danced inside my head. Colored eggs dotted the green grass below, while Peter Cottontail gathered them up in delightfully adorned wicker baskets to deliver to deserving children everywhere. “So… you’re the Easter Bunny?” I asked.
“You’re damn right,” she agreed, “Now let me sleep.”
The moment I saw Night Shift, I knew I had to read it. There was stuff in there. Stuff I simply had to know. I brought the book upstairs to my friend’s mother. “May I please borrow this?” I asked. My friend trailed behind me, annoyed. Her mother looked down at me, and what was in my hand. “Well, well. Stephen King, eh?” She wiped her slim fingers along the hem of her dark wash denim and squatted on the tips of her purple-painted toes to talk more directly to me. “Reading that could be quite an undertaking.”
“Oh, I love to read, I read all the time.” I took the opportunity of her proximity to surreptitiously breathe in all the wonderful smells that were my friend’s mom: Pine, Sandalwood, minty toothpaste. Her soft, earthy features dazzled me.
I handed the book to her, and she turned it over several times. “You might be too young for this. It could be scary.”
“Did you like it when you read it?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s a great read. One of my favorite authors.” She leaned closer to me, looking into my eyes, making some kind of judgment call. “I want you to ask your mom. If she says you can read it, you can read it.” She handed the book back to me.
“Thank you very much.” I held my prize close to my chest.
“Can I read the book, mom?” my friend asked.
“Absolutely not,” her mom responded.
I knew it was traitorous to enjoy it so much. Saying please and thank you didn’t warrant such adoration, especially at my friend’s expense. At home, nothing I did was wonderful, and I was often considered the root of all problems. When I told my mom that the people next door thought I was a bright, well-mannered, upstanding citizen of the world, she frowned. One of her silver Korat cats sat curled on her lap; a single green eye fixed on me with contempt. “Well, that’s great, Amy.” She exhaled a long plume of marijuana smoke in my direction. “I’m glad you have the people out there fooled. Because in here, I’d say your actions are questionable.” Sometimes my mom was grateful that “the world” saw me in a good light, other times she took it as a threat. That time it was a threat.
But she let me borrow Night Shift. Because books mattered. Maybe more than anything. The fact that I read voraciously was my one redeemable quality. Even when I was grounded, which was all the time, I was allowed to go to the library. All of us, including my stepdad, would exit the fanciest building in town (for the library was also the town hall) with our arms piled high with the maximum allowed books: fourteen. And every two weeks we’d trade our fourteen in for fourteen more. The very best day to ask anything of my mother was Library Day. The worst day was Grocery Day.
Night Shift changed my reading habits. I began to browse on the other side of the library, the Adult Section. I’d bring up my pile of thick hardcovers and feel a certain amount of pride when the librarian would look at the titles, then at me, surprised.
The first time I crossed sides, a librarian called my Mom over when I approached the counter, pointing down at my selection, waiting for an adverse reaction. Instead, Mom raised her chin. “My daughter has permission to read whatever the hell she wants from this library, understand?” She winked at me.
I sat my stack down on the counter quietly, with dignity. I hoped I came off as worldly and intellectual. The librarian frowned the whole time as she stamped each book with the due by date. “Do you want a bag, honey?” she asked, her mouth a thin line, watching me as I struggled to wrap my arms around my bounty. “No thank you, ma’am,” I said, using my chin to stop the books from toppling over.
My mom was extra animated that day. She smiled the whole way home. I basked in her love and approval hungrily, not knowing when I’d have her good graces again. “That lady can intercourse off, am I right?” I asked. My mom dissolved into giggles. The smoke from her joint billowed out of her nostrils in two thick plumes.