Lizzy liked nothing better than walking over to the public library immediately after school. As the other schoolchildren had collectively decided she was weird, she ignored them in return, preferring to go down Oak Street, turning left on Maple Avenue, and taking a quick right on Sycamore Lane. On her way to the library, invariably her ratty shoes would come untied or she’d lose her jacket, but Lizzy didn’t mind the cold.
Her stepmother would yell at her about the jacket, but Lizzy knew her stepmother didn’t need that as an excuse to be cross with her.
Sometimes Lizzy didn’t walk to the library. Sometimes she skipped or hopped. Sometimes she galloped like a horse. Sometimes she walked backwards. When Miss Barsanti, the Physical Education teacher, taught her class how to square dance, Lizzy tried to Do Si Do or Promenade to the library, but it was hard without a partner. It was hard in class, too, when no one wanted to Allemande Left. But Lizzy paid no mind. At 3:00 p.m., the library patiently waited for her to arrive.
It took Lizzy exactly seven minutes to walk to the library. It took longer if she hopped.
The librarians greeted her warmly, occasionally offering her a bag of potato chips or even an oatmeal raisin cookie. She’d graciously thanked them, as she was always hungry after school. At the far table in the corner by a bay window, Lizzy carefully unpacked her frayed bookbag, pulling out colored folders containing her 4th grade homework. Lizzy called it librarywork since there wasn’t much she did at home. Her father worked nights and her stepmother sat on the back patio with the neighbor ladies and smoked. They talked about things Lizzy didn’t understand.
Lizzy would make herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on Wonder Bread for dinner, cutting it diagonally. It tasted much better that way. She cleaned up since her stepmother preferred her to pick up after herself. She minded her stepmother, but normally it was just to wash up and go to bed because school came early in the morning. Lizzy was well aware that school came early since she walked herself to school, then after school to the library, and then to the house her stepmother declared was too small.
Lizzy looked at her librarywork in front of her, preparing to do battle. She had already washed her hands, taken a large drink from the water fountain, and sharpened three pencils at the library customer service desk. One of the librarians gave Lizzy a piece of what she called coffee cake, but Lizzy thought it tasted more like cupcakes than coffee. She’d once tasted coffee from her stepmother’s mug. It was awful, especially after she was slapped for doing so.
Lizzy’s yellow folder contained her much despised math worksheets. Dutifully, she practiced her multiplication tables, penciling in answer after answer on the rote problems, furrowing her brow as numbers seemed to be the devil’s alphabet. Science was next, neatly tucked into the green folder. Occasionally a topic would intrigue her, sending Lizzy into the stacks in the grown up section of the library, where she would look for oversized books on volcanoes and butterflies. She’d already read most of the books in the juvenile section.
Lizzy took a break from her studies and crawled on all fours in front of one of the librarians who was shelving books. She looped her bookbag around her midsection so it rode on her back.
“What are you today, Lizzy?”
“I’m an Australian quadrupedal marsupial,” she replied, making a low grunting noise.
“Koala?” the librarian guessed.
“I’m not hopping . . .” Lizzy laughed, then motioned to her bookbag. “And I do not have a front facing pouch. Mine is backwards.”
“Can I have another clue?”
“I have cubic feces,” Lizzy said, grinning from ear to ear.
“Your poop is square?” The librarian looked over her glasses. “Are you a wombat, Lizzy?”
“Correct,” Lizzy replied, holding one finger high above her head. “I am a wombat. You get a point!”
“And why do wombats have backward facing pouches? Did God make them in a hurry?”
“Wombats burrow underground. The babies would get buried alive!” Lizzy rolled over on her back and enacted a credible suffocating death.
“Looks like God knew what he was doing with the momma wombats,” the librarian said, not breaking her stride in ordering books on the shelves.
“I guess so,” Lizzy said, remaining uncommitted.
“Lizzy, do you know why wombats have square poop? I cannot fathom a possible reason,” the librarian stopped, looking Lizzy full in the face.
“It’s easier to stack and mark their territory,” Lizzy replied matter-of-factly. She then appeased the librarian by adding, “I guess God took his time with that particular wombat feature.”
They both smiled at each other. Lizzy the wombat crawled back to her table in the corner.
The red social studies folder awaited her with names of far away places like the Tigris and Euphrates. Lizzy went off to discover the aisle on ancient civilizations and lost track of time while flipping through a travel guide on Egypt.
And finally, the purple folder had a worksheet for Language Arts. I saved the best for last, she said. Lizzy loved the Beverly Cleary series her class had just started. She thought Henry Huggins would have definitely been her best friend if she lived on Klickitat Street in Portland, Oregon. Lizzy hugged her book. She hugged most of her books. I saved the best for last, she said aloud.
Her father said that, too, whenever he was home and tucked her in. He would sing her the “Silly Lizzy” song he’d made up long ago and kiss her on top of her head, saying I saved the best for last. He’d usually have dark circles under his eyes from working double shifts, but her mother’s medical bills still came in the mail at regular intervals in thick manila envelopes. It was strange to see her name because she’d been gone for so long. Lizzy would trace the letters of her name on the paperwork.
“The library will be closing in five minutes,” announced a librarian, causing patrons to attend to their belongings and take their items to the check out desk.
Lizzy would normally follow suit, packing up her librarywork in the requisite colored folders, bidding the librarians goodnight, and walking home in the dusk to make her peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
But tonight she was a wombat and would burrow under the stacks in the adult section of the library. When the librarians checked the bathrooms and straightened the tables and chairs, they would leave—and leave Lizzy alone in the peace and quiet of the library. No one would yell at her to wash up and go to bed.
If she became hungry, the librarians wouldn’t mind if she helped herself to the leftover Chinese food in the employee refrigerator or the remaining coffee cake that didn’t taste like coffee at all. If she grew cold, she could help herself to the box of lost & found items under the main circulation desk, as there were always sweaters and jackets and sunglasses and umbrellas left behind. And if she grew lonely, there were all of her friends in hundreds of books happily awaiting her to only turn the page.
Lizzy listened quietly as the librarians made their appointed rounds. Then suddenly the lights were turned off. A lock clicked.
Lizzy rolled out from under the shelves and stretched like all wombats do when leaving their burrows and began to Do Si Do around the library just like Miss Barsanti had taught.