It started with Anne of Green Gables, the most boring book we could find. Not one of us would lose a wink of sleep if that book suddenly vanished from existence, so we didn’t much care if nobody ever got to know what happened at the end. The librarians sure were impressed with us for a while, though. They thought we had suddenly taken an interest in works of classic literature- all of us, at the same time. Adults can really be so naive.
I don’t know whose decision it was to hire the worst handyman in the world to service a middle school, but man I’d like to know where they got that guy. We’d see him strolling down the hallways all the time in his bleach-washed jeans rolled up at the ankles, eyeing up a few of the girls and mean-mugging everyone else. I never saw him actually fix anything but I did see him smoking out by the bus ramp whenever I skipped out of class for an afternoon stroll. The first time I saw him I thought for sure he was gonna rat me out but he just glanced at me lazily like I was a passing squirrel, finished his cigarette, and moseyed back inside.
One day me and a couple of guys were hanging at the back of the library passing around a comic book with some juicy female illustrations when we heard one of the librarians call maintenance to come right away. She said Code Orange or Blue or whatever which evidently signaled something between “come kill a roach” and “come dismantle a bomb.” Shortly after, Handyman Hank came rambling in asking, “Where’s it at?” after which we sortof scooted around a shelf to peek and see what was up.
Some nerd had apparently yanked his laptop charger out of the wall so hard that he broke the plug and left one of the prongs sticking out of the wall socket. This posed a “safety hazard,” subject to immediate removal, so Hank lugged out his rubber-handled pliers and popped that sucker out. He purposely swung around and held the prong an inch away from the librarian’s face to show his job well done. I’m sure her reaction was noteworthy, but none of us were looking at her- our eyes were on the bic lighter that had fallen out of Hank’s back pocket during the swift motion.
He didn’t notice it and neither did she, but as soon as he left and her back was turned, one of us snatched it up like a coveted prize. That’s when the whole thing started- I’m not really sure how, but after we took turns flicking it from behind a shelf, somebody had the bright idea to burn pages. Not enough to raise any suspicion, just one page from one book that no one would ever notice.
We didn’t want to set off the smoke alarms, so one of us checked out the agreed-upon travesty, much to the delight of the librarian, and we met after school around the block for the ceremony. Just one page, the second-to-last page- not enough to be noticeable at first glance, but enough to totally ruin the story at the last minute.
We started doing it all the time- we’d take turns having custody of the lighter, and whoever had the lighter got to choose the book, whatever horrible piece of work they’d been forced to read against their will. Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, Huckleberry Finn; all of them had their endings ruined quickly and quietly, with no outcry from anywhere. We were the censors and we were the curators, and nobody ever knew.
It’s weird to think about it now, what eventually stopped us. The lighter just ran out of fluid, and nobody even bothered to suggest we refill it. I’m not sure if we’d already been getting bored of our game before that or if we were just too lazy to keep the scheme going, but when the lighter died we all just forgot about it and went back to sneaking dirty comic books. We never even got caught.
I sometimes wonder about it though, years later. I wonder if anybody ever did complain about the burned-out pages, or if the librarian ever was suspicious of our sudden literary interests. I wonder if Hank ever noticed his lighter was missing, or if he ever sweat a little for his job, thinking that he might’ve been ratted out by whoever found it. I wonder that none of us ever went on to do anything worse than that few days of vandalism, and that several of us eventually went off to college together.
But mostly I wonder, if I can admit to myself- I wonder why we ever stopped when we could’ve kept it going forever.