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Illustration by Drew Shannon

What’s the biggest library fine you’ve ever received?

Two dollars? Five? If you’re an especially avid reader, maybe you lost a book and had to do that dreaded walk of shame to the front desk with your head hung low and reluctantly fork over your money for the embarrassing $10 fee. It’s happened to the best of us, myself included.

As a lonely child without many friends, the public library was sanctuary. Twice a week, I would ride my bike there, lugging nearly 10 pounds of books, and I would leave with the same bag so stuffed full that it was square. I knew the twists and turns of each long shelving unit, the precise place of every book before I knew what the Dewey Decimal System was – to the point where I would help the new librarians stock the aisles. The library was my happy place.

But all good things must come to an end, and as my life became busier, my weekly library trips happened less. Eventually, the day came when I hadn’t been to the library for a couple of months, and yet I still had a pile of long-overdue books stashed away in my closet – my guilty secret, hidden behind storage boxes and discarded socks. With each passing day, dread grew in my chest. The books sat there like toxic mould, infecting every square inch of space. I couldn’t look at them without feeling nauseous.

Did you know that there is a reason why, when signing up for a library card, they ask you for your address? It seems like something ridiculous and somewhat invasive. Why would they need to know where I live?

I discovered the answer when, one late spring day after school, I went to check the mail and my heart stopped. There it was, like something out of a horror movie, sitting smugly in all of its ivory glory: a letter from the Toronto Public Library. With frantic hands I shoved it into my school bag – maybe if I didn’t look at it, it would go away. A physical manifestation of my guilt.

It turns out that they send you a letter when your outstanding library fines become impossible to ignore any longer.

So how much did I owe?

At 11 years old, I owed the library a whopping $100.

Nowadays I have a better concept of money, but as you can imagine, back then, when $10 would make any child feel like a millionaire, $100 was an unimaginable sum.

I was convinced that I was going to have to start a life of crime – already a hundred dollars in debt and only 11, it seemed like the logical choice. I would need to pack my books and leave home to try to outrun the librarian bounty hunter that was sure to be on my tail. There was no doubt in my mind that wanted posters of my face would be plastered across all of the city’s library branches. (Don’t ask me how the library would supposedly get my photo – they could have been tailing me for days. They knew where I lived.)

I would need to plan my escape routes ASAP to make sure that I could avoid any possible places where I might see a librarian. It was crucial to my survival.

It wasn’t long before I was living the life of some Jason Bourne-esque character, withered by the hardships of the everyday life of being on the run – cortisol levels high, heartbeat racing, prepared for anything and everything that could possibly come my way.

At one point that week I was genuinely considering keeping a plastic pink butter knife in my backpack because it would protect me. From what? Why did I need to have a blunt plastic knife in my pencil case? Only the lord and the logic of an 11-year-old with an overactive imagination will ever know.

After a long and tumultuous journey from school, I arrived home. Shrugging off my backpack and stepping up quietly to my room, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye that made my blood run cold and my heart sink in my chest.

Oh god, was that-?

Eyes wide and face aghast, I stumbled closer to the scene.

It couldn’t be.

With trembling fingers, I reached my hand out, my mind racing a mile a minute

No no no NO.

The letter was open. The paper carnage was almost too much to look at. The bone ivory of the envelope torn recklessly, the insides haphazardly strewn across the coffee table. It was the work of a mad person. Someone deranged.

My parents.

They had found the letter.

My days of keeping that awful secret were over, and yet, instead of relief, I felt sick to my stomach.

God have mercy upon my soul.

I could deal with the librarian bounty hunter. I could deal with whatever kind of tracker they’d put on me. Heck, I could even deal with the wanted posters! But my parents? I would’ve rather stabbed myself with the plastic butter knife than face my family. But the piece of pink plastic was in my bag, laying a room away, and my fate was just about to walk into the room.

Two familiar voices overlapped as they rounded the corner, both talking about the library fine in hushed tones. It wasn’t long before they saw me, huddled over the paper wreckage, and their mouths started moving. In my state of shock, I could only make out a few words.

Library, visit and pay – did that mean … did they want me to?

Yes. I was going to have to confront the monstrous creature. I would finally have to face the James Bond villain of my story, the dreaded librarian.

And honestly, it was anticlimactic.

My fine was reduced to $20 because I had brought back the books that had been festering in the dark recess of my closet, and the woman at the front desk smiled at me.

As I handed the librarian a collection of coins from my piggy bank that had made up exactly $20, I came to the realization that my life of crime was over. And maybe, just maybe, I had been making a big deal out of something that could have been solved if I had just told someone instead of staying quiet.

Olivia Webb lives in Toronto.

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