Lips, sticky, not how his mother kissed. He only considered the difference in their ages whenever he tasted her makeup.
“Are we in trouble?” Bobby asked.
“No,” Val said, “not anymore.”
The white cliffs of southern England spread out beyond them, disappearing where the blues, sea and sky, coalesce. High up in the cab of the mobile library, they could not see the land below them, just the ocean’s ceaseless loop, as if they were driving an island through the sea to a faraway place. Hemmed by a crescent of police cars to the cliff edge, bulbs flashed, helicopters chopped up the air. When the sirens fell mute, he saw her, exquisite in the dim dashboard light.
Rosa rested her head in the shallow pool of sun on Val’s lap. Bobby’s stomach gurgled.
“Are you hungry?” Val asked. The noise, a purr, came from another compartment inside him, one contented, not troubled by bubbling chambers of acid or some such bodily thing.
“No,” he said, and kissed her again.
• • •
Detective Jimmy Samas, chase-weary but enlivened by its imminent conclusion, stood by his car. He knew the other officers were waiting for him to issue an order, but he could not conjure one. It was a high-profile investigation. His job was to lead it, and so his colleagues presumed he would know what to do. They were wrong.
At times he felt too young to do his job, though this was precisely why he was good at it. His boyish nature and blemishless skin provoked sympathy in others. Sympathy is an invaluable asset in the business of negotiation. People immediately felt sorry for the fresh-faced boy sent to do the work of a man, and it was in this second of distraction that Detective Samas was usually able to free a hostage, or talk a man down from a ledge.
The gummy gnaw of tiredness made it difficult to concentrate. He considered his priorities. Continual reassessment of the objective at hand had formed a major part of his training, and he did well to remember that now, his eyelids pinching in spasm. Chief among his concerns was the safety of the two children, Bobby Nusku and Rosa Reed, aged twelve and thirteen respectively. Regardless, a hundred and one other problems crackled in the heat of his mind. For starters, there was the woman, Rosa’s mother, Valerie Reed, who at any moment might drive the truck into the sea. Who knew where her mind was? Evading the law, whether willfully or not (that remained to be seen), was a mightily stressful business. First-time kidnappers, particularly single mothers with an otherwise clean record, would feel that anxiety more keenly than most. A wrong move on Detective Samas’s part could prompt disaster. He watched a live news crew setting up behind the police barrier and unstuck his collar from the sweat beading on his neck. Televised disaster, at that.
Besides Ms. Reed, of course, there was the not insignificant matter of the man Detective Samas had reason to believe was hidden in the back of the vehicle, and whose pursuit had shorn sleep from him for months. He put the bullhorn to his mouth but didn’t squeeze the trigger. Instead he appreciated a calm that exists only by the sea. The jeer of diving gulls and the tide washing the rocks. He took a deep breath, trying to co-opt its serenity.
The mobile library formed the trailer of a semitruck, the type that rattled teeth as it streaked by on the highway—a real gumtingler. Originally painted pea green, the library was so long that Val could barely see its rear end in the wing mirror, just the rusting skirt of its livery. Rolling through the countryside it appeared, to a squinting eye, as a mirage moving on the breeze. Now the white emulsion with which they’d covered it was flaking, and this original bed of color could be seen again, along with the words Mobile Library, returning like a memory once forgotten.
On the side was written its weight, twenty tons. Many months previously, as they had sat on the mobile library’s steps watching zigzag jet trails carve a blushing summer sky, Val had said twenty tons is what a whale might weigh “if you could catch it and slap it on the scales.” Rosa had hooted with delight. They had read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick together. To her, with the sea view now before them, it appeared that the story was, in some tiny, beautiful way, coming true. Searching the foam breaks of waves for glimpses of the whale’s silver hump breaching, or a blowhole spouting, Ahab’s heart (that madly seekest him) was now Rosa’s, beating as if her imagination might fill it with joy enough to burst. How quickly, she wondered, would the mobile library sink, when the whale smashed its chassis and dragged it down into the sea? She would not need to wait long to know.
“I love you,” Bobby said, and Val flinched like she had never before heard those three words strung together in that certain painful order.
As the sun rose, heat beat out the cab’s cool air. Bobby’s T-shirt clung to his belly, a transparent skin over the pale smirk of his scars. Bert panted, sweat collecting on the glistening black cherry of his nose.
• • •
Detective Samas had not accounted for the presence of a dog. No mention of it had cropped up in the case notes. Only now that it had been sighted by the police helicopter humming overhead, and the news relayed to him over the radio clipped to his belt, was he even aware of its existence. A dog! How had this been overlooked? Even a detective as sharp as he could not be in complete mastery of the details in such a sprawling case. This was precisely the kind of oversight he’d been desperate to avoid. Animals were far more unpredictable than kidnappers or fugitives. Generally speaking, he found that the less hairy the variable, the better. He imagined it savaging his testicles as he tried to calmly negotiate the children’s release. Contemplating the job ahead had already prompted the first dreadful needling of a catastrophic migraine. Switching off his mobile phone in case his girlfriend went into labor and called, he felt momentarily guilty. Bad timing, he supposed. There was a job to do.
• • •
Nothing happened for a while. The mobile library stood strangely dormant, surrounded by police cars on the clifftop, existing in the uneasy lull before the future comes. Val had never looked forward much before. To her, the future was a Magic Eye picture, always disappearing whenever she verged on fully grasping its shape. But she could see it clearly now. It was beautiful and full of love and she wanted it, but it had never seemed further away. Perhaps it was she who was vanishing.
“We had an adventure,” Val said, like it was over. “That’s all we ever promised to do.”
A warm film covered Bobby’s eyes. “Like in a book,” he said.
Bobby looked in the mirror and saw the detective’s reflection as he approached. He had seen him before, on the television news, and noticed the red flecks in his moustache, a neat copper awning for his lips. The detective’s shirt was crumpled, as if his clothes had gone to sleep without him.
• • •
Running through a mental checklist of everything he knew about Valerie Reed, Detective Samas realized that it amounted to more than he knew about his own girlfriend. Rather than saddening him, this epiphany buoyed the detective with renewed confidence. Perhaps, just perhaps, he was better equipped to handle this investigation than anybody else. Some talk had circulated, in light of how long the case had gone on, that it should be handed over to a more senior officer. Nonsense, he thought now.
When he got to within four meters of the mobile library, Val leaned out of the window and nixed his assurance with the devastating speed of a bullet shot through the bottom of a barrel.
“Stop,” she said, “wait right there,” and he did, shielding his eyes with a yellow-fingered hand and smoking a cigarette; the ash whipped in dances from the end of it.
• • •
“What does that man want?” Bobby asked.
“He wants to speak to me,” Val said.
“Tell him to go away.”
“He just wants to check we’re okay.”
“Of course we’re okay.” He clambered over Val’s legs, put his mouth to the small gap at the top of the driver’s side window and shouted, “Of course we’re okay!”
“We’re okay! We’re okay!” Rosa said, and they both laughed.
• • •
Detective Samas took a few steps backward. Had the wind not picked up enough to extinguish his smoke, he’d have heard the collective sigh of the tired police officers standing by their vehicles, guns trained on the mobile library’s rear door from where it seemed any danger was most likely to emerge. It had been a long, frustrating night chasing shadows that refused to be boxed.
• • •
Val put an arm around Bobby’s waist and another around Rosa’s shoulders and bunched them together, burying her head between their bodies so they could both feel wet from her face. Bobby butterfly-kissed Rosa on the forehead and she swallowed loud enough that they all heard it.
“Do you want me to go out there and tell him to go away?” he asked. Val shook her head. “Because I will. I’ll protect you.”
“I know you will,” she said, “you’re my man.” She held him even more tightly, so that their bodies creaked with a realization—this might be the last time.
“Tell me a story,” he said.
“All of the books are locked up in the library,” she said.
“Then make one up. One with a happy ending.”
“I told you before, there’s no such thing as an ending.”
“Then start to tell a happy story and stop before you get to the end. If we decide where it ends, than it’s bound to be happy, isn’t it?”
She peered into the mirror again.
• • •
Skimming the grass with the sole of his shoe, Detective Samas tried to decide his next move. Should he rap on the window, or wait for Val to open the door? There would be no benefit in trying to establish authority here. Though he wore the badge, she had the upper hand. He decided to bide his time, and hoped that whatever they were discussing in there wouldn’t take much longer. His colleagues were already starting to suspect, quite correctly, that he didn’t know what to do. Feeling woefully out of his depth was something he was getting used to. Impending fatherhood had seen to that.
• • •
Far from being offended, as the subjects of negotiations often were, that the force had sent a relative youngster to deal with her, Val watched Detective Samas for a few seconds, long enough to see something that she could relate to absolutely. Fear. In that moment they shared it, mournfully, like the last of the rations.
Beyond him, past the police line, on the hill that led back up into Britain, was an ice cream van emblazoned with vibrant colors. At first glance she thought it a tastelessly decorated ambulance, parked as it was behind a row of others.
“Who would like an ice cream?” she asked. Bobby and Rosa thrust their hands into the air, waking Bert from the delight of a newly entered slumber.
Val removed a note from her purse, the fake gold clasp shining a greenish hue, and held it out toward Bobby, clutching it tight, a flower in her hand that unfurled when she opened it.
“Here,” she said, “take Rosa and Bert and buy us all an ice cream.” Bobby shrank back into his seat, not keen on the notion that they might be parted for the first time in months. “What are you waiting for?”
“You’re not coming?”
“I’ll stay and guard the mobile library.”
“The police will catch us,” Rosa said.
“The police won’t catch you because the police only catch bad people. Isn’t that right, Bobby?” Bobby understood the pretense, and nodded, so that Rosa copied him with that charming delay she’d perfected. Val had made a new plan, and he trusted her, despite not knowing what it was.
He pulled on his plimsolls, then attached the dog’s lead to his collar and put the handle into Bert’s mouth. Lazy, even by the standards of old dogs, Bert insisted on walking himself. “Just keep going,” Val said, “all the way to the ice cream van. Don’t let them stop you. And make sure you get me a big one, with lots of chocolate sprinkles on top.”
• • •
Detective Samas tugged the plump knot of his tie tight. Something about the situation rested awkwardly on his conscience. No amount of training could have prepared him for it. To what life was he returning the boy? He had met Bobby Nusku’s father, and seen not the hollow a lost child leaves, but hints of indifference in the space where it should have been. What misery would he, in helping, inflict? There were no happy endings to this story, he was sure of it.
• • •
Val hugged Rosa, whose body loosened to fit around her mother’s, and they became the same for a second, merging to make pairs of everything. Then she put her hands on Bobby’s face to pull him close, and they kissed a final time. She closed her eyes and hoped that nothing would go wrong.
“I love you,” she said, and he had not heard the words before either, not like that, not sewn together with such magical thread.
He climbed out of the cab and felt the air cool his ankles. Rosa came next, and then Bert, leaping to the dewy grass on the clifftop, only a misstep from the violent drop of the edge.
• • •
The detective watched, incredulous, as the children for whom he’d been searching since before autumn came ambling past him arm in arm, followed by a dog, apparently walking itself.
“Hello,” Rosa said, “I am Rosa Reed. What is your name?”
“My name is Jimmy Samas,” Detective Samas said, tipping his head to the side. Rosa stopped and wrote his name down in her notebook.
Many surreal moments had punctuated his service, but none more so than this. It had more in common with a dream’s wobbly oddity than it did real life.
Bobby, Rosa and Bert continued on their way. They walked past the police cars and the men and women in their smart blue uniforms, with silver badges and heavy belts so black as to blaze off reflections of the sun, past the eager news crews, past the waiting ambulances. They walked all the way to the ice cream van.
• • •
Detective Jimmy Samas approached the mobile library.
Bobby didn’t turn around until the fire melted the ice cream over his trembling fingers. Smoke inked the sky.
“An archivist of his mother,” Bobby Nusku spends his nights meticulously cataloging her hair, clothing, and other traces of the life she left behind. By day, Bobby and his best friend Sunny hatch a plan to transform Sunny, limb-by-limb, into a cyborg who could keep Bobby safe from schoolyard torment and from Bobby’s abusive father and his bleach-blonde girlfriend. When Sunny is injured in a freak accident, Bobby is forced to face the world alone.
Out in the neighborhood, Bobby encounters Rosa, a peculiar girl whose disability invites the scorn of bullies. When Bobby takes Rosa home, he meets her mother, Val, a lonely divorcee, whose job is cleaning a mobile library. Bobby and Val come to fill the emotional void in each other’s lives, but their bond also draws unwanted attention. After Val loses her job and Bobby is beaten by his father, they abscond in the sixteen-wheel bookmobile. On the road they are joined by Joe, a mysterious but kindhearted ex-soldier. This “puzzle of people” will travel across England, a picaresque adventure that comes to rival those in the classic books that fill their library-on-wheels.
At once tender, provocative and darkly funny, Mobile Library is a fable about the intrinsic human desire to be loved and understood—and about one boy’s realization that the kinds of adventures found in books can happen in real life. It is the ingenious second novel by a writer whose prose has been hailed as “outlandishly clever” (The New York Times) and “deceptively effortless” (The Boston Globe).