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Read Me Like a Book

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As far as Cassian could tell, there were two types of readers in prison: some wanted the most over the top, unrealistic reading material possible (books about rich people having rich people problems and lots of sex); and the others wanted something even more depressing than the place they were in (mysteries and horror, the bloodier the better).

That was what they couldn’t keep in stock, the books Kay had to keep buying used and scrounging up donated copies of. Anything else was much less in demand. Sometimes an inmate would pick up a movie star bio or a self-help book, but generally, they stuck to sex or death.

Cassian still wasn’t sure exactly how he’d wound up doing this—no, that wasn’t true: it was Kay (the answer was always Kay). His librarian roommate had been lamenting that none of his colleagues were interested in volunteering with the prison visiting program he’d set up.

At a sudden lull in the rant, Cassian had looked up from his phone to find Kay staring at him. He could practically see the circuits lighting up in Kay’s brain.

“Of course, there’s no requirement that the volunteers must be librarians,” Kay said.

At that point it was too late to protest. Cassian knew he’d be visiting the Pen every other Thursday night for the foreseeable future.

Its official name was the Wobani Women’s Correctional Institute. But it was an old prison, and most people still called it by the old name: Wobani Penitentiary, or just “the Pen.” It was a grim place; not that he’d expected a prison to be cheerful, but like most people who hadn’t had to step inside one, Cassian had never thought much about what they were like.

Mostly, it turned out, they were regimented and boring. Like everything else inside, the library visits were strictly regulated: the types of books they were allowed to bring, the order the units came down in, how many women could be in the room at once, exactly how long they could stay. But at least the books he and Kay brought in gave them something else to do or to think about for a little while.

One of them was a little different. She’d been coming to the biweekly visits for six months, but Cassian still didn’t have a handle on what kind of reader she was. Some of the women would ask him for suggestions or if he had a copy of a particular favourite, but this one never said anything and he didn’t have the nerve to ask her what she wanted, especially since she seemed so intent on fading into the background. Sometimes she’d linger and eavesdrop on the conversation while he talked to Denise or Lora about the latest book they'd read. But if he watched her too obviously it made her nervous, so he tried to observe her from the corner of his eye.

He wasn’t sure why she fascinated him; there was nothing outwardly unusual about her except her silence. The first time she came, he hardly even saw her. She’d sidled up to the table, using another woman examining the romance paperbacks for cover, and grabbed The Lord of the Rings.

Two weeks later she brought it back (which was unusual in itself—they didn’t bother checking anything out here because that wasn’t the point, and half of the books never came back anyway) and grabbed A Game of Kings, so he figured she liked fantasy. On his next visit he caught a glimpse of her approaching at a sideways angle and pulled a copy of The Wizard of Earthsea out to offer her. Her head jerked up and she shrank away. He barely caught a glimpse of possibly-green, possibly-hazel eyes veiled behind the bangs hanging in her face before she snatched up a copy of Moby Dick and took off.

The next time he didn’t try to offer her anything. She spent a long time hovering around the table, tipping her head from side to side in thought before sighing and leaving with The Stand.

She missed the next visit, and two weeks later she came back with a fading bruise on her face. That gave him the courage to say something at last, even if it was stupid. “You okay?” he asked, gesturing to his own cheekbone in a feeble indication of what he meant. She looked down at him with a blank expression and in a quiet voice, husky from disuse, said “Yeah.”

He also finally figured out the rationale behind her choices. She ran her hand back and forth over the lined-up spines of the books on the table, her thumb and forefinger spaced apart in a certain way, and he realized she was measuring their thickness.

Of course. The women were only allowed to borrow one book per visit. A longer book meant more reading time.

Before the next visit, Cassian went to his bookcase and dug through it, looking for the cheap Penguin edition of El Quixote he’d bought for a university class on literary translations. His own copy was much nicer of course, but he didn’t know if she could read Spanish, and besides, they weren’t allowed to bring hardcovers into the prison.

When he saw her sidling toward the table, he pulled the Cervantes out of the box he’d hidden it in the bottom of and held it out to her. She stepped back, startled, and eyed him warily.

“I noticed you like long books,” he said casually. “This is the longest one we've got today.”

She came close enough to snag it from his fingers and darted away, standing just out of reach as she scanned the back cover and flipped through the pages. She kept one eye on him the whole time. He was reminded of crows, and the canny way they cocked their heads to watch you: not timid, but far from trusting.

She tucked the book tightly under her elbow and left without a word.

The visit after that, they were denied entry due to “security concerns,” the flat-faced guard said. Kay was unconcerned; he said it had happened plenty of times before, and it usually just meant someone had been caught with contraband in their cell. So it was a month before he was able to watch for her coming and ask, “What did you think of it?”

She blinked and quickly looked away, focusing on the row of books laid out on the table. “It was good. But sad.”

Cassian had made sure to set aside a few more thick books this week, so he pushed them toward her. As she sorted through the pile, she stole another cautious look at him. “It was your book, right?”

He stared at her. “Yeah. How’d you know?”

“You seem like the type to try fighting windmills. I mean, a lot of people would call volunteering here pretty quixotic.” She smiled at him, a tiny smile so fast he almost missed it, proud of her own little joke. Cassian grinned back, delighted.

“Plus, your name was in it.” She folded the cover back and pointed to where he’d scribbled Cassian Andor on the flyleaf. “Are librarians allowed to write in books?”

“I wouldn’t know, I’m not a librarian.” He shrugged. “My roommate is, and he needed help so he roped me in.”

That night she borrowed a copy of Middlemarch and at the next visit, she told him he should read it; it wasn’t nearly as boring as the description made it sound. He laughed and agreed to give it a try.

Two weeks later he was looking forward to telling her she was right. But she wasn’t there. Nor the time after that. After four visits—two full months—without seeing her, he asked the regular Thursday evening guard.

“Erso? Her parole hearing came up, and she finally got out this time.” The man shook his head. “Can’t believe it. I thought she’d serve her full sentence for sure. That girl didn’t know the first thing about keeping her head down and staying out of trouble.”

Cassian managed to thank the guard, and a weight he hadn’t wanted to acknowledge fell off his shoulders. She was safe (presumably) and in a better place; at least, almost anywhere had to be better than Wobani.

Another month went by, two more visits where he distributed copies of Fifty Shades of Grey and Stephen King novels. He didn’t wonder where she’d gone, whether she’d stayed in the city or moved away. He didn’t wonder if she’d found a job, made friends… There was no point in wondering, because he’d never find out. He’d never know anything else about her, not even her first name.

Kay didn’t relent on his agenda of roping Cassian in to assist with his job, though. Monday afternoon he called Cassian at work to announce, “You should attend the library’s book club meeting tonight.”

Cassian rolled his eyes. “And why would I want to do that? You’re always complaining about how no-one bothers to read the book.”

(Personally, he suspected that Kay’s rather robotic method of analyzing literature down to the syllable rather than discussing its broader themes might just be to blame. But it wasn’t worth pointing that out.)

“We’re discussing Don Quixote, and I think you’d have something to contribute,” Kay said huffily.

Cassian waited. There had to be a catch.

“Also, I need higher attendance statistics to show the library board,” Kay admitted.

“Fine, Kay, I’ll come and boost your stats,” Cassian sighed. “But this is the last time you get to use me as free labour, okay? If you want me to spend this much time doing library stuff, give me a part-time job.”

That evening he shuffled into the little meeting room with its uncomfortable plastic chairs, clutching a paper cup of coffee and anticipating a truly awful time. The table by the door was scattered with markers and nametag stickers; Cassian scribbled his name on one and slapped it on his chest.

He scanned the room absent-mindedly, trying to calculate how long he’d have to stay before he could sneak out. Someone else was standing awkwardly in a corner, trying to fade into the wall—it was her. The woman from Wobani.

Cassian choked on his coffee. The noise attracted her attention and she looked in his direction, her eyes widening.

He put his cup down on the table and went toward her, slowly. She didn’t disappear; she didn’t run away. His smile felt like it might crack his face in two.

“Hi, Cassian.” Her voice was still quiet, her answering smile still small, but warm. And her eyes were green, he decided. Definitely green.

He looked at her name tag and held out his hand for her to shake. “Hello, Jyn.”