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So where the hell do we go? Rudy asked.

How should I know? This was your idea, wasnt it?

That doesnt mean you shouldnt think a little, too. I cant think of everything.

You can barely think of anything. . . .

They argued on as they walked through town. On the outskirts, they witnessed the first of the farms and the trees standing like emaciated statues. The branches were gray and when they looked up at them, there was nothing but ragged limbs and empty sky.

Rudy spat.

They walked back through Molching, making suggestions.

What about Frau Diller?

What about her?

Maybe if we say heil Hitler and then steal something, well be all right.

After roaming Munich Street for an hour or so, the daylight was drawing to a close and they were on the verge of giving up. Its pointless, Rudy said, and Im even hungrier now than Ive ever been. Im starving, for Christs sake. He walked another dozen steps before he stopped and looked back. Whats with you? because now Liesel was standing completely still, and a moment of realization was strapped to her face.

Why hadnt she thought of it before?

What is it? Rudy was becoming impatient. Saumensch, whats going on?

At that very moment, Liesel was presented with a decision. Could she truly carry out what she was thinking? Could she really seek revenge on a person like this? Could she despise someone this much?

She began walking in the opposite direction. When Rudy caught up, she slowed a little in the vain hope of achieving a little more clarity. After all, the guilt was already there. It was moist. The seed was already bursting into a dark-leafed flower. She weighed up whether she could really go through with this. At a crossroad, she stopped.

I know a place.

They went over the river and made their way up the hill.

On Grande Strasse, they took in the splendor of the houses. The front doors glowed with polish, and the roof tiles sat like toupees, combed to perfection. The walls and windows were manicured and the chimneys almost breathed out smoke rings.

Rudy planted his feet. The mayors house?

Liesel nodded, seriously. A pause. They fired my mama.

When they angled toward it, Rudy asked just how in Gods name they were going to get inside, but Liesel knew. Local knowledge, she answered. Local But when they were able to see the window to the library at the far end of the house, she was greeted with a shock. The window was closed.

Well? Rudy asked.

Liesel swiveled slowly and hurried off. Not today, she said. Rudy laughed.

I knew it. He caught up. I knew it, you filthy Saumensch. You couldnt get in there even if you had the key.

Do you mind? She quickened even more and brushed aside Rudys commentary. We just have to wait for the right opportunity. Internally, she shrugged away from a kind of gladness that the window was closed. She berated herself. Why, Liesel? she asked. Why did you have to explode when they fired Mama? Why couldnt you just keep your big mouth shut? For all you know, the mayors wife is now completely reformed after you yelled and screamed at her. Maybe shes straightened herself out, picked herself up. Maybe shell never let herself shiver in that house again and the window will be shut forever. . . . You stupid Saumensch!

A week later, however, on their fifth visit to the upper part of Molching, it was there.

The open window breathed a slice of air in.

That was all it would take.

It was Rudy who stopped first. He tapped Liesel in the ribs, with the back of his hand. Is that window, he whispered, open? The eagerness in his voice leaned from his mouth, like a forearm onto Liesels shoulder.

Jawohl, she answered. It sure is.

And how her heart began to heat.

On each previous occasion, when they found the window clamped firmly shut, Liesels outer disappointment had masked a ferocious relief. Would she have had the neck to go in? And who and what, in fact, was she going in for? For Rudy? To locate some food?

No, the repugnant truth was this:

She didnt care about the food. Rudy, no matter how hard she tried to resist the idea, was secondary to her plan. It was the book she wanted. The Whistler. She wouldnt tolerate having it given to her by a lonely, pathetic old woman. Stealing it, on the other hand, seemed a little more acceptable. Stealing it,

in a sick kind of sense, was like earning it.

The light was changing in blocks of shade.

The pair of them gravitated toward the immaculate, bulky house. They rustled their thoughts.

You hungry? Rudy asked.

Liesel replied. Starving. For a book.

Looka light just came on upstairs.

I see it.

Still hungry, Saumensch?

They laughed nervously for a moment before going through the motions of who should go in and who should stand watch. As the male in the operation, Rudy clearly felt that he should be the aggressor, but it was obvious that Liesel knew this place. It was she who was going in. She knew what was on the other side of the window.

She said it. It has to be me.

Liesel closed her eyes. Tightly.

She compelled herself to remember, to see visions of the mayor and his wife. She watched her gathered friendship with Ilsa Hermann and made sure to see it kicked in the shins and left by the wayside. It worked. She detested them.

They scouted the street and crossed the yard silently.

Now they were crouched beneath the slit in the window on the ground floor. The sound of their breathing amplified.

Here, Rudy said, give me your shoes. Youll be quieter.

Without complaint, Liesel undid the worn black laces and left the shoes on the ground. She rose up and Rudy gently opened the window just wide enough for Liesel to climb through. The noise of it passed overhead, like a low-flying plane.

Liesel heaved herself onto the ledge and tussled her way inside. Taking off her shoes, she realized, was a brilliant idea, as she landed much heavier on the wooden floor than shed anticipated. The soles of her feet expanded in that painful way, rising to the inside edges of her socks.

The room itself was as it always was.

Liesel, in the dusty dimness, shrugged off her feelings of nostalgia. She crept forward and allowed her

eyes to adjust.

Whats going on? Rudy whispered sharply from outside, but she waved him a backhander that meant

Halts Maul. Keep quiet.

The food, he reminded her. Find the food. And cigarettes, if you can.

Both items, however, were the last things on her mind. She was home, among the mayors books of every color and description, with their silver and gold lettering. She could smell the pages. She could almost taste the words as they stacked up around her. Her feet took her to the right-hand wall. She knew the one she wantedthe exact positionbut when she made it to The Whistlers usual place on the shelf, it was not there. A slight gap was in its place.

From above, she heard footsteps.

The light! Rudy whispered. The words were shoved through the open window. Its out!

Scheisse.

Theyre coming downstairs.

There was a giant length of a moment then, the eternity of split-second decision. Her eyes scanned the room and she could see The Whistler, sitting patiently on the mayors desk.

Hurry up, Rudy warned her. But very calmly and cleanly, Liesel walked over, picked up the book, and made her way cautiously out. Headfirst, she climbed from the window, managing to land on her feet again, feeling the pang of pain once more, this time in her ankles.

Come on, Rudy implored her. Run, run. Schnell!

Once around the corner, on the road back down to the river and Munich Street, she stopped to bend over and recover. Her body was folded in the middle, the air half frozen in her mouth, her heart tolling in her ears.

Rudy was the same.

When he looked over, he saw the book under her arm. He struggled to speak. Whatshe grappled with the wordswith the book?

The darkness was filling up truly now. Liesel panted, the air in her throat defrosting. It was all I could find.

Unfortunately, Rudy could smell it. The lie. He cocked his head and told her what he felt was a fact. You didnt go in for food, did you? You got what you wanted. . . .

Liesel straightened then and was overcome with the sickness of another realization.

The shoes.

She looked at Rudys feet, then at his hands, and at the ground all around him.

What? he asked. What is it?

Saukerl, she accused him. Where are my shoes? Rudys face whitened, which left her in no doubt. Theyre back at the house, she suggested, arent they?

Rudy searched desperately around himself, begging against all reality that he might have brought them with him. He imagined himself picking them up, wishing it truebut the shoes were not there. They sat uselessly, or actually, much worse, incriminatingly, by the wall at 8 Grande Strasse.

Dummkopf ! he admonished himself, smacking his ear. He looked down shamefully at the sullen sight of Liesels socks. Idiot! It didnt take him long to decide on making it right. Earnestly, he said, Just wait, and he hurried back around the corner.

Dont get caught, Liesel called after him, but he didnt hear.

The minutes were heavy while he was gone.

Darkness was now complete and Liesel was quite certain that a Watschen was most likely in the cards when she returned home. Hurry, she murmured, but still Rudy didnt appear. She imagined the sound of a police siren throwing itself forward and reeling itself in. Collecting itself.

Still, nothing.

Only when she walked back to the intersection of the two streets in her damp, dirty socks did she see him. Rudys triumphant face was held nicely up as he trotted steadily toward her. His teeth were gnashed into a grin, and the shoes dangled from his hand. They nearly killed me, he said, but I made it. Once theyd crossed the river, he handed Liesel the shoes, and she threw them down.

Sitting on the ground, she looked up at her best friend. Danke, she said. Thank you.

Rudy bowed. My pleasure. He tried for a little more. No point asking if I get a kiss for that, I guess?

For bringing my shoes, which you left behind?

Fair enough. He held up his hands and continued speaking as they walked on, and Liesel made a concerted effort to ignore him. She only heard the last part. Probably wouldnt want to kiss you anywaynot if your breaths anything like your shoes.

You disgust me, she informed him, and she hoped he couldnt see the escaped beginnings of a smile that had fallen from her mouth.

On Himmel Street, Rudy captured the book. Under a lamppost, he read out the title and wondered what it was about.

Dreamily, Liesel answered. Just a murderer.

Is that all?

Theres also a policeman trying to catch him.

Rudy handed it back. Speaking of which, I think were both slightly in for it when we get home. You especially.

Why me?

You knowyour mama.

What about her? Liesel was exercising the blatant right of every person whos ever belonged to a family. Its all very well for such a person to whine and moan and criticize other family members, but they wont let anyone else do it. Thats when you get your back up and show loyalty. Is there something wrong with her?

Rudy backed away. Sorry, Saumensch. I didnt mean to offend you.

Even in the night, Liesel could see that Rudy was growing. His face was lengthening. The blond shock of hair was darkening ever so slightly and his features seemed to be changing shape. But there was one thing that would never change. It was impossible to be angry at him for long.

Anything good to eat at your place tonight? he asked.

I doubt it.

Me neither. Its a shame you cant eat books. Arthur Berg said something like that once. Remember?

They recounted the good old days for the remainder of the walk, Liesel often glancing down at The Whistler, at the gray cover and the black imprinted title.

Before they went into their respective homes, Rudy stopped a moment and said, Goodbye, Saumensch. He laughed. Good night, book thief.

It was the first time Liesel had been branded with her title, and she couldnt hide the fact that she liked it very much. As were both aware, shed stolen books previously, but in late October 1941, it became official. That night, Liesel Meminger truly became the book thief.

THREE ACTS OF STUPIDITY

BY RUDY STEINER

RUDY STEINER, PURE GENIUS

He stole the biggest potato from Mamers, the local grocer.

Taking on Franz Deutscher on Munich Street.

Skipping the Hitler Youth meetings altogether.

The problem with Rudys first act was greed. It was a typically dreary afternoon in mid-November 1941.

Earlier, hed woven through the women with their coupons quite brilliantly, almost, dare I say it, with a touch of criminal genius. He nearly went completely unnoticed.

Inconspicuous as he was, however, he managed to take hold of the biggest potato of the lotthe very same one that several people in the line had been watching. They all looked on as a thirteen-year-old fist rose up and grabbed it. A choir of heavyset Helgas pointed him out, and Thomas Mamer came storming toward the dirty fruit.

Meine Erdpfel, he said. My earth apples.

The potato was still in Rudys hands (he couldnt hold it in just the one), and the women gathered around him like a troop of wrestlers. Some fast talking was required.

My family, Rudy explained. A convenient stream of clear fluid began to trickle from his nose. He made a point of not wiping it away. Were all starving. My sister needed a new coat. The last one was stolen.

Mamer was no fool. Still holding Rudy by the collar, he said, And you plan to dress her with a potato?

No, sir. He looked diagonally into the one eye he could see of his captor. Mamer was a barrel of a man, with two small bullet holes to look out of. His teeth were like a soccer crowd, crammed in. We traded all our points for the coat three weeks ago and now we have nothing to eat.

The grocer held Rudy in one hand and the potato in the other. He called out the dreaded word to his

wife. Polizei.

No, Rudy begged, please. He would tell Liesel later on that he was not the slightest bit afraid, but his heart was certainly bursting at that moment, Im sure. Not the police. Please, not the police.

Polizei. Mamer remained unmoved as the boy wriggled and fought with the air.

Also in the line that afternoon was a teacher, Herr Link. He was in the percentage of teachers at school who were not priests or nuns. Rudy found him and accosted him in the eyes.

Herr Link. This was his last chance. Herr Link, tell him, please. Tell him how poor I am.

The grocer looked at the teacher with inquiring eyes.

Herr Link stepped forward and said, Yes, Herr Mamer. This boy is poor. Hes from Himmel Street. The crowd of predominantly women conferred at that point, knowing that Himmel Street was not exactly the epitome of idyllic Molching living. It was well known as a relatively poor neighborhood. He has eight brothers and sisters.

Eight!

Rudy had to hold back a smile, though he wasnt in the clear yet. At least he had the teacher lying now. Hed somehow managed to add three more children to the Steiner family.

Often, he comes to school without breakfast, and the crowd of women was conferring again. It was like a coat of paint on the situation, adding a little extra potency and atmosphere.

So that means he should be allowed to steal my potatoes?

The biggest one! one of the women ejaculated.

Keep quiet, Frau Metzing, Mamer warned her, and she quickly settled down.

At first, all attention was on Rudy and the scruff of his neck. It then moved back and forth, from the boy to the potato to Mamerfrom best-looking to worstand exactly what made the grocer decide in Rudys favor would forever be unanswered.

Was it the pathetic nature of the boy?

The dignity of Herr Link?

The annoyance of Frau Metzing?

Whatever it was, Mamer dropped the potato back on the pile and dragged Rudy from his premises. He gave him a good push with his right boot and said, Dont come back.

From outside, Rudy looked on as Mamer reached the counter to serve his next customer with food and

sarcasm. I wonder which potato youre going to ask for, he said, keeping one eye open for the boy.

For Rudy, it was yet another failure.

The second act of stupidity was equally dangerous, but for different reasons.

Rudy would finish this particular altercation with a black eye, cracked ribs, and a haircut.

Again, at the Hitler Youth meetings, Tommy Mller was having his problems, and Franz Deutscher was just waiting for Rudy to step in. It didnt take long.

Rudy and Tommy were given another comprehensive drill session while the others went inside to learn tactics. As they ran in the cold, they could see the warm heads and shoulders through the windows. Even when they joined the rest of the group, the drills werent quite finished. As Rudy slumped into the corner and flicked mud from his sleeve at the window, Franz fired the Hitler Youths favorite question at him.

When was our Fhrer, Adolf Hitler, born?

Rudy looked up. Sorry?

The question was repeated, and the very stupid Rudy Steiner, who knew all too well that it was April 20, 1889, answered with the birth of Christ. He even threw in Bethlehem as an added piece of information.

Franz smeared his hands together.

A very bad sign.

He walked over to Rudy and ordered him back outside for some more laps of the field.

Rudy ran them alone, and after every lap, he was asked again the date of the Fhrers birthday. He did seven laps before he got it right.

The major trouble occurred a few days after the meeting.

On Munich Street, Rudy noticed Deutscher walking along the footpath with some friends and felt the need to throw a rock at him. You might well ask just what the hell he was thinking. The answer is, probably nothing at all. Hed probably say that he was exercising his God-given right to stupidity. Either that, or the very sight of Franz Deutscher gave him the urge to destroy himself.

The rock hit its mark on the spine, though not as hard as Rudy might have hoped. Franz Deutscher spun around and looked happy to find him standing there, with Liesel, Tommy, and Tommys little sister, Kristina.

Lets run, Liesel urged him, but Rudy didnt move.

Were not at Hitler Youth now, he informed her. The older boys had already arrived. Liesel remained next to her friend, as did the twitching Tommy and the delicate Kristina.

Mr. Steiner, Franz declared, before picking him up and throwing him to the pavement.

When Rudy stood up, it served only to infuriate Deutscher even more. He brought him to the ground for a second time, following him down with a knee to the rib cage.

Again, Rudy stood up, and the group of older boys laughed now at their friend. This was not the best news for Rudy. Cant you make him feel it? the tallest of them said. His eyes were as blue and cold as the sky, and the words were all the incentive Franz needed. He was determined that Rudy would hit the ground and stay there.

A larger crowd made its way around them as Rudy swung at Franz Deutschers stomach, missing him completely. Simultaneously, he felt the burning sensation of a fist on his left eye socket. It arrived with sparks, and he was on the ground before he even realized. He was punched again, in the same place, and he could feel the bruise turn yellow and blue and black all at once. Three layers of exhilarating pain.

The developing crowd gathered and leered to see if Rudy might get up again. He didnt. This time, he remained on the cold, wet ground, feeling it rise through his clothes and spread itself out.

The sparks were still in his eyes, and he didnt notice until it was too late that Franz now stood above him with a brand-new pocketknife, about to crouch down and cut him.

No! Liesel protested, but the tall one held her back. In her ear, his words were deep and old.

Dont worry, he assured her. He wont do it. He doesnt have the guts.

He was wrong.

Franz merged into a kneeling position as he leaned closer to Rudy and whispered:

When was our Fhrer born? Each word was carefully created and fed into his ear. Come on, Rudy, when was he born? You can tell me, everythings fine, dont be afraid.

And Rudy?

How did he reply?

Did he respond prudently, or did he allow his stupidity to sink himself deeper into the mire?

He looked happily into the pale blue eyes of Franz Deutscher and whispered, Easter Monday.

Within a few seconds, the knife was applied to his hair. It was haircut number two in this section of Liesels life. The hair of a Jew was cut with rusty scissors. Her best friend was taken to with a gleaming knife. She knew nobody who actually paid for a haircut.