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It happened in a small town of Hitlers heartland.

The flow of more suffering was pumped nicely out, and a small piece of it had now arrived.

Jews were being marched through the outskirts of Munich, and one teenage girl somehow did the unthinkable and made her way through to walk with them. When the soldiers pulled her away and threw her to the ground, she stood up again. She continued.

The morning was warm.

Another beautiful day for a parade.

The soldiers and Jews made their way through several towns and were arriving now in Molching. It was possible that more work needed to be done in the camp, or several prisoners had died. Whatever the reason, a new batch of fresh, tired Jews was being taken on foot to Dachau.

As she always did, Liesel ran to Munich Street with the usual band of onlookers.

Heil Hitler!

She could hear the first soldier from far up the road and made her way toward him through the crowd, to meet the procession. The voice amazed her. It made the endless sky into a ceiling just above his head, and the words bounced back, landing somewhere on the floor of limping Jewish feet.

Their eyes.

They watched the moving street, one by one, and when Liesel found a good vantage point, she stopped and studied them. She raced through the files of face after face, trying to match them to the Jew who wrote The Standover Man and The Word Shaker.

Feathery hair, she thought.

No, hair like twigs. Thats what it looks like when it hasnt been washed. Look out for hair like twigs and swampy eyes and a kindling beard.

God, there were so many of them.

So many sets of dying eyes and scuffing feet.

Liesel searched them and it was not so much a recognition of facial features that gave Max Vandenburg away. It was how the face was actingalso studying the crowd. Fixed in concentration. Liesel felt herself pausing as she found the only face looking directly into the German spectators. It examined them with such purpose that people on either side of the book thief noticed and pointed him


Whats he looking at? said a male voice at her side.

The book thief stepped onto the road.

Never had movement been such a burden. Never had a heart been so definite and big in her adolescent chest.

She stepped forward and said, very quietly, Hes looking for me.

Her voice trailed off and fell away, inside. She had to refind itreaching far down, to learn to speak again and call out his name.


Im here, Max!


Max, Im here!

He heard her.

MAX VANDENBURG, AUGUST 1943 There were twigs of hair, just like Liesel thought, and the swampy eyes stepped across, shoulder to shoulder over the other Jews. When they reached her, they pleaded. His beard

stroked down his face and his mouth shivered as he said the word,

the name, the girl. Liesel.

Liesel shrugged away entirely from the crowd and entered the tide of Jews, weaving through them till she grabbed hold of his arm with her left hand.

His face fell on her.

It reached down as she tripped, and the Jew, the nasty Jew, helped her up. It took all of his strength.

Im here, Max, she said again. Im here.

I cant believe . . . The words dripped from Max Vandenburgs mouth. Look how much youve grown. There was an intense sadness in his eyes. They swelled. Liesel . . . they got me a few months ago. The voice was crippled but it dragged itself toward her. Halfway to Stuttgart.

From the inside, the stream of Jews was a murky disaster of arms and legs. Ragged uniforms. No soldier had seen her yet, and Max gave her a warning. You have to let go of me, Liesel. He even tried to push her away, but the girl was too strong. Maxs starving arms could not sway her, and she walked on, between the filth, the hunger and confusion.

After a long line of steps, the first soldier noticed.

Hey! he called in. He pointed with his whip. Hey, girl, what are you doing? Get out of there.

When she ignored him completely, the soldier used his arm to separate the stickiness of people. He shoved them aside and made his way through. He loomed above her as Liesel struggled on and noticed the strangled expression on Max Vandenburgs face. She had seen him afraid, but never like this.

The soldier took her.

His hands manhandled her clothes.

She could feel the bones in his fingers and the ball of each knuckle. They tore at her skin. I said get out! he ordered her, and now he dragged the girl to the side and flung her into the wall of onlooking Germans. It was getting warmer. The sun burned her face. The girl had landed sprawling with pain, but now she stood again. She recovered and waited. She reentered.

This time, Liesel made her way through from the back.

Ahead, she could just see the distinct twigs of hair and walked again toward them.

This time, she did not reach outshe stopped. Somewhere inside her were the souls of words. They climbed out and stood beside her.

Max, she said. He turned and briefly closed his eyes as the girl continued. There was once a strange, small man, she said. Her arms were loose but her hands were fists at her side. But there was a word shaker, too.

One of the Jews on his way to Dachau had stopped walking now.

He stood absolutely still as the others swerved morosely around him, leaving him completely alone. His eyes staggered, and it was so simple. The words were given across from the girl to the Jew. They climbed on to him.

The next time she spoke, the questions stumbled from her mouth. Hot tears fought for room in her eyes as she would not let them out. Better to stand resolute and proud. Let the words do all of it. Is it really you? the young man asked, she said. Is it from your cheek that I took the seed?

Max Vandenburg remained standing.

He did not drop to his knees.

People and Jews and clouds all stopped. They watched.

As he stood, Max looked first at the girl and then stared directly into the sky who was wide and blue and magnificent. There were heavy beamsplanks of sunfalling randomly, wonderfully to the road. Clouds arched their backs to look behind as they started again to move on. Its such a beautiful day, he said, and his voice was in many pieces. A great day to die. A great day to die, like this.

Liesel walked at him. She was courageous enough to reach out and hold his bearded face. Is it really you, Max?

Such a brilliant German day and its attentive crowd.

He let his mouth kiss her palm. Yes, Liesel, its me, and he held the girls hand in his face and cried onto her fingers. He cried as the soldiers came and a small collection of insolent Jews stood and watched.

Standing, he was whipped.

Max, the girl wept.

Then silently, as she was dragged away:


Jewish fist fighter.

Inside, she said all of it.

Maxi Taxi. Thats what that friend called you in Stuttgart when you fought on the street, remember? Remember, Max? You told me. I remember everything. . . .

That was youthe boy with the hard fists, and you said you would land a punch on deaths face when he came for you.

Remember the snowman, Max?


In the basement?

Remember the white cloud with the gray heart?

The Fhrer still comes down looking for you sometimes. He misses you. We all miss you.

The whip. The whip.

The whip continued from the soldiers hand. It landed on Maxs face. It clipped his chin and carved his throat.

Max hit the ground and the soldier now turned to the girl. His mouth opened. He had immaculate teeth.

A sudden flash came before her eyes. She recalled the day shed wanted Ilsa Hermann or at least the reliable Rosa to slap her, but neither of them would do it. On this occasion, she was not let down.

The whip sliced her collarbone and reached across her shoulder blade.


She knew that person.

As the soldier swung his arm, she caught sight of a distressed Rudy Steiner in the gaps of the crowd. He was calling out. She could see his tortured face and yellow hair. Liesel, get out of there!

The book thief did not get out.

She closed her eyes and caught the next burning streak, and another, till her body hit the warm flooring of the road. It heated her cheek.

More words arrived, this time from the soldier.

Steh auf.

The economical sentence was directed not to the girl but the Jew. It was elaborated on. Get up, you dirty asshole, you Jewish whore-dog, get up, get up. . . .

Max hoisted himself upright.

Just another push-up, Max.

Just another push-up on the cold basement floor.

His feet moved.

They dragged and he traveled on.

His legs staggered and his hands wiped at the marks of the whip, to soothe the stinging. When he tried to look again for Liesel, the soldiers hands were placed upon his bloodied shoulders and pushed.

The boy arrived. His lanky legs crouched and he called over, to his left.

Tommy, get out here and help me. We have to get her up. Tommy, hurry! He lifted the book thief by her armpits. Liesel, come on, you have to get off the road.

When she was able to stand, she looked at the shocked, frozen-faced Germans, fresh out of their packets. At their feet, she allowed herself to collapse, but only momentarily. A graze struck a match on the side of her face, where shed met the ground. Her pulse flipped it over, frying it on both sides.

Far down the road, she could see the blurry legs and heels of the last walking Jew.

Her face was burning and there was a dogged ache in her arms and legsa numbness that was simultaneously painful and exhausting.

She stood, one last time.

Waywardly, she began to walk and then run down Munich Street, to haul in the last steps of Max Vandenburg.

Liesel, what are you doing?!

She escaped the grip of Rudys words and ignored the watching people at her side. Most of them were mute. Statues with beating hearts. Perhaps bystanders in the latter stages of a marathon. Liesel cried out again and was not heard. Hair was in her eyes. Please, Max!

After perhaps thirty meters, just as a soldier turned around, the girl was felled. Hands were clamped upon her from behind and the boy next door brought her down. He forced her knees to the road and suffered the penalty. He collected her punches as if they were presents. Her bony hands and elbows were accepted with nothing but a few short moans. He accumulated the loud, clumsy specks of saliva and tears as if they were lovely to his face, and more important, he was able to hold her down.

On Munich Street, a boy and girl were entwined.

They were twisted and comfortless on the road.

Together, they watched the humans disappear. They watched them dissolve, like moving tablets in the humid air.


When the Jews were gone, Rudy and Liesel untangled and the book thief did not speak. There were no answers to Rudys questions.

Liesel did not go home, either. She walked forlornly to the train station and waited for her papa for hours. Rudy stood with her for the first twenty minutes, but since it was a good half day till Hans was due home, he fetched Rosa. On the way back, he told her what had happened, and when Rosa arrived, she asked nothing of the girl. She had already assembled the puzzle and merely stood beside her and eventually convinced her to sit down. They waited together.

When Papa found out, he dropped his bag, he kicked the Bahnhof air.

None of them ate that night. Papas fingers desecrated the accordion, murdering song after song, no matter how hard he tried. Everything no longer worked.

For three days, the book thief stayed in bed.

Every morning and afternoon, Rudy Steiner knocked on the door and asked if she was still sick. The girl was not sick.

On the fourth day, Liesel walked to her neighbors front door and asked if he might go back to the trees with her, where theyd distributed the bread the previous year.

I should have told you earlier, she said.

As promised, they walked far down the road toward Dachau. They stood in the trees. There were long shapes of light and shade. Pinecones were scattered like cookies.

Thank you, Rudy.

For everything. For helping me off the road, for stopping me . . .

She said none of it.

Her hand leaned on a flaking branch at her side. Rudy, if I tell you something, will you promise not to say a word to anyone?

Of course. He could sense the seriousness in the girls face, and the heaviness in her voice. He leaned on the tree next to hers. What is it?


I did already.

Do it again. You cant tell your mother, your brother, or Tommy Mller. Nobody.

I promise.


Looking at the ground.

She attempted several times to find the right place to start, reading sentences at her feet, joining words to the pinecones and the scraps of broken branches.

Remember when I was injured playing soccer, she said, out on the street?

It took approximately three-quarters of an hour to explain two wars, an accordion, a Jewish fist fighter, and a basement. Not forgetting what had happened four days earlier on Munich Street.

Thats why you went for a closer look, Rudy said, with the bread that day. To see if he was there.


Crucified Christ.


The trees were tall and triangular. They were quiet.

Liesel pulled The Word Shaker from her bag and showed Rudy one of the pages. On it was a boy with three medals hanging around his throat.

Hair the color of lemons, Rudy read. His fingers touched the words. You told him about me?

At first, Liesel could not talk. Perhaps it was the sudden bumpiness of love she felt for him. Or had she always loved him? Its likely. Restricted as she was from speaking, she wanted him to kiss her. She wanted him to drag her hand across and pull her over. It didnt matter where. Her mouth, her neck, her cheek. Her skin was empty for it, waiting.

Years ago, when theyd raced on a muddy field, Rudy was a hastily assembled set of bones, with a jagged, rocky smile. In the trees this afternoon, he was a giver of bread and teddy bears. He was a triple Hitler Youth athletics champion. He was her best friend. And he was a month from his death.

Of course I told him about you, Liesel said.

She was saying goodbye and she didnt even know it.


In mid-August, she thought she was going to 8 Grande Strasse for the same old remedy.

To cheer herself up.

That was what she thought.

The day had been hot, but showers were predicted for the evening. In The Last Human Stranger, there was a quote near the end. Liesel was reminded of it as she walked past Frau Dillers.


PAGE 211

The sun stirs the earth. Around and around, it stirs us, like stew.

At the time, Liesel only thought of it because the day was so warm.

On Munich Street, she remembered the events of the previous week there. She saw the Jews coming down the road, their streams and numbers and pain. She decided there was a word missing from her quote.

The world is an ugly stew, she thought.

Its so ugly I cant stand it.

Liesel crossed the bridge over the Amper River. The water was glorious and emerald and rich. She could see the stones at the bottom and hear the familiar song of water. The world did not deserve such a river.

She scaled the hill up to Grande Strasse. The houses were lovely and loathsome. She enjoyed the small ache in her legs and lungs. Walk harder, she thought, and she started rising, like a monster out of the sand. She smelled the neighborhood grass. It was fresh and sweet, green and yellow-tipped. She crossed the yard without a single turn of the head or the slightest pause of paranoia.

The window.

Hands on the frame, scissor of the legs.

Landing feet.