Penelope Mathers wears plaid skirts and cardigans and does not like the oxford comma. She spends exactly 4.5 hours a day in the library, marking carefully in her notebook the time she arrives and the time she leaves. Penelope Mathers believes in balance, and she does not want to throw off her daily schedule.
James Stevens wears navy blue sweatpants and various iterations of Hanes t-shirts. He does not measure how long he stays in the library. He remains there until he is finished. James Stevens does not approve of Penelope Mathers’ ideas about balance.
James and Penelope are competing for high school valedictorian. They have a history test tomorrow, their last before graduation. Both James and Penelope need the same book: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. The book will provide the answer to the extra credit question that will determine which of them scores the highest on the test.
The book is on the third floor, at the top of the library’s spiral staircase. The staircase was a gift from Herman Liedtke, the library’s namesake and the school’s most famous alumnus. His portrait is next to the base of the stairs. He looks serious, stern, but still welcoming. He is wearing a grey suit. Herman Liedtke was the mastermind behind Apple Cinnamon Cheerios.
Penelope and James rush to the library after their last class. They reach the base of the staircase at the same time.
The two glare at each other, stuck in a staring contest that neither is willing to break. Herman Liedtke does not partake. Finally, James takes off, sprinting up the stairs as fast as his baggy, too-long pants and sandals will allow him. Penelope rushes after him, quickly overtaking him. Penelope runs track. James does not. He can see her run above him as the staircase curves into oblivion.
Penelope reaches the book first. She grabs it off the shelf and cradles it in her arms. James stumbles in and stands at the end of the aisle, glaring at her. Penelope cannot resist a smirk. She assumes that she has won.
James is offended by this assumption. He does not feel like he has been defeated yet. He spreads himself wide in the aisle so she cannot get through.
Penelope stares at him. He is large, much larger than her, but she thinks that she can get past him. She holds the book tightly in her arms and sprints at him. He does not flinch. She ducks under his left arm and spins past him. She runs towards the staircase. He follows.
Penelope can hear her feet pounding on the stairs. This upsets her. It is a library, and she wants to be quiet. But James is following close behind, and she knows she cannot slow down.
James wonders how Penelope is so quick. He feels like a lumbering bear, unable to catch up with his quick footed prey. He tries to speed up.
Penelope and James dance down the stairs together, each adjusting to the other’s rhythm. They are partners and enemies at the same time.
James’ left sandal slips off; he loses his footing. He can feel himself falling forward, careening down the staircase. Penelope can hear him coming, but she cannot move out of the way before he barrels into her. Together, they roll down the last section of stairs, crashing right underneath the stern yet welcoming Herman Liedtke. Guns, Germs and Steel is still clutched in Penelope’s arms.