A/N Reprise : Added April 7, 2014 : I wrote this a year and a half ago in a spurt of pure ideas at midnight. It was the first fanfiction I ever published. There were quite a few errors, and some things I overlooked at the time of writing. The mistakes I saw at a glance were fixed, and I've now included an author's note at the end explaining some of the fuller mistakes I didn't see when I wrote this.
Disclaimer — the characters and the style of bolding and starring belong to Markus Zusak, the arguably best author on the planet and the writer to whom I give the highest respect.
The sky was black. It spoke of the end, and despair, and it was all around Liesel. It was all she could feel. The blanket that they had given her, the cuts all over her hands — none of that could compete with the finality of the sky.
It had been a year. One year, she'd waited. Hoping. Hoping that maybe the bomb that had destroyed Heaven would erase itself, and that everything would once again be whole. True. But it wasn't.
Three hundred and sixty-five days. One lap around the sun. And Papa wasn't back. Or Mama. Or Rudy. They'd taken her away after the kiss, that one, desperate kiss — and that had been the last she'd seen of Rudy Steiner and his lemon hair.
***A FACT THAT VERY NEARLY MAKES ME FEEL GUILTY***
I saw Rudy after she did.
I saw the last of him, before he went on his journey.
I picked up his soul, amidst the other bodies, and the bomb-burnt sky, and I took him away from her.
When she kissed him, his soul was already gone.
One year. So long. Liesel was finally coming to the realization that it was over. That there was nothing she could do. She was helpless. Outside the window, the sky had become even blacker with the night. It seemed to taunt her. You cannot change anything. It is over, it whispered to her.
She wanted someone to hold her in that moment. She wanted Papa to rescue her from her living nightmare. She wanted Mama to call her Saumensch, just to know that she was still loved. She would have gladly kissed Rudy, and ferociously too — because she was hungry for love, and she'd been starved of affection for far too long. She needed familiarity. Here, in this second foster home, which could never compare to Himmel Street, there was none. There was simply the fact that this was not Heaven. This was not Mama or Papa. This was not Rudy or trash can soccer and a twitching Tommy Müller.
Liesel found herself thinking of her book. Her words. They'd been her friend through many hard times. Even they would be a comfort. But they were lost in the rubble, never to be read. Even they who had never lived were dead.
***WHAT LIESEL DID NOT KNOW***
Every time I come near her, I almost give her the book.
I almost reach out and say, "Here, child, this is yours. I already read it."
But of course, I don't. I hold onto that book, because I am selfish and could not bear to part with it.
I have not had a vacation in eternity, but at least I have a book.
And Liesel cried for what I had.
Since the destruction of Heaven, she had not shed a single tear. She had hung onto the hope that maybe it had all been a terrible dream. But now she knew it was a false hope, she allowed herself some time to weep. It did not help, but it did not hurt, either. It simply was.
***WHAT SHE DID NOT NOTICE IN HER PREOCCUPATION***
A man, almost bird-like in stature, stumbling along her street.
Earlier that day, he had asked around for hours if anyone knew what had become of Liesel Meminger.
He'd gotten lucky.
And Liesel cried through it all as the man came up the street. She cried even when she heard the knock on her front door. And her foster father opening it.
And then she heard the voice.
"Does Liesel Meminger live here?"
She knew that voice. She'd know it anywhere. But she could not let herself believe what she'd heard, because she'd just end up breaking herself again.
"Wer bist du?" That was her foster father, speaking low and harsh. "Who are you?"
"My name is Max Vandenburg," Max said, and Liesel's heart soared.
It was Max. Max Vandenburg, the Jewish fist-fighter. The man whose hair was like feathers.
"I do not know you, nor any Liesel," her foster father said. Coldly.
He shut the door.
Liesel felt her smile drop, and she was pushing her way out of her room, into the hallway, and out the front door. She was running down the street to catch up with the leaving Max and ignoring the angry threats from her foster father.
She put into his name everything she wanted to say.
I miss you. I love you. I needed you all this time, why didn't you come? What happened to you? I have nothing. It's all gone. And you're here, so don't go. You're all I've got, and just minutes ago, I didn't even have that.
Max Vandenburg turned around just in time to brace himself for the attack.
Liesel crashed into him, not bothering to slow down. Her arms were around him, and she was pulling him close. She would not let go. If she did, he would slip away, he would fade off into the dream-world like Rudy had, and she would lose him, too.
"Max," she said, and this time it was a sob.
***A WORD SHE DID NOT HEAR***
"Liesel," spoken into her hair.
So soft it could have been a whisper.
Max put his arms around her, and his strength reminded Liesel of the basement — of the push-ups and the fights with the Führer. His grip was hard, choking her, but she liked it. It was real. At least pain, discomfort was better than nothing.
"You came back."
The Jewish fist-fighter nodded.
His hair was still like feathers, she noticed.
"It took you long enough."
Her lips twisted into a faint smile at this, but it was not a true one. It was a mockery of a smile, plastered there because it was needed. She could not smile for true, not until she knew he was here for true.
Max pulled apart from her, holding her at arms-length. He took her in. The same skinny girl, same eyes like chocolate and hair that was safe enough.
Still the Word-Shaker, he thought. He hoped.
"I'm sorry," he said. He might have actually meant it.
Liesel took his hand and pulled him to the edge of the street, sitting down. There was nothing fancy for Max, no receiving party that he deserved. He'd come back for her, and his reward was the cold and the black sky and the dirt under his feet. Liesel could not ward off the despair that clawed at her again. This was not enough for Max.
But he sat down lithely next to her, staring off into the distance. They were not alone anymore; silence accompanied them.
Liesel was the first to push it away. "They're all gone. All of them."
His voice held sorrow.
"I thought you were, too."
It was blunt, but it was the truth, and Max deserved nothing less than the truth.
He did not say anything, simply let her lean on his shoulder. He was warm, and strong. He was wonderfully steady. He was her best friend, her only friend in the world, and he was truly there.
There was nothing to be said. They just sat there, calm, being. Max was there. He was real.
***AN EXCLUDED FIGURE IN THE DISTANCE***
A man in the doorway of the house that Liesel had run from.
His arms were crossed over his chest as he watched the two, deciding not to come after them.
After a while —long enough for the black to fade to a subtle violet— Liesel sat up abruptly.
"Are they better off now?" she asked of him. She wasn't looking at him but at the clouds that she could now make out.
Max knew just what she meant. "Yes, I believe they are."
"Why did they have to leave so soon?" Her fingers dug into the sleeve of her shirt, twisting around the fabric, ripping at it.
Why did Rudy die before the kiss?
Why did Papa not live to play his accordion?
Why did Mama not still curse at her and brandish wooden spoons?
Max swallowed. "Death saw fit to take them," he told her.
I admit, I stopped, I stared.
Rarely did a human talk about me like I was animate. Rarely did they understand.
Max Vandenburg did.
Max Vandenburg and his hair like feathers.
"Death is cruel," Liesel Meminger spat.
I have to say, it stung.
But Max Vandenburg just gave a rueful half-grin.
"Maybe he was only doing his job."
Regarding the comments that reviewers bring up frequently:
The first: Liesel's new foster father. After going back and reading the book again much more closely (and after some lovely reviewers pointed it out for me) it's hinted that Liesel goes to stay with the mayor and his wife and then goes to live with Alex Steiner. I disregarded that for the purpose of this story, because when I wrote it, I'd forgotten all about that. And the foster father in question here is certainly not the good man that Alex Steiner was.
The second: Liesel's age. I realize at the time this takes place, she is fifteen. I realize that this doesn't violate anything I explicitly said, but some reviewers did point out that she seems very young. But I think it works; Liesel is very emotional and this is a time where she's forgotten about holding herself together. She doesn't care about that. Max is here. She's letting go. As I'm about the age I've written Liesel, I think that in this situation it works. It's a lot to handle, though she is a really mature girl most of the time.
The third: Markus Zusak has said that he leaves the relationship that Max and Liesel develop up to the readers, whether or not they see it as romantic or platonic. For the purposes of this story, it's platonic, though since I didn't say anything outright, feel free to interpret as you see it.
With all this said, thank you so much for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it!