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- Mattie Stepanek
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The street smelled of pine woods and wafers. These dingy, rundown lanes that sat lonely all year round, now glowed and rejoiced in celebration.
All around me were brightly clad kids, giggling couples and curious onlookers. A nearby confectionery, with its fabulous display of iced brownies and candies, attracted my attention. The Christmas bells and Chinese lights adorning its tree were still up. So was the joyful spirit. It was New Year eve.
All my high school friends were busy partying and preparing for the countdown that would land them into yet another year full of surprises. I, on the other hand, was content to be restricted in the impermeable small cocoon that I had carved out for myself.
The cold air blew the unruly hair off my temples and I adjusted my spectacles.
For me, the beginning of a 'new' year didn't hold much meaning. It was still the same old bed where I woke up and the same pajamas that I woke up in, gazing out at the same scene outside my window through the same old window rails.
I had reached the two-storied building. People without former knowledge could never guess this place was actually a library. Even the rusty signboard with its peeling fabric was illegible.
Nevertheless, this was the only library in the entire locality and also the only one in the world that allowed bookworms to use the reading room till 3 a.m.
As I gently pushed the glass door open and stepped on the fraying Afghan carpet that covered the wooden floors, the warmth welcomed me. I wished the amicable librarian and started my daily book hunt.
As I struggled with the meticulous choice, my eyes fell on a book that had come slightly undone from the orderly shelf (or had been kept like that on purpose). I plucked it and read the title: The Alchemist. A Paulo Coelho good read. As I debated whether to reread Gone with the wind or explore this newly acquired piece, I noticed a piece of paper poking out of the book.
At first, I thought that it was only proper to keep it back but then I was overcome with curiosity.
I went to the reading-room and found it even more empty than usual. I took the farthest seat at the mahogany table and relished the peace. Then, with a sigh, I extracted the paper from within the pages of the book.
I giggled to myself and realized that this could not be a very bad start for 2017. I read softly:
Someday I hope to meet you. The books promised me that true love exists and that it's only a matter of time before we find our match- one who's supposed to bear the other end of the yoke. One whose silhouette you'll recognize from the other end of the room. One with whom you'll feel an unnatural sense of Jamáis vóo.
P.S.: It's just that I haven't met you yet but I'll know it immediately when I see you.
In good faith,
I was just about to go back to the book when I heard footsteps. I stared at the doorway as a new person entered and looked at me as if he had seen some ghost.
"Oh no! I was about to read this book", he faltered. "Did you read it? The letter, I mean. Um. I shouldn't have kept it there in the first place."
"So, it's you? Nice hiding place, Abhijit!" I beamed, enjoying this unusual upper hand that I now had. At the sound of his name, he made a desperate puppy like expression and started, "So you did read it. I thought books are supposed to keep secrets."
"Well, apparently, they don't." I replied, with a casual smile. On second thoughts, I added, "Not always, anyway".
He looked so dejected and so desperate on account of his dejection, that I felt rather guilty to have landed him in such an awkward position. "Um. I am really sorry. I didn't mean to read it. It was just curiosity. Here is your letter. And take your book. I will settle for something else", I said as I returned him the book.
To my relief, he took them back and returned me a coy smile. "Thanks, um?"
"I am Swati", I said and left the room to get hold of another book. I returned back with 'A walk to remember'.
To my surprise, he was still standing in the same place, a jovial smile plastered on his face. I went back to my porch and began to read.
After sometime, I saw him come and sit beside me. "Hey. It is the end of 2016. Tell me about something remarkable that happened this year!" he said. On other days, I would have been irritated at this unwanted intrusion on my reading hours but somehow, I didn't feel that way now. "It was pretty much the same old uneventful routine. School. Library. Life. Until I came across a letter that I wasn't supposed to find", I said and then giggled at his helpless expression.
"There you go again", he groaned.
"You should see your face."
"Go on, keep pulling my leg."
I was about to do just that when my eyes fell on the 'Silence Please' board. Then, it again occurred to me that we were the only people here, so it couldn't hurt to talk a bit.
In a while, the librarian walked in. She greeted me with a smile and came to our table.
"Hey, Amelia!" I smiled. Then I noticed the tray in her hand. Chocolate brownies. She began, "Since you two will be the only people insane enough to turn up in my library when you could be out there celebrating your youth, I thought you would like this."
We were about to thank her for this kindness when she waved her hand and added, "They don't taste half as good as they look. I burnt the edges in my carelessness." Then, she left as soon as she had come.
"Nice lady, she is". Abhijit smiled.
"Yes, she is a darling" I agreed. "By the way, what are you doing here tonight? Not the partying type, are you?"
"I am wary of new people. Parties choke me to death", he said and then made an exaggerated gagging sound, which made me laugh.
Then, something occurred to me. "But hey, you didn't seem so wary of me, huh?"
"No, I didn't. You seem familiar." He looked at me curiously. It was then that I noticed the untidy locks hanging on his forehead, the way his fingers nervously fidgeted with the book, the casually loosened tie knot and his Adam's apple moving as he talked. Most of all, I noticed his deep, blue eyes that wavered as he spoke.
"I say, I had a plan" he continued with a wink. "Let's have our own little party tonight. With Amelia's brownies and here is my watch. We could do the countdown or whatever they do at midnight today. Sounds good?"
"So, let's read."
That's when I realized that I must have been staring at him all along. I felt my cheeks burning.
I began to slowly delve into Nicholas Sparks' world, bit by bit unfolding the love story of Landon and Jamie, the star-crossed lovers. The stage play. Their first kiss. The love. Finally, the truth which always comes in the way of all things good. By the time I came across their wedding, my eyes were blurred with tears. From across the table, I felt someone hold my hand. I shivered as I slowly returned back to reality.
"You were crying. So I thought that this would do some good", he said, as he held out a cold brownie. "Anyway, we missed the countdown."
"Did Jamie have to die? Imagine Landon looking at his engagement ring every day and craving for the life they could have had!" I told him, wiping tears with my free hand.
"I know, I know. That hurts me more. The one who dies just dies once. The one left behind to suffer dies every day after that."
"Yes", I said, keeping my voice from trembling. "Did we really miss the countdown?"
"Seems like it", he said, dramatically rolling his eyes and showing me his watch.
"It got that late? 4 a.m. Oh my God, I lost myself in there".
"So did I. Wanderlust got to me. The way it seized the free spirit of the shepherd. Anyway, Happy New Year."
"Happy New Year to you too. This year, I hope you meet the other end of your yoke soon." I replied, with a smile.
He blushed severely. "You'll never stop teasing me about that, will you?" He asked. Then, with a wink, he added. "Who knows? I might have already."
Before I could respond to that, he got up from his chair. "Well. That's it, then. It's time for me to leave now. So Swati, I hope we meet again". He shook my already shaking hands.
"Goodbye, Abhijit." With that, he smiled that beautiful smile which seemed to emanate right from his eyes. After a final wave, he left.
I again felt that same old feeling of vacancy within me. Who knew I could ever enjoy company? I heard Amelia calling me from the reception. "Swati, it is almost time for me to close now. Come on now. Ah yes, I hope you enjoyed the brownies."
"Yes Amelia! Yes for both." I called back. My trance momentarily broken, I cleared the brownie crumps from the table with the napkin and began to pick up the books. The Alchemist was still on the table, turned back. Along with mine, I picked it up too. It was still warm from his touch and I felt electricity racing down my spine. I couldn't see where all of this was leading me, but nonetheless, it was a nice feeling.
Then I came back to my senses. I left the room and started rearranging the books. However, I just couldn't let go of The Alchemist.
A good couple of times, I kept putting it and picking it back up again. Then, unable to contain myself, I clutched the book desperately in my uncertain fingers and flipped through the pages until I found the dog-ear which had initially marked the strange letter.
I got the surprise of my life. Within the pages, there was another piece of paper. The same texture of coarse handmade dista. The same dark ink. The same crooked handwriting. Only a bit shakier than the previous one.
And thus did my yoke find its other end.
P.S.: I told you that I would know it when I saw you.
I was too stunned to breathe. This letter wasn't a mistake. It had been planted there on purpose.
Holding the letter against my heart, I sighed. I still felt very jittery and light-headed. Was I in fiction? Was I reading a book?
Right then, Amelia pinched me. I shrieked in surprise.
"Swati, you look like you have been punched! Breathe! You are pale." I realized that I had been holding my breath so long.
"Amelia, may I keep this book for some time? It's important!"
"Yeah, but what's wrong? You look as if you are in love! Crazy and head-over-heels" she said, with a curious look.
"I will tell you everything. First, I need to go home and, and you know, breathe. Goodbye." I said, as I inserted the book with the letter inside my school bag in a hurry. "And thank you very much for the brownies."
She accompanied me to the door and waited till I had gone out. Then, just as I was about to thank her again for everything, she gave me a mischievous smile. "Well, is it Abhijit? Might have his number in the register."
"Ah, come on. Amelia. You know it's not like that." I said, avoiding her gaze.
"Bye. Good luck, Swati. And Happy New Year."
From here, I could see the small oil-lamp on the porch of our bungalow still glowing. Nearby, some teenagers were dancing around the bonfire and teasing each other. Lulling music filled the air. I looked up at the lone star in the sky and couldn't help smiling.
So, that's how I would remember it happening! No dates fixed. No WhatsApp numbers exchanged. No pleasantries said.
Just a simple faith that we would meet again.