Snowflakes dance in the mist outside the window sill. Inside, a girl is gift-wrapping a box, writing a name on the tag with calligraphic elegance. The name is hers.
She’s about to smile when something in her shifts, breaking her world. She tears the gift paper into shreds, revealing an ugly box.
There’s a tinkling sound when she opens the door to the bookstore. The man at the counter notices her as she surveys the books before he’s distracted by other customers. There is a strange, sad beauty to her, as though she were a ballerina who’d lost a leg.
The bookshop is small and musty, smelling of a mixture of an old coffee shop and a dusty photo album. Pulp fiction paperbacks of yesteryear jostle for space with the creased bestsellers on the shelves.
The evening is drawing to a close and all the customers except the girl have left by now. She still sits at a corner, a few books by her side. What is surprising is that she isn’t reading the books which are all the same-merely admiring the covers.
Finally she comes to the counter with her chosen book. There’s a cover of a girl in black ballerinas, standing in the rain. The man recognizes the author, but he hasn’t read the book.
“For a friend?”,he asks. Perhaps s he’s wondering if she would lie.
“Yes”, she replies.
“A big fan?”
“Oh yes, very.”
“She must visit a shrink for her depression.”
“What do you mean?”, she asks, sharply.
“Have you read the book?”
She stops. Slowly, she says, “Yes.”
“And you think it’s an appropriate Christmas present?”
“I don’t see why-“
“And if your fan is a big fan, isn’t it obvious for her to have at least read it, if not own it?”
“Can you please give me the bill?”
A momentary sadness flashes in his eyes. He laughs, uncertainly. “Of course, Miss. But it wouldn’t have hurt to admit you were buying a present for yourself.”
She takes the packet in silence. He watches her leave.
She pauses at the doorway.“How did you know?”
He smiles. “Human nature’s pretty predictable. Especially when you’ve been watching for a long time.”
“A lot of people read books about suicide and mental illness. They’re not always depressed.”
“Right you are.”
She doesn’t know what to reply. She says shakily, “Have you read the book?”
“I’m not fond of sad things, so no. But I bet you were hoping that I was going to be a fan, and you could strike up a conversation and talk about a book you love too much instead of reading it for the thousandth time and musing to empty space.”
She decides to take the plunge. “And what if I wasn’t hoping for that?”
“I’ll still call you a lonely person.”
She opens her mouth but he cuts her off.”I just meant that you need to be sufficiently lonely enough to reread books.”
She bites her lips. “I have to go. Bye”
“Can I see you again the day after tomorrow? This time?”
She wants to believe that what he just said was real. “What?”
He hesitates. “Nothing. Forget I mentioned it.”
“No I mean, sure. I mean, it’s okay. I mean, I can come..if you want me to.”
He nods and pretends not to notice the tears forming in her eyes.
She feels like she’s dissolving in the shimmering city lights. She feels like the Carpenter’s song, Top of the World. She feels like she’s falling in love.
She’d been planning to commit suicide this Christmas, and suddenly she doesn’t want to anymore.
She thinks about him now, the way she’d think about boys a million years ago. In her nightmares, she’s a lonely girl, jumping off a cliff. In her fantasies, she’s falling and falling, till he rescues her, carrying her in his arms and they’re dancing now in the rain and he’s about to kiss her.
She has to wait for two days now. In the meantime, she wraps the book and in the tag writes, “To the girl who dreams of stardust. Your eyes are like diamonds. Love, the bookshop guy”
She laughs at her own desperation, and cries. Perhaps he was only kidding. Perhaps he was planning something bad. After all, isn’t everyone is nice, till they show their true colours?
But she doesn’t care. She’s going to die anyway, sooner or later.
Impulsively, she decides to meet him the very next day. For the first time, she uses the remnants of her mother’s mascara. When she finally picks a dress, she decides it is a death date- because if it isn’t a date, it would end in death.
She realizes it’s a Sunday when she finds the shop closed. She’s about to leave when she hears voices inside.
He doesn’t realize that she’s spying him from the window.
She howls behind the bushes.
After some time, when the door opens and he walks past, he doesn’t notice the shivering lump behind the bushes.
She isn’t looking at him, but at the other girl in a cashmere sweater and a polka-dotted skirt, the one he is talking to, so tenderly but she seems so flippant.
She theorizes that he already had a date today. That’s why he’d asked her out tomorrow.
She doesn’t turn up the next day. A few passers-by wonder why the bookshop remains open all night. It’s Christmas Eve.
She unwraps the box, replacing the book with packets of sleeping pills that she bought from the local drug store earlier that day. When she wraps it again, there’s a manic gleam in her eyes.
She falls asleep by the fireplace .A rag-doll angel watches from the top of a skeletal Christmas tree.
When she wakes up, she doesn’t want to die. No one wants to die. She watches the snowflakes dancing on the window sill, thinking of her mother and father and all the people she missed.
She’ll leave a note for the landlady or the boss who sacked her or that bookshop guy. But he didn’t even know her name.
She’ll read the newspaper before doing it. The word “suicide” in the headlines grabs her attention. It is about a man who owned a bookshop who had poisoned himself following a severe disagreement with his sister whose whereabouts were presently unknown. He had left behind a cryptic note saying, “I’m not fond of sad things, so I’m doing this. If you’re reading, don’t come after me, now. I can wait. Please, I hope it was only a ghost I saw at the drug store.”
She recognizes the sister as the girl she saw the other day.
She almost drops the paper when she spots something in the last paragraph. It says he was presently at a hospital, being treated for his attempted suicide. Unless he regained consciousness, the police were clueless as to his motives.
She is running, like it’s the end of the world.
When she makes her way inside his ward, he’s still asleep. She changes the flowers, waiting for him to wake up.
The pills are never unwrapped.
This story was published in a beautifully illustrated anthology Tales To Tell: Romance, an initiative by BEE Books and Kolkata Bloggers.Buy it on Amazon or Flipkart!