Written by Ng Li Wei
“I know you.”
It’s night-time. A moon has risen over the dimly lit streets and several pedestrians are hurrying home, glancing fearfully up at the thundering sky.
A bell rings – a customer entering a convenience store. A boy looks left and right and behind him before he crosses the road – not to look out for cars, but to make sure no one’s following him. Soft music gently bubbles through the air from a cafe and the sound of clinking glasses along with loud, unruly cheers erupt from a nearby bar. The owner of a bookstore is sitting by the counter, slowly turning the pages of his book while the scented candle beside the cash register flickers.
She’s standing outside the bookstore, a hand on the doorknob, ready to enter.
But she doesn’t. I look at her. She’s looking back, calmly. Too calmly for someone who can see me.
“You probably don’t remember me. We’ve met on four occasions. Unhappy occasions,” she adds.
I scan through my memories, then nod slowly.
Her smile is bittersweet. “You do.” A pause. “Come inside.”
She turns and enters the bookstore without a second glance. The owner greets her warmly, almost like an old friend, and I drift in through the closing door without him noticing. They’re talking over the countertop – he’s a simple man, filling his days with daydreams and fantasies of what life could be.
He’s happy, but at the same time, not; and I know this to be true just as I know his daily routine. He comes in every day at 9 o’clock in the morning and leaves at 9 o’clock at night, crossing the road to board a bus back to an empty house and a lonely dinner. There are photos underneath the counter of his family, but they’ve gone yellow around the corners. So he fills his life with books and waits for the 17-year-old girl to enter his store at 8 o’clock at night everyday, before she heads home.
“I expect I’ll be gone soon,” I hear him saying to her. “And when that day comes, this place will be yours.” She chides him playfully for even daring to mention it, but I know that he’s right.
I look up, realising that their conversation’s over and the old man has gone back to the book on the counter. She’s standing in between the tall bookshelves that have managed to wedge themselves into this tiny store, a hand stretched out beckoning me closer. The old man doesn’t notice or doesn’t hear her. I take one last look at him and walk towards her.
The faint smell of lavender from the scented candle fades, overpowered by the strong scent of books that settle on every shelf. I follow her to the back of the store, where the lights are slightly dimmer and the air is warmer. The books are packed messily on the shelves, filling every crevice, and I watch as she picks through the titles to find one that she hasn’t yet read.
A faint glow settles around her frame as she lightly treads through the aisle. There’s a fascinating glint of passion in her eyes as her fingers caress the titles, her lips curling upwards slightly. Finally, she finds one and drops to the carpeted floor, satisfied. I recall her face the last time I saw her, and I realise this is the first time I’m not seeing her crying. She skims through a few pages before she notices that I’m still standing.
“You can sit, you know.”
I take a seat right opposite her in the aisle.
She gives me a long, hard look. “You don’t talk much, do you?”
“Never had the need to?”
Smiling softly, she looks back down at her book. I watch her intently, wondering again at how collected she seems around me. There’s not a hint of fear in her eyes. But then again, she doesn’t know why I’m here. It would be different if she did. A moment passes before she speaks again, eyes still cast on her book.
“Do you mind telling me what you’re doing here?”
I remain silent, but she glances up, waiting, and I try. I open my mouth, lips trembling, and try to force something out – but my throat cracks with disuse. Faltering, I shake my head.
She frowns and bites her lip, thinking of something. Then she shuts her book and shifts closer to me.
“How about I ask you questions and you say yes or no? Like a guessing game.”
“Alright. Let’s see.” She squints at me, but I know she can’t see past the dark hood pulled over my head. Many have tried. “Are you here on – shall I say – business?”
Despite asking the right question, I feel the glow around her flicker slightly. Her smile suddenly feels forced; her movements discomforted. She seems – disappointed. “Is it going to happen tonight?”
Another nod. She’s doing pretty well.
She’s worried now, wringing her hands, her breath quickening. She pushes herself away slightly, a miniscule motion, as if hoping I don’t notice, but of course I do. “Here?”
I don’t move. But she already knows. She’s older now and she’s wiser now and she understands, but does not accept. Not yet. She eyes me warily, as though worried I might do something right now. “So why are you here? With me?”
I glance at the clock on the wall. It’s 8:50. She follows my gaze and sharply inhales. “Waiting.” The word escapes her mouth like a feather, fluttering and falling to the ground, settling in the space between us.
“I’m not allowed to know who’s going to – ”
A firm shake of my head.
“ – oh.” A tear slides down her cheek, her voice small and vulnerable. She rises, heavily as if carrying a weight on her shoulders, and brushes off the tear. The book falls from her lap and onto the carpet, and she picks it up, holding it tightly to her chest and looking around her as if for the first time, savouring every scent, every gaze, every moment.
I place my hand on her shoulder, the cold meeting warmth. She shivers. She knows. “I can’t stay. I’ve got to…got to go.” She shrugs my hand off and heads towards the counter with her book.
The man can sense that something’s wrong. He’s nonchalantly gathering his things and extinguishing the scented candles, but he knows that something’s not right. “Is something wrong, dear? I thought I heard whispering in the back.”
She laughs. Artificial. “How could there have been, Mr. Jones? I’m the only one here.”
I slip out into the night before I can hear any more. The air is cold. The air is quiet. I wait as the clock ticks. They remain inside, the girl speaking earnestly and clasping his hand tightly in hers. He’s wiping away one of her stray tears, but she’s already shaking her head, giving meaningless reassurances.
Soon, the lights go out and they’re both stepping outside into the cold. They share an embrace and the old man heads down the street. She breathes in the fresh air next to me, the book in her hands. She doesn’t say anything for a while.
“Any time now?”
She nods. “I’d better – ”
Suddenly, a car crashes further down on the street. The sound reverberates in the night air; a steely, metallic sound that pierces through the silence.
She whips her head to me, her eyes wide open, and whips back towards the accident. The old man is nowhere to be seen.
He’s supposed to be crossing the road around this time.
The book falls to the ground.
Sirens blare in the distance. Red and blue lights envelope the surroundings, casting the concrete walls in urgent hue. A scream penetrates the night.
I stare straight ahead. My mouth opens slightly. My lips tremble. My throat opens this time.