Books & Letters
When he sees her pulled from the register to reshelf things, he finds himself a dark corner in the stacks in which to hide. It doesn’t matter which corner — yesterday it was between Weight Loss and Human Sexuality, today it is amidst the tomes of Religion and Philosophy — but he must hide. He cannot see her.
Three days ago, he mailed the letter to her house. He didn’t know where her locker was at school, after all, so how else was he supposed to do it? And for three days now, he has waited, waited for her to find him and give him an answer. As he stands there, thumbing through The Celestine Prophecy, he imagines he could make it easier for her, but he’s scared he would drop a book on her foot again. For, like, the fifth time. She always tells him that it doesn’t hurt, but she’s stopped wearing shoes with open toes now, so he knows what’s what.
“Hem, hem,” comes a voice from behind him.
He slaps the book shut and jams it rudely into the first empty spot he sees.
A squat woman dressed all in pink steps toward him.
“I’m on my break,” he tells her.
“For how much longer?” she asks, nodding discreetly toward the cafe that fills out the back of the bookstore. There is a line forming there, he sees.
Just as he is about to respond, the girl rounds the corner with her cart and they lock eyes.
The woman in pink looks from boy to girl, from girl to boy, and gives her head the smallest shake. She walks away.
“I’m on my break,” he tells the girl.
“Okay,” she says.
“It’s almost over.”
“Right,” she says, ducking her head and nodding. And then, when a lock of hair falls down from her neat bun, she tucks it behind her ear, looks up at him one last time, and nods.
He stands there until she’s shelved the book in her hand, until she’s taken the cart and pushed past him onto whatever comes next. It is only when he hears the “Hem, hem” one more time that he remembers his role and dashes off to play it.
At school the next morning, when he opens his locker, the letter is there, wedged into the slats at the top; he’s surprised he didn’t notice the edge of it jutting out before he opened the door.
He holds it for a second, the letter, as his classmates crowd around him, nudging their way toward their own lockers in the cramped hallway. But he pays them no mind, doesn’t respond to their elbows or their glares. He needs to take it in.
The envelope has been opened neatly, cut at the top by a letter opener he imagines she stole from her father’s office. And his letter is there too, but there’s a smaller piece of paper, a purple one, wrapped around it. And she’s scrawled a note upon it.
There’s someone else now, reads the first line. I’m so sorry.
But it’s the second that gets him, the words that appear just above her looping signature: The books hurt less than this does.
He tosses his own letter back into his locker, then folds hers into a neat square. He stuffs it into his wallet, hides it in a corner so dark that even he will forget where it is.
Except that he will always know it is there. Always.