INTRO: The past year, and in fairness, all the years before, have not offered me much in the way of satisfaction when it came to writing stories. Ideas I had plenty of, but motivation and competence were a different matter altogether. I have completed a few stories, and of those, I can count on two fingers the number of stories that gave me satisfaction enough. And for every story I completed, there were two that I abandoned. I kept telling myself that I would go back to them, I kept trying to convince myself that they were ideas that I did not want to leave behind on the wayside; but the honest truth is that I am more an idea-person than an action-person. On a deeper level, maybe this is a way of telling myself that I have to move on, that I should not linger on the past. Or maybe there is no deeper level. Maybe I’m just tired of the reminder that I’m not as proactive and productive as I ought to be. So, here are eight stories that, except for ‘The Letter’ and ‘Something Terrible’, I left unfinished in chronological order. A good story could certainly come out of them in the hands of a better, and definitely more prolific, writer. Read it, or not, I just want it out of my drive so I can say good riddance to it all and disappoint myself with newer ideas in the new year.
NOTE: One of the first stories I’ve ever written, around the time I wrote ‘Synthetic’. I was applying for something or the other and they wanted a writing sample, but I didn’t have anything I was confident enough to share, so I wrote this disposable flash fiction for that sole purpose. Well, I received no call-back. I wouldn’t call back me either.
I suppose you could call this story a thriller, although a doubt you’d find any thrill in it. It’s a story of a woman who gave a man who wronged her his comeuppance.
Word count: 950
On her feet, she picks the page up again from the table to read it through a third time. Below her name, in a handwriting eerily familiar, the words on the page says:
You will be the first person to see this, so I am addressing this to you. Let me begin by saying how terribly sorry I am to put you in this position. We’ve known each other since childhood, and I am confident when I say that I knew you better than most. You are a good woman and you deserve none of this. You deserve none of the horrible things that has happened to you. I also know that you are strong, picking yourself up again after everything, all alone, and stronger than ever. I doubt many could overcome what you have. Know that you have my deepest admiration. After I say what I have to say, and seeing what you probably already have seen, you will think little of me, and my words might mean absolutely nothing to you, but I tell the truth when I say I wish from the bottom of my heart I could take everything back. I hid my pain well, and it will come as a shock to you and many, but it has been eating me up inside for the longest time. The pills I take to sleep are for no other reason than the memories which are most vivid when I lie in bed each night. When you reached out to me a year ago, a little part of me foolishly hoped that there might be a chance for redemption. I know there is no forgiving what I did. Not in this world. Running into you last night, I know something had to happen. My behaviour last night was because I knew I had to do this or the other, more than the morality I have. The fact that you had been so forgiving and so ready to believe in my innocence made me even surer that I had to come clean.
Not a day goes by that I don’t regret what I did to you, or to be more specific, to your daughter. Yes, it had been me, it agonizes me to say. I have no defence. I have no excuses. I am pathetic. I am the worst person I know. I am a coward, and so have taken the coward’s way out. My actions are not justifiable. My death is less than what your daughter deserved. I wish to God I have at least the courage to confess in person and face proper justice. I wish to God I have at least an ounce of your strength. If there is a hell, then that’s where I am now, and I hope your daughter can see me from heaven. I know there is no forgiveness in what I have done, and it would be imprudent to ask you to understand, but if I dare to ask one thing, please, can you find it in your heart to forgive my wife and my child for ever loving me? They will have nothing but hate for me, and I hope to God they don’t pay for my sins.
His name at the bottom is the hardest to read, she observes. It looks almost alien.
The woman places the letter down on the table, next to the one, filled with words from top to bottom on both sides, intended for his wife. She does not wish to read that a second time but thinks she must, so she picks it up and goes over it carefully, word by word, taking her time. No one but her would ever know just how important this is.
When she is done, she places it neatly back down next to the one with her name on it. The fountain pen, a gift from her to him when he had his first novel published, before he became a big name, before her sixteen-year-old daughter was raped and murdered, lies between the two letters. It’s almost tragic, she thinks, almost as if the pen’s destiny was to write those letters. But she does not believe in such silliness. She believes in hard work and not waiting around for the universe to grant you your due. She is a woman of science. There is no room for superstition in her line of work, no matter how many ‘miracles’ her patients might claim to see.
She heads to the bathroom.
In the dry bathtub is he, still in his shirt and trousers, void of life. Her stony expression does not change even as a single tear rolls down her cheek. Only she knows what the tear is for. She wipes it away before it reaches her chin.
She looks at the half empty bottle of whiskey, the glass with a film of golden residue at the bottom, and the empty pill bottle next to his head. Satisfied with where everything is, she exits.
Just as she expected, she finds a Durex tucked in his wallet. Shaking her head just a little, she takes it out and puts it in her purse.
It is almost two in the morning when she turns the lights out and finally lies down on the double bed, taking a deep breath in the silence. She never liked how hotel beds feel, but this time, it is just about the furthest thing on her mind. She feels her arms ache a little, never having exerted herself this much in a really long time.
She looks at her daughter’s photos on her phone one last time, reassuring herself, before she turns it off and let the darkness of the room take her.
NOTE: All based on the prompt ‘They found his diary under his bed’ as part of a book club writing exercise I went to sometime in 2019. Another disposable piece of writing, and possibly one of the few that that did not really linger on my mind after put the final period in. I suppose you could call this a thriller as well. It’s a story of a woman’s life in the wake of the discovery of her son’s crime and death.
Word count: 1100
They found his diary under his bed. His mother never knew he kept a diary, but then, with the things that had already come to light, she wondered if she knew anything about her son at all. Nobody had read it. Or so they said. His crimes were clear, and so was the motivation. There was no need to delve into the mind put to words. Who would want to read them anyway? And the police were there for much more concrete and graphic reasons, not some rambling of a someone with a twisted mind.
They handed her the small book with the hard clover and she fanned through the pages. It didn’t look like he left a single page blank. Under a different circumstance, she might’ve joked about how such a silent person could come up with so many words. But she only felt anger and guilt and shame and a whole lot of confusion. There was no refuting the evidence. She obviously didn’t believe it (how could she?), but they had shown her clips. She couldn’t look at them for more than a few seconds.
She kept the diary on her ever since, taking it everywhere she went, never out of sight, eyeing it every night she went to bed alone and every morning she was jolted awake by her alarm, morbid thoughts filling her head. She wanted to open it, flip through the pages, but she thought she knew what she would find and didn’t think she could stomach it.
Her own son. Her precious young man. It sounded so incredulous.
Even a year later, it still felt unreal, like she would wake up any moment and realize it was all a dream. But she knew that was just wishful thinking, an attempt to cope with the horror that has become her reality. It might’ve been a little easier to bear if she wasn’t so utterly alone. Her anger at what her only son had done just wasn’t enough. She was angry at her dead husband for dying, leaving her. But most of all, she was angry at herself. If only she had known somehow. If only she had paid more attention to her son. There never was an easy day, not for a single mother working two jobs, supporting herself and her son who was coming into adulthood in this economy. But there must’ve been something that she could have done.
She lost all her ‘friends’. They disappeared like farts in the wind. Lost her jobs. Now she was scrambling for anything. Had to move out of the apartment into a studio in the more ill-reputed area of the city. She drank up all her savings, mixed with the wrong crowd. Sometimes she felt like a teenager again, rebelling. The late nights. The ‘drink till you drop’. But she was closer now to middle age. And although she still had a body, the parade of men, the smacks and the blows all said she couldn’t be further from the experimental innocence of youth. She was a hustler and a junkie. Men had her easy. She never resisted. She didn’t want it, but thought she needed it. It was no more than attempt to drown herself in anything that might help her forget, might help kill her.
A long night would follow a hard morning. Remorse was always a part of it, but fewer was penitence. Promises to climb from rock bottom had become non-existent. But no matter what she did or didn’t do, the face of her son would never leave her, staring back through the screen at her, bare, holding down and killing innocence.
She tried to visit him once, but he wouldn’t see her. She never tried again. Didn’t have the strength to do it. She sometimes had to try to convince herself she loved him no matter what, but the love she felt only made her feel sick. There was no hiding from it. What he was, reflected who she was. She wondered if he loved her back, if her son loved his mother. It was an absurd thought, but she couldn’t help it.
When she got the news that her son died, murdered by other inmates, she felt a strange feeling inside. It wasn’t grief or anything that came with the loss of a loved one. She didn’t even know if she loved her son anymore. Nobody came to the funeral, and she didn’t expect anyone to. And for her it was just a formality too. Her son, whatever monster he was, deserved to be buried by his mother at the very least.
As she left the cemetery, she understood what that feeling was. It was relief. She was free.
She thought she was free.
In the weeks that followed, the diary seemed to have become an entity on its own. It seemed to grow bigger and obstructing, heavier. It has become the elephant.
She tried to ignore it but it was impossible to tune it out. It even seemed to have a voice of its own with an uncanny resemblance to her son’s voice. She couldn’t tell. She hadn’t heard her son’s voice in more than two years. And with every passing day, the voice got louder.
She tried to drown it out.
The white walls were blinding and the silence, deafening. For a moment she thought she was beyond. But the voice and the pain were still there, disillusioning. She cried because she was still alive.
She had gone home with the intent to finish the deed. She couldn’t possibly get out of the well of debt, couldn’t possibly sober up now, couldn’t possibly silence the voice.
She picked the diary in one hand and a lighter in the other. She was taking the diary with her. But instead of lighting it, she set the lighter down, opened to the first page, and read:
Ma, I have done something terrible. They will come for me and you will know what I’ve done. I don’t expect forgiveness, not even from you. I will never forgive myself either. Whatever comes for me, I deserve it. I’m writing this because I want you to know the truth from me. I did what I did, and there’s no excuse for it, but there was never a day leading up to it that I didn’t try to kill the urge. I tried, and I failed. I just hope you can understand that I never meant to hurt anyone. Least of all you . . .
She read it to the very end without a break in between. It took her a little over three hours. She closed the book when she was done and set it down on a table. Not a tear in her eye.
She looked around at the mess that was her apartment. She took a deep breath and began to pick up the trash.
NOTE: Although most stories and poems I write are personal to varying degrees, after just four sentences, I realized that this story, if completed, would read like an autobiography (to people who know me, at least), so . . . just no.
Word count: 100
I was home for the first time in a long time. I’ve missed the air in the hills, the early sunsets, and oh the feeling of the cool water of the river I used to swim in when I was young. I was still young, but the concerned voices around me made twenty-eight feel like middle age when there were no hints of ringing church bells in my near future. My brother was married, my cousin was getting married—what my return from the city was all about—and all I was greeted was: when was I going to get married?
NOTE: One of my first and many failed attempts to tackle a social issue in a fictional setting. It’s about a deeply religious and traditional man who’s just become a father. He wanted a son, expected a son, but he had to come to terms with having a daughter (although I never got anywhere near that part). Got too hung up on the man’s past, my motivation to continue ebbed before I could get to the crux of the story. Maybe it was it was a good thing. Probably bit off more than I could shew.
Word count: 700
A man sits on a wooden bench in a dim hallway. In the emptiness echoes the laborious screams of his wife, the mother of his would-be first born son. Somehow, he knew it would be a boy. He never even considered the alternative. He had a dream once when they found out they were expecting, and in the dream, he saw a figure descending from heaven, a child-like figure. A prince. And that prince called him father. It was a vision from God, he was sure of it. He trusted God. His faith was unshakable. There were times he would liken himself to Abraham, but when the ensuing image of him being commanded to sacrifice his only son drifted into his mind, he would move to another biblical figure to compare himself to.
His unshakeable faith was a consequence of a childhood of abuse and neglect, and an adolescence of “flirtations with the devil”, as he liked to call it later on. But in his youth, he had no understanding of what abuse and neglect really meant—in the Seventies, in a small backward town nobody had heard of in one corner of India’s eastern appendage, nobody really did. That was the way it was.
He was the only one in his family to ever get anything close to an education. After he failed Class 7, he was forced by his father to give it up so his hands could be put to real use on their farm. He would sometimes think back on how he got to where he was—so far away from everything that his youth was built around—and he would often go back to that sunny afternoon, that moment when his father made the decision for him. He was thirteen, and he has had years of experience conducting himself and manoeuvring through the tricky terrain that was his father’s anger and displeasure. He knew better than to ever talk back, least the belt was let loose on him. That afternoon, however, something possessed him to stand his ground, to do his best to let his thoughts be heard.
It wasn’t, of course, and it wasn’t the beginning of his gradual departure from the familial ties he felt to his tether—he has been departing ever since he remembered the first strike, ever since he realized there would be no end. No, but it was what facilitated the ease with which he would recklessly submerge himself into darkness trying to free himself from that tether.
There were fears and uncertainties clinging onto him ever since he knew he would soon become a father. Before, when he was a young man who’d only just pulled himself out of that deep darkness so close to the devil’s domain, who’d only just begun laying a righteous path he could walk on for the rest of his life with pride, or at least without utter diffidence, he was certain that the faculties he possessed would undoubtedly make him a better father than he ever had if he ever fathered a child. Maybe he was even eager at one point to have a child just so he could exhibit who a father was supposed to be to his child. He imagined his son—he always imagined a son—loving him like he never loved his own father. He imagined his father a witness to it all. But as he sat there with his head in his hands waiting for the cry of his son to fill the air, the fear of him becoming no different from his father was never more potent.
His silent prayers gradually became audible as the darkness changed its possessor from midnight to early morn. He prayed for himself for the first time in a long time. He hasn’t asked anything for himself as sincerely and passionately as he did those first few months after he left rehab for the last time five years ago. Tonight, after so long, he said, “God, help me . . .” He prayed he would become a father unlike his own, better than his own. And he had faith that his prayers would be answered. He would be lent the strength he needed, the wisdom when he lacked. Ever since he decided to put his faith on the divine and mend his ways, he’d never known a moment he was failed.
It was a painful crawl back along that road to damnation he was set on. There were many times when he was sure that his failure to rehabilitate was imminent, many times when he accepted that he was beyond saving.
A Conversation Between Two Humans
NOTE: Tried to chronicle the relationship between a father and son as they grow to resent each other, grow apart, and then finally reconcile. Didn’t get far with it, and although I’m adding it here so I could get rid of it, it’s an idea I just might revisit someday . . . one day.
Word count: 150
He was born in the year 2000, a younger brother to a miscarriage, and an older brother to a cancerous foetus that killed his mother. His father was a nurse at a local clinic by day and, since a couple of years after his wife died, an amateur writer of fantasy ever read by nobody but the contents of his drive by night. His mother’s death to him was a memory indistinguishable from vague distant dreams, and sometimes he couldn’t even be sure if he was four or five—or was he three?—when she died, so he was seldom burdened by the grief that tormented other motherless children.
His father was a hardworking man, and he had to be to take care of a child on his own with an income almost equal to the expenditure. The economy might be booming, but the boom had little effect on families like theirs.
What is Love?
NOTE: In a future where online dating and prostitution blends together, a ‘professional significant-other’ falls in love with one of his patrons. It was supposed to be a quirky and a slightly absurdist sci-fi dramedy, but I am too dour and too loveless to write jolly romance. Oh, also, it’s absolutely definitely positively not inspired by Her.
Word count: 300
“In your own words, what is love?” the interviewer posed the question philosophically. He was a man in his fifties proudly wearing a bald patch, and despite his conversational charm and an almost scientific understanding of the complex idea that was love, it was apparent that his interest in romance only extended to its profitability.
“Love is . . . what makes the world go round?” I ventured to say. With the written test, the voice test, the emotional evaluation, and the dating test, and this current interview for a job as a professional significant other, I’d done all that I possibly could. This was a ceremonial question. They’d already decided if they were going to hire me, but it made me feel hopeful seeing the smile on his face as he sang the first line to the century-old Deon Jackson tune. I’d never heard of the song before until I applied for the job and did my homework on love.
There were thirteen of us new-hires in the orientation room a week later. The interviewer, now trainer, gave as the what’s what as an assorted group of people listened with interest. I assumed the people would be closer to my age, people in their twenties, or even thirties, but there were at least two who were definitely older than my parents. I guessed there were as many lovesick lonely seniors as there were sad vicenarians. And as far as I knew, most SO engagements were done virtually with avatars and voices of the patron’s choosing—most patrons, I suspected, were either too diffident to do IRLs or they were too broke, and, in fairness, Kama Social’s rates (and services) were miles above any other competitor in the country—so it wouldn’t really matter if a nonagenarian was under the headset going on virtual dates with toned and sexy purple-hair avatar of an acned mousy sixteen-year-old, as long as they were up to date on what was in vogue among whatever age group.
Dialogue at the Airport
NOTE: Who doesn’t love chance meetings and unexpected connections? ‘What is Love?’ might not be inspired by Her, but this one is definitely inspired by an Omeleto short film that I saw a couple of years ago and refused to leave my mind: “2 strangers at a wedding reception make an unexpected connection.” My dialogues always feel either too clunky and fake or too polished and fake, and neither tend to be interesting, and I tend to go in circles, and re-reading it makes me cringe, but I recommend the 20-minute film to everyone. It’s on YouTube, go watch it.
Word count: 600
It is 9 o’clock on a foggy winter morning. A young man in his late twenties in a fading corduroy jacket sits alone at the airport waiting lounge by his old duffle bag that has various colourful badges sewn into it. He has a closed book on his lap bouncing up and down as he shakes his leg, and his eyes goes to the watch on his wrist every other minute.
A woman in a black winter coat, older by a few years than the man, walks his way at speed. She has her boarding pass in one hand with a handbag hanging off her shoulder, and the other is dragging her compact suitcase behind her, and she looks from her boarding pass to the activity at the gates as she walks. There is a food stain on her coat.
The man watches her pass him by as she heads for the boarding gates, half running the last few metres. There she talks to the gate security, her boarding pass a point of reference for their inaudible communication. After a moment, the woman laughs with a shake of her head, says some final words to the security, and then returns leisurely to the lounge. The man did not take his eyes off her until she notices him. He opens the book on his lap and turns to a random page.
The woman sits down a few seats to the man’s left, takes a deep breath, and then lets out an audible chuckle.
The man glances her way, and the woman happens to catch that glance.
‘I thought I missed my flight,’ the woman says.
The man smiles, and says, ‘That would’ve been unlucky.’
‘Turns out it’s been delayed.’
‘Mine too,’ says the man.
‘Funny,’ says the woman.
‘Both our flights’ been delayed. I’m happy, but you’re probably frustrated.’
‘More terrified than frustrated.’
‘Fear of heights?’
‘First time flying. I’m afraid I’ll mess up and get lost or something.’
‘As long as you don’t jump out of the airplane, you’ll get to your destination.’
‘I guess,’ the man says with a smile.
‘So, where to?’ the woman asks.
‘Going back or going to?’
‘Going back,’ the woman says. ‘But I’m always coming and going.’
‘What do you do,’ the man asks, and then adds, ‘if you don’t mind me asking?’
‘No,’ the woman replies with a smile. ‘I’m an auditor, and I can tell it wasn’t what you expected.’
‘Well, I . . .’ says the man, smiling too. ‘People don’t randomly meet auditors at airports.’
‘I know, and that’s why I love airports,’ the woman says. ‘And you?’
‘My aunt owns a small restaurant and she’s asked me to help her out, so . . . going to, I guess.’
‘You a good cook?’
‘All I can say is, you probably won’t die if you ate something I cooked.’
‘I like to live dangerously.’
‘I got the impression.’
The man smiles, and the woman smiles as well, and an announcement over the PA system pauses their conversation. Not their flights. The man looks at his watch.
‘That’s a nice watch,’ the woman says.
‘Thanks,’ the man replies. ‘It’s my grandfather’s. Was. He gave it to me for my birthday a couple of years ago. He’s had it for over thirty years. It’s not an expensive watch, but he looked after it well. Got it serviced every few years, and got it repaired whenever it broke.
‘I must mean a lot, to be gifted something of such sentimental value.’
‘It does. I wasn’t usually a watch wearer, but it has been growing on me.’
The Trouble with Living Forever
NOTE: It was supposed to be about a woman who meets a man again after some 25 years but he hadn’t aged a day, and then they have a conversation about the trouble with living forever. Got to about halfway with the story, but . . . actually, I don’t really have a real reason for abandoning this story. Maybe I’m just that lazy. Or maybe the idea lost its shine to me. I mean, immortality? What a drag.
Word count: 1800
It was 9 AM on a Tuesday and I was looking forward to a slow morning. Adding a café to the bookstore was my husband’s idea, and it paid off. The slowest day since we got the permit was half as busy as the busiest day when it was still only a bookstore. As much as I was grateful for the fact that we weren’t going under anymore, I missed the days when I had practically the whole day to myself to spend on any book off the shelf. Now I could have that kind of quiet only a few hours on weekday mornings. Our barista would come in at noon, and she loved to talked. If she was alone in a room, the room would feel crowded. But she was only twenty, and it mightn’t have been too wearisome if there wasn’t three decades between us. And then after school, my youngest, my sweet thirteen-year-old boy would come in and help around with whatever there was to help with. That was how he earned his allowance.
I sat down on a chair on the café side of the store with a coffee steaming on the low table in front of me and opened to page 115 of Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Tales from the Cafe. Before, it would’ve taken me two days to finish a 200-or-so page book, now it was almost two weeks since I opened to the first page of this one. Maybe I was getting easier and easier to distract the older I got. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to staring at the back cover of the novel in an attempt to wring the book for all the words it was worth.
Before I could even finish a page, the door opened. My seat, next to the counter, was at the other end of the store and in direct line of sight of the door. I did not look up from my book, praying that whoever it was, they wanted a book more than a coffee, and hoping that they would take their time browsing.
Out of the corner of my eyes I saw that it was a man alone. I should be welcoming him in and not let the lights alone warm the place, but instead I pretended not to notice and hoped that he thought I was a customer. Most people who wanted books headed straight to the left for the shelves anyway, and if he wanted something to eat or drink, then he’d come to the counter and I could do the welcoming then. He stood there in front of the door for a second longer than what I’d call normal, as if undecided whether to head to the left or the right. I took a quick glance up. The bright daylight through the glass door shrouded him in a dark silhouette, but I could tell that he was a young man, probably in his late twenties or early thirties, and he seemed to be taking his time admiring the woodwork of the shelves rather than the books. A moment later, he disappeared behind a wall of paperbacks.
I tried to return to the Cafe and travel back in time, but I re-read the same lines over and over again, my eyes darting up over the edge of the book at annoyingly frequent intervals. The dark silhouette of whoever it was remained in my head like an afterimage. There was a strange familiarity in that outline that made me . . . not uneasy, but at least conscious.
I put a bookmark—our signature bookmark, “designed” by my oldest daughter when we first opened the store when she was just seven—between the pages and left the book on the table as I stood up with a sigh and approached the shelves. I was only going to let him know that I worked there and to let me know if he needed anything, and of course to see if he was someone I knew. I’d come to know a lot of people through this business, but those people would’ve begun their visit with a greeting. It was rare that the people I used to know before I moved to this city came to the store without prior knowledge of who ran it or, more commonly, without expressed encouragement. In fact, I doubted that has ever happened before. The town I grew up in was in a different state after all, some 1700 kilometres away, as the crow flies. So, people I used to know did not stumble in through the door. And who did I know then that would be 30 now?
Between the Mystery and the Fantasy section in the farthermost aisle, facing the Mystery shelf, the man stood holding a book and he was reading the back cover with a faint smile on his face. He did not notice me standing there facing the Science Fiction section, and I was making no effort to be noticed as I pretended to inspect the spines. I did not know what came over me because I certainly wasn’t planning on this furtive approach. But for a moment, I watched him sideways. The sense of vague familiarity that came with his silhouette was magnified by the sight of his profile.
I took a few steps inward, keeping my eyes on the spines in front of me as I moved. I am taking inventory, a very normal thing to do.
I was sure now that I knew him somehow, but that recollection just beyond my memory’s reach was vexing. I usually had good memory. Although sometimes someone’s name might slip my mind, I remembered faces and situations. I might meet someone after a two-year interval, and even if I’d forgotten their names, I could recall where we met, the things we did, or what we talked about. This failure to remember made the familiarity I was feeling feel like some dream dreamt so long ago that I couldn’t remember if it had been a good or a bad dream, only that it was a dream.
I needed to know how I knew him. I couldn’t help myself anymore. I faced him, stepped forward, and said, ‘Hello. Are you looking for anything specific?’
He turned, almost as if startled, and an instant later, gave me a polite smile. His short black hair was messy, like he’d been wearing a beanie before; his ears looked a little big for the size of his head; there was a light stubble on his chin, but it probably wouldn’t have been noticeable if it hadn’t been for the direction of the light; his smiling lips could do with a coat of lip balm, dry-skin season was fast approaching; but it was in his dark almond eyes that I remembered something—a feeling—that I’d forgotten long ago. And when he spoke, the sound of his silvery voice took me all the way back to when I was 25.
I remembered. Yes, I remembered.
But something wasn’t right. It couldn’t be right.
‘Are you okay?’ the man said, concern on his face.
I realized I’d been standing there transfixed longer than just a few seconds. I shook my head and tried to smile to indicate that everything was okay, but the muscles on my cheek seemed to spasm with that attempt. I said everything was okay and hurried towards the back to the toilet.
I splashed some water on my face to chase the dream from my mind, for it had to be some kind of dream, some kind of hallucination. There was no other explanation. How else could that be possible? There was a man I knew 25 years ago, a man I fell in love with long ago. The man in my store now didn’t just look like him, didn’t just remined me of him, he was an exact copy of him, right down to the tiny red mole on his jawline. Was I going crazy?
Taking a deep breath, having convinced myself that my eyes had been deceived—it’d been 25 years since I last saw him, after all—I exited the toilet.
The man stood at the counter now with a couple of books in his hands. I tried not to look at his face as I approached. He asked me if I was okay.
I couldn’t help myself from looking. I was now convinced that it had to be a doppelganger, but his absolutely likeness was so uncanny and the whole situation so surreal I couldn’t simply pretend it was some quotidian occurrence and brush it off as nugatory.
I told him I was okay, but I was sure my expression told him otherwise. He said nothing.
I billed him for his books. One was Albert Camu’s The Stranger, and the other was David Foster Wallace’s mammoth Infinite Jest. I indicated to the latter and commented on his ambitious literary undertaking.
‘I have all the time in the word,’ he replied, but I heard no humour in his tone.
As I placed the books into a paper bag, I offhandedly mentioned how exactly he looked like someone I used to know long ago, and how, for a moment there, I thought I was seeing that very person.
Instead of amusement or curiosity, or even annoyance, there was rather a look of confusion on his face, and that looked made my heart skip a beat. In a moment of silence, his eyes were searched, as if trying to remember something that he’d long forgotten, something that he’d forced himself to forget.
Then suddenly tried to muster a good-natured laugh but it faltered into a cough, and that was quickly followed by a look of . . . guilt?
I spoke the name of the man I used to know long ago, my gaze reading every muscle on his face, registering every micro expression as he heard the name and tried his best not to react.
‘How is this possible?’ I said, more to myself than anyone.
‘I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you mean. I think you have me confused with someone else,’ he said, effortlessly and in contrast to his apparent agitation, like he’d been practicing that line over and over for years and years.
He reached for the paperback, but I held it back. He said nothing, and neither did I, not for a hesitant while as we stared at each other. All the memory that I’d forced myself to forget, all those moments in my past that I’d buried deep within me came bubbling back. I did not know how to feel, and I did not know what to say. There was the logical explanation that I’d indeed confused him with someone else, but that explanation did not satisfy me. His likeness to the man I used to know was exact, and there was no way around it. And suddenly I was afraid.
I handed him the bag.
He took it and left without another word.
Thank you for reading. Happy New Year!