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It was that time of the year again: when everything was wet, the sun hid like a shy child, only coming out every once in a while to peek through the clouds; the sky was painted grey and cried. A cold time that would rattle old bones like Azim’s. Standing at the window frame, he watched as the rain poured. He could see twilight stealing in even though it would be a lot darker at later hours this time of the year. Everything outside appeared misty under the dark, decorated by street lights and glowing windows, there lights bloomed like orange flowers in the night.
The rousing noises of the patrons that visited his bookstore today still lingered in his ears, though they had already left some time ago, after which he had closed shop. Them browsing the shelves as they searched for their desired books; occasional whispers and beepings of their electronics – cell phones mostly – were the kind of thing he heard on a daily basis.
“Uncle? Uncle!” A little girl in a cute yellow raincoat, with a small red ribbon sat on her hair had called for him prior to closing. She looked up at him expectantly, holding something in her hands.
“How can I help you, young one?”
“I was wondering if I could borrow this?”
She held up the book for him to see, then she boosted herself a little for the old man before her upon seeing him having difficulty on lowering himself. Azim was rather tall compared to her so he had to hunch down, carefully minding his back as he did so. The ever familiar bone-snapping crackles sounded in his ears, making him wince slightly.
He pushed his glasses upward firmly: the book’s cover was made of leather, now rather worn and had lost most of its luster. Even the wordings – the title and whatever else he could make out – were all but faded. What book is this? He couldn’t figure out at first but the book felt strangely familiar like he had seen this before, somewhere deep in the back of his mind...
“Let me see that,”
The girl handed him the book. He touched it, caressed the cover gently, tracing everything he could with his bony fingers. A whiff of that old book smell came to his nose. Very old, almost ancient. That sense of familiarity came again like sparks, stronger this time. When he opened it, something slid down the page and onto the floor. He took it and brought it closer for him to see. After a long stare, he felt his handshake, his heart beating. His smile slowly melting away.
It wasn’t the book however that shook him to the core, but what was inside it; still there, untouched. A piece of paper.
The piece of paper—
“Are you alright, Uncle?”
He snapped back to reality, realizing there was someone else in his world. His smile quickly returned while handing back the book to her.
“Oh yes, you can borrow that book, child,” he said absentmindedly, not even glancing at the little girl, mind fixated on that paper.
The child, while a bit confused by the apathetic response of the old man, smiled nonetheless, then turned and skipped towards the counter with Azim slowly trailing behind her.
It can’t be…after all these years…
He rummaged said paper in his hand, minding how worn it was and how easy it would be to tear it apart if he wasn’t careful. He had put it away in his pocket, where it had stayed until now; when everybody would be gone and leaving the old man retired to his humble abode.
At this time like every other day, he would be sitting by the fireplace, enjoying a mug of hot chocolate while reading a good book. Except for tonight. He would be sitting by the fireplace, yes – his shadow ran up to the wall, moving in tune with the dancing flames – would still have the hot chocolate, but perhaps he won’t have a good read. Not with this old thing, he thought.
He held it with care as if it could crumble with the slightest of harshness. Yellow, faded, soft, and wrinkly. He mused at the thought of picturing himself like the paper. Folding it open and… there they were. Words that he had written with his own hands, written once upon a time; words that he had forgotten until tonight, which had come flooding in like the water of a broken dam.
Taking a sip of his hot cocoa, pursing his lips for taste and then put it aside where it would be left alone for the long run of the night, Azim then felt a wave went through him, his eyes peered momentarily at those words before memories started to play. Back to those days when he was a younger man – a much younger man – no wrinkles, no back pains, no creaking bones. Just a healthy young man, a then still budding boy who had looked forward to a bright future. He felt how the environment around him began to distort, warping like ripples on water. Then melted; his wrinkles sunk in, making his skin fair and healthy. Strangely, he heard a howl of the wind, yet the air was calm.
His smile broadened.
When he opened his eyes, he was in a different but all too familiar place. Gone was his fireplace, his home decorations; the cement and concrete and the room; instead he was somewhere more spacious, with windows next to him that was opened, letting in that fresh air – free of smoke and that urban smell that he had grown accustomed to over the years. And there were people around him.
He was back in his old classroom.
And there she was, standing at the front of the class, a delicate figure of average height, looking shyly down at her feet while the teacher introduced her. She was the new student and the new girl in town. Please make her feel welcome, the teacher had said.
Now he remembered much more clearly on who he had written that letter to.
She stuttered a “hello”, obviously shy on meeting new faces, but her next few words came out with more confidence: “My name is Zania.”
Long locks of black hair that gleamed under the sunlight, like the night sky had turned into rivers and pouring from her head; bright, beautiful eyes that had some kind of charm to them that often lured him in (much to her obliviousness); and that sweet little giggles of hers. Oh my God. It gave him butterflies in his stomach.
It didn’t take long before Azim and her became good friends, just two teenagers enjoying their youths. And it didn’t take long before…before he fell in love with her. Those same feelings that he didn’t have the courage to muster.
One of his life’s regrets…
Time flies fast it seemed. Soon before he knew it, him, Zania and their friends grew up, grew older. High school, then graduation. Yet he still didn’t tell her. And that’s when things started to fall apart for them. He got a scholarship somewhere far, far away from his town, on a city across the country. And Zania decided to take a small job to get income for her family; they couldn’t afford to get her into a more proper college since her father had gone bankrupt. They did still stayed in touch for a time, sending letters to each other every month. But as time went on, she had been sending less and less.
On his end, he had been writing a rather peculiar letter. The same letter that he had forgotten until now. It was during the holidays when he went back to his hometown, during the semester break. Zania was still well; she also apologized of not sending him letters as frequently as they used to for she had been busy, with things that she didn’t want to press on. Strangely, he also felt that there was something about her at that time, like she had this nervous look, the look of not wanting to be near him. That only fuelled Azim’s curiosity.
The letter he wanted to write soon became a total disaster…
Instead, he started anew, only to end up writing these words, just seven words, and slipped the paper in a book that she used to borrow from his father’s library (which has now become his). He waited and waited…and what felt after like an eternity he knew she didn’t read it. Or perhaps she did but didn’t reciprocate.
News came to him one day, one that had filled him with dread: she ended up engaged to one of their friends, an old classmate whose name he couldn’t recall anymore. When he heard of this, a once new feeling had surfaced inside of him: jealousy. No, not just jealous but angry too. He remembered how much his hand had shaken when he got their wedding invitation, that he had wanted to just tear it down to pieces as if he could tear the whole nonsense like waking up from a bad dream. But he didn’t have the power for he was a gentle soul. And instead he cried.
If anything, he had grown angry at himself.
To see these words came back to him was like getting hit by a freight train.
He went to their wedding. He was happy – rather forced himself to be– for them in spite of his own feelings. Once the new semester started, he went back to college, with nothing more to say to her. For a time he wouldn’t even see her nor wanting to do anything with her. And for a time, he pretended she didn’t exist.
The next time...and the last time he saw her was at her funeral. It was held on a Sunday morning, where the sun was shining brightly down below as if blessing the mortals walking on the earth. But even that wasn’t enough to wash away the dark clouds that gathered that day. Many have gathered for her mourning, most wearing attires fitting for a funeral – some of which he recognized, old friends and acquaintances from days long gone; her husband, children, and other relatives of whom he barely know about. Azim himself wore a simple garment of a shirt, pants, and songkok. By then he was no longer a young man. Neither were the familiar faces. Well, he wasn’t too old either but was already getting there. Already felt shadows of wrinkles on his face. It was then he was crying. Just tears pouring from his eyes, nothing more nothing less. He held no grudges against her, just his unrequited feelings that he had learned to bottle up over time.
He was standing next to her husband who was crying as well. Both of them looked at her, staring at her face. Even in death, she still looked beautiful, despite said beauty had all but nearly faded: her hair was nearly white and crow’s feet adorned her eyes. Even in death, she still managed to smile, somewhat made the funeral feel less miserable.
Azim opened his eyes again, licking his dry lips, feeling little traces of dried chocolate. The lines on his face were back. So were the crow’s feet; the wrinkles on his skin; the soapy smell that old people have.
For a moment he just sat there, thinking over the other things that lingered in his head about this girl he used to be in love with. His eyes then happened on those seven words he had written.
His smile broadened, then he chuckled. And then as he continued on, tears began to roll down. His joyous laughter turned to sobs. Like a boiling pot of stew, he felt anger under all these sudden tears. He scolded himself, saying that he should have grown some guts and tell her. But his anger subsided quickly; growing old had taught him that nothing was within his control, as the old saying went. Even if the words in the letter had but almost all worn out, the words themselves were ingrained in his head, like an old stain on a wall.
Now that he noticed it, why did he just use only one paper to draft it? Most of the words were crossed out crudely that it looked more like a big mess than it already was. Some tears got onto the paper, smudging the crossed out words like a makeshift frame, brought out more of his attention to those seven particular words in the middle. The words stood out like a mocking scream.
His hands slowly balled halfway into fists, crinkling both sides of the letter. Tearing it apart, that’s what he was thinking about. Through his tears, he caught the dancing flames and, with all the might he could muster, lifted himself from his seat and hobbled to the fireplace.
The flames continued to dance to their little tune, flaming fingers ready to accept his paper. He looked at the letter one last time and let it go...The flames ate away, the crackles sounded loud in his ears. Even so as a weight was lifted from him, the words that were long ago etched in his mind had reasserted themselves. Those seven sacred words that were not meant to be.
I love you. Please don’t ignore me.
Muhammad Haafiz Azahzuddin is a short story writer who is taking his first steps into publishing. He is into a variety of genre such as horror, adventure, slice of life, urban fantasy and (a little bit of) romance. His first completed short story, "Those Seven Words," is one of his many handiworks that he hoped to be published and read, with a few more in the oven. Residing in a bustling port town in Malaysia, you will have him finding many ways to get the inspiration to write, be it music, video games, or just good old fashion literatures. He takes writing seriously as much as the care of his cats, finding time to write in between translating as a day job.