Dismantling her childhood wall of books, Annie was struck violently by a relic from her past. A small yellow-covered book. Hardback. About the size of her palm and slimmer than her pinky finger.
It hit her in her left temple. Bounced off and skittered away, almost frightened, beneath her bed. She staggered back, grasping the stack of books already in her arms to her chest tighter. Sighed.
Sweat had collected at the small of her back. Stickiness had gotten into all of her nooks and crannies. Hair stuck to her forehead and the nape of her neck. The wall of books - her collection that she’d amassed over eighteen years, was only half demolished. Still slightly taller than her. It loomed over her. Smug at her defeat.
She huffed and deposited the books in her arms into the waiting box on her desk labelled DONATE. They fell ramshackle inside. She struggled to care enough to right them. Failed.
Getting down on her hands and knees, she posted her upper torso under her bed and slapped around in the darkness until she encountered the book again. Pulling it — and no small amount of dust bunnies — back out into the light, she sat down on her exhausted haunches and looked at it.
It was a small book of children’s poems. The pages yellowed and vanilla with age. The inside cover proclaimed it to be property of Clark County Public Library. But the next page proclaimed something quite different.
‘If you have found this book, then that means that you are destined to be my soulmate. I made this a spell so that you can find me. See you soon. Ellen Ng.’
It was written in a childish hand but not one she recognised. The name — though somehow tauntingly familiar — was not the name of any childhood friend that she could remember. She thumbed through poems that were etched into her mind. At some point she had memorised these. She could feel the long distant echoes in her mouth.
She flicked back to the library card. There was Annie Nightingale. Right below Ellen Ng. They had borrowed the book a mere two weeks apart. May 12th 2010 and May 31st 2010. The late fees would be ginormous.
Completely distracted, she stood and hot-footed it down the stairs to the kitchen, where her mother sat at the table, fighting to do her work from home.
‘Mom,’ she paused next to the table, waiting for her mother to look up at her.
When she did, Annie trailed her eyes over the new wrinkles clinging to the corners of her blue eyes. The year had physically eroded away at the static image of her mother that she held in her head. ‘Annie?’
‘Who’s Ellen Ng?’
For a moment, her mother’s face held a misty uncertainty. Then, like clouds clearing on a sunny day, she smiled wide and toothily. ‘En-Eng?’
The name slammed into Annie like a semi-truck. Catapulted back through time by the force, tears prickled in her eyes. The smell of freshly mown grass. The taste of those little quiches. The sadness on her mother’s face. The feel of a book clasped in her hands. The uncomfortable black shoes she’d been forced to wear.
‘My imaginary friend.’
Her mother inclined her head. ‘You were always talking with her after your dad died.’ She paused and reached out, interlocking their fingers for a moment. ‘I remember thinking it was so good to hear you talking again. After you came back from that wreck you didn’t speak for two weeks, do you remember?’
An uncomfortable prickle ran down her spine and she looked away. The sound crept back into her brain. The metal crunch and the taste of salt. She counted to ten, focusing on the ticking Garfield clock on the kitchen wall. ’Not really.’
‘And then Aunt Peggy took you to the library and you came back with that book. And you finally started talking again. Poetry mostly.’
Annie disconnected their hands as hers started to sweat. Looked down at the book. Turned it over in her hands and felt the rasp of paper on her skin. ‘Do you think I should return it?’
Her mother laughed. ‘It might be a bit late, Annie. How’s the room?’
‘Fifty percent finished.’
Her mother’s expression closed back down into exhaustion. ‘Annie, we’ve been through this. You’re moving to college tomorrow. You have to be packed up by tonight. We can’t afford to delay it. And we agreed to let out your room.’
The air between them grew back its usual frost. Creeping along the counters and stinging her nose, her ears, her fingertips. She folded her arms around herself.
‘Annie, be an adult, please. We can’t afford to keep the room empty. Things are tighter than ever around here.’
‘You’re kicking me out.’ The accusation fell out before she’d given conscious permission. She wanted to reach between them and shove the words back up into her mouth, swallow them down like bile. Her mother’s face crumpled into heartbreak.
‘And you’re leaving me behind.’ She answered, moving her attention back to her laptop. ‘Now, if you’re quite finished having an emotional slugfest, get back to cleaning.’
Shut out. Cold. Standing on the wrong foot like a confused ambidextrous flamingo. Annie ran back upstairs and threw her bedroom door closed. Maybe for the last time. She slung herself down onto her bed. Rolled over to look up at her ceiling and the faint imprint of where her glow in the dark stars had once hung.
Ellen Ng. En-Eng. Whoever she was, her spell had worked. They’d played together for hours in the field behind her house. Running together while cattails whipped their bare skins. Clambering over walls, running through creeks in their barefoot. Sharing secrets. Talking about her dad to the only person in the whole world who truly understood. Who helped her carry the grief and the guilt.
Alone. The dorm room was simultaneously too large and stood small. All of her stuff fit onto her sad little bed. It smelled like chemicals. Annie could almost feel her mother holding her close and telling her everything was going to be alright. But she was alone.
Tears welled up and she scrubbed at them with her hands.
Her roommate would come soon. And then it wouldn’t feel so much like she was adrift in a vast ocean of independence without the faintest glimmer of a life raft on the horizon. She reached into her pocket and rubbed a thumb over the poetry book. She’d intended to put it in the donate box. Or, at least, she’d told herself that over and over as she slipped it into the pocket of her hoodie, taped up the donation boxes and loaded them into her neighbour’s truck destined for the goodwill.
Now she stroked it like a worry stone. She needed to get a grip.
Laughter in the corridor made her pivot. She started towards the door and stopped. Dig a little jig. What if they didn’t like her? Did she look okay?
She glanced at herself in the mirror. Saw the bags under her eyes from too little sleep. The nest her hair had metamorphosis into over the course of the drive up. The coffee stain on her favourite baby pink hoodie. Oh god. She was horrendous. She couldn’t go out there.
She screamed. Put a hand over her racing heart, the other holding her book like a lifeline. She walked to the door and opened it sheepishly.
A beautiful Asian girl, much taller than her, with soft brown eyes, one dimple and an RA lanyard around her neck, stood on the other side.
‘Did I scare you?’
Oh god, she’d heard. ‘Uh, no?” What had given her voice the right to say that like a question? She ran her thumb over the book and tried to channel who she’d like to be. Herself but somehow taller and more confident. ‘I mean, yeah, a little. Hi, I’m Annie.’
‘Ellen, Ellen Ng.’
No way. Annie blinked a thousand times in the span of a second. Her world tilted slowly off-axis.
‘But everyone just calls me Elle.’
The earth snapped back to its rightful position. Annie left dizzy. Elle was a pretty name. It matched her. Much better than En-Eng.
‘I’m the RA for this floor. Nice to meet you.’
She needed to say something. Something cool and confident. Flirty? No, not flirty. Not weird either. ‘Clark County Library.’
Her mouth, apparently done taking orders from her brain, deposited the library name between them like a cat dragging the carcass of a bird back to its owner.
Elle took a half-step back and laughed. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘Did you… did you grow up near there? I mean the chances are like one in a million that you’re the same Ellen Ng, but like--‘
With Herculean effort, she cut herself off at the expression on Elle’s face. Instead, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the poetry book. With shaky hands, she opened it to the page with En-Eng’s message. Showed it to her.
With the rapt attention of a painter, Annie watched as Elle read the note. Her brows furrowed. Her lips relaxed into a circle of surprise. Her eyes glittered. She brought a hand up to her mouth.
Finally, she looked back at Annie. Not as a stranger, but as something different. A possibility spun throughout the pages of that book.
She gave a cheeky little grin. ‘Well. Hi there, soul-mate.’