Dust sheeting on shelves, spines that are more wrinkled than strong, a yellow light that blinks every few minutes, a roaring stench of dead insects, and wood that creaks no matter how weightless I make my steps. All these accumulate inside the worst library I’ve ever stepped in.
Although to be fair, I’ve never been inside that many libraries; I never had an innate affection for the written word, to begin with.
But something about this eerie place lights up a spark in my sister’s eyes. I sigh, thinking about all the times in the past when I motioned in vain to our parents to have her diagnosed by a psychologist. But they pointed out that each of their daughters has a right to at least one obsession: Reading books is my sisters, and mine is daydreaming. At least that’s what’s going to happen when I’ve been spoiled by my own mother’s incessant matchmaking.
Even now, I think this gloomy library would have been more tolerable if Adam was here with me to talk to. I sigh and laugh at the thought of his name. Adam was never the one to sacrifice himself, not even for me.
My sister’s bouncing about the place as though she was a toddler in a jumping castle. She’s marveling at the words, the covers of aged cotton-covered books, while my biggest success here is trying to hold a sneeze for the fourth time in a row.
“Maya, look!” She announces to me from behind a shelf. I can’t see her and contort myself backward to see that she is many shelves and feet away from me. I simply wave back.
I don’t even know which section I’m standing in. All the rows seem the same; every book is hardcover and jacketed in either a dirty green or red. They make me grunt, and I grunt even harder when I remember my mother’s response an hour ago about chaperoning my sister in a library.
“Imagine you’re taking a long walk in a rose garden” I picture her smug face, “That ought to help you survive the afternoon.” I tried it; it obviously didn’t work. I think about the time I went with Adam to the rose garden at the end of our street. I chuckle; then I had behaved exactly the same way my sister was behaving right now. And Adam behaved the way I was feeling right now.
A book fell. It hits my left foot. It hurts my toes which I foolishly thought were protected in the velvet flats I’m wearing. I pick it up to return it to its shelf, but my eyes linger on it.
The book is beige, without any writing on it. The other neighboring books are all dressed in darker, cotton sleeves with gold writing. I casually flip through it, but it sends the dust airborne and I cough and sneeze again.
A male voice echoed. For the fraction of a second, I felt transparent, as though something cold rushed through me.
When I turned, no one was there. The library too was unchanged, gloomy and solitary just as it was since we came here. I couldn’t find my sister, but a librarian passed from behind. He was lining books on shelves a few feet away from me.
The book was open in my hand, and I felt a cloud growing around me. I felt cold and warm at the same time, like the gush of wind you feel when someone passes you but even a slight touch leaves lingering warmth.
“You won’t find me if you try so hard.”
The voice sounded again, this time with a feathery chuckle. I felt its breath stroke my ear. I turned again. Nothing: no human, no phantom, I saw nothing but only felt chills.
I shut the book in my hands and headed for the long table next to me. I settled down in one of the chairs, throwing down the book in front of me. I was trying to remember the voice. It was like recollecting something from a dream, and I failed at it. Why was I overthinking this?
The book was open when I first heard the voice, I realize. I slide it close to me and flip the cover open to the first page. Chills surround me again, and the warm tingling caressed my ear again:
“Sorry. Did I scare you?”
His voice is soft, almost like he’s standing here next to me, hugging me from behind. It’s the hug that says everything will be alright. I don’t know what to say, but he knows I can hear him. How? The question pile up but there are no answers.
“It’s alright Maya. I don’t want to scare you… Or hurt you”
I shiver. Who is he? Should I say something? What would I say?
“How is this possible?”
“I actually don’t know the mechanism sorry” I can hear him chuckle.
“Who are you?” I breathe.
“How did you know who I am?”
“Like I said, I don’t know the mechanism, but I’m here.” Surreal, but I could picture him smiling at me while he said the words. His face was blurred though. He was a ghost, a ghost in a book. It was an idiotic explanation, but it was the only one.
“Can anyone else talk to you?” I asked.
“Only those who open the book, which reminds me, you’re the first one who didn’t go running in the other direction when she opened it.”
He makes me chuckle nervously. Am I losing my head? I turn my head sideways: I can sight my sister as well as two other readers prancing between shelves, but luckily I’m invisible to all of them.
“Thanks” his voice snaps me out again.
“For talking to me. It’s been an eternity.”
A feeling of warmth overlaps with me. When was the last time somebody said thank you to me? And that too with warmth? I shrugged. I’m losing my head but I can feel his voice, his presence is all around but I can’t see him. In a split second, I’m thinking about the mythical angel and demon who sit on each of your shoulders.
“It’s alright” I struggle with words, “I usually don’t have anybody to talk to either.”
I don’t know how to answer him. I’ve never entrusted anyone with that before and nobody asked me that question.
“I struggle with communication.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“We’re communicating aren’t we?”
“Maybe it helps that I can’t see you!”
I can hear him laugh; it’s loud but not irksome. “Fine” I can hear him still chuckling, “I’ll give you points for that.” I smile.
“Who are you talking to?” my sister springs out of nowhere.
“Nobody” I fluster. I pull the book closer to shut it, but my hands freeze on top of it.
“Are you reading?” she presses. I sigh and nod; it’s less embarrassing than admitting you’re conversing with a ghostly presence. I thought my sister would nab the opportunity to taunt me, but instead, she releases a squeal. I fluster even harder when she asks me about the book.
“Well” I exhale, “It’s about a man named Rayan… Who is… kind of funny…”
“Oh, you’re on the first page then! Looks long. Want to check it out?” she asks.
“Come on!” She exclaims, “One book won’t kill you!”
I smile and close the book. I carry it to my side, while my sister cradles her trove of five books to the librarian’s desk. A few minutes later, my mother is here, and we’re riding the car back home. There is something gushing inside me on the car ride home. My lips are still curled upwards and I feel pumped. The book is shut, but I want him to listen. I want him to listen to my mother and sister, and the sounds I hear every day. I want to hear his voice. I want to know whether he likes my world.
So I open the book in the car itself, and a few seconds later, the sound of a grin rings in my ear: “So, you think I’m funny?”
I scoff, silently, but he can hear me even if I whisper. He knows I can’t talk but he fires away his silvery voice. He makes me smile. His words ring out like someone who’s had a story stuck inside them for so long and now he’s ready to voice them out.
His name is Rayan. His parents have passed away, and he lived by himself in a small shanty in Lahore too. He’s from a time eras before mine, and he served in the Army before a perpetual leg injury made him come back home. I momentarily laugh in between when the sound of charging traffic seems to scare him. By the time the car ride ends, I’m tingling with a desire to meet him in person.
I kept him open on my nightstand. The door is of course shut; Even if my family won’t believe his existence, they probably shouldn’t suspect I’m talking to myself.
“You know,” Rayan says, “Talking to oneself is considered a sign of intelligence.”
“Maybe where you come from” I answer with a grunt, “Here, it’s the first stage of a mental disorder.”
“I marvel at how you survive!”
I laugh again. Why is it so easy to talk to him? His words do not reflect his time at all.
“Can you see me?” I ask.
“With just your voice? I’m a little lacking in info here.”
I sigh. It hasn’t even been a day since he’s here, and he’s already bordering on irritation. “So you can’t actually see me? Like ghosts?”
“No, not really. You can’t see me either right?” I shake my head only to realize my mistake and voice out a ‘No’.
Before, I barely spoke to anyone. Not my family, not my friends but I spoke to Rayan. It was like talking to a diary, but Rayan wasn’t a diary. He was an actual person, confined to the rough pages of an aged book. I flicked the pages but didn’t find anything to hold my attention for too long. Talking to him was much better. My mother burst into my room then.
“Mom! Knock please!” I squealed. I could hear Rayan chuckling in the background and almost snapped the book shut. I suppose there was some advantage in having a friend whose mouth you could shut tight.
“Why did you close the door? We’re not running a secret society here. And what was that murmuring?”
“Were you talking to someone?”
“On the phone yes!” I sighed. The excuse worked as long as she didn’t see that my phone wasn’t anywhere near me.
“You haven’t been alone in your room since Adam left.”
Now, I wished I had shut the book. My mother left a few minutes later, with a scarf of hers that had been dangling inside my wardrobe. Rayan and I were left alone again, but none of us spoke. I felt that any second now, he would ask and Pandora’s Box would open.
There was no hiding it. But Rayan had been here for less than a day. Was he even my friend yet? I had already told him so much.
“My neighbor’s son. They moved away last year.”
“Was he a close friend?”
I sighed. He heard it. I was speechless. I didn’t want Rayan to ask, I didn’t want to answer him. My cheeks were warming up. Why was I so nervous about this?
“Is this coming out to be the conversation you wish you weren’t having?”
I laugh, for real. It was the right thing to say. We didn’t talk about Adam again and I was grateful.
“Wait!” Rayan said, startling me. It was after midnight and I had already readied myself for bed.
“Leave me open,” he said.
“Why? I’ll be sleeping and there’s nothing to do much in the night.”
He giggled. I tried to picture his nervous face in my head. He mentioned he was tanned, with brown eyes.
“I actually haven’t heard much in many years. I’d like to use my ears as much as I can.”
“Seizing the moment?” I hoped he could imagine the smile on my face too.
“Bonus: I could hear you sleep too.”
“As long as it doesn’t border on creepy.”
“It won’t. I promise.”
So I kept it open and switched off the lights. The open window sent in rays of moonlight, and the sound of the fan and stray animals hollering outside filled the air even as I said goodnight to him. I’d never had a friend stay in my room before, and the thought kept me wriggling in the covers.
“Can’t sleep?” Rayan must have heard the blanket rustling.
“You’re not nervous because I’m listening is it?” he asked. I thought he was teasing, but there was no sound of chuckling in his voice.
“You can close me if you want.”
“No, that’s not it.”
“Do you want me to bore you to sleep?” Now, I laugh.
“No, it’s fine. A little distance might do us some good.”
“What does that mean?”
“Maybe, when you’re not with someone, and you think about them, it gives you time and space to reflect on them. Instead of thinking about what to say to them, you think about them.”
I hear him sniff, like a smirk. “So, this is good then? You’re thinking about me?”
Suddenly, like lightning, Adam’s face flashes into my memory. What is he doing here? His sharp face, his grungy beard, his smile, his laugh too comes into view. Adam never made me laugh. That was always my job.
“You and I would have never met you know?” I speak out loud.
“I wasn’t supposed to be here today. Not, in this city.”
Rayan doesn’t answer, but I hear him whispering. As if he’s mouthing answers to this mystery himself, waiting for me to continue.
“Adam and I were supposed to get married. I would have moved to the north with him” I breathe, “He ended it.”
I hear him exhale now, and it synchronizes with my own. Adam’s face is in my head now, but I want Rayan’s face there as well. Now that I’ve opened the box myself, I want to see his reaction in person. I don’t want to wait for him to say something. I want to see him.
“Rayan?” I ask.
There is no answer. But I know he’s there; the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up to prove it. I hear the cry of a cat from outside my window. It cries around this time, but tonight it sounds like a baby’s wail.
“Sorry” he sighs. He makes the same sound I make when I feel like giving up, “I didn’t know what to say.”
I smile, “It's fine. I shouldn’t have told you anyway… It was a big secret.”
“I wish I could see your face.” His words make my smile stretch wider until it makes my cheeks turn scarlet.
“So you could comfort me?” I ask. But I should have told him I wanted to see him too.
“Only if you’d want me to.”
I exhale; I didn’t even realize I was holding my breath. It’s relieving, almost like a balm. But my cheeks are still warm, and the smile is starting to ache. I’m still facing his book to my side, and even though I don’t really want to sleep, my eyelids begin to drop.