Dear Miss Jones*

Dear Miss Jones,

I am writing you this letter to assure you that there is absolutely nothing in this house you should fear.

Please allow me to explain:

1. I did not topple that porcelain vase in the foyer that evening. You forgot to close the window before you went up to bed and, consequently, a strong gust of wind knocked it down from the table and broke it to pieces. I don’t blame you in the least. You looked exhausted when you entered the house that night. Your concert must have really worn you out. I understand you completely;

2. I am not responsible for the creaking sounds you hear in the corridor at night. My house, or rather your house – for this dwelling is now legally yours – is, as you are well aware, made almost entirely of hardwood and is extremely old. It contracts and expands according to the weather;

3. The noises you hear at night are not “voices” or “whispers” but are rather the crackling of the leaves in the trees outside, and the sounds you described as “sinister laughter” or “perverse groaning” are in fact the cries of wild beasts that are to be found aplenty in the forest beyond the courtyard;

4. As a rule, I do not play the pianoforte whenever you are around. I always make sure that you are out of the house whenever my mood moves me to play a few sonatas. I am fond of those pieces for they remind me of my childhood and of my dear mother. Perhaps what you hear when you arrive home are the faint echoes of the notes I have generated in the morning. Let me promise you that from now on, I will only limit my time at the pianoforte to half an hour, so that the music will not linger far into the evening;

5. You might have detected the faint scent of flowers and candles in the library. Do not be alarmed by them, my dear madam. My sister, Maria, was fond of collecting roses, lilacs, and lilies when she was still a little girl. She kept them tucked between the pages of her letters and she sealed them with candle wax. You can find them on the top shelf of the bookcase behind my, or rather your, desk. I don’t object to you perusing them – my sister’s letters and collection of flowers, that is; and I don’t think she would mind it either if you will take a look at them – but I don’t think it would be very prudent for you to go up the wooden ladder. In fact, I strongly advise you against it, for the ladder is very old and might break. I worry for your safety;

6. The sensation that woke you up that particular evening – the feeling of being touched lightly in the cheek – has, alas, a supernatural cause. I am terribly sorry to confirm your suspicions. The truth is, my sister is very fond of you, and despite my explicit warnings never to disturb you or cause you alarm or distress, she still went and sat by your bed. I was in the study when I heard your screams. She is such a careless and headstrong girl! But let me assure you that she meant you no harm at all. She only wanted to comfort you and keep you company for, she told me, you appeared sad and lonely that night. However, that does not excuse her. She promised me never to do it again;

7. I assure you, madam, that I am fully aware of your right to privacy. I therefore conduct my daily affairs with that in mind. I never ventured, nor do I have any plans of venturing, into your bedroom, bathroom, and powder room. I never trespass into people’s private spaces. It is true that I can pass through walls, but I can’t see through them, so there is no reason to worry. I also keep my distance at all times. I make sure that I am never less than 20 feet away from you at any given moment. Whenever you are in your studio, I stay in the foyer. Whenever you are in the foyer, I stay in the living room. Whenever you are in the living room, I stay in the veranda. Whenever you are in the veranda, I stay in the library. Whenever you are in the library, I go back to the foyer, or else I take a walk in the garden under the moonlight and come back before daybreak;

8. Here, however, I am going to confess to a real sin, madam: the “clapping” sounds which you suspected you heard just the other day in the studio were indeed “clapping” sounds, and the exclamations of “bravo, bravo!” which immediately followed them were indeed exclamations of “bravo, bravo!”. You see, I am a great admirer of your music. I have been admiring you since your first album came out and I have been following your career ever since. How long has it been, 14 years? So great was my joy, therefore, when I found out that my heirs managed to sell the property to no less than Norah Jones herself! It was just as it should be for I would not have allowed them to sell this house to anyone else. Were you surprised to find your vinyl records in the library when you moved in here? I obtained them a few years ago from a nearby record store. I value them like I value my rarest collection of books. Anyway, your rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” that night was masterful and I couldn’t help but praise you for your performance. It was simply superb! You made the song your very own. You have a way of owning every single song you decide to sing or cover. If I loved your music and talent any less, I would have been less effusive in expressing my admiration. In fact, if I had not been bound by all of these restraints, I would have been more vocal in complimenting you. I am more into classical music myself – Wagner, Bach, Mozart, and their contemporaries – but ever since you came into this house, I have come to appreciate and even love blues and jazz music. You see, I lived before Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Aretha Franklin were even born, so jazz music was unheard of in my time. I absolutely understand why you “freaked out” (your term) and stormed out of the house when you heard my voice and my clapping that night. My deepest and sincerest apologies, madam. I assure you that the next time you decide to sing a song or record a tune, I will keep my mouth closed. I will only admire you in silence. Your singing is the one thing I look forward to hearing every single day;

9. And I am going to admit to another thing. I am the reason why your beau, the bass player, left you. I can see through any person’s character and he clearly was a sleazy kind of individual. I saw that right away when he first set foot in this house. It was too obvious that he was only after your body, not your mind and your soul. A real gentleman conducts himself with strict propriety. It was thus highly improper of him to visit you even though you do not have a chaperone. And it was highly imprudent, and I daresay quite shocking, of him to tempt you to kiss him in the driveway and elsewhere in the house. Finally, it was absolutely scandalous, if not downright immoral, of him to seduce you. Marriage was far from the scoundrel’s mind, and it is my belief that a man and a woman can really only rightly consummate their love for each other if they do it within the context of the sacrament of matrimony. But let us not speak of love for I penetrated through his heart and did not see love there. I only saw lust and an insatiable appetite for pleasure. His motives were impure from the very beginning. Hence, I drove him away. Just as he was leading you by the hand into his bed chamber, I appeared in front of him as a macabre reflection in the mirror, and I contorted my face in such a way as to give him a very good fright. My impersonation of Count Dracula must have been convincing for he jumped up right away even before he could unzip his pants. He dashed out of the house through the kitchen door so I teleported down the driveway and met him there. He was beside himself with terror. I warned him, in a tone of voice at once ghoulish and sinister, that if he did not want me to haunt him for the rest of his life, he better not return here or make any attempt to reach or contact you. My dear madam, I do not at all regret what I did. I believe I saved you from a relationship that would have given you nothing but misery. You deserve a better man.

Madam, is it true what I overheard? Do you really wish to resell the house? This news fills me with the profoundest grief. This house won’t be the same without you. The bedrooms, study, library, foyer, living room, drawing room, sitting room, veranda, courtyard, and garden will be haunted by your absence. I beg you, kindly reconsider your plan of leaving. I am sure that this is all just a matter of misunderstanding. Forgive me for saying so, but I believe you are being too hasty in wishing to relocate to a new residence, considering that your stay here has not exceeded a month. The house will grieve if you will insist on going away. Maria, too, will grieve. I will grieve. And eternity shall pass us by once more. Eternity is such a long time and I cannot bear to go through it without you.

Yours, etc.
Diego Lopez del Fuego

 

Postscript

Dearest Norah, please forgive me, but I now have to be liberal in expressing my feelings. I will miss you terribly if you will go away. I will miss the sound of your smoky, languid voice. I will miss your singing. What will become of this house without your music? I will miss your pianoforte, your Wurlitzer, and your guitar. I will miss your jazz records. And although I can no longer eat food, I will still miss the smell of your cooking. The kitchen has gotten used to the aroma of your unusual recipes. I will miss seeing you brush your long hair in my mother’s dresser. My parents’ portraits that are hanging on the walls always looked at you with the highest admiration and approval. I will miss hearing your steps in the stairs and hallways. There is always a musical quality to the sound of your heels when you walk or when you run. I will miss your laughter. I will miss your shadow. I will miss your very presence.

God knows there are still many things I want to say. For instance, the garden will wither away without a lady to look after them, and even if I could take care of them myself, what good will the sight of roses bring me? One eventually tires of looking at roses, whereas no one can ever tire of looking at you. I never tired of gazing at you, Norah.

 

Post-postscript

My dear, dear Norah. I am a terrible liar. The truth is, I simply cannot live without you. That may sound strange — me saying that I cannot live if you will go away — considering what I am. But it is true. I cannot live without you. I will literally pass away again, and pass away every day, if you will leave. I am not ashamed to confess that I have been weeping since I heard the news yesterday. Yes, people like me do weep.

Dearest Norah, is there anything I can do to convince you to stay? If you’re not comfortable with 20 feet, I can increase the distance between us to 30 feet. If you’re worried that you might hear my voice again, I can go as far as 50 feet. If you’re totally not comfortable with me looking at you, I can banish myself up the attic and stay there for as long as you want. It will be most painful for me not to see you, but it will bring me consolation to know that we still live under the same roof.

My dearest Norah, are all of the above to your liking? Please let me know soonest. I am most anxious to hear your reply. Is it too much to ask you to dine with me tonight? I won’t be eating, of course, but I would love to prepare for you a modest dinner of paella, filete de cerdo, and escabeche, with a bottle of vino tinto. Maria is excited to play the violin for you.

*An earlier version of this story appeared in this blog several weeks ago.

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The Girl in the Pool

Once upon a time, there was a boy in a swimming pool. The boy was with his mother. The pool was shallow but the boy couldn’t swim, so his mother accompanied him. It was night time.

There was a girl swimming in the other pool, the one next to the shallow pool. She was wearing an inflatable flotation ring around her waist. She appeared to be alone.

The girl saw the boy. She left her pool and hopped into the shallow pool where the boy was. The boy saw her. He strengthened his grip on his mother’s arm.

“It’s all right, dear,” his mother said. “It’s just a girl.”

The girl was active, her arms alive with energy. She swam near the boy and circled around him. Then she grabbed the boy’s hands and pulled him away from his mother’s arms. She squealed with delight as he screamed in terror.

Twenty years passed.

The boy was now a man. He was back in the same hotel where he and his mother stayed when he was little, but she was no longer with him. He sat on a lounge chair near the shallow pool. It was day time.

There was a woman sitting on a bench by the pool. Her hair had streaks of gray and her back was slightly bent forward. She reminded him so much of his mother. She appeared to be alone. Slowly she stood up, put on her summer hat, and walked towards him. She was about to pass him by when she tripped on his sandals. In a fraction of a second he was up on his feet and he got hold of her wrist to prevent her from falling into the pool.

He pulled her towards him and helped her steady her stance.

“I’m terribly sorry, ma’am,” he said. “My sandals were on the way.”

“Not your fault, dear,” the woman said. “I didn’t look where I was going. Thank you for your help.”

She fixed her hat and walked on.

A lady rushed from a nearby cottage and met the woman at the other side of the pool. Her arms and legs were alive with energy and youth. She was about his age, with long hair neatly kept in a knot behind her head. She looked visibly upset and worried.

“Mama, are you all right?” the lady said. “Who was that?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” the woman replied. “Just some boy. He was rather nice.”

She removed her dark glasses and he slipped on his eyeglasses and they each saw the boy and the girl in the pool.

The Library

It was dark inside the public library. The floor boards creaked as Chelsea walked from shelf to shelf. Finally, she stopped before the “Literature” section. She squinted her eyes so she could read the titles more clearly (she lost her first pair of glasses in an Uber car back in Cebu, her second pair at the ship on her way to Tacloban, and her third pair back at the hotel). She picked up a couple of paperbacks from the shelf and examined them closely. Their covers were dusty and stiff.

She opened up a collection of stories by Kafka. Immediately there arose a musty smell — old vanilla and rice. She lifted the book to her nose so she could inhale the scent deeply. She then browsed through its pages to see if any of the stories looked familiar. Some of them were. She read excerpts here and there and scenes from her college life flashed in her mind — some of them happy, some of them sad. She realized that this is one of the reasons why she fell in love with existentialist literature in the first place: the stories were so absurd and depressing that they made real life happier and more meaningful.

I must bring these home, she thought.

She climbed down the stairs and looked for a librarian. A man was sitting behind a desk at the far end of the room. She approached him. A label was sitting on top of the table: “Frederick Herrera, Sr., Librarian”. He did not fit her image of a librarian. He was young, dressed somewhat fashionably, and looked more like a model than a bookworm. He was reading a copy of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.

“I’m sorry,” he said, looking up from his book. “Can I help you?”

“Um, er, eh,” she stammered. She had the words in her mind but couldn’t quite speak them out loud.

Finally, she began, “Uh, yeah. About these books…”

He glanced at the books she was carrying.

“Can I take them out? I mean, can I borrow them?” she said.

“Well,” he said. “They are really old, you know. They were donated decades ago, many as far back as the 30s and 40s. So…”

“I’ll take care of them, I promise,” she said. “It’s just that, I just love these titles and they are extremely hard to find in bookshops, and it just saddens me that they are just rotting here — I’m sorry, no offense — in the library with no one borrowing or reading them. The last time this book was checked out, for example, was 1987!”

He smiled.

“I mean, are there rules against borrowing these books?” she said.

“Not really,” he said. “You know what, for a pretty girl like you, I say, take them home with you. You can return them whenever you want.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“So I can borrow them?”

“Borrow them, own them, pass them on to others. I don’t mind. What’s important is that they’re read and talked about. And you look like the kind of person who loves to read and talk about books.”

“Woah, thank you so much, Mr…”

“Erick. Just call me Erick. Erick, Jr. Erick Sr.’s my dad. He’s on sick leave so I’m covering for him.”

“So you’re not the librarian?”

“Nope.”

“So you don’t have the authority to allow these books to be brought out…”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll explain it to my dad. Just promise me you won’t tell anyone about this. I’m kind of bending the rules for you.”

“Can I get more?” she said, her eyes wide with excitement. “There’s plenty more upstairs.”

“You know what,” he said, “Take as many as you want. Take as many as your bag can carry.” He laughed.

And she did. She ran upstairs and took as many books as her hands and arms could carry: titles by Camus, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, de Beauvoir.

She shoved them in her backpack. The rest she piled against her chest. She went back downstairs and nodded at Erick. She wanted to wave. He waved and smiled.

She stood for a moment outside the library. The sun was just setting behind the buildings in Tacloban. A few pedestrians stared at her as they passed her by. She turned around to check whether Erick was following her, but was shocked to see that the door was covered with old boards and plywood, and a hand-painted “Closed” sign hung on where the door knob used to be.

 

Even

He always ordered sausage and coffee. Every single day, for as long as she could remember. So she was surprised to hear him order Schnitzels and egg instead.

“Schnitzels and egg, sir?” she repeated.

“Yes,” he answered. “Scrambled.”

He was surprised that she had cut her hair short. Her hair had been long for as long as he could remember. So now they’re even.

Awesome

“Yeah. She was awesome. I mean, you should’ve seen her. If you were there last night, you would’ve seen how awesome she was. I mean, man. What an awesome mind she has. The girl’s got brains, unlike the other girls I’ve dated in the past. She is something else, man, and by that I mean she’s out-of-this-world awesome. You should’ve seen her. I told you it would be awesome if you could join us. Why didn’t you?” he said.

“I had to stay at the office until ten, and by that time I was already exhausted, so I went home directly,” his friend said.

“Man, what an awesome girl she was. She’s pretty, sure, but man, how smart she was. Awesome. Gosh, I can’t even begin to describe her. She had this awesome way of talking, which is out-of-this-world enchanting. I mean, the way her mouth moved, the way she spoke her words, and the way she expressed whatever was on her mind. I just sat there with my mouth open and said very little, but it’s awesome because I learned tons of things about her.”

“Like what?”

“Well, I’ve learned that she’s a writer. Awesome, right? She writes stories and stuff. Gosh, what an awesome girl. And when I asked her what kinds of stories she writes, she went on to elaborate about these imaginary people she has created in her mind and brought to life on paper. Like this awesome knight who served a lonely queen in a long-forgotten kingdom. And this hunk of a lumberjack who lived in the woods who was actually a living saint. Or this guy who found a doorway in an awesome museum that led to 18th century Philippines. And many other stories like that.”

“So she writes for a living?”

“Not only that,” he said. “She also does other awesome things like act on stage, play the cello for an orchestra, volunteer for an orphanage, manage her own events company, do modeling on the side, climb mountains, grow exotic flowers, maintain a museum, collect rare and out-of-print books, paint portraits, make chocolates, write poems, teach physics at a university…”

“So she’s a female Jack of all trades?” his friend said.

“Awesome, right?”

“Awesome.”

“I know, right? So I told her, ‘You’re so awesome’. She just smiled. I said, ‘You’re the most awesome girl I’ve ever dated in my life…'” He stopped smiling. “But somehow this angered her. Things were not so awesome after that. She said, ‘A date? What do you mean, a date? Are you mad? This isn’t a date. What on earth gave you that idea?’ She stood up hurriedly and left our table, which embarrassed and depressed me, but man oh man oh man, you should’ve seen the way she walked – pure drop-dead awesome. I never saw any girl move like that in my life. Such finesse, such grace, such alluring awesomeness.”

“So the night ended badly.”

“Yes. But what’s awesome, though, is that she hasn’t unfriended me yet in Facebook. There is hope after all. Just this afternoon, I PMed her and told her how sorry I was that I offended her, and I repeated my praises, telling her how awesome she was, and so on and so forth, and I said it would be awesome if we could meet again.”

“And what did she say?”

“Well, I need your help here,” he said. He opened his smartphone and continued, “Let me read to you her reply, ‘The word ‘awesome’ has over a hundred synonyms. Consult a Thesaurus.’ My question is, is that a yes?”

The Little Boy and the Unreasonable Princess

My son loves stories. He sometimes asks me to tell him stories. Oftentimes, we do it at night while the four of us — me, him, my wife, and our little daughter — are all lying down on the bed, ready for sleep; or we do it while I’m driving. So these are all impromptu stories — stories I’d just make up. Sometimes, I read them stories from books, but more often than not, these are extemporaneous stories. He supplies me with titles (It usually starts with “The Little Boy and the…”) and I make up the story along the way.

Well, recently, I’ve been writing these stories down on my computer. My dream is to write more children’s stories with Luke, and later, with Lizzy as well, and compile them as one book.

Here’s our second written short story:

“The Little Boy and the Unreasonable Princess”
by Dante and Luke Thomas Cuales

One afternoon, a little boy was playing in a garden. He hopped, and ran, and squealed with delight, for it was the beginning of summer.

Out of the blue, a princess appeared, beside the lilies and rose bushes.

“Hello,” the princess said. She wasn’t smiling.

“Hello,” answered the little boy.

“What’s your name?” said the princess.

“Luke,” replied the little boy. “What are you?”

“I’m a princess,” she said. “As you can see.” Indeed, she was wearing a tiara, a long silver dress, and small shoes made of glass.

The little boy thought for a moment. He wanted to ask her where she came from, how she got to their garden, and, more importantly, why she’s there in the first place, but he didn’t know how to phrase these questions. These questions were too complex for a little boy like him to utter.

“Give me something that is beautiful and not found in this garden,” the princess said.

“Why?” the little boy said.

“Just because,” the princess said.

“Why?” the little boy repeated.

“Just because,” the princess repeated.

So he did as he was told. He gave her a flower which he plucked from one of the pots that lined the fences of their garden.

“It is beautiful, but it came from this garden. I said I want something beautiful that’s not found here,” the princess said.

So the little boy went inside his house and gave her a toy. It was a robot toy with wheels, wings, and rockets. The princess was not impressed.

“It is found outside the garden but it’s not beautiful,” she said.

This puzzled the little boy for it was his favorite toy.

He ran to and fro and gave the princess everything he could think of, but they were either taken from the garden or they were deemed not beautiful — butterflies, flower pots with ornate drawings, toy trucks, lego blocks, his father’s paintings, his sister’s barbie dolls, his mother’s shoes — they were not good enough for the princess. Besides, the princess said, did he ask his family’s permission before taking them?

The little boy was downcast. His heart sank as the sun lowered down the horizon.

“It’s getting dark,” the princess said. “But I will be back tomorrow.” And she disappeared as mysteriously as she appeared.

That night, the boy leaned on the window sill of his room. His mommy stroked his hair and kissed him on the cheek.

“Why are you sad, little one?” his mommy asked him.

And he told her about the princess in the garden and her unreasonable requests.

“Oh?” his mommy said. She didn’t quite know what to say. “Well, sometimes princesses are demanding. But there are also princesses who are not demanding. They are good princesses.”

His mommy hugged him and she left the room to check on his sister, who was yelling in the other room.

The moon happened to be full that night. It shone bright and big in the cloudless sky. He looked up at it and whispered, “Hello, Mr. Moon.”

To his surprise, the moon talked back. “Hello, little boy.”

“You can talk,” he exclaimed.

“Of course, I can,” Mr. Moon said. “But I only talk to good little boys like you. Why are you sad?”

“Because I can’t find any thing that is beautiful outside the garden.”

“I think I have something you might like,” the moon said. “Here.” And he extended his arms down to him. The little boy didn’t know Mr. Moon had arms. They were long yellow arms, and they stretched and stretched and stretched further and further down until they reached the window where the little boy was looking out.

The little boy held Mr. Moon’s hands.

“Are you ready? Hold on tight,” Mr. Moon said. And he shot up the sky like a kite or a rocket. The little boy shouted, “Weeeeeeeeee!” and he extended one arm as if he was Superman. “I’m a superhero,” he said.

Before long, he reached Mr. Moon’s surface.

“Here,” Mr. Moon said, and he gave the little boy a shiny white object. It had the shape of a diamond but it wasn’t a diamond. The little boy peered into the crystal and he saw a hundred thousand colors shining and shifting and dancing inside.

“Do you want to know what that is?” Mr. Moon said.

The little boy nodded, his eyes wide open.

“It’s a moon gem,” Mr. Moon said. “There’s nothing like it where you live. You can have it. I have many more treasures like those.”

The little boy was so he happy. He thanked Mr. Moon and gave him a high five.

Later that night, back inside his bedroom, he tucked the moon gem under his pillow, and he slept with a smile on his face.

True enough, the following morning, the princess was there in the garden. She didn’t even greet him “good morning”.

“Good morning!” the little boy said. He kept the moon gem behind his back.

“Well?” the princess said.

And he gave her the moon gem.

The princess was so amazed that she became speechless. For the first time since their acquaintance, she smiled. And then, she cried. She wept buckets of tears.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m very unreasonable.” She sobbed. “I was only looking for a friend. I don’t have friends in our kingdom. Will you be my friend?”

The little boy thought about it. He never had a princess friend before. He also thought about the questions he wanted to ask her.

“Okay,” he said.

“Where did you get this stone?” the princess asked.

“It’s a moon gem,” he said, and he told her about Mr. Moon and his treasures.

That became one of the happiest summers of his life.

Valentine’s Day

“I don’t know much about love,” his friend said, pressing the elevator button. “But this I know for sure: a girl either likes you or doesn’t like you. That’s the bottom line. No amount of poetry can move the heart and mind of a girl who, to begin with, is not attracted to you.”
The elevator door opened and they both stepped inside.
“So if I were you, stop wasting your time writing these poems. They’re totally irrelevant. If she doesn’t like you, she doesn’t like you. And that should be the end of it. If she likes you, a single verse from you will win her heart. If she dislikes you, an epic love poem will not move her an inch.”
His friend pressed the number “12” and the elevator door closed shut.
“But what will I do with all these poems and letters?” he said.
“Throw them away. Burn them. Bury them in a field or something. Just get rid of them. Jeez, you’re such a hopeless romantic. I’m starting to feel sorry for you,” his friend said.
The girl who stood in the corner of the elevator smiled at him. He smiled back and blushed. She was holding a bouquet of Malaysian mums, wrapped in yellow and red crepe paper. She was evidently very happy. There was a kind of halo about her. She seemed to beam with light, and the small space the three of them were occupying felt brighter and warmer.
“When was the last time she texted you?” his friend asked.
“About a week ago,” he answered.
“Have you tried calling her?”
“I can’t contact her anymore. Must have changed her number.”
“She’s obviously avoiding you.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah.”
A few moments passed awkwardly by. Time slowed down. He gazed at the girl’s hair and blazer.
All of a sudden, a long list of questions flashed in his head: “Who is she? Where is she going? Who gave her those flowers? Is she single? Is she a colleague? How come he’s never seen her before? Why did she smile at me? What is she thinking right now? What floor is this? Which floor is she heading to? How many seconds do I have left? Will I ever see her again? Does she like poems?” And so on.
“Of all the days of the year, this is my least favorite,” his friend said, breaking his train of thought.
The girl giggled, but his friend didn’t seem to notice.
The elevator stopped and opened at the 11th floor. The girl stepped out and glanced quickly at him before disappearing into the hallway.
“Gosh, I really hate Valentine’s Day,” his friend said.

The Runner

He wore his favorite pair of shoes that day — a pair of grey and red sneakers which he bought a couple of years ago from Zara during a sale. He only takes them out of their box on special occasions. This day was a special day. He could feel it in his gut.

He put them on and he stood up. They fit his feet quite snugly. He walked up and down the living room before the big mirror against the wall to see how he looked like. Contented by the look and feel of his shoes, he went out of his condo and headed down the basement.

He drove in a very unhurried manner. He was already late for his meeting with Ava, but he was not worried. Ava, though very particular about time and punctuality, was also very patient and forgiving.

He drove around I.T. Park and he tried to recall the last time he wore his shoes. Ah, he thought, it was during his last meeting with Ona, a month or so ago. Before that, he wore his shoes during his last meeting with Ivana, a few months before meeting Ona. Before the last meeting with Ivana, he wore his shoes during his last meeting with Monica. Before the last meeting with Monica, he wore his shoes during his last meeting with Crystal. And so on and so forth.

He entered the cafe at half past three and the door chimed as it slid open.

“I’m so sorry, Ava. I’m very late for our meeting,” he said.

“‘Meeting’?” she burst out laughing. “Is this what this is? Why are you always so formal?”

He smiled shyly at her and took his seat across the table from her.

“So anyway, I called because there’s something I wanted to ask you,” she said.

His heart leapt.

“Sure,” he said.

She lowered her glasses and placed them over the book on the table, flipped a lock of hair over her ear, and looked at him intently in the eyes. “Brian.”

He felt his throat quickly drying up. He wanted to order a drink.

“I want to be frank with you,” she said. “I can be frank with you, right?”

“Of course,” he said, signaling the waiter for a drink.

“You know me, I’m always frank and I always want to be open and honest about my feelings, especially with you. Above all, with you.”

“A glass of water, please,” he said to the waiter.

“Bottled water, sir?” the waiter asked.

“Just service water, thanks,” he answered.

“And I feel that today is the best time to ask you this,” Ava continued, without blinking. “What are we?”

He stared at her, perplexed.

“What are we?” she repeated. “You and me, what are we? What is the nature of our relationship?”

It was, simultaneously, a very simple and complicated question. Not the first time he heard it, though.

She reached for his hands slowly across the table and her touch jolted, stunned, and electrified him. Her touch was the very thing he most wanted and the exact same thing he feared. “Please tell me,” she said.

He felt weak and nauseous. He withdrew his hands from hers gently and stood up.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“I just want to stretch my legs a little,” he said.

“Stretch your legs?”

“Yeah, I just want to stretch my legs a little and see whether a dose of fresh air will do me some good.”

“What’s the matter?”

“It’s just, you know, I don’t feel,” and he pulled the door open and stepped outside the café. It had begun to rain earlier and now a gust of wind sent drops of water streaking down his face.

Without hesitating, he hopped onto the sidewalk and fell on a pool of muddy water. He started walking. A few moments later, he picked up his pace and started jogging. Then he ran. He ran as fast as he could without stopping. He ran as fast as he could, even as he started losing his breath, and he did not look back.

Just For Awhile

They were sitting outside the resto, the two of them, Marc and Iva. It was past 11 in the evening and the nearby shops had begun closing their doors.

They were both silent now, after talking for more than 3 hours. Still, they each felt hollow, as if there was still something terribly important they wanted to talk about but haven’t talked about in the course of the evening. The truth was, they didn’t really know what it was they wanted to say to each other. It was at the tip of Marc’s tongue — it was something deeply profound — but he couldn’t utter it. It was at the top of Iva’s head — it was something utterly poignant — but she couldn’t find the words for it.

Finally, they both sighed simultaneously, but inaudibly.

“Well,” she said.

“Well,” he said.

“I better be going now,” she said.

“Yeah, you better,” he said while glancing at his watch.

“I hope we won’t wait for another 3 years to get together again.” She smiled.

“Three years is such a long time.”

“Infinite.”

“Infernal.” He chuckled.

“Well, then,” she said.

“Well, then,” he said.

“See you around,” Iva said, and they shook hands like they were business partners.

The lights inside the cafe died out as they parted, and they each found their way somehow to their respective cars.

Marc watched Iva as she drove out of the parking lot. She honked her horn a couple of times and he waved at her through the window, but he wasn’t sure if she’d seen him for the tint of his car was a shade darker than hers. She was gone before he realized it.

Earlier in the evening, he had clung to each second of their time together. He knew those seconds would inevitably slip away, yet he held on to them as hard as he could with his mind and tried to focus on certain details that he might be able to remember later on – the twinkling of the chandeliers inside the resto, the glare of the decorative lights over the door, the sheen on the tables outside the store, the shimmering of the SUVs in the parking lot, the shadowy trees beyond the commercial complex, the sparkling of the silver dusts on Iva’s face, and so on.

He let his hands slip off the steering wheel and rest on his lap. He opened the windows and turned off the engine. Immediately the evening air rushed into his car and the stillness of the night enveloped him. Almost all of the shops were dark now and he watched the security guard from one end of the parking lot approach him slowly.

“Are you waiting for someone, sir?” the guard asked him.

“Yes,” he answered. “Can I wait here for awhile? Just for awhile. I just need to wait for a few minutes more.”

Beyond the parking lot, Iva pulled over and waited for awhile. She wiped the tears off her cheeks and gripped the steering wheel. Anxiously, she glanced at the rear-view mirror to see whether he had followed her. She opened her window, but the darkness in the street made her change her mind. The trees overhead threw long shadows on the hood of her car. She held the key in the ignition and thought whether she should turn the engine off or not.

Then, she lowered her hand brake slowly, shifted her gears, and pulled out into the highway.

The Book

The first thing that the book ever felt was his owner’s touch. This — the first touch — happened many months ago inside a bookshop. His owner, though, didn’t read him at all. Instead, she merely scanned his introduction and his blurbs and placed him on a book shelf inside her house. It was the very first time he opened his eyes — he supposed that he must have eyes, although he hasn’t verified this through a mirror, for how else was he able to see the bookshop, the car, and the owner’s house? — and the very first time he saw his owner.

He loved her living room. He loved its clean, powdery smell. And he loved the neatness of his dwelling place, the bookcase. The owner was very tidy and organized and she had good taste in furniture.

Before his eyes were opened, he lived within his dreams. He always dreamed the same story, of course, night after night – the same plot, the same characters, the same setting, the same conflicts, the same issues, and the same denouement.

Sometimes, though, there were anomalies in his dreams – scenes that were unrelated to the story would pop up inexplicably. For example, an image of a very old tree would suddenly flash in his mind. Sometimes, there would be more than one tree in his dreams. There would be two or three or hundreds of them. These pictures would awaken within him feelings of nostalgia, but he didn’t know why.

One day, the owner appeared in the living room looking quite melancholic. She sat down on the couch and she seemed listless. He observed her for a while and was about to speak when she suddenly looked up at his direction and asked, “What is your deepest desire?”

This question, of course, caught him off guard, but he knew the answer right away.

“What are you afraid of?” she continued.

He wasn’t sure how this second question was related to the first.

“Are you lonely?” she asked.

“Well,” he began to whisper.

“Are you tired?”

Not exactly, he thought. He has never been tired. He has never had the opportunity to be tired.

“Are you bored?”

The owner’s questions seem to be coming at him in quick succession, making him suspect that perhaps they were merely rhetorical.

“Do you love me?” and here the owner’s voice tapered off into a soft whisper. But he could still understand her. His ears – he supposed that he must have ears too, for how else was he able to hear his surroundings? – had grown accustomed to her voice. He could hear her even if she went outside the house and stood in the garden.

He knew the answer to the owner’s question. He said, “Yes, of course, I do.” He was dissatisfied with the volume of his voice so he repeated in a somewhat louder voice, “Yes, I do.”

The owner stood up and walked towards the bookcase. His heart – needless to say, of course he must have a heart also, for how else was he able to feel? – raced within his pages. Never in his wildest dreams did he ever imagine that the owner might reciprocate his feelings.

She stopped in front of the mirror. “Do you really love me, Henry?”

This stunned him.

“Do you, really? Then tell me, Henry. Tell me now. Tell me that you love me.”

He didn’t want to hear this. He closed his eyes. He wanted to shut his ears, too, but he couldn’t keep the words out.

“Oh, Henry. If only you knew.”

The book kept his eyes closed for a long time. His eyelids were locked together like a shell guarding a pearl. Until one day, he heard the deep voice of a man. This deeply disturbed him. It renewed fresh wounds in his heart. He also heard his owner’s voice, now no longer sad but happy. She was giggling, in fact. She and this man talked a lot, and he could hear their constant exchange of laughter. Many months passed and he heard another voice — that of a human baby. It was crying most of the time, and he could neither stand or understand it.

One day, just when he thought that he was all alone in the house, he felt the touch of an unfamiliar hand. The touch was rough and coarse and he hated. When he opened his eyes, he saw the face of a stranger looking down at him.

“What’s this?” the man asked.

“A book,” his owner answered.

“I know it’s a book. But what is it doing here? I thought you wanted to dispose all your books?”

“I plan to keep a few print books. Nothing beats touching, and even smelling, a real book, you know?”

“And e-books are not real books?”

“I meant nothing beats actual, concrete books.”

“And tablets and e-readers are not concrete?”

“They are devices, babe. Their books are digital and as such are intangible. E-books are still books, but they are not tangible like print books are.”

“Have you read this?”

“Not yet.”

“It’s dusty. The pages have yellowed. I haven’t heard of this author before.”

The book then saw his owner standing beside the man, looking down at him.

“Oh, you’re right. I can’t remember when I bought this. I’ve lost track of time.”

“Before our wedding?”

“Probably.”

September 8, 2013, the book said, but they didn’t hear him. They seem oblivious to the fact that he has a mouth and a pair of eyes and that he was staring straight at them.

His owner finally held him in her hands and stroked his cover. Oh, to feel that soft touch again. He immediately felt calm and at peace. It was worth all the months and years of waiting for her to pick him up again.

“Tell you what. Get rid of it,” the man said.

“What?” she said. “No. I told you I’m keeping some of these books.”

“Yeah, but not that one. I don’t like how that man on the cover is looking at me.”

She laughed. “It’s only a drawing.”

“Yeah, but it looks ugly. That cover art looks ugly. I don’t think that’s art at all. It’s just a hasty, haphazard, grotesque sketch of a man. The pages look filthy, too. Throw it away.”

“No, I bought this and I plan to read it.”

“Do you have it in your Kindle?”

“Yeah.”

“So throw that one out and keep the rest. Sheesh. That reminds me, I thought we’re both committed to preserving the Mother Nature. Who knows how many trees were cut for the sake of that book.”

“Not more than one, to be sure.”

“That’s not my point. Print books are products of the mass slaughter of trees. Are you in favor of that?”

“Of course, not.”

“You love to preach about saving the planet but you yourself keep print books in our house.”

“Henry, what is up with you? There are only a handful of them left in my bookcase. Let me keep them. Let me keep this one.”

“That’s called double-standard. No to plastic bags but yes to the murder of trees.”

“Hey! You’re not being fair.”

The book wanted to punch the guy in the face, but alas, he didn’t have arms.

“If you really want us to practice what we preach, then we should get rid of all our print books, without exception.”

The baby cried in the bedroom.

“The baby’s crying,” the man said.

“You can be so insensitive sometimes, you know that?”

“I can’t believe you’re crying over a piece of book. It’s just an object, not a person or pet. Why are you so attached to the thing? You haven’t even read it.”

“Stop it. This isn’t just about the book. It’s about how you sometimes treat me and talk to me.”

“You’re blowing this out of proportion. I can’t believe we’re fighting over some book.”

The baby cried harder.

“You’re such a drama queen,” the man said. “Are you going to get the baby or not?”

“I thought I knew you,” she said.

“What?”

“I thought I knew you, Henry. You were gentle and kind and sensitive…”

“Oh for crying out loud! I’m not a book that you can read.”

“I thought I knew you.”

The baby’s cries grew sharper and shriller.

“That’s it. This is driving me nuts,” he exclaimed.

He grabbed the book from her hands and tore it in half. Neither of them heard the book’s screams. Then he ripped the pages from its spine, crumpled them, and tossed them on the floor. He went inside the bedroom and slammed the door.

The owner knelt down and wept for her unread book.

The baby has stopped crying. All was quiet inside the house. She stood up and gathered the pages one by one. Then she wiped her cheeks with some of the torn paper. Her face was smeared with ink.

The book was surprised to learn that he was still alive. He was still conscious, but something was terribly wrong with him. He couldn’t think straight. He felt disoriented, stupefied, confused. He tried closing his eyes but the dreams wouldn’t come.

He could still feel – he felt the wetness of his owner’s tears on his table of contents. He saw her above him, bent down, eyes still closed. He wanted to comfort her.

The only thing he could do was speak up, so with what remained of his strength, he screamed as loud as he can, “DON’T BE ALARMED!”

It didn’t work.

“DON’T BE ALARMED!” he repeated. “DON’T BE STARTLED!”

The sound seemed to have reached the owner’s ears for she blinked as he was shouting.

“DON’T BE AFRAID, MADAME. IT IS ONLY I, YOUR BOOK, SPEAKING TO YOU.”

“Who’s there?” the owner asked.

“ME, IT’S ME! THE END OF THE AFFAIR BY GRAHAM GREENE BY MODERN LIBRARY, PUBLISHED IN 2001.”

“Who said that?” A look of alarm shot through her face.

“DOWN HERE! DOWN HERE, MADAME, DOWN HERE. YOU’RE HOLDING ME.”

The owner looked down and saw for the first time the book’s lips open and close as he spoke. He gave her his sweetest smile but she jumped up and freaked out. The man rushed out of the bedroom with the baby.

“What happened?” he asked.

The owner clung to her husband and screamed, “That thing, that book, it’s alive. It’s alive!”