I glared at the book on my floor. This is all your fault, I said, wanting to kick it, but remembering that would probably cost me even more money than simply returning it overdue. I had been avoiding returning the book for about three weeks now. Three weeks, and yet, I still hadn't even cracked it open. All it was now was a constant reminder. A reminder of a promise I had failed to keep.
"Read it, you'll like it," She had said, tossing the novel at me before I could say no. I nearly juggled to catch it, snapping the hefty tome out of the air before it hit the ground, wincing at the loud clap accompanying the cover as it slammed shut against my sweaty palm.
"I don't know," I said, trying to avoid the stares of a few people who had looked up in my direction, tucking it under my arm as if I could hide it, wishing I could hide too.
I couldn't even keep eye contact with her. Especially not her. Not now. Not when my face was so red that it burned. I tightened my backpack strap, fiddling with the loop at the end of the strap. I wrapped it tightly around my fingers until it pinched sharply. I could feel her eyes on me, and I wasn't sure what to say. What do you say?
"Come on," she pleaded, "Please read it? I know you'll really enjoy it! I promise!"
"I promise," I said, before realizing I was only half paying attention and I had just simply repeated what she had said. I was about to take it back but then--
"That's the spirit!" Her hand brushed against my arm and I froze in place. "I know the first few chapters are slow, but trust me, once you get halfway, you won't be able to sleep until the end! It's a page turner!"
There was a certain conviction in her voice. She made you want to believe. She was like that. When I was around her, I wanted to believe in a lot of things. But the one thing I couldn't believe in was myself.
And now, as I picked up the book, I understood why. I held the open book in my hands as a tear dribbled down my cheek. I hurriedly tried to keep it from hitting the pages, but it was too late. The tear splashed down, instantly bleeding through the worn page that had been likely turned by many hands before mine. I picked up the page and noticed it had bled through to the next page as well. A few of the words were blurry.
I hurriedly pressed my shirt against it without thinking and gasped when the page tore.
That was all it took for me to really let go.
When I finished, I had to use a few tissues to wipe the snot and tears from the plastic dust jacket covering the novel, feeling more disgusted with myself than ever before. This book was tearing me apart.
I couldn't just let it sit here. If I didn't take it back, I would never be able to check out anything else from the library, and I needed to check out books for my classes. If I put it off any longer they may as well think I've stolen it! Then what would happen? Could you get expelled for something like that? I didn't know for sure, but my first thought was using the book as a pillow while living out of a cardboard box and that made me make up my mind.
I shoved it hurriedly in my backpack and left the dorm behind. There was no turning back now. I would have to own up to it. One way or another. Good or bad, I just couldn't take it anymore. I was going to get rid of it, and pay whatever I owed, even if it meant a few less meals for the month.
I began to lose my nerve the moment I caught sight of her, sitting behind the counter. My backpack suddenly felt heavy and my stomach felt bloated and tight - like it could burst like a balloon.
I almost turned to leave when she looked up, grinning when she saw me. Why, oh why me? Her hand absently pushed a stray long of long blonde hair behind her ear, her fingers tracing down her neck.
She mouthed my name and I knew I had to go. My feet almost moved robotically, propelling me to the checkout desk. I couldn't look at her though and pulled the book out of my bag, placing it gently on the table.
"You must have really liked it!" she whispered, "That's what happened to me too!"
She beeped it with her scanning wand and grimaced a bit at the computer screen beside her, "But it is late. You maxed it out. Would you like to pay the fee now or later?"
"S-sure," I said, fishing out my wallet, hearing every tiny rip as I peeled the velcro apart. It sounded like snapping firecrackers in the silence of the library.
"Eight dollars," she said holding out her hand.
I gave her my student ID and she scanned it, beeping again. She then took the book and set it on a rolling cart behind her. I was glad she couldn't see the relief on my face. Only eight? I thought it was at least three times that, if not more.
"All right, that takes care of it. Your account is reinstated so you can check out any media you like again."
When she turned back she had a sympathetic smile on her face, as if to say that she knew how I was feeling and it wasn't a big deal. But this was a big deal to me. It was a very big deal, and when I saw how kind she was being in spite of everything, I mumbled out what I had been keeping in for so long.
"I didn't read it..."
She tilted her head slightly, trying to heard what I had said.
I spoke a little louder, but not loud enough to draw attention. "I'm sorry. I just... I thought about reading it a lot, but I never got around to it," and then the words began to flow, running like a waterfall, "I keep putting it off and then it was collecting dust on the floor and then I realized it was due and then I couldn't, because I hadn't, and I thought you would be... So I just said I would hold onto it another week and then... Now it's today and I..."
I had finally run out of words to tell her and my gaze fell to the desk. I didn't realize I was gripping it so hard with my hands, leaning on it for support. I could feel tears rising in my eyes, but I knew I couldn't hold them back this time. I was done.
"Hey, are you okay?" I heard her voice ask as I saw her hand reaching out to mine. Her touch was so gentle. I couldn't look at her and simply gazed at her long fingers. That's when I noticed her painted nails had what looked like tiny pages of words on them and somehow that made it even worse. I took in my breath sharply and turned to leave, my face burning like someone had thrown acid on it. I just wanted to go. I could check out digital books, but I would never show my face here again.
I pulled away and began to walk, my eyes fixed on the blurry carpet in front of me as I blindly made my way to the doors. Within moments I had pushed outside and a refreshing winter wind cooled my cheeks. I placed my hand on a rail when she appeared in front of me, blocking my way.
"Hey!" She had the book in her hands. The book I had been trying so desperately to get rid of. It was the last thing I wanted to see.
"Hey, it's okay, you can borrow my copy!" She offered it.
I looked down at it. I realized this wasn't the hardcover one I had returned. This copy was a paperback with the same cover, but old and worn, the spine had the tell-tale creases that indicated it had been opened and closed many times, shoved onto shelves and into bags and set down just about everywhere.
I shook my head, "No, I'll forget to read it again... Besides, this is yours."
"Then you can have it! I'll buy another from the used book store. Then there's no pressure!"
I really did want to read it. I looked at it again. I began to remember what she had told me about it.
"You shouldn't feel bad about not reading it," she continued, "I shouldn't have asked you to read it over midterms, for one thing!"
I managed a bit of a smile and that seemed to cheer her up even more. She took my hand and placed the book in it, pressing her hand on top. I wondered if she painted those nails herself or if they were stickers she put on top. Maybe they were actual pages... My mind began to drift.
"Please, unless you don't want to read it, then that's fine. But I don't want you to miss out because it's worrying you. So no worries with this copy okay? It's yours."
"I couldn't possibly..."
"You absolutely, possibly can!" She said brightly. "I want you to have it."
"But," she said, "You don't have to read it! I just want you to know that it's okay, all right? I know you've been under a lot of pressure lately and... Well, I recommended this because I thought it would help you escape from all the chaos around here. But if reading it is stressing you out, then you don't have to right now."
"No, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so pushy! I do that a lot. I'm sorry I made you upset."
"You didn't, it's just... classes, I guess. Pressure."
"I've seen you check out some manga, do you like anime too?"
That had been several weeks ago. I couldn't believe she remembered that far back. I have trouble remembering what I had for lunch.
"Rurouni Kenshin, right? It's a classic."
"Yeah, that's right."
"Have you seen Cowboy Bebop?"
"Uh... No. I'm not really into cowboys."
She laughed, really loudly, and I felt my face turn a little red again.
"It's actually more like space bounty hunters, no cowboys. It's a weird name, I know."
"Oh, that sounds more interesting."
"You want to... come over and watch an episode? I'm done with my shift in about 10 minutes."
"I-is that okay? I don't want to intrude..."
"Oh no, you're fine. Unless you have something planned tonight?"
"Nothing. I was..." I was just going to sit in my room and surf on the internet like I did every Friday night. "I don't have any plans."
"Then you should come over! I'll even order a pizza! As long as you don't have any pizza-related allergies?"
"No, I don't have any food allergies or anything like that..."
"Great, then it's a date!" It was her turn to blush. I couldn't believe my ears.
"D-do you... Do you 'like' like me then?" I asked, my heart beating so loudly, I could barely hear my words, "Not just friends hanging out?"
"Then I wouldn't call it a date, then would I?"
"Yes, I do 'like' like you. I'd like to date you, if that's okay? No pressure?"
An excitement welled up in me, one that I hadn't felt in a long time.
"No pressure," I repeated, but this time, I didn't feel bad about it my nervousness. I was grinning.
"Just let me get my stuff and we'll head over!" Before I could reply, she was running back inside.
I was left standing there stunned, holding the book in my hand as if I had just met a ghost. I clutched the book to my chest. It was my favorite book now. It had belonged to her, but now it was mine.
This whole encounter did not go the way I had thought it would in my head. Not in the slightest! Not only was I no longer worried about being expelled and living out of a cardboard box, but the girl I had admired for so long sitting behind the library check-out desk had actually been checking me out the whole time and I had never noticed. Not even once!
I suddenly wondered what else I hadn't noticed, and that thought made me laugh, for once.
She came back almost as quickly as she left and before I could say anything, she grabbed my wrist, gently pulling her along with me. My stomach was no longer bloating, but almost floating or even humming with energy. I broke her grip and she looked confused for a moment until I held her hand in mine. She squeezed gently as we walked back to her dorm side-by-side.