Between the Lines (Part 1)

Written for a farhinhusain’s birthday. Hope you like it!
Criticism highly appreciated.


“Excuse me,” a female voice said to his side. The almost manic hysteria dissolved into quiet panic. He turned. It was the librarian. His fingers untangled themselves from his hair, and suddenly he had to deal with them hanging stupidly on either side of his head. “Are you looking for something?” she asked.

“Well, there was this one book in turquoise cover on this shelf…” he gestured toward the shelf he’d just been racking. “It’s by Rainbow Rowell.” Lord knew there was no use telling her the title of the book.

And Lord knew he had to find it if he was to stay sane.

“Is it a reference book?” she asked now. He almost slapped himself in frustration. This was the fiction section. He’d been coming to the library for years now, and she’d seen him on almost every occasion. Did she expect him to not know the difference between fiction and reference books?

He swallowed back a retort and said “No, it’s fiction,” then, holding up a different book, “about this size.”

She nodded once, and then walked away. He stood there, rather dumb. What was she getting at?  What was she going to do? Was she going to look it up in the database? Did she have a database for book cover colors? He always did wonder how she managed to keep this place organized.

Watching her approach him five minutes later (he watched the clock), eyes roaming the entire length of the library, he wondered if she was just going to throw him out for causing her trouble.

Instead, she nodded toward a girl seated at the nearest table. “I think she’s reading the one you’re talking about.”

His eyes flicked to the girl, and then to the cover of the paperback in her hands. Yes. It was definitely the one he was looking for. The corner of his bookmark still peeked out at him from between the pages. He nodded gratefully to the lady before making his way toward the girl.

“Excuse me,” he said, and regretted it the very moment. It wasn’t until she looked up at him with eyes hardly comprehending that he realised how immersed she was in the book.

“Did you say something?” she asked.

In an attempt to not come off as rude, (because of course that’s how it would appear if he was in her place at the moment) he said, “I, uh, just wanted to say that I’ve read that book,” he pointed at the object in her hands, “and, uh, if you ever want to talk about it, I’m here every other day.”

She blinked a handful of times, and he recognised the action as something he did all the time if Ishti or Dip ever interrupted his reading streak, then she smiled. “Sure! Thank you!”

He smiled right back. As he looked for another book to occupy his time, Sami wondered at his luck. He’d practically ditched his friends to get here today, because he was at a particularly gripping part, and it just wouldn’t do to break off a streak. He couldn’t exactly go look for them now, either. And now he couldn’t read the rest of it unless she was done with it.

~~*~~

Just his luck.

Ishti and Dip were reading right through him. Or, they were going to, at any rate, the way things were going.

The ball slipped right through his fingers. His legs gave away, and he fell face-first onto the grass. Groaning, he looked up to find the ball bouncing away like the rebellious live hedgehogs in croquet in the Kingdom of Hearts.

His friends were on him in an instant, first asking if he was alright, then standing him up and checking for injuries. Dip called for a break in their game, after all, they couldn’t possibly get decent practice if one-sixth of their team was constantly eating dust.

“Alright, Sammy-boy,” Ishti said once they had all regrouped. “What’s on your mind?”

Sami stifled a sigh. Everyone, from behind their water bottles and towels, had their eyes fixed on him. Five pairs of eyes. He raised his own bottle to his lips, willing his hands to not tremble under the scrutiny.

“It’s nothing,” he mumbled.

Huh?” all five of them said at once. “Did Sami here say anything?” asked Ishti in an excessively loud voice. “Did you guys hear anything? I sure didn’t!”

Sami groaned again, a hand on his face this time. “It’s the book,” he whispered.

What?” Ishti said now, drawing out the single syllable in a deliberate attempt to annoy Sami, cupping a hand around his ear. “I can’t hear you, Sammy. Are your vocal cords broken?”

“It’s the book, dammit!” Sami said indignantly, finally loud enough for everyone to hear.

Ishti and Dip shared a knowing look. “Aww, what happened?” Dip said now, mock pity in his voice. “Did the heroine die?”

Sami sighed now. “It would actually feel better if I knew that,” he replied, running a hand through his hair. They gave him quizzical looks. “A girl was reading it yesterday,” he said, by way of explanation. “I couldn’t even touch the spine!”

A mischievous glint came over Ishti’s eyes. “So it’s a girl putting you in a pinch, eh?”

Dip shook his head in resignation. “As always.”

“Hey!” Sami protested. “It’s not like I could help it, okay?” There was no point in telling them that he’d almost said something extremely rude, and that in order to avoid that he’d ended up in something he considered a much deeper trouble. Even though he wanted to tell someone. He wanted to someone to know, to understand.

“Well, you know, I can tell you’re sort of pissed at her,” Ishti said. “So how about you stop brooding over that loss of chance and pound the ball with all your frustrations?”

Sami blinked a few times. Dip tossed him the ball. He drew a deep breath, and walked back toward the court.

But I’m not pissed at her. I’m more pissed at her timing, he thought. But it wasn’t as if anyone could hear him.

Just his luck.

~~*~~

He was brooding the next day, grumbling inwardly that she was still here. He’d been forced to take up another book and pretend to be very engrossed. Just as he was beginning to get into the feel of the new thing, she had to start up.

“Um, hey,” she whispered. “Excuse me? I don’t think I caught your name the other day.”

He turned toward her. She was at the next table, where he would have been sitting if only he’s gotten the chance to finish that book. “It’s Sami,” he replied with a curt smile.

She smiled back. “I’m Orthi. Can I sit with you for a bit, if you’re not busy?”

His heart raced. Did she want to talk? But he wasn’t finished! He didn’t know for sure if he wanted to talk about it!

Should have thought of that before your blabbering mouth messed up, a part of him thought.

Outwardly, he chirped, “Sure!”

She came over, the book in her hand, and he saw that his bookmark was still inside. He wanted to reach out and take it back, but she placed a protective arm over it. “So, you said we could talk.”

Sami closed his book (the pretend one) now and placed a protective arm over it. “Yeah,” he replied. “Anything particular you have in mind?”

And she launched into a frenzied explanation of how she’d reached the part where Cath is salty over her writing professor for expecting so much out of her and felt so understood her very bones trembled to hold Cath in her arms. She went on talking for seven full minutes (he watched the clock) and all he could do was nod and agree. When she finally calmed down, he said, “So, you really relate with Cath?”

She nodded vigorously, and went on explain incoherently.

They talked for the rest of the time he had to spare before going home. The conversation mostly consisted of her fangirling (how appropriate, he thought) and him listening as attentively as he could. He yearned to tell her he felt the same way, but her energy was almost overpowering.

“I can rarely find books I like so much,” she said, “but when I do I read and reread all the good parts until I can’t forget a single word.”

Sami blinked, incredulous. “You do?”

“Yes! I just can’t live with myself if I can’t quote entire passages.”

Just then, the librarian rang the bell that indicated closing time. Everyone still remaining rose from their seats. Sami’s heart sank as he put his pretend book back. Who knew how long she’d take to finish this? Or, in other words, how long would she take to have it memorised by heart?

He didn’t have a choice. That day, he searched out an eBook version of Fangirl, and despite the constant irritating glow of the computer screen on his eyes, finished it that night.

~~*~~

The classes seemed to drag on forever. And ever. Could he just get out? Maybe Orthi would be out there in the lobby. She did look like he was a grade below his, at the very least.

A sharp poke to his side pulled him out of his thought. He turned to glare at the culprit. None other than Ishti. “Stop fidgeting,” he hissed on noticing Sami’s attention on him. “You’re making the whole class nervous.”

“How, exactly?” Sami hissed back.

Ishti rolled his eyes. “I get that you need to talk. Just tell me about it later, but please concentrate now.”

The teacher called on Sami at that very moment. He jumped up on from his seat, almost knocking over his book-bag in the process. The teacher eyed him suspiciously for a moment before turning back to the book in her hand. “Please read the net few passages to us,” she said.

Sami shot another glare Ishti’s way and took up the book. Clearing his throat once, and taking a deep breath, he began reading. He loved the classes where reading was required. There used to be a time, he vaguely remembered, when he had trouble stringing letters together, and then stringing words together. It had taken a whole lot of prodding and guiding from his parents and older cousins for him to be able to read a whole sentence without faltering, and completely understanding it. Ever since then, he just couldn’t get enough.

He loved how bold and unrestrained his voice sounded, and how much he believed in the words that he spoke out (not literally, of course—stories where only stories—but the feeling that they would never betray him).

He’d read twice as much as the teacher had intended before she could stop him. And finally, finally, his nerves calmed down a bit

“What’s been bothering you today?” Ishti whispered him later in the class.

Sami perked up at the question. “I finished Fangirl last night!”

“Oh,” Ishti said without much emotion. “Good for you.”

Something inside Sami deflated at the disinterested tone. He sighed and went back to writing.

“Hey, don’t get me wrong,” Ishti said after a few minutes of silence. “This just—“

“—isn’t your sphere of expertise, I know,” Sami interjected.

Ishti paused, and then, unsure of what to do, turned back to his task. “So…” he began again, without facing Sami, “The girl finally let you read it?”

Sami did not face him either. “No, she’s actually only half way through.”

“How’d you read it, then?”

“EBook.”

“I thought you said they were bad for your eyes.”

Sami shrugged. “Didn’t really have much of a choice.”

Ishti watched him a few moments longer before turning away. The task at hand gave them both an excuse to not make any replies. Ishti didn’t know what to say, Sami knew that. And whatever he wanted to say, this wasn’t the right place to say it.

He stifled a sigh. His friends were great. But they weren’t on exactly the same wavelength as him. He was the odd one out.

~~*~~

The crowd emanated a constant rustle of cloth against skin and cloth against cloth, as well as a quiet murmur that dulled everything else out. It acted as a buffer, a sort of interception, a mush through which he had to wade in order to get to his destination.

The library.

He’d imagined this so differently in his head. The entire lobby would be sparkling clean, devoid of so much pushing and nudging. His footsteps would echo throughout the vast expanse of the marble-floored hall as he ran. Toward recognition. Toward understanding.

And he would burst in through the door…

He still hadn’t thought of what he’d do after that. So far, the start of his plans had come to an abrupt halt.

To be fair, he shouldn’t have expected it to work. He only ever found the lobby so empty if he came down during lunch, and he didn’t have time for any of that these days. After school, it was always crowded down here.

Sami hefted a breath in an attempt to dispel the flightiness. The librarian lady couldn’t see him so giddy. She’d throw him out within a minute of his entering.

It was a strange possessiveness she had toward her job. She could hardly recognise a book by name, but the slightest hint of danger to them and she’d go mother-hen mode. Sami chuckled before entering.

Orthi’s seat was empty. Fangirl was nestled in its proper place on the shelf. Sami’s heart sank. He’d only made it through yesterday’s rigorous practice by clinging on to the make-believe conversations like they were buoys. Gazing at the clock on the wall, he took a calming breath. It was only five minutes after dispersal time. Maybe she’d gotten caught up in something.

He sat down at his new usual seat and pulled out his homework.

He read them, alright. The words registered. Their pronunciations heard in a tiny voice behind his ear. The meaning of each individual registered as well. But what any of it was trying to convey failed to reach him.

A growl threatened to rip out of his throat. He pushed it back down while pushing the book closed. This was no use. An hour had passed, he saw, when he looked at the clock again. Where was she? The library was almost empty now, with only half an hour left before closing time.

Sami sighed and got up. There was no point sitting around. She wouldn’t show up with so little time on her hands. On his way out, he retrieved his bookmark from inside the pages of Fangirl, still very much creaseless and cold against his fingers. He wondered how many times she’d run her finger over it.

…He would burst in through the door, and she would be inside, with a bright genuine smile across her features. And they would connect. They would definitely connect.

But she wasn’t here today. As he stepped over the threshold outside the library, the need to talk was stronger than he’d ever felt it before. Along with it was a feeling of loneliness.


Part 2

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