Author's Notes: And here we are! The epilogue. :) The basic idea for the epilogue was suggested about a year and a half ago by Hannah, who has quite likely long since forgotten entirely about that particular conversation, and the details were formulated almost entirely by L e B o S h I (WHY IS THAT CAPITALIZED SO WEIRDLY?), who, incidentally, is the person who forced me into finishing this. The sappiness, on the other hand, is all mine.
It's hard to say exactly how we stopped talking.
I mean, God, we talked online every night, every afternoon, whenever we could. We talked at least twice a week on the phone. It's not like we lost interest, or something. It was just something meaningless, so meaningless that I can't even really remember what it was. He said something, and I said something back, and the next few times I tried to talk to him, he seemed distant—maybe he was busy, or worried, I don't know. I was so terrified of him being mad at me that I stopped IMing him and calling him, and he stopped, too. Maybe it was stupid. Yeah, it was definitely stupid.
We kept in touch for almost two years, even though, as we'd predicted, we were never able to see each other. It hadn't mattered, though—or at least, I'd thought it hadn't. I started to wonder, eventually, and before long I was too scared to talk to him anymore for fear that he'd sound as distant as he had that one day. After a while, I figured that even if he wasn't mad at me, I wouldn't be able to explain why I hadn't talked to him in so long.
We never even broke up, which was a little pathetic because it meant that it took me two years after the last time we'd talked to admit that I was single, and another year after that to finally give in and start going on dates with the guys my friends kept trying to set me up with. I never told them the real reason I didn't want to date—that part of me was still clinging to the hope that I still had a boyfriend I hadn't talked to in three years. And even though I knew, logically, that it was only the intrigue of preserved memory that kept me thinking about Alexander when none of my dates worked out, I still missed him.
After college, I got an engineering job and an apartment a few miles away from my parents' house, and I finally got over the idea that maybe someday I'd move halfway across the country so that I'd have a chance of running into him. What would I say to him if I did? After all, I could call him any time I wanted—I just chose not to. It was my own fault, and it was time to just let it go. It took three and a half years to finally give up on him for good, but I did.
Six months later, my grandma died, and my parents wanted me to come along to help with funeral preparations. I didn't exactly have vacation time to spare, but I took a week off, taking a flight with my parents that night and spending the next few days helping my relatives out with cleaning and paper-shuffling and all sorts of things I'd never even realized had to be done. It felt surreal, mostly, in more ways than one. In the absence of being able to comprehend the fact that my grandma was gone, my mind took to working through the odd feeling of being back at her house, in the town where I'd met Alexander. I was determined not to let myself fall back into my (rather pathetic) nostalgic thoughts, and certainly not to go back to the library, but after nearly a week of somber conversations with relatives, I gave in.
The library was exactly as I remembered it—small, sunny, and immensely comforting. I spent nearly an hour just walking around, reading titles off book spines and—occasionally—dusting off the top of a book with a tissue I'd found in my pocket. It was winter, so I figured whatever volunteers they'd found for the summer were long gone. Heaven knew no one else at the library would be lowered to shelf-dusting. I grinned to myself at that thought, trailing a finger along the lightly dust-covered shelves. It was probably sad that I could tell that the shelves hadn't been re-ordered since Alexander and I had shifted them six years earlier, but it made me happy to see books just as I remembered them. The sociology section, where Alexander and I had first kissed... The literary critique section, where we'd first met... I paused, tilting my head at the shelves. How had we met, exactly? I remembered asking him about some book on Catch-22, but the first time we'd actually talked had been after he'd helped me find some book on... Whitman? No, Thoreau. That was it. I paused, then turned abruptly, scanning the bookshelf behind me to see if perhaps the book was still there. It wasn't like it was particularly important, but... I was curious.
I found the section I'd been looking for quickly, but the only books on Thoreau they had were a few newer copies of books I didn't recognize. It made sense that it was gone. It had been getting old, and it had been six years, after all. I turned to leave, but couldn't help but look back at the place where the book should have been. Maybe it was checked out, I thought hopefully. A quick check of the computer system, though, forced me to give up on this thought—it wasn't even listed. It had probably been withdrawn years ago and thrown into the recycler along with all the other outdated books. With that, I headed to the front door and had almost made it outside when the shelves of used books for sale caught my eye. I'd already checked the shelf and the computer. It couldn't hurt to check here, could it?
I hurried over to the shelves and began scanning the titles, not terribly deterred even by the realization that the books on these shelves were hardly ordered at all. After 15 minutes of looking through every title, though, I was finally beginning to give up. It wasn't like it really mattered, anyhow. I sighed at the minor defeat, then began to reshelve a few books I had taken down for inspection.
"Can I help you with something?" A short woman with white hair and a librarian badge had suddenly appeared next to me. I jumped and dropped one of the books I had been holding, then blushed and quickly knelt to retrieve it. "Ah--I'm just looking for a book... It wasn't on the shelf or in the computer system, so I was looking here to see if it was withdrawn..."
She shook her head doubtfully. "If these books aren't sold within a month or so, we throw them out... And if the book was rare or in poor condition, it wouldn't have made it here, in the first place."
I sighed, disheartened. Subconsciously, I had been aware of all this, but I hadn't wanted to acknowledge it. "Okay," I said, giving her a faint smile. "Thanks."
"Did the computer say if there were any other copies available in the library system?" she asked. "You'd probably have better luck if you searched all the libraries in the area."
I frowned. "No, that's okay. I was just looking to see if you still had this specific copy... It was here a few years ago." I realized belatedly how ridiculous this quest was, and I shook my head. "Never mind, it's not important."
"Well, let me check on my computer for you," she continued, leading me back toward the reference desk. "If it was in this library, there should be some record of where it went. What did you say the title was?"
I gave her the title and waited for a moment as she typed the information into her computer.
"That's strange," she said, and I was immediately alert again.
"It's labeled 'Permanently Lost,' which means that it was checked out and never returned. It was taken out on inter-library loan about..." she examined the screen more closely, "four years ago."
My heart gave a sudden and completely inappropriate jolt of surprise. Four years ago was around the last time I had talked to Alexander. I swallowed nervously, trying not to look like the idiot I was. It didn't mean anything. He hadn't checked the book out, had he? But maybe he had. It seemed awfully coincidental, didn't it? Or, at least, I wanted it to.
"I don't suppose you can tell me who checked it out, can you?" I asked, trying to sound casual despite my voice's sudden leap in pitch.
"I can't see that information on inter-library loans," she said, shaking her head. "And even if I could, I wouldn't be allowed to share it. I can give you the address of the library it was checked out through, if that's of any use to you..."
"Okay, sure." She wrote the address on a slip of paper and handed it to me. I took it, thanking her, and headed for my car after signing up for an internet computer long enough to get directions to the other library.
I wasn't actually sure why I cared so much about this stupid book. But it wasn't really the book, and I knew that. It was Alexander. I was doing this because it reminded me of him and because subconsciously I hoped that maybe all of this had to do with him.
It wasn't until I had driven halfway to the library that I realized it was located in the same small city Alexander had driven me to that summer. For some reason, this bothered me deeply, and I moped privately in my car until I finally gave in to my pathetic nostalgic urges and scanned through the radio until I found the country music station. I didn't know any of the songs, of course, but that didn't stop me from singing along all the way to the library, past the eerily familiar cows and pastures and endless fields.
I followed the directions to the library, which I suspected was the centerpiece of the entire system. It was two stories tall and mildly attractive, with fading bricks and a small fountain outside that a group of small children were splashing their hands in. A wave of doubt washed over me, and for a long moment I stood on the curb outside, debating whether or not it would really be worth the embarrassment of going inside and telling my pathetic story to yet another librarian. As silly as it was, librarians still made me nervous, particularly when I was asking them strange questions.
But I had driven an hour, and at some level I knew that wasting that expenditure of energy was worse than facing the embarrassment of entering.
I walked inside, holding the scrap of paper with the call number tightly in my hand. The entrance of the library was filled with portraits of various founders and donors, displays of collected items and artifacts, murals, and a donation box, giving it a more impressive air than the library back in my grandma's town. It had the same warm, comforting light, though, even if the walls were higher and the overall intended atmosphere seemed grander and more austere.
I spent a few moments looking around (read: procrastinating) before finally meandering in the direction of the reference desk. There was no one there, so I sat down in one of the chairs provided for patrons to sit in while being helped by the librarians. It was hard and cold and not particularly pleasant, but sitting in it was better than standing there uselessly, trying not to slouch in vague misery as I read and re-read the slip of paper I had brought.
"Sorry for the wait; can I help you?" asked an approaching voice. A familiar voice. Alexander's voice, except why the hell--my head snapped up just in time to see him quickly sliding into the chair across from me. He was here, sitting right fucking in front of me, and only now were his eyes finally (goddamn) widening in recognition.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he breathed, suddenly looking frozen.
I couldn't think of an answer. "I--I was just looking for a book," I finally stammered, defensive. "I didn't know you were here." This was only slightly false--my surprise at seeing him was one hundred percent genuine, but he had indirectly been my motivation for driving there.
"Oh," he said, deep confusion showing on his face. We stared stupidly at each other for several long seconds. "How have you been?" he finally asked, almost reluctantly.
My tongue felt strange in my mouth, and I could barely verbalize the answer. "I'm okay," I said, and it sounded hollow even to me. "How are you?"
He nodded slowly. "I'm fine," he replied, in the same flat tone. We stared for another moment. He looked older than I remembered, of course, and he was wearing a dress shirt, which I had never seen him wear, but in all other regards he looked perfectly the same.
"So, wait, why are you here?" he asked suddenly, his stiffness slowly melting as his expression turned gradually from fear to annoyance.
"My grandma passed away," I said slowly. "A few weeks ago. My parents and I were here to sort things out for the funeral."
"Oh," he said, and for a moment he looked regretful. "I'm sorry."
I tried to smile. "Thanks," I murmured.
After another long pause, he ventured, "Was she living around here?"
It was tempting to answer that yes, she'd moved into the city, explaining perfectly (or close enough) why I was here. But I'd never really been able to lie to him. "No, she was still living in the same house," I admitted, looking down at the desk.
He gave me a confused look. "So why are you here?" he asked again.
"I... just wanted to be back in relative civilization for a while," I finally managed, trying to sound nonchalant. I had the feeling that my weak stab at humor was canceled out by my unusually frail-sounding voice and reddening face, though. "My parents and I have been here all week."
"Oh," he said again. It was hard to tell whether or not this answer in any way convinced him, but he seemed to accept it. "So--um..." He reached out and tugged on the corner of the slip of paper I was clutching in my hand, which was resting on the surface of the desk. "You're looking for this?"
My annoyingly persistent blush skipped over several stages of darkening, going directly from mild pink to deep, deep red. "No," I said quickly, pulling the paper away. "That's nothing. I was just looking for--um..." My mind went suddenly blank. "Nothing," I finally concluded, pushing my chair away and standing up. "Never mind; it's not even here."
"Come on, Luke," he said, standing up after me. "What are you looking for?"
I tried to deny to myself that the thrill of happiness I had experienced was in any way related to hearing him say my name again. "It's nothing," I repeated, just as he reached over the desk, grabbed my wrist with one hand, and deftly retrieved the piece of paper with the other.
"Alexander!" I exclaimed, shocked and embarrassed. I considered just leaving, walking (or running, if necessary) away before he could look up the call number. Then again, maybe he wouldn't even recognize it. I could hope. He sat down, keeping the paper far on the other side of the computer keyboard, and typed the call number in.
"You're a bastard, you know that?" I muttered, falling heavily back into my seat and praying for a power failure.
"Mm," he agreed, sitting back and waiting for the computer to load the page. I cringed internally. The computer monitors were angled so that both the librarian and the patron could view the screen, and naturally, my eyes were drawn to the screen as the page for the book I had been searching for appeared, the title in bold letters. He stared at it for a long time, then finally glanced over nervously at me. "Thoreau?" he asked, and I could tell he was trying to sound curious and mildly accusing, but he was failing so, so badly. "Luke--"
"It was checked out," I said, interrupting him before he could ask. "Through this library on inter-library loan. I came here looking for it, but it's not here either, so I don't know why I'm even bothering." I was babbling about these specifics to avoid having to answer the more relevant questions he probably wanted to ask. "I should go," I said, pushing back my chair a second time and giving him a small, restricted smile. "It was nice seeing you again."
"I have it," Alexander said softly, and I stopped still in the chair. "I checked it out a few years ago and never brought it back." He glanced at me and frowned slightly. "You can have it, if you want."
I couldn't reply. My hands were frozen in place, gripping the wooden arms of the chair in preparation for standing, but I was too confused to stand, now. He had the book I had driven all the way here to search for? What did that mean? "Why do you have it?" I asked, finally, my voice hoarse.
He shrugged uncomfortably. "Why do you want it?" he countered, and I didn't really have an answer for that.
"I don't know," I said softly.
He looked at me for a moment. Then a shy, tentative grin flickered briefly across his face, and it was so him that I had to bite down hard on my lip to keep from laughing or crying or something. I'm not sure what I would have done, really, but it probably would have been inappropriate.
"Are you leaving?" he asked, his voice low and cautious.
I shrugged, a small, twitchy motion. "I don't know," I said again.
He gave me a pained look, then glanced at his watch. "My lunch break is in 10 minutes," he offered hesitantly. "If you'll be here..."
I hesitated only slightly. "Yeah, I'll be here."
"There's a courtyard over through that door," he said, pointing toward the far end of the room. "I can meet you there, if you want."
"Okay," I said, giving him a faint, involuntary smile.
I walked around the library for a few minutes, pretending to look at books. All I could really think about was Alexander, of course. Even just seeing him again felt familiar and comfortable and so perfect that I couldn't believe I had ever been afraid to talk to him. Of course, now I had good reason to be afraid. I was surprised he was even willing to talk to me, to tell the truth.
After I had wasted a sufficient amount of time walking numbly around, I finally slipped out the door to the courtyard when I saw Alexander go off to a room behind the checkout desk. The courtyard was fairly small, but filled with bushes and trees surrounding two stone benches. I sat down on one of the benches and stared down at my shoelaces. What was I supposed to say to him? I wanted to apologize, but I wasn't even sure for what.
"Hey," said Alexander quietly, entering the courtyard and closing the door behind him.
I grimaced a little. "Hi."
He frowned and looked away as he sat down next to me on the bench. He set down the backpack he had been carrying and unzipped it, retrieving a water bottle, a sandwich box, and the Thoreau book I had been looking for. He turned and set his lunch on the bench between us, then offered me the book, his eyes still averted.
I took it and ran my hand briefly over the cover, then set it down on the bench. "I don't really need it," I finally admitted, pushing it toward him. "I just... wanted to know what happened to it, I guess."
He gave me another flicker of a smile. "Are you hungry?" he asked, offering me half of his peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
I blinked, hesitating. "That's okay," I finally said. "I can get lunch when I leave."
He frowned and placed the sandwich half in my hand. "Here, take it," he said.
"...Thanks," I murmured, taking a bite. I had been rather hungry, and eating seemed to strengthen me enough to finally mutter, "I'm really sorry." The words sounded pathetic and weak, but it was the closest I could come to admitting how stupid and helpless I felt without having some sort of small breakdown.
Alexander took a sip of water from his water bottle. "For what?" he asked.
I cringed a little, but pressed on. "For not calling you or writing to you or anything in four years."
"That was my fault," Alexander replied softly.
I stared at him. "What are you talking about?"
"It was my fault we started arguing," he said. "And then I was just... afraid to talk to you, I guess."
"I was afraid to talk to you, too," I admitted. "But that wasn't your fault... Or it was my fault just as much."
He gave me that brief, regretful smile again. "Maybe."
We ran out of things to say, then, I guess, so we ate in silence for several minutes until I finally asked, "So you're a librarian now?"
He shook his head. "I'm just interning here over winter break... I'm in graduate school."
"Oh..." I frowned. "You need a graduate degree to be a librarian?"
"Yeah," he said, laughing. "But I'm basically filling in for the reference librarian right now, because he's been out for a few weeks."
I smiled. "Are you bored yet?"
He grinned and shook his head. "No, not really."
"That's good," I said softly.
"Yeah... What are you doing? Engineering?"
I nodded. "Working for a company that makes office chairs and stuff." I grinned. "Probably more boring than your job, actually."
He smiled and took another sip of water. "So you drove all the way here to look for that book?" he asked.
I shrugged, trying to think of a way to make it sound less pathetic. There really wasn't one. "Yeah, basically."
He smiled, but looked at me strangely. "Why?"
I wanted to answer as he had, to ask why he had it, but something convinced me not to. "I don't--I'm not sure, it just..." I sighed. "It reminded me of you," I finally confessed. "Being around here reminded me of you, and then I just--" I took a deep breath, trying to make sense of my thoughts. "We wouldn't have really started talking if it weren't for that book, I guess, and I... wanted it."
"I don't know," Alexander said, smiling. "I think I would have come up with an excuse to talk to you, eventually."
I blushed and looked away. "Why do you have it, then?"
He picked the book up and looked at it for a moment before replying simply, "Because I missed you."
My chest tightened suddenly, and my mouth went dry. "I missed you, too," I said softly.
He set the book down again and gave me a concerned look. "Do you—are you... with someone?" he asked abruptly.
I snorted softly. "Do you really think I'd have been looking for this stupid book all day if I were?"
His mouth turned in a gentle frown. "I guess not," he murmured. I was still debating whether or not I wanted to ask him the same question when he leaned in toward me, his eyes falling shut as he kissed me softly.
It was hesitant and awkward and just like our first kiss, except that this time some subconscious part of my mind was prepared, giving me the foresight to reach up and keep him close by sliding my hand around to the back of his neck. He tasted vaguely like peanut butter and jelly, but mostly like him, just like I remembered, so subtly perfect that I couldn't believe I had ever given up on him.
My hand was still on his neck when he finally broke away, keeping his face within two inches of mine. "Sorry," he whispered, panting softly.
"You apologized the first time you kissed me, too," I said, frowning at him.
He grinned shyly. "And you told me not to."
"Mm," I murmured in agreement. We sat still, not moving away from each other, just staring and breathing. My mind was spinning, working furiously to make sense of this, to give me some direction as to what this was all about or where it was going. But I didn't know.
"You're leaving soon, aren't you?" Alexander asked, and this was such a weird conversation to be having when we were this close to each other.
"Yeah," I said. "Tomorrow night."
"Oh." He bit his lip and looked away, and my heart sank a little. Then he began suddenly, "You know, I never—I never really minded not... seeing you, or anything. I mean, I minded, but..." He sighed, and I felt his warm breath on my face. "I was really just afraid that you didn't want to talk to me," he said, glancing back at me.
"Me, too," I said softly. He gave me a small, almost hopeful smile, and a wave of fear and uncertainly hit me suddenly. "Alexander—" I said, pulling away from him and staring resolutely at my hands. "We can't--this is ridiculous..."
"Why?" he asked, his voice barely audible.
"I haven't—this—it was six years ago," I said, trying all the while to convince myself that I believed what I was saying.
"Only four years since we stopped talking," Alexander reminded me.
"More like four and a half," I corrected him. "The last few times don't really count."
He sighed softly. "So?"
"It's not--things are different now," I said, hearing the weakness in my own voice. Not everything was different. He wasn't, not in any way that mattered. "How do you know we'll even be able to stand each other any more?"
He shrugged slowly, his fingers trailing over the faded book between us. "We didn't know then, either," he said quietly.
There were several ways I could have argued against that. I could have reminded him that that time, we'd had a month together, not just a few minutes during his lunch break. I could have reminded him that things hadn't really worked out well in the end that time, so why should they now? I could have just told him that this was stupid, that we were adults now, that none of this meant anything any more.
Instead, I found myself reaching out, cupping his face in my hand and kissing him again. His mouth slid open slowly, and I wouldn't have been able to pull away or apologize even if I'd tried. Screw common sense; I was elated like I hadn't been in years.
"I have to get back to the reference desk," Alexander murmured as we separated ourselves from each other several minutes later.
"Wouldn't want anyone to get lost in the Dewey Decimal System while you're gone," I commented, smirking a little and standing up.
He rolled his eyes at me and grinned, picking up the book as he stood. "Maybe I should give this back now," he said contemplatively, biting his lip as he stared down at it.
"I can't believe you stole a library book," I laughed suddenly. "Honestly. Just imagine the late fines. Do they even let you check books out anymore?"
"No," he answered, grinning broadly. "But I get to use the demagnetizer behind the desk whenever I want, so..." he trailed off guiltily, and I stared at him.
"There's some maximum fine, isn't there? Wouldn't it have been easier to just pay it?"
"The maximum fine is lower if you actually return the book," he explained, blushing and gathering his things into his backpack. "And I always meant to return it once I saw you again."
"That's a long time to be illegally demagnetizing books," I said, smiling wryly.
"Yeah, maybe." He smiled at me suddenly, and I laughed, pulling the backpack out of his hands and hugging him tightly.
"I've really missed you," I said softly.
"Me, too," he whispered back.
I let him go after a moment, then smiled confusedly. "So how is this going to work?"
"What? This?" He smiled innocently, and I suddenly didn't really care how hard any of this was going to be. "You're going to go home and call me, and I'll get my degree in the spring, and then..." He shrugged. "I'm not sure. We'll figure it out."
"Okay," I agreed, and grinned. "I guess I'll talk to you soon, then."
I walked him back to the reference desk, waited while he signed a few kids onto computers, then kissed him goodbye when no one was watching.
And even though I was leaving him, I couldn't help but grin during the whole drive back. It was ridiculous, crazy, and probably just downright stupid, but I couldn't care less because I was happy, and for the first time in years, I felt like the rest of my life still might turn out the way it was supposed to.
Author's Notes: THE END. Yes, it's done! I feel bad asking for reviews after waiting nearly half a year to update, but. Um. Please review? I have nothing with which to bribe people now that all the chapters are up, but promising chapters for reviews never really works, anyhow. Basically, it'll just make me happy. Thank you for reading!