Unexpected

Sometimes, we do meet interesting people in unexpected places and this story is about one such incident.

It was sunny for the past few days so Yoona was caught unexpected when it suddenly poured. The dark clouds loomed and the wind picked up speed. She managed to seek shelter at a store as the clouds spat out huge drops of water.

The chime of a bell welcomed Yoona into the store as she pushed the door open. It was then she realized she was in a bookstore. A musty smell enveloped Yoona as she rubbed her hands to keep warm. Shelves, from floor to ceiling, were filled with books of all shapes and sizes.

It was a surprise to find a bookstore along the path Yoona was walking. In fact, it wasn’t the first time she took the short cut but she had never noticed the bookstore at all. The bookstore was tucked along a row of shophouses that sold mostly hardware and provisions.

Yoona’s eyes wandered around curiously, taking in the surroundings. Halogen light bulbs hung from the ceiling and the book shelves were packed closely to one another, making full use of the small space. There were several cartons filled with books stacked up next to some of the shelves. There was a counter but she didn’t see anyone around.

Presuming that the store was open since the lights were switched on, Yoona headed towards the first shelf and randomly picked a book off it. As she tried to remove the book from the shelf, a minor incident occurred. A few books tumbled onto the floor, landing in a symphony of splatting sounds as they hit the concrete floor.

“Ooops!” Yoona muttered to herself as she bended down to pick up the books that were scattered on the floor.

“How can I help you?” a voice said.

Yoona saw a pair of grey and worn out sneakers next to the books on the floor. As Yoona slowly looked up, she saw a tanned-skin girl glaring at her with her arms across her chest.

“S-sorry, I…I accidentally dropped the books,” Yoona said apologetically. She didn’t know why she started stuttering out of the blue. It was probably due to her feeling guilty about dropping the books.

“These are first print edition books and cannot be found elsewhere. Please exercise more caution when handling them,” the tanned girl said menacingly. She bended down and picked up each book carefully, placing them in her arms. She snatched the book in Yoona’s hand and added it to the top of her pile.

Yoona caught a white button badge pinned onto the girl’s maroon vest. It had a smiley face with the word ‘Smile’ at the top of it.

Such an irony. I had already apologized for dropping the books but she gave me that cold stare. I bet there isn’t a single dictionary in the store for her to learn the meaning of that word. Yoona thought to herself.

Yoona watched the girl walk towards a counter at the end of the bookstore. She noticed the girl place the books onto the table before disappearing into a room behind the counter. A moment later, the girl reappeared with a blue plastic box. She whipped out a soft brush and dusted the cover of each book gently. Then she smoothed out the cover and pages of each book and stacked them up neatly in a pile.

The girl’s actions made Yoona feel guilty once again. Yoona approached the counter and watched in silence as the girl finished dusting the books.

“I can put those back on the shelf,” Yoona offered, extending her hands.

“It’s alright. I’ll do it myself,” the girl replied, somewhat curtly.

Yoona let out a soft grunt, mumbling to herself that it didn’t pay to be nice.

The tanned girl placed each book carefully back onto the shelf. A satisfied smile appeared on her girl when she was done.

“Is there anything else I can help you with?” the girl’s voice softened. Yoona was surprised at the change in attitude.

“Actually I came into the store to avoid the rain,” Yoona replied, pointing to the heavy rain that was pelting against the store.

The girl looked at Yoona as if she was an alien. Her brows were arched, one hand rubbing her chin as she scrutinized Yoona from head to toe.

“You might prefer the magazine section over there,” the girl said with a tinge of sarcasm. It was an indirect hint to ask Yoona to stay away from the shelf where the first print edition books were for fear of her destroying the precious books.

“Yea, sure,” Yoona sneered. She wasn’t very delighted to receive such poor customer service from someone who had a ‘Smile’ badge pinned onto their chest. Then again, she had no choice but to stay in the store for a little longer until the rain stopped since she didn’t have an umbrella with her and she was definitely not intending to borrow one from the girl.

As she was walking to the magazine rack, Yoona hadn’t noticed a carton on the floor and accidentally kicked it. She let out a howl before rubbing her shin. It seemed like the girl pretended not to see anything at all. Grunting, Yoona pushed the carton box back to its original position lest she gets an earful from the girl again.

The magazine rack was overflowing with magazines of all sizes and colours. The magazines were arranged according to categories such as food, fashion, home décor and photography. Some of the titles displayed were imported from overseas and not commonly seen in other bookstores. Curious, Yoona randomly picked up a food-related magazine to browse.

“Ooh, this blueberry waffle looks so delicious.”

“Wow, eggs with toast! My favourite!”

Yoona kept muttering to herself as she flipped through the imported magazine. After she was done with one, she picked up another and continued reading.

“Ahem.”

Yoona looked up from the magazine and turned around to face the owner of the familiar voice.

“It’s closing time,” the girl said firmly, pointing at her watch.

Yoona let out a gasp when she saw the time. She didn’t realize it was almost dinner time and that she spent almost two hours browsing magazines in the store.

How did time fly so quickly?!

“Oh sorry!” Yoona said. She placed the magazine back onto the rack and excited the store in a hurry.

~*~*~*~

A bell chimed, signaling the entrance of a customer. Yuri pushed the black rimmed glasses up her nose before looking up from her thick novel.

It’s the clumsy one again … is it raining outside?  Yuri groaned inwardly. She slotted a bookmark between the pages and set the book on the table.

The bookstore was owned by an elderly man who was often travelling overseas, hunting for books to put into his store. The store was more like a museum than a retail shop. The only ‘new’ things were the magazines which he imported on a monthly basis.

The thought of being able to read the books in store was a huge attraction to a bookworm like Yuri. She had the habit of bringing a book wherever she went and burying herself in the book whenever an opportunity arose, such as taking a bus or waiting for the train to arrive. She read all sorts of books, ranging from fiction to nonfiction ones. She loved the smell of books, especially freshly printed ones.

The store was located at an obscure location, known only to the residents of the houses nearby. Yuri had been working at this bookstore for half a year and rarely met anyone new during her afternoon shifts.

Yuri had been reading the latest thriller by James Patterson peacefully when the tinkle of the bell interrupted her. Usually it would be one of her regular customers who were already familiar with the small store’s layout. Yuri didn’t have to do much except to update them on any new arrivals or to collect payment from them. Most of the regular customers preferred to browse on their own, taking them to pick out what they liked.

In this case, this young girl with doe-like eyes and fair complexion didn’t seem to be from around this area. Yuri rose from her seat and met the girl face to face.

“Hello,” the young girl greeted.

Yuri squinted a little, looking out the store’s window to check on the weather. It was a sunny day with no sign of dark clouds.

“Here to dodge the blazing sun?” Yuri asked, raising her brows at the unexpected customer.

“Is this how you would welcome a customer to the store?” the girl rebutted, placing one hand on the counter and the other pointing at the ‘Smile’ badge on Yuri’s chest.

Yuri was slightly taken aback. The young girl met her eye to eye and they were about the same height. To be honest, she rarely saw a person of her age since she started working here because this residential area was termed as an ‘old folks’ home. Many of the older people live here because of its peace and quiet and this area was away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Yuri cleared her throat and stood up straight, hoping to appear taller than the young girl.

“Is there anything I can help you with, Miss?” Yuri said in a polite tone.

“That’s better. I’ll just help myself to the magazines at the rack.” One corner of the girl’s lips was raised, resulting in a half smile before she headed towards the corner of the store where the magazines were displayed.

Yuri watched the young girl maneuver her way carefully around the carton boxes on the floor. She was supposed to pack the boxes into the store room yesterday but she had been too engrossed in her novel. It was a nail-biting moment and she couldn’t bear to stop reading. Moreover, the owner wasn’t back till the weekend, so she had time to pack once she was done reading.

For the rest of the afternoon, Yuri realized she couldn’t focus on reading the last few chapters of the novel. She had been reading the same paragraph over and over again. Once in a while, she would look up from her book to see what the young girl was up to. Sometimes the girl was standing straight and other times she was leaning against a bookshelf as she read the magazines.

As time went on, Yuri found it amusing to observe the girl. The girl looked around her age and had jet black, long straight hair that passed her shoulders. She wore a floral dress paired with a pink cardigan. The girl would make subconscious actions like licking her lips once in a while. Yuri assumed it was due to the wonderful photography in the food magazine she was reading. Occasionally, she heard the girl mumbling to herself.

After a while, Yuri realized that the girl had disappeared from her spot in front of the magazine rack. She couldn’t have left the bookstore since the bell didn’t chime. Curious, Yuri decided to investigate.

Walking from aisle to aisle, Yuri finally heard someone mumbling at the end of one of the shelves. She pretended to pack some of the books near the magazine rack while trying to peep at the owner of the voice.

It was the girl. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor and leaning against the bookshelf as she read the magazine. The fierce concentration on her face made it look like she was studying for an exam instead of reading leisurely.

Yuri almost burst out laughing when she heard the monologue of the girl. The girl was rambling about how delicious the breakfast set looked or how tasty the plate of waffles was. Part of Yuri was concerned about the girl drooling onto her magazines while another part of her was pleased to know that the girl shared the same taste in food as her.

Yuri was taken aback when the girl suddenly spoke without looking up from her magazine. She didn’t expect the girl to notice her presence.  “You ought to clear the boxes from the table and high stools over there. It’s obvious those were meant for humans to sit, not cartons.”

Embarrassed, Yuri tried to defend herself. “Well, this isn’t a library to begin with. Moreover our regular customers would browse, pick a book and pay up for it. Not hang around to read for free.”

“…” Yuri couldn’t hear what the girl was mumbling but she assumed the girl was grumbling about her. She walked away triumphantly, feeling happy that she won the conversation. It felt like sweet revenge for the girl’s sarcasm earlier on.

Later on, Yuri was surprised when the girl stood in front of her at closing time.

“When is the next issue of Epicure arriving?” the girl asked.

Yuri looked at the calendar and paused to think. “About a week from now.”

“Okay, that’s great. Thanks,” the girl said. She turned around to leave.

“Hey, would you like to leave your name so that I can keep a copy for you in case it is sold out? We do not carry many copies of a magazine,” Yuri called out. Reserving books and magazines for regular customers were part of her job. She didn’t need to extend this service to this girl since she wasn’t their regular customer but somehow her tongue reacted quicker than her brain.

The girl stopped in her tracks and turned around. For a moment, Yuri thought she saw an angel descend from the Heavens. The warm late afternoon sun’s rays coming from the door were wrapped around the girl, making it seemed like she was glowing.

“Im Yoona.”

Yuri picked up a blunt pencil and scribbled the name into a leather bound notebook which had the reservations of the store’s customers.

“You don’t have to reserve the magazine for me. I’m just browsing. If it’s here when I return, then it is fate,” Yoona smiled and left the store.

“Im Yoona…” Yuri muttered, circling the ‘O’ of the last word several times.

~*~*~*~

The area where the bookstore was located wasn’t a particularly popular place for young people to hang out. Though she was only twenty, she could blend in with the elderly crowd very well because she often said she was a closet ahjumma.

One day, it started to rain in the mid-afternoon. Yuri set her novel aside and walked towards the door of the bookstore. She admired the raindrops that went pitter-patter against the ground, forming a rhythm as they hit the tarmac. Then one person came to her mind.

Im Yoona.

Yuri shook the thought of the doe-eyed girl from her head. Why was she even thinking of her? She had better things to do like reading another book. Subconsciously, she stopped at one of the shelves and ran her fingers along the spines of the books. She stopped at one of the books and pulled it out.

The big book of breakfast : Serious comfort food for any time of the day

The title of the book spoke volumes for her. Yuri was a huge breakfast fan and she could eat the same breakfast food (eggs, toast, sausage and bacon in any combination) at any time of the day. Bringing the book to the counter, she began reading from page one. It wasn’t the first time she read that book but it was one of her favourites.

Yuri wondered how Yoona like her eggs to be done; sunny side up, scrambled or in an omelette style. Again, she was surprised the girl’s name popped into her head.

Im Yoona. She’s haunting me. Ack…!

Yuri kept the book and picked out a novel instead, something that wouldn’t remind her of Yoona. After reading a few chapters of the novel, she decided to do some packing since new stock of magazines would be arriving a few days later.

Yuri went to the small reading area where there was a long table and three high stools. Old cartons were stacked on the table and stools. Suddenly, Yuri could hear Yoona’s voice in her head, telling her to clear the cartons.

Yuri unpacked their contents, flattened the cartons and kept them in the storeroom. Using a clean cloth, she wiped the area and it looked very neat now.

“Now she has no excuse to complain about the store!” Yuri said aloud.

~*~*~*~

It was slightly more than a week later when Yoona returned to the bookstore. She pushed open the door and saw no one. Nonetheless, she walked in and peered around.

Yoona spotted Yuri packing some books onto the shelf at a corner of the store.

“Need any help?” Yoona asked. Although it was a small store, it wasn’t an easy task to keep it in order due to the sheer amount of books. She also noticed that Yuri seemed to be the only one in the store each time she came.

The tanned girl climbed down from her stepladder carefully. Yoona spotted a faint smile on her face before it disappeared.

“It’s okay. I can manage it. Is there anything I can help you with?” the tanned girl asked, dusting her hands on the apron she was wearing.

Yoona reached into her bag and pulled out a packet of wet wipes. “You have dirt on your face.”

The tanned girl appeared embarrassed as she took the wet wipes from Yoona. Yoona pointed at her own left cheek, trying to tell the girl where the dirt was.

“Thanks,” the tanned girl said with a smile after cleaning her cheek.

“Finally I see you’re putting your motto into practice.”

Confused, the tanned girl asked, “What do you mean?”

Yoona pointed to her badge and giggled. “You smiled.”

“Oh.” Beneath the tanned complexion, Yoona saw the girl’s cheeks turning pink.

“Is the latest issue of Epicure magazine here yet?”

“Ah, it should be here. I kept a copy for you.”

Yoona was surprised at the nice gesture of the tanned girl. She thought the girl wouldn’t bother about Yoona’s request.

Back at the counter, the tanned girl took out the still-wrapped magazine from a drawer and handed it to Yoona.

“Are you sure it’s okay for me to open it to read?” Yoona asked softly. It was a brand new magazine and customers may want to buy a new copy.

The tanned girl nodded. “Books and magazines are meant to be read, not displayed on the shelves as relics.”

“Thank you…erm…I believe I didn’t get your name yet.”

“Kwon Yuri.”

“Thank you, Yuri. I’ll return it to you when I’m done reading.”

“Nah, just place it onto the rack. You know which part of the magazine rack it belongs to right?”

Yoona chuckled and nodded. “Yes I do.”

It was an hour later when Yoona appeared at the counter.

“Yuri, would you have any recommendations on food or culinary books to read? I think I’m done with this month’s magazines on that subject.”

Yuri thought about it for a while. “I have a book in mind. Please wait here.”

Yuri disappeared behind one of the shelf and returned shortly with a blue hardcover book.

“This is one of my favourite books. I think you may like it since you like reading food-related magazines,” Yuri suggested.

“Oh! This looks awesome!!” Yoona squealed. On one hand, she was excited as she flipped through the first few pages of the book because it contained her favourite food. On the other hand, she was embarrassed that Yuri overheard her countless monologues.

Yoona turned her head in a certain direction and exclaimed, “I see a nice spot for me to read.” She carried the book to the table and sat on one of the high stools.

Yuri smiled to herself when she saw the young girl settling comfortable on the leftmost high stool and starting to read the book. It was definitely a good decision to clean that area. She was certain she would be seeing more of this girl in the coming future and she wasn’t sure why she was excited about it.

Since that day, Yoona dropped by the bookstore twice a week. She would usually exchange a few words with Yuri. If she ran out of things to read from the magazine rack, she would ask Yuri for recommendations. Then she would park herself at the usual spot (the left most high stool so that she would lean against the wall) at the reading area in the bookstore.

Almost a month after Yoona’s regular visits, she was caught by a pleasant surprise when she saw a mug of hot coffee placed in front of her.

“I didn’t know you serve coffee here,” Yoona said. By now, they were used to each other’s sarcasm and treated it as their unique way of communication.

“Only for today, just because it’s raining,” Yuri replied, wrapping her fingers around her own mug of hot coffee to keep warm. It had been raining for the whole day. Yuri was amazed Yoona still bothered to drop by the bookstore in spite of the cold and wet weather.

“I remember the first time I visited this place, it was raining very heavily too but I wasn’t offered coffee,” Yoona teased before taking a sip of the hot coffee. It provided the much needed warmth for her body.

Yoona hadn’t expected herself to frequent this quaint little bookstore that often. There was a strange attraction that lied beneath its old exterior, its musty smell and the sarcastic girl in the store. She was a user of the Kindle, preferring to read e-books than binded ones. With a Kindle in hand, she could access numerous books at one go instead of having to lug around a heavy hardcopy book. However, magazines offered beautifully taken photographs in full colour and that was something her Kindle couldn’t offer.

“No coffee for first timers. We have to ascertain that you’re a regular before we serve you coffee on rainy days.”

“So I’m considered a regular even though I didn’t buy a single thing from the store?”

Yuri took a deep breath. “Regular in a different way.”

“I should visit this place more often when it’s raining so that I can drink free coffee.”

Maybe you should.  Yuri wished.

“I never know reading from an actual book or magazine can be so addictive. My poor Kindle has been left on my table for the longest time.”

“You read from a Kindle?”

Yoona nodded.

“What joy do you get from reading off a thin slab of plastic? It’s cold and….and doesn’t smell nice!” Yuri huffed.

“Smell nice?? You mean you go around smelling books??” Yoona raised her brows in shock.

Yuri picked a paperback off the nearest shelf and shoved it to Yoona.

“Flip through the pages and inhale deeply,” Yuri commanded.

Yuri suddenly seemed scarier than usual. Yoona picked up the book and did what she was told.

The pleasant scent of the freshly printed paperback filled Yoona’s nose. It was nicer than she had imagined.

“Another one,” Yuri commanded again, passing her another book.

The second book smelled different but it was still pleasant to the nose. The recycled paper emitted a different scent compared to the white stock paper used in the first book. Yoona was amazed at how different the books actually smelled. It was the first time she had bothered taking in the scent of the book.

“It has a comforting feel. The fragrant paper smell, the smooth texture of the paper and the thought of holding something warmer than an electronic plastic slab,” Yuri said dreamily.

Yoona giggled at the sight of Yuri holding a paperback up to her nose and inhaling deeply. That giggle caused Yuri to break out of her trance and hide her face behind the book in shyness.

“You’re weird . You look like a glue sniffer getting high on glue.”

“At least it’s not harmful to health,” Yuri rebutted.

“That’s why you say.” Yoona scrunched up her nose at Yuri and pointing a finger at the tanned girl.

“Feel the paper quality of the magazine. It’s glossy and makes everything look so pretty. Feel the texture of the paperback. It’s printed on white-stock paper so that it’s easier to read on the eye without causing a strain,” Yuri explained.

“Sounds like I’m getting a lecture of why I should appreciate a printed copy of a book or magazine.”

“Here I am being nice and trying to re-introduce you to the joy of reading an actual book and there you go putting me down. Tsk…”

Yoona laughed. “Aren’t you used to the way we talk? In fact, I think this is probably the first time we chatted for so long.”

“Hmm, that’s quite true. It’s probably more than the total number of times we spoke to each other on your past visits,” Yuri chuckled.

“Say, it’s almost closing time. Reading all these cookery books and magazines is making me hungry. Do you know of a place that serves breakfast all day?” Yoona stretched her arms above her head and got off the high stool. Deep in her heart, she knew that one of the main reasons why she visited the bookstore so often was to enjoy the company of the tanned girl. Her sarcasm was enjoyable and she was frank unlike some of the other people she knew.

“There’s a café down the other street. Turn right when you get out of the bookstore and turn left when you hit the bend. The café’s right around the bend,” Yuri replied. She secretly wished Yoona would invite her to join for dinner but didn’t dare to voice it out.

Yuri was trying to hide her smile when Yoona spoke. “Would you like to join me?”

“I take it that you’re paying for my share since you’re asking me to join you?” Yuri said teasingly.

“Wait a minute, what kind of logic is that?” Yoona exclaimed.

“My kind of logic. My weird logic,” Yuri laughed.

“A cup of coffee doesn’t cost much anyway. That’s all you’re getting from me,” Yoona said firmly.

“You’re such a miser.”

Yoona merely flashed a wide smile while helping to push the high stool neatly into position.

“Well, I’ll prove you wrong some day. Meanwhile, hurry up and close the store. I’m starving!” Yoona pushed Yuri to the counter.

“I’ll only be able to find out more over more free coffees,” Yuri smirked.

“Now who’s the miser!” Yoona declared.

Laughter filled the small bookstore as the girls packed up and left for the café together.

= THE END = 

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