I fiddled nervously with the token in my hand as I walked into the café. The place was yet empty – though Harry had painted a bright picture of the ‘human library’ initiative and its evident popularity. But then I was at least ten minutes early- lifetime habits were hard to break. Table one, to match the token in my hand, was at the far corner, a perfect vantage point to observe the other ‘books.’ Unobtrusive observation was my forte – a skill honed by a career spanning over three decades- as was the ability to take in a room in one glance. As I sat down, I took in the location of the nearest refreshment counter, a precautionary measure in case a strategic exit or diversion was needed. Whilst the idea of borrowing a ‘live book’ had appealed to my inherent snooping nature, I was here because I was bored as hell. After being a Special Victims Unit detective for over thirty years, everything else life threw at me fell quite flat.
The tables were now filling up, and I kept my eyes glued to the door, wondering which one of the ordinary looking people walking in were to be my ‘book.’ The Human Library concept was simple enough – instead of a book, you borrow a human – and they tell you the story of their life. In the form I filled out at the entrance, I had selected ‘unemployed’ as my choice of a book. I had consciously steered myself away from the other genres on the list – refugee, poet, student, single mother, rape survivor, and so many more. I had seen enough of tragedy in my former life, so ‘unemployed’ seemed like a safe choice.
Our eyes met the moment she walked in. And for someone who had seen his share of stunners – hell my ex-wife had been a Victoria’s Secret model- this one left me, well spellbound in the first glance, was the only way to describe it. Heads tuned as she made her way across the room. Tall, with endless legs beneath a summery dress which stopped provocatively mid thigh, blonde hair framing a heart shaped face and a figure which left no doubts to it perfection. Blood rushed down to my crotch in an instant reaction of the kind not experienced since I was a teenager. I sat up straighter as she came closer, not wanting to jinx my luck with fervent hope, yet willing it to happen.
“Unemployed?” she asked hesitantly, pausing at my table, looking at the token in her hand.
“Yes,” I managed, getting up to pull out the chair for her.
Up close she took my breathe away. Flawless skin which glowed with health, a dusting of freckles on her perfect nose, and those eyes. Something about those blue-green eyes.
When our eyes met across the room, I froze. If fear could be smelt, I would have been reeking of it. The barely forgotten shame and terror rose in my throat like bile and I almost turned on my heels and fled.
It took superhuman effort to make my jelly like legs move towards the far corner, where he sat, on the table labelled 1, to match my token.
“Unemployed?” I managed to ask in a normal voice, as I paused next to our table.
And so, it begins, my heart whispered, as he pulled out the chair for me.
No. And so it ends, my head corrected.
Her accent was unmistakable. And so welcome.
“Are you American?” I tried as an opener
“How did you guess that?” Her voice had a soft sexy lilt to it, her lips full and luscious as they formed the words.
“Your accent. I am from Texas, actually. What a co-incidence, two unemployed Americans in Copenhagen. Where are you from?”
I poured her a glass of water, as she wiped her forehead with a paper napkin. Was she nervous? Why would someone gorgeous like her be nervous? And why was she unemployed? Why was she volunteering at a human library, laying her life bare? A zillion questions crowded my head.
“I lived in Dallas until a few years ago,” She replied
There was an awkward silence.
“So, tell me your story,” I tried with my best smile, pointing at the placard on the table ‘Welcome to your own safe place. Unjudge someone’
“Thanks to the confidentiality agreement, what is spoken here, stays here. I am all ears, Fru,” I tried to make her feel comfortable with the special touch of my limited Danish vocabulary.
“Errmmm…Where should I begin? “
“Well…Why are you unemployed? For me, it’s a good choice as I have just recently moved here.”
“It is not exactly a choice for me. “
“Okaay. How about you tell me why you chose to volunteer for the human library? “
“Let’s just say it’s therapeutic. Now, If I may ask, why are you here. Have you done this before?”
“No, its actually my first time. I was looking for new things to do and my friend Harry recommended this unique library. I admit, I was a bit skeptical about sharing personal life details with other people, and even more skeptical about wanting to hear the story of someone’s life. But Harry said I should put my interrogation skills to good use, and I must say I am glad I listened to him. I will gladly book all the next sessions if I can continue reading the same book.”
I knew I was talking nonsense, and my pitiful attempts at flirting were probably going to fall flat. But she looked at me with an understanding smile. Maybe she was used to dealing with blithering idiots salivating over her. Yep that was probably it.
“A first-time reader! You are indeed special. Without further ado, let’s begin! With a fairy tale!”
The alpha male in me would have stood up and walked away right then. But she had bewitched me with those sea- green eyes of hers, and I stayed transfixed.
“Feel free to interrupt if you need to,” she went on, more confidently
My book had turned a page; she had shredded her shy, coy self. There was something about her voice. Dreamy yet familiar. Shrill yet controlled.
She cleared her throat and began.
Once upon a time in a far away land, lived a beautiful princess. In the same land, not far away from the sumptuous palace, lived a poor orphan boy in a rat-infested, dark, back alley. But the boy was born under a lucky star- a kind-hearted usher from the palace found the boy a job in the royal kitchen. He was a pretty boy when all cleaned and scrubbed up and he proudly marched in the dining hall, holding firmly the tray bearing the supper of the royal family, – the king, the queen, and the beautiful princess. He kept his eyes low as he had been taught.
Days went by, until that fateful day when the boy was put on duty to knock on the door of the Princess’s room. He was to serve her tea in bed, at the break of early morn.
“Come in,” came the reply.
“Good morning, Your Royal Highness,’ he curtsied. Cup and saucer clinked as his hands struggled to steady the tray.
A few moments later the door opened and in walked the Queen to greet her darling daughter.
The Queen stood frozen at the unthinkable scene in front of her. The front of the Princess’s nightgown stood open, revealing her translucent skin. The hem of the Princess’s night gown had rolled up, way above her knee, defying royalty. And the boy ….
The boy had his right hand on her bosom, the fly of his trouser half open.
She paused to take a breath.
I poured us both some water. She took a sip and asked, “Shall I continue?”
“Hell, yeah! Never trust these ruffian street boys. They can never amount to anything good. And this scoundrel in your story, lusting after a princess!”
I was cut short by the announcement of the moderator.
‘The library closes in 5 mins. Thank you to all volunteers and readers.”
“Well, that’s all we get for today,” she teased.
She had walked in a demure young lady. Now, she was ready to walk out a confident woman. Had I been a tiny bit responsible for that by lending a patient ear to her story?
Wait! But was it really her story told as a parable?
“So, are YOU the princess?” I asked with the eagerness of a curious child.
“If fate brings us together again, you shall find out.”
“Can we ask the authorities here to match us next time?”
“Try your luck!”
I walked out with her, resisting the temptation to ask for her number.
When we both collected our mobile devices from the counter and came out, I could not hold back anymore.
“Can I take you out for a coffee? Remember your story is not over yet.”
“Thank you, but I am sorry, I am running a little late. Also, I am your book only as long as we are in the library.”
She walked away.
Back in my apartment that night, I could not stop thinking about her. She had piqued my curiosity. Without a name and address though, I could not do much – and the library would not divulge any details. To divert my mind, I went back to her ‘fairy-tale’. What was her part in the story? No one would not narrate a random tale when they volunteered to be a human book.
I went to the next session of the library. And the next and the next. I Changed subjects, anticipating she was not “unemployed” anymore, but she was not to be seen. I owed an apology to each of my ‘books’ from those sessions, for my eyes wandered off every time I was in there, hoping to see her.
The chain of unsuccessful attempts broke when I finally spotted her again, in the same library. She was there at the same table. Unlike last time, she was early and waiting for her reader to walk in. She smiled and waved at me as if she knew I would walk in as her reader today.
I was glad she remembered me.
“Hello there…How are you?” The same intoxicating voice that had left me at a high last time. There was no stammer, no awkward beginnings this time.
“How have you been? It’s great to see you again.”
“Still unemployed?” She grinned.
“I plan to be so for the rest of my life. Or at least until boredom starts to kill me. How about you?”
“Not anymore. So, shall we go back to our fairy-tale?”
“Most definitely yes. But before you continue, If I may ask something where you fit in exactly in your story. It could not be just any random fairy tale?”
“I will get to it. Let me finish with this tale first. So where did we pause?”
“The Queen stood frozen at the unthinkable scene in front of her. Hem of the Princess’s night gown had rolled up, way above her knee defying royalty. And the boy ….The boy had his right hand on her bosom, fly of his trouser was half open.” I winked.
“Right. So …what do you think happened next?” She asked.
“The Queen told the King. The King sent orders for the boy to be beheaded in a public exhibition. Acts like his deserve the harshest of punishment. That boy crossed his limits. He should face the consequences.”
“Quite close,” She said and continued the tale.
The Princess covered up, quickly got off the bed. With tears in her eyes, at the boy she pointed. The Queen raged with anger, thrashed the boy. Called for the King and Chief of Royal Guard right away. Take this boy to the death chamber was the order.
The Chief of Royal Guard confirmed to the Queen. ‘’I have seen the boy’s lustful eyes. With tea as an excuse, he must have sneaked in the early hour to take advantage of the sleeping Princess. For this serious crime the boy shall be beheaded,” he assured.
When all the accusing voices slowed down, the boy spoke up fearfully– ‘I did not do it. I can not do it.’ With that he had the shown the audacity to deny the charges levelled. He was to be tortured until he confessed.
She stopped abruptly and avoided eye contact
“Justice delivered is justice served. The boy deserved the punishment for his heinous actions.”
“That is the end of my fairy-tale.” She said.
She moved in her chair with some uneasiness. Her moist eyes wandered off to look away from me.
I wanted to take her hands in mine to comfort her. “I feel sorry for what happened to you at the hand of some lustful man. They all deny it. But it’s written in their body language, their voice. We sense them immediately. They just look for the slightest opportunity to take advantage.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I had a case where a driver had taken advantage of the daughter of his employer. The young girl, all of twenty-one, was scarred for life.”
“The father was a man of influence, so he hushed it up, but he made sure his daughter got justice. I was made in charge of the case to take it to closure. The accused driver denied it all, just as the boy in your tale, but they all come around in the end. I took the confession from him and made sure he was behind bars serving his time.”
She got up abruptly. “Good for the girl and her family. All fairy tales must end on a happily ever after note, shouldn’t they? Now, if you will excuse me, I must go at once. I had volunteered for a shorter session today.”
“No wait!” I said, with a note of urgency in my voice. I couldn’t not see her again. She waved me away and hurried out. After a stunned moment, I followed.
I caught up with her in the street and pulled her arm urgently.
“Look, I really like you, and I know you must be wary of all men, but please give me a chance. You can trust me – I am a former law- enforcement officer. Dan Cooper at your service.” I belatedly held out my hand, realising we had never exchanged names, as per the rules.
“I know, we have met before,” she replied in a matter-of-fact way.
“Woah, I am sure I would have remembered meeting you!”
She stood silently, looking at me with those haunting eyes of hers.
I started feeling uncomfortable.
“Hey, jokes aside, have we really met? Strangely, I did feel like your eyes were familiar.”
She took a deep breath.
“My name is Lucy Nielsen.”
Nielsen, that name was familiar. Wait a min, that was the name of the…
I took a step back, confused, not able to process.
“My prison record will show my name as Luke Nielson,” she added quietly.
I stood stunned. Nielson. Luke Nielson. No, Lucy Nielson. Those eyes. Those haunting eyes.
“You..” I whispered, horror coursing through my very being. “You…can’t be..”
She gave a brittle laugh, her eyes alight with an emotion I couldn’t identify. “Nielsen, sounds familiar? The driver, who was accused of taking advantage of the multi-millionaire businessman’s daughter.” She started laughing out loud at me now, almost hysterically. “You have a thing for him…err…her, now.”
I stood rooted on the pavement, as she finally stopped laughing and gave me that beautiful, understanding smile again. She reached into her handbag and pulled out an envelope.
“Not all fairy tales have happy endings, and not all stories are one-dimensional. I wrote down another dimension for you,” she said as she handed me the envelope. Before I could react, she had turned and disappeared into the crowd gathering for the annual Copenhagen World Pride Parade.
I opened the envelope that read –
Somewhere in a faraway land ….
That fateful day when the boy was put on duty to knock on the door of the Princess’s room. He was to serve her tea in bed, at the break of early morn.
‘Come in,’ came the reply
‘Good morning, Your Royal Highness,’ he had bowed in courtesy. Cup and saucer clinked as his hands struggled to steady the tray.
‘Put the tray aside and come close to me, I had my eyes on you from day one,’ said the Princess.
The boy stood there knowing not what to do. She pulled him closer on to the soft bed. Untied the knot to let the strings of her night gown loose. She took his hands on to her bosom.’ Touch me here,’ she said and moaned.
‘Show me your manhood, please me now. An order it is, you better obey,’ she commanded.
‘I cannot do it, how do I explain,’ he beseeched Her Royal Highness. His plea fell to deaf ears and she had already undone his zip halfway.
The door opened and in, walked the Queen, to greet her darling daughter.
The Queen stood frozen at the unthinkable scene in front of her. The front of the Princess’s nightgown stood open, revealing her translucent skin. The hem of the Princess’s night gown had rolled up, way above her knee defying royalty. And the boy ….
The boy had his right hand on her bosom and the fly of his trouser was half open.
I roamed the streets of Copenhagen, haunted by her eyes. I sat in the bars until the wee hours every night, until the inevitable drunken call to Harry to come pick me up. I tried to forget. But her damn eyes. His damn eyes.
I was finally free, and I danced away in the rainbow of colours.
Team: Forever 21
Writers: Kruti VB and Itali Madhusmita
Image by Theo Crazzolara from Pixabay