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Chapter I The City was growing. Every morning started with jackhammers rattling, engines roar, builders shouting. More and more technical fences appeared every day. Workers dug trenches in one place and knocked down buildings in another. There was hardly a street with no construction work going on. The City was reaching up. The City was expanding, blurring the lines between languages, nations, civilizations. The City easily rejected everything old and outdated. It preferred skyscrapers to tidy, little houses and countless neon signs made nights as bright as days. Even if time travelling were possible, a man from the past century visiting our times would never recognize his own city. The streets he used to walk down unhurriedly have turned into noisy city arteries carrying thousands of people in a rush. There were exceptions though. The end of December still was a special time as the transfigured city appearance was not important. It was a familiar feeling for everyone through the ages. The winter holidays managed to survive under the pressure of the modern lifestyle, adapted to the megapolis and became an important part of the City. There was another bastion of antiquity and traditions. It was a small bookshop huddling in the shadows of tall buildings. The shop was not as widely known as the winter holidays but it was playing a similar role. It had been making people happy. The bell above the door rang cheerfully as a new customer crossed the threshold. Every guest was carried away to a magical world by the smell of books and the disarming smile of Christopher Barkley, the owner of the shop. Everyone called him old-man Barkley; he inherited the family business just like his father and grandfather. Now old-man Barkley was not very optimistic about the future. Things were not going well. Neither son, nor grandchildren were eager to keep the family tradition and take the old shop on themselves. Even now, before the holidays there were no customers. People preferred huge bookstores with managers tapping on keyboards and finding the book you need in minutes. No one could afford to waste time on glancing through book after a book, breathing in their smell, listening to the paper rustling and looking for an author, they may like for hours. Time is money and its exchange rate grows all the time. Suddenly, the bell above the door rang cheerfully. A wave of cold air lifted a few snowflakes blew them inside. A young girl entered the shop. Her golden curls trembled, falling on her shrugged shoulders. She was wrapping herself in her coat but it seemed like it did not manage to protect her from the cold. Neither did her muffler and knitted gloves. Old-man Barkley closed the book he had been reading and broke into the most sincere and friendly smile the world had ever seen. The girl smiled back confusedly, nodded and stepped forward. Barkley decided not to disturb her and let her look around. He opened “The Old Man and the Sea” and continued reading. The girl walked down the aisle between the shelves in silent astonishment. They were full of different books from top to bottom. Their coloured spines were forming a bright pattern like flowers in a flower shop. The difference was that the flowers are short-lived. They are more careless, they know that the life is short and they cannot wait to give away their vitality. On the contrary, books have eternity ahead of them and can take their time. They have their own purpose, to pass on the wisdom of the ancestors to the future generations. As they get older, they become even more precious. That is why the atmosphere of the bookshop captured its visitors. Old-man Barkley could not compete with huge shops. However, he did not want to. He was offering serenity. The girl came closer to one of the racks and touched a book in a red cover. It was worn and rough. She kept moving along the shelf running her hand over colourful spines. She stopped at the end of the rack, took a random book and opened it. “Oh, no, no, I would not recommend this one,” said a raspy voice just behind her. The girl gave a start of surprise. She did not notice the old man standing up and coming closer. At first, she wanted to admonish him but then looked at him and changed her mind. Old-man Barkley had a look of a man who had seen a lot in his lifetime. Both good and bad things. But he did not let his heart harden. “What’s so bad about it?” she asked. “Bad? Oh, no, no. I don’t keep bad books. But every single one has its time, its purpose. All in good time. I wouldn’t recommend this one to such a young reader. Especially, on Christmas Eve. Especially, when she is so upset.” “How do you… Never mind. I don’t have…” “Here you are,” interrupted old-man Barkley handing a small inconspicuous book he had fished out from a big pile a moment ago. “What’s it about?” “There’s everything you need right now in it,” said Barkley lowering his voice and winked conspiratorially. “Dreams do not come true,” the girl read the title. “Yeah, very inspiring.” The old man did not answer and kept smiling mysteriously. There was an awkward silence. “Your shop is very cute. Charming,” said the girl. “Oh, thank you.” “You work here alone?” “Yes. I also live here. On the second floor. And my son lives across town with his family. I was hoping they would come to celebrate together. Like good old times. But he has some business to attend to.” “Yeah. Right. It happens.” Barkley got sad suddenly. He stepped back, grabbed a broom and started sweeping the floor. The girl felt awkward again. She flipped through the book just to be polite but did not read a word. Her head was full of her own problems. And she was ashamed to say that she went into the shop just to get warm. “Listen,” she closed the book. “I’m sorry for wasting your time, but I don’t have money.” “That’s all right,” seemed like old-man Barkley was expecting it. “Take it anyway.” “Well, no, thank you, but I can’t. I think, I’d better go,” said the girl handing the book back.” “Please, take it. As a Christmas gift from me.” “You don’t even know me.” “Oh, no, no, I do. I know exactly what book people need once they enter my shop. Even if they don’t know yet. Please, take it. It was meant for you.” “Well, okay, thank you. But I’ll pay for it later.” The girl walked through the door leaving the smiling old man and his bookshop behind. “Dreams do not come true, you say?” said the girl looking at the book cover. “Well, I’m afraid, you’re absolutely right.” Chapter II It was the time of the year when cute, little suburb houses differed most. Every yard was decorated in its own way and together they were forming a unique blaze of colours. The sight of it was making people go outside and walk for hours despite the cold. “Do you think the skating rink is opened already, Amy?” A little girl with a snub nose reached up on her tiptoes and looked out of the window. It was snowing heavily. Her older sister looked down at her. “I think so. You want to go?” “Will dad come with us?” asked the little girl looking ay Amy with her big round eyes. “You know the answer, Alice.” Alice hung her head and moved away from the window. “Come on, chin up,” said Amy. “Put on your coat, let’s go to the rink. And we can come round a café to have a couple of cakes on our way back.” “Nah, I don’t want to. It’s too cold.” The girl climbed onto an armchair and frowned. Amy sighed and patted her on her head. She felt tears in her eyes and wiped them away. Amy could not replace mother Alice did not remember or father Alice almost did not see. But it does not mean she did not try to. Few people knew what she had sacrificed for her little sister. “Hey, I need to go now,” said Amy trying to make her voice sound cheerfully. “Be right back. We’ll think of something. Don’t make a mess while I’m out, okay?” “I’m not a little girl, you know.” “No, you are not,” laughed Amy, patting Alice on her head again. Left alone at home, Alice decided to return to her favourite thing to do - drawing. She put out pencils and a piece of paper. Then went through dad’s drawers and found an old photo album she was looking for. Alice opened the album and started to study photos carefully page after page. She noted that dad was always smiling on pics without Alice. And once she appeared on photos, it was hard to find one with dad. There were just her sister and she. On those few photos with dad, standing next to her he was frowning for some reason. Alice was not very good at math at school but she managed to solve this simple equation. She did not like the answer. Alice kept studying the album until she found the photo she liked most. It was a picture of mom, dad and Amy, as young as Alice now was. They all were laughing and looked very happy. Amy was wearing a pair of new skates, a Christmas gift from the parents. Armed with a pencil Alice began drawing her picture trying to make it look exactly like the photo. Except one detail. She added herself standing between mom and dad. She opened it and looked through her treasure one more time: three chestnuts, her favourite doll, the hand of her favourite doll, her diary she had been keeping for three days already, mother’s ring and about twenty similar pictures. Alice carefully put the piece of paper to the others, closed the box, hid it back and sat on the side of the bed. Amy was walking down a road, squinting to protect her eyes from the wind. Soft snow was cracking under her feet. Happy people were walking towards her. They looked excited in anticipation for upcoming holidays. Almost everyone was carrying a bag or a package with presents or delicacies for Christmas table. Amy took off her knitted glove with her teeth, got the phone out of her pocket and dialed a number. “Yes, what now?” said a firm, low voice. “Dad, Alice wants to go to the skating rink.” “Why don’t you take her?” “She wants to come with you.” There was a pause. Then the voice answered getting annoyed. “The rink? You’re kidding, right? My flight is in five hours.” “Exactly,” said Amy through her teeth. “You’re leaving in five hours. God knows where, God knows why. You’ll miss the holidays. I can get along without you; I’m not a little girl. But she is just eight years old.” “Hold on, someone’s knocking. Yes, yes, come in. I’ll call back later.” Amy was still holding her phone at her ear after her dad hanged up. She could not stop shaking. It was snowing heavily. Lampposts and chestnut trees lost under a white veil. The City was transforming from a colourfully decorated fairytale into a magical world. But Amy did not notice it. “I should go inside to get warm,” she thought. She looked around. A small shop huddling in the shadows of tall buildings captured her attention. Amy stepped forward. Chapter III The City was transformed overnight. Thousands of lights were flashing, sparkling and glimmering. Christmas trees of all kinds and sizes were pleasing eyes from the central square to suburb shop windows. Music was playing in every corner. People did a good job, but it was the nature that transformed the city. The streets were covered with snow in hours. Children were happy to see such an unexpected gift. Adults were looking at the kids playing, and their souls got younger. However, John was not happy at all. He had been late already. Now he was hopelessly late thanks to the snow. He had just moved to the City and did not have any friends or acquaintances. Now he was about to lose his new job. He was running alone a line of cars stuck in the traffic, holding a document folder close to his chest. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath and read the room. He decided to take a shortcut through the park. He realized his mistake too late, when the snow stuck in his shoes and started melting. The utilities could hardly handle plowing the snow from the roads, not to say about parks. Running past a traffic light he made another mistake – stared at a girl. She had been waiting for green lights and was very surprised to hear clamor behind her back. She turned around and saw John crawling on all fours to a plow truck, cursing the soulless machine. The girl recoiled from him at first, but then he sat on the ground next to her and got silent. “Hey. Hey, you,” said the girl cautiously. “Are you all right?” “The papers. The papers…” mumbled John, covering his face with one hand and pointing at the departing truck. “Now I’m dead. I’m a dead man.” “You’re rather gabby for a dead man.” John looked up at her with a glassy, faraway look. The girl felt awkward. “So… How did you fall down in the first place?” she asked. “I was looking at you.” “Oh… Wow…” she rounded her eyes. “I’m sorry, I guess… Should I be flattered?” “No, it’s not about you. There’s a girl…” “Yeah, right,” she said returning to her usual cold, supercilious tone. “What a relief!” John did not noticed that and continued babbling non-stop. “I just saw this book you have, “Dreams do not Come True”. It is important for me. Then I slipped. And the papers, they… they just… under the truck. And I…” “Very informative story,” the girl reached out to help him up. “What’s your name?” “John. And yours?” “Amy.” It was not easy to find a free table at a café, but they finally succeeded. John calmed down, he could speak clearly again. “Excuse me; I need to call my boss. Be in a minute,” he said. “Sure. I need to call someone too.” Amy dialed her dad when John left. “What now?” his voice was even more annoyed than usual. “Dad, I stuck around for a bit longer.” “So?” “Alice is at home. Alone. Could you watch after her for an hour? As long as you don’t want to go to the rink. I’ll come soon.” “I don’t have time. I’ve got a million dollar deal falling through,” shouted father. Amy hung up the phone and buried her face in her hands. She did not understand why did he made her shoulder these responsibilities. Why did he try to avoid his own family? “Hey. Are you all right?” this time it was John who asked Amy, not the other way around. “Fine. So, you called your boss?” “No, I didn’t get through. The line’s always busy.” “Cool. Listen, you’re such interesting company when you don’t try to commit a suicide throwing yourself under a plow truck, but I need to go soon. So, just out of curiosity what’s wrong with my book?” It was hard to find more sad person then John after the papers incident. However, the news that Amy was about to leave was the last straw. He sagged completely. But despite his bad mood he remained to be surprisingly chatty. “Well, right. I met a girl exactly two years ago. It was back in the city I am from. We were walking together, talking, laughing the whole day. In the evening, we had an argument. I said that I don’t believe in fate, the Grand Design. I don’t believe that dreams come true. I don’t know whether it really touched her or she was just kidding, but she took a book, exactly like the one you have, wrote her phone number on the thirteen’s page and said that she would sell it to a book dealer later. And if it’s meant to be, fate will step in and make it happen. Then she just walked away.” “It is stupid.” “It is. Maybe she was laughing at me. Or had watched too many films and had read too many novels. I’ve been looking for the book for two years already. I’ve even found some but there was no number inside. And then I saw you holding it, got distracted and here we are”. “In that case, there you go,” she handed the book to John. “Take a look.” He gone silent. John looked at the cover of the book. He has never been so close to his goal. Somehow, he could feel that it was the very book he had been looking for. Then he realized that he could not even describe that girl. He could not remember her face. “Nah,” he looked at Amy. “You know what, keep it. I’ve told you I don’t believe in all these things, dreams, fate…” he smiled for the first time that evening. “Maybe it’s for the best.” There was a pause. Amy looked down at her phone meditatively. “But it doesn’t make any sense because I am a dead man anyway,” said John. “You said it as if you’re working for the mafia.” “Maybe I am,” John winked. “Then you need a hideout,” laughed Amy. “Exactly. Ah, I wish I had a place I can get lost in. Where you can forget all your worries. With food also. Well, like here, but not as noisy, so you can think about everything, read in peace or…” “Wait a minute,” Amy interrupted. “What?” “I have an idea. Come on, I will show you such place.” “I thought you were in a hurry.” “We are going the same way. I just need to make a call first.” “All right, I’ll pay the bill and meet you outside. Just don’t leave; I don’t have your number either.” “Fine,” laughed Amy. It stopped snowing. Garlands were blinking making the white snow cover look like a colourful painting. The day was coming to its end. But it was not just a regular day, it was the day when everything could happen. Amy hesitated for minute and then she took a deep breath of cold, fresh air and took her phone out of her pocket. “Yes, I’m listening,” her father’s voice was calm this time. Such a familiar voice she had already forgotten. Amy smiled. “Hey, dad. How’s the deal?” “Fell through.” “Too bad. Listen, I have a business proposal for you.” “You’ve grown up too fast,” laughed her father after a pause. “So, what is your proposal?” “Literary café.” “Hmm, what do you mean?” “You’ve been thinking where to invest your money in? Right? So, just imagine, you walk inside a café but it looks more like a library. There are books everywhere and the atmosphere is the same. Then they give you two menus. One is usual and there are books in the other one. Can you imagine it, coming into a café and say something like “I’d like to have a cup of tea, a cake and Viktor Hugo, please.” What do you think?” “Well…” father laughed kindly. “It’s a good idea. Can be hard to arrange, though.” “Oh, I’ve found a perfect place already,” said Amy getting bolder because of the approval. “There are books, the atmosphere and all that. Could you come?” “Yes, sure.” “Great. I’ll text you the address. We’ll come there soon too.” “Wait, what do you mean “we”? Who are “we”?” “Explain you later, dad.” Chapter IV The business district was least affected by the holiday fever. The proper trappings were at their places, but all those Christmas trees, garlands and tinsels were just a reminder of the end of the year, time to make financial reporting. Money likes to be praised and cannot stand competitors. “…Yes, yes, come in. I’ll call back later.” Robert entered Michael’s office and nodded. “Oh, it’s you,” Michael put away his phone and began looking through a pile of papers not even looking at Robert. “Is everything ready?” “Yes, all is done.” “Good. Have you packed your bags yet?” “Yes.” “You don’t sound very happy.” “I’m fine.” “Are you?” “Well… Ahem…” “Come on. Quit your yapping. What’s that?” “Well… We’ll miss the holiday.” Michael sat back in his chair, signed and closed his eyes. He had seen so many weak losers in his life already. None of them had ever achieved anything significant. Some of them even had had a higher position in the company. Not for long though. “Tell me, do you have children?” asked Michael. “I do. Two boys.” “Oh, I have two girls,” he smiled faintly. “And how far are you willing to go to make them happy?” There was a long pause. “I know what you’re talking about,” finally said Robert. Michael stood up, came to the window and looked out. From the height of the thirty-second floor everything looked even more insignificant to him. “Well, at least you do,” he whispered. Michael sat at his desk again. He glanced at his watch and made a fist. “Where the hell is the boy? Have you ever seen him?” he asked Robert. “No, haven’t seen him since he left.” “All right. Help me with the papers while we’re waiting.” Michael was waiting for a courier. They say that the strength of a chain is determined by the strength of the weakest link. Michael had made a lot for the deal for the past few month. More than anyone else. Coaxing, cajoling, intimidating. Simply put, making the foreign partners and his own bosses entertained. Now the meeting was arranged. Plane tickets were purchased. Now the whole deal could go to hell thanks to one incompetent kid. As the time came closer to the departure, Michael got more and more annoyed. He was mad at the clock ticking too loud. He was mad at the courier. He was mad at Robert sitting opposite him like a lamb. This coward could have said it aloud that he did not want to go away for the holydays at least. Nevertheless, he was sitting quietly, afraid to object. Michael’s phone rang. It was even louder than the clock ticking. Michael hated it. He grabbed the phone. “What now?” he shouted. “So? … I don’t have time. I’ve got a million deal falling through.” “Your daughter?” asked Robert when Michael finished the call. “How did you know?” “You don’t talk to your colleagues like that.” Michael got mad. How dared this Robert tell him how to talk to his own children? Michael was staring at Robert wondering if it was a challenge. But it was not. He understood that Robert did not try to mock him, he just got tired and said what he actually thought by accident. Robert started fidgeting under the scrutinizing eyes. Michael decided to let it go this time. There were more important things to think about. “Where the hell did I put that kid’s number?’ said Michael going through his pockets and drawers. He opened his wallet and stood still. Two pairs of green eyes were looking at him. Green eyes, just like their mother’s. There was an old photo of his daughters inside. He got used to it, stopped noticing. This time the photo suddenly brought back memories he was trying to hide deep inside. The memories about the times when he had been a different person, not at all, as he was now. The times when he was younger and poorer. And happier. The snow was still falling and the clock still ticking but it did not bother him anymore for some reason. Michael remembered. He thought of how glad he had been when Amy appeared. How he had been trying to spend every minute with her, reading fairy-tales, teaching her everything, watching her grow. Then he thought of Alice. Such a beautiful name. Her mother gave it to her. Those were her last words. “Robert,” his voice wavered. “What time is the departure?” “In two hours.” “Well, I guess the kid wouldn’t make it. We can’t fly to the meeting without the contract.” “I don’t get it.” “Come on, you do. Go home.” “All right. And you?” “I will go home too. Don’t I deserve a day off, after all?” smiled Michael. “What are your plans for the holidays, by the way?” “Well, I didn’t think I would be free this evening… Nothing special, I guess. I’ll go and take my wife and boys and come and visit my father, he lives near here.” “Yes. That’s good. Well, see you later then.” Robert Barkley turned back before leaving the office and looked surprised at Michael staring at his wallet. An hour later Michael was coming closer to his house holding a big box in one hand and the phone in the other. “Wait, what do you mean “we”? Who are “we”?” He finished the call, put the phone in his pocket and laughed. “Who could’ve thought…” he mumbled entering the house. “Alice, I’m home,” he said louder. “Dad? Is that you?” a little girl with a snub nose peeked around the corner. “Yes, it is me. Listen, I know it’s not Christmas yet but I have a gift for you.” Michael handed the box to his daughter and her eyes lit up when she opened it. “Skates?” “Correct answer, little miss.” “Will you come with me to the rink?” “Sure.” “When?” “Right now.” “Really?” “Of course. But we need to stop at some place on the way first.” “What is the place?” “Well… I don’t know exactly myself. But you like books, don’t you?” Epilogue Old-man Barkley glanced at his watch and signed. Of course, it was Christmas Eve; everyone is in a hurry, going home to their families. There would be no customers today. He looked at the book he had been reading, estimating how much he had left. Hemingway’s old man was already on his way home, carrying his meager haul. Barkley decided to finish the book and close the shop. Suddenly the bell above the door rang cheerfully. Old-man Barkley looked up and broke into the most sincere and friendly smile the world has ever seen.