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Approval

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I wrote this story in response to NPR’s “Three Minute Fiction” contest. The first sentence is mandatory; the length is limited to 600 words. I hope you enjoy the story (and perhaps the essay of reflections I wrote a bit later).

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. Within a few steps she had moved from the comfortable, wooden world of the library into the tiled grayness of the government office.

There were four service windows, but only the rightmost window was occupied. The man behind the glass partition was writing something onto a form, and he continued writing as she stepped up to the window’s opening. Poole, said the nameplate, and below it, Approvals. He was writing, she noticed, with a fountain pen.

He placed a period on the sentence, then looked up—and smiled. “Were you happy with it?” he asked.

She hadn’t expected the question—at least, not put quite like that. His voice was almost too quiet, even in this near-silent space, and warm, too, as if he hadn’t done this hundreds of times.

“It—“ she began, then faltered. Something about the softness of his eyes—the unanticipated kindness in them—caused her own eyes to moisten. She frantically poked a hand into her satchel. Who knew there were more tears?

A tissue appeared unexpectedly through the opening, the white square held by an ink-stained hand. “It’s alright,” he said, nodding behind the glass, and as she dabbed at her eyes, he repeated, “It’s alright. The book has that effect on everybody.”

“It was just so—“ She paused, then added, “Complete.”

He nodded. “To most of them,” he said, “the research is a calling.”

She’d expected to find everything she’d collected herself, and what she’d remembered or reconstructed. And it was the Public Record Office, so of course all the paperwork would be there.

But when she’d opened the book, it didn’t begin with her birth certificate. There was instead the first letter her father had written to her mother—a single sheet, crisscrossed by two folds. They’d met in the summer, both their families on vacation by the sea. On the way home, he’d written to her, describing a crowded car, a packed restaurant—and then, without even its own paragraph: “I ache for you.” That’s how it all began.

And after that, a photo with her mother crouching low behind her brother at the kitchen table. Her body beneath her shoulders was hidden from view, but because the cake had three candles: her mother was pregnant. With her. Her brother looked just a moment away from crying, his eyes just starting to bug out, but as the shutter snapped, her mother looked radiant in the golden light.

There was a sketch she’d made—she didn’t remember doing it, but it was unmistakably hers—of the phone from her sophomore year, the year she began dating—and the year she first felt (just a sensation at that point, not a thought) that she would eventually have to leave.

The handwritten draft of her resignation from the school, the text with her first “real” job offer, a photo of the high-heeled shoes she’d for some reason carried in her bag all the way across India—it was all there. Not every moment, but every moment that mattered. Everything.

“Are you,” he asked quietly, “happy?”

She closed her eyes for a moment, then nodded. He slid the form through the window, and without another word she signed.

Before she reached the door, she paused. “Does anybody ever come here?” she asked. “To read them? After we leave?”

He smiled. “All the time.”

She turned the handle on the door, still looking back. “I’ll remember that.” Last through the door was her hand, in a small wave.