[Fiction] Living Through the Pages

“Why?”

The voice sounded hoarse and foreign, I almost didn’t recognize it as my own.

“Why didn’t you choose the antidote?’

Troye’s eyelids shut for a brief moment before revealing his brown orbs again.

“Even if I go through this again, my choice will never change,” he said. I could feel my blood seething at the sight of his pursed lips.

“But you’re going to die.”

His smile didn’t falter but his eyes flickered. Something flashed through those orbs, something that looked an awful lot like pity. Pity. Can you believe it? I was not the one who’s going to lie cold in less than 24 hours!

I watched as Troye stood from his chair and walked towards the pantry. He took a glass and put it under the dispenser, filling it with water before handing it over to me. I looked at his outstretched arm, not having the slightest intention to take the glass from his pale fingers.

“You look tired.” He said. He put the glass on the end table beside me before going back to the chair at the opposite side of the room.

“Are you unhappy?”

At my words he tilted his head slightly to his left. He often did that when he was confused and I used to find the gesture endearing. This is the first time it made me furious.

“What makes you think so?”

“One does not choose a book over the only antidote to his deadly disease if he is content with his life.”

Troye chuckled. “You know how much I love books.” By then I was already desperate and tried my best to convey it through my glare.

“School is great,” he continued. “I love working on my assignments though sometimes I have to cut my reading time for them. Work’s fine too. My colleagues and boss are nice people and I get to meet the customers, smiling and having them smile back at times.”

His voice was calm and his eyes were looking straight at me. He wasn’t lying. And yet…

“Then why?”

His lips stayed shut. Maybe it’s because he would have to lie to answer that. Or maybe he thought that whatever he said would hurt me. I didn’t know. It’s usually not hard to figure him out; 7 years of friendship gave me the ability to understand the twitch on the corner of his lips when he lied, the way to decipher the wavering of his eyes. This time I simply didn’t know. It was like I never knew him at all. And he would be gone in less than a day. It was sad.

“You can read more books if you live longer.”

He nodded.

“You’ll miss out on Blue Road’s fourth book.”

“Ah yes…” His eyes twinkled in a fond glint. They were directed at me but not actually looking. I had a feeling they were wandering to a world where the population was a third of today’s crowded world, travelling with a boy who’s out on a journey to find his life purpose.

“It is a pity that I won’t be able to read it.” His eyes flickered, signaling his return from the world of Blue Road to this world. “But you’ll read it, right?”

I scoffed. “I don’t read books with words filling over 50% of the page.”

“But you read the first and the second book.” My heart skipped a beat at his words. I didn’t expect to get caught.

“I know you read it when you thought I wasn’t looking. You even sneaked one out of my room.” There was no judgement in his voice.

“Sorry. Should’ve asked you first.”

He just smiled. “Mandy is still reading volume three. You can get it from her later.”

Then I remembered that his carefree words were distractions and was about to scold him when the door shrieked. The sound was followed immediately by those of steady footsteps, not too loud but enough to fill the small room. I didn’t have to turn my head to know who the footsteps belong to, even though I had only heard them once before; the first time was etched deep in my memory, I could instantly recognize the distinct steps of those immaculate black loafers.

The person who just entered came to the center of the room and into my view. He was a man in black trousers, black jacket over a white button-up, and square-framed glasses. He didn’t bother to look at me before turning his body towards Troye.

“Your object of desire.” The man said as he held out a book in his hands (I knew it’s a book even if it’s wrapped in brown paper). “Please be advised that you cannot revoke your decision and request for the antidote once you have received this object.”

“I understand.” His voice sounded calm, but his hands were slightly trembling when he accepted the book. I found out that it wasn’t from fear or hesitation because I saw how the trembling stopped after the book was safely tucked in his chest.

“Your time will be up in…” The man in the suit raised his left arm slightly. “…23 hours and 11 minutes.”

Troye nodded with a smile and the man left. Soon after, Troye moved his attention back to the book in his hold. I watched as he opened the wrap carefully and took out the blue covered book, no illustrations, only words of title that I couldn’t make out because of the distance. I watched him flipped through the papers, eyes gleaming as they traced the pages. I watched him patting his father on the back, giving one last hug when the old man came into the room minutes after he finished reading the book. I watched him leaning to the back of his chair, the book on his lap, eyelids slowly closing and chest moving up and down in a steady rhythm until he went still.

I had never seen him look so peaceful.

 

**

 

“Thanks for letting me hang out here, Mr. Ward,” I said as I sat on Troye’s bed.

“Nah. You’re like, my second son. Who doesn’t look like me at all. But share the same need to slump in front of the TV with snacks during soccer season. And go out to the field the rest of the time. You know.”

I smiled at him. “Yeah.”

Mr. Ward’s wavering eyes twinkled and his lips pursed into a smile. It made him look ten years younger. It made him look more like Troye.

After Mr. Ward left the room, I threw my back to the bed, relishing the softness of the sheets and the coziness of the mattress. I didn’t know what I was doing here at my dead best friend’s bedroom.  My eyes wandered around the room until they arrived at the bookshelf. The deep brown frame a contrast to the light blue wall behind.

I pulled my body off the bed to touch the shelf, my eyes scanning the spine of the books lining up neatly in each rack. There was everything from science, fiction, biography, health, to recipe books. Troye’s taste in reading knew no boundaries. Also no regard to financial or physical constrictions (I had told Mr. Ward many times to not let Troye fill the walls of the living room and the hall downstairs with his books).

A title caught my eyes and stopped my train of thoughts. Across the Field: Story of Kaine Mendes. I took it out of the shelf to see the cover and the blurb. A biography of the goalkeeper in Mr. Ward’s and my favorite team. I remembered Troye saying something along the lines of “reading allows me to keep up with you and Dad.”

I went back to the bed with the book in my hands. My back leaning comfortably on the wall, feet dangling over the bed. I let my attention followed the words in the book. When I arrived at the last page and closed it, all the sensations (which I didn’t even realize I had lost) slowly came back to me; the smell of new sheets, the coldness that crept to my fingers, the ticking of the clock on Troye’s table. I turned my head to look out the window. The sky was already filled with orange.

 

**

 

I was occupied with the book in my hands when I saw Mark out of the corner of my eyes. As much as I’d like to get back to the words explaining how to incorporate multi direction runs into speed training, I couldn’t ignore Mark and his obnoxious grin.

“Can you put an extra chicken on your tab?” Those were the first words that came out of his mouth when he took a seat across the table. Behind him was Leslie, she settled herself on the empty space next to him.

“Okay. Just remember you’ll have to pay me 50 bucks by the end of the semester.”

“50?! I only owe you like, two chickens and a mash potato, man.”

“Loan comes with interest.” Mark pouted at that while Leslie and I laughed at him.

When the laughter died down Mark said, “Whatever, just put your book down. I’m starving.” He shook his head. “I swear I see you with a book almost every time these days. It’s like you’re turning into Troye. Ugh—”. His words were interrupted by a painful moan. He got one hand rubbing his left side that just received a blow from Leslie’s elbow. I saw her throwing a glare to Mark before stealing a worried glance towards me. I didn’t even bother to roll my eyes. Leslie just couldn’t stop walking on eggshells around me and I had no intention to spare anymore energy to make her stop.

Instead, I said to Mark, “You don’t see me bringing a book to the field, do you? Anyway, you should try picking up a book sometimes and see why it’s fun.”

“Fun??” said Mark in an exaggerated shock.

“Yeah. Like this book. We can learn a lot about soccer from it.”

Mark took the book from my hands and flipped through the pages, looking more and more convinced as he did, but elaborated on how he couldn’t get himself reading something more than 2.000 words and that he would settle on getting the information from my mouth. Then he decided his stomach couldn’t wait any longer and walked to the counters. I followed him with Leslie beside me. She was sneaking glances and failing obviously at it.

“What is it, Les,” I said dryly.

She stiffened before saying, “Uhm… I’m just glad… New hobby! Having a hobby is always good, right.”

I gave Leslie a “yeah” and a smile, and she looked less stiff. When we arrived behind Mark, Leslie moved forward to take our order, bickering with Mark in the process.

As I watched Mark and Leslie, my mind went back to one afternoon at Troye’s house. I kept coming to Troye’s room a few times every week and Mr. Ward would usually let me have my time there. But that afternoon he stayed with me. We had some random chat before Mr. Ward went abruptly silent.

“I miss him,” he said. I said I did too. And then I saw the wrinkles on his face, noticed the strands of gray on his head. God, he looked old. The sight brought a bubbling heat inside me. Troye left his father to live his senior life all alone.

Maybe my anger showed up in my eyes. Or maybe Mr. Ward just knew me long enough to know.

“I understand why he chose the book,” he said in a soothing voice. “After all, it was the first and only one Joanna wrote.”

Joanna. Troye’s mother who died of illness when he was seven.

“We lost it when we moved,” he continued. “I’m glad Troye could read it again before he…” Mr. Ward let out a choke but calmed down quickly.

Mr. Ward spoke again before he left the room.

“He said this once. It’s like his Mom was with him every time he read.”

That was when the realization hit me.

I had this nagging feeling in my chest, telling me that as one of the people closest to Troye, I should have been able to save him. But it was impossible. Because no matter what I said or did, I wouldn’t be able to reach him. Troye was never in the same place as me; he lived his whole life in the past through the many pages of his books.

Mark and Leslie had finished ordering so we went back to our table. As I dropped down to the seat I saw my book on the table and thought of how Troye had been missing out on the real joy in reading. How reading is for the present and the future instead of the past. But it’s okay.

I’ll enjoy it for your sake too, buddy.


Submitted for Creative Writing Competition English Days 2016 held by the English Department of Gadjah Mada University.

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