<<Hi again. My name’s Joe, and for those of you who don’t know I’m Jester’s handler, and I’ll be posting some stories (in no real order) on the site over the Christmastime period just to give him a break. This story, my longest so far, is called the Book.>>
<<Imagine finding a book detailing every moment of your life from the moment you are born ’till the moment you die. Would you finish it? Better yet, if you reached where you are now in your life and realise you have one chapter left, what would you do? These are some of the questions this story looks at. Enjoy!>>
The person in the grey hoodie had been following you for the past five minutes now. You don’t think they noticed you looking at them, but you know they’re there. You pick up the pace, walking back home with newfound vigour. You know the route like the back of your hand, so you haven’t been paying attention to where you’re going as much as the things you’ve been thinking. The person starts walking again. This time they look up, and you see it’s a teenager. A young man, maybe 17 or 18. He has brown hair and a fine coating of stubble, as if he had forgotten to shave for a while. His skin looks pasty white, as he seems to not get enough sun. You notice he has rings under his eyes. He looks straight at you, and you flinch away, not wanting to be caught staring. You hear him still walking, however, and feel his gaze on your back. He’s making a beeline for you, at a pace relative to your own. You slow down. You don’t know what he wants, but he walks with purpose.
You look up, and see him. He’s about five meters away now, and you watch him. He stops when you do, and you take in his appearance. He’s maybe five and a half feet tall, wearing blue jeans and a grey hoodie. He has the hood up as it is cold outside, but you make out from his fringe that his hair is a darker brown than one would usually find. The rings under his eyes are dark and deep from what appears to be exhaustion, and on closer inspection you find his blue eyes are bloodshot. He looks at you, and brushes his fringe out of his eyes. He quickly reaches into his hoodie’s front pocket, and you flinch away.
But all he takes out is a book. It’s slightly larger than an envelope, and looks leather-bound. It has a maroon colour, and looks old and slightly worn. You stare at it, not speaking. The boy looks at the book, then at your reaction. He smiles.
“Here, I want you to take this,” he says. He holds out the book, and you notice that his hands are shaking. You stare at him, still saying nothing. You’re caught, like you’re frozen onstage and have forgotten your lines. He nods his head encouragingly, his crazy smile completely disarming you. “Go on. Take this book.”
You start to regain knowledge of how your mouth works. “What is it?” you stammer.
The boy looks you in the eyes. “It’s the best book ever written,” he says, smiling at you as if you’re the only person in the world. You continue to stare at the book and him, flicking between one and the other. This person is clearly crazy, you assume. Look at him, he looks like he’s on drugs. You can’t think why this person is handing you a book, but you suppose it’s better than him pulling a gun on you. Warily, you reach out, and grab on to the book with both hands. He almost drops it when you touch it, and you fumble for a split-second before getting a firm grasp on the leather. You bring the book in close to your chest. It’s reasonably thick, you decide. It has a large number of pages, and this makes the book deceivingly heavy.
You look at the book again. It has a smooth leather cover, and slightly crinkled corners, as if it’s been sitting on a shelf for a long time. The pages are plain and without an edging, so the book looks like one that would not look out-of-place on any bookshelf. But you notice something. The book has no name on its front cover, nor any markings on its spine. It’s blank on the outside.
You hear footsteps, and you look up to see the boy is walking away. You call out. “Wait!”
The boy spins around. “What?” he says.
“What’s it called?”
The boy just laughs, as if you’d told him something funny, turns around and walks off. You don’t stop him. Clearly he’s mad, or high on some form of drug. You decide it’s probably better that you leave him alone. You start walking the rest of the way home. You place the book in your pocket as you walk, mentally remarking on how well it fits into your coat, and think about nothing else for the rest of the way home.
You walk to the door of your house. There’s nobody home, and the house feels like a comforting but empty place to be. You check the time. It’s about eight-thirty in the morning, and you took a morning walk as you had the day off. Pulling off your jacket, you enter your living room and throw it on the couch, wondering what to do with yourself. The garment lands with an odd sound and you remember the book you were given in that instant. You stroll over to your jacket and pick it up, taking the book out of the pocket.
It looks so odd when you think about it. Most books have a cover on the front with the title, or at least an author’s name on the spine, but this one is plain. You open up the book, looking under the cover. It has marbled pages under the cover, white with a soft green print. A smell of old books fills your nostrils, one of musty pages and tanned leather. It almost feels familiar. You turn the page. There’s no cover page, you immediately notice, and the book starts straight at the first chapter. But it’s not “Chapter One” written at the head of the page. It’s “Year 1”.
You sit down on the couch, moving your coat out of the way. Getting into a comfortable position, you start reading. A question flicks through your mind. What did he mean when he said “the best book ever written”? Who wrote this book? You shrug off the feelings of strangeness and begin reading.
Light. I opened my eyes, and that was the first thing I saw. A bright light. It was so bright it hurt my eyes. I looked up, and then started to cry. I opened my mouth to let out a whine. I couldn’t see anything properly. There was a person who held me, and they smiled.
“It’s beautiful,” they said. “You’re so lucky. Here, you hold him.” Then the person gave me to my mother. She looked at me, and the pain that was there disappeared from her eyes. She smiled, her eyes watering.
“You’re so beautiful,” she told me. “It’s okay, mummy’s here now. What a beautiful baby. What should I call you?” She looked at me, wrapped in a cloth and still crying. “You’re going to be called…”
You freeze. You read the sentence again. It’s not… No, that can’t be right. That’s a coincidence. You tell yourself it must be. Because then why else would this baby in this book have your name? This must be a prank of some sort, you think. All it must be is an asinine prank pulled by that ghastly boy who you figure must have recognised you from somewhere, and seen the fact that you have a name the same as one in a book.
But why? Who would write a book about a baby with the same name as you? And why would the boy give it to you in such a strange way? You’re sure you’ve never seen him in your life. He was a stranger, a loony who just happened to have a book where the character has your name. You’re sure of it. You keep reading.
The paragraph ended after your name was said. There was an asterisk after it, and the next paragraph began. It was written in a passive, blow-by-blow way. As if that part of this person’s life wasn’t worth going into detail for. It says how the baby was brought home from the hospital, crying for the first breaths of its life. It quickly outlines that it was looked after by its parents for a time. Parents who share the names of yours, who are described as the same as yours. Then it drops back into a detailed scene of the baby lying in its cradle, being read to in a childish voice by an adult which it didn’t realise was its parent. It goes “goo” and “gaa” a couple of times, and while it is read to it smiles, unconsciously. And its parent smiles, and cradles it in their arms, and you realise that was the very first book which was ever read to it.
You sit back, pausing. You place a random scrap of paper from your pocket into the crease between the pages, and close the book, setting it behind you. This book contains your life. Your whole life, judging by the size. This much, you know already. You are almost two pages in, and you realise with a start that the book has an end. The book does not go on forever. And you stare at it. If it continues like this, fitting your life into pages, then you must assume it doesn’t stop when it passes through childhood and continues to adolescence. It makes sense that it won’t stop when it reaches your teenage years either. But then where will it stop? When you reach where you are now? When you die? Do you want to know? You stare at the book once more, your eyes pleading with it. It sits, next to you, scrap of paper sticking out the top.
Yes. You want to know how it ends. You want to see how the rest of your life unfolds. How it began. How it went. How it will go. How long you have left. You pick up the book, and with heavy hands, open it to the page you are on. Your eyes scan the page, and you find where you left off. The reading. It stirs something in you. You start to remember.
The book continues, and you start reading faster. You realise that by the time you have finished the first chapter, you have developed from an infant to a small baby. It details your first toys, your first foods, a few other firsts. It skims over day-to-day mundane things, mostly a sentence or so for a day. Sometimes a sentence for up to four days if nothing happens. And suddenly the chapter ends. The chapter ends on a completely ordinary day. Then nothing. Half a page is blank afterwards.
And on the next page are the words “Year 2”. A year of your life. In a chapter of a book. A single chapter of this book details a whole year of your life, all 365 days represented by 24 letters. You take a moment to recollect your thoughts, then keep reading. One-year-old you has a birthday party, and the next detailed event is you having a small amount of cake, and then a cry. Your family is there, and some friends. The book goes on.
The next month is a paragraph, and then a large tantrum. You become angry when you don’t receive a piece of fruit. You cry, and bang your head on the floor. That hurts, and the closest family member rushes to scoop you up and stop the crying. A week passes, then another first. Your first words. Your whole family and all the friends are happy, and you’re on top of the world. The year passes quickly, and you learn to string together simple sentences. And the year ends.
Third year. You are developing by big leaps and bounds, and the chapter lasts longer and goes into more detail as your life becomes more complex. Then the first really bad thing. A pet dies. One around for enough of a time to make you sad. And while you read about when you find out about the death, you start to remember what it was like losing something. You remember losing the pet. And down your cheek rolls a single, clear tear. You taste the salt as it hits your lips, and you stop reading with a start.
You remember loss, from when you were only three years old, and you are sad. You are sad because you can feel the sadness that you felt then, the pain of something lost forever. Reading this book doesn’t just show you the past. You feel it too. And you realise this book isn’t just a few simple words printed on paper. It’s a task. You need to relive your whole life. Every last bit. And then you will find out what happens next. Only after everything you have ever done gets told to you, and you see it again with fresh eyes. You put the scrap of paper back into its place.
You look for the clock. Searching for the time, you see that two hours have passed. Two hours? But you feel like you’ve only been sitting down for five minutes… You move to stand, and your muscles complain. You suddenly realise that there is a dull pain in your leg from where the contents of your pockets have dug into them. You get up, slowly. You stretch. Your mind clears enough to pay attention to your surroundings, and you notice it’s getting dark outside. Clearing your throat, you walk to the kitchen. Navigating the lounge room and making it to the kitchen, you throw some light switches and look around. You’re still alone. You walk to the sink and grab a glass of water. Sip.
You know what you have to do. Finishing your glass, you place it in the sink and stalk back to the lounge. You grab the book. You walk to your bedroom, working on autopilot as you open the door and walk in. You dump the book on your bed. You start shedding your clothes and emptying your pockets. You pull on the easiest and most comfortable thing you can find to wear, and sit down on your bed covers. You curl up into a comfortable position and continue to read.
The life you have lived sprawls out in front of you. You forget about the outside world as you re-experience what used to be. Trapped in a haze of yesteryear, you forget about your life’s worries. Work, that ever-present anvil weighing down on your back, is forgotten as you revisit the past. The people you have met. The people you have lost. The time, when you were five years old and your parents got cranky at you for annoying them one too many times. Your first day of school and the best friend you made on that day. The teacher who you really hated going through primary school. The game of tag in the playground when you fell and skinned your knee. The silly made-up games you played with friends. You take it all in, smiling and crying and feeling all of it.
You reach middle school. Your first crush. The inevitable confession and the crushing feeling of rejection. It’s the first time, and won’t be the last. You push on through. Puberty happens to you, for the second time, and you wince at the new growth of your body and the awkwardness of pimples, hormones and angst. You go through the times where you confronted your bullies, and the habitual teasing and occasional physical fights make you feel like you are less than scum. By some kind of miracle, you make it through middle school alive, with most of your feelings intact and your self-esteem and dignity taking some beatings. Then there’s high school, and the networks of friends which allow you to find out about you own interests. You put your back into schoolwork, and manage to spend some time with your friends and family outside of that. You otherwise keep your head down, and your life finally gains some semblance to the one you lead now.
Everything you experience generates something deep within you. You laugh and smile when you reminisce about the friends you used to have and the things you’d get up to. Feel small when you do things which made people angry at you. Become passionate about things which anger you, and regretful when you see the repercussions of your outbursts. You live, again, for a second time. You relive your life, and realise that every time you made someone else happy, or saw something which made you smile, your life felt like something worth living. Even battling with the ever-present sadness which you realise has lead you down a self-destructive path fades when you see the next thing which makes you smile.
And without warning you fall sync. The book explains his grey hoodie. It shows his red-rimmed eyes, and the crazy, wild look his smile had. And you remember the feeling of something akin to fear as he walks up to you, then the relief when he pulls out a book. You can’t stop reading as the book shows you how you walked home, and took the book inside. It shows you going to read it, and how you reacted to the first few chapters. And it shows how you realise that it’s a book about your life, and how you make the decision to keep reading. You stop. The realisation that you can read ahead finally hitting you. You can know what you do next. You can see how it ends.
You bookmark the page and toss the book to the side, and you stand. You need a glass of water. Your throat is parched, and your eyes struggle to adjust to the light which you realise is streaming through the windows. You pause. You have been reading all night, and you still have more to go. You push blindly out of your room, eyes adjusting to focusing on something further away than 30 centimetres. Walking to your kitchen, you find the same glass you had and pour yourself another glass of water. You also use the time away from reviewing your own life to relive yourself. You catch a glimpse of yourself in the bathroom mirror. There are bags under your eyes, and your hair is a mess. You look dishevelled. There isn’t another word for it. You gaze into your ragged reflection and attempt to process your whole life.
You can’t. An entire lifetime’s worth of memories has just unfolded in front of your eyes, and you can only just comprehend what you’ve seen. What you’ve done. How it happened. How even things outside of your control have affected your life, and how you could have handled things better. But there’s also what you did. Who you loved. Why you loved them. There’s everything a human life gives you, and everything you have given others. And… and you don’t know how to feel. Not unhappy. But like something is missing. Like your entire life has been told to you by a book and all you can think of is how there is a part missing from it which you never noticed.
Maybe you haven’t really thought about how important your life is until you saw it again. The parts you loved you didn’t spend enough time loving. The parts you hated you spent too much time thinking about, and allowing to run your thoughts. You need to recognise how much of your life is really worth living, and stop worrying about the smaller things.
You walk back into your room, ready to face what the rest of your life has to show you. A feeling of confidence fills you. One that tells you no matter how your life ends, you will stop thinking about it and start living it. You pick up the book, and look at the bookmark sticking out of the spine. And freeze. A chill washes over you. Fear runs through your mind in an instant, and your body pauses with shock. Like in slow-motion, the true meaning of what you see sinks in. The bookmark is still in the book. But it’s not in the middle of the book. It’s right up against the far edge. Barely a few pages from being flush against the cover.
No. You can’t do this anymore. You give up. You can’t know how it ends. You don’t want to know how you die. You drop the book on your mattress in disgust. It must be wrong. You’re not gonna die in a few pages. It’s not how this works. Maybe you just get to where you are properly. Maybe it doesn’t finish. Maybe when you get to exactly the present moment, the book ends. Maybe if you keep waiting it will fill out and have more pages. It’s just, that can’t be how it ends!
The boy in the grey hoodie. You need to find the boy in the hoodie. He gave you this book. He can tell you what it is. How it ends. Properly. Not with you dying in several pages. He can fix this. But where could he be? It’s been a whole night, he could be anywhere. You need to think. You need something to clear your head. And help you focus. A coffee would do it.
You go back to the kitchen and start fixing your drink. He could be anywhere. He looked like some kind of junkie. With the crazy look in his eyes. And he was jumping about like a scared animal. He might be an addict. You should try the park a few blocks away. It’s a pitiful excuse for a park, but needles and old cigarettes have been found littering the place. He might be there. It’s worth a shot.
You take a sip of the coffee and wince. It’s slightly burnt. You haven’t been paying attention to it. You down the mug, and go to get your book and coat. You trudge to your wardrobe and pull out the first jacket you find, some old grey thing you can’t identify at the moment. Pulling it on, you grab the book and your house keys. You walk to the front door, pausing only to lock it behind you. You need to find the boy. He gave you the book. He can help you.
It’s unusually cold outside, and you’re glad you bought your jacket. You pull it around yourself as you set off for the park. It’s a fair way away, but the caffeine you have in your system makes your walk brisker. The cold breathes on your neck, and the chill threatens to make you shiver. The jacket comes with a hood, and you self-consciously pull it over your head. The cold goes away, but the top of the hood falls in your eyes. You try adjusting it, but it always ends up either hiding your face or blocking your view. You decide it would be better to see, so you let the hood fall out a bit more.
You make it to the park. It’s desolate. There’s almost no one there, and no sign of the kid. Of course he’s not here. What were you thinking, trying to get your hopes up? He’s clearly gone back to wherever he came from, and that might be miles away. You’re angry at yourself for getting your hopes up. You’re angry at the stupid boy for giving you the book. And you’re angry with the universe for giving you a book which you couldn’t even bring yourself to finish properly.
But there’s no point getting angry. There’s not much point to anything, with your life’s book about to end. With the life you have lived coming to a close. You look around the park, and realise with a start you’ve been bouncing on the balls of your feet with excess energy. The coffee was a bad idea. Especially if it’s gonna be the last thing you ever taste. Burnt coffee, improperly filtered, and making you bounce up and down like when you were five and waiting for the ice cream your parent promised you. You find the old and battered slide in the middle of the playground, and you brush dirt off it to sit down.
As you sit, wallowing in your own demise, she walks in. She’s possibly in her mid-twenties, and she has dark skin and long, black hair. Her clothes are formal, like she’s walking to work. You suppose that’s right, as she doesn’t look at you or the path ahead, but the ground directly in front of her. She walks like its automatic muscle memory, as if she’s walked this same way for a long time. She notices you as she passes by. You stare at her. She flinches away from your gaze, and goes to look at the path in front of her. You keep staring.
She walks away, avidly avoiding your gaze. The way she walks. The purposeful yet absent-minded strides. It jogs something in your memory. You have an idea. You get up off the slide, and begin to walk over to her. She tenses up as she hears you stand, but doesn’t look at you. You increase your stride, beginning to walk with purpose. She finally turns to look at you. Her face goes through several emotions of panic and confusion before you pull out the book from your pocket.
She stares at it like she was expecting some form of weapon, and you smile. Her eyes take in your lopsided grin and the book in your hands, and you can almost hear her thinking that you’re crazy. Your grin widens, and you hold it out to her tentatively. Your hands are shaking from the caffeine and your eyes must be red from the reading all night. She collects her jacket around her, and looks at you with something like curiosity mixed with confusion.
“Here, take it,” you manage to croak out, your voice wobbling slightly from misuse. “I want you to take this book.”
Her voice is high and soothing. “What is it?” She asks, eyes fixed on the book now. She is absorbing its image, imprinting it in her memory. Your grin broadens.
“It’s the best book ever written,” you say, pushing the book forward. The girl takes it from your trembling hands. A weight literally lifts off you. You realise you have been slouching, and straighten up to your full height. You breathe in deeply, seemingly for the first time in an age, and you nearly sigh with elation. You turn away, a sense of freedom filling you. You feel like the wind has just blown through you, and it’s calling you away. You almost float the next several steps. You realise you don’t care what the future brings any more. It doesn’t matter. The book is someone else’s.
“Wait!” You hear called from behind you. You spin around. The girl is there, her book in her hands, and she’s looking desperate. You hear her say, “What’s it called?”
You can’t help it. A laugh bubbles up from you, clear and high. A simple laugh that carries on the wind, and with it the last of your worries fade away. It’s gone. The book is hers and you are free, free at last from your own life. And it feels wonderful.