Short Story: An Exercise

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His name was Charles. Charlie to his friends, of which he had exactly none. But he had his books. And books, as far as he was concerned, were many times better than the very best of friends.

It was not so much that Charles was disagreeable. He was likable enough. He occasionally had some interesting things to say, and he did his job reasonably well. His co-workers thought he was a decent enough man, despite the fact that they didn’t really know him. No, Charles and his lack of friends had nothing to do with being unworthy. He just didn’t want them.

Well, to be fair, it was that he just didn’t want those particular friends, and he considered himself to have an embarrassment of riches in the friendship department when considering his fictional ones. Sherlock Holmes. Holden Caulfield. Anne Shirley. Pi Patel. Harry Potter. These were the people with whom he wanted to spend his free time. They needed him.

For, you see, Charles felt personally responsible for their existence. A character in a book survives only when read, and he took that responsibility very seriously. If he didn’t read, they ceased to exist. And that was something he was unable to allow. He would not have their fictional blood on his very real hands. So, he read. Constantly. He could barely keep up with the demand to bring and keep them alive. He no sooner finished one book when another ten were already screaming for their turn. It was, to be perfectly frank, exhausting. But what could he do?

His studio apartment on the top floor of a ten-storey walkup was littered with books, and little else besides the bare essentials. A twin bed. A table. One chair for that table. A loveseat (the irony of which, sadly, was not lost on Charles). And three bookcases that had long ago outgrown their usefulness as his growing collection filled them to beyond capacity – books stacked on top of books – and spilling out on to the floor, his bed, his loveseat, table, and chair. The books had moved in and seemed to only tolerate Charlie as a nuisance houseguest in their space.

But it was fine by Charles. He may have sacrificed home and real relationships in his charge, but he got back so much more in return. He was important. He was needed. Crucial. The reasons those characters persisted and thrived. It was worth it.

He read on the bus going to and coming from his job as a claims adjuster. He read during breaks, lunch, and even secretly when he should have been doing something else, tucked into his closet of an office, a windowless space more suited as a janitor’s storage room. He felt pangs of guilt and deep regret whenever he was forced by necessity to put his book down and get back to work. It was nothing short of tragedy, and his colleagues laughed behind his back whenever they saw him whisper an apology as he returned a book to his bag with a reverent touch.

What’s that you’re reading now, Chuck?

Charles turned around and silently held up his dog-eared copy of “Sense and Sensibility”.

Haven’t you already read that one? I could never understand anyone who can read the same book more than once. Such a waste of time. You already know what’s going to happen.

They didn’t get it. So few do. A book is so much more than first this happened, then that, and finally this. It’s a world. A universe. A beating heart.

What’s on tap today? (The God of Small Things)

Don’t you ever just play on your phone during breaks? (Charles didn’t even own one)

Why do you spend so much time reading? (Because he had a responsibility)

With no television or telephone, his hours at home were spent with his nose in a book, often forgetting to eat, bathe, and even sleep. On more than one occasion, he would suddenly become aware of the rising sun, eyes bloodshot and dry, and realize it was time to leave for the office. He had done it again. He offered his time on the altar of literature, sacrificing chapters by the score, and feeding characters as though some parasitic amoeba at the base of his skull.

“I’m sorry, but I have to go. Who’s turn is it to come with me today?” Charles scanned the sparse room, eyes falling on each pile for the briefest of moments before darting to the next. There were too many. “I can’t take you all. You know that. One book. Only one.”
And so it was each morning. An agonizing debate. A heated discussion. Characters fighting for the right to live. A cacophony of angry voices, in a variety of dialects and accents, heaving like the tide until Charles announced his choice.

“Farenheit 451.” Followed by silence, and tangible resentment hanging in the air. It was his least favourite part of the day. The choice. Leaving so many behind. It tore at him. Ate him from the inside out. It couldn’t continue.

All day Charles thought on it when he wasn’t reading. He got nothing else done between the hours of nine and five, but it didn’t seem to matter at that point. He knew what he had to do. When he left the office that afternoon, he did not say goodbye to anyone, but he never did. He spoke to no one on the bus, but that was the same as always.

He made his way up the twenty flights of stairs to reach his apartment door, and let himself in. He closed the door. He locked the deadbolt with the key, and walked across the room to the window that looked into the alley behind his building. Opening the window, he tossed the key out. Done.

“No more decisions. I don’t ever have to leave again.”

Good. You don’t need anyone else but us, anyway. Happy. Pleased. Content.

“I know.”

We give you everything you need. 

“I know.”

Charles grabbed the book off the top of the nearest pile, not even bothering to see what it was. It didn’t matter anymore. He randomly opened to the middle and sat in his chair. He was needed. Crucial.