Going by the Book
by David Cleden
part 1 of 2
Kenny first saw the book a couple of weeks after his seventeenth birthday. It was lying in the grass a dozen or so feet away, sunlight glinting off the glossy blue dust jacket like a mirror to the sky. The angle was all wrong to make out the title, but the pages looked crisp, the book new and unread.
Kenny thought it might have fallen from someone’s bag. You wouldn’t just toss something like that into the long grass. If he remembered, he’d check it out later. Might be worth something.
But Kenny never gave the book another thought. He, too, was lying in the grass, Rebecca at his side. He marveled at the way the tangled curls of her auburn hair blazed in the sunlight. She smiled, pulled him closer for another slow, lingering kiss.
Somewhere through an open window, Marty Wilde was singing Why must I be a teenager in love, and it was as if the whole of the universe had been arranged just for him, this one perfect moment: the sunshine, the warm grass, the cool breeze, and, of course, Becky.
Later, he’d wind up boasting to his buddies, stretching the facts a little. So what? Even so, nothing was going to top tonight. This high-school prom was only their third gig together, but Kenny really thought they had something going. After the gig, with a few beers inside them, they’d be talking up their dreams of hitting the big time. Rock and roll, man! Everywhere was buzzing with it. It was the future, their future.
And so passed a summer’s afternoon. When at last they brushed grass out of each other’s hair, laughing and goofing, they walked hand in hand along the path away from the park. And somewhere behind them, the book lay in the long grass, untouched and forgotten. Unread.
It was late by the time Kenny got back from the convenience store where he spent most evenings working a shift instead of studying for his courses. The tune of a half-written song circled inside his head, obstinately refusing to come right. He’d try out a few chords later, see if he could coax it into existence.
As he stepped into the hall, the whole fabric of the house shuddered. Somewhere above, a door was flung shut with dramatic force. Obviously not too late for Mom and Dad to be launching into one of their thermonuclear rows. The savage, raw bellow of his father’s voice quietened enough briefly for him to hear his mom’s sobbing. There was a new level of desperation in her voice tonight.
Kenny crept up the stairs, drawn inexorably to the heart of the quarrel but at the same time wishing he could be on the other side of the world. Pausing on the landing, he watched through the half-open door as his mom crossed and recrossed the bedroom, stuffing clothes, jewelry and random personal items into two large suitcases while all the time his father paced behind her, keeping up the verbal tirade which cataloged her apparently endless failings. Sometimes his voice would drop to a whisper, then a moment later he would be yelling fit to bust.
Stuff was scattered across the floor as if the place had been ransacked. For instance, there was a book that looked as if it had been hurled across the room. It lay face down, pages folded back and creasing, lying in a tangle of clothes.
Kenny thought there was something familiar about the book, but he couldn’t quite recall what it was. It had an attractive sky-blue cover and words in a fancy italic script that made it hard to read. Something-something Life Story? Or possibly something completely different. He couldn’t be sure and had no reason to care.
Just then, his dad caught sight of him. With a glare that seemed capable of blistering paint, he slammed the door in Kenny’s face. Kenny slunk away to his room. For a while he strummed his guitar distractedly but tonight only seemed capable of discordant broken tunes. Maybe this was how it felt when dreams shattered.
The memory of the half-glimpsed book vaguely troubled him. Neither of his parents were great readers, and he couldn’t imagine hard-earned money being wasted on such things. A gift, then?
Later, when it became clear that Mom was gone for good, he searched their bedroom surreptitiously but could find no trace of the book. He thought perhaps she had taken it with her. But on all their subsequent meetings, somehow it always slipped his mind to ask.
He knew the showdown was coming; the omens were unmistakable. That whole autumn term, dark clouds had been building on his personal horizon, and run-ins with various members of staff were the lightning bolts arcing through the gathering storm clouds. It was only a matter of time before the storm hit.
Kenny didn’t care. None of it mattered. It was all just stuff, stuff that was getting in the way of the music. The band had really jelled. They were tight. Plenty of invitations were coming from the local high-school circuit; they were sure to be spotted soon and boosted onto the next career rung. Sure of it. Finishing high school was just... what? An obstacle. Yeah, an obstacle to be overcome.
“I can’t deny I’m disappointed,” Principal O’Farrell was saying. O’Farrell had one of those high foreheads extended by early baldness. When he frowned, the wrinkles marched upwards until it looked as if his whole face would roll right up like a garage door. “You have the intelligence to do well, very well, yet you lack the discipline to put it to use. Why is this, Kenny?” The frowns rolled up O’Farrell’s forehead again as he peered over the top of his rimless spectacles.
Kenny stared out the window. It had occurred to him he should get rid of all the stuff that didn’t matter. Focus on the band and his songwriting. The music was all that mattered. Those who didn’t understand that... well, he was better off without them. He needed to declutter, start again. Reinvent himself, that’s what he’d do.
Somewhere in his pocket was the Dear John letter from Becky. You’ve changed, she had said, and not for the better. I can’t be with you anymore. He’d get rid of the letter, too, just as she’d rid herself of him.
“Well, young man.” O’Farrell steepled his fingers. “You leave me no choice. I’m afraid to say that this school no longer has any place for you in light of your behavior. I don’t think we need to go over the reasons again.” He paused as if expecting Kenny to argue or plead with him. Kenny continued to stare out the window.
O’Farrell sniffed. “I would very much like you to clear your locker immediately and not return.”
Kenny stayed sitting for a long time, staring out the window. When the silence had stretched to breaking point and beyond, he got slowly to his feet. He might be leaving, but it was on his terms.
There must have been hundreds of books shelved in the Principal’s office; two of the walls were entirely covered by floor-to-ceiling shelves. But as he reached the door, the title of one book just seemed to leap out at him. It had a sky-blue spine and gold-embossed lettering: KH — A Life Story. No author listed that he could see. Funny that. KH. Same initials as his: Kenny Hardwick. Ha. Pretty dull book that would make, he thought, though it might be neat to skip ahead to the last chapter.
He hesitated, fighting back the impulse to take the volume down off the shelf. He had the strangest feeling he had seen it before somewhere. Then he realized Principal O’Farrell was watching him closely.
Just stuff, he told himself and sauntered nonchalantly out into the deserted hallway. He didn’t need stuff anymore.
“Do you ever wonder,” Beth said, pressing down hard with her spatula until red juices oozed from the burgers to hiss and spit on the hot griddle, “about might-have-beens?”
“Huh?” Kenny paused from working the fryer to wipe away sweat beading in his eyebrows.
“You know, times when you make a little decision that turns out to change everything. Staying in when you should have gone out, because you’d have met the person of your dreams at some party. Or not calling to say sorry when there was still time to patch things up. Turning left instead of turning right.”
Kenny liked Beth. She could make a long shift pass more quickly. But she could be a little weird, a little too hippy for him at times. He spent hours arguing down her quirky, new-age theories with mock-ferocity, while Beth shuffled around the kitchen in her slightly vacant way, never rising to his put-downs. But then she didn’t tease him about the night classes he was taking or the bookish glasses he wore and that were always steaming up. Or about the half-finished songs he hummed to himself when it was quiet.
She never even asked him why a bright, twenty-something like him was just drifting, and he silently thanked her for it. Maybe if he’d had an elder sister, it would have been like this.
“You mean like turning points?” he asked. “Little things that have big consequences?”
Beth nodded. “Don’t you ever feel like you’ve wandered away from the script? Like the film of your life has taken a whole different turn to how it was supposed to?”
“Who says life is scripted? What happened to free will?”
“Just because you get to make choices, doesn’t mean there isn’t some kind of plot you have to work to. They do that on some of the TV soaps, don’t they? Make up alternate endings and suchlike.” She sighed. “Maybe I just need to find myself a better scriptwriter.”
“Did I ever tell you just how big a crackpot you are?”
“Frequently.” Beth flipped the burgers, and for a while the sizzling of the griddle halted further conversation.
Eventually Kenny said, “You know, for a while I did have this crazy notion that my life was all written out for me in a book. Kind of like a future diary. It even seemed to have my name on the cover. I got to thinking that maybe all I needed to do was read it and I’d know what choices to make so everything would come out right for me.”
“But somehow I never quite got my hands on it.”
Beth turned to stare at him, her eyes wide. “Are you saying this book actually exists?”
Kenny smiled. “I got this crazy notion for a while when I was teenager. I kept seeing this same book in all sorts of different places, like it was following me around. Haunting me.”
“But it was just some book. Just coincidence I kept seeing it.”
“But it had your name in the title?”
“Well, my initials. Hardly conclusive proof.”
“Couldn’t you have found another copy?”
“No store or book catalogue listed it. Must’ve been someone’s vanity project. You know, just a few copies printed privately.”
Beth was beside herself with excitement. “You should have tried harder!”
“Yes. No. Look... I’ve forgotten about it now. It was just some silly idea.” He looked around the cramped kitchen. Through the hatch he could see another batch of customers entering the diner. Business was brisk tonight. “I guess I didn’t expect the plot to turn out quite like this, that’s for sure,” he mumbled.
“Kenny Hardwick!” Beth pointed her spatula at him menacingly. “You go and find that book. Find it and read it and get yourself back on the right page.”
Kenny grinned. “You’re the boss.”
At that moment, the fresh orders arrived from the waitress, and Kenny got busy. He didn’t give their conversation another thought.
Copyright © 2014 by David Cleden