Teacher Nana spun a story, based on the messy room, about a child who, consumed with the anguish of losing a friend to terminal cancer, lost all hope and was languishing in the darkness of heartbreak. Moving on with his life and tidying up seemed to be an insurmountable task as he was haunted by the memories of his best friend, Caleb.
"𝙰𝚕𝚕 𝚘𝚏 𝚊 𝚜𝚞𝚍𝚍𝚎𝚗, 𝚊 𝚖𝚎𝚖𝚘𝚛𝚢 𝚘𝚏 𝙲𝚊𝚕𝚎𝚋 𝚛𝚞𝚜𝚑𝚎𝚍 𝚝𝚑𝚛𝚘𝚞𝚐𝚑 𝚖𝚢 𝚖𝚒𝚗𝚍. 𝙻𝚒𝚔𝚎 𝚊 𝚏𝚒𝚕𝚖 𝙸 𝚌𝚘𝚞𝚕𝚍 𝚗𝚘𝚝 𝚙𝚊𝚞𝚜𝚎, 𝙸 𝚜𝚊𝚠 𝚟𝚒𝚟𝚒𝚍 𝚒𝚖𝚊𝚐𝚎𝚜 𝚘𝚏 𝚑𝚒𝚖 𝚕𝚊𝚞𝚐𝚑𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚊𝚜 𝚠𝚎 𝚙𝚛𝚎𝚝𝚎𝚗𝚍𝚎𝚍 𝚝𝚘 𝚍𝚘 𝚘𝚞𝚛 𝚑𝚘𝚖𝚎𝚠𝚘𝚛𝚔 𝚊𝚝 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚌𝚘𝚏𝚏𝚎𝚎 𝚝𝚊𝚋𝚕𝚎.."
In the distance, a door swung shut as the gentle clanging of metal keys faintly travelled to my ears. The familiar shuffling of slippers against the wooden floor ensued, growing ever louder till my bedroom door swung open. Right on instinct, I raised the volume of my music to the loudest in a bid to ignore the person, for I knew that she was about to give me a good talking-to. Focusing on the square patterns on my unwashed bed sheets, I placed my finger on the corner of the nearest square as I began tracing its outline.
Despite that, I could not drown out her voice.
“James, your classmates were just here. They wanted to pass you the notes they took for you in class today. They also wanted to invite you to go cycling with them later.”
She paused, before continuing cautiously as if approaching a wounded animal.
“My son, you have been cooped up in your room for more than a month. You haven’t gone to school, your room is in shambles, and you’ve been refusing to see your friends. I know it’s been hard to accept that Caleb is no longer here, but we’re worried about you. You no longer seem like yourself. I can’t let you carry on like this anymore. I want to see that you’ve at least cleaned up your room by tonight.”
Irked by her assumption that she knew what was best for me, my finger came to an abrupt stop on my bed sheet as it stopped tracing its patterns. I snapped my head up and yanked my headphones off. In the most scathing tone I could muster, I snapped at her, “Do you think cleaning my room would make me feel better? It’s not going to bring Caleb back!”
Unable to rein in my anger, I swung my body out of my bed for the first time today. I stormed straight to a towel that was lying limply on the floor and showed it to my mother, whose face had a detestable expression of sympathy. “See?” I told her, “I picked it up and it didn’t change anything, but according to you, cleaning my room will magically solve all my problems.”
Tension hung in the air as my mother shook her head at me. She gripped my stiff shoulder before leaving me to my devices. The moment she left, I slammed the door shut. As I spun around to face my room, however, my eyes were assaulted by the mess that greeted me and my momentary frustration quickly dissipated.
Old laundry was strewn all over the place. Dirty dishes were piled in a corner. I faintly caught a pungent smell that I had probably gotten used to over the past month. Desperate to escape the oppressive darkness of my room, I pushed the curtains open and spotted the small figures of my classmates all the way below on the first floor. I shoved the curtains close as the blinding sunlight pierced my eyes. As the comfortable darkness swallowed me again, I could not help but wonder how I had let my life fester this badly.
A minuscule rush of determination jolted me, and I stumbled away from the curtains. Perhaps my mother was right, I grudgingly considered. Perhaps it was time for me to stop wallowing in my grief. I bent over to snatch some of my dirty clothes off the floor and shakily made my way to the entrance. Placing my hand on the cold handle, I fought the rising fear within me as I opened the door, only to be greeted by the most comforting sight I had seen in the past month since Caleb had died.
The living room was as inviting and warm as ever. There was the sofa with its abundance of cushions spilling onto the floor, and the stout coffee table that my father had insisted on carrying home by himself years ago. Tucked cosily in the corner was the traditional altar with a wooden tablet on it, as well as offerings of fruits and joss sticks with tendrils of smoke streaming out.
All of a sudden, a memory of Caleb rushed through my mind. Like a film I could not pause, I saw vivid images of him laughing as we pretended to do our homework at the coffee table. I saw his figure lying on the sofa as I pelted him with cushions. As the image shifted, more people appeared in my memory as I saw our other friends squeezed together on the sofa as we watched cheesy dramas on the television.
When had I found the audacity to continue living without Caleb?
A wave of shame rushed through me and I retreated into my room, shutting the door behind me. I slumped against the wall as I closed my eyes, hoping my friends had already left.
In truth, I had not dared to be the slightest bit happy since I had lost Caleb. If I cleaned my room or went to school, guilt would simply fill me because he was no longer around to do any of that. If I went cycling with my friends, it would be like abandoning Caleb who had loved sports so much. In the hazy fog of my grief, that was how I had spent my life without my best friend. My mother was wrong. Going out would not help me at all.
Regardless, I had to prove her wrong.
I crawled lethargically to the dirtiest corner of my room, where there was a pile of crumpled paper and creased clothes. After I had sorted them out in neat piles, my fingers suddenly came into contact with a cool matte surface. I pulled it out in curiosity, and my eyes widened when I realised what it was.
It was a photo of Caleb and me on a rollercoaster from a few years ago. It was by no means a good photo. Our eyes were half-closed and our mouths were wide open as we screamed ungracefully in terror. Yet, it had been one of the best days of our lives. I could still remember, word for word, our conversation at the end of that day …
Caleb scrunched his face in mild disgust as we received our photos from the theme park employee. “Eww, we look so ugly!” he exclaimed.
I snorted as I reminded him, “You’re the one who wanted to go on this ride! Yet you were also the one who was shrieking the loudest. You nearly blew up my eardrums!”
Upon hearing that, my best friend looked up with a twinkle in his mischievous eyes. In my memory, his presence felt so comforting it was as if he was the embodiment of the sunshine enveloping us that day. “Would you have preferred watching me from the ground? See, James, that’s why you need me. How else would you learn to seize the day? Live a little!”
The moment his face dissolved into the corners of my memory, I found myself back in my bedroom. The photo was mildly coated with tears. I hastily wiped it like the precious relic it was. Shuffling around my room, I gathered all the laundry that had been flung everywhere, then I did a quick scan of my room. Seeing it so clean reminded me of the last time Caleb had been in my room before his death …
It was a chilly Sunday morning and I had woken to the light pitter-pattering of rain outside, universally known as the best weather for sleeping in. Out of nowhere, I heard a rude banging on my bedroom door as I heard Caleb’s booming voice shouting my name. I wondered how a sick person could wreak so much havoc in my household. Yet, that was the kind of person Caleb had been. No matter his situation, his spirit could always burn as brightly as the noon sun.
Worried that he would over-exert himself with the ruckus he was making, I reluctantly trudged to my door and unlocked it for him, only to be greeted with a bizarre sight. My best friend was holding a whole array of cleaning tools with a ridiculous grin on his pale face. He held up a bottle of air freshener and cheekily sprayed it in my face.
“What are you doing?” I burst out as a fragrant cloud engulfed me.
He shoved a broom and the air freshener into my hands before pushing his way in. “What do you think? You’re like a raccoon. Do you want me to die with the knowledge that my best friend’s room is a landfill?”
At the reminder of Caleb’s terminal cancer and the fate that awaited him, my head sagged as I struggled to contain the growing heartache. Sensing my discomfort, Caleb slapped me on the back playfully and assured me that I was not so lucky to be rid of him yet. Mustering a tiny smile, I began sweeping the floor as he helped to wipe my bookshelves …
Gazing at my room now, I realised I had inadvertently unearthed a treasure trove of memories of Caleb.
I opened my desk drawer and retrieved the lavender air freshener Caleb had brought here the last time he ever visited my home. Once I sprayed my room with it, it felt as if he was back here with me. I could not believe it. It was as if cleaning my room had truly brought me closer than ever to my best friend. My mother was right after all.
When I opened the door to apologise to my mother, I caught sight of her sitting on the sofa with a knowing look on her face. I blinked as the golden rays of the setting sun washed beautifully over my mother’s plants. Inhaling, I let myself be consumed by the fresh air and sunlight, finally allowing myself to accept warmth into my life once again.