Friday, August 08, 2014

Free Fiction Friday - One More Book Before I Die

To celebrate the end of my first week back to school, I'm posting a free short story below. I teach reading, writing, and grammar, so this curious story is about books, naturally.

In One More Book Before I Die, Oliver Bettington, a senior at a nursing home, believes he has a set number of books to read before he dies. He's coming up on the end of his list...and is saving the best for last.

This story is part of a four-pack collection called Last Chance - Four Timely Tales. It's available for free in the Kindle Unlimited program. That is, if you pay a monthly subscription to Amazon, you can access close to a million books for free each month, including most of my books.

More of my story collections are listed here; along with other books you can see along the sidebar. Of course, you can simply purchase the ebook if you aren't part of Kindle Unlimited. Either way, here's the story. Hope you enjoy it!

One More Book Before I Die

Nearly four thousand books lined the walls of the old man’s room. It made for cramped living at the nursing home, but as he had no other interests it suited Mr. Oliver Bettington, Sr. just fine. The television left the day it arrived, a rejected gift from his only son.
“Don’t need anything to occupy my time! I’ve got my books. Just bring me another Agatha Christie next week.”
That was almost ten years ago. The old man had eventually grown tired of mysteries and had moved on to histories, biographies, memoirs, and then back to fiction – science fiction of all things.
Mr. Oliver Bettington, Jr. entered his father’s room, frowning at the sight of all the books. “Dad, you need another hobby,” he said by way of greeting. “Something to occupy your…”
“Son, it’s no use. I’m not interested in anything but finishing these last five books. After that I’ll be done and it’ll be time to go.” Oliver, Sr. patted the stack next to him.
Junior looked at his father sitting in his raggedy, thirty year old recliner. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, I’ve done some figurin’,” Bettington said, settling back in his chair. “Always been interested in books – kept every one I’ve read.” The old man chuckled and smiled as if he remembered each title.
“You had to finish every one you started, too,” Junior said with disdain. It was no secret there were unresolved father-son issues at play. Oliver, Jr. resented his father’s book fetish, Oliver, Sr. resented his son’s resentment. That, and a few other mutual misunderstandings, was probably what got the old man hauled to the retirement center at eighty – and what had kept him there the past ten years.
“Well,” he repeated, “that’s what’s kept me alive so long. And now I’m almost done reading for good.” The elderly gentleman sighed and folded his hands.
“Again, dad, what are you talking about?” The middle-aged son took a perch on the edge of his father’s bed, there being no other place to sit in the undersized room.
“If you wouldn’t keep interruptin’ I’d tell ya! Like I said – always been interested in books and now I know why. I just read a story that says we all have a certain number of books we gotta read before we die…”
Junior glanced at the stack on his father’s nightstand. The top volume – an anthology of science fiction stories by authors he could care less about – was bookmarked half way through.
“…and that got me realizin’ that I’ve about reached my quota.”
“Dad, I swear, you’ve been reading too much fantasy.”
“Not fantasy, science fiction – based on fact and things that could happen. And don’t roll your eyes at me.” Junior stopped mid-roll and stared at some ambiguous spot over his father’s head.
“Okay, then, let’s hear it,” he said, bringing his gaze back down to his dad. “What makes you think you’ve…reached your quota?”
The old man’s face shone at the prospect of explaining the mystery he’d just unraveled. “I figure it starts on your tenth birthday. You’ve either got the bug by then or you don’t.”
“What bug?”
“The reading bug and quit interruptin’.” Junior simply shook his head. “The next ten years determines the number of books you gotta read before you can die.”
“Wait,” Junior interrupted, despite the warning look he got in return. “You have to read a certain amount of books – like a school assignment? – or once you read all your books you…get to die?”
Oliver Senior thought about that a moment. “Well, doesn’t seem to make any difference, does it? Once you’re done you’re done.”
Oliver Junior thought about that a moment and determined his father was nuts. But he kept his opinion quiet. “Okay. So from age ten to twenty you set your quota. How does that happen?”
The old man sat up in his chair and rubbed his hands. “It’s based on the average number of books you read a year during your teens. I must have read a book a week all through junior and senior high school. I wish I would have kept track exactly. I didn’t start writing them down until I was twenty-one.”
Oliver Bettington’s nearly seventy-year-old list was as quirky an oddity to his family as his four thousand volumes. He’d catalogued every title, author, genre, number of pages, beginning date, and ending date of every book he’d read. Whenever he left his room he took his list, probably because he couldn’t take his library.
“So that means from age ten to nineteen I probably read five hundred books – fifty or so a year. Now you have to multiply that by seven…”
“Dad, you lost me. What does seven have to do with anything?”
“Don’t you read your Bible? ‘The days of our years are threescore and ten.’ Scientifically proven to be a biological fact, by the way. Seven’s a special number, the Bible says.”
Junior was about to point out that his father was almost fourscore and ten, but he let it go. And in fact, he had read his Bible, unlike his dad, and knew it did not contain some secret numerical code, but he let that go as well.
The older Bettington continued. “So you take the average number of books you read a year as a youngster, multiply it by seven, add that to the number you actually did read as a youngster and you’ve got your quota.”
“So you get to count what you’ve already read as a youth as part of your assignment?” The younger Bettington chuckled at the silliness of it all.
“Didn’t I just say that?” The old man was not laughing.
Junior could see so many holes in this bit of craziness he didn’t know where to start. But the old man wasn’t finished.
Bettington said, “Do you know how many books I’ve read?”
His son said, “Three thousand nine hundred and ninety-five.”
“Congratulations, you can pay attention. So yep, five more books and I’ll be done.” Oliver Senior sat back and smiled. “Now you see why I don’t need another hobby to pass the time? I only have time for just this stack.” He patted the books on his nightstand once again.
Exasperated, Oliver Junior blurted out, “Now that’s just silly, dad. If that were true you could stop reading right now and live forever. Or wait and finish your list when you’re a hundred and twenty or something.”
Oliver Senior just shook his head and muttered, “Dummy.” He said louder, “You never got the bug, did you?”
The old man’s son sighed and ran his fingers through his slightly graying hair. “No, dad, I never did.” He wasn’t sure where to steer the conversation from there so he said, resigned, “Whatever makes you happy, dad. I’ll be back on Sunday and take you to lunch. Send the girls up to see you tomorrow?” Junior got up from the bed and headed for the door, looking back at his father.
“Sure, sure,” Oliver replied already reaching for the anthology. “But tell them not to bring me any more books. I’m almost done.”

The next day Sharon peaked around the corner and into Room 320 of the Forest Glen Retirement Center. When she saw her father-in-law reading in his favorite La-Z-Boy, she opened the door wider and allowed her thirteen year old daughter, Taryn, to enter first.
“Hi, Grandpa!” Taryn said as her smile brightened the homey, but still quite utilitarian nursing home mini-apartment.
Oliver Bettington quickly bookmarked the passage he was on, laid the tome aside and opened his arms wide to greet his favorite granddaughter. The fact that Taryn was his only granddaughter was simply part of his chronic teasing. Despite his obsession with books, Papa Ollie wasn’t a bad sort.
“Hi, sweetie. You’re a sight for sore eyes, let me tell you.”
“Thank you, but I was just here the other day,” Taryn replied, her auburn hair catching the sun from the room’s only window.
“Can never come often enough.” Bettington looked up and smiled at Sharon, eyes twinkling. “And how’s my favorite daughter-in-law?”
“Wonderful. And you?” Like her husband, Sharon didn’t understand Oliver Senior’s quirky ways, but she wasn’t put off by them either. She’d even been willing to have him move in with them, but Junior had put his foot down. She knew better than to press the matter.
“Watcha reading, Papa?” Taryn asked, sitting on the edge of his bed while Sharon scootched her over to sit down as well.
“The Bible!” Oliver announced. “Out of the four thousand books I’ve read, I’ve never actually sat down and worked my way through ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told.’ Imagine! So I saved the best for last.”
Mr. Bettington, while not antagonistic toward religion, had very seldom attended church. It was one of the sticking points between him and his son, who faithfully took his wife and daughter every Sunday.
“Good for you, dad,” Sharon said, sincerely. “But what do you mean you saved the best for last?”
“Didn’t Junior tell you?” Oliver asked with arched eyebrows, measuring his visitors.
Both girls shook their heads.
“Just like him,” he mumbled. “But since you asked!” And with that, the old man launched into his bibliophilic theory on determining his life quota and how he’d finally reached it. “But don’t you worry,” he said as he wrapped up his monologue, “I’ll let you know a day before I finish the Bible so it won’t come as a shock to you.”
“Dad, please don’t talk about…dying,” Sharon began.
“Now, now. Like I said, no need to worry,” he assured them both. “I’ve only just started the Book of Genesis. I have to get through the Revelation of St. John before it’ll be time for me to go.”
Sharon and Taryn exchanged worried glances.
Bettington continued without noticing. “I was so excited yesterday after Junior left that I stayed up all night and finished numbers three thousand nine hundred and ninety-six through three thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine. See, I’ve written them down on my list.”
He handed his treasured notebook to his daughter-in-law. To himself, he said, “Hadn’t read that many books in one setting since Opal passed away.” Oliver’s eyes grew misty at the memory of his wife of forty-three years. “It sure will be nice to see her again,” he whispered.
“Dad.” Sharon took her father-in-law’s hands in hers.
After a moment, he said, “Now, honey, I’ll be just fine. I’m going to take my time on this one.” And he patted the big, black leathered volume.
Oliver Bettington, Jr., his wife Sharon, and their daughter Taryn pulled into the Forest Glen Retirement Center after church in anticipation of their regular family dinner date. They’d take Oliver, Sr. out for a Sunday buffet at the nearby Smorgy’s as they’d done for as long as they could remember. Well, it seemed that way at any rate. Junior hated the place, but he figured it was an easy accommodation as any to keep the peace.
“We should bring him to church with us next week,” Sharon said. “He seemed genuinely interested in reading the Bible and I think he’s finally open to hearing about the Lord.”
Junior had to admit it was past time they both let bygones be bygones and nodded his head. “I’ll go get him. Stay in the car, be right back.”
Oliver, Jr. left Sharon and Taryn waiting with the engine running and went inside the nursing home to get his father. His dad usually waited impatiently in the lobby and would lodge his weekly complaint about how “they” kept the door locked from the inside “…so I won’t escape. As if I had anywhere to escape to besides Sunday dinner with my family!” Junior normally just shrugged his shoulders in silent agreement.
This time he burst through the nursing home’s glass doors and ran back to the idling minivan. “Sharon, turn off the engine,” he shouted. “Quick, come inside. Bring Taryn.” Prompted by her husband’s urgency, Sharon went into autopilot and managed the simple tasks, already fearing the worst.
The family quickly entered Forest Glen and made their way to Room 320. Junior swallowed. Sharon touched his arm reassuringly. All three of them pushed open the door and entered Oliver Bettington, Sr.’s cramped little room.
He was sitting in his favorite chair, an open Bible on his lap. His chin rested upon his chest and he could have been mistaken for sleeping if it weren’t for the unusual pallor of his skin.
“I didn’t...I mean, I saw him there and just knew. I came to get you so we could all be here...together, before the staff...” Junior tried to explain and fought back tears.
“Honey, it’s fine. It’s good. We’re here.” Sharon held her husband and Taryn began to cry. “Look,” Sharon said. “He was reading the Bible. Maybe he knew his time had come and made peace with the Lord.”
“But he wasn’t finished,” Taryn recalled. Her parents looked at her. “Remember, he said he had one more book to read before he was going to die. The Bible was his last book and he said he’d tell us before he finished it.”
Junior remembered his crazy conversation with his dad. “Well, he might have been off by a few books,” he offered as he moved close and took the Bible from his father’s hands. After a moment he began to laugh. His wife and daughter stared at him. Oliver Bettington, Jr. just shook his head and continued chuckling.
“What?” they both asked in unison.
“He did finish his last book, Taryn. He got his four thousand books in after all. Look here.”
“What do you mean?” They both looked at the open Bible. The bookmark was placed at Exodus chapter one.
“It looks to me like he just finished Genesis, right? The Book of Genesis. The Bible has sixty-six books after all. He only needed to read one more book before he died.” Junior smiled. “And he did.”
Taryn picked up her grandfather’s notebook. “Then you better add it to his list,” she said, handing the almost sacred volume to her father. Junior took it from her and turned to the last page. Sharon and Taryn nodded in encouragement. Oliver Bettington, Jr. entered the title, author, genre, number of pages, beginning date, and ending date of his father’s last book.
Oliver Bettington, Sr. could now rest in peace.
(Copyright by Lyndon Perry. Thanks for reading.)

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