Short Story by Ca Limina (The Jakarta Post, December 03, 2018)
“I KNOW you won’t jump off,” Ahmad told him, “No matter how far you get to tiptoeing off that ledge, you won’t.”
“And why is that?” Reza asked, earnestly.
Ahmad simply shook his head, joining Reza past the railings that held them back. The rugged man sat on it in a relaxed manner, while Reza clutched onto it like he’d slip if a pinkie was misplaced. Construction workers. Too confident for their own good. “Because dying is for people like me,” Ahmad answered, “You’re too selfish to die.”
Reza shook his head. “You don’t understand, Ahmad. It’s too much. This building, this project, this hollow sky,” he looked up at the heavens, “You–”
“You should’ve worked in the theatre, Reza. You’d make a killer Broadway show,” Ahmad laughed, glaring at him. “You know, I thought you’d outgrow your melodrama. I’m glad you’re still the puddle of a boy you were when we were 10.”
Reza didn’t look at his old friend. He didn’t need to. He knew Ahmad wasn’t there. “I miss you,” he said to thin air. The thin air didn’t reply.
It was a hot July afternoon when Ahmad Aditya died.
Reza was presenting blueprints for a hotel design when he received the call. “Fell off the fourth story during construction. We managed to momentarily stabilize him, but his bleeding was too excessive.” the doctor said on the other end. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Reza had excused himself from the meeting, sitting in an air-conditioned hallway with the phone trembling in his hand. “Why are you calling me?” he asked the doctor.
“He had your number written on a paper in his pocket. The paper told me to call you, in case of–” the doctor stopped himself. “It had a message on it.”
“I don’t quite understand it,” the doctor confessed. “It said, ‘What did you need the stars for?’” The doctor paused in confusion. Reza’s heart stilled in his chest. “I’m sure you would—”
Reza hung up then, setting the phone aside. He stared at his reflection on the granite floors, and he thought he saw Ahmad waiting over his shoulders.
When they were younger, all the light that anybody had came from little lanterns in little homes in a little village that barely registered on the map. Reza would drag Ahmad up to the hill by the soccer field, where the grass smelt of manure and rain. They’d stare up at the night sky until midnight, Ahmad laughing at Reza’s attempts to count the stars.
“There are too many of them,” he’d tell him, “You’re better off counting grains of sand.”
“Sand is boring. Everyone can hold sand, and it’d only take a lifetime to count all the sand in the world,” Reza shot back, childishly, “Numbers weren’t meant for little things like sand. They’re abstract, and they’re made for us to hold everything we can’t touch.”
Ahmad chuckled, shaking his head. “I think you can touch the stars.” he said. “In fact, you could probably steal them if you wanted to.”
Reza glared at him, then, laughing. “No, you can’t.” he said. “They’re too far away.”
“Is that really going to stop you?” Ahmad answered, in his rough and boyish way, “I’m disappointed in you. I thought I taught you better.”
“There’s more than one way to touch something, Reza,” he said, calmly. “Everybody can touch tangible things. It’s a gift to hold something with your thoughts, and make it your own.”
Reza stared at Ahmad for a long while. He smiled. “Yeah,” he looked at the stars. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
It was odd, of course. Anomalous, even. He had been offered multiple jobs after graduating from university, but the one job Reza chose brought him back home.
His small hometown wasn’t so small anymore. It had become a thriving crossroads, a place where travelers would drop off the newly built highway and rest for a little while. Hotels sprouted like weeds, and everything else grew with them. Reza designed most of them. There was a sense of pride in that — he had helped his hometown climb up to the sky.
“Quite the bigshot, aren’t ya?” Ahmad once told him, when their paths crossed again. “I didn’t even think you’d be coming home.”
They were drinking beer at the time in a small warung next to the new hotel Reza had designed. The night was calm, and the stall-keeper was too busy organizing Coca-Cola bottles to eavesdrop on them. Reza’s smile was small, cautious. “Yeah, well,” he said, “I missed this place. Didn’t know where else to go.”
Ahmad’s bright eyes dimmed, and Reza remembered how dusty his face was, how tired and wrinkled and old. “You sure you didn’t want to go to Jakarta or something?” Ahmad asked, curiously.
Reza arched a brow. “No. Why do you ask?”
There was a long silence between them. Ahmad took out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from his jacket. “I don’t know,” he lit a cigarette between his fingers, “You seem keen on making our town into Jakarta, you know.”
Ahmad took a long drag, before huffing it out through his nose. His words permeated the air like his smoke, and Reza couldn’t help but pause. “What are you saying?” Reza’s laugh stammered in his vocal chords.
“I saw a man get laid off at work tonight because he was so sleep-deprived that he fell asleep on a beam,” Ahmad glared at Reza. “He has a family of four and the wage he got was barely enough to send his kids to school. What do you think will happen to them?”
“Ahmad, I don’t see your–”
“Answer the question, Reza.”
Reza leaned back, shocked by Ahmad’s change of tone. “I — what are you saying?”
Ahmad’s relaxed face folded into a subtle frown. “I’ve had to watch small, rickety homes disappear and be replaced by hotels and apartment buildings,” he said, “and not a day goes by where I don’t ask where those homes went, where the people who owned them are.”
“They moved. I’m sure they were compensated for the land, and they’re off somewhere safer,” Reza justified. “And I’m sure your friend, he would’ve found a job. There are plenty of jobs in town, he’d be–”
“Fine?” Ahmad grimaced. “Do you know how many beggars I pass by while walking to work? Do you know how many children I see, selling newspapers on the street? Do you know how many old men I see sleeping on the sidewalk while I take a bus home?”
“You don’t know their stories. They could be from another town, they probably have families that take care of them–”
“Do you know how many people are forced into theft and pickpocketing? Do you know how dangerous it is for a woman to walk alone at night? Where do you think all of these things came from, Reza?” Ahmad pointed his lit cigarette at Reza’s nose. “Do you think any of this would’ve happened 25 years ago?”
Reza stared down Ahmad’s cigarette, before scowling. “Are you blaming all of that on me?” he asked. “I helped build this town. I’m not responsible for what happens afterward.”
Ahmad’s jaw visibly tightened. There was the sound of gritting teeth, then silence. Ahmad brought the cigarette back between his lips, then chuckled.
The next thing Reza knew, Ahmad was lifting him up by the collar of his shirt, pulling him out of the warung.
Reza writhed and screamed as the stronger man carried him to an unfinished building, dragging him up a flight of concrete stairs and to the top floor. “What are you doing? Ahmad,” Reza choked, “Ahmad, stop—”
Ahmad threw Reza onto the dirty concrete floor. Reza took the opportunity to catch his breath, staring up at his old friend. “What’s gotten into you?” Reza coughed out, dust and debris staining the bottom of his black trousers.
His friend didn’t answer immediately. Instead, Ahmad pointed up, and Reza followed his index finger. All he saw was a vast, empty void, with two white dots flickering in the middle. Reza furrowed his brows. “What are you doing?” he asked.
Ahmad glanced down at him. “Don’t you see it?” he asked. “Don’t you see what you’ve done?”
Reza squinted, but he couldn’t see anything other than the blank sky. “Ahmad,” he turned back to his friend, “I don’t—”
“The stars, Reza. You stole the stars,” Ahmad yelled, suddenly. “We stole the stars. This whole town stole the stars.”
Reza glared at Ahmad. He shook his head. “I thought you wanted this,” he whispered, “I thought I made you proud.”
“At what cost?” Ahmad demanded. “What cost did you pay for all of this?”
“I’ve helped make this town rich!” Reza shot back. “I’ve transformed this town from a backwater, dirt-road pit stop into an actual hub of corporate activity! I’ve helped bring more jobs than you and I could’ve dreamed of when we were 10! I’ve made this place prosperous and happy–”
“Happy?” Ahmad glared at him. “Happy?”
Reza looked up at him. There was a long quiet, filled only by the boiling of both their souls, the words they were about to say but couldn’t. “You left me in the dust for five years, you come back with your–your capitalist machines and you mow down everything that we once called home in the name of efficiency and profit,” Ahmad spat, “Do I look happy about that?”
In the dark of the night, Reza could see tears welling around Ahmad’s eyes. “What was the point, Reza?” he asked. “What did you need the stars for?”
Reza couldn’t respond.
“Did you fall off on purpose?”
Reza’s question hung in the air, and he knew there was nobody on the top floor of his building to answer. The winds howled, brushing against his hair. Ahmad’s jacket was too big for him, but he didn’t care. He clutched it tightly, smelling the cigarette ash stained on its sleeve. “Or was that my fault, too?” he asked nobody. “If I hadn’t come back home, would you still be alive?”
Nothing answered him. He tiptoed the ledge, as he did yesterday, and the day before that, and he wondered where he would fall to.
He looked up at the sky. There was only one star left, waiting for him, its friends outshined by the light of the town.
“I miss you,” he said to the stars that went missing. “I miss you.”
He waited for the silence to answer him. It never did. ***
Ca Limina is a freshman at Petra Christian University and has been writing short stories since elementary school.