Last Leaves Falling
I stare at the cursor blinking expectantly at the top of the page.
Who do I want to be?
There are so many choices; honest, funny, brave. A superhero with a tragic past and bright, mysterious future; with superstrength or telekenetic powers.
I could be anyone and they would never know.
People say that is the problem with the Internet; pedophiles, murderers, con men, the Internet makes it all too easy to hide. But I like it.
I type “SamuraiMan” into the first box, then my fingers come to rest against the keys again. I know I’m overthinking this, but it has to be right. Put all these boxes together and you’ll have a picture; a picture of me.
Outside the computer, nobody sees Abe Sora anymore, they only see the boy who looks weird, the boy who cannot walk, the boy who needs assistance.
The boy who’s going to die.
• • • •
At first, they thought that the aching in my legs was the flu and nothing more, but the weakness grew, and one day, out on the baseball field, I fell. My legs stopped working. The tests seemed to go on forever. Nobody knew what was wrong with me. They probed and prodded and asked a million questions. Every theory proved wrong, every disease and condition crossed off the list, until finally they found an answer.
I knew as soon as we opened the door. The doctor gestured to the empty seats, his face so serious, and I knew. They say that a warrior must always be mindful of death, but I never imagined that it would find me like that, in a white room with strip lights buzzing overhead.
“The good news is we have a diagnosis,” he said quietly, “amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.”
My mother shifted her chair a little closer, curled her fingers around my balled fist, then said slowly, deliberately, “What is that?”
“That’s the bad news,” he sighed. He was staring somewhere between us, as though he could not bear to look at us. I remember thinking, Is what I have so terrible that he cannot even stand to say it? Will looking at me make him sick too?
I imagined germs flowing from my fingertips, infecting everything I touched. I tried to pull away from Mama’s grasp, but her fingers were tight with fear.
I glanced across at her, watched her eyes desperately searching the doctor’s face for clues. She looked tired. I noticed it for the first time that day. She has been tired ever since.
“It’s rare,” the doctor continued, “that’s why a diagnosis took so long; it is not something you would expect to find in someone your son’s age.”
My mother did not wait for him to continue, and when she spoke her voice was hurried, desperate. “But what is it?”
The doctor stared over my right shoulder as he recited symptoms, using big words that meant nothing to me then—“atrophy” and “fasciculations,” then “neurodegeneration” in what should, I’m sure, have been a reassuring tone.
His words rushed at me full force and then receded, like the flow of waves. “Gradual deterioration . . . limited movement. No cure . . . average prognosis of two years, but in some cases it is more, or less . . . I am sorry.”
No cure. And since then, even to my mother, I have been the boy who’s going to die; but here, here I can be anything.
My mother’s voice interrupts my thoughts, calling, “Coming!” as she shuffles down the hallway. I hear the latch and the soft creak of the door, polite voices, too quiet for me to recognize.
Who is it?
I glance at the clock, as if that will hold the answers, even though neither my mother nor I have very many visitors these days. It’s . . . difficult. Embarrassing. No one wants to be around us anymore.
I listen for any sign of who the visitor might be; a cough, a laugh, the rhythm of familiar steps. Nothing. I can’t tell.
I wish they’d go away.
Holding my breath at every sign of company has become almost a ritual. Every time I hear the door, the telephone, a stranger’s voice, I wonder, who else is going to know my shame? Who else will stare, not knowing what to say?
Finally, the door closes and my mother’s gentle footsteps move back along the hall. I rest my head against the monitor of my computer and breathe a long sigh of relief as the cool glass spreads its calm across my skin. They’ve gone. I’m safe.
“Sora?” Mother knocks at my door.
“Uhh.” I groan, turning my face toward the door. The cool of the glass shifts a little. I imagine that the cold is an iceberg, that I’m alone in a desert of ice where everything is clear and fresh and quiet. But I am not; my mother speaks again.
“Sora, your friends are here. Can we come in?”
“We?” I panic, sitting upright and pushing away from my desk, suddenly aware of how small my room is, how intrusive the large wheels of my chair are in this little space. There is nowhere to hide.
Who would visit unannounced? I never really had friends at school, more acquaintances. People you could joke with in the classroom, but no one special. I preferred my own company and the quiet of the library, especially in the last months.
I grunt, and the door slides open. My mother smiles at me and steps aside, ushering in the school’s baseball captain, Tomo, and a girl I think I might have seen in the corridors of school, hunched below a cello case. I squint at her. Yes. Just before I left she caused a ruckus, leaving her first chair in the orchestra to start a rock band. They look odd together, short and tall, gutsy and clean-cut, the musician and the jock, but she’s clinging to him tightly.
What are they doing here? Neither of them has ever been to my home before. We’re not friends; we’ve barely even spoken.
They stand in the doorway for a moment, exchange glances. And I know; someone made them come. And neither of them wants to be alone with me. The cripple. The sick. The dying.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hi,” they say in unison, still not stepping over the threshold.
For a moment we just stare at each other, until I cannot stand it any longer.
“Come in, make yourselves at home.” I force myself to smile as I speak.
They step forward, one step, two.
“This is Reiko.” Tomo shrugs himself from her grip.
I gesture to the bed, with its neatly turned sheets. She sits, fiddling nervously with her plaits, but Tomo paces, swinging his arm like he’s warming up to pitch a ball.
He stops and stares at the wall above my bed, the poster of Katsuhiro Maekawa, pitcher for the Tigers in the 2004 match against the Yankees. Below that, the shelf with my catcher’s mitt, my limited-edition silver bat, the ball signed by half the current team. And my baseball cards. Most of them are kept neatly in folders, organized by team and season. One, however, showing the face of Yoshio Yoshida, sits alone on the shelf looking out at me. It is a duplicate; he’s safely stored away with the rest of his team as well, but I like to think that he is watching over me.
“Wow!” Tomo nods toward the ball that takes pride of place beside Yoshio. “Is that Tomoaki’s signature in the middle there?”
I nod. The signature is barely recognizable; wonky and left-handed. Tomoaki Kanemoto had smiled at me and signed the ball even after playing through the game with torn cartilage. That day, every boy in the bleachers learned about determination.
He frowns at it for a moment, squinting. “Is this from 2004? That game?” he asks, eyes wide.
I nod again.
Games like that are not forgotten. Every pair of eyes is glued to the action, every heart longing to be down there on that green, soaking up the glory.
Tomo might actually make it there one day. He’s good. I always wished that I could pitch like him.
“Awesome!” he says. “You know, you should come to a ga—” He stops, his eyes now on my chair. “Well, y’know. If you find the time.”
“Yeah, maybe. Thanks.” I have no intention of watching the high school games, the team I should be on. I will never step onto the field or sit in the bleachers and cheer again. I know it, and Tomo knows it, and an awkward silence eats up all the air again.
“Actually, that’s why I’m here.”
“Yeah.” He shoves his hands into his pockets. “Coach wants to dedicate the season to you.”
“To me?” I was only ever a B-team, after-school-club player.
“Uh-huh. He thinks, er . . . he thinks it might inspire people. Remind them what they have . . . Sorry.”
I’m glad he has the decency to look ashamed.
“Anyway. He sent me to tell you, and to invite you to the last game of the season. If you want. He thought you might do a speech. To motivate the others.”
What does one say to that? I am not a circus lion.
I can feel an angry heat rising up my neck. It should not matter what the people of my past think. But it does.
I am nothing but the sick boy.
It is always like this. And suddenly a hundred awkward pity-moments flood my synapses, hit me all at once. Tomo and his girlfriend need to leave now; I need my room back. But as the seconds tick by, neither of them moves, they just stare, and suddenly there is not enough air in here for three of us and I want them to leave right now.
I swallow hard, try not to sound desperate as I say, “I’m sorry, I am very tired.”
“Oh. Of course.” Tomo nods curtly and shuffles to the door. Reiko gets up to follow, but she stops halfway. “We’ve missed you in class.” Her eyes shine too brightly, as though she’s going to cry. “All of us. Hayashi-san is organizing everyone to sign a card.” She falters. “We’d have brought it today, but a few people were absent and we know they’d want to send their thoughts.”
I do not want to think about my classmates, sitting at their desks as though everything is normal. Has someone taken up my seat, or is it empty, a reminder that last term there was one more eager student? I look away from Reiko’s heavy gaze, tap the mouse pad so my computer whirrs to life. “Thank you. I’m okay.”
She stays just for a second, then sighs and follows Tomo out. I hear them walk down the hallway, and thank my mother. As the door clicks shut behind them, I breathe.
Slowly, the air clears, and after a few minutes alone I turn back to the boxes on my screen.
I imagine myself passing Tomo in the hallway, sliding clumsily into home plate, sitting in a classroom without thirty-five sets of eyes on me.
But then I think, I’m more than that. I want more than that. So I write:
I am not exactly lying. I would love to spend my days in lecture halls until my hair is as white as the chalk dust floating through the air. I just . . . will never get the chance. But they did not ask me that.
I read the words again from start to finish and try to picture what someone else would see; what do I look like to a stranger? But even I struggle to see myself without this disease.
At the bottom of the screen are two buttons, save and post. My finger hovers over post, but those shocked, sad faces from the school halls and the streets flash right before my eyes, judging me, and I do not click. I can’t. I’m not ready.
Revue de presse
" The Last Leaves Falling is a complex book that tells the story through a mixture of recollections, website message boards, text messages, emojis and old-fashioned letters. We feel the pain as we see what this fatal illness means for the boy and for those he loves. The story, set in an accessible modern Japan, is about life and death. It's also about the power of friendship and connection - 5* review." ( Daily Telegraph, 'The Best Young Adult Books of 2015')
"An excellent debut set in Kyoto telling the story of 17-year-old Sora. He turns to ancient Samurai wisdom for advice - and finds himself dealing with a dark corner of the internet. For fans of Khaled Hosseini." ( Red Magazine)
"Benwell’s deeply moving story is psychologically acute in its portrayal of a dying teen and his loyal friends. Its shattering ending is sure to engender discussion among readers." ( Booklist (Starred review))
"Deeply emotional and poignant, handling difficult themes with great sensitivity and without being sentimental. Beautifully written, heartbreaking and hopeful." ( The Bookseller)
"[A] heart-breaking, unsentimental debut" ( Metro)
"Stunningly powerful, it's a book which will surely get everyone talking about it. It left me in tears. Hugely recommended; I would expect this to be a strong contender for prizes" ( The Bookbag)
"Very occasionally I read a book that I so utterly and completely fall in love with that when it comes to writing my review all I have is a long list of words such as; beautiful, stunning, magnificent, breath-taking, amazing, fantastic, marvellous and perfect. This is one of those books . . . Read it." ( Luna's Little Library)
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