Taiga (Chapter 9)

It happened on a late Friday night. I remember it vividly because even now the scene still frequents my dreams – not necessarily nightmares, but dreams nonetheless. The moon was a thin crescent sliver, its two points looking as sharp as ever, and the air held that profound crisp cleanliness that is brought only in the wake of great rain. I don’t remember the rain, but I remember the air. I stood outside the library for ten minutes smoking in it.

After those ten minutes I crushed my cigarette beneath my shoe and walked inside. A sleepy-eyed long-haired student was manning the front desk. They raised their head to smile at me, and then lowered it to resume what appeared to be a nap. Behind them I saw the head librarian busily doing paperwork in her office.

Taiga was playing the piano, as usual. The strains of an arranged rock melody filtered up through the floor; I noticed nothing different about it. I wandered about the library – mostly empty, as expected of a Friday night – and headed downstairs. As I turned the corner into the room where I now lived, my eyes took in the familiar sight of my roommate leaned slightly over the keyboard. He glanced at me, nodded in time with the music, and went on playing.

I tossed my backpack onto the couch and crashed next to it, both mentally and physically tired from the day. Not that I had done much of note. I’d attended one of my classes, wandered around town, gotten lost, and hitchhiked back to the university. I guess getting lost was a pretty amazing feat, but other than that, it had been a perfectly average, boring day. I fiddled around on my phone until Taiga was done.

When he finished his piece, he turned on the piano bench to face me. I met his gaze expectantly.

“Have you eaten dinner yet?” he asked.

“No.”

“Let’s go out later. For some real food.”

I nodded. “Okay. Drinks after?”

He considered it. “I know a good place,” he said after a moment. “Should be open.”

I’d learned after the past few months that I’d made a lot of erroneous assumptions about Taiga. At the beginning of the school year, I’d assumed him to be a perfect goody-two-shoes, a shallow and dumb idiot who followed all the rules without thinking, who constantly played the part of the good boy because it made life easier to bear. Of course, I had been wrong. He was a pretty interesting person when it came down to it – and I didn’t know half of it yet.

“When do you want to go eat?” I asked.

“I’m not hungry yet, are you?”

“No.”

“How about in an hour?”

I looked at my phone. “Okay.”

Taiga smiled at me, turned back around, and started a new song. I pulled my laptop out of my backpack, plugged it into the wall charger, and sank into the couch for some pointless downtime. I don’t recall exactly what I was doing – probably browsing Facebook or some other site. It never mattered, anyway. I was just wasting time. Even now it shakes me that I spent some of my very last moments with him in such a manner.

After some twenty or thirty minutes, in a short break in his playing, Taiga turned to me and said, “Hey, can you do me a favor?”

I looked up. Depends, I thought, but all I said was “what?”

“Grab a water from the vending machine outside? I’m really thirsty and I don’t think I can wait until dinner.”

Looking back at it now, I’m pretty sure this was a test. At any other point in my life prior, I probably would have replied with something along the lines of, Why can’t you get it yourself? Those words did come to mind in that moment, but I held my tongue and instead nodded, got up, and left for the vending machine. There was nothing deep or philosophical about this decision; it wasn’t like I’d in a flash evaluated everything Taiga had done for me and decided to pay him back with this one small favor of getting him water. Maybe there was something like that going on inside, but on the surface I did it just because. As it was, if it truly had been a test, I passed.

As I was re-entering the library with the water bottle in hand, I heard Taiga downstairs abruptly stop playing. Even the sleepy student at the front desk raised their head at this, surprised – Taiga rarely stopped in the middle of a song. He hated to leave things unfinished. I shrugged it off, rounded the corner from the main entrance into the stacks, and headed for the stairs. A few moments later we all heard the gunshot, echoing through the floor all the way up to the thick wooden rafters and collapsing against the immense light-giving window glass.

I froze in my tracks. I’d already heard enough gunshots in my life; I was hoping for there not to be another.

Though they were blocked from my view by several rows of bookcases, I heard the head librarian poke her head out of her office and hesitantly ask the desk worker, “Was that…?”

“A gun,” I replied to myself. I heard my own voice as though it were someone else’s – perfectly calm and relaxed. Too calm and relaxed. Had I been so traumatized from my youth that the sound of a gun no longer tormented me?

Moving automatically, almost unwillingly, as though in a dream, I went quickly down the stairs and turned into the basement. Taiga was on the floor next to the piano. I could easily lie and paint a picture of the kind you’d see in movies, but I don’t find that useful. A perfectly round bullet hole, a slight trickle of blood, beautiful glassy eyes, as graceful in death as he was in life… disgusting. There was blood everywhere and he looked like a dead man. I put the water bottle on the table and stood there staring at the scene. It took me some time to notice that the gun was still there, laying beside his left hand.

What was there to say? Emotions and feelings don’t hold up in court, and mine would never have matched up anyway. I stood over the dead body of this roommate I’d never once cared to call my friend, and I did nothing. I said nothing. Even when some sense of alarm arose in my failing brain, even when I became aware of eyes on my back and the quiet, horrified voice of the librarian on the phone, I did and said absolutely nothing at all. To this day I’m still not sure that I made the right choice – much less if there had even been any choice for me to make.

The minutes passed like hours, and before long the two university policewomen came and took me away.

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