I grew up on The Munch Bunch and Enid Blyton, as did many Gen Y readers I suppose. I also grew up on Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, Where’s Wally, and one particularly fun book called Crocoroos and Kangadiles by Nan McNab, which was one of those books where the pages were cut in two and you could mix up different animals into new ones, so it had a crocodile’s front half and the bottom half of a blue ringed octopus. You then had a poem about the new animal similarly constructed for you to read. I loved it, which possibly says more about me than I want to reveal, but books for me have always been interactive. Sometimes it’s a case of being hooked into a story and caring about the people involved, feeling with them, loving with them and crying with them. Sometimes it’s exploring and trying to find the ‘right’ path through the story. Sometimes it’s just mixing things up and seeing what you get at the other end, but it was not passive. Even now I find the best stories are those which question, or sometimes answer, but above all, those that prompt you to think.
Note that I say stories there, not books, for books are merely a medium in which stories are told. Now, books compete not only with theatre, but with film, television and video games for our attention, and with each new iteration, the norms of storytelling shift and the possibilities for moving along between non-interactive and interactive fiction multiply into fleeting plot bunnies that burrow into the mind. At least, that’s how I like to think of things.
In normal, non-interactive fiction, there’s a great emphasis on audience immersion—you want to draw your readers in, help them suspend their disbelief and keep them within the world of the story. Interactive fiction however, is unashamedly meta, drawing attention to its status as a work of fiction—as a product of written art. Ideally, it invites engagement, and capitalises on its fictionality to pose more immediate questions a traditional work of immersive fiction cannot. Of course, once I left the picture books of my childhood behind, I only ever saw this in the world of video games, typically adventure games like Monkey Island, and often played for laughs. I also saw it in theatre, from Shakespearan asides to the Narrator in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, all being used to highlight some particularly humorous happening or underpin the historical reality of murderous hysteria. It wasn’t until I picked up a copy of Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather that I realised that this breaking of the invisible fourth wall that separates audience from art could indeed work in modern fiction.
For my teenaged brain, Hogfather, with its pointed rendering of simplistic Christmas fantasies made me further question a holiday that is increasingly commercial and built on traditions that are far less noble and joyous as we like to pretend. One day, I said, one day I would like to write half as well as he does. And that’s an aim I still hold close to my heart—although whether or not I’ll get there is a question for people other than I. My most recent story, The Way You Are, is my second attempt to write a thought provoking piece, the first being by short story Mr. Perfect about a man who walks into a bar and leaves in a garbage bag. It’s also the first story I’ve put out there published by a m/m fiction publisher and one which may not sit well with readers after an escapist boy-meets-boy, boy-fucks-boy, boy-and-boy-live-happily-ever-after tale.
So for anyone considering whether or not to take a risk on something new—and isn’t that a terrible thing to say when promoting a book—I would like to point out the joy of interactive fiction. Interactive fiction is not prescriptive. While you still read from start to finish, the footnotes (in this case) are choices. Personally, I’ve always loved to read them as and when they come, hoping for a joke or a slightly different viewpoint to make me look at things in a different light. My old writing lecturer, back at uni, preferred to read the entire story as one, and would then go back to read all the footnotes separately, although this was admittedly easier when the story was only three thousand words in length! Still, the point is, The Way You Are is my offering to you. It is a story that can be read for laughs, for enjoyment, as a not-so-straight piece of narrative fiction, or with an eye towards a different viewpoint. Regardless of what you decide to do, I hope you will find a good way of reading both it and other stories, both traditional and non-traditional. I hope you will find a way that works for you—just the way you are.
The Way You Are
by Matthew Lang
After being attacked for standing up for equality, Travis “Rook” Rookford falls into a coma. At his bedside sits fellow student Leon Capper, there to keep his new hero company. Instead he finds a boyfriend in nurse Warrick Kwok.
When Rook wakes with amnesia, he thinks Leon is his boyfriend—which surprises everyone, given Rook’s prior dating pattern. With everything that’s going on, Leon has a hard time telling Rook the truth—and Warrick’s possessiveness grates on him enough that he isn’t sure he wants to. Between the stresses of studies, Rook’s upcoming court appearance, and the pitfalls of new love, Leon has to work out how to set Rook straight. Maybe after that he can finally tackle his Christmas shopping.
THE ward was an unflinching shade of hospital green, the washed out, chalky color that Leon had only ever seen in movies. Hospitals, in his admittedly limited experience, were supposed to be a crumbly yellow or a stark, modern white, and this one was both, at least on the outside. Walking in from the glare of the spring sun, he wondered if the paint scheme was an attempt to bring the color of the park outside into the hospital, but the dullness of stereotypical surgical-gown green was so different from the vibrant green of grass and leaves that he quickly decided against it. Stereotypical. Leon suppressed a shudder at the word. It came loaded with meanings and preconceptions, some good, but mostly not. This was, after all, a “stereotypical” regional city.
Two hours from Sydney by train, Newcastle stretched along the southern bank of the Hunter River, following its curves all the way to the Tasman Sea, where Leon, like most of the residents, took to the glorious sandy beaches and surf spots that were nearly as famous as the city’s coal exports and subtropical weather. Here, shops were just starting to stay open after five and on Sundays, Chinese takeout bore no relation to China other than the occasional limp bean sprout and premade hoisin sauce, and everyone who didn’t work in the hospital or the coal industry eventually left to find a job and a better life somewhere else.
Those who stayed behind either owned the place or were absolute derros. Leon was honest enough to admit that judgment was probably unfair, especially given Krissy’s parents’ successful B and B in the eastern end of town, but after going out that first Saturday night to the Great Northern Hotel and hearing the drunken jeers of bogans driving around the deserted streets in battered utes of muck brown or faded blue, he too now repeated the mantra that had been passed down from student to new student over the years at the university: “When you go out at night, don’t make eye contact with the locals.”
The University of Newcastle, of course, was a haven for those fleeing even smaller-minded country towns, those who found the whole notion of city living just that little bit terrifying, or those who couldn’t afford—or didn’t get into—the big city campuses of Sydney or Melbourne. Leon had found university life freeing, a mass of thoughtful people willing to live and let live, or even celebrate diversity. It was at university he first felt comfortable enough to come out, at university where he first kissed a guy, and at university where he met Krissy, the first person who accepted him for exactly who he was. Or Kristina, if she was meeting a boy on a serious date.
Then the rumors had begun circulating.
“Last I heard, seven broken bones, internal injuries, and a coma.”
“I thought he was going to give blood?”
“Well, that sounds like a big night out gone wrong.”
“Oh my God, are youse talking about Kim Kardashian? Have youse seen the photos?”
“What? We’re talking about Rook.”
“Rook was invited to Kim Kardashian’s party? Oh my God, that is like, so—”
“No, Rook was gay bashed.”
“No way! I dated that bastard! You’re saying he drove stick the entire time?”
“Wait—is he like, famous or something?”
“No he’s a physio student hoping to transfer into med.”
“And he’s straight.”
And, some days later, when the stories had swirled around campus long enough to be published in Opus, the student newspaper, and everyone else had moved on to debating Schrödinger’s bunnies, Leon finally became aware of what had happened.
And that was what brought him to room 14B in the puke-green wing of the John Hunter Hospital, named after not one but three John Hunters, one of whom had nothing to do with medicine whatsoever, but had been instrumental in breaking news of the newly discovered platypus back in the United Kingdom in 1798—a feat achieved by sending back a sketch of a live animal and the dead pelt of the first one to be encountered by humans.
The room wasn’t what Leon had been expecting. For starters, it was mostly bare, with two ward beds empty and the third containing the limp figure of an aging matron, a thin, white cotton sheet doing little to conceal her bulk.
Leon focused his gaze on the furthest corner of the room, where a yellow privacy curtain had been drawn back, allowing sunlight from the nearby window to play over the unmoving figure in the fourth hospital bed. The bed was large to Leon’s eyes, and the patient it contained looked a bit like a child in comparison, even though Leon knew Rook to be at least six inches taller than himself. The bedsheets were tucked around the recumbent figure, still neat and crisp, as if they had just been fitted around his body. Obviously, coma patients didn’t move much. An unused tray table and a soft chair—upholstered in the poo brown that had been ever so popular in the 1950s or some other decade before Leon’s time—sat off slightly to one side, a bunch of wilted flowers on the bedside table, and a small stack of get well cards the only personal touches in the otherwise institutional space.
Leon would have expected a scrunched tissue or indented cushion or something—anything—to indicate the presence of parents, but apparently they lived far out in the middle of Woop Woop . The last few days hadn’t been kind to Rook—or as he was known on his patient chart, Travis Rookford. The left side of his face was still swollen and bruised, the skin lacerated with a myriad of cuts that, according to newspaper sources, had been inflicted by a smashed bottle. One source said Rook was lucky to not have lost an eye. His right leg was elevated and in a heavy cast, and Leon knew that somewhere under the chest bandages were a number of broken ribs, a lot of internal bruising, and a significant amount of internal bleeding.
“H-hi,” Leon said.
The only response was a triple-fluted snore from the lady in bed three and the steady beep-beep-beep of Rook’s heart monitor.
“You probably don’t remember me. Actually, I’d be surprised if you did,” Leon said, eyes wandering over the tubes that led from Rook’s muscled arm to the bag of intravenous fluid hanging from its polished metal pole on wheels. “I, uh, wanted to say thanks for sticking up for me. Well, not for me specifically but, well… us, you know? You didn’t have to do that. And if you hadn’t, you’d probably still be fine and well.”
Leon paused, “Maybe you’re wishing you didn’t say anything—not that I’d blame you, but, um… yeah… I wanted to say thanks.”
As he sat fidgeting on the poo-brown chair, Leon felt foolish, speaking to a man in a coma, whom he knew next to nothing about. “Okay, well… thanks for listening,” he said, staring down at his feet. “Assuming you can even hear me, that is.”
“He should be able to,” a new voice said.
Leon literally jumped, nearly tripping over his own feet on the way down.
“Sorry,” the deep voice said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
The nurse was young, and Leon guessed he was a student on a hospital placement. He had the build of a rugby player, with firm muscles barely hidden in the otherwise shapeless green hospital scrubs he wore. His face was broad, and his hair closely cropped. His skin was either tanned by the sun or the result of mixed parentage, and the subtle almond shape of his eyes made Leon suspect the latter.
“Geez, way to give a guy a heart attack.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” the other man said, grinning just enough to show his teeth. “I’m fully trained in CPR and emergency procedures. After all, we are in a hospital.” Then the nurse hesitated, “Wait, that was a joke wasn’t it?”
“Uh, kinda,” Leon said, somewhat taken aback.
“Right. Sorry. I have a tendency to take things very literally.”
“I see,” Leon said, more than a little uncertain if there was any socially acceptable reply to a phrase like that. There was also a slightly more certain feeling that he was being flirted with.
“Anyway, medically there are studies that suggest it’s good for coma patients to be talked to. Sometimes they can hear you even if they can’t respond, and some say it registers in their subconscious even if they can’t consciously hear you.”
“Okay,” Leon said. “That’s… good to know.”
“So… you’re a friend?” the other man asked after a moment of awkward silence.
“Me? Oh no…. We don’t really know each other at all.”
“Right… right.” The nurse’s eyebrows rose. “Sorry, I just assumed that—”
“I wanted to thank him for what he did,” Leon said. “He didn’t have to, and it meant—means a lot to me. I know, I know. It’s stupid and a little creepy and—”
“Actually, I think it’s kind of sweet.” Yep, there was definitely flirting happening. “And it’s good that you came. He doesn’t get many visitors.”
“I noticed,” Leon said, his eyes drifting back to the tiny stack of cards and the wilted flowers. “I’m Leon, by the way.”
“Warrick,” the big man said, holding out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Leon.”
“You too,” Leon replied, grasping the other man’s hand.
For a moment hazel eyes locked unflinchingly with brown, and Leon found it hard to breathe. Then the alarm on his phone went off, startling them both.
“S-sorry,” Leon said. “I gotta motor—class.”
“Of course. See you later?”
“Um… maybe,” Leon said, his cheeks flushing slightly as he darted from the room.
Matthew Lang writes behind a desk, in the park, on the tram and sometimes backstage at amateur theatre productions. His new novella, The Way You Are is available now at Dreamspinner Press. You find out more about Matthew at his website, www.matthew-lang.com, stalk him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.