Written by: Indira Sukmariana
Edited by: Zania R Putri & Rizka Herdiani
Illustration by: Pricharia Via
If you ask a fifteen-year-old Indira what she thought about death, she’d say what Emily Dickinson said about death: that death waits for her for she cannot wait for death. Depressing, I know, but I’m better, I promise. Now, I would say that there is something terrifying about facing your mortality. There are a lot of books that deal with themes such as death, love, and loss, but few are as captivating as They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera. The 2017 book pulled me out of a reading slump and tossed me into a two-hour existential dread.
This book tells the story of two boys, Mateo and Rufus, in the 24 hours they have left on Earth after they received a call from an organization called Death-Cast that gives out warnings to people who will die in the next 24 hours. They didn’t say how, or when exactly, just that it is inevitable. Mateo and Rufus met through an application called Last Friend, like Tinder for people who have been sentenced to death (or Deckers, they are called) and those who want to keep them company until they die. We follow along with Mateo and Rufus’ journey of trying to live their best life before they inevitably bite the dust.
Adam Silvera could have written a dystopian, young adult novel with the protagonists trying to dismantle Death-Cast. But he didn’t. Instead, he chose to write about falling in love.
Their journey confronts me with the question: if you have less than 24 hours to live, what would you do?
It sounds like a question one asks when one is high, or doing some melancholic staring at the starless sky at 2 p.m. on a school night. However, as any existential questions do, it puts some things into perspective. It confronts us with our regrets and our greatest triumphs. It confronts us about our peaks and our rock bottoms.
Mateo and Rufus went on a mission to “live a lifetime in a single day”, or so to speak. Rufus took Mateo to bid farewell to Mateo’s loved ones, and Mateo became Rufus’ friend-in-doom for the day. In their adventure, they found the meaning of death, living, and loving. The brave and loyal Rufus helped Mateo to break out of his shell, and Mateo’s bleeding heart taught Rufus the meaning of kindness. In the end, they both became the best version of themselves: brave, yet kind, strong, yet compassionate.
Mateo and Rufus’ dynamics reminded me of Achilles and Patroclus’ dynamic from The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. One is brave and confident, while the other is kind and wears his heart on his sleeve. They both also died in the end. The Kind One died first, of course, because we need The Reckless One to accept their death and walk into the afterlife relieved, unburdened, and we need to let them go through the stages of grief in two or so chapters.
What would you do, then, knowing how it ends?
There are three types of people described in this book in dealing with Death-Cast. One, people like Mateo believed they could be an exception, fearing the world, and opted to stay in their home forever, searching for a loophole. Two, people like Rufus, who accepted his fate and attended his own funeral. And three, those who are determined to prove Death-Cast wrong (usually by trying to take their own life).
Indira from five years ago would belong to the third group; desperate to fight the world and prove everyone wrong. It seemed radical, then, to hurt myself. With the way the world works, it seemed right to add the teenage angst: taking control of one’s life meant deciding for yourself when and how you die. It seemed revolutionary to cut myself down because the world expected me to live.
Now, with the people I have met and the lessons I have learned (also the therapy that I’m doing), I realize the true act of rebellion is self-preservation. (Thanks, Mitski). The act of loving yourself so fiercely in a world that expects you to crumble. When you only have less than 24 hours to live, when the world expects you to play it safe, do the right thing, and walk into love instead.
We all know we will die, don’t we? This book took that collective understanding and made it as real as death could be. The message of not taking everything for granted, living your best life with no regrets, and so on and so on are embedded, of course, as it should. But there were no grand adventures or fighting to leave a mark in this world to as many people as possible. The marks Mateo and Rufus left were small, and insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe, but they were loved all the same by their friends, family, and most importantly, each other.
Not all of us will be remembered for great leadership or cruelty by the whole world. Our names won’t be engraved in history books or the Rosetta Stone. But that doesn’t mean we are not worth remembering, not worth celebrating. Because, like the truth, the world is highly subjective. We can be legends in our own little world.
My world consists of my parents, two brothers, and my best friends. My decisions revolve around them and myself, they have the biggest impact on my life and I, theirs. If I die, I don’t need 7 billion souls chanting my name, I will only need 17.
In balance, however, with love, the loss comes along. They walk hand in hand, a package deal. This is a constant message throughout the book. Lidia, Mateo’s best friend, would not feel loss if she didn’t love Mateo. Rufus’ foster family would not feel loss if they didn’t love Rufus. And Rufus and Mateo wouldn’t feel loss if they didn’t love each other. The fatalistic nature of said love amplified everyday emotions that we feel towards our friends and family and spouses, and pushed it up to the surface.
Reading fatalistic romance is a version of a Death-Cast call for us readers, I suppose. We know how it ends, yet, we read the book anyway, follow the hero’s journey anyway, and watch the characters fall in love anyway. We signed up for the inevitable heartbreak the moment we picked that book off the shelf. But we would rather experience a great love story with heartbreak than none at all.
I have only experienced love through art. The way an artist paints tenderness and passion, and the rational nature of it all. The greatest love came from walking into love, with a clear conscience, in spite of one’s knowledge of the ending. Whether it be a happily ever after or doomed to fail, the greatest love prevails anyway, against all odds. What is the point of life, then, if not to love?
Some would say that fatalistic romance readers are masochists. I suppose, in a way, we are. Then again, maybe we just crave a sliver of hope of a happy ending in this dystopian present we are currently living in (hello, climate crisis). The world, after all, is a fatalistic reality.