Sixteen Seconds

2300 words
Originally published September 2013
Out of Print Blog

It was a day in March.

The sky was a flat, unimaginative northwest gray. Rain had been pouring for most of the afternoon while Charlotte ran her errands and then, just to be cheeky, wound down to a drizzle and finally stopped when she at last took shelter in the appointed cafe. Why couldn’t the month make up its damn mind whether it wanted to be spring or winter? It was hailing that morning for chrissake and it would be another two months before sunny weather became reliable. March was just a dismal reminder that pleasant weather was still a long way off. It should stop pretending to be spring, already.

The dark roast face in Charlotte’s coffee glowered sourly up at her as she stared into her cup. It was too expensive, too bitter and too hot to drink. She stirred in another packet of honey with nothing else to do. Aidan was late again, surprise surprise.

In her purse her phone buzzed. For a full minute she ignored it, blowing softly on the surface of her coffee, peeling away the heat one layer at a time in between each muffled vibration. Eventually, it gave up and stilled. She waited another minute before bringing her paper cup to her lips, scalding them again. She couldn’t have one victory — not one single victory today! Soaked to her skin by the rain, abandoned by Aidan, pestered by her phone, and burned by the one comfort she could usually count on. She clicked her tongue angrily and thrust her hand into her purse for her phone. Might as well just accept things as there were today.

She didn’t need to check it to know who had called. It was Suzie; the woman had been calling her all day. Her voicemail icon displayed a hopeful notification and disinterested, Charlotte tapped it and began counting.

It took sixteen seconds for her voicemail to get through all of the automated recordings telling her needless information: the date, the time, how many calls she had and how much space remained in her inbox. She didn’t care. She cared less about the message. At the end of sixteen seconds she flicked 7 on her screen, deleting it, and put it out of her mind.

Another honey packet went into her coffee and with her cheek pressed unflatteringly in her palm, she stared at the soggy world outside. Despite the weather, the streets were still busy with people just as soaked as she was. The rain seemed to have no effect on them. Like limp paper cutouts they carried on their business, expressionless and efficient. She envied them. She’d lived here her entire life and yet every year when the rains came and lingered for months like an unwanted relative she cursed the persistence of it, as though she’d never known a six month rainy season in her twenty-six years.

Her phone began to buzz again, edging threateningly closer to the edge of the table but she ignored it – spitefully now. The rain started again, coming down in full force and a black-capped mushroom grove of umbrellas popped up under it. Occasionally a brightly colored umbrella would bob by, on its own stubbornly rebellious against the gray of their world but Charlotte knew better; eventually, the rainy city bullied everything into monochromatics.

Fourteen… fifteen…sixteen. She turned her head without lifting it, mashing her cheek into her lips and she flicked the delete command again. Her phone sat reproachfully silent at the edge of the table. She slid it back into her purse and sighed, refusing to be guilted by a piece of technology.

Her stomach excused itself obnoxiously under her damp cardigan. There was no use in her starving while she waited; if Aidan had really wanted to eat lunch with her, he would have been on time. She stood and collected her purse. Her phone remained thankfully silent.

There were no other customers at the counter and the barista behind it looked for a moment as though she’d done her job in serving Charlotte once and wouldn’t do so again kindly. With aspartame sweetness she asked, “What can I get you?”

“The spring salad; low fat dressing. Do you have any more fruit cups?”

“No, sorry, we just sold the last one. Would you like a fruit tart instead?”

If Charlotte could eat a fruit tart, she wouldn’t have ordered wilted greens and a tasteless vinaigrette. She thrust her irritation into her purse in exchange for her wallet.

“No, that’s fine, just the salad.”

“Okay then— seven ninety-nine.”

A despairing sigh left Charlotte before she could check it, but she laid her last ten dutifully on the counter and watched it distill down into a handful of coins.

“Thanks,” she said, or thought she said— hoped she’d said as she took her change and her lunch and sat again. It wasn’t much of a meal, all things considered. A few brown edged leaves of romaine, cucumber sliced so thinly it could pass for a microscope slide and— was that dandelion?! Who the hell put weeds in a salad? Her head returned heavily to her hand and she mixed the deceptively sweet smelling vinaigrette into the over priced plastic bowl of yard trimmings. In her purse, her phone buzzed again. Why couldn’t Suzie take a hint? The woman couldn’t comprehend anything existing outside of her sphere of influence. It irritated Charlotte enough to be deliberately avoidant, just to throw a wrench in her plans. If she could, she’d tell Oliver outright that his mother’s micromanagement and constant badgering were suffocating, but then she’d have to deal with the hurt puppy looks and the passive aggressive silences.

She was halfway through her salad when the door banged open and shut and a new breeze of cold and wet spilled in. Moments later Aidan stood over her, shaking the rain from his coat onto the table and floor around him. Charlotte moved her purse and regretted for a brief, petulant moment that it also invited a seat for him. His childishness was starting to rub off on her and she lifted her head and straightened her back to hide it.

“You look like you’ve had better days.”

“Something like that.”

“Whatcha eating?”

“Weeds.”

“Sounds appetizing.”

“You’re late.” Her eyes turned up to him as he sat. She must have looked or sounded more accusatory than she’d intended. He frowned right back at her until she sighed and looked away. That look. That damnable, stony, chiding look that made her feel like a kid caught in the cookie jar again.

“Sorry,” she muttered without wanting to.

After a moment, the hardness of his expression cracked and broke away and his usual sunny features shone through. “Don’t worry about it. It’s the weather you know? Dark skies make people dark on the inside.”

“Except you?”

He grinned. “Except me. They serve anything here besides weeds?”

“Probably. Did you bring your bank account?”

“Even better.” He flashed her the gold surface of a MasterCard and then was gone again.

She took another sip of her coffee— too cold now, of course but at least the caffeine stood a chance at improving her mood. She stared spitefully into her half eaten salad.

Her phone went off again. She could almost feel Suzie’s impatience in every clipped buzz. They were even timed the same as the woman’s nervous lip smacks. She brought her phone out of exile just as the vibrations stopped. Three new messages. She was about to delete them all out of hand, when she noticed one was from Aidan. She tapped on the 1 key and brought the phone to her ear.

“Hey babe, it’s Aidan. I’ll be a bit late. Traffic around here is a nightmare. Don’t wait- go on and get something to eat. I’ll grab something later. See you soon.”

The message ended and she sighed. Only Aidan could make her feel so guilty with such friendly words. Well, Aidan and Oliver, if she thought about it. She didn’t want to think about it.

“Who was that?” Aidan dropped into the seat opposite her, surrounded by the smell of stracchino cheese and chives. Her mouth watered against her will and she quickly drowned it in another sip of coffee.

“No one. Just messages.”

“Yeah? Did you get mine?” He set a white paper package in front of her. It radiated warmth and was losing its opaqueness to grease.

“Just now.” She picked open the moist paper and stared at the cheese and chicken melted mess inside. “Aidan, you know I can’t-”

He held up a hand, his other cradling his own sandwich. “Come on, one meal off your diet isn’t going to hurt anything. Besides, everyone cheats, you know.”

There was something in the cheeky way that he said it that she didn’t appreciate. She almost sent the sandwich back across the table to him but another look down (it dolefully oozed a tendril of cheese to the paper) changed her mind. Of course, he was right – and God, it was good!

Her hone rang again.

“Fuck. I can’t even eat my lunch in peace.” Muttered of course; who knew where an overly sensitive parent might be lurking.

Aidan snatched her phone off the table while she was busy licking cheese off her lingers.

“Suzie, huh? You want me to answer for you?” He grinned an evil grin, his thumb hovering devilishly over the display.

“No!” She grabbed the phone before he could press the bright green button, careful not to nudge it herself. He lifted a shoulder.

“You’re still with Oliver, then?”

She dropped back into her purse. There was a grease smear on it that she’d have to clean up later.

“Yes, I’m still with Oliver.” She was so tired of this conversation. Life would be much simpler if Aidan would just live in the now.

“Are you ever going to tell him?”

“Maybe.”

“Do you still love him?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Do you love me?”

“Of course.”

There was silence between them. Her coffee grew colder, but she was determined to enjoy her calorie bomb of a sandwich while it was still warm, Aidan and Oliver and Suzie be damned —double damned for making her second guess her choices. She was an adult, damnit! in control of her own life. Whose business was it anyway whose bed she was in?

“So,” Aidan sighed at last. “What does mother hen want?”

It took everything in her not to send him the warning kick he deserved — he didn’t need to be so antagonistic, even if he had every right to be. She nibbled up a string of cheese sullenly.

“Nothing important. There’s a gallery opening she wants me to attend. I haven’t gotten back to her yet.”

“When’s the opening?”

“Tonight.”

“Oh.” He hid his expression behind his own paper coffee cup. Four sugar and a teaspoon of cream. She didn’t know how he could tell the difference, but she’d given him two teaspoons of cream on purpose one morning and he’d sent her back to the kitchen with a warning and a swat to her ass. Confident and casually in command —she supposed it was what drew her to him in the first place. It was so easy to give control over to him when he miraculously made it seem like she was still the one in charge.

“I guess dinner and a movie are out then, huh?”

“I told you noon. It’s not my fault you were late.”

“No, but you could have at least set out a whole day for me. We used to do that you know. Whole days.”

“I know,” she said, and set her mostly eaten sandwich back on the table. She’d never been fond of crusts.

He sighed again. “Look, no pressure, but think about it. You’re complicating your life needlessly and you’re going to end up hurting him, one way or another. You know that.”

She knew it, though it was somehow worse that he knew it.

In her purse, her phone began buzzing angrily again. They both stared at it and it seemed to Charlotte that this time that the vibrations had no intention of shutting off. Aidan stood, collected their trash and headed to the bin. When he returned, Charlotte and her phone were silent.

“You should probably call her,” he said quietly. Charlotte nodded. “Will you be free later? After the opening?”

“Maybe. You know how Suzie is with her family outings. It could be a while. It could be all night.”

“Well, give me a call if you want to come over. If you’re not held up overnight. I’ll probably be up.” He wouldn’t be, but he’d pretend that were the case, if she called him. She watched him leave without saying goodbye. He’d understand she had a lot of heavy thoughts on her mind, after all, he’d put them there.

The rain had stopped again, and here and there a few fingers of sunlight poked through the dark cloud cover. Umbrellas snapped closed and jackets unbuttoned. Charlotte watched Aidan’s head bob up and down in the crowd, turn the corner and then disappear.

She stood and slid into her coat. Her purse buzzed against her back. Outside, she finally obliged her phone and held it to her ear.

“Hello?—

“Suzie! Hey, how are you?—

“No, no, I’m all right—

“Yeah, sorry about that. I’ve been running errands all day. The rain has just made it impossible—

“Of course I’ll be there. Is Sophia coming?—

“Great! Tell Oliver I’ll be around at about six—

“Of course I’m staying for dinner. I wouldn’t miss it for the world—”

 

The Writer’s Pinch

660 words

So here’s the scene: There’s this writer, you see? He’s there hunched over his desk, burnt out cigarette between his lips and fifteen of its cousins already stubbed out in the tray and on the desk and under the typewriter. There’s an empty bottle of whiskey rolling around under his feet and no less than seven dirty coffee mugs on the kitchen counter behind him. The one that’s sitting cold by his elbow needs a wash, but he’ll give it a rinse if he remembers, or pour the stale ghosts of beans past directly into it if not.

He’s alone, because that’s the responsible thing to do when your art is tearing you up from the inside to get out, but is shit at feeding a family or keeping the water hot. He’s barely got the lights on, which was what she said when she left the last time. He pretends not to care because the hurt makes the words more real. Pain is ink and he feeds it drop by plunking drop into the machine in front of him, hitting the keys like he’s in a brawl. Bare knuckle boxing against twenty-six opponents and their stuttering, stalling, questioning peanut gallery. And he fights on, hour after hour, endlessly, mindlessly typing because when he stops is when he hears them. Every single goddamned one of them and their poison-tipped words that keep him perched on the edge of a bottle: Kook, shut-in, layabout, mooch. Knife thrusts in what was supposed to be a fair fight. And he’s fighting, damnit but all the bets are against him, and they laugh at his bruises but don’t they know this is the only damn thing he’s ever been good at?

He’s got a stack of rejection letters eight miles high and four miles deep, but he wears his one acceptance like a badge of honor. Victory on the field of battle. Welcome home soldier, you’ve done your good duty. Sorry about the legs and all; we’ll get you looked after. And then he’s gone. Forgotten in the gutters and he digs viciously at the keys, recounting it all: the struggle over the mound of bodies, the rip of bullets through his flesh, and the flash of bayonets white-hot like match flames in the cigarette-smoky air. He tears his hair out at the sound of mail sliding through the door slot: planes overhead dropping their payload. Shell after shell of bills; he prays that the atom bomb of another rejection doesn’t land in the pile. It’s PTSD and he knows it but there’s no VA for writers who can’t get published, and no support for a man who can’t work a normal nine to five because the weight of it crushes his soul already undervalued beside what worth can be ripped out of the toil of his body.

He’s pinched. His stomach. His wallet. All of it. Pinned to the wall like a bug. One more beetle out of a hundred thousand others. And still he flexes, twitching in the last synapses of life before death. LOOK AT ME, he screams into the din. I’m special. I’m unique. Inspect me. Tear out my wings and catalog them. Every book: twenty-six letters: different patterns. Different spots in different arrangements. Pigment, flourish, camouflage. In an evolution of words his are failing natural selection. Failing to stand out. Falling out of the gene pool. He’d give his kingdom of cobwebs to be a butterfly right now.

His fingers slow to a stop over the keys. They hover and then drop, the mad hummingbird pace they’ve been keeping falters in uncertainty. Is this worth it? The world returns to him. The real world. Empty refrigerators, medical bills, and the sound of angry, bitter sex through the too thin walls. His head drops like a cracked clay pot into his hands. Ash stains his keys. He’s written fifteen thousand, seven hundred and eighty-four words today and erased fifteen thousand, seven hundred and eight-five.

Slushpocalypse

1900 words

“Shit!”

Kathleen looked up over the top of her computer and rubbed her eyes.

“What is it?” she asked, but the words had no meaning. Any actual interest she’d had in the reasons behind Susan’s frequent expletives had bled out weeks ago. Still, the seconds it took to feign concern were seconds spent off her computer screen. Her eyes began to sting and water and she gave them another apologetic rub. When was the last time she’d blinked?

“Nothing.” Contemptuously understated as it was, Kathleen could see the fingers of creamy coffee slide down off the edge of Susan’s desk and into the wastebasket at the side. There they impatiently tapped on discarded paper and tissue, while Susan bumped around the office for a roll of paper towels.

“Alright,” Kathleen answered and forced her eyes back to Edie’s Excellent Example of Every English Error aka ‘the novel that will change the world!!!1!’ as it was touted by its charmingly disillusioned author. Mother of god, how did people get through grade school without understanding the basic function of a comma? Maybe she ought to take a break and read some of the snail mail. She cautiously inched her eyes toward the mountain of submissions on her desk and grimaced. Nope, email it would stay.

The whole office smelled like coffee by the time Kathleen had absorbed enough terrible grammar to begin to seriously worry about how it might affect her own writing. The world changing novel disappeared from her screen with a smart click and she opened her email to copy and paste their standard rejection reply.

Dear Mr. Willert;

“What the hell is a ‘bogle’?” Susan growled from her seat, extra grumpy for having lost her first cup of coffee to the wastebasket. “I swear, writers will try any gimmick to get noticed.”

“A what?”

“A bogle. This query is signed ‘the bogles’. No capitals. Just like that.”

Kathleen frowned as she realized this was a legitimate question for once. “Is it, like, a writers group or a pen name?”

“I don’t know. That’s all it says.” The critical lines on Susan’s face were drawn in deep by the glow of her computer screen, as if being closer to the source of her confusion might make it clearer.

“You could google it.”

“It doesn’t matter anyway.”

Kathleen made a noise as if she cared and Susan continued as if she’d heard. “His manuscript is off genre. I don’t get it. Our website clearly says ‘supernatural, thriller, horror, fantasy’. How anyone could get ‘campy teen love story’ out of that, I don’t know.” Susan shook her head and clicked her tongue and Kathleen stopped watching long before she began furiously typing out her rejection letter.

Susan always typed them out herself, like she got some satisfaction out of personally putting down every word. Like it somehow paid back the inconvenience of reading whatever she was rejecting. Kathleen thought it was a stupid waste of time.

“ ‘Dear the bogles,’…” Susan began, but Kathleen was already lost in the special kind of linguistic torture that was the next submission in her inbox.

Ends

The monitor flickered to life and bathed the dusty garage in cold, electric blue. Ten round eyes squinted in the sudden light. Dubh reached out his three clawed hand and typed in the password. They changed it every other night, but Dubh was the only one who ever remembered what they changed it to, so he became the de facto computer user. The remaining four bogles stood behind Dubh and watched the changing colors with anxious, unblinking eyes.

This had been a ritual with them for so long that the family who occupied the house had begun to believe the horseshoe nailed above the door had actually driven off their tormentors. The bogles didn’t give one crusty scale about horseshoes or other magical charms. These five bogles were literary masters in the shadows, sure to be the next Shakespeare, Burns, Joyce or Gaiman. They just needed to be discovered.

“Click the internet,” Ros said impatiently.

“That doesn’t say internet,” Colla added.

“You have to click the internet.”

“Shut up!” Dubh hissed. “I already told you. Nobody uses Internet Explorer. Stoopid.” The bogles fell into silence while Dubh clicked and tapped until finally their email opened up on the screen.

“There!” shrieked Colla, leaping up and pointing to the screen. “It’s there! Finally.”

“Shut up!” Dubh brought the cursor to the bold subject line-

RE: Publisher Please Read! Its’ Good!

-and clicked. The bogles held their breath as they waited for their leader to read the complicated arrangement of loops and tails to them.

Dubh was quiet for a long time.

The bogles began to grow restless. They pushed themselves closer to the screen and tried to make out the words for themselves.

“What does it say?”

“Loved it, right?”

“We’ll be famous?”

“Rejected it.” Dubh clicked again and again on the text on the screen in a misguided attempt to re-position the letters into something more positive. The message remained resolute: Rejection.

“Rejected it?!”

“How?”

“It was so good!”

“The goodest!”

“The goodest bit of writing in ever!”

Dubh crossed his arms over his skinny chest and nodded in agreement to his companions’ assertions. He knew it was the goodest damn piece of writing in the world. He couldn’t imagine what was wrong with the publisher’s eyes.

“Send it again,” Corc insisted, reaching for the mouse himself. “Maybe they not read it all.”

Ros slapped his hand away. “No. We bogles, not beggars.”

Slowly, Dubh unfolded his arms. A grin slid across his broken glass teeth. “Right. We bogles!” He hopped up onto the computer table and stood in front of the monitor, facing his companions. “We bogles, so, we do what bogles do. We make the publisher sorry.” Matching grins slid onto each one of the bogle’s faces until they were all maliciously sneering in the computer light.

“What should we do?”

“Disconnect internet?”

“Spam email?”

“Decaffeinate coffee?”

Dubh shook his head. Those were all good suggestions, but they were just ordinary bogle things. This was a huge insult, it needed a huge bogle prank.

Dubh looked around the garage at all the human stuff laying around. All sorts of sharp, pointy farm stuff hanging from nails and laying on the ground. Dubh shook his head again. They were bogles, not murderers. He tapped his tail on the computer desk. No, no, no- ah! There, against the wall, just in front of the tractor, a red oil can shone in the bright computer light.

“That!” he croaked and thrust a claw decidedly at the can. “We break that.” Four bogle faces turned to the oil can.

“That?”

“Why?”

“Do publishers like cans?”

“No, stoopid!” Dubh hopped off the desk, strutted over to the can and tipped it over. “This! Humans love this. All humans. See? This can is new. From yesterday.” He gestured around. “Everything else is rusted. But this,” he stuck his foot into the slick oil spreading on the pavement and splashed it around. “This is new. They always need more.” The others were starting to understand.

“So, what do we do?” Asked Ros.

“We turn it.”

“Turn it to what?”

Dubh thought about this for a while, looking around the garage again for something suitably frustrating. “How about this?” he suggested, tearing a hole in a bag of dry concrete mix. Grey dust poured out and stuck to his oily foot.

“That?”

“Why not?” None of the other bogles had a suitable alternative, so Dubh considered the matter unanimously voted on.

“What about the black rock?” Colla suggested.

Dubh nodded his head in quick agreement. “Yes, black rock too.”

“But,” Corc started.

“Yes?”

“But how will we do it? There’s a lot of it, yes? If all humans love it, have it all the time?”

This put a wet rag on everyone’s mood for several minutes. Finally Colla spoke again.

“We get help!”

“From where?”

“The internet.”

Dubh scratched his knobby chin as he thought about this. Leaving a confusing half trail of footprints behind him, he climbed back up onto the computer desk.

“Dubh has an idea!” The four bogles gathered around under the chair in awe.

“What’s your idea, Dubh?”

“We network. Invite all the nasties.”

“And then?”

“And then we campaign. Like Anonymous.”

“All over the world?”

“Yes.”

“They really help?”

“Of course.” Dubh closed their email disdainfully and brought up a fresh window. “Nasties stick together. We still have union card, right?” The bogles scrambled for a minute, but finally found it tucked under a forgotten mouse trap.

“But where you find the nasties, Dubh?”

Dubh quickly punched the computer keys.

“LinkedIn.”

Ends

Kathleen was already at her desk by the time Susan walked in. The rest of the world looked like hell; Susan looked like she always did.

The digital clock on the wall said ten fifteen, but it said ten fifteen all day now. A more nature oriented person might have been able to tell the time from the sun, but Kathleen was simply glad that her desk was near enough to the window to read with sufficient light.

“I’m surprised you still come in,” Kathleen said and rubbed the dark circles under her eyes.

“The office is like, the only place I can get water for my coffee anymore.”

“You’ll drink it cold?”

“It’s a hell of a lot better than not drinking it at all.”

Susan dropped what remained of her coffee grounds into a filter and taped it open inside her cup. It was a strangely fascinating sight to watch a grown woman wrestle a half empty five gallon water jug over a mug, just for a cup of coffee. Kathleen turned over the manuscript in her hands and jotted down a few notes for a story later on.

“Hey, you remember that intern we had a few months back?” Susan asked and set the jug down with a triumphant grunt.

“Casey?”

“No, that other one. The one who refused the pizza.”

“Oh, Mandy.”

“Yeah, her. She was the vegan one, right?”

“Yeah. What about her?”

Susan squeezed the remaining liquid into her cup and placed the filter carefully on a manuscript at the side of her desk. She then licked her hand. Kathleen took a few more notes.

“I bet she’s got her own little vegan garden going in her apartment.” She seemed to be chewing coffee flavor out of her thumb. “We still have her address?”

“If we do, it’s in the computers.”

“Damn!”

One of their stomachs growled. Or maybe it was both of them. The sound had taken over the niche that had been filled with the hums and whirls of office machinery three weeks ago.

Susan fell back into normal Susan habits, and Kathleen turned over the manuscript in her hands to continue reading. Another post-apocalyptic zombie horror about survival and selfishness and gritty, muddy sex between big breasted women and chainsaw wielding mountain men. Kathleen looked up. The only zombie she saw was Susan, sipping dead-eyed at her coffee. She shook her head and tucked the manuscript under her laptop to keep the pages from blowing away out the open window. It would never sell now. She reached for another submission.

“Hey Kathleen?”

“Yeah?”

“Why do you still come in?”

Kathleen paused, her remaining slush in hand. “Are you kidding me? No computers, no mail. Look at this!” She gestured to her in-box. “I’m finally at the bottom of this damn thing!”