Fiona Reynolds set the tray down gently on the desk, careful not to spill the soup over the sandwiches she had made.
Her husband Gary Reynolds had been locked in his study for the last six days, only coming out to sleep or use the bathroom. The later of which he seemed to hardly ever need.
She always hated the final few chapters of a book. When he reached that point, finishing it and getting the first draft printed off were all he could think about, and this time was no different. If anything it was worse. He was speaking less. He came to bed later and later, silently slipping between the sheets.
Every day he said less to her, first he cut out the ‘Good Morning darling’ something he had said every day for the last twenty-seven years of their marriage. Instead he gave her a peck on the cheek and shuffled into his study, cup of coffee in one hand and a few slices of toast in the other. “Good Night’ left next, against replaced by a kiss and a gentle rub of the arm.
This was going to be his sixth novel, and from what he talked about before, it was going to be his longest yet. He was originally pondering whether to make it a trilogy.
She waited a few moments, at least for him to acknowledge the food, which he did with a glance in her direction. His eyes were wide end beginning to redden from the hours he had spent crouched behind the screen, peering closely at the text as it danced along the screen.
Fiona stole a quick glance at the screen. It was dialogue, short sharp sentences or so she guessed. She wasn’t a reader herself. Unless it was one of the many celebrity gossip magazines she bought on a weekly basis.
She left again without either one uttering a word.
Gary watched silently as his wife laid his lunch on the desk. He wanted desperately to thank her, to say anything. He was sweating, his forehead was clammy and the palms of his hands greasy from the effort. Yet he couldn’t muster the strength to say anything.
Instead he turned his attention back to his novel, 149,800 words at the last count. He was getting close to the end. He stared at the screen.
Justin watched as his bride’s chest rose and fell one last time. The dress that she had been so eager to wear fell still. ….
He could think of nothing. His mind was blank, the story written out. Yet, he wasn’t there. The ending hadn’t been reached. He had simply run out of words.
Come on just write something. It will flow He thought to himself, his lips never moving. His eyes were burning from the screen, and his fingers were beginning to ache. He began to type. Throwing in a flashback about the couple’s first date, their first meeting, anything that came to him.
It flowed. He liked it, was happy with it.
Hands frozen above the keys, waiting for the starter’s pistol to sound. The sprint to the finish about to start.
Lowering his hands, he pushed himself away from the desk, his fingers quickly working the thick Oxford Dictionary from the shelf. He hadn’t used it for years. He didn’t even use the spell check on the computer. He hated it. Thought it made people lazy.
He searched the pages, found the word he was looking for. A simple word, one he had used countless times in the past. Many times in the current book alone, yet it was lost. Plucked from his brain and discarded like a piece of rotting fruit on the tree.
He went to put the book back in its dusty crevice, but at the last second decided he would keep it and hand. He set it beside him, between the keyboard and his lunch.
He ate his food. The word staring at him from the screen;
Surreptitiously . . ..
His train of thought lost once more, Gary checked the words. As long as he was over the target he had set himself, then he could wrap up the story and let the second draft pick up any loose ends left behind.
The number appeared on the screen. It didn’t make sense. He closed the screen, made sure that he hasn’t just highlighted an area by mistake.
No, everything was correct.
He tried again. He stifled a cough that sent the last mouthful of soup up into his nose. It completed the loop by dribbling out of one nostril, running down his chin and collecting back in the cup, which he was holding against his lips still. The small window on the screen informed him he had written 149.300 words.
“It’s cant be” He exclaimed, his voice scratchy and slightly sore from lack of use.
The file was closed, changes saved and reopened. 149.4300 It was definite.
Gary rubbed his eyes, he was sure that the total before had been higher.
He stood back from the desk, suddenly aware of how tired he was.
He laid his head on the desk, closed his eyes and tried to shut his mind off. Just for a little while.
He rose, began to leave but his hand stopped just short of the door handle.
He sat back down. Determined to hit the target. It’s only 700 words he told himself. He began to write.
The ideas came slowly, limping out of his tired mind. The characters had already been through so much, and now, faced with the final chapter; it was getting harder to keep them motivated.
The afternoon passed, the sun set, the office darkened.
Gary didn’t even notice. Only when his wife came in to say she was going to bed - turning the light on as she spoke - that Gary finally shook out of the trace he had been in.
His fingers had been dancing over the keyboard. He couldn’t remember what he had been writing; it was natural to him now, second nature. The basics themes, the essentials needed for any story flowed from his fingers like wine around a French dinner table.
“How’s it going?” She asked with genuine interest.
Gary turned to look at her. His eyes stung from the sudden brightness of the room. His hair was a mess, it looked as though he had been running his fingers through it His eyes were a vivid red, the white completely overtaken. Large purple bags were beginning to appear under them; even his stubble seemed inordinately thick.
Gary looked at her.
He wanted desperately to say something, he opened his mouth but nothing came out. There was nothing there. His mind raced, he could think of nothing, his mind was empty, devoid not only of new plot ideas, but of any words at all.
“That bad. Don’t worry honey. You’ll get there. I know you can.” She kissed his forehead. It was clammy with sweat. “Do you want me to make you a coffee or anything before I turn in?” After the first three books Fiona had realized that it was easier to just let him go. It was only for a short time and he was never angry or violent with his artistic rage so she had learnt to accept it.
The money that seemed to come in each time as a result of these stormy days helped also.
She closed the door carefully. Gary hadn’t asked for anything. She thought he was about to cry.
She crawled into bed and when she last looked at the clock it read three minutes past midnight.
She slept fitfully.
Gary sat stating at the computer screen, reading and rereading what stood on the screen. He understood it less and less each time. His mouth was dry, his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. His lips were brittle, the skin over them suddenly as fragile as crepe paper. He heard them crack as he moved his tongue over them.
The words wouldn’t come. He taped the keyboard. Staring at the screen, giving his digits their privacy as they romanced the keys, but nothing appeared. Line and after line of nothing filled the screen.
He stopped writing. Turning to the dictionary, he ran his fingers down the columns. “Gender . . . . . gender.” He repeated the word to himself as though it were foreign. He couldn’t find the word.
He deleted the last word he had written.
His heartbeat had increased. His hands were beginning to tremor.
He dropped the book onto the desk. It landed with a thud, it sounded different. The meaty sound that normally accompanied such a fall was absent. Replaced by something that as a substitute sounded . . . . Hollow.
It nagged at him, even after he turned his attention back to the room. He wiped the back of his hand absently along his forehead, suddenly aware of how hot it was in the room. How close the walls seemed.
He cried out and rolled backwards in his chair, the desk seeming to drift far away, like an inflatable raft caught on the ocean’s current. He drifted helplessly, coming to a stop on the other side of his office bumping against the bookshelf.
With trembling hands Gary looked around, lost, castaway and washed up in a strange land. He tried to think but his mind wouldn’t settle. He was working, he knew that, but what was it he was doing? He racked his brains, he knew it . . . ..he was . . . . He was… the word seemed to evade his grasp.
He had no idea. His head felt empty, drained.
He stood, suddenly dizzy, his balance unsteady. He fumbled for the door, pulled it open and walked out.
He walked into the bathroom, splashed water on his face, not bothering to turn the light on. The idea didn’t even occur to him.
He walked around on the landing, listening to the creaking of the three floorboards directly at the top of the stairs. He heard his wife breathing steadily, the slow deep sounds of slumber.
When he returned to the office, the shakes had left him, his mind felt cleared, his thoughts more his own. He locked the door behind him, and turned on the light. The dictionary sat on the desk directly before the keyboard.
He knew what he had to do.
Just finish this chapter Gary, and then you need to take a break. Get some good rest. Come on just hit that 150,000. He focused himself and returned to work.
He checked the spell check before he started. He jumped again, 99,999 was what it read, and as he stared at it he saw the numbers begin to roll back, a speedometer in reverse. The spun, stopping one at a time.
‘And tonight’s winning lottery number is . . . . ..
98 751 Congratulations Gary Reynolds, anything you would like to say?’ The voice filled the room.
Gary sank back into his chair, tears suddenly filled his eyes, he grabbed at his chest, pulling at his shirt, which felt tighter with each breath he took.
“No” He shrieked in a tired whisper. “Not possible.” His eyes remained focused on the screen. The room felt like a sauna, sweat was soon running through the furrows in Gary’s brow like rivers.
He stared at the words on the screen. It wasn’t quite a romance novel, but there was certainly more romance in it that his previous novels, which had done very well in the thriller market.
It had been hard work from the start; each character, plot and sub plot had taken hours to weave together. It was Gary’s least favorite novel to date, and the last on his contract with this publisher.
The numbers began to spin again. It made his mind ache. He wanted to scream, to shout out, but the words were gone. He swept the dictionary off the desk; taking with it the keyboard, pencil holder complete with an array of coloured pens, several stacks of paper and notebooks and a half drunk cup of coffee from the morning.
The book landed on its spine and the pages fell open. Gary watched in horror as slowly, the words began to melt from the page, oozing from between leaves and onto the floor.
Pools of O’s Q’s and J’s swam together into an alphabetical stream covering the floor where the current seemed to pull them towards Gary, who stood motionless.
The study suddenly seemed very small.
The letters began to circle Gary, covering his shoes, and beginning to climb up his ankles like wallflowers.
The scream that Gary had been storing up came out, but was cut off as the books began to fly from the shelves. Their pages fanned out, they fluttered around the room like butterflies.
Reference books circling just beneath the ceiling like bats flapping blindly in the night air, while below them you had the general fiction books swooped and darted through the air, playing like sparrows on a summer’s day. The only books that were still were the two large encyclopedias, which sat perched on the top of the bookcase, watching over proceedings.
All the time the word counter on the computer was spinning backwards, slowly sometimes, quicker at other. In a last attempt Gary grabbed the keyboard and ripped it from the desk. The receding march continued.
Never had such an act of retreat been so outwardly aggressive.
The letters had made it almost to Gary’s knees by the time he turned to grab at the door handle, his head pounding, blood surging pounding in his ears. His heart it seemed had taken up a time-share agreement with his brain. Sweat blinded him and when the thick Encyclopedia N-Z flew at him, snapping his wrist with his bulk he could do nothing but bite through his own tongue. He could taste the salty liquid in his mouth, trickling down his throat. He opened his mouth and the letters began to take flight, alighting from him and from the shelves of the bookcase. The horror books he enjoyed to collect hung like bats from the shelf above them, their contents making a direct line for Gary’s open mouth.
He gagged as they flooded into him. His mouth stretching farther and father until he felt his jaw begin to pop out of joint. His tongue flapped, pumping blood in think squirts over his chin and the front of his shirt.
The walls of the office seemed to be closing in on him, while all along the counter was slowly reeling itself back. He had written less than 200 words now.
He felt helpless. His brain had gone from aching and began to thump.
His ears began to bleed, followed by his nose. Words continued to cram into him, filling him, stretching his throat until he could no longer breathe. His face was red and his eyes began to bulge. The pressure built inside his skull. He watched, his eyes wide with terror as the word counted reached the final ten words.
The room began to shake, the shelves rattling in their casing, the loose keys of the keyboard that lay scattered over the desk began to dance. An earthquake shook the room and as the word counter hit one Gary’s world went black.
Fiona woke to an empty bed, her husband’s clothes were not piled on the floor in a crumpled heap and there was no sign of cookies anywhere. She knocked gently on the door to his study, suddenly and irrationally afraid. She knocked again, louder this time and the door swung open. Inside the room was a mess. Books littered the ground, pages ripped out. The bookcase had been smashed and the computer looked as though it had stepped in to help out its roommate.
The only thing the remained untouched was the monitor. The screen saver was showing Gary’s favourite selection of family photos.
Fiona walked further into the room. The door wouldn’t open all the way and she soon saw why. Gary was lying naked on the floor; pages of books covered him like a tramp’s blanket. He was shivering and his head was bleeding.
The book was complete, and the publishers love it. Proclaiming Gary Reynolds as the greatest writer of the romance thriller, and immediately offered him a new six-book deal. This was rejected by his wife, who had taken over the his business affairs, along with taking a part time job while Gary continued to receive the treatment prescribed to him. He hadn’t spoken a word for three months, until one day, when Fiona returned from work to find the him sitting on the couch, the word gender scrawled all over his flesh in black ink.
“Gender . . . gender. It is a word.” He said, looking up at her as she walked through the door. There was a dictionary open next to him, the entire exposed page painted black save for one word.