PART OF THE ‘STRANGER STORIES’ SERIES
Disclaimer: The photos used in my Stranger Stories series are taken from charity shops, yard sales etc. I don’t know the real identities of the people in the photos, and all stories are entirely fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or events, is purely coincidental. The photos are a tool to brainstorm new characters.
Scroll down for Author’s notes.
“We’ve got about twenty minutes left, don’t we?”
His head snaps up. He looks surprised. “Yes, around that much.”
“Can I tell you a story?”
“Yes, one about me,” I say. “It’s one I’ve never told anyone.”
His eyes flicker across my face.
“You haven’t spoken all session. Any session. Why now?”
“It’s just popped into my head.”
“OK, if you feel it’s important.”
“It’s not a long one, I won’t go over time,” I add.
“OK.” He settles his hands into a gentle bowl-shape, palms facing upwards, open on his lap. As he always does. Like he’s expecting me to vomit up all my feelings into his palms so he can read them, study them.
I clear my throat. “You’ll listen?”
“There’s nothing else here to distract me.”
“Right. Well it’s from when I was younger, before I arrived here. When I had friends, lots of them. All kinds of friends. Billy, Ella, Madeleine, Richie, Caro-”
“I don’t need to hear all the names, if they’re not important.”
“Caroline, David, James-”
“Remember Judy, you don’t have long to tell me this story.”
“They were my friends, they’re important.”
“OK Judy, OK.”
“We were all in the same class at college, English with creative writing. It was a small class, about 12 students. And one professor, Ms Edwards. Stephanie Edwards, the big author.”
He uncrossed his legs, leaned and re-crossed them the other way. He would do this fairly regularly, either to shift the pins and needles spreading across his upper thigh or to remind himself that he was awake. He leaned to the side and picked up his notepad, flipping midway and drawing a pen from his pocket. “Stephanie Edwards?” he said.
“Yes, but let me explain why she’s part of the story. Listen.”
He put the pen in the crook of the notepad and smiled. “I’m sorry. Go on.”
“They were some of my favorite people ever. Miss Edwards was nice too, but she always wore this awful woollen suit dress which looked itchy as anything. I was desperate to go up to the front of the class and just scratch it for her. It used to slough off little woollen fibres, all over the classroom. No-one else noticed, I don’t think. But I did, because it made me feel so anxious. Every day she wore it. Am I boring you? You look bored.”
“No, I’m not bored, Judy.”
“Good, because this is important. She would also wear rings every day too. She had one ring for every book she’d ever written, and her hands were so full of them that sometimes it looked like she had trouble raising her hand to the blackboard to write. Some of them were gold, some of them were silver. The expensive ones were for the bestsellers. She was a one-of-a-kind, a real bonafide author. Everything that came out of her mouth was genius – and don’t even get me started on what she wrote.”
“It was good?” he said, his fingers twitching as though he was desperate to write himself.
“GOOD? She won every prize you can think of, besides a Nobel – she didn’t live long enough for that. But, oh, she was the kind of writer we all wanted to be. She knew it, too. She knew she was good. And every new lesson she would start by taking off one of her rings and passing it around, to tell us which book it represented and what it was about.
“I thought once about quickly pocketing it, or swallowing it. You know how crazy thoughts like that come into your head sometimes? I thought maybe now she’d bought it, named it, it was anointed or something – like I could learn to write like her if I had her gold in my stomach. Do you think that’s weird?”
“I’m not here to think, I’m here to listen. Do you think it’s weird?”
There’s a small silence.
“Continue,” he says.
“After our last exam, she offered to take us all out for dinner to celebrate. She’d done it with other classes, apparently it was a tradition of hers. Everyone went, well, we were students and had little money so the idea of being treated to a three course dinner by someone else was enough to get us to go.
“I felt funny that morning in the lead up, like something wonderful and terrible was going to happen. I don’t have fancy jewellery but I wore my mother’s pearls because I felt like I needed something to ground me, really ground me in this experience.”
“Wonderful and terrible?”
“Yeah. She told us she wanted to discuss her work at the table. She’d given us all four of her most celebrated novels and asked us to read them before the dinner so that we had something to talk about.”
“Did that strike you as a bit egotistical?”
“I lose my train of thought when you interrupt.”
“I’m sorry. Continue.”
“I read all of them in just a day or two. I absorbed them. I found myself in so many of her characters – almost as though she was writing just for me. She’d written one before I was born though, so perhaps that was impossible. Still, they were my favorite novels ever.
“And then, I sat next to her on the table at dinner. David, the boy next to me had originally been seated with her, but I paid him five pounds to switch with me. Over the cost of the dinner itself back then, but what is money really when you’re sitting next to your idol?”
“You really thought an awful lot of Stephanie Edwards.”
“Interrupting. But yeah, she was everything I wanted to be. Everything I could ever hope to be.”
I picked at some of the orange fluff that was gathering on my shirt and slid my hands down to my crossed legs. My arms looked pale and my fingers stretched out away from me, long and thin. I remembered what they’d looked like adorned with rings.
He had the pen back in his hand and was making small writing motions, with his eyes still on me. “How did the dinner go?”
“Great. I knew every line of her books, from front to back and back again. We had wonderful conversations about every bit of them. I remember that between the entrees and main course, her glasses steamed up because she was getting so excited to talk to me. No-one could get a word in edgeways between us, it was like we were kindred spirits.
“We stayed talking long after everyone had gone. She kept touching her hair with those metal wrapped fingers and told me how wonderful it was to be famous. How everyone wanted to talk to her. How everyone thought she was amazing. I was very lonely and my self esteem was very low at this time, you understand.”
“Sounds like it was a wonderful evening for you.”
“It was. And I remember every detail of it. But isn’t it funny how one bad experience can taint everything that came before? In the same way that the memory of a wedding can be destroyed by the discovery of infidelity 5, 10, even 20 years later? In actuality of course, the bad stuff never touched that moment because back then you were both in love, back then you were happy. But now that doesn’t matter – it’s now the day you married the cheater and the memory is ruined. I’m trying to teach myself how to enjoy that day without thinking of what came after. What do you think?”
“I think there’s truth there. But aren’t they all connected? Both backwards and forwards, isn’t time and our experience of it flexible in this way?”
“See, you say that and it’s accepted. I say that and they transfer me onto new medication.” I jangle the chains of my handcuffs. “Can I take these off while I tell you the rest of the story?”
“No, you can’t. What bad thing came after, Judy?”
“I feel like if I say it out loud, it’ll ruin the dinner.”
“Hasn’t it already?”
Another pause. His pen wrote something.
“I suppose,” I say. “I suppose. Well, after that I got a feedback card from her, with the results of my creative writing exam. I got low enough marks to mean that I would fail the module. She said she’d enjoyed talking with me at dinner, but that ‘Judy will make a far better reader than she will ever do a writer.’”
“You remember her words exactly. What did that feel like to hear?”
“You can imagine well enough. Tacked at the end of this note was a request for me to go to her office the next day to discuss my new module options, seeing as I’d failed this one. She’d told me to come at exactly 4pm and said she’d be giving an interview with a prominent literary critic from 3pm to discuss her new bestseller.”
“That seems like a hurtful comment to include. You must have hated her.”
“No, I said that before, I didn’t hate her. She was everything I wanted to be.”
“Yes, but surely you must have been angry?”
“Can I continue? I only have four minutes left.”
“Don’t worry about the time. Keep going.”
“So I went to the meeting. I took the writing I’d been doing in my spare time, in the hopes that she would take a look at it and tell me she’d been mistaken. That she’d pass me after all. But mostly I wanted to find out how I could improve. She hadn’t left much feedback in the notes, see.
“Her office was right down the hall on the second floor. Hers was bigger than everyone else’s, and I’d never been inside it before. The walls were covered – I mean covered in awards. And not just awards – letters from her readers, all as complementary as me, some more so, all handwritten. Loads of them. So much love and admiration, and she’d never even met most of them.”
“Did that make you angry?”
“No, just sad.”
“I can imagine how much one of those letters would mean, addressed to me. But I’m not talented enough for that. When I opened the door, she was sitting there in that woollen scratchy suit dress again, her head surrounded by these letters like a halo. She was all flushed from speaking with the journalist. She barely noticed I’d entered the room.
“I sat down in front of her desk and waited for her to start talking. She got my name wrong at first, she called me Janet. And then she laughed this little laugh and waved her hand when I said my name was Judy, as though it was some small thing.”
“And that’s when you got mad?”
“Listen. I still wasn’t mad. I wanted to get better at writing. She sat down and started going through what I’d done wrong, all these lessons of hers I had ignored, all these silly mistakes I’d made. And I was taking it all in, I was, but I got distracted by her heartbeat.”
“Heartbeat? I thought you were over the other end of the desk?”
“I was. But underneath her red cheeks, I could see it in her neck. The blood was flowing around her body so fast, and I could see it squirting up to her brain and back down again. I couldn’t hear it, but I could.
“I was watching her, and thinking about my work. About how I would never be any good, no matter how hard I tried. About how this one woman had all the talent, and it was all contained inside her. I couldn’t just take one of her rings and miraculously be like her.”
“No, obviously. She was still talking, and gesturing around but I got sort of obsessed with this vein in her neck, watching the little beats of blood being pumped around. Dub. Dub. Dub.” I poke at the inside of my wrist. “It’s like every pulse was a new word moving from her brain to her palms and pooling there, waiting patiently for her to start writing again.
“If I really concentrated I could see the words, enough to make a sentence, then a paragraph and then a page of them, all swirling in the whorls of her fingertips and waiting to be discovered when I left. I would leave and be amateur forever, and she would just go on to write something new, and brilliant. You’ve glazed over – am I boring you?”
He didn’t speak, shaking his head no.
“I could feel the anxiety building up. In the ten minutes I’d been sitting with her, how many words had I missed out on? At a rate of seventy two heartbeats a minute, I’d missed out on almost eight hundred words. A tiny masterpiece. Nothing I ever wrote would be as good as those eight hundred words. Her tools weren’t special, her hands were just hands – I knew that if I could just get hold of the words, my hands would do just as good of a job. I couldn’t bear it.
“I just wanted to see them, you know? To be first. To read the words before she even knew they were there to write. I just wanted to be special, for a moment.”
“What did you do?”
“I ran around the desk and I strangled her.”
He knew that this was what I’d done. He knew everything on my file. And yet, he moved upwards in his chair a little.
“What was that experience like, Judy?”
“I felt like I was filling up with talent. I had my fat thumbs on her artery as I squeezed and the blood stopped leaving her brain and instead the words flowed into me. It didn’t take long, and then she was gone.”
“And the others? The others you’ve killed since?”
“Some of the genius I’ve absorbed has been from the greatest literary minds of our time.”
“Millions of words.”
“You said I could tell the story, and now you’re judging me.”
“Well, I’m sure you can see why I’m shocked. It’s a lot of people, and all for something that doesn’t exist, that cannot work. Do you feel any remorse at all?”
“I feel complete.”
I look back at the clock. We’re well over time. He closes his notepad and taps the top thoughtfully.
“How does it feel to get this off your chest? You hadn’t uttered a single word since being arrested almost three years ago. All you’ve been doing is writing. Writing through reams of paper, on the walls of your cell, the toilet paper, your skin.”
“Yes, I know,” I said smiling. “I can’t stop.”
“And what if someone were to tell you that your writing wasn’t very good?”
“I would say that Stephanie Edwards would disagree with you.”
This was one of the easiest short stories I’ve had to write for this series, which has honestly shocked the hell out of me. I decided that I really had to start working on my ability to write dialogue, because it’s my weakest area. Inspired by my latest read, ‘I’m thinking of ending things’ (book review coming soon!), I realised that dialogue is by far the most effective way of wrapping up a story like this.
Previously, I have written versions of this story where the student actually dates the author, and murders him while they’re in bed together. For many years I really liked this idea, but on reading back an early attempt I realised how terribly the story unfolded, and how many jumps I was asking the reader to make in order to follow along.
The accompanying vintage picture this week showed, in my mind, a smiling Ms Edwards and a slightly nervous-looking younger woman. I knew that I wanted this to be the angle, but wanted a way to jump quickly into the story. In the first part of ‘I’m thinking of ending things’, the characters are stuck in a car on a road trip. The protagonist manages to tell a whole complete story as though she would in real-life – by talking about it. I’m such an old-school literature student that this kind of jumping to the heart didn’t occur to me – usually I dance around it, setting the scene in an overly descriptive way. But dialogue allows for so much more movement and progression.
There was something really refreshing about the formatting of this short story and clearly my fingers agreed with me because it took me about as long to write as it takes for a large cup of Starbucks (#notspon) hot chocolate to go cold in a takeaway container. Read: Not very bloody long at all. A few hours in total, and very little edits.
Would love to hear any feedback in the comments. Did you guess the twist? Did I end it too abruptly after the reveal? (I feel like I did).