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Speculative Suspense Fiction

Everything was ready for the ritual… everything except me. He would soon fix that.

The sensation of his hand sliding to the base of my neck wakes me from a deep slumber. He cradles my head, his fingers wrapping around the back of my neck as he’s done many times before. A gentle squeeze later, he has me exactly where he wants me.

How I’ve longed for his embrace. His hands are home, they’re safety incarnate – like reinforced walls, impenetrable. I’m where I belong.

It’s time again, isn’t it? I’m yours to command. Use me.

My entire life has been devoted to serving him as the primary instrument through which he could express his innermost thoughts, emotions, and desires. I cherish my role, one that I’ve proudly and dutifully performed for over 20 years.

           Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naïve – I know there have been others, temporary stand-ins when he didn’t feel the need to involve me. Someone of his stature, of his prowess, would never rely on just one instrument as the sole conduit of his innermost self. On occasion, I’ve even had to bear the indignity of sharing my space with them.

           I never hold it against him, though. I could never. As long as he always comes back to me.

           With his index finger and thumb, he lifts the weight of my entire body with little effort. I’m turned, pointed down, and lowered until my ball touches the blank paper. The dance is about to begin. I’m ready to perform, a private show that only he and I will bear witness to. 

           His hand stands ready to guide me as I relay the brilliance locked within the maze of his mind.

           His ritual always begins the same – he’s a man for whom repetition is a guiding principle. Thirteen sheets of college-ruled notebook paper, removed from his desk and aligned edge-to-edge by tapping against the desk exactly five times. I’m removed next from my case and placed parallel to the stack of paper on the right. I lay next to the latest group of paper sheets, “one inch and no more” separating us, as I strain to keep the ink within my body. I don’t want to get too excited and leak before we begin. I couldn’t bear to watch from the shelf while he used another again.

           “Old Faithful”, he says each time he pulls me from my case. It’s part of the routine, I know. Yet, while the words are expected, they still fill me with a warmth only matched by his hand around me.

           Gradually, each item littering the landscape of his desktop is removed in turn, moved to their predetermined places in the office. Those places hadn’t changed in years.

           The “Don’t bother me until I’ve had my coffee” mug, which hadn’t held actual coffee for years since he quit the habit, is moved to the shelf on his immediate right – along with all of the “others” who aren’t special enough to have their own home. Not like me, his favorite.

           The daily calendar is placed in the top drawer.

           Various knickknacks and antiques move to placeholders drawn in the dust from years of habit and routine.

           And finally, once this procedure is complete, his desk is transformed into my personal stage, bare except for me and my canvas.

           I’m ready. Everything is ready now. The ritual can begin.

           What will it be today, sir? Are we diving into the depths of some underwater utopia? A world in which some important figurehead is assassinated, setting off events that lead to the end of their civilization?

           Or maybe… maybe we’ll traverse the wilds of Africa, telling the tale of a man who feels like he’s being followed, only to realize - too late - that it wasn’t a lion or hyena following him but rather a human seeking sport? And sustenance? I do love the twisted stories he comes up with!

           Or could it be…

           Wait.

           Something’s different. He’s not writing.

           But I’m ready. I’m always ready. Let’s dance!

           He knows this. Today though, he hesitates.

           No…

           He isn’t just hesitating. He’s unsure of what to write.

           This never happens; well, almost never. He hasn’t had an issue like this since the Great Writer’s Block of ’93 – when he went 4 weeks and 3 days without scribbling so much as a single word, not with me or any of the other pens kept in his desk. I remember it well, as it’s the reason he’s adhered so rigidly to ritual; since The Great Block ended that September, he became superstitious and worried that The Great Block would return if he deviated from tradition and routine in even the slightest manner.

           It was also the first, and only, time that he has thrown me – the small hole on the wall remains as a tribute to the anger and frustrations of that day. He didn’t mean anything by it, I know. He was just upset at The Block, not me. I didn’t get upset, though; I could never get upset at him.

           And after the block cleared, he produced his best work. 

           "A Masterpiece!"

           "Once in a Generation!"

           "Must-Read!"

           At least, that’s what the critical reviews plastered on the front of the many copies kept in the office say. I can’t see everything from my case while he’s away, but those copies of Pride Is a Wound That Festers face my designated resting place. I’ve studied every cover. 

           I remember writing every word of it, too.

           Actually, the more I think about it, the more excited I get. This must be a sign of good things to come, a portent of greatness ready to burst forth – his mind brimming with so many great ideas that he’s not sure which to let out first.

           His hand is shaking, trembling with anticipation. He’s excited too! He wants to let the words out, they must be right there.

           Whenever you’re ready, I’m here. No rush, we have all the time in the world.  

           We sit in this deadlock for 3 minutes, 43 seconds. His trembling hand gripping me, my ball pressed against the paper.

           I do hope he starts writing soon, though. His trembling, combined with my hard-to-contain excitement, has caused a slight mess on the paper. I really hope I haven’t ruined the moment again. The last time this happened back in 2012, my pre-writing excitement was so great that I leaked much of my ink onto the stack of paper before I even touched down. I was cleaned and put away in the back of the top drawer, closed off from light, sound, and his embrace. Other pens were used for 7 months, 3 days, and 17 minutes.

           I do not like to think about the Dark Ages.

           Yet, he’s not upset - nor does he put me, or the paper, away. In fact, it doesn’t seem like he’s even noticed.

           The difference in him is evident not only in his ignorance of my grave solecism, or through his quivering hands, but also in the look on his face. Whenever he writes, there’s always a glimmer in his eyes - like a mischievous adolescent who had just devised a dangerous and filthy experiment in his backyard laboratory, ready to put his plan into motion regardless of the consequences. Where’s that devious joy, that spark? Where…

           Oh wait, I’m moving.

           “To” is all I get to spell out before I stop once again. I can’t help it now, my ink bleeds through the stacked sheets. I brace for impact, ready to be slammed to the table before he replaces the soiled sheet. Only… he doesn’t seem to notice the mess that my tip’s creating, my ink slowly bleeding through the paper in a growing blue splotch. His hand begins to shake again, but this pause isn’t as long – 15 seconds at most.

           “… whomever finds this letter” 

So that’s where we’re going with this tonight, huh?.

           He rarely writes happy stories, especially in the last 5 years or so. Lately, the stories he creates, the pictures he paints, delve into the depths of emotion - that sadness that comes only from the pain of loss or worse, the pain of never knowing loss. I’ve often wondered how much of his stories come from a place of experience and how much of it is the pure brilliance of his imagination.

           So, it seems we are working on a somber tale today. Maybe a Dear John Letter? Perhaps the letter’s author is a castaway who made it to a deserted island? I love this game, the slow reveal of the story, my feeble attempts to guess what comes next inevitably failing up until the last paragraph is transcribed. 

           Who is this character?

           Why are they starting their letter addressing someone unknown?

           Questions abound – but must wait - as I dutifully outline his thoughts and vision, telling the story of a man who holds the same profession as my owner – an author, someone world-renowned for his penmanship – who faces criticism, self-loathing, and loneliness. 

           He knows all about criticism, all too well. He used to know loneliness too, but that was before Joanne. He’s definitely in his element. Have I mentioned how excited I am about this?

           Yet… I still can’t shake the nagging thought that something is off. From the lack of concern over spilled ink to the shaking that still has not subsided, something’s different. Even my letters and words are not as smooth and artful as the usual steady strokes of cursive that he has used to craft so many stories over the years.

           On top of that, today’s writing is slow and deliberate. It’s usually fast-flowing and follows his stream of consciousness. He’s precise today, somewhat methodical with his words. He’s even… doubtful of himself; he’s crossed a word out, something I’ve never seen him do.

           In the past, whenever he’s erred to the point of needing a correction, the whole sheet of paper is binned, a new sheet rising to the top of the stack while a fresh sheet added to the bottom to ensure continuity of routine. Then, he begins the entire page anew. He would never just cross a word out. 

           Also, the two splotches of ink where I rested for extended periods of time continue to go unnoticed. Or, if they have been noticed, they are not bothering him.

           Which is bothering me. What’s on his mind?

           This must be a new routine, a new process replacing the old. I don’t understand why he would need a new routine, though; the old one has served him so well for so long. 

           Come to think of it, it had been a couple of weeks since he last used me to write anything down; even then, it was a short letter to Joanne apologizing for… well, he never specified. Just apologized over and over. Then he didn’t return for weeks, a very long time for him without writing. Maybe the old routine wasn’t working anymore? Maybe a change was needed after all?

           As I glide across the paper, my ink brings to life a written monologue of self-doubt and anguish - a character who’d been criticized for their work and who didn’t feel appreciated or loved by those around him. This character, while somehow still familiar, isn’t one he’s ever used before. Perhaps the new routine is working.

           What I love about his stories is that, no matter how bleak the outlook, there’s always a heroic turn where the main character defies the odds and, by the end, everyone sees him for the genius he really is. Defiant until the end, his characters embodied his own fighting spirit.

           Only, this character seems to have accepted that his work isn’t good enough – that he isn’t good enough.

           This has to be a new type of story… the publisher must have really gotten to him this time. I know he hates it when they try to change his work. I’ve felt that frustration through the tight grip on my frame and the roughness with which he presses my head to the paper as he re-writes his precious work. Work that was already perfect in my eyes…

           I've always thought that everyone would miss me when I was gone, that you would all see the brilliance once you no longer had it available. I can see now that this isn’t true, that you’ve been right all along about me. That the world would be better off without me.

           His writing is so darn realistic at times! I could almost imagine him saying this in one of his down moments.

           I’ve been sitting here, alone, for the past 3 weeks in my apartment

           Wait, he’s really writing from experience – he’s been alone in the apartment for weeks. No one has visited, not even Joanne. Joanne, who’d spent many nights in the house over the past two years, sometimes even visiting his office as he showed off his latest work. Once, he even let her hold me. I always liked how she read stories aloud when he showed them to her. I also liked the smile on his face, and the look of hopeful enthusiasm he looked at her with when she read his masterpieces.

           I haven’t seen (or as is most often the case, heard) her in weeks.

           I wonder when she’ll visit next.

           you don’t want me here anymore. No one does

           This story feels very familiar. I can’t put my ball on it, but I know this story. And if he’s written a story like this in the past, the publisher isn’t going to like it, especially since they’re likely the ones making him change his entire routine in the first place.

           I wonder how many re-writes they’ll make him do.

           Oh… yes! Rewrites means more time with me. More time squeezing down on my neck with that extra tight grip. Being used for multiple re-writes, even though I know they’ll frustrate him, excites the heck out of me.

           So darn excited.

           I can hardly contain…

           Oh…

           No

           Look at what I’ve done. I’ve emptied my inkwell onto the page. In its entirety. This is the Rubicon, and I’ve crossed it. Here comes a furious crumpling of the page, the slamming on the table, The Dark Ages, Second Coming.

           Wait…

           He’s not stopping.

           He’s still writing as if he doesn’t notice. How could he not notice??

           If he doesn’t stop soon, his hand will run over my mess and stain both his hand and the story.

           Please stop!

           PLEASE!

           Please… no

           The blue streak on the page might as well have been a pink slip. That’s it, we are done for the day. He won’t write any more after that. I can’t blame him either, since…

           No… he’s continuing? What!?

           the years of drinking, drugs, self-indulgence that led me down a path of self-destruction

           Yes, yes, I notice the similarities between the story and him, but that’s not my biggest concern at the moment. Why is he acting so darn weird? I’m beginning to wonder if and when he’s going to start acting normal. Why doesn’t he care anymore?

           and while this isn’t your fault, Joanne, you were the last hope I had for a happy ending

           He never includes names of people from his personal life in his stories – Now there’s a Joanne in this story? Don’t tell me… is this a story about him? Is he narrating his own life now? What is this?

           I just need to let his genius play out. This isn’t the first sad story he’s written, and it won’t be the last.

           and after this is all over

           Please tell me that this is just incredibly realistic writing from him, a similar story to his own that takes a drastic turn at the end.

           I mean, he is a master storyteller; this must be him in the zone, doing what he does best.

           This is just a story.

           I realize after writing all of this that it’s just another example of what you’ve all been telling me: another act of self-centeredness, making it all about me. I’m so sorry, I can’t stop myself. Well, I guess I can. And I will. You won’t have to deal with me any longer, I will take away the frustration I’ve caused forever. You’ll all wake up better off tomorrow.

           Goodbye, I hope this eases your burdens, even if just a tiny bit.

           It’s done.

           His grip on me loosens whenever he’s done writing. His fingers loosening feels as if my security walls have cracked and begun falling apart.

           No. I’m just overthinking this. As he always does, he’s going to put me back in my case. Back into the mug. The mug put back in its spot. Then, he’ll…

           What is he doing?

           He just… dropped me. On the desk. I’m not even parallel to the paper stack… he just dropped me then got up. Hitting the desk, I feel as if I’ve been dropped into a gaping chasm, despair and fear filling the pit as I fall deeper.

           He’s walking away.

           He’s not putting anything back where it goes. What is he doing?? Where is he going???

           What did I just write? What have I done?

           Please don’t leave me…


October 22, 2021 15:12

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16 comments

Elise Aries
21:05 Nov 14, 2021

This story kept me gripped the entire time I was reading! I thought it was a very interesting approach to include the POV of a pen and you executed it beautifully! Favorite lines: “ How I’ve longed for his embrace. His hands are home, they’re safety incarnate – like reinforced walls, impenetrable. I’m where I belong.” Word of advice: I’ve noticed that you used the word “excitement” frequently to express the narrator’s feelings. Maybe instead of repeating the same adjective you could use words like “elation,” anticipation,” or something li...

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Michael Martin
03:38 Nov 17, 2021

Thanks! I appreciate the advice, I don't notice when these things happen as I'm writing. Much appreciated :)

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Francis Daisy
14:03 Nov 06, 2021

Amazing, as always!

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Michael Martin
07:59 Nov 07, 2021

Thank you! (As always lol)

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Francis Daisy
08:40 Nov 07, 2021

:)

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Emily Snyder
19:00 Nov 03, 2021

I liked your story. Very cool perspective!

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Michael Martin
19:07 Nov 03, 2021

Thanks! I tried toying around with the idea of a powerless narrator witnessing something they dread... in this case, actually serving as the instrument through which that thing comes to fruition (in some ways). Thanks for reading!

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17:01 Oct 30, 2021

This is so sensual, right from the start. The way you slowly reveal who - or what- the narrator is brilliant! Gives a whole new dimension to the word "penmanship," from being held, caressed, and gripped with passion, then losing to failure and death. I look forward to reading more of your stories!

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Michael Martin
17:27 Oct 30, 2021

Thank you for those kind words! This is a piece I've been working on for some time, and this prompt gave me a perfect opportunity to put it out there. I'm happy that the story developed how I was trying to go with it. Thanks!!

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Tommie Michele
14:31 Oct 30, 2021

Oh, wow, Michael. This story is incredible--I was skeptical when I realized that this was from the POV of the pen, but you pulled it off so, so well. The darker content fits the story, for sure. Usually, with stories from unique POVs, they don't take dark turns (or at least, I haven't read any that have), so that slow decline was surprising. I think this is a nice message today for writers, especially with the way we can receive so much criticism before our work is ever accepted. Self-doubt is a really hard obstacle to overcome, and it cripp...

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Tommie Michele
14:32 Oct 30, 2021

Oh, wait, I just saw the shortlist on your profile! Huge congrats! This story absolutely deserves it.

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Michael Martin
16:07 Oct 30, 2021

Thanks! I've never seen that before, where they shortlist a story so early in the week, but maybe that's part of the new judging system they have? Either way, I was surprised to see it. Thanks for the kind words, and for noticing the shortlist :)

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Tommie Michele
16:25 Oct 30, 2021

I've never seen it before, either, but I was glad to see it for your story!

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Jon Casper
11:35 Oct 24, 2021

Sympathy for a pen? How'd you manage to pull that off? I love it. What a clever glimpse into a dark moment. Great job!

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Michael Martin
14:59 Oct 26, 2021

Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it, despite the darker content.

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Charlie Murphy
03:10 Nov 02, 2021

Great story! Can you read mine?

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