This story originally appeared on my blog last year, but only for a short time. I decided to enter it in a writing contest, and the rules of the contest required me to remove it from my public blog until the results were in. Now that the contest is over, I am posting the story anew. It did not find enough favor with the contest judges to be declared a winner, but it’s a winner to me.
Joseph sat on the bus, staring out the window, unseeing for the first twenty minutes. His mind just needed rest. So much data – so many words – such volatile emotions – too much to deal with right now. His eyes hurt from the glare of the sun, and he needed to close them for a while. Not yet, though. He couldn’t let himself – not so soon. He couldn’t bear to close himself up in his own private world – his own private hell. Not yet. He had to keep his eyes open so that light and color and motion would bombard his mind for at least a little while longer.
The knot in his chest had loosened some. Maybe that was due in part to the even rhythm of the moving bus and the almost imperceptible sound of the wheels against the hot pavement – things, no doubt, completely unnoticed by the majority of the passengers. But Joseph noticed. He seemed especially attuned to sounds and movement in a new way today. All of it seemed amplified somehow. He let out a deep sigh. I’m probably amplifying them in my own imagination, he thought, to keep my mind off the bitter news I just got.
Finally, thanks to the gentle rocking of the bus, he leaned his head against the back of the seat and let his eyelids drift shut. Another deep sigh. Okay, Joseph, it’s time to deal with it. You can do it, Joe.
He took a deep breath. There, that’s better. Another deep breath. That’s it, Joe. Slow and easy – in – and out – in – and out. See, you’re still alive and breathing. Nothing’s changed all that much.
His thoughts drifted back to Dr. Samuels’ office. He shivered slightly at the memory of how cold he’d felt sitting there on the examination table in just his undershirt and shorts. The sterile smell of the room still clung to his nostrils, and his mind replayed images of the signs on the walls describing various ailments and reminding doctors to wash their hands. He’d read every sign at least a dozen times over the past year and knew them by heart, but he still read them every time. It was something to do while he waited for Dr. Samuels, and it kept his mind occupied so that he didn’t try to figure out what the next report might be.
Prior to today’s appointment, he’d imagined numerous possible scenarios and played them over in his mind. Dr. Samuels might say this … and then I would say that … or … maybe he’ll tell me this, and I’ve already made up my mind what my answer will be to that. He closed his eyes a little tighter, stifling a low, mirthless chuckle. Funny – I never – not once – even considered a report like the one I got.
He felt something jostle his arm, so he opened his eyes, looking toward the empty seat on his left. A small, elderly lady had just sat down, and her purse had bumped his arm. “Oh, excuse me,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
He sat up a little straighter and gave his head a slight shake, hoping to clear it. He hadn’t even noticed the bus had stopped. He glanced out the window and realized they had already come half way to his destination. One more stop, and then he’d be at his own jumping off place. Home. It used to always give him a warm feeling to walk up the small concrete sidewalk, step up onto the little porch alcove with the rose trellis on either side, and open his front door to the cozy living room/office where he devoted hours to the work he loved so well.
Writing was his life – had been ever since his young adulthood. There had never been a marriage. He had hoped there would be a time or two, but it hadn’t worked out. And he wasn’t too sad about it. He had a good life – great friends – great audiences for his books – and a family of his own making. The characters that populated his best-selling novels had been born out of him, hadn’t they? And he loved them – everyone of them – even the villains. And many had been the days when he had rushed home, bursting through the front door with ideas literally pouring from his brain faster than he could get to the keyboard and turn them into words.
Well, Joe, it won’t be the same anymore. Everything’s changed now. He focused on the passing scene outside the window. He read a sign on one of the buildings. Then he read a street sign … and another. The bowling alley sign came next. He was seeing all of them for the zillionth time, but he read every word on every one. He had to keep himself from thinking anymore right now.
Finally the sign for his own stop came into view. As the driver made the announcement and slid the bus to a smooth stop, Joseph began to rise from his seat, but, suddenly, he realized his legs felt like lead. He sat back down momentarily, and the lady beside him looked concerned. “Are you all right, sir?”
He made a quick recovery and tried to smile at her. “Y – yes,” he answered. “I think my leg went to sleep. I’ll try to get up more slowly.”
He knew there was nothing wrong with his ability to walk. It was the result of the shock he’d had. The trauma of the news had been enough to shock a better man than he was. He focused all of his mental reserves on making his legs function normally, and finally managed to get up and move out into the aisle. From there, he moved by rote down the steps and through the door to the sidewalk.
As he started down the walk to the next block and his own house, he was amazed that everything around him looked exactly the same. The street looked the same. The traffic whizzed by as usual. The few people he passed looked normal. They spoke a word of greeting and smiled just as if he hadn’t changed at all. Yet his entire world had been wiped out with one simple sentence less than an hour ago.
The roses smelled the same as he stepped onto his porch and inserted his key in the lock. Stepping into the room, he let his eyes search out all the pieces of furniture and equipment that provided his comfortable, peaceful, productive life. He closed the door behind him and walked farther into the room. You’re home Joe. Really home … and it hasn’t changed a bit. It’s exactly the way you left it.
He started to genuinely relax for the first time since he’d stepped into Dr. Samuels’ office three hours ago. He pulled off his jacket, yanked his tie loose, and tossed it on the chair after the jacket. He walked to the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of his favorite juice, downing half of it in one drink. His stomach had been so knotted up when he’d left the doctor’s office that he hadn’t even tried to get lunch. In fact, he’d thought he could never eat or drink again. But he took another drink now. It felt really good going down. And, come to think of it, one of those frozen dinners he’d stocked up on yesterday sounded downright appetizing.
He kicked off his shoes, ambled over to the computer desk, and sat down. Touching the mouse, he focused on the screen. There it was: the new baby – novel number twenty-five – bright and shiny and full of life – staring right back at him from the screen with the familiar challenge that compelled him to create another chapter and another and another. Every word was a part of him – his offspring. Yes, this was life to him. This was all he needed.
Other thoughts tried to intrude, but he kept pushing them aside. Finally, at one point, he got up and walked to the wall on which he kept his main calendar. He stared at it. Dr. Samuels had said, “Six months at the outside. Maybe not that long. I’m indescribably sorry, Joe.”
Joseph reached up and ripped the calendar off the wall. He tore it in half and tossed in into the waste basket as he spoke out loud in response to the words of the medical report: “What is time, anyway, Doc? It’s all relative, isn’t it? Why, I’ve given hundreds of characters entire lifetimes in less than six months.”
He walked back to the computer and placed his hands on the keyboard again. “Sorry, Doc … I’ve got too many lives depending on me right here in this keyboard. I just don’t have time to die.”