Thursday, March 6, 2014

Another Original Short Story by S.J. Francis

Happy March and hopefully, spring will be on the way everywhere in the U.S.A. soon. It is cold and wet out here today.
In honor of writers everywhere, particularly those suffering from the dreaded rejection slip, or from a chronic illness, I present a short story for was published many years ago in University Press....



                                                                     A Short Story  



     She held the long white business envelope in her right hand. 

     A sudden anguish swept over her as she stared at it.  Long white envelopes had become her enemy as of late.  It was a bitter reminder of having tried, yet failed all in one neat little package.  Should she open this one or let it sit?  Or better yet, just get up out of this old recliner of torn material and chipped wood and just throw it away?  Would it enhance her life to read it or only make it worse? 

     Someone might ask her how opening an envelope could be such a daunting task.

     Her husband had been the first to broach the subject:  “It’s just a stupid envelope.  Stop making such a big deal of it already.” He admonished as he made a move forward to snatch it from her.

     She pulled back and placed the envelope behind her as tears fell from her face. “It is a big deal.  This is my life. Our life. Our future.” Her voice echoed of the pain that wreaked havoc throughout her once vibrant body.  He just didn’t understand.  How could he?  Did he, like her start each day stumbling out of bed wishing fervently for a pain free effortless day?  A day with a purpose.

     “You’re obsessed with it and I’ve had enough!”

     Six days later he walked out on her.  He moved in with a female co-worker and she never heard from him again.  At first she had wanted to kill him, ring his bloody neck and throw his mangled body into the Hudson River.  But she no longer had the strength for such nonsense and gave up.

     That was five years ago. 

     It all started so simple.  A disabled veteran she could no longer work.  Not in any kind of real job anyway and as far as she could see there was no real reason to go on with pain and overwhelming fatigue her constant companions. 

     Thus she decided, after many hours of despair and contemplation, that a return to writing which she had always enjoyed doing before, might be her salvation.  She would do it for no one but herself.  For a sense of purpose.  To keep her from the bad thoughts that loomed about her.

     I’m on a first class ride into hell and Satan is the driver. 

     Story of her life.

     It wasn’t hard to begin a novel.  It wasn’t difficult to write one.  An idea had taunted her for years.  She even wrote down a paragraph then stopped.  Years ago.  Fatigue and pain had stopped her then, put a halt on what she did best.  As when her illness first engulfed her, she had no choice but to stop writing.

     Becoming disabled with a mysterious illness of which there was no cure or treatment was not very comforting.  Becoming ill at twenty-one was intolerable, unacceptable, and heartbreaking.

     “You have a virus.” The young naval doctor had told her after giving her a physical.  “Your lab work is normal and so is your x-rays.  You’re healthy.  You should be feeling better soon. Give it time.  It’ll eventually work its way out of your system.”

     The diagnosis or lack thereof was made at the Pearl Harbor Navy base in Honolulu Hawaii.  That was 1985.   She remembered it well because it was the final visit on her whirlwind of exams of going back and forth to sick call every day over a three-week period.  She was sick in bed for a total of six weeks before she even began to feel better.  A year later the persistent weakness, headaches, body aches and abdominal pain returned with a vengeance.

      The diagnosis was a twelve-letter word that she had never even heard of before: fibromyalgia.  A tedious monster of a disease that played host to a number of other debilitating symptoms that really had no tests and was found by process of elimination. 

     How terrible it was to be so ill at such a young age.  She had had her whole life before her but not anymore. 

      Her husband supported her, at first.  He thought the idea of writing was great.  At least she wouldn’t be so cranky all the time.  Their sex life improved and when she wrote, they had the best sex they ever thought possible but her creative high didn't last long. She grew more tired and uncomfortable.  Her joints hurt.  She slept thirteen to sixteen hours and naps became a routine part of her day.

     Stubborn and strong willed she trudged forward into the bleak darkness determined not to let her health overwhelm her.  It took her four years to face the new limitations set before her.  How agonizing it was to no longer possess a photographic memory she once took for granted.  Simple tasks such as brushing her teeth were no longer simple.  She needed help.

      As the years passed slowly her health deteriorated. New problems creeped up and they too had no cure or treatment and were just something new to endure.  It was as if the physicians who cared for her had found and opened a new can of worms.  Specialists: she saw many: so many there were few she did not hear of. She no longer wanted to see or hear of physicians and appointments with them became like dens of torture.  They were all her enemies now.

     “It never ends does it?” she asked as her primary care physician read off the results of her latest blood tests.

     “You have to take care of yourself.” Admonished her latest doctor, a middle-aged woman with black rimmed glasses, a caring demeanor and a hooknose.  “Reduce stress. Try to relax. ”

     “Yeah sure.” She countered with sarcasm.  “So you can find something else you can’t treat or else something worse.”

     “There’s always hope.” The doctor said patting her hand.

     “Right.” She snapped.  Hope was long gone. So were all her dreams. “Summer’s gone; fall is in and with it the dark gray of depression.” She stood up. “I’ve had enough.  I’m not coming back.”

     “See you in three months.” The doctor told her.

     She nodded.  Too scared to ignore her health she remained the dutiful patient and kept her appointments.  In hopes of getting better or at least finding some effective treatment for her ailments, she submitted to lab work and other tests deemed necessary but they made no difference, made no dent in aiding her. There was no more light at the end of the tunnel. Only darkness-total blackness lay ahead of her now.

      The bouts with depression were multitudinous and swarmed about her too many times for her to recall.  Her hands trembled violently and she was painfully weak.  She couldn’t remember anything not even mundane details as lack of concentration prevailed.  She felt useless and inferior to all around.  She was afraid to try anything new because of failure and withdrew into her own world-her cocoon safe from the pressures of the outside.  Unlike before she could no longer handle criticism or rejection. 

      Sadly the respite therapy that writing once offered her had come to an end.  A heavy weight around her neck, it hung low and forbidding.  It had become nothing but a sad reminder of a life wasted due to poor health.

      Then the worse scenario that could have happened arrived.  She grew more emotional, irritable at every turn and withdrew from everyone and everything and that was when her husband had left her.  He too grew tired of the illness that had encroached upon their lives and turned her into someone he’d rather not know.

     The envelope was nothing but a piece of paper with other paper inside.  It was an inanimate object and couldn’t harm her.  Or could it?

     An inanimate object yes-but it was far from harmless; its contents had the power to diminish her and with it all her ambitions, hopes and dreams.  Its dominance lay in what it contained negative words on an eight and a half by eleven-inch sheet of paper.  A photocopy of a form letter no doubt.  Most were clear copies, some ghostly shadows as if the toner needed replacing.  If I sent out something like this, I would deserve rejection.  But she never did yet rejections were all she ever received.  A few letters were personal or at least appeared to be.  Some had personal hand written notes of rejection somewhere scribbled down on them and it was those that she cherished and respected.  They were the ones she would have wanted for an agent because they had at least taken the time to say something-anything.

     The rejection letters were many.  With four attempts at trying to sell ten novels, she had amassed a collection large enough to wall paper her den.  Two hundred and twenty seven at last count and those were not including the ones sent by email.

     The comments, form or otherwise were multifarious, and said very little if anything.  “Sorry not for us.”  “Sounds interesting.  Not the right agent.”  “Although it has merit, I pass.”  “I enjoyed the writing but I didn’t connect with the story.”  “Not commercial enough.”  “Selective market demands mean I must be very selective.”  “Not taking on new clients.”  “No first time authors.”  The best one to come along was “Great story but not believable enough to fall in love with.” 

     With each rejection, emptiness pervaded her heart.  Sadness like no other poured into her soul as the hole in the dam spread slowly wider.  Depression lurked at the gate ready to rush in when she gave up.  What was it they wanted anyway?  Bronte? Austen?  Hemingway?  Aren’t they all dead?

     At first she tried to ignore the rejections.  What did they know anyway?  It wasn’t as if she needed to get published.  She had had several short stories and articles published over the years, scattered about in numerous publications.  But it did matter.  The more rejections she received the more she was determined to press forward.  It became a quest that she aimed to win.  But after writing four novels, it became too much.  She wanted to quit but couldn't.  Quitting meant failure and failure was unacceptable to the hopeless perfectionist.

     Undaunted though discouraged, through it all she went onward.  College had been her dream and though it was a difficult task, almost impossible, she had endured.  She was absent many days and had to drop many classes more than once sometimes-whole semesters but she finally did it.  It had taken her thirteen years but she had finally obtained a Master’s degree.  But none of that meant anything to her now.

     She stared at the half empty bottle of Laphroig whiskey.  A gift from her deceased brother from many Christmas holidays ago.  Which year she wasn’t even sure.  She wasn’t a drinker but the contents of the envelope scared her.  She needed to relax and thought alcohol was a way out.  The few glasses of wine had worked when she received twelve rejection letters in one week the month before.  The few cans of beer had worked when she received fifteen, ten by mail and five by email the week earlier.

     She eyed the envelope, as it lay motionless on her heavy oak dining table.  It was nothing but paper but its contents terrified her.  She glanced at the whisky bottle and it seemed to call her name: Annie. 

     It stood on the edge of the table a foot from the envelope.  In her handwriting on the envelope she had put her return address: the SASE.  “And include an SASE if you want a response.” The literary magazines had admonished.  And she had listened.  The latest copy of the Writer’s Digest, unread, lay nearby.  

     Unfortunately, not all agents or publishers abided by their own rules.  Some used email and kept her envelopes.  Some never responded at all and she wondered what had become of the unused postage.   Just exactly where were her SASE’s?  She certainly never saw them again.  Probably in the zone with all the missing socks and the image brought a temporary smile to her lips. 

     The blues were bad this time.  Depression her greatest ally.  The sense of discouragement engulfed her, swallowed her whole as if it were a great white shark.  She tried to be reasonable but couldn’t. 

     Slowly she eased her hand toward the bottle and as her fingers reached the neck, she hesitated to grasp it.  Drinking was not a way out; her conscience though fading admonished her.  No but it would sure ease her mind for a little while.  Her trembling hand outstretched, she grabbed it, unscrewed the cap and in one swift movement she gulped down a bit.  YUCK!  She shot to her feet, ran to the kitchen sink of dull stainless steel and spit it out.

     Coffee stains and dried food crumbs littered the basin’s bottom and she could not recall the last time she had cleaned the sink, if at all.

     What was I thinking?  Aside from wine and beer and cocktails, alcohol was nothing for her.  It tasted horrible!  It burned her throat.  She tasted it in her nose.  The smell was foul and lingering.  It was bitter.  I’d make a terrible alcoholic and strangely the fact offered her some relief.  It offered her some courage to do what she wanted.  What she needed.  Release.  Relief.  An end.

     It’s now or never she thought as she reached out to the envelope, took it into her hand and ripped off one end.  The end with the stamp.  Slowly as if waiting for something to spring out, she removed the contents and unfolded the one page letter.

     The familiar words seemed to stand six inches tall, boldface and menacing, as they seemed to jump out at her:

     “We regret to inform you it is not our policy to take on first time novelists.”

     She didn’t have to read anymore.  She knew the outcome as she crinkled it up into a ball in her hand and ignored the sharp points as the paper stuck into her soft flesh.  Another rejection letter.  From an agent or a publisher it mattered not.  Why do they list themselves as being receptive to new writers when they really are not?  Was it cruelty of fate, ill-placed timing or a cruel joke on their part?  She certainly didn’t think it amusing.

     Feelings of failure overshadowed her reasoning as despondency befell her and one thought came to mind.  Her promise.  Without her health and without any future, there was no need to go on.  It wasn’t the first time the thought came to mind.  It’d certainly be the easy way out.  It wasn’t as if anyone would miss her.  She was a nothing.  A nobody.  She never even had any friends left to speak of.  Where were they anyhow?  Now that she needed them.  Now that she was in the deepest darkest moment of her life.

     I’m so tired of being useless.  I wake up in the morning with no purpose after going the bed the night before the same way.

     I write to keep busy.  I write to live so I live to write.  In my heart, I know there’s something very wrong.  Deep in my soul.  I want to carry on but I feel so confused, so alone, so lost.

     Should I seek help?  No more doctors.  It just means endless tests that lead nowhere and drugs on top of drugs that offer nothing but ill side effects.  If I do this wrong, there’ll be drugs.  Do it right then.

     How many copies of her manuscript had she sent out?  So many she had lost count.  How many partials and synopsis?  Did it even matter? No.  It did not.

     Looking back, maybe she should have bragged more about her successes.  Put down about her college degree.  Elicit sympathy for her disability.  Called in on old favors. But she wanted to get accepted for her writing and not for what she knew.  But she couldn’t help wondering now if it would even have had made a difference?  Would it have worked?  Would anyone even care?  Probably not.

     All she knew now was it was no longer worth the hassle.  No more writing.  No more rejections. She had had enough.  How much time and money had she wasted and for what?  So much drivel was published yet she still got nowhere.

     She stood up from the chair, walked to the bedroom and opened the draw to her nightstand.  In it lay the small twenty two-caliber derringer with a wooden handle.  It had been a gift from her ex-husband.  Now that was a cruel joke.  Had he tried to tell her something back then and she had missed it? She removed it, checked for two bullets then stared at it.  Too messy she thought.  And what if she missed?  She’d be a vegetable.  The thought turned her off.  There was an easier way.  Not as messy and at least it would be contained.

     She headed into the small bathroom and turned on the bathtub faucet. 

     The bathroom was painted a putrid yellow and she hated it.  She found she hated everything as of late.

     It took a few minutes before the water turned from cold to warm and then finally steaming hot.  With a few twists of the knob this way and that, she had the temperature just right.  Warm enough to relax her but not burn as if that really mattered now.

     Slowly she undressed as the water splashed nearby into the light beige enamel.  Her T-shirt fell to the ground and along with it her faded jeans.  She turned around and grabbed the small knob of the medicine chest and opened it and moved the tube of Clearasil but it wasn’t there.  Behind the preparation H she found it: A small tray of razor blades and she decided just one would do nicely.

     She stepped into the tub and turned off the water.  The liquid was clear, warm and inviting and slowly she descended into it.  The phone rang but she ignored it intent on her goal.  Probably a wrong number anyhow or worse one of those annoying telemarketers who had nothing to sell that she wanted to buy anyhow. 

     The first slice.  It stung and burned but was tolerable.

     The first wrist was cut and the blood flowed.  Her blood. Dark red almost purple and she had to turn away.  She was tempted to stop but she had made a promise long ago.  If she didn’t sell anything by the fourth book she’d end it. 

     The other wrist was easier.  Slice. Slash.  Lengthwise from wrist to elbow she cut.  If you mean to do it, do it right not like one sees on television.

     She heard the last ring then her own voice came on the answering machine and commanded the caller to leave a message after the beep.

     “Hello Mrs. Price.” It was a woman’s voice that spoke. “This is Royce Publishing House and I’m calling to discuss your book.  It’s not our policy to publish first time novelists.”

     She laughed as the room began to spin and the loss of blood drained her of all her strength. 

     The call continued: “We’re very interested in publishing your novel if it’s still available. You may call me at (212) 555-1212.  Please call us as soon as possible so we can discuss where to go from here.  We’d very much interested in any more ideas you may have.”

     Ideas?  She had plenty. 

     With her last breath she laughed at the irony of it all: It figures.  Now they call.  Better late than never.  Was it possible after all this time?  Or was the call merely a dream? 

     For a moment ecstasy filled her heart then sadly the feeling vanished.

     Into the deepest darkest corners of despair she fled and now they followed her in.  Just where the hell were they an hour ago?  Who cares?  Certainly not her. 

     It certainly didn’t matter now.  Nothing did.

     She had the last laugh then died with a smile on her lips satisfied with a job well done.

She had seen it to the end just as she had promised.



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