This story is by Jennifer Palmer and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The Word Police came in the dead of night.
No, wait. That isn’t quite right. This is no fairy tale, where villains lurk in the shadows, where they give themselves away by their proclivity for darkness and ugliness. In the real world, right and wrong are not always so easily discerned.
The Word Police aren’t fairy tale villains. Perhaps they aren’t even villains at all. In any case, they come in daylight, under the guise of friendship.
Speaking of which, they don’t call themselves ‘Word Police,’ either, though that’s how everyone knows them. They prefer something warmer. Say, ‘Friends of Language.’
So, then. Shall we start again?
The Friends of Language came at high noon, when the sun streamed through the windows and everything was cheery. They came without thug suits or armor, wearing bright smiles on their faces. Their knock on Stanley and Margaret’s door was more of a gentle rap than an angry thud.
Had it been Margaret who answered the door, they’d have been greeted with a smile and an effusive display of words, even though she would have known exactly who they were and what they wanted. She preferred to serve her resistance with a side of ebullience, Margaret did. But she was busy in the back room. Most likely coordinating a project for orphans or widows or some such thing. Stanley could hear her chattering away, enlisting the help of some poor unsuspecting person. She was so focused on her conversation that she didn’t hear the knock.
And so, Stanley answered the door.
He squinted at the two men. His thick gray eyebrows inched down toward his nose at the sight of strangers on his front stoop.
The man in charge—we’ll call him Bob—flashed a sparkling white smile. There were a lot of teeth in that smile, Stanley couldn’t help noticing. Like an advertisement for toothpaste.
“I believe you can,” Bob replied. “Is this the residence of Margaret Thornton?”
Stanley grunted. “Who’s asking?”
Bob’s smile didn’t falter.
“I’m Bob, from The Friends of Language. This is my colleague, Dave. We need to speak to Mrs. Thornton on a matter of some urgency.”
Stanley glanced over his shoulder, then pushed his way onto the already crowded front step. He pulled the door firmly shut behind him. Dave took a step back. Bob did not. Stanley glared at them both.
“You’re not welcome here.”
Bob spread his hands wide, his smile deepening.
“Please, Mr. Thornton. We all know that isn’t how this works. The Word Supply must maintain equitable distribution. That is why it was created, after all.”
Stanley planted his feet and crossed his arms. Despite his long years as a nameless desk jockey—Margaret used to tease that he had the ‘arms of a thinking man’—he still managed to cut an imposing figure, one that dared Bob and Dave to just try him. Dave took another step back. Bob held out a conciliatory hand.
“Come now, Mr. Thorton. Let’s not make this any more difficult than it needs to be.”
Stanley did not move. He did not respond. He did not blink.
Bob sighed. Without taking his eyes from Stanley’s, he said, “Read it to him, Dave.”
Dave pulled a heavy-duty clipboard from his backpack. The kind of clipboard that said he was Someone Important. Someone Worth Listening To.
Bob raised an eyebrow, shrugging slightly as if to say: “New guy. Whatcha gonna do?”
Clearing his throat, Dave proclaimed, “This serves as official notice that Margaret Thornton is in imminent danger of exceeding her Lifetime Word Quota. Mrs. Thornton’s tally has risen by” —here, a slight smirk— “three hundred words in the last ten minutes. At her current rate of consumption, she will be cut off from the Word Supply at this time tomorrow.”
“Give her some of mine, like you’ve always done.”
Bob shook his head.
“No can do. I’m sorry, Mr. Thornton. You’ve reached the limit of what you can give.”
“Besides,” Dave cut in, “she’s had more than enough. Why should she get more than the rest of us?”
Bob shot him a sidelong glance before turning back to Stanley. “And before you ask, no. You can’t recruit others to donate to the cause. We’re past that point. Your friends and family are all very generous, Mr. Thornton. Given the number of close shaves she’s had, you would think your wife would be more judicious in how she utilizes that generosity.”
Stanley blinked. Bob studied him for a moment. When he spoke again, it was a statement, not a question, and there was a hint of—could it be called humanity?—in his tone.
“She has no idea she’s ever come close to her quota.”
A muscle twitched along Stanley’s jaw. He nodded.
“You should have told her.”
Stanley’s eyes burned. “She’d have regulated herself. For everyone else. Couldn’t bear the thought of that. Especially not if I could prevent it.”
A silence—blessed, golden, and, in a world where every word was weighed and measured and counted, free—stretched between the three men.
As was his wont, Bob—finally—broke the silence.
“Could it, perhaps, be seen as a mercy, Mr. Thornton? A chance for quiet at the end of a life full of noise? Have you never once wished for a moment’s peace? The opportunity to entertain your own thoughts?”
Stanley winced at hearing his uncharitable moments of weakness repeated back to him, but before he could reply, a woman’s song wound its way around the back of the house and into their waiting ears. The words and tune were familiar, a popular love song from three or four decades back, when the singer herself would have been young and newly in love.
Stanley closed his eyes. Would it be maudlin to note a small tear escaping down his cheek?
Maybe Bob saw the tear. Then again, maybe he didn’t. Maybe the music touched him, too, because, unlike fairy tale villains, Bob did have the remnants of a heart.
For the length of the song, nobody spoke.
As the last note faded into silence, Bob took a deep breath. He had lost the false cheeriness, the bravado. His voice was soft.
“There is one potential option. I don’t normally bring it up, because the higher-ups frown on it. Besides, nobody ever chooses it. But perhaps this is a special case.”
Dave caught at his sleeve, stammering about the ‘integrity of the system,’ but Bob shook him off. He raised his voice, overriding his subordinate’s objections.
“In a case of extreme need, a person may give all of his words—not just his vocalized words, mind you, but all of them—to another. The law stipulates that such an act of sacrifice would completely eliminate the Word Quota for the recipient, allowing them an unlimited number of words for the remainder of their lifetime.”
Stanley’s eyes popped open. Bob held up his hand in warning.
“Before you respond, Mr. Thornton, consider your choices carefully. It is one thing to lose your spoken words, difficult though that would be. It is quite another to lose them all.”
Stanley started to reply, but Bob again forestalled him.
“I’m not finished.” He eyed the man in front of him, weighing his words. “You have a granddaughter, Mr. Thornton. Is that right?”
Stanley jerked his head up and down once, impatient.
“Consider this, then. If you take this path, your granddaughter’s face will evoke feelings of joy, of peace, of love—but you will be unable to put words to those feelings. You won’t know her name, because her name is, in fact, a word. You will be unable to communicate with her in any of the conventional ways—reading, writing, speaking—because you will, quite literally, have no words. Some experts believe you will be unable to think, a state which throws your very humanity into question. I don’t know that I would go that far, but there’s no doubt it’s difficult for us to wrap our minds around what it means to be without words.”
“Will it hurt?”
“Hurt you? Unlikely, though it’s hard to say for certain. But it will surely hurt those who love you. Your granddaughter, for instance. And Margaret.”
At the sound of her name, Stanley winced. As he stood in the bright sunlight, his wife unknowing in the backyard, he wished for those villains of the night, for the thugs with menacing voices and ugly scowls. If there was a chance he was making a deal with the devil, it seemed only fair to know for sure that was what he was doing.
The jangle of a cell phone cut through his thoughts, followed by his wife’s delighted voice.
“Sophie, darling, how are you? Give me a sec to find Grandpa, and we’ll talk to you together.”
Stanley closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. He stood there for ten long seconds. Finally, he looked up into Bob’s eyes.
“Ok,” he said. “I’ll do it.”