This story is by Claude Bornel and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“It will be like old times,” Robert Banks whispered to himself, staring through his glasses at the computer monitor, both hands messing his own hair. It was twenty after six. The journalist who used to turn in his articles late didn’t want to push the boundaries on this one. His great come back after a ten years hiatus. Margaret Wilson, his editor, much younger than him, took a risk giving him the front page story that would run in three days, after the New Year’s Eve. She pressured him to have the article sent to her no later than eight o’clock. He took the chance, reenacting the non-stop typewriter machine he once was. He had fifteen hundred words left to finish it. His heart beating fast, feeling lightheaded. He knew what he had to do, he had to pick his battles. A matter of knowing what to sacrifice to get the job done.
The forty-six-year-old man reread the last paragraph and spotted two run-on sentences. Those phrases reminded him of his work as a middle school English teacher, and how much he exhausted himself telling the students to avoid fragments and run-on sentences. The image still fresh in his mind led him to open a wide smile. He looked at the ceiling for a second and his eyes landed at the picture frame on his desk. A neighbor took it before Percival, his son, went to college. Priscilla, the youngest, hugged her brother. Robert was in between Lola, his wife, and Molly, their adopted Labrador mix. The smile vanished, and he turned the photo down.
“Did you send me the data for the graphics, Bob?” Margaret said out loud from the other side of the newsroom, interrupting his course of memories.
“I sent to your email yesterday,” he replied.
“Found it. And did you talk to that lawyer?”
“Gonna try again.”
The tips of his fingers made a piano out of the corner of the desk. Margaret’s insistence was pissing him off. The reporter took a deep breath and counted to ten. The same three hollow low keynotes repeated against the MDF board. Over and over, faster and faster, resembling trotting horses. He reached his iPhone to contact Dave Gunner. The journalist wanted for the lawyer to confirm he attended the meeting regarding suspicions of corruption involving the city manager’s expenditure. The source didn’t take or return his calls. It was a quarter to seven. Robert could run the story without talking to him, but having a quote would help to make the argument stronger.
“Nothing yet, Mags.”
“Try later,” the editor said.
Robert turned his eyes again to the text and caught a typo, “on case of emergency.” He had less than eleven hundred words left. He tapped the keyboard almost as fast as squirrels running on a tree. The back of his head felt squished, his chest tighten, but nothing of it mattered. More than making a front page, it was Robert’s first front page since he decided to be a reporter again, writing for a newspaper. He couldn’t wait until having the article published with his name on it.The thrill, the rush and the adrenaline of the newsroom were the reasons why Robert chose to be a journalist in the first place. Pressure was never a problem until after having an argument over a story coverage. The next event he knew was him on a hospital bed. The doctors said he was lucky. The stroke was mild and would leave him no sequels, but they strongly recommended him to make some life changes. Adopting Molly, a rescued Labrador mix, was part of the change.Her love and playfulness helped him lower his stress and blood pressure levels. They created a bond with him taking her for a walk every day after dinner. One night, his wife Lola joined them. Talking about their children’s school, she implied he could apply for a teaching position. He was skeptical but ended up getting a job there. He didn’t hate it. He had more time with Percival and Priscilla before puberty. He took them to school and back home. Sometimes they bumped into each other between classes. It was nice, but he missed his old routine.
It was five after seven; nine hundred and forty-three words away to meet the deadline. A couple of colleagues passed by Robert’s. “Bye-bye, Bob”. He waved them back goodbye, his eyebrows plunged into a frown, followed by a sigh. The journalist squeezed his own face and checked his notes for a moment, looking for one particular quote. His reading glasses were sliding down his nose. He turned his notes again, back and forth, over and over. With his hands closed into fists near his face, Robert almost slammed the desk. Instead, he opened a drawer and grabbed a granola bar behind a Xanax bottle. He also took a pill and walked to the other side of the newsroom, followed by Margaret’s most attentive eyes.
“Don’t forget the lawyer, Bob,” the editor said, shifting her sight from him to the clock against the wall.
“Bathroom break, Mags. Bathroom break.”
He saw the big white clock hanging as well, and it cracked him up. It was twenty after seven, and it couldn’t be more ironic. The moment he chose to have a break was the time he used to walk with the dog. Robert stopped at a water fountain, filled a paper cup and swallowed his pill. An image of Molly barking came to his mind. Many times when he was frustrated with teaching, wishing to be a reporter again, the Labrador mix would lick his face as if she was giving him her blessing to take any decision he wanted. Moly was different from Lola, who was sick and tired of him saying he wanted to work again in a newsroom. She couldn’t believe how he forgot about the stroke and everything after. But in the year Percival went to college and Priscilla was junior in high school, Robert quit teaching and filled a reporter position despite Lola’s frustration.
The iPhone rang in his pocket when he took the last bite of his granola bar and was washing his hands. They were still wet, but he grabbed it from his pocket anyway and ran faster back to his desk. He was anxious to hear from the lawyer and calm down his editor.
“Bob,” the voice on the other side was Lola’s. “Thank God you picked up the phone. You have to come home now.”
“I can’t do this right now,” he sat in front of the monitor, the phone supported by his cheek against his shoulder, while he started writing again. “I have less than thirty-five minutes to turn in my article.”
“It’s Priscilla; Molly,” she gasped to say the names of their younger daughter and dog. “A motorcycle.”
Robert froze. His sight fixed on the text. He spotted again the sentence he fixed, “in case of emergency.”
She sniffed back a sob. “A motorcycle ran them over.”
“How are they?”
“How are they? You asked how are they? I will tell how they are,” Lola said, putting her phone away for a moment, replying something inaudible to someone in the background. “I need you to come here right now, Bob.”
The journalist supported the phone on his left shoulder and finished a sentence. “I really can’t right now.”
“Bob,” she paused. “Priscilla broke her leg. We are rushing to the hospital now. You need to come. Now.”
“Did you hear me say that I can’t now?”
“How come you can’t? What is more important than your family?”
“I will meet you there when I’m done here.”
Lola was silent for a moment. “Aren’t you going to ask about Molly?”
“She is fine, right? You didn’t mention her, so she is…”
“Molly is dead,” Lola cut him off, sniffed again, and hanged up.
Robert put the phone down and closed his eyes. His fingers started tapping on the desk again. Faster, this time. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto number 2 was on his mind. He had four hundred and twenty words left, and he was determined to finish in on time. If he wasn’t playing “piano” or typing on the keyboard, one hand grabbed and pulled his hair. The same arm stretched in the air and the hand would close into a fist as if the gesture helped him to hold on to a sentence or phrase trying to escape. The lawyer, at that point, became a procedure statement: ”he couldn’t be found until the end of this edition.” Margaret wasn’t happy, but Robert wasn’t there to please everyone. Word by word, the journalist cut his way through to meet the deadline.
It was ten to eight on the big white clock on the wall when he turned his article to Margaret. His head collapsed on the keyboard.