This story is by William Zimmermann and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Mon, Oct 13th | 8:47 AM | NYC
“I’ll give you a week.”
Joshua straightened in his chair. Mr. Thompson had startled him by entering the office and interrupting the silence in which he’d spent the last few minutes. Arriving early for their meeting, Joshua had been instructed to wait for the publishing boss in his office.
Joshua did as he was told, surveying the office as he sat. The back wall, made entirely of glass, revealed a spectacular view of the city. It allowed for the cool, morning light to illuminate the meticulously kept office and its expensive, modern design.
Except for a single picture on the bookshelf and small pile of papers on the desk, there was no sign the office was in use. It was like the office that Joshua was waiting in was pulled straight from the cover of a magazine. It embodied tremendous success without a trace of warmth or personality. Joshua liked that about it.
“Excuse me?” Joshua finally responded.
Mr. Thompson was seated by now, laptop opened in front of him. He didn’t bother looking up at Joshua. He nodded towards the stack of papers on his desk. “That’s yours, isn’t it?”
Joshua leaned in to get a better look. It was an excerpt from the book he had been working on that he had sent the previous week.
“Yes, that’s mine,” he confirmed.
“Okay. I’ll give you a week.”
“I don’t understand.”
Mr. Thompson looked up at Joshua. Again motioning towards the papers on his desk he said, “What you sent me, it’s shit.”
He continued, “If it were up to me, this would be the last you and I ever spoke. But my partner is going to ask me how this meeting went and if I say I sent you away in a matter of minutes without notes, it’ll…” He paused, “It’ll be a whole thing.”
He rubbed his eyes. “So… I’ll give you a week. Send me another 5,000 that isn’t total shit. Or, don’t. I could care less.”
Mr. Thompson watched for a second, while Joshua remained silent.
Then continued. “One week, got it?”
Still nothing from Joshua. Mr. Thompson stands to leave but before he can make it out the door, finally a word from Joshua.
“Excuse me?” Mr. Thompson stops.
“You said you weren’t going to send me away without notes,” Joshua turns in his chair to look at Mr. Thompson.
Mr. Thompson hesitates, not sure if it’s worth his time, but caves.
“Well, besides being a categorically uninteresting writer, my main issue is with your characters; They’re shallow and uninteresting. Your story was a thriller, right?”
“Right? Okay, I honestly couldn’t tell. In a thriller, your characters, they face fear. So, expand on that. Don’t just tell me Billy is scared. Instead, tell me why he’s scared; is it fright or anxiety? Because, the two are different, you know. Is he scared because he’s confused about what’s happening, or is he scared because he knows exactly what’s happening, and he knows what to expect.”
Mr. Thompson waited for a second. Then, without waiting for a response, he left.
Harvey Thompson and Mike Haverford grew up just a few blocks apart from each other in a peaceful, suburban neighborhood just north of Minneapolis. 25 years ago, just a year after graduating college, the best friends launched Haverford & Thompson Publishing, Co. in a small, unimpressive office space in the Bronx.
It took a couple of years, but they finally found a niche by courting promising thriller/suspense writers from out of the area. New writers who weren’t quite used to the pace of the East Coast appreciated their Midwestern charm. As their company grew into a modest success, Mike couldn’t have been happier. As far as he was concerned, his dream had been realized.
Harvey, on the other hand, grew ambitious where Mike had grown content. Now that they were in the game, Harvey was determined to rise to the top of it. He became obsessed with the reputation of his company. As another year passed, Harvey had convinced himself that he’d have to make a drastic change if they were going to fully realize their potential; the industry would never tolerate a “nice-guy” from the Midwest, he thought.
Fueled by ambition, Harvey devoted himself to his work and over the next decade, Harvey’s insatiable ambitions would propel the company to where it is today–a behemoth with office space in a Manhattan high rise, nearly one hundred employees and a sterling reputation.
Tues, Oct 14th | 4:47 AM | READING
At his computer, Joshua was physically exhausted and tired as hell. He’d spent much of the night in the barn. It wasn’t until shortly before 2:30 that he came into the house and pulled out his laptop.
He had a week to write a fresh 5,000 words; he would sleep once that timeline no longer terrified him. After hours of sitting, he was still staring at a blank page. Whatever he had typed out in that time, he’d changed his mind about and frantically deleted.
Joshua was working in the kitchen of the small Pennsylvanian farmhouse, where he lived alone. He had shared it with his mother and father, but his mother passed just two and a half years ago, followed by his father soon after. The town where he lived was small.
It was small enough where after losing each of his parents, the entire town attended both funerals and offered their condolences and home-cooked meals delivered in Tupperware. The town was big enough though, where after a few days, everyone respected his privacy and left him be.
Both Joshua’s parents were in the accident that killed his mother. His father survived, picking up a nasty limp. He wouldn’t have to put up with his bad leg for long, dying a year and a half later. A hiking accident, authorities would tell Joshua. Why he was hiking alone at night with that limp, the authorities didn’t quite understand.
The town watched as the death of his mother destroyed Joshua. He had been a freshman, studying creative writing. After the funeral, he gave up school, stopped seeing his friends and let the relationship with his father deteriorate completely.
At 5 AM, Joshua got up from the table, threw on a coat and made his way out to the barn. He swung open the large barn door, let himself in, and pulled it closed behind him. Joshua made his way to the back room, which the farm’s previous owners had used for butchery.
It was small but fully equipped. There was a raised metal slab against the wall with a hose hanging above it. A few meat hooks hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room, near a collection of rusty tools.
The only light in the room was the little that filtered through from the main room. There was just enough to make out a dark mass hanging from the centermost meat hook. Joshua walked to the hose and turned on the water. He pointed the faucet towards the middle of the room. Pulling down on the faucet, freezing water came bursting out.
The mass came to life, squirming furiously. Joshua stopped spraying and waited for it to tire. Then he cleared his throat. “Tell me, Mr. Thompson. Are you afraid?”
Joshua was furious after leaving Mr. Thompson’s office the previous morning. His heart was pounding out of his chest. To cool off, Joshua had walked around the city.
He had been walking for a few hours when he first had the idea to take him. He thought back to a profile piece he had read about Mr. Thompson. Published only a few months ago, the piece talked about how he had grown his publishing empire. Joshua read of a man that recognized he had an incredible opportunity, understood drastic measures were needed to make the most of it, and then went out and did what was necessary.
After reading it, Joshua felt the two of them were connected. After all, that’s exactly what he had done a year ago, finally bringing justice to his mother’s death. Joshua had blamed his father. He has been the one at the wheel, and Joshua and would never forgive him for surviving the accident.
He thought about what Mr. Thompson had said, about describing fear. He’d wished he’d had the chance to ask his father about the fear he felt before he died. Maybe his dad couldn’t answer those questions, but Mr. Thompson could.
Joshua turned on the lights so he could see the fear in Mr. Thompson’s eyes.
He continued, “Yes, you’re afraid.”
Again, with a curious tone, “Tell me, why are you afraid? Are you filled with fright, or is it anxiety? They’re different, you know. Are you confused about what’s happening, or do you what to expect?”
“Tell me, I’m curious.”