This story is by Mike Van Horn and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
I haven’t got a clue
what I’m gonna do
what I’ll write about
how it will come out.
The only thing I know
when you fall into a hole,
“Hey look,” I said to my wife. “Here’s a writing contest I could enter. Big cash prize! Maybe I’ll sign up.”
“Don’t you think you’d better get the projects done you’ve already promised?”
“No, this is short. Just two thousand words. Piece a cake.” I tried to snap my fingers, but couldn’t get a snap.
“I want to remind you,” she said in her voice of wisdom—or doom, “you’ve got a chapter due to send to our writing group. Plus your never-ending marketing project that’s supposed to be making us rich. You’re due to submit another exercise to your collaborators; they’re counting on you. And don’t forget the important dates on your calendar.”
“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “I’ll just allocate my time to get it all done.”
2,000 words in two weeks—just 150 words a day. I could devote two hours a day for each project. I decided to start with my novel about the adventures of the feathered princess, Flimmerwither. I set the timer. Let’s see, where was I? Oh, yeah:
The Princess fled down the tunnel . . .
But I kept thinking about the short story, scribbling down random ideas. Two hours passed, then four. No Flimmerwither; no short story progress either. Well, tomorrow’s another day.
In the morning, I was ready to get started. Then my wife called from the other end of the house. “Honey, I think the toilet is leaking. Water all over the floor. Do we need to call a plumber?”
I went back and took a look. “No, I can fix that.”
I went to the hardware store to buy a new inlet valve. Then I spent an hour looking for the tools I needed. It took half a day, but I got it fixed. I was proud of my work. “I should have been a plumber, not a writer,” I said to my wife.
Still time to work on the short story. But then I got a text from Jack, my collaborator on the marketing program we were creating. “Hey, where’s the set of exercises you promised?”
I called him back. “Oh, man, I forgot all about it. I’ll do them now.” I had to set aside the other projects and give this my full attention. After all, this work paid the bills. The marketing project took the rest of the day and most of the next one.
Maybe I could then squeeze out some time for my novel. Where did I leave off?
The Princess fled down the tunnel . . .
But I didn’t see where the tunnel came out.
That’s the way it went. Oh lordy, a whole week slipped by. I moaned to my wife, “I’ll have to work this weekend to get my chapter ready for the group.” I hated working on weekends, but this chapter had been moving very slowly. I couldn’t figure out how to get the princess out of the jam she’d gotten into. Maybe I’d have to go back and change the preceding chapters.
“And what about your contest story?” my wife asked. “You’re usually pretty good at knocking out these short pieces.”
“The way I’m agonizing, you’d think this was 20,000 words, not 2,000. I’m not good writing on an assigned topic.” I probably had written 20,000 words on it, pursuing then rejecting one idea after another. I felt a deepening anxiety.
“I’ll just have to double down and focus more,” I said to her with as much resolve as I could muster.
I had taken over a different table in our house for each project. I moved from one to the other as I worked. She watched me work. With hands on her hips, she said, with the merest hint of annoyance, “You know, my love, every flat surface in the house is your desk. Why do you even have an office?”
“I know, I know. I’ll get it cleaned up. The dining room table is the best spot. It’s so sunny and warm.” I had all the pages of the problem chapter about the princess printed and spread out on the table, so that I could compare the different versions. Not that this helped; I was still in a muddle.
The Princess fled down the tunnel, but Count Thugrux jumped out right in front of her, wielding a broadsword . . .
Where was this going? I couldn’t see it.
That night Princess Flimmerwither appeared in my dream, imploring me with her luminous golden eyes. I wanted her to tell me what to do. But she was mute. She slowly faded and was replaced by an ominous black shadow full of absolutely nothing. My wife shook me awake. “You are moaning. What were you dreaming about?” I was drenched in sweat.
The next day, I had to email my fellow writers that I wasn’t sending them my chapter on time. I was so embarrassed; more than once I had chided others for missing the deadline.
I did get my marketing program exercises completed and posted on Google Docs—just barely in time for our scheduled video conference call.
That was one thing checked off the list. I always focused first on the work that paid; that’s why I didn’t get my stories done on time.
Afterwards I was exhausted. “I’m wiped out,” I said to my wife. “I’m glad we don’t have anything scheduled this evening.”
She looked at me like I had just kicked the cat. “You’re in deep doo doo, Buster. You totally forgot a date. Take a look at your calendar.”
When I get engrossed in things, I do sometimes neglect to check. “What did I forget?” I asked as I tried to get the calendar app open on my phone.
“Your anniversary,” she reminded me with the sound of ice.
“My anniversary for what?”
“Well, our anniversary. You know, our wedding anniversary?”
It hit me like a two by four. I was crushed. “I am so sorry.” I couldn’t bear to look at her.
“Didn’t you make dinner reservations?” she asked.
“No, I forgot. I’ll call now.” Our favorite restaurant. I have them on autodial. I quickly got the bad news. “They’re fully booked this evening.”
She nodded with her lips compressed in that particular way she has. “You know, if you’re going to be a writer but then don’t write, what are you?” She stomped into her room and slammed the door behind her.
I was devastated. What an idiot I am, I thought. I’m not worthy of her. No way would I be able to get any writing done now. I’m not a writer. Might as well admit it. Maybe I could get a job as a Walmart greeter.
When I can’t write, I go work in the garden. I took my anger out on the weeds, clearing a whole row of vegetables. I glowered at the neighbor’s big rose bush that kept growing further over our fence, blocking the sun from our garden. I’d love to hack that thing back. Hey, if it grows over our fence, it’s ours. I got my heavy-duty loppers from the workshop.
Aha! This gave me an idea. I got the stepladder, reached up and cut the highest and most beautiful rose—higher than anybody else could reach.
I took it inside, carefully trimmed it, stuck it in a crystal vase, and took it to my wife in her room. I presented her with a beautiful long stem red rose.
“I love you. Can you forgive an ass?”
“I forgive you, you big dope.” She gave me a hug and a kiss.
“This contest is destroying my life,” I moaned. “I’m going to quit.”
“No, that will only make you feel worse.”
She grabbed my shoulders, turned me around, and gave me a push toward my office. “Now go write while I head down to the store and get a steak for dinner. I’ll be back soon. Why don’t you open that bottle of Malbec so it can breathe?”
As she turned to go to the store, she yelled over her shoulder, “If you’re going to do the dumb contest, why don’t you at least write something that’s part of your other story? Kill two birds with one stone.”
Naw, bad idea. How could I do that? Wouldn’t that be cheating? She sometimes had good ideas, but this wasn’t one of them.
I sat at my laptop and moped. No words came, so I escaped into my headphones. Maybe I could find some storytelling cat videos on YouTube. “I’ll never be a writer,” I muttered.
But instead, I clicked on an old live performance by Stevie Nicks singing Gold Dust Woman. Minor key, raw emotions. These were real performers. The audience roared. I turned up the volume.
The music carried me into the story. Like a shot of ecstasy coursing through my veins.
Kill two birds . . .
Princess Flimmerwither fled down the tunnel, only to be confronted by Count Thugrux before she could escape. She swung her feathered tail around and plunged its venom barb deep into the fat hump on his neck. Now, let the poison do its work. Quickly!
But not quick enough. He staggered back, then recovered, and raised his sub-neutrinic gun to blast her. She was trapped–no way out.
I could never figure out how I was going to save the princess. It was all so convoluted and unbelievable. Maybe if I treated that part more as a short story. Ah, yes, that gave me an idea. If I did that, then I could carve out a piece for this story contest. Let’s try it.
There’s just one way out. But she dare not. He stalked toward her, savoring her terror. She peered downward behind her. That way meant almost certain death. She’d never be able to dig out of this one. But what choice did she have?
He roared at her and fired, but he was wobbly from the poison, so he only singed the feathers on her left wing. She turned and leapt. With nary a shred of hope, she plunged down the infinite black hole.
Yet she smiled . . .
I smiled also. I could now see where this was going. The princess veered out of the black hole, and so did I.
The Malbec was the perfect complement to the filets we grilled. I raised my glass. “Happy anniversary, my love and life partner. And writing partner.”