Short fiction: That Thing a Story is Called
To make up for the lack of posts lately, have a short story! This is the story I brought to WisCon this year for my first public reading. It’s best read aloud, but I don’t seem to have any video of myself reading it where I’m not wearing a bathrobe and a safari hat (…don’t ask), so you get the plain old text version.
That Thing a Story is Called
The word potential was the first to go. It fizzled as it left, a sudden dark spot in the mind of guidance counselors nation-wide. A minute later, rejection disappeared as well, leaving aspiring writers and dating advice columnists slightly more optimistic.
Ray Finch smiled to himself, bent over the Oxford English Dictionary in his basement apartment with a blue ballpoint pen. The lines he’d drawn in the dictionary went deep enough to indent the next few pages beneath them. It felt satisfying to get rid of the words.
Words. Who needed them? People who wanted to tell him what he couldn’t do, that’s who.
Engagement caught Ray’s eye. He took a swig of beer, his head spinning slightly, and scraped several deep lines through the word. And then, of course, there was ring to scratch out, and love and date, and by the time he’d found ten words to scratch out, he figured, well, why not go for twenty? Trim the fat off the English language. No one needed all these words. Ray flipped through the dictionary, bringing down his pen whenever he spotted something that seemed unnecessary.
And then the words were leaving.
The technical words went in the first wave, ones like epithelial and inductance. Anatomists and engineers turned to pointing and gesticulation.
Effulgent and corpulent disappeared simultaneously, although they had nothing to do with each other and no one really missed them but bad poets. Other three- and four-syllable adjectives followed suit, making tenth grade term papers instantly more readable but leaving patches of blank white between the covers of thesauruses.
Ray worked steadily for hours, drinking and de-wording the dictionary one word at a time. The TV on the dresser across the room prattled on, occasionally stumbling when he cut a word. Triage took one swipe of his pen, and tomorrow two. The man giving the weather report on TV hesitated mid-sentence, unable to remember what the day after today needed to be called. He’d been the man giving the weather report since Ray scratched out the word meteorologist late that morning – or rather, that early time of day, because he’d taken morning just after that. Ray had never been a that early time of day person.
Ray had never been a lot of things. Guidance counselors had informed him in his way back when – for adolescence was already out – employers had reminded him at every performance review, and last night, Crystal had driven the point home when she left him kneeling in the finest French restaurant in town holding one of those shiny things that fits on your finger.
“You have so much potential, Ray, but you never use it.”
The vague concept of potential still hummed in his head, but it didn’t sting so much with the key word missing. It was just that possibility of doing something more, which seemed way less insulting. Ray could do more right now. If only Crystal could see just how much he could do. She’d be pissed. She taught poetry – or rather, rows of words in funny orders, because poetry was long gone.
Ray was on a roll. He flipped channels as he went, watching soap opera divas and cartoon characters stumble over the holes where their words used to be. He spent a few minutes on channel five, sabotaging that baby-faced reporter who’d gone to his high school. Traffic, congestion, and vehicles disappeared under blue ink, and the reporter stared at the camera like a deer in the headlights before bursting into tears.
This was the most fun Ray had had in years. Watching letters recede from the spines of books along his wall, he thought with vicious glee of the suffering of Scrabble players at the college down the street. An idea struck him, and he flipped to the C’s.
Crystal was there on the page between cryptozoology and crystal ball. Ray’s hand shook as he lowered his pen to the word. He closed his eyes and drew the line. Pain sparked through his skull for a moment, like the shock of touching a car left out in the sun. He eased open his eyes and tested it. The name was gone.
Ray took a deep breath, feeling infinitely better but not quite knowing why. There was a woman, he knew, and something had happened, but he still had half a twelve-pack of Smithwick’s in the fridge, and he was comfortable in his favorite chair, and he knew he was having fun taking words from the dictionary, so he figured he should keep doing what he was doing.
Still quite dizzy from alcohol – for drunk and inebriated had gone the way of superfluous – he began tearing out pages. It was remarkably efficient. TV stations put up their neon technical difficulties signs, and Ray tore out the pages for technical and difficulty to make the signs blank. He felt a sharp tingle in his head as he removed the page with the, but he kept going, stripping out pages until the dictionary’s gluey spine showed.
The news tried to report on nation-wide aphasia, but Ray got to the As before the captions could go up. He did the Rs last, plucking out the page with his own name just before he tore apart the cover of the dictionary. The Rs hurt, but not as much as that woman’s name.
And then the words were gone.
Ray slumped into his recliner, pages strewn about him, and sighed as he listened to the wordless shouts echoing down the street outside his window. If he’d had the words for it, he would’ve thought, There’s your damn potential, or Who’s the loser now? But all he had was a dim recollection of something he should be saying about now, like in the early time of day before he’d had a coffee or a shower.
He sat silently in front of his wordless television, smiling to himself as the mob roared.