First prize winner of the 2007 McKinney Contest at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for graduate fiction or drama (http://www.llc.rpi.edu/pl/mckinney)

Hello reader. Welcome to my story. Well, I guess I should say your story, but I will be accompanying you on your journey. Yes, this may seem a bit awkward at first, I realize you’re not accustomed to the writer’s company; I assure you, however, that it will be to both of our advantage.

Now, where should we start? Yes, I should say we should do ‘something’, but I honestly haven’t been doing much of anything lately. Well, what do you expect, really? That pompous publisher won’t return my calls, and given my daily walk, three square meals (which I must cook myself), and my afternoon nap, I barely had time to make it to the store to buy some pens! What’s that? Of course I’m a qualified writer!

But anyway, what is it you’ve been doing? Uh huh. Yes. Hmmm. Well, that would be a very interesting plot, actually. However, it sounds rather similar the prediciment of my friend who used to be a sailor. He fell in love with the captain’s wife, who paid him no attention, of course – he’s quite the floozy – and in the end left her stranded on the moon! Disastrous, really… no, no, of course you’ve never been to the moon, but besides that, your situation sounds almost identical. We should really think of something new, something fresh. And really, we must stay focused. I don’t want to take up too much of your time, for I’m sure you have many other things you need to accomplish today.

Okay, so neither of us has enjoyed a recent experience worthy of these pages, so lets just make something up. This is fiction after all. Something exotic and adventurous you say? Alright, let’s start in a jungle – a boat, to be exact – steaming up a vast African river. The unknown breath of mystery is straining to penetrate this immobile fortress of nature… what’s that? Not quite right, you say? Well, yes, I suppose I failed to consider malaria. No, I don’t want to die! Absurd, really… Oh, this isn’t working! Space is running out and I need something good! Remember, I’m not doing this for pleasure like you, this is my job, and I really would enjoy eating next week. Then why am I asking you? I just thought you might have a suggestion, that’s all. No? Well, in that case, we’ll just have to improvise as we go along.

Let’s start easy, in my hometown; it’s not spectacular, but it has that romantic, Lake Woebegone type of appeal. The crisp main street is four blocks of storefront hardwares, coffee shops, and food co-ops. Erect in the center is Hollywood, or rather the old movie hall, a tribute to the days when it was still a far away land bringing extravagent visions to a much humbler existence. On the next block across from the courthouse we also find Central Park, complete with its miniature pantheon bandstand of the bygone era.

In fact, this is where we shall find our protagonist sitting. The freshly painted green gloss of the bench is cold against her thighs. Eyes downcast, winter whips between the sparse trees and she constricts her shoulders and hips, arms hugging the bright red woolen jacket around her hardy yet supple frame. She’s a very attractive girl, I might add – it’s sometimes hard to tell, you know, beneath the bundle of winter’s guise. She appears to be contemplating her breath, which condenses the moment it issues from between her full, moist coat of lipstick. She looks up at the sun tucked beneath a gray silk layer of cloud…

What’s that reader? No she’s not in danger! You see a man approaching? With a knife!? Now that just absurd, we’ve barely reached the situation, much less the climax. Well, I’m sorry if you find it boring, but we must get a picture of our heroine before we… of course she’s running away now, you said there was a man with a knife behind her! Really, that’s no way to treat our characters. Would you please stop laughing! Oh great, now we’ve lost her. See what happens when you introduce the climax too early? We were just getting to know her, but no, you had to excite your sense of entertainment. Excite my what!? Well, of course she’s beautiful, but… no I don’t think it was weird that we were watching her… wait, what are you saying? Enough! How dare you insinuate I was… well, I have to look at such details to adequately grasp her… but to say it was because… no, that’s completely ridiculous. Please stop laughing! We really must keep this story moving and now we’ve completely lost her. I guess we have no choice but to go look for her. Yes, I saw her run south, and she did look completely terrified. Well, yes, I’m glad you feel sorry now, as you should. Hopefully you’ll get a chance to tell her.

It has gotten colder, hasn’t it, and look, its starting to snow a bit. Although its well past Christmas, the streets still retain an uncharacteristic clean-cut beauty. As our protagonist would tell you, years ago months of salt and dirt would have normally titrated the roadside banks a saturated brown by now. Yet there is no snow left this year, it has been well too warm to keep. The patchwork store windows pervade the stoic ethos of small town life, don’t they? It’s never really that busy downtown anymore, a fact exemplified by the handful of empty stores. As we make our way through this crowd of bustling ghosts, that Burger King really catches the eye, yes? It actually stands where the old train station used to be; in its time it was a lifeline to the Cities and the grounds behind our present latitude and longitude. Ah, there goes one now – grain and coal – right past the castle of the landmark Cargill bin. Plenty of cars, yes – always hustling by, sliding between their respective pockets of disjointed warmth. I already long for the days when they become one again, windows rolled down in the swimming humidity of the coming summer. No, sorry reader, in this tale air conditioning is over rated. That’s months away, however, and I digress, for we still haven’t found our protagonist. Oh, that’s right, she works at that antique shop on the corner. I forgot to mention that. Well, actually, I was going to mention that before I was rudely interrupted. But yes, that must be where she went. And look, a police car! Yes, right in front of the shop. Perfect. Hurry up, reader, you may have created our story after all.

Ah, just as I remember it. The same acrid must of old parchments and dust. Countless ages of trinkets, possessions, and wealth – all conglomerated into one space. This place just radiates stories! Completely illegible and jumbled, but nonetheless bursting at the seams trying to get out. Every item, each still holding the history and aura of its previous owners… it’s overwhelming, isn’t it? Yes, somewhat depressing as well. Yes, the past is mortality, a fact which unfortunately does not help the crisis of our heroine. What crisis? Oh, don’t worry reader, we’ll get to that: this story is all falling into place. Look at our protagonist, though. She is quite shaken, isn’t she? You must have really got to her, reader.

With the officer here, though, she’s already looking much better. See, she’s conscious of her breath again. Exactly, like when we first saw her in the park. When she does that, you know she’s got a hold of herself. How do I know? Well, for instance, when she was a child (she must have been about seven), she would pass a vicious dog behind a fence on her way home from school. Every day she would dread it, knowing that it was there waiting. When she would finally approach it, about a block away, her heart would pick up speed, and of course her legs would follow. Her blood would become warm and her chest seemed to collapse the moment she heard the first bark. One second later and it was right in her ear, scraping, yelping, collar jangling, gasping for breath between each slobbery growl. The fence was an old one, faded maple I believe, about six feet tall, and with only about a centimeter of space between each plank. She therefore never saw the creature. But oh, each day when she heard that fence shake, a jolting intuition would always tell her that it would someday collapse, freeing the form of her doom. After many years of this, the fear had built up to the rim of her heart. For the past month she had been telling herself for that she couldn’t take it anymore. Yet she somehow knew that this was the day. Her fear was so tangible she almost convinced herself she could simply grab it and throw it over the fence for the beast to tear to pieces. When the dog finally reached her – gate shaking more furiously than it ever had before, the growling deafening her every though, the claws scraping the very fence of her very being – she felt the fear engulf her, take her, drown her.

And then she started to breathe. The same breathing you see here, reader, as the officer finishes writing his report. Deep, controlling breaths, filling her body and displacing the fear that so long tormented her days. Your right, reader, the fence never did collapse. In fact, she continued to walk past that fence for years to come, the dog performing his same bloodthirsty ritual, yet without any effect on our heroine. Fascinating, isn’t it? What’s that? Nonsense, I’m the author, it’s my business to know about our protagonist, even her childhood! Yes, I am making this up as I go along, but she’s my character, and such an event seems to fit the progression of the story. Of course really happened, I just told you it did. I know, I know, it doesn’t make sense, for how could have such an event happened fifteen years ago if I just made it up… that’s just the paradox of fiction, reader. Think of it this way – it had always existed, we just didn’t know about it until I decided to discover it.

That still doesn’t sit right with you? Why not? Well, I guess it never occurred to me why she never took a different route home from school. You’re right, she would have avoided the whole issue. I wonder why she didn’t think of… but look, the policeman is leaving, she must have finished questioning her. Sorry, the officer wasn’t much of a plot twist after all. No matter – this shop is definitely a setting that will allow embellishment our protagonist.

And now it’s snowing outside! Good thing we moved the story in here, I wouldn’t want to be writing over that wind. It appears she is completely settled now, ready to delve back into her work. Did I mention she’s a writer? Oh yes, and a very good one. The shop never gets too busy, which gives her plenty of time to work. Yes, I know she’s working when she’s not writing, don’t be absurd. Yet I’d consider that ‘jobbing,’ making money, you know? She’s only really working when she’s creating.

Ah, and this place – perfect – just waiting for someone to free its stories. The wooden table in the front display window, for instance (yes, the one that looks like an oversized spool of thread). It has been trying to get her attention for weeks. I think if it were a little closer to the counter she would have noticed it by now. Oh, the things it could tell her – thirty years spent at the Nelson Farm, sixty-two as a stool for Jensen Hardware, the five it spent as a hose coil in Mrs. Kruger’s garden, and of course those transient years at the county landfill – ripe material. Or take that lampshade by that wall. Oh ho, I don’t even know where to begin… what’s that, reader? Well, it’s somewhat related to our tale, and interesting at the least… you don’t think so? You must understand, reader, that these are the things our heroine cherishes. By taking them and putting them into her stories, they take on meaning. She breathes life into them, so to speak.

But even more important to her, she allows them to, to… take on their own form. Well, it’s somewhat difficult to explain, actually, you really have to… oh, but look! See how she’s gazing at that mahogany granddaddy clock over by the far wall? And she’s not writing! Well, see, she’s not forcing it, she’s not taking the clock and making it into something that doesn’t exist. She could put that clock anywhere, in any one of her stories, but she doesn’t, she just waits, waits, until it exudes its true nature. Once she sees it, she’ll know what to write, it will just flow onto paper without any effort on her part. Ah, yes, see! Now she begins to write: the half smile, the relaxed face, the soft, confident eyes – beautiful… simply beautiful…

What? Oh! yes, I’m sorry. Your right, that did seem to make her uncomfortable. What’s that? More excitement, you say? Well, you are the reader after all, and I do want this story to be interesting, but I honestly thought it was going very well. You must remember that this is not intended to be some sitcom or horror film ready to embellish your fleeting attention span. Well, yes, I realize how entertaining that sort of thing can be, but fiction isn’t always exciting, reader, it’s the subtle and descriptive nature of life experiences that… no, I suppose a little excitement would hurt, but I don’t want to force her into… well if your patience is really that short! Incredible. I though you were sorry about that debacle in the park? Personally, I think I was hard enough on her to bring up the flashback of the dog. What do you mean ‘defending her?’ I’m simply saying we shouldn’t push the situation. Anyways, look at her – she’s really getting into her story now, we wouldn’t want to interrupt her at this point. See the way her face it tightening up, the tip of her tongue struggling with the corner of her mouth, like hips forcing themselves into of a tight pair of jeans? Yes…yes, that is the type of concentration with which we shouldn’t tamper.

Why are you laughing again? Oh, really, you wouldn’t bring that up again, would you? My relationship with my characters is completely professional. The fact that this particular one happens to have a strong-willed spirit, a graceful composure, and (well, I must admit) eyes as deep as the cold, clear depths of a glacial mountain lake… it, it doesn’t change anything! I wouldn’t think of taking advantage of my position. I mean, you’ve seen her, she gets uncomfortable with me just looking at her. How could she possibly hold a conversation with me, much less go on a date or… hold on, I can’t even believe I’m writing like this!

Where else could I take the story? I have plenty of ideas just waiting… well yes, we do have the proper foreshadowing for this kind of event, but that still… wait, you haven’t been leading me here all along, have you? I thought you wanted a story of twists and epic heroism, full of humor, intrigue, horror, and adventure? Yes, I do remember that romance was your first suggestion. Of course I can write about it; this debate is not a question of ability, but morality. I mean, I’m the writer and she’s the character – I can’t cross that line! Okay, I admit, she is the most beautiful and amazing woman I’ve ever created, but what would I say? No, this is not a novel, I’ve reminded you many times this is a short… oh. Yes, I suppose this is getting rather long. Okay, I’ll do it, but just this once, just because… well, she’s special.

Oh, but look, reader, I guess I’m off the hook, a man has just appeared in the back of the store. You see him? No? He’s average height, medium build, loose slacks, bulky jacket, wool beanie. Over there, in the shadow, and unfortunately not moving. I really don’t know what he’s doing, he’s just standing there, but he appears to be talking to himself. How curious, he’s also looking straight up at the ceiling… what’s that, reader? Absurd, how could it be me? I’m here. Where’s here? Peculiar question, I’m actually not really sure! No, I’ve never written myself into one of my stories before. Now that you mention it, those are the same clothes I wore last Tuesday… but how…

Oh… wait… wait a second… yes, yes, I get it, its definitely me. No, I really can’t explain it, reader. I guess I’m just conscious of it now. This must be what happens when you take on two points of view at once. Yes, quite unexpected! Well, no time to lose, this story just keeps getting longer.

Yes, that’s me walking forward now. I was afraid of this, she’s been startled by my approach. This was probably the wrong way to go about it, she’s definitely wondering where he, I mean I, appeared from. I should have come in the front door. Are you sure this isn’t too confusing, reader, I’m honestly quite turned around. No, I’m not just trying to get out of talking to her. But look how she’s staring at him, as if he’s gone mad! And what should I have him say? Okay, okay, your right, I’ll have him talk to her. I’ll tell her the truth.

What’s that, you can’t hear what he’s saying to her? Well you don’t expect him to shout just so you can eavesdrop, do you? Okay, right now he’s telling her who I am. Now he’s explaining who she is. No, that definitely did not make her feel any better. Hold on, though, now he’s explaining why he’s there and how he feels about her. Ah! A smile! A smile! I am a smooth one, I must admit. It pays off to be a professional language artist and… oh, right, sorry reader, he’s just asked her if she wants to go down the street for a cup of coffee. She’s thinking about it, wondering whether or not he’s telling the truth. Wait, she’s replying, eloquently, simply… she’s wondering how is it that he, the writer, can be there talking with her. Yes, that’s exactly what he’s telling her, reader, you’re right on target. I can do or give her anything I want, after all, I created her. I don’t see how anyone could turn down a man like that either. No, she’s thinking again, but seriously considering it. She really is something unique, isn’t she? Well you must admit, it would be enough of a shock to come face to face with your maker, much less be asked out on a date by him. She deserves a minute to think it over.

The snow outside has picked up, hasn’t it? From inside, a blizzard always reminds me of a cardboard set of a community theater play. Layer upon layer, flowing adjacent and fading in texture into the vast nothingness. One second it leaps against the storefront window with the tenacity of a pouncing cougar, roaring, and the next it suddenly reverts back to its placid serenity. Yes, that last sentence was a good metaphor, wasn’t it? Unfortunately it wasn’t mine, though – it was hers. See, she’s contemplating the blizzard just as we are. Right now she has an overcoming urge to dive into this icy ocean of madness. The currents tearing her, pulling her this way and that, she could simply succumb to its will and let it take her away. Blindly thrown about, fate would rip her soul free. Peaceful bliss among the throng of madness.

Oh, yes, sorry reader, he did just say something, I couldn’t hold it in. He told her that such a fate would be a beautiful thing, almost as beautiful as her. Witty, I know, that’s why I had to… what? Oh! You’re right, but why does she look so terrified! I thought it was amusing, too, but I wonder what it was that… exactly what I was thinking! It’s that same face of terror she wore as a homebound schoolgirl. It’s worse than I remember it, though. It’s as if the fence is gone and she is finally looking at the wretched dog in full view. But why…

No, reader, she only knows what he’s told her. No, he never told her exactly what kind of narrator I am. Still, that doesn’t explain… ahhhh, yes, very good. He didn’t tell her that, did he? Of course. No, she can’t very well get along with someone who knows all that. Oh, it all makes sense! The antiques, her writing, the dog, the breath, the blizzard… I told you the story would all fall into place, reader. I also told you that this relationship wouldn’t work – it’s just too complicated! Yes, he’s apologizing now. Ah, and look, there it is. The breath. Deeper and fuller than I have ever seen it. The fear is leaving her completely. Yes, we have to go, it’s the only way. No, we can’t wait until the snow dies down! How awkward would that be, just standing here, making small talk… She’s saying goodbye to him, well, to us. No, of course we won’t worry. If anyone will be fine, it’s You.

Well reader, I must admit I’m disappointed. Yet She’s happier than She has ever been, and isn’t that the way our story should end? Well, it’s a tragedy from my point of view, so that will have to be enough for your satisfaction! Ah, look how She glows even through the window and the blizzard. Yes, She will be more than fine.

And I believe this is where we part as well, reader. I hope we can do it again sometime. Who knows, I have the feeling that someday our Heroine may require a bit of our assistance after all. If not, there are plenty of other heroes and heroines to create. The Amazon, maybe? Ah, I know, I’m out of jokes though! I’m glad you could come to my story as well. Next time will be somewhat less awkward, I promise. Okay, reader. Goodbye.