Fictions: The Goodbye Message
Simon stared at the answering machine on his study desk, the small red triangle beating like an electronic heart. He pressed the button. “You have one new message,” said the mechanical female voice. There was a pause and a click, then:
This voice was also female, but altogether more human, filled with loss and longing. The sound of someone saying the last thing they ever wanted to say.
“Are you all right, love?”
Simon jumped, turning to his wife. “Sorry, didn’t hear you come in.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Listen,” he said, pressing the play button again.
Jen frowned. “Strange. Who is it?”
“Bizarre.” She turned to leave.
“Every day this week,” Simon said.
“Every day this week I’ve got that same message.”
He watched his wife’s face to see if his deep concern was mirrored there. He didn’t know why it disturbed him so much, but something about the message scratched deep into his bones.
“Bloody weird.“ Jen gave a small laugh. “Cuppa ?”
“Sure, thanks.” He stood motionless for several moments after she left, the desperate, pain-filled voice from the answering machine echoing through his mind.
Simon shifted things around on his desk, sipped from the steaming mug of tea, adjusted the height of his chair. Anything to keep his eyes from falling on the accusatory white screen of his laptop. Empty, like his mind. He sighed, stretched, cracked his neck. He attacked the keyboard, typed PROCRASTINATION five times.
He deleted the words and pulled his notebook over. If ever a thing was misnamed; the book contained no notes. He remembered a bookstore signing, months ago, someone asking, “How do you cope with writer’s block?”
As author du jour he’d smiled and winked. “I write.”
“But then you don’t have writer’s block,” the punter said, confused.
“I write anything, describe the room around me, think of any random situation and write about it until inspiration hits.”
He started in at the keyboard again.
I’m sitting in a beautiful house, drinking tea made by my beautiful wife and I’m a fucking loser. Maybe one book was all I had in me. Maybe I should give it all up and go back to the university, beg for my job back.
He was fairly certain it wasn’t the kind of thing the writer at the signing had meant, smug behind a table creaking under the weight of bestsellers, signing with a smile and a snappy answer for all the bullshit questions.
“The wind will change and that frown will never go away,” Jen said from the doorway.
Simon looked up, smiling in spite of himself. “I’ve got nothing.”
She walked in, eyes smouldering. “You’re such a cliché.” She stood in front of his desk and slowly unbuttoned her blouse.
“Cliché, am I?” He leaned back to watch.
She let the blouse fall open, put her hands on the desk. “Yes. You need to take your mind off it for a while.”
Simon lost himself in her smooth cleavage. “You should be encouraging me to work. I need to produce something if I’m going to get another big advance.”
Jen stood with a half-smile, reaching for her buttons again. “Well, if that’s the way you feel.”
He stepped around the desk, grabbed her before the blouse closed. “Screw that.”
Simon rested on the pillows, awash in afterglow. He watched Jen dress, check herself in the mirror.
“I have to go into the office this afternoon,” she said. “The big Seattle deal’s coming to a head.”
“You think it’s gonna happen?”
“Hope so. I might have to go over there and make it work though.”
Simon swung his legs off the bed, looked out at pine trees and distant mountain peaks. “How long will you be away?”
“Only overnight, if I even have to go. You’ll survive.”
She kissed him, turned away to continue dressing. “Don’t give yourself such a hard time, okay? Take your notebook out to the Three Cups. Drink coffee, have a change of scene, see what happens.”
“Yeah, maybe.” He watched an eagle drift by, riding thermals. He envied it.
“I’ll see you at dinner time.”
Clouds floated past a thousand miles away as he sat on the bed. The front door clicked shut and the old Ford kicked up gravel on the driveway. I really am a cliché, he thought. In every way.
With a sigh he dragged himself up and trudged back to the study. He would go out. It was a twenty minute walk to the village; the fresh air and exercise would do him good. He’d take the notebook and write down anything he saw, maybe copy snippets of conversations overheard. Anything to get the juices flowing.
Something looked different.
He stood in the centre of the study and turned a slow circle. What had he seen? His eyes fell on the old Remington typewriter, sitting on its shelf like a trophy. A gift to the teenaged Simon so many years ago, a never-give-up reminder. And now a mockery, a fuck-you-failure testament. It always sat there, with a blank sheet of paper in it symbolising a new story to be told. But the page wasn’t blank any more.
He strained up on tiptoes to read the page without having to touch it.
Two tiny words, stark on the plain white paper.
What the hell did that mean? And who had typed it? Some silly joke of Jen’s?
If not what?
He’d ask her about it later. Grabbing his notebook and pen, he left the house, suddenly desperate for fresh air and sunlight.
They sat with Chinese take away cartons, chopsticks clicking into noodles and a BBQ pork special. The television garbled away about falling stock prices.
“Why would I type something there?” Jen asked around a mouthful.
“I dunno. I didn’t do it, and you’re the only other one here.”
“True,” she conceded. “But it wasn’t me.”
Simon stopped eating to look at her. She chewed on, reaching for another container, then paused when she realised he was staring at her. “What?”
“Don’t you think it’s a bit strange?”
She put down the container. “Yeah, I do. But it wasn’t me.”
“So it must have been me?”
“I know it wasn’t me either,” he said, anger tinging his voice.
She picked up the container again, breaking eye contact. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to suggest.”
“You think I’m going mad?” he asked. “You think I did it and don’t remember?”
“No one’s going mad, sweetie.”
He resumed eating, staring at the television. She’d always been the strong and steady one. He was the flaky one. Maybe he was going crazy.
Jen busied herself in the bathroom getting ready for bed and Simon stood in his study. Nervously he approached the typewriter.
It was still there. He pulled the paper from the carriage and screwed it up, sending it arcing over his desk to the wastepaper basket. It rattled on the rim and dropped in. Not a complete loser yet then, he thought with grim humour.
He really didn’t remember typing the words.
With a sigh he went to the desk and got a fresh sheet of paper, wound it carefully onto the carriage.
At the door he flicked off the light and stopped, distracted by a soft red glow. The answering machine.
He crossed the room in darkness and pressed the button with a trembling finger. “You have one new message,” the electronic woman said.
Tears hung on the edges of the voice, ghostly soft, sadness like he’d never heard before.
“What the fuck?” he hissed, and hit delete.
Simon nursed a mug of hot coffee between his palms, waiting for toast to spring up from the toaster. “I forgot to ask yesterday,” he said. “How did the meeting go?”
Jen sniffed, annoyed. “Looks like I have to go to Seattle. It’s a royal pain, but I need to nail down the details.”
“You can’t do it over the phone?”
“Doesn’t look like it. You know how these people are, always got to be wined and dined.”
Simon nodded, sipping his coffee. “I guess so. And you are good at it.”
“That’s why I get the big bucks,” she said with a grin.
“So when are you going?”
“Sheila’s sorting things out this morning. Probably tomorrow.” She giggled at his crestfallen expression. “I’ll only be gone overnight, sweetie. You’ll cope.”
He laughed at himself. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Did you get anything down yesterday?” she asked.
“Actually, I did. Went to the Three Cups and kinda observed stuff. Made some notes.”
“Well done, you!”
He smiled, hating himself. He’d barely scribbled half a page and even that was bullshit. Fat lady likes blueberry pie. Weird old guy probably has a secret.
He had a secret too.
“I’m going to Sally’s for coffee and a catch up,” Jen called from the hallway. “Then to the office.”
“Okay, hon,” he yelled over the sound of running water as he rinsed the dishes. “Have fun.”
“Don’t beat yourself up, okay?”
“I won’t.” He would.
“Okay, sweetie. Love you.”
“Love you too!” That wasn’t a lie. That was never a lie.
He wouldn’t torture himself in front of the laptop today. Getting out into the world was a good idea. Jen’s ideas always were. He’d had a false start yesterday, but today would be different. If nothing else, the walk had been worthwhile. He’d do it again, only this time he’d look more closely, make more notes.
As he entered his study, the phone rang. For a moment he was too scared to pick it up, then cursed himself and grabbed it. “Hello?”
“Yep. Who’s this?”
“I’m Claire Foley, calling from the New York Times. We’re doing a piece on rising stars, new big things in fiction, that kind of thing. We’d love to interview you, maybe talk a bit about what you’re working on right now.”
Panic flooded his veins. “Er, right. Yeah. That’s very good of you.” The New York freaking Times? “I’m actually just heading overseas for a short trip. Can you maybe call me back in a week?”
“Of course, Mr Taylor. I’m sorry, your agent didn’t mention a trip when I rang her for your number.”
Why had he lied? “Oh, no problem.” His laugh sounded nervous. “Just crossed wires.”
“Not a problem.” She sounded so chirpy. “I’ll call back Monday week?”
“Sure. And thanks.”
The phone clicked dead and Simon sat, stunned. What the hell was wrong with him?
The page in the typewriter had moved again.
“You are kidding me,” he whispered, walking cautiously around his desk.
Shivers wracked his body, dread soaked through his gut like a stain. “I didn’t type that!” he yelled. He dragged the paper out and put a fresh, blank sheet in its place.
The light on the answering machine blinked. Had it been blinking a moment ago during the call?
The voice made him want to cry.
“What the fuck is happening?”
The laptop was on, pictures of their trip to the Grand Canyon and Death Valley drifting over each other as the screensaver. He would get the phone company to trace the calls or something. There must be a way for them to figure out why he kept getting this message.
He moved the mouse and the empty word processor page still sat there. Except it wasn’t empty.
Two words in neat Arial font at the top of the page, the cursor blinking relentlessly right next to them.
Simon stared. “I didn’t type that either!” He grabbed his notebook and pen and ran.
Simon smiled apologetically at the Three Cups staff. They’d mopped and tidied everything except his table. An empty cup and the notebook sat in front of him. On the up side he’d covered several pages. Observations, snatches of conversation, ideas and scenarios. On the downside he was still too scared to go home. Goodbye. If not. Stop me.
He gathered up his things, realising he’d pushed the hospitality of the cafe staff as far as he could.
“Thank you,” one waitress said as he headed for the door.
He nodded back at her, too embarrassed to say anything.
“Hey, are you okay?” She sounded genuinely concerned.
He paused, hand on the door handle, reluctant to turn around. “Sure, I’m fine.”
“Really?” She came over, eyes troubled.
Jesus, did he look that bad? “Yeah, really. Thanks.”
Outside in the fading light he pulled his cell phone from his pocket and hit the quick dial for Jen’s cell.
“Hey, sweetie, what’s up?”
It felt so good to hear her voice. “You still at the office?”
“Yeah, things are coming to a head. Still a lot of work to do.”
He sighed. “And you’re still going to Seattle?”
“’Fraid so. Eleven a.m. flight tomorrow, three p.m. meeting and overnight in some shitty hotel. I fly back the next day.”
He didn’t know what to say. He felt empty.
“You okay?” Jen asked.
He sucked in a quick breath, drawing himself up. Pull yourself together. “Yes, yeah. Fine. Sorry, just a bit lost in everything right now.”
“Don’t let it get to you, sweetie,” Jen said softly. “You’re not a production line. You had a massive hit, you’re really good at what you do. You can do it again.”
“I know, Jen. I just feel so useless.”
“You’re used to a strict schedule, all those years of university lecturing. We made a big move, you’ve made a big change, giving up work. Give yourself time.”
“Hey,” she said sharply, but he could hear the smile in her voice. “What am I always?”
He laughed. God, he loved her. “Right,” he finished sarcastically.
“That’s correct, husband. I’m always right. There’s some bolognese sauce in the freezer. Get some spaghetti on. I’ll be home by seven, okay?”
“Love you too.”
Simon knew the bolognese sauce would be burning on the stove top, but he was frozen. His legs like thousand year old oak trunks, unmoved and unmovable. He’d put the block of frozen meat sauce into a pan, filled another with water and put it on to boil. He’d ducked into his study to put the notebook on the desk and the typewriter paper was no longer clean and white.
He’d moved his mouse, a floating photograph of Jen laughing outside a light-polluting Vegas casino fading away to reveal the bright white page of the word processor.
He hadn’t been in more than a few minutes and had only just entered the study. He hadn’t typed either pair of words. He was sure of it. Certain. But he’d almost expected them. And the red flashing light on the answering machine. But something else iced his limbs into immobility. A post-it note pad, always beside the laptop. There were two words on it, in scratchy, shaking biro, as if written by someone aged and infirm.
Cold waves rippled through his body. Was he really writing these things? Was it someone else?
He snapped his head back and yelled at the heavens. “What the fuck is going on?”
He turned to the answering machine and stabbed the delete button with an angry index finger, not prepared to hear that heartrending voice again.
He screwed the post-it note and the page from the typewriter together and threw them into the wastepaper basket with ten times the necessary force. He deleted the words from the word processor and closed the program.
“Simon? You here? What’s happening?”
He strode from the study, face twisted in fury, taking deep, ragged breaths. Sounds of frantic activity came from the kitchen.
“Simon?” Jen called again. “You okay?”
The smell of burning meat sauce filled his nostrils as he turned into the kitchen, along with something else, metallic and harsh.
Jen looked up. “Jesus, Simon, what the fuck? The water boiled away and burned the pan to shit. The sauce is ruined!”
He looked at the floor, all his anger dissipating in the face of her disapproval. “I got kind of caught up, forgot all about it.”
She ran water into the blackened pan and it hissed its hatred of him, steam flooding the kitchen. It helped clear the acrid smell of burnt meat and metal. Spatters of meat sauce, like drops of blood from a gunshot to the head, covered the stove top and granite counter. Jen began mopping up.
“Seriously, Simon, you’re worrying me,” she said.
He didn’t know how to reply. He was worrying himself.
Jen stopped cleaning. Her eyes softened when they met his. “Oh, Simon, it’s okay.”
She reached for him and he fell into her arms, sobbing quietly into the sweet-smelling soft fabric of her sweater.
They cooked a frozen pizza and ate in front of old favourite DVDs. He told her about the message and she said that first thing tomorrow he had to ring the phone company and get it sorted out. Clearly some kind of fault on the line. He didn’t feel convinced but agreed he would.
He told her about the typewriter and the word processor and the post-it note. Something in her eyes disturbed him, a level of doubt he’d never seen there before.
“Stress can be a funny thing, Si.” She gently stroked his hair.
“Stress?” Could it really be something as simple as that? He wanted her to be right. But even then, only more concerns arose.
“Sure, sweetie. Perhaps you’re really stressed about this and your subconscious is playing tricks on you.”
“I don’t like that idea,” he said.
“I don’t either,” she confessed. “I don’t like it at all. But maybe that’s what it is. Since the last book tour you’ve been so hard on yourself.”
“The advance will only last so long,” he told her, desperation in his voice. “And who knows about royalties in this business.”
She shrugged and pulled him close. “The advance is going to last a while yet and I’m earning good money. There’s no rush. You need to take a break.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
She laughed and kissed him. “What am I always?”
“I have to go to Seattle tomorrow,” she said. “But I get back the next day. Why don’t you look online, find us a cosy cabin in the upper mountains and we’ll have a long weekend of it. We can drive up when I get back Friday and stay ‘til Monday. I’ll tell Carl I won’t be back, home or office, ‘til Tuesday.”
That did sound pretty fantastic. “Really?”
“Sure. Three days in the mountains, no phone, no internet, no nothing but us.”
“Okay. I’ll book it.”
“But not tonight,” she told him. “Tonight you stay out of the study and forget about everything except me and this big old couch we love.”
They had a lazy morning of love-making and an indulgent breakfast. She kissed him when her cab for the airport arrived and he chased her down the driveway for an encore. The cab driver smiled good-naturedly at their teenage antics. He waved as the cab drove away, her face a portrait in the rear screen as she waved back.
The air was fresh and the sky blue, the smell of pines intoxicating. It made a kind of twisted sense, his stress manifesting in little sabotages of his writing implements. The phone message was still something frightening. Perhaps it was simply a line fault and another contributor to his stress, the thing that had driven him over the edge.
He went back inside and tidied the breakfast things, washed up, made the bed. He refused to even think about the fact that he should be writing, let alone struggle to actually write anything. Domesticity became a security blanket of mundane activity. He put on laundry, organised his underwear drawer while he put away already laundered clothes.
It was hours before he finally drew a deep breath and headed for the study to book them a cabin. Part of him braced in anticipation. Fuck it. If they were there again, he wouldn’t let it upset him. They had a plan, they were going to deal with it.
White paper stood stark against the dark wood of the shelving, sticking out of the typewriter like an abusive tongue.
He ground his teeth. What did it mean? He hadn’t even replaced the paper last night.
He ignored it and walked around his desk, studiously not paying attention to the blinking red light on his answering machine. The post-it note pad had spidery scrawl on it again.
He turned it face down on the desktop. He moved the mouse plugged into his laptop and the photos slipped away to reveal the reopened word processor program, two words and a blinking cursor.
Simon bit down his frustration and opened a browser, clicked a bookmark for a cabin rental company they’d used before. Book the cabin, take the break, don’t think about anything else. He looked up to the calendar hanging beside the window to check Saturday’s date and his stomach froze solid.
Scrawled right across the week in the thin black felt tip pen he used to mark important dates.
Bolts of dread cut into him. He looked at his watch, blurry on his shaking wrist. Two-thirty in the afternoon. He ran from the study to the living room, fumbling the remote control with numb hands. He flicked channel after channel, not wanting to see anything but desperate to find…something.
He landed on a news channel and images of burning wreckage. The picture blurred with his tears as the announcer’s voice threaded through his mind.
‘…authorities say it will be some time before any cause is determined. What is certain, however, is that there are no survivors. Crews will be working for some time to get the inferno under control here at Seattle’s Tacoma airport…’
Simon fell backwards onto the couch, short, shallow breaths rattling in his throat.
He sobbed aloud, his heart shattering, hands clawing at his face, slipping on tears. Minutes, hours, years later, he found himself back in the study. The typewriter, the laptop, the post-it note, the calendar.
NOT Seattle, Simon, please. Stop me. If not…
He walked on numb legs to the answering machine and pressed the button with an ice cold finger.
How had he never recognised her voice before? Perhaps because he’d never heard her so sad.
Copyright © Alan Baxter 2012
Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author. He writes dark fantasy, sci-fi and horror, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. His novels, RealmShift and MageSign, are out through Gryphonwood Press, and his short fiction has appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies in Australia, the US, the UK and France. www.alanbaxteronline.com