Short fiction by Phillip E. Mitchell
Ned sat in a beanbag and scribbled “I think I’m going to kill myself” into his Moleskine notebook. He’d written it hundreds of times before throughout the other hundreds of Moleskines stacked neatly in the corner of his bedroom. He meant it, sort of. And if he ended up not doing it, he wasn’t lying. After all, he’d written simply, “I think,” not “I will.” He didn’t have the resolve of Hemingway, or Plath, or Woolf, or Wallace. When they knew, they knew. Ned just sort of thought he might, like Elton John.
The afternoon sun waned and cast a faint glow through his yellow curtains.
He was sore after getting his 159,999th rejection, which was now at his feet, tucked under the bottom of the beanbag. He leaned over, pulled it out, and walked to his computer. His records of submissions to literary journals were exhaustive and neatly laid out in what was probably the longest Excel spreadsheet in existence. He scrolled down for fifteen minutes, found the journal one up from the bottom, and put a giant X beside it. He’d thought, time and again, that, perhaps, as soon as his rejections matched the number of dollars that he’d borrowed for his education he’d terminate himself in the least possible poetic way. He was not, after all, a writer.
He’d taken out a total of $160,000 dollars from the U.S. government for his education, though the total amount he owed now was exponentially greater since the interest had capitalized over the last ten years. He worked at a coffee shop in Nowhereville, Georgia as a barista. He had an MFA and PhD in creative writing and, though he looked the part, failed to play it with the kind of confidence, no, competence, required.
He tousled his long black hair and pushed his horn-rimmed glasses, much too big for his face, up the length of his nose. There comes a time when you have to till the ground you’re given, he thought, recalling Thoreau. Now he wanted to be under that till, ground up fine into the earth. Maybe the seeds of his shredded body would produce better writers, a sick thought, he knew. And it didn’t make any fucking sense, he knew, too, because shredded bodies weren’t analogous to seeds. And writers don’t grow up like stalks. And farmers don’t harvest like writers write. Even as a metaphor it didn’t work.
He closed the notebook, stabbed the pen into his wrist and drew lines over the veins in his arms. It was horribly clichéd, he knew, to kill yourself by slitting your wrists. A true writer, one who’d been accepted to the top-tiered journals, wouldn’t do it that way. Who am I kidding? he thought. Not even lower-tiered writers would slit their wrists. This, of course, made it perfectly fitting for him.
He took a shower and rubbed the steam from the mirror in order to take a long look at himself but remembered that this, too, was an act of writers. He sat down on the toilet instead, towelling himself off as the steam covered the surface of the mirror.
Here was the best rejection Ned had ever gotten:
Thank you for submitting your story, “The Adventures of the Three-Eyed Lover in a World for Which He’s Not Fit.” It was the strangest story we’ve seen, and for that we’re thankful. Since you pointed out the numerous rejections you’ve received, I thought I’d make a couple of comments: 1. There’s no subtlety here. Your characters’ names make your themes too obvious (explicit allegory is not en vogue). Further, most literary journals, ours included, do not accept sci-fi. Maybe if you translated these themes into some kind of realist aesthetic, you’d make a greater impact on your reader. Oh, and nothing can travel at light speed.
Good luck placing your work elsewhere.
Ned stood naked in his room and reread the letter, now framed and sitting over his dresser above a science fair trophy he’d gotten in middle school. This was rejection number 100,000 and marked what he thought would be a change in the kind of rejections he’d get. The next was a form letter.
He picked up the new rejection from his desk, folded it into a paper football, cracked open the door of his walk-in closet, stuffed to the ceiling with the other paper football rejections, and slid the new one in. He slammed the door before any could spill onto the floor.
He walked downstairs to the garage where his clothes were in plastic containers. His roommate, Candance, called, “Ned, stop walking around here naked. Take your clothes upstairs before you take a shower.”
He slid on his khakis and a black button-up in the garage. “Be back at eleven,” he called out to Candance.
“Whatever,” she said.
* * *
The Bolt 2918 bounded through interstellar space at speeds unheard of to humans, much faster than the speed of light even. It looked almost identical to the 1972 Ford Granada on our planet, but with wings. On board were Arthur Self II and Big Sully, heads barely above the dash. They were certainly not old enough for trans-galactic travel.
“What makes you so sure we’re gonna find him?” Big Sully said and leaned back.
“Your guts said the same thing ‘bout the Garrity X7S Galaxy. ‘Oh, he’s somewhere in there, you said, I’m sure, you said. Bullshit, man. The tracker didn’t tweet once. I suggest you get our asses back home.”
“Cool it, Big. When I bring him home, there’s going to be a celebration. And we have to be within a few thousand miles for the meter to tweet.”
“Gonna be an ass-whooping is what there’s gonna be.”
“He had information vital to the resistance. If we don’t save him, we’re going to lose this war, which means all of us, including you, will be enslaved,” Arthur said.
It wasn’t just political, though. It couldn’t hurt to rescue one of the top generals of the resistance and save the planet, but Arthur wanted his dad back, plain and simple.
The chair squeaked as Big turned around and opened the mini fridge in the backseat behind Arthur, pulling out a soda.
Big stuck the can in the console between them and pulled hard on the seat belt to strap himself in.
“How fat are you now, Big?”
“Keep drinking those sodas and you’re not going to be able to fasten that seatbelt.”
The Universal Positioning System told him to take a left, so Arthur pulled the lever back and jerked the steering wheel westward. Earth would be the last stop, he promised himself.
They’d been gone for three weeks, descending into the atmospheres of hundreds of God-forsaken planets, covering the circumference of each desolate sphere tediously, looking for signs of life. But the tracker never tweeted. It was starting to get to both of them.
His father, General Arthur Self I had masterminded Planet Zinspire’s fight against the Preditors but had been kidnapped, had his memory wiped, and shipped to another planet.
Arthur II, just fourteen, had spent enough time with his father in the Bolt 2918 to know how to control it, though he didn’t have a license. With Zinspire in a full-fledged war against the Preditors it wasn’t safe to venture out beyond the Great Wall, but Arthur didn’t care. The instructions his father left in the closet were clear.
Dear Little Arthur:
If I’m taken captive, take this tracker and give it to General Chauncey. He’ll know what to do with it. My DNA and memory are in this machine.
Arthur didn’t care that he wasn’t General Chauncey. He had the tracker now and, thus, in his mind the responsibility to find his father. He was young enough to be careless.
The night he discovered the note in his closet, he took the cumbersome tracker and loaded it into the Bolt, behind the passenger’s seat. It was a glass box about the size of a small safe, with a thick tangle of filaments running horizontally from top to bottom, with smaller filaments branching out to the sides. He sped over to Big’s place and lured him into the adventure with promises of beautiful alien women and junk food. Only the promise for junk food had been fulfilled. Big Sully’s dad was a ship mechanic. Some of the trade had rubbed off on him, making him the perfect sidekick for the trek across the universe.
* * *
“You gave me the wrong amount of change,” the woman with the eighties hairdo said, shaking her head, her bangs bouncing on her forehead.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Ned gave her a nickel.
“And I think your grinder’s broken. You can’t smell that?”
She stormed out with an americano and scone, huffing and shaking her eighties hairdo.
He didn’t let it get to him. Now that he’d resigned to the fact that he wasn’t a writer, he didn’t have to feel that the patrons of Holy Grounds were ignorant of his true vocation, and that if they knew that he wrote they’d be amazed and apologize for accosting him about how long it took to get a latte. Now grinding beans wasn’t just a chore until someone noticed his genius. No, coffee making was his true vocation, at least until he decided whether he’d kill himself. Gone were the days of condescension, peering at the people hunched over their drinks as if he were somehow better than them. Gone were the miserable days of thinking he didn’t belong there, paid seven dollars an hour and getting only half of the tip jar.
He grabbed a broom and swept between the tables. The place was dead. From the speakers James Taylor sang “Sweet Baby James” to an empty house.
When the door swung open and the girl walked in, he didn’t notice. He sang, “Goodnight moonlight ladies,” and stared at the floor.
“Oh, God, not James Taylor,” she said.
Ned jumped and dropped the broom.
“That’s like perfect coffee shop music, which means you should definitely not play it. Don’t tell me you chose it.”
He turned around and pushed his glasses up the length of his nose. “Oh, yeah. I love it. I’m a big cliché.”
He picked up the broom and walked behind the counter.
“Well, can you make a good latte?”
Ned set the broom against the sink. He drummed his fingers on the counter and stared at her. She had a high forehead, shoulder-length brown hair parted in the middle, and the brightest blue eyes he’d ever seen.
She waved her hand in the air. “Hello?”
“Oh, right. A latte. I’m okay, I guess.”
She turned her head and gave him a sidelong glance, narrowing her eyes. “Caramel latte then, just a regular ole caramel latte.”
“Coming right up.”
Ned focused on his calling. He ground the beans into the filter, packed them evenly with the tamper, snapped the portafilter onto the espresso machine and revved it up.
* * *
A giant light from the thrusters of the Bolt flashed behind them. In no time at all they’d passed what we call Alpha Centuri and swung into the Milky Way. Arthur knew the stories, knew that Earth had long been the prison camp for the Preditors. He’d tried telling Chauncey to go to Earth. “That’s just a myth, Arthur,” he’d said. “No one from our galaxy has ventured that far out beyond the Great Wall in years, not even the Preditors.” But Arthur believed the myth, especially now, as Earth was the only inhabitable planet he hadn’t searched. And when he descended into the atmosphere, his belief was confirmed. The tracker lit up, phosphorescent.
All he had to do was connect the tracker to the Universal Positioning System and it’d lead them right to his dad.
“Big, it’s lit,” he said.
But Big was asleep, his face pressed against the windshield.
Big sprang to life and the back of the seat cracked, sending his head into the tracker in the backseat. The glass shattered. There was a crackle, and an “oh shit,” from Arthur. Smoke rose from the device. The machine hummed, beeped, and the phosphorescence faded.
Big rubbed his said. “Totally your fault. Why you gotta yell like that? Why didn’t you just nudge me or something?”
Arthur gripped the steering wheel and his knuckles whitened. His face got rigid. A tiny tear formed in the corner of his eye.
Big stared at the ceiling of the Bolt and rubbed his head some more. “I’ll see what I can do.”
He crawled into the backseat with a screwdriver and fiddled with the tracker. “Looks like blah blah got disconnected from the blah blah.” That’s what Arthur heard anyway. “What do you think this plan was, Artie?”
“They had supposedly exposed the weakness of the Preditors’ Smothership.”
* * *
“I think your grinder’s broken dude,” the girl said. “Smells like smoke.”
Ned placed the latte on the counter and slid it over. “I don’t smell anything.”
“Oh, my God. That is so cool!”
“You haven’t tried it yet,” he said.
“Not the drink, silly. Your tattoo.”
Ned didn’t realize he’d not washed off the pen marks from his wrist during the shower. “Oh, that. It’s not a tattoo.”
“You drew it?”
“It’s beautiful. It’s like a bodhi tree,” she said.
Ned pulled his sleeve down. “It’s nothing, really.”
“Draw one of those on me, Ned.”
“I don’t think so.”
He glanced around the coffee shop and out into the street then took a pen out of the cup beside the register. Ellen laid her arm on the counter and pulled up her sleeve. He traced over the blue veins and thickened the color on the larger strands.
She giggled. “It tickles.”
“I’ll go slower.”
And he did. While he traced, her eyes focused on her wrist then moved up to his face, to his big glasses, and back down to her wrist.
“You in school here?” she said.
“Used to be.”
“What’d you study?”
Ned sighed. “Creative writing.”
“Ooh, an artist, huh?”
He tried to focus on nothing but her wrist. He gave her a halfway smile. “I suck.”
She looked at his glasses again. “You can’t be that bad.”
“You don’t even know. I’ve had 159,999 rejections, from online journals, e-zines, literary magazines, the works. I don’t have a single publication to my name.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. There comes a time in every man’s life when he has to till the ground he’s been given.”
She leaned in. Her black blouse fell open at the top. Her hair fell forward. “You like working here?”
He peeped at her cleavage quickly and returned to the drawing. “I’m learning to,” he said.
“Why don’t you teach?”
“I’m not good with people.”
“So I noticed,” she said.
The door chimed and an older man in a Hawaiian shirt and a smallish boy, maybe five or six, came into the shop. Ned returned the pen to the cup, and Ellen took her latte and walked away. She sat down on the sofa at the far end of the dining area.
“A cappuccino and a chocolate milk,” the man said and sat down.
Ned ground the beans and imagined his head inside. Could he do it like that, he wondered? It was a dumb idea. Once the grinder cut into his brain he’d be lobotomized and unable to hold the button down. Maybe Ellen would help him. He dismissed the idea when he realized his head wouldn’t even fit into the container.
He took the drinks over to the man and boy, casting a glance at Ellen, who’d cracked open a Flannery O’Connor book of short stories in her lap. She didn’t look up. Why would she? he wondered. She likes good writers, real ones. He shouldn’t have told her about the rejections.
He picked up the broom and swept again. The two left, and he was alone again with Ellen.
“Shed a Little Light” started up on the speakers.
“Hey!” Ellen called out.
He turned around and she lifted up her wrist in the air. He mirrored her and the broom fell to the floor with a clank.
“You must really like writing,” she called out. “I mean, that takes balls, to be rejected that many times and to keep doing it.”
Their arms dropped. He leaned over and grabbed the broom. A story idea popped into his head, but he let it go, imagined it had fallen onto the floor into the pile of lint and napkins he’d collected at his feet.
“I’m not sure. I’m not a writer.”
How many stories did you write when you were a writer?”
He grabbed a dustpan from the behind the counter and knelt, brushing the trash onto it. “When I thought I was, I guess I wrote about a thousand.”
“Jesus Christ, dude.” She picked up her latte and took a sip. “You like O’Connor?”
She held the book above her head.
It was a sore spot for Ned. He both liked her and hated her. “She’s good.”
“Have you been to Andalusia?” she said.
Ned had in fact been to Andalusia. Living only a mile away from the farm where O’Connor wrote her best work was a point of pride for most of the writers in the area. Going to the farm was some kind of pilgrimage. When Ned went, he’d already had about 60,543 rejections and just wandered around the place aimlessly until dusk. He couldn’t figure out why something he wanted to do so much he wasn’t any good at. Seeing the hopefuls traipse around in homage to her didn’t make things easier. He knew that they, unlike him, were already better writers, though most of them probably hadn’t written a single line. Instead of going inside the house, he just stared at the peacocks outside.
“Once,” he said.
“Pretty cool, huh?”
He walked behind the counter and emptied the trash into the bin. “The farm is pretty.”
“So do you like writing?”
“What do you mean?” he said.
She stuffed the book into her purse and stood up. “The question isn’t hard, silly. Do you enjoy it?”
Another story popped into his head. He tapped furiously on the countertop and hoped someone would come in.
She stood in front of him now and smiled. “Great latte. Nice attention to detail. You didn’t even break the crema.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“Can I read one of your stories?”
“They’re all gone.”
“What do you mean?”
“When they’re rejected a certain number of times, I trash them.”
“Are you crazy?” she said.
“I mean, so fucking what? It’s your thing, right?”
“You don’t understand. Not anymore it’s not.”
“So do you enjoy it?”
“I’ve spent a lot of money trying to be a writer, but it’s all for nothing. I have massive amounts of debt now and nothing to show.”
“You’re still not answering my question. Either way, whether you decide to stop or keep going, you got the debts. I don’t see how that can change whether you like it.”
* * *
They lowered the bolt into Earth’s atmosphere. Big tinkered with the machine and sipped on another soda.
“Drop down into a city. I want to check out the chicks,” Big said.
“You should be working.”
“I am, I am. We got time.”
It was night on the eastern seaboard. New York shone bright from the sky. Arthur dropped into the maze of lights, dipped dangerously close to the streets, swung around the statue of Liberty, and scared the hell out of everyone on Times Square. The Bolt swooped down and everyone ducked and covered up their heads like in the movies.
“Wow, some place,” Big said.
“Any luck, Big?”
“Maybe, just gotta nudge the blah blah.”
He grunted when he said it. The tracker buzzed and lit up the back seat. “Jesus Christ,” Big said as the green light illuminated the Bolt, then the sky around them. Big covered his eyes. He threw the cable attached to the tracker over the front seat. Arthur took it and plugged it into the Universal Positioning System. “Target located,” the droning voice said. “Turn left, head south.”
Arthur jerked the wheel of the bolt, sending Big’s head into the mini-fridge. “Aw, come on, dude!” he cried and rubbed his head.
* * *
“Sweet Baby James” started up again on the speakers. Ellen twisted the empty cup in her hand while Ned tried to answer the question.
He turned, switched on the grinder, and stared at the grounds as they spilled onto the counter.
“What?” he hollered over the noise of the machine.
“Do you like it?” she hollered back.
“I can’t hear you,” he said.
Maybe he could stick his hand in and grind it instead of his head. He’d bleed to death that way. No, Ellen would call for help. He saw a flash of light, whether behind his eyes or from the machine he wasn’t sure. The engine of the grinder wheezed, and a thin line of smoke rose above his head. The stink of the dying engine and the coffee beans filled the room. The machine revved one last time, hit a high C note, and died.
“What are you doing, Ned?”
She turned to walk away, but he called, “Wait!”
He hugged her, got her phone number, and rushed her out. He locked the door to the coffee shop and darted home, leaving James Taylor singing to an empty house.
“You’re home early,” Candace called.
“Whatever,” he said.
He mounted the steps and slammed the door to his bedroom. He sat down at his computer and opened a blank Word document. His fingers blazed across the keyboard as the story erupted, a story about two young space travellers, one looking for his father, the other embittered at having decided to help. Nothing original, he knew. Nothing groundbreaking. Probably worthless to literary journals. But it had to get out.
Here was the first line:
“The Bolt 2918 bounded through interstellar space at speeds unheard of to humans, much faster than the speed of light even.”
He wrote and wrote until he broke a sweat. He didn’t eat dinner. He’d call Ellen tomorrow if he were still around, tell her he wrote a story for himself, a story he’d never send out to anyone. Maybe he wouldn’t even let her see it. He’d never have to place that final X in the Excel spreadsheet. No one else would ever tell him he wasn’t a writer.
He wrote, fixed on the screen, his feet planted firmly on the Berber carpet. He reached an end, an end that he only would care about. The house shook and Candace called, “Ned, what’s going on up there?” There was a rumble, a commotion outside. “Ned? It’s an earthquake!” she called out again. But Ned was writing. After a mighty blast, another rumble, a bright flash of light, and a great quake, Ned fell onto the floor. He covered up his head for fear the ceiling would fall in. His closet door opened, and a sea of paper footballs came rushing out, spilling around and burying him. He lifted himself from the pile and took off his clothes.
He walked downstairs, through the living room, and to the back door.
“What the hell are you doing?” Candace called as he walked out the back door.
The Ford Granada with wings hovered over the backyard, its headlights beaming into Ned’s eyes. He shielded them and walked toward the craft. The engine roared. His hair blew in the gale from the thrusters. He inched closer and raised his hand. The bodhi tree on his wrist lit up, phosphorescent, and a green light in the backseat blinked in response. The back door of the craft swung open. He fought his way against the wind. He pulled himself into the Bolt and slammed the door.
Ned watched the cities shrink and disappear as he rose higher and higher.
Phillip Mitchell lives and teaches in the North Georgia mountains. His first novel, The Gospel According to No One, is represented by Charles Walker at United Agents, London.