Hey, everybody. Today’s blog is a little bit different. I had a couple of my Twitter / Facebook followers throw out some suggested opening sentences to see what kind of story I could write from it. I had three pretty good suggestions and incorporated them all into this very short piece of fiction. I don’t know if it’s good or not, but I enjoyed writing it. So give it a read, if you’re so inclined.
“Quick,” the writer said, “someone give me an opening sentence and I’ll see what kind of story I can write in about an hour–it’s all I have left.”
My day had started off like crap when my old lady’s cat slapped me in the face wanting to be fed. I have nothing against cats. I rather like them, in general, but this cat was the kind that gave the entire species a bad name. Obnoxious, demanding, unpleasant. Fluffy, sure, but not friendly. Not even in a self-serving way that most pets had of playing cute when they wanted something from you.
But this cat . . . this cat made it a habit to slap and glare and demand what he wanted, and he didn’t give a damn that you were technically in charge. Because you weren’t. He was. He knew it. My girlfriend knew it. And I damn well knew it too. So I’d gotten out of bed early, fed the damn thing, and then tried to parlay the act of reluctant kindness into some morning sex.
It hadn’t panned out, and the day had only been getting worse from there.
Now I was standing in the morgue, with a dead writer, trying to get my head together.
The writer’s name was John Bombeck. And John was dead. His body had died several days prior. It wasn’t something that makes the papers, but sometimes, dead people didn’t stay dead, and when a person refuses to pass on, the city called me. I was like a medium. Except I didn’t see ghosts. I saw corpses talking, which was a lot less special than it seemed because there was no trick to it. Other than not freaking the hell out because you’re listening to a dead man.
Not freaking out was my primary talent. Figuring out how to get the dead guy to lay down and shut up was my secondary skill.
John sat in the special room next to the morgue where they kept the not-quite-dead guys. It was chilly to keep the rot away because, talking or not, he was still decaying flesh. He was given a desk, a chair, and an old laptop. And he stared at the screen, blank and unforgiving. Someone had killed poor John. Shot him in the back. It had looked like a mugging gone wrong, but the case was still open.
“John, what do you need?” I asked.
“I need an opening sentence,” he replied. “I need inspiration.”
“You need to go back in the drawer and pass on.” It was a bit insensitive, but when you’d dealt with the undead as long as I had, you learned they were usually too preoccupied to worry about being offended. In John’s case, it was clear he was obsessed with writing something.
“What are you writing, John?”
He averted his filmy eyes from the screen. “Nothing. I’m writing nothing.”
“And why is that?”
He pushed away from the table. “Because I’m a hack. Because I can’t write worth a damn. Because I’ll never write a story worth anything, and now that I’m dead, I won’t ever have the chance.”
“You’re not in the ground yet, John.” I liked to repeat their names. It seemed to keep them focused and reminded me that they were still human. Or close enough.
“I only have an hour,” he said. “That’s not enough time.”
This was a new one. I’d yet to come across an undead with a time limit.
“Why the rush?” I asked.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
I pushed a chair closer, sat beside him. He had that musky smell of slight rot. One of the nice things about the undead was that, though they rotted, they also kept pretty well. You wouldn’t mistake John for a living man, but you also wouldn’t be treated to the full blown odor of a dead man.
“Try me, John.”
He frowned at me with gray lips. “Do you write?”
“Not since I got out of school. Even then, I blew off quite a few essays. And before you ask, no, I’m not creative. Never done any of that stuff. So what do we got here? A case of writer’s block?”
He laughed. “Never had a problem with that.”
“What’s different now?” I asked.
“The difference now is that I’m dead, and this is going to be the last thing I write. It’s going to be the thing that everyone looks at and says, that’s it. That’s his most profound insight.”
“Lot of pressure,” I said. “But why the time limit?”
John shrugged. His shoulders made a crackling sound. “Because if I can’t do it in an hour, how can I ever do it? I had a lifetime to figure this out, and it wasn’t enough. How much longer do I get?”
“John, I’ve dealt with a lot of people with your condition. I’ve helped them all. Do you want to know how?”
“Yes,” he answered sincerely. The undead were always looking for help, and I think deep down, they all knew it.
“We live this life. We die. And we hope that it all works out, that it makes some kind of sense. When it doesn’t, we get sad. Or mad. Or frustrated. We want to believe there’s a purpose. Barring that, we want to believe that we matter, that our lives are worth something. Most of us die never really sure of that, and some of those folks come back. Folks like you.
“You’re here, John, because you have unfinished business. We all leave this life an untidy mess. Most of us aren’t bothered enough to come back and try to straighten it out. But some do. Everyone has a different reason. But in the end, it’s the same reason. It’s because you want it to matter.”
I reached out, put my hand on his gray, mouldering hand. “You don’t have to be profound. Profound is something found in greeting cards and made-for-TV-movies. You just have to say what you’re here to say.”
A look of peace came over him then. I’d seen it before with the undead. It was that moment where everything snapped into clarity. Maybe it was the acceptance of their own death. Maybe it was some hidden truth the living could never be part of. Either way, he pushed his chair to the computer, typed out a couple of sentences, and then quietly, peacefully, expired.
While the coroner took away the body, I glanced at the screen.
John Bombeck lived.
I hit the save button, closed the laptop.