“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”– Ray Bradbury
As great as Nanowrimo is, anybody can host their own writing challenges at any time during the year. For example, at the beginning of 2018 me and my writing buddy (and site editor/proofreader) Kim challenged ourselves to write short stories. Following the advice of Ray Bradbury, Kim aimed for one a week. I balked at that insanity and set my own goal for a story a month. I think I barely made it to April before my momentum crapped out and I stopped, but I did get a few decent story scraps out that I can play around with later.
So below is the “story” I wrote for February. I liked the core idea, but I’m not crazy about how the story worked out, or the ending. But even if you totally hate the early drafts of a story, writing it gives you a foundation to work from, and a timeline to see how your writing improves over time.
She had to keep a box of tissues next to her as she finished the last details; a stray drop now could ruin the whole thing and she wouldn’t be able to try again if she failed, maybe not for years. And she couldn’t fail now. She wouldn’t survive it.
That was one of the few explicit instructions for the spell; every ingredient had to mean something to her, be linked to her emotions to fuel the magic. And cutting up every book, tearing every cover and dissecting every page had indeed felt like splitting a piece of her heart on the scissors over and over. Those romance novels had lived with her, under her pillows, crammed between mattresses, piled precariously on cheap shelves and snuggled into the pockets of every ratty bathrobe she owned. They’d been her beacon of hope for years, and the sight of their butchered remains now strewn around her knees left her crumbling the tissues against her face again. But it would be worth it, worth cutting up all her paperback friends.
Finally, she’d have a happily ever after of her own.
She’d built him to be tall and broad-shouldered, though since she had to work with him lying on her living room floor, it was hard to get the proportions exactly right. In the end, she couldn’t decide if his eyes should be a piercing blue or a steely gray, so she pasted in one of each. Short hair was a problem since almost all the book covers featured men with hair even longer than hers. What if he had long hair? Would she be able to cut it?
Into the part of the chest where the heart would be, she’d pinned an old photo of herself. She filled his empty papier-mâché throat with long spiraling scraps of her favorite dialogues, all the beautiful words she’d always wanted to hear. All the most charming and clever lines she could find. “I just want to be loved.”
She sealed up the hollow figure on her floor with more book pages, using the tear and glue mixture to make the paper stick together. Swiping at the tracks with her fingers, she traced the ornate glyphs from the book onto the figure. “I just want to be loved.”
Finally, she pressed her lips to the lumpy space where, hopefully, his own would be. “I just want to be loved.”
Once everything had dried, she clamored to her feet and fetched the box of matches from the kitchen drawer. She struck a match and threw it down on the paper man she’d built before nerves could get the better of her. A curl of dry paper at his feet caught and the figure was quickly shrouded in flames. She squeezed her eyes shut and just keep breathing out her wish over and over. I just want to be loved. I just want someone to love me.
She didn’t open them until she heard the man on the floor begin to cough.
She named him Adam.
The following days were spectacular: waking up tightly encircled by his arms, surprise take-out from her favorite restaurant at her office for lunch, romantic dinners out and whirlwind weekend trips. Adam almost never left her side and for the first time in her life, weekends spent in bed were something to celebrate instead of a one-person pity party. He told her she was beautiful at least twenty times a day and glowered at any man that so much as glanced in her direction. She felt like the heroine of her very own romance novel.
Then her credit card was declined while trying to buy her father a birthday present. All those gifts, romantic outings, and dinners had come straight out of her bank account until there wasn’t a penny left of her savings and her credit cards had all been maxed out. Adam tried to soothe her livid ranting with kisses, waving away her concerns like gnats. But he promised to find work and pay back every penny, which helped calm her a little. He’d been built from the pages and charm of firefighters, construction workers, bankers, and billionaires; he landed his first job within a week.
The job didn’t last long. None of his jobs lasted long. How could they when he kept slipping away to her office for lunch and coming back late, only to run out early to walk her home? Even when she had meetings, he’d hover outside the glass walls, sometimes with roses, though she had no idea where he got them from. But sure enough, a week or two would go by and he’d slink home jobless again. She began working later hours, taking on more and more work, begging HR to buy back her unpaid sick days and vacation hours, asking her father for a loan to make the rent.
Adam would still turn up at 5:00 PM sharp, even when she’d already told him she planned to work late. Then he’d steal a chair from one of the empty cubicles and sit beside her, throwing her off her train of thought with some corny line like how graceful her fingers were on the keyboard or something. That sure as hell wasn’t one of the lines she’d built into him, but she was too busy trying to avoid homelessness to be curious. His huge beefy hands suddenly clamped down on her shoulders, making her jump and sending her third coffee over her notes and keyboard in a mini tidal wave. When he bent down to help her clean it, he somehow deleted the entire report she’d spent a week working on. Her boss was not sympathetic. He was even less so when Adam tried to jump to her defense by chewing her boss out. She was fired on the spot.
He seemed totally oblivious to being the cause of her distress. In fact, every setback seemed to fire up his romantic nature even more; the more that went wrong, the tighter he held her, the cornier his poetic reassurances, the closer by her side he stuck. He’d pull her close at night, whispering that even if they were living in a cardboard box, she was still a queen to him and their love could weather any storm the cruel world could throw at them. She buried her face into her pillow to keep from retching, wondering if the magic that made him live would keep him alive long after she starved to death on the streets.
He followed her to interviews, but his “protective” attitude with most of her interviewers meant she never got a job offer. Stuck with him all day, every day, she could barely talk to her male neighbors or her landlord without Adam spooking everyone with his pitbull-like presence. But it was when Adam flipped and gave her cousin Matt a broken nose and three cracked ribs for hugging her too long at the family BBQ that she decided he needed to go.
She dumped him, right there at the BBQ. He cried and carried on until her own mother kicked them both out.
She changed the locks. He camped in the hallway, shadowing her to interviews from a distance. Flowers, some obviously uprooted from someone’s yard, unfailingly appeared on her doorstep each and every morning with her newspaper. Her neighbors, totally and completely charmed by such romantic displays, wouldn’t even call the police. When she did, he walked out peacefully, chatting with the cops, even buying them coffee at the corner cart as she watched from her window. Then he came back upstairs and resettled himself at the makeshift camp he’d created next to the stairs.
The next morning, next to the flowers and newspaper, was a note. I will love you forever. Chills ran down her spine when she read it.
She slammed the door shut and locked it, retreating to her bed for the next few hours. She was jobless, penniless, and soon she’d be homeless if she couldn’t get her life back together. “This isn’t what I wanted,” she moaned into her pillow. “Stupid book…” A tingle ran down her spine – the book! She hadn’t even thought to look in it again. Flinging her sheets aside, she dove into the closet looking for the forgotten tome.
However, that quickly proved a dead end. There weren’t any notes on how to unmake Adam, or even any hints on how to change him, make him less…smothering. Just that one page, weathered and stained from age, written in a spiky, spidery script with instructions on creating a made-to-order True Love. Whoever wrote the damn thing had a twisted sense of humor. Too bad I can’t make him obsess over someone else.
Lightbulb. She dashed back into the living room to scavenge whatever was left from when she created Adam.
She stopped breathing for a moment when she realized she didn’t have a single book to her name anymore. Every last one had gone into lovingly crafting Adam’s form, and she hadn’t even thought of buying another one since. And even if she were to run home with an armful of them, it wouldn’t matter; they would be empty, cold, untouched and unloved pieces of paper and ink. Heat constricted her throat, twisting up her vocal chords. What other options were there? What else could she possibly have that she’d poured as many tears and dreams into as her precious books?
The answer hit her, literally knocking the wind out of her lungs and sending her skidding across the floor in her heels to her hallway closet, the burial place of mismatched bed linen, her mom’s broken vacuum cleaner, and a box of old diaries.
She’d never worked so fast in her life. Those diaries, where she’d poured out every starry-eyed fantasy, every lonely lament, she tore through them like a cyclone. Fear choked her once she was up to her knees in slivers of paper; her eyes were dry as concrete. Just as she hadn’t picked up a book since the spell, she realized she hadn’t cried either. Was that the price of the magic? What could she use to hold the paper together when she couldn’t cry? Would the spell even work a second time without them? Her eyes fell on the scissors, their gleaming, sharp edges.
Try as she might, she couldn’t keep from squeaking and hissing in pain with every cut she made. She must have been loud too, since she’d barely started the foundation of the figure when Adam knocked on the door, wanting to know if she was okay. She ignored him and worked on, as fast as she could manage.
Every few seconds she dunked her hands into the murky pink water, slapping more paper together until she had the barest minimum of the figure completed. The second figure wasn’t nearly as big as Adam, or even as tall as herself for that matter. It was lumpy, the limbs uneven, the paper tinged a streaky rainbow of pale pinks, crimson, and dry flaky browns. Into the chest she shoved every photo she had of her and Adam, into the throat, she crammed every note or poem he’d left her. The rest of the figure was stuffed with every last scrap of the journals she’d torn up. Hastily, she began closing up the figure, slapping the last pieces into place so hard her hands left dents.
The paper shell was still soft and wet under her hands. Her fingers throbbed. She winced as she cut new wounds into them, tracing the glyphs onto the figure. A thud rattled her front door in its frame. Adam, on the other side, was hollering her name, demanding to know if she was all right, wanting to be let inside.
She breathed out her wish. “I just want him gone. I just want him gone. I just want him gone.”
The paper was still wet in places; it’d never burn in this state. She ran into the bathroom for her hair dryer, turning it full blast on the figure and counting the seconds until it dried.
More heavy thuds landed on the door. Outside her door, the neighbors were yelling at Adam. She thought she heard her landlord among the voices.
Hurry up. The second the paper looked dry enough to light, she struck one match, then another and then a third. The fire alarm she’d forgotten to shut off began blaring, which, for a second, shut up all the voices in the hallway. Then the hinges on her front door gave way, slamming open and letting a flood of people into her smoke-filled apartment to wave their arms around, yell some more, and stumble around asking where the windows were.
Somebody must have found the window and thrown it open. In the blink of an eye, the smoke was sucked out of her living room, leaving her neighbors, her landlord, and Adam staring at her, her bloody hands, and her nude doppelganger in wide-eyed, drop-jawed silence as they sat on the floor.
It seemed the room held its breath; the neighbors sweeping their gazes from one woman to the other, then to each other, the landlord’s mouth snapping open then shut as he gawked at her, red blotches crawling up to the top of his bald head, and Adam, whose eyes stayed riveted to the figure on the floor. She stared back up at him, oblivious to everything else as Adam pulled the couch throw around her like a cape.
“What…in the…fuck is going on in here?” her landlord finally sputtered.
She watched Adam and… well, Eve was as good a name as any, stare at each other and felt a coldness inside as if the wind from outside had found something hollow in her to blow through.
“Come on, Lenny.” She barely felt her lips move to say the words while pushing her landlord and neighbors back into the hallway. “Let’s talk this over downstairs. Coffee’s on me. My… sister Eve and her boyfriend have a lot to talk about.”
“Are you okay? You’re white as a sheet!”
They were both gone by the time she returned, along with most of her clothes and her luggage set. The sound of her feet scraping across the floor echoed in that new empty place inside her. She cleared off some of the remaining clothing from where they’d been thrown on her bed and sat down.