THE YELLOW MANUSCRIPT by Jenny Maloney
Sylvie Andrews found the dead man’s hidden manuscript in the false bottom of a drawer in his roll-top desk.
It was the stuff of daydreams for a graduate English major to be allowed into legendary novelist George Pickerman’s study in the first place. To find three hundred single-spaced typed pages which had never been seen before was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie; it was all Sylvie could do not to shout in triumph or pee her pants. A false drawer bottom? Really? Who did that?
Pickerman, who had been compared alternatively to H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stephen King, had grown reclusive in later life — which drew even more comparisons, this time to J.D. Salinger. After his sudden death, his wife had made a call to the top graduate programs in the country for three or four Pickerman scholars to come catalog, sort, and study the remnants of Pickerman’s leftover work. After a strenuous — though quick — selection process, Sylvie was chosen along with two others: Lin, a Chinese exchange student from Stanford who spoke better English than anyone she’d ever met, and Greg, from Brown.
“Ugh,” Greg said from beneath a large slab table which had served as Pickerman’s second desk. “This guy was disgusting.” Greg’s curly hair was the only thing Sylvie could see; the hairs stuck out like shark dorsal fins. Without moving from his position under the table, Greg tossed a small saucer — which Pickerman had apparently been using as an ash tray — up onto the table’s already-crowded surface. Cigarette butts were bent and twisted over one another and a fine film of gray ash coated the saucer’s rose print. But Greg wasn’t done. He also tossed a Wal-Mart bag filled with used Kleenex next to the saucer.
The interviewers hadn’t told the applicants that Pickerman was a hoarder. The study had everything one would expect from a well-regarded novelist: floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, leather chairs, a large roll-top desk along one wall, another work table in the center, a huge bay window overlooking an expansive front lawn, and lots of writing materials. The bookshelves contained stacks of things — papers, empty notebooks, magazines, books — but there was no order to it. And whatever didn’t fit onto the shelves had spilled onto the floor. Islands of stacks as high as Sylvie’s knee — and she was not short — clumped together on the Persian carpet. There was a series of trails between the piles of stuff. One path led to the center table, one to the bay window, and one to the roll-top desk where Sylvie sat. No clear path led to the bookshelves; they’d have to dig their way there.
It was hard to think of hero writing in such a crazed environment.
Mrs. Pickerman, an elegant woman who looked like she might be two or three decades younger than Pickerman, had shown the grad students the room, wished them luck, and then had disappeared down the long hallway. Even the man’s widow wanted nothing to do with this space.
“I think the Mrs. just wanted a free cleaning service,” Lin said from the floor. He’d managed to clear a space large enough to sit as he went through a stack of spiral notebooks. He was trying to get to the bookshelves, but that probably wasn’t going to happen today. Greg had taken on the task of the center table. Sylvie got the job of poking through Pickerman’s roll-top, which had miles of nooks and crannies. But the legendary author hadn’t even kept his drawers in the desk. They were stacked in a leaning tower next to the desk itself. In the holes where the drawers were supposed to go were wadded up sheets of paper, manila folders, and what looked like construction paper sticking out in all directions. She’d started with the drawers. And with the very first one, she’d made her magical discovery.
For a moment, all Sylvie could do was sit there in Pickerman’s leather chair and stare dumbly at the yellowed, looseleaf pages, with the thin piece of wood that had been the bottom of the drawer hanging in her hands. The world around her felt distant. She heard Lin complain about the death of so many trees. Greg found something else disgusting — food of some kind, apparently he couldn’t recognize it anymore. None of their words really registered in her ears.
From her first glance, she knew that it was a full manuscript. The typescript looked old-fashioned, like an Underwood typewriter. This hadn’t been printed on a modern printer. The pages were a dull yellow color and brittle. This was an old piece. Pickerman must have written this early in his career. He was sixty-eight when he died, so he began well before the current incarnation of technology. Maybe — and she really had to keep herself from
squealing in excitement at this thought: maybe it was his first book.
Delicately, she put down the drawer’s false bottom and then reached into the drawer, lifting the top page, the title page, off the pile.
Drowning in Leaves.
How very Whitman of him. And, at the same time, how Poe.
There was no authorial byline, which made Sylvie pause. Everything else she’d found had clearly borne George Pickerman’s name. Even the cheap spiral notebooks.
She needed to tell the boys, let them know about her find. But, instead, she started to read. Fall came early that year…and she was halfway through chapter two when she managed to pull herself out of the prose and come up for air. Her hands ached from the dual work of keeping the looseleaf pages together and turning through them.
“I’m done!” Greg yelled. He hurled something across the room, something that splattered against a bookshelf. “I didn’t sign up for this shit!” He rose from beneath the table, his curly hair wild. His white sweater was covered in dust and lined with something else that was gray and goopy. Sylvie squinted at the substance; it looked like it might have once been spaghetti.
“Yes, you did,” Lin said, his voice calm and steady. He didn’t even look up from the spiral notebook he was reading. “You know,” Lin continued as if Greg’s outburst had never happened — Sylvie guess that Lin must live in a fraternity house of some kind — “Pickerman seems to have been copying his own work, over and over. By hand. How weird is that? I’ve found the first chapter of Bygone Strains three times so far. What kind of writing exercise is that?”
“Maybe he was warming up his hands so he could play hide-and-seek with his food. I’m now convinced the man was crazy. Legit crazy. Not a genius. He was just spinning his wheels in here. His disgusting, disgusting wheels.”
“A guy’s gotta eat,” Lin said. His face was serious, but his dark eyes behind his glasses twinkled.
“Next thing I find, I’m throwing it at you,” Greg said.
“Guys,” Sylvie said, interrupting before Greg went hunting for some kind of rotten missile. “I think I’ve found something.” She held up the yellow manuscript. The pages fanned down around her fingers.
Even after hours of tedious work, her two compatriots were by her side in second. Lin actually hurdled a tower of notebooks and landed next to her. She wouldn’t have judged him to be that athletic, but sometimes people surprise you.
“It’s old,” Greg said, stating the obvious. He was close enough to smell now and Sylvie wished he’d back up. He was sweaty and covered in rotten food. He reached out. Sylvie yanked the pile of paper down onto her lap.
“Don’t touch,” she said.
“Yeah, we need to digitize this one.”
Greg nodded. “The scanner’s set up in the living room. Let’s go.”
It took them the rest of the afternoon to document everything about the manuscript. By dinnertime, all of them had a digital copy. Sylvie stored the original pages in an airtight document box with a small sense of regret. She’d started to read it on paper and wanted nothing more than to curl up with the pages in her bed and read it how Pickerman had written it.
Instead, she got into bed that night with her iPad and in the dull glow she read Pickerman’s fairy tale of a girl who angered an entire forest.
The girl was ten years old and very poor. Her parents were violent. Her siblings were starving. There were rumors of an ancient treasure box hidden in the trunk of an Enchanted Tree. The treasure box contained enough riches for a lifetime of wealth and freedom. Wanting to save her siblings and herself from a lifetime of squalor, the girl did what many fairy-tale heroines have done: gone on a quest. Along the way, she had several small adventures, including some mishaps where she chopped down the wrong trees in her search for the Enchanted Tree. Finally, the girl cut down the Enchanted Tree, gaining the treasure box. But the trees want vengeance for her casual destruction of their friends.
The leaves, dry and crackling, break off the branches of the ancient trees. It sounds like the snapping of a million tiny twigs. Carried by the wind, the leaves tangle in the girl’s hair. They crumble and fall into her eyes. They dig into her ears. Fly into her mouth and nose. She gags. Coughs. Piles of leaves litter her path, tripping her. Her ankle snaps. The ground is hard and the treasure box spills out of her hands. She is blind and cannot see where the box is. Leaves keep falling. Their weight pins her down. She feels pressure on her chest. Leaves like stones. Heavy. She can’t push them off. She can’t breathe. The leaves press down and down. When her ribs crack, it feels like the the trees have stabbed their bare branches into her side. Blood pools in the back of her throat. She can’t swallow.
“Gross,” Sylvie whispered into the glow of her iPad. She blew out her nose, hard, as if to dislodge imaginary leaves.
The girl was never seen again.
The next day, the scholars got an early start, despite all three of them having obviously stayed awake far too late into the night reading Pickerman’s novel. Sylvie blinked in the morning light pouring in from the bay window. She did not sleep well after finishing the story: her dreams were haunted by leaves flittering off dead branches.
On the short drive from the hotel to the house, she’d cast her gaze on the large oak trees lining the streets along the way. Part of her wondered if Pickerman had gotten the idea from the same oak trees, but then she immediately dismissed the idea because Pickerman — as every Pickerman scholar knew — grew up three hundred miles south, in Maryland. The large house Pickerman died in actually belonged to his wife. The yellowed manuscript of Drowning Leaves had obviously come from early in his career, before his wife. There was no way the oaks she drove by had anything to do with the story.
Sylvie resumed her post at the roll-top after exchanging only the briefest of hellos with her fellows. Neither one of them seemed to feel like conversing either.
The first hour or so she spent trying to see if the other drawers had false bottoms too but no dice. She was now as buried in junk as the boys. The conclusions she was willing to draw about Pickerman: he didn’t use purple-inked pens like the rumors claimed (all she found were black and blue Bics, nothing special), he liked candy (she found half-sucked sweets, thankfully tucked back in their wrappers), and he was, as Lin noted on their first day, rewriting his own work over and over. The third time she came across the fifth chapter of Loafing in the Labyrinth, she felt like lighting all the spiral notebooks on fire.
“What did you guys think about Drowning in Leaves?” she asked, unable to take the silence or her thoughts anymore.
“What’re you talking about?” Lin asked. He was halfway to the bookshelves now. Since the notebooks just repeated, he’d started moving through them faster.
“The manuscript,” Sylvie said, stating the obvious.
Greg looked up from a bound galley that Pickerman was supposedly copyediting before his death, but there wasn’t a mark inside it. “The manuscript isn’t called Drowning in Leaves.”
“I think I know how to read a title.” Sylvie plopped yet another repetitive notebook on the pile growing beside the desk.
“Then you know the title is Firebugs like that Max Frisch play,” Lin said.
“What?” Greg and Sylvie said in unison.
“Drowning in Leaves.”
“Tangled Blankets,” Greg said.
Then all of them talked over one another.
“– lost your mind — “
“– what about that scene — “
“– ants leaving fire trails — “
“– the leaves cutting the inside of her throat — “
“– he couldn’t breath — the sheets were alive — “
“Augh! Shut up!” Sylvie yelled. “Everyone pull out their copies.”
Sylvie snagged her iPad off the roll-top desk while a red-faced Greg and a tight-lipped Lin grabbed theirs. She pulled up her PDF copy and, just to make sure, she looked at the title page again. Yes. Drowning in Leaves. With a sense of triumph she handed her iPad to Greg, who traded his with her. He had it pulled up to the title page as well, and there it was, a perfect match to her own. Drowning in Leaves. She swiped through. Found the scene where the weight of the leaves landing on the girl cracked her ribcage.
Before she could show Greg, he said, “Ha! See? I told you. Tangled Blankets.”
“What? No.” She held up his iPad. “Drowning in Leaves. Dammit, it is right here.”
“Firebugs!” Lin shouted, waving his printed pages in the air. He shoved the title page into Greg’s hand, over Sylvie’s iPad. He pointed to the title — which Sylvie read as Drowning in Leaves — and said, “See?”
“No!” she shouted back. “I only see Drowning in Leaves.”
They all stopped. Took a deep breath.
“Okay,” Lin said. “Maybe there was some kind of glitch when we made the copy.”
“Like what?” Greg asked.
“I don’t know. Just something where the file went weird?”
“A ‘glitch’ where each of us got a different version of an entire manuscript?” Sylvie asked.
Lin shrugged. “It’s all I’ve got right now, all right?”
“Let’s check the original,” Greg said.
Sylvie didn’t even argue about breaking the air seal on the plastic document box. The manuscript had been sitting in a drawer for a few decades at least, a couple more minutes weren’t going to kill it. They moved together into the next room, a laundry room larger than Sylvie’s freshman dorm room, which Mrs. Pickerman was allowing them to use as a staging area of sorts. They’d already organized Pickerman’s copyedited galleys on top of the dryer.
She popped the lid of the document box and, before she reread the title, she noticed the manuscript was even older, even yellower than it was when they’d put it in. Mentally, she noted not to open the box again. She read the title.
“Drowning in Leaves,” she said. It was becoming a mantra.
Lin shook his head. “Firebugs.”
“Tangled Blankets,” Greg said, completing the strange litany.
Sylvie sank to the floor. Never in her life had she been more confused. The boys joined her on the floor. No one said anything else.
They sat there for a long time. They heard Mrs. Pickerman come up the stairs. Normally, they tried to keep to the study and the closer rooms. They were invading her home, after all, and wanted to give her space. For her part, Mrs. Pickerman remained primarily in her own office. So, even though it was rare to see her, not one of them moved to acknowledge her, even as they heard her footsteps coming up the stairs. Sylvie only had eyes for the manuscript currently sitting on her lap. No matter how many times she blinked, the title remained the same.
“Oh!” Mrs. Pickerman said from the doorway. Sylvie expected Mrs. Pickerman was surprised to see them but the older woman — a classically beautiful woman — said, “You’ve found it.”
Those three words were like a stick of dynamite. Sylvie, Greg, and Lin exploded upward from their spots on the floor, all speaking at once. “Found it?…Do you know what this is?…What is it?…When did Pickerman write this?…title?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Mrs. Pickerman said, laughing a little nervously. She held up a hand in self-defense. “One question at a time.” The trio fell silent as she looked them over, one at a time. “Yes. I know what that is. You should know George didn’t write it.”
Sylvie felt her heart deflate. She looked down at the manuscript, looked at the title page with no byline. There was no real evidence that it was Pickerman’s, except for the fact of finding it in his desk drawer. And that it was the scariest book she’d ever read.
“It was written by one of the George’s dearest friends, who died recently. Some kind of accident. George said that that story right there was the scariest things he’d ever read.”
“Did he say what it’s about?” Sylvie asked.
“Something about a successful writer who eventually goes mad. How did he put it? Some kind of meta-fictional thing.”
Sylvie and the other two scholars exchanged a glance. They looked as concerned as she felt. “How did the writer go mad?” she asked.
Mrs. Pickerman looked surprised. “You haven’t read it yet? I would’ve thought — “
“We’ve been busy cataloging,” Lin said quickly. He shrugged. “No time.”
Mrs. Pickerman still looked a little doubtful, but she said, “A bestselling author suddenly loses his ability to write. He can only repeat his previous successes, writing the same things over and over. That’s why it’s called Over and Over. Not super original if you ask me, but there it is. It’s about losing talent. Scared the bejeezus out of George. I thought he threw it away.”
Something in Sylvie’s stomach turned over. The notebooks. The repeating chapters. She swallowed hard. She refused to look at the boys, though she saw Greg’s eyes widen out of the corner of her eye. Sylvie took a deep breath against the butterflies, fluttering like falling leaves, deep in her belly.
“Did you ever read it?” Sylvie asked Mrs. Pickerman, then waited
she would say yes. Then two people had read the same story off these pages. It would mean that whatever was going on between the three scholars was something weird, yes, but perhaps not as weird as it could be? Maybe.
“I never got the chance. I thought it was lost.”
After speaking with Mrs. Pickerman, Sylvia had practically run out of the house and driven like a madwoman to the hotel. She couldn’t bear to tag or label anymore notebooks. She didn’t want to think about what they meant.
Her plan was to watch hotel T.V., pig out on ordered-in pizza and ignore the text messages Greg was sending. Answer your damn phone. Eventually, she turned off her phone because the incessant dinging was like a gong inside her head. She did not, however, turn on the T.V. or order pizza. Like some kind of masochist, she pulled out her iPad and opened the .pdf. She read the whole of Drowning in Leaves. She fell asleep crying and dreamed of crackling leaves in her lungs.
She wasn’t early the next day.
It was almost noon before she walked into the library. Lin was the only one there, sitting in the middle of the stacks. But there was nothing organized about his approach. Notebook after notebook was scattered around him. He’d ripped a few pages out and they were scattered like huge snowflakes. Some notebooks were open and laying flat. Others were tilted like tents, having not landed flat on the ground. Lin looked intense.
“2015,” he said when he noticed her.
“The year he published Shavers and A Green Span of Space,” she said automatically, like she’d be graded on her answer. “The year he withdrew from the publishing world.”
Lin shook his head. “No. I mean, yes. But not what I’m getting at.” Lin waved his hands around at the notebooks. “He didn’t write anything new after 2015. After that, he’s writing in these notebooks, yeah? But he’s writing the same things over and over. Some of the notebooks are neat and orderly. I think those are earlier, and he was trying to keep his cool. But then, as the days and weeks go on, his handwriting gets worse. Look.”
He showed her. Sylvie flipped through a few different notebooks. Pickerman’s handwriting did get worse. In some cases, almost illegible.
“It gets worse than that,” Lin said. He handed her a stack of stationary. The plain cream paper had been crumpled up at one point. Lin had flattened the sheets. Written at the top of some was the date. The month and day were fine, but the year grew squiggly.
“What am I looking at?” she asked.
“He couldn’t write the year because he’d never written the year before. He could only write things he’d already written.”
Below the squiggly date was the opening sentence of Shavers repeated about twenty times.
“It’s like the book he read,” Lin said. “His vision of the manuscript.”
It felt like the world tipped over. Her throat felt scratchy.
She threw the stationary down. They scattered like leaves on the floor. “You don’t really believe that, do you?” She laughed. “A magical manuscript tells every person a different, horrible story that comes true?” She laughed again, a little louder. “Like a bad horror story?”
“Pickerman lived and loved horror stories. If a manuscript messed him up this bad — ” Lin waved his hands at all the notebooks ” — it has to be something truly terrified him.”
“Where’s Greg?” she asked. “What does he think?”
They found Greg, dead, in his hotel room. He was on the bed, which was a mess. The rest of the room was strangely clean, almost barren. Greg had put his clothing away in the closet. He’d hung his towels neatly in the bathroom. The sweater which had been covered in old spaghetti was in a laundry bag. His computer was open on the desk. When Lin moved the mouse the manuscript .pdf flashed up on the screen. The title page.
Drowning in Leaves.
She knew Lin saw something else. Neither one spoke of it.
Greg was in the bed. His legs sprawled open, as if he’d just thrown himself on the bed. He wore Batman boxers, which, under different circumstances might have been funny. But his stomach — which had been lean and trim — was distended over the waistband of the boxers. Death gasses. His fingers were tangled in the bedsheets, which were looped around his neck, snaking up his jaw. At first, Sylvie thought a corner of the sheet was in his mouth. But it couldn’t be just a corner. A huge portion of the sheet was actually missing.
Lin saw the strange, disproportionate sheet too.
Together they stepped forward, looking closer.
Sylvie reached out and took hold of a piece of blanket near Greg’s blue lips. This close, she saw his eyes, wide open, crystal blue, terrified.
“What are you doing?” Lin said.
Sylvie didn’t answer. She pulled at the sheet. At first, nothing moved. Then the sheet gave, ever so slightly. Slowly, it slid out of Greg’s mouth. Blood, still wet but coagulated, soaked the section she pulled. A tooth came out with it. A horrible squelching sound.
When she looked up, she saw Lin wasn’t watching watching Greg’s mouth. She followed his gaze to Greg’s belly. Then she knew: Greg’s stomach wasn’t filled with gas. The sheet went all the way down. She gave a small experimental tug, watching Greg’s belly this time. The same squelching sound. Movement in Greg’s abdomen like snakes writhing under the skin.
“What was the title he saw?” Lin asked.
“Something about sheets.”
Nothing anyone said — the police officers, Mrs. Pickerman, her parents when she phoned them, the administration at her university — calmed or reassured her in the immediate aftermath. She couldn’t explain Lin’s, and now her own, suspicions to anyone. The quick conclusion to this gruesome death investigation was “suicide,” despite her showing the officers his text messages. Apparently Answer your damn phone was Greg’s final cry for help.
Offers were made to relieve Lin and she of their tasks, but both refused to back away from the project. They needed clues. Evidence they weren’t going to die strange, horrible deaths. Lin didn’t want to be left alone. He’d taken to sleeping on her hotel room floor; since she didn’t want to be alone either, she let him. They worked with a grim focus. They made it through that first day. Then the next. The more days that passed without incident, the calmer Sylvie grew, sure she’d overreacted. After all, no one had ever drowned in leaves.
Lin had reached the final stack of notebooks at the bookshelves. He opened a notebook, saw the same sentence written all over the first page. He slammed it shut. Sylvie knew how he felt. Every time they saw Pickerman’s tortured, repetitive end-of-days, she was reminded of Greg and her own possibly-immanent death.
“I think we should destroy it,” Lin said.
“How?” she asked. “I’m not burning it with you anywhere around.”
They had told each other their versions. Lin’s involved ants coming in through cracks in the walls, through foundations. They burrowed beneath the characters’ skin, biting and stinging, then catching fire, burning the characters from the inside out.
Lin had quit smoking. He had a spare bottle of epoxy in his hotel room, which he used on anything that looked like a crack. He kept the thermostat in his room low, even though the autumn was getting colder. He also smelled like chemicals: bug spray.
“I’m not burning anything. But water’s pretty damaging to paper too.”
Sylvie didn’t need to be told twice. She ran to the next room and yanked the document box from its space on the fold-out table. Then she headed, with Lin hot on her heels, to the bathroom. Her gaze flitted from the toilet, to the sink, to the bathtub. Lin made the decision. He plugged up the tub and ran water. Cold water. He didn’t want to tempt fate.
When she opened the document box, Sylvie was surprised to see the manuscript had yellowed even further. The pages felt more brittle. Like a bit of it died with Greg, she thought.
She dropped the yellowed pages into the water. The sheets separated from one anther, floated apart, but the individual pages themselves remained intact. The ink remained too.
“Splash some water on top,” she told Lin, who was already doing that exact thing. The water beaded up and rolled off. He pushed the sheets down. They allowed themselves to be pressed below the surface, but they floated back to the surface when he released pressure. Sylvie dropped to her knees and helped him push the mass of pages down. The was icy cold. Her hands were quickly numb. Instead of yanking her hands out, she submerged her arms until they were in up to the elbow. Her skin turned white from the cold. Still nothing happened to the paper. The title page beneath her fingers was magnified, taunting her. Drowning in Leaves.
They tried ripping. They tried shredding. They tried cutting. They tried crossing the words out with Pickerman’s Bic pens. They tried erasers. White out. Nothing stuck to the page.
“Let me try putting it in the oven,” Sylvie finally said.
“You go back to the hotel. Stay there. I’ll take care of it.”
He shook his head. “No. If we’re together, it won’t know which storyline to follow.”
Sylvie stared at him. He’d thought about this. “Do you think so?”
“Why do you think I wanted to stay together all the time?”
She blinked. She hadn’t really realized they’d been together — except for showering — for days and days.
“Anyway, it makes sense,” Lin said. “As much as any of this makes sense.”
“We can’t be together forever,” she said. “Besides, ants live outside and leaves are outside. Honestly, we’re one nature hike away from…” She couldn’t finish her thought. She didn’t need to. “It’ll be okay. I’ve got this.” She said this with more confidence than she felt.
Lin left. Very reluctantly.
Sylvie waited until his car was down the drive before she cranked the oven temperature all the way up. She tossed the pages in without waiting for it to fully warm up. Then she clicked the oven light on, wanting to see the bastard pages light up. The upper and lower heating elements glowed bright orange within a minute or two. Sylvie watched. And watched. For forty-five minutes. Nothing happened. The pages didn’t catch fire. They sat there in the center rack doing nothing except taunt her with…nothing. A watched pot never boils she heard her grandmother say. She turned the oven light off. She forced herself to ignore the manuscript and the oven for another hour. Then she gave up and turned the oven off.
She pulled the pages out using oven mitts, though she needn’t have bothered. They were cool as cucumbers.
But yellower. More fragile.
Sylvie looked closely. Definitely darker. More brittle. She heard them crinkle now as she moved them.
The oven worked. Slowly. But it worked.
“Yes!” she hollered. “Yes, yes, yes!” She turned the oven back on and threw the manuscript back in. Maybe it would take all night. A week. Maybe two. But the manuscript would go away. Yes it would. She was trying to think of a reasonable way to explain to Mrs. Pickerman why the oven needed to be on — for possibly days at a time — when her phone rang.
Vivian Pickerman emerged from her office just after Sylvie drove away.
Mrs. Pickerman had always been a handsome woman, and after her husband’s death, many had remarked how beautiful sorrow made her. Her pale skin seemed more delicate, her eyes somehow more expressive with tears in them. She’d taken the compliments gracefully. She’d always been told she looked lovely for her age. (If they only knew.) Then she’d asked for space to mourn her husband more privately. She would have students of his work in her home to help her process the piles of papers George Pickerman left behind, there was no need to worry for her.
Because she’d been a recluse for these past weeks, keeping out of the public eye, there was no one to remark that George Pickerman’s wife looked beyond handsome now. Stunning would be a closer word.
She turned off the oven with long, elegant fingers. She opened the oven door and blinked against the heat. Then she lifted the manuscript. The pages were cool to the touch, but decidedly fragile.
“Looks like it’s time to write a new story,” she murmured.
Luckily, her arthritis had cured itself. Typing should be easier now. And she could felt the vibration of a more youthful energy humming through her. Definitely time to write a new story.
Lin and the hotel were both gone by the time Sylvie got there.
Firemen were still pouring water onto the building, but there wasn’t much left to save. The four-story hotel was reduced to a single, smoldering floor. Somewhere in the rubble was Lin. Sylvie parked behind the road blocks and joined the gathered crowd. She watched the smoke curl up into the sky. She should have listened to Lin. They should have stayed together. Confused the narrative. She hoped Lin hadn’t suffered. Smoke blew into her face.
I am closer to Pickerman now than I ever hoped to be. And she was.
Pickerman had been her favorite author since she was thirteen. She majored in Literature because she wanted to teach his works. She’d thought by studying his work she’d understand the man and the forces that drove him. She’d gotten her wish. Now she knew him to be a man who’d died terrified and alone. The same shadow loomed over her. Terrifying.
That damned manuscript. She tried to think of it as charred and crispy but she knew it was still intact. Still sitting in Pickerman’s hot oven. Pickerman’s death had deteriorated the manuscript. Greg’s death had also aged it. Lin’s death had added to its fragility. The yellowed manuscript, which aged as its readers died. It was really just living a story’s life cycle, right? A story only lives as long as its readers.
Sylvie backed away from the roadblocks. She moved away from the crowd, turning away from the rubble.
Everything seemed faded in the smoky haze. She felt very alone.
When the first leaf dropped in front of her, she didn’t note it.
But she saw the second one.
Another one dropped.
She kept walking
and when the leaves rushed her, she tried to breathe.
About the Author: Jenny Maloney writes dark fiction that her mother hates. She holds a BA in Creative Writing. When she’s not writing fiction, plays, poetry, or essays, she’s creating theater as an ensemble member at Springs Ensemble Theatre in Colorado Springs.