Free Stories, $1

You are worthless. You are pathetic. He’ll never love you. Nobody ever will.

The words yo-yo through Rebecca’s head as she pushes through the heavy oak door of the chateau that houses the university’s English department and out onto the cobblestone promenade. Dried tears prick at her cheeks, the crust of mascara escaped. Her nose leaks like a faulty faucet, its steady drip, drip, drip moistening her prominent upper lip.

It was her again. After class, just outside the professor’s office. She swept in like a butterfly in the breeze, her golden curls bouncing, her petite frame all but disappeared behind the books she clutched to a bosom Rebecca sometimes caught herself ogling jealously. Rebecca burned with envy as the professor complimented the girl’s most recent work, gushed over her conservative use of metaphor. She trembled at her desk as she watched the professor’s eyes roam the girl’s curves, his face light up every time the student giggled into her perfect little hand.

It was a look Rebecca longed for the professor to direct at her. Eyes she’d dreamed of staring into. A smile she wished she could photograph and frame.

All the professor ever gave to Rebecca were notes to type up, papers to file away, books to notate and catalog. He barely glanced at her when he stomped past on his way to class, his corduroy jacket hugging his broad chest, his wavy auburn hair bouncing perfectly in place, streaks of gray catching the lamp light like gold flakes. No, those hungry eyes only came to life when directed at the girl, his prized student, his charming little vixen.

Rebecca stifles another sob, lets the tears flow freely down her cheeks. She fights away the image of the girl and how she wiggled her manicured fingers goodbye, twirled her skirt as she left so that her tanned legs showed up to the thigh. She tries instead to focus on the task before her, the mission she’s planned for weeks.

She tries to focus on the masterpiece she will write.

Tomorrow is the final deadline before summer holiday. Students are to turn in their best short stories, their last opportunity to impress the professor and score good marks for the term.

Rebecca intends to submit a story of her own.

She’s planned every detail—how she’ll collect the stories as always, order them alphabetically, staple a scoring sheet at the top. How she’ll slide her own work into the middle of the stack, printed on paper with a whisper of her perfume. How the professor will be so dazzled by Rebecca’s work that he’ll float out of his office as if carried on a cloud, tears of wonder in his eyes. How he’ll lift Rebecca out of her chair in his muscular arms and carry her off to some tropical place, where they’ll drink sidecars in hammocks as they dictate stories to the natives.

One story. That’s all it will take. Rebecca is certain she can win the professor’s affection with her work. Stories are like her oxygen, her lifeblood. They float all about her, ready to be plucked from the ether like a firefly from a starless night. It was why she applied for the secretary job, after all. She’d been rejected by the English department so many times the letters fueled fires on lonely winter nights, but she knew they’d made a mistake. She knew she was destined for greatness. She knew she would create masterpieces some day.

And today had to be that day.

One story.

But the story isn’t there. She’s toiled for weeks, and yet… nothing. She needs a stroke of inspiration. An idea burning with passion. Something sure to wow the professor. Something that will force him to look at Rebecca just as he looks at her…

Her. All Rebecca can think about—all she’s thought about for weeks—is the way he looks at the girl.

This time Rebecca doesn’t stifle the sob but lets it erupt from her, a great torrent of tears and choked phlegm bursting forth, louder than she’d intended. Her desperation balls itself tighter at the pit of her stomach like an animal settling in for hibernation, and she hurries away from the university, afraid the professor might see.

Rebecca’s apartment—a fourth-floor space that hangs over a squat courtyard like it was tacked on hastily as an afterthought, an asymmetrical cave of misfit two-by-fours and withering clapboard through which a cold breeze constantly blew—is a dozen blocks or so from the university. Normally she would walk home by way of the avenue at the far end of the promenade. Today, however, short for time, she takes a shortcut, snaking through alleys and modest back stoops adorned with dying ferns and wind-blown laundry, a zigzag that spills into the town square deep within the heart of the village.

The square hums with life—tourists with cameras strung upon their shoulders, food vendors hunched beneath umbrellas in the steamed winds of salted and greasy stews, panhandlers dancing merrily about in all manners of trade. Her plan is to circumvent the square, to avoid the masses that gravitate toward the small collection of statues erected at the center how many hundreds of years ago.

But as she plods around the edge, something in the middle of the square—not the exact middle, that is, but floating somewhere that is neither here nor there, not anywhere between a point from which one would come nor a point to which one would go—catches her eye.

It is an old man, oily gray hair slithering to his shoulders, fleshy bulge of a belly ballooning precariously beneath a stained olive sweater. He perches on a stool, legs and arms akimbo, and what appears to be an ancient typewriter sits neatly on a folding table before him.

Beside the old man, propped against the tattered and feathered corners of a black typewriter case, leans a cardboard sign so old its corners wilt inward like a dying flower, scrawled with a paint as red as blood. It reads: Free Stories, $1.

Rebecca stops and stares at the sign. Her eyes trace the characters forward and backward, her brain scrambling to make sense of it. Slowly the middle word burns brighter and brighter, as if the red of the paint spilled fresh blood upon the cardboard, a living and breathing thing.

Stories.

No, she thinks. Not worth the time, and certainly not worth the risk she’d be taking. Not when she stands to gain—or to lose—so much.

But as she turns to hurry away, an image of the professor flashes in her mind’s eye as if he were right in front of her, his thick auburn hair gently twisting in the breeze, his firm jaw set solidly in the same grin that always hangs between his ears as he talks with… the girl.

Rebecca’s lip quivers. The desperation in the pit of her stomach clenches tighter.

She turns and strides directly up to the old man, hands clasped behind her back, head held so high she might as well have been studying the bulbous clouds that had settled over the village.

“Well hello, my sweet,” the old man says, his voice like rocks banged about in an empty tin can. “What can I write for you today?”

“Your sign,” Rebecca says rather coldly. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“And how is that, dear?”

“How can a story be both free and $1?”

The old man leans forward with effort over the swollen belly and peers at his sign, his face lighting up as if he’s reading it for the first time. “I suppose it depends on how you define ‘free.’”

“How can free mean anything other than something you give away? Without a price?”

The old man doesn’t respond, but simply giggles to himself like he’s just remembered an inside joke he shared with someone else.

Rebecca scowls. “Look. I need a story for the morning.”

“Well you’ve come to the right place.” The man’s fingers tap together like spiders dancing against a mirror.

Rebecca digs into her purse and pulls out a mauve alligator-skin wallet, from which she plucks a rigid dollar bill that smells of menthol and sawdust. She holds it out to the man, who leers at the bill, yellow teeth gleaming against chapped lips, then darts his eyes to an upturned beret upon the cobblestones at his feet.

The beret is empty. She drops the bill in.

“Before I write,” the man says, “I have one request.”

“I’ve already paid,” Rebecca says. “I don’t owe you anything else.”

“Oh, but my dear,” he says, “a man cannot simply write! He must be inspired.” He shifts his excessive weight on the unsteady stool and opens his palms upward as if releasing his spirit to some heavenly body. His eyes briefly close, then open again with a new kind of light. “Or did you not want a story of great quality?”

“Of course I do,” Rebecca spits, glancing around the square at the townspeople walking carelessly by, the other panhandlers performing magic, music, theatrics within their own orbs of reality. “What is your request?”

“It’s simple, really. My request is for you to answer three questions.”

“Three questions!” Rebecca scoffs, her lips hung down as if two weights clung to their corners, that scowl that her mother always chastised her for. “I do believe you’ve falsely advertised your services, sir.”

“Then so it shall be,” the man says, shrugging his burly shoulders with obvious effort. “I wish you good luck in your search for a story, my dear.”

Rebecca bends to snatch her dollar bill from the upturned beret, but as she crouches to the cobblestones, legs bridled within her knee-length skirt, his face once again flashes before her, those deep brown eyes, those firm cheek bones that were frequently adorned with stubble she wanted so badly to graze with her fingertips.

Rebecca stands up straight, curls her fingers into fists, sets as confident a gaze as she can muster at the old man. “What are these questions for, then?”

The man smiles wide, yellowing teeth like the dying light of lanterns at sea.

“Stories have a way of revealing something about their teller, do they not?”

“I suppose that is true.”

“You could say they set free a truth about the teller. A truth, perhaps, that the storyteller might not have wanted the world to know.” He squints his eyes and leans forward so that his briny body odor suddenly overwhelms her. “Or that she didn’t even know herself.”

“Get to the point, old man,” she says, taking a step back and looking away disgusted. “The questions. What are they for?”

“The questions simply help me to know you a little bit better. To understand what it is I might need to reveal for you.”

“What is your first question, then?”

He coughs into a grubby fist and then rubs his palms together. “Your first question is this: What is your one true love?”

“My one true love?” Rebecca asks it into the accelerating breeze, eyes studying the steep shale rooftops ringing the square. “How can you be so sure I have one at all?”

The man says nothing, simply shrugs again.

“Fine,” Rebecca says after a few more moments thinking it over without much effort, “I’ll tell you my one true love. It is writing.”

“Writing, eh?”

“Yes, writing. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life, and all I ever hope to achieve.” Something within Rebecca shivers with the lie, and she momentarily regrets tacking on the last bit about what she hopes to achieve. Simultaneously her heart lurches against her chest, the thought of the professor filling her as if it were her pulse, her breath, her life, fighting to reveal the truth.

But she clenches her fists tighter at her side, resolved to hurry through the man’s questions.

The old man squints one eye in her direction, wisps of his oily hair sweeping across the slit of an eye that disappears into a fat and scruffy cheek. “Just that one thing, my sweet? Writing?”

“Correct.”

Suddenly the old man whips one short arm behind him, his broad frame shuddering with the motion like a bag of flour dropped to the floor. The arm swings back around and Rebecca sees that a short notebook is now buried into his palm, and he quickly scribbles upon it with a pen that had been lodged behind his ear.

He stuffs the notebook into a breast pocket and looks her in the eye. “Your second question, dear, is this: What is your greatest fear in life?”

Rebecca pauses, giving this one some thought. The truth, of course, is that there are a million of them, so many that they haunt her dreams like demons, threaten every footstep she takes upon the village’s cobblestones, whisper into every moment she spends alone in her frigid apartment.

There is, however, one fear that underscores all of Rebecca’s troubles. It is a fear that floats ever about her, settles on her skin, fills her lungs, rings in her ears, a fear that is as fresh and pungent on this day as ever before. It is the fear that she will always be alone, rejected by those she longed to love—especially him, the one person she wishes desperately to spend all of her time with, now and forever. A rejection from him would be a rejection from life itself, an undoing of any kind of foundation she might hope to stand upon.

To speak it, though, is to give it life. Rebecca cannot bear for that to be the case.

An echo of her sobs from earlier crawls into her throat, but she chokes it down and says to the old man in barely more than a whisper, “Only death.”

The man leans toward her again, and again his odor seems to cling to every particle in the air before her. “I’m sorry, dear, you’ll have to repeat that just one more time.”

“I said death,” she says, louder this time. “Surely this is everyone’s greatest fear, and I’m no different.”

He nods once and says, “I thought that was what you said.” He sticks the butt end of the pen into his mouth and rolls his chapped lips over it, then plucks it from his mouth and scribbles something again onto the notebook.

A silent moment passes between the two. Rebecca studies the old man, his soiled sweater, his pudgy legs cocked at awkward angles, his fuzzy cheeks that can’t hide the scars etched horizontally across his cheeks like war paint. Her hope that this story might actually give her any material for tomorrow’s deadline is fading fast—surely this man is insane. What are his credentials? How quickly can he write? Her stomach rumbles, her pulse quickens. She feels altogether foolish, horrifically embarrassed.

Finally the old man looks up at Rebecca, his face, she’s surprised to see, deeply changed, as if he’s just been told the most terrible thing. “And now for your final question. Are you ready, my sweet?”

“Yes.” Rebecca, annoyed, tugs her arms tight against her chest, the cold breeze intensifying and driving the pedestrians about her into the shops and cafés tucked into the perimeter of the square.

“What is your greatest fantasy, that one thing from which you cannot turn your mind away? Describe in vivid detail, please.”

Rebecca rolls back on the heels of her feet as if the wind has dislodged her from the cobblestones. She requires no time to consider this, as she has rehearsed this fantasy over and over in her head so many times she’s started to confuse parts of it for truth. There are many acts, many scenes.

She closes her eyes. Once again his face swims before her, the calligraphy of his eyebrows, the faint wrinkles as virginal as a baby’s birthmark. Now she’s standing at his side, one arm looped around his and hugging him close, their bodies passing warmth like electrical currents as they stare out over rolling countryside hills. Now she’s lounging seaside, along the Riviera, bare feet cradled in his lap, the two of them silent as the cool sea breeze rolls over their nearly naked bodies.

Now she’s floating in the crystal white bliss of threadbare cotton, the sheets her cocoon, his muscled body breathing in steady pulls beside her. A slumbering dog, or a purring cat, or a cooing child—she never settles on one—asleep at their feet.

“I’m…” she starts but drifts off, lost in the depths of the fantasy.

The cold wind rolls over the tips of her ears, bites at her nose and cheeks, tugging her back into reality. She opens her eyes; the old man is staring at her, eyebrows arched, his head tilted so that one ear angles in her direction.

“I’m standing on a stage, somewhere in the heart of a great city.” She stops, searching for words to describe a fantasy she cannot truly see. “There are people all around me, people all in front of me, as far as I can see.”

She stops again, glances once more at the old man to see whether he’s satisfied with her answer. He squints at her, more solemnly now, one hand scratching at his doughy chin, the other cupping an elbow that sinks into the crest of his stomach.

“I have a ribbon around my neck,” she continues, “and a bronze statue in my hands. I’ve won an award for my writing. I’m celebrated as the greatest writer of our time, and the people shout my name.”

She considers saying more but decides against it. Instead she releases her fists, stretches her fingers, breathes so deep her lungs burn with the cold air swirling about her and the old man and the square that is suddenly much emptier than she remembered it being.

The man holds his pose, staring at Rebecca for so much time she feels she should leave him be, flee the square, forget the deadline and her story and him—yes, even him—and pretend it never meant anything to her at all.

“Yes, yes, I see,” he says after a few moments scratching his chin. “I see it now. I see it very clearly. You have satisfied your three questions, and now I shall write your story.”

He clasps his fingers together and folds them outward, bones cracking from somewhere deep beneath fatty meat. Then he leans over with great effort and plucks a single piece of paper from a stack at his feet that Rebecca didn’t previously notice, a piece of paper so crisp and white it might have just been delivered from the factory. He places the paper into the typewriter’s roller and turns the knob to set it just so.

Rebecca hurries over to the man’s side and leans over his shoulder as his fingers whir about the typewriter.

She lets a brief gasp escape as she reads his first line. It reads:

You are worthless. You are pathetic. He’ll never love you. Nobody ever will.


Sam Oches is the managing editor and cofounder of Scrutiny, as well as the editorial director of a restaurant news media company. He is working on his first novel.

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