Panic on the Page

Danger - stay 50 ft awayThey were all doing it. Every head was bowed over a notebook. Every pen was scribbling. Every student in Miss Davis’s sixth period English class was doing just what the teacher told them to do.

“Five minutes,” Miss Davis had said. “A short short. Go.”

The scratching of pens on paper echoed in the room. Echoed! Everyone was writing. Everyone except Elaine. Elaine twirled her pen through her fingers. She closed her eyes. She took a deep breath. She wrote once upon a time. Scratched it onto the paper.

She wanted to be like the rest of them. She wanted to be able to do this, to write without stopping, without worrying about what her mother would say, without worry about the grammar or the goddamned spelling. But her mind was blank. There was nothing there. She wrote I can’t do this. She wrote my mind is blank. She wrote I got nothin. Nada. Zip.

Even the stupid story starters—those little strips of paper with a first line printed on them that each of them grabbed from the paper bag dangling from Miss Davis’s manicured fingers, like these were secret messages, Chinese fortunes that would determine your future—even this was no use to Elaine.

Elaine could feel the clock pulsing in her chest. She started to sweat. She couldn’t even write her own name under this kind of pressure. Five minutes? Jesus!

She tried again. She wrote out her story starter: Your worst fear comes true. It felt more like a prophesy than a prompt.


A Novel Experience

Linda Kobert spent the month of November participating in NaNoWriMo (that’s National Novel Writing Month…a marathon writing experience in which the writer is challenged to write 50,000 words in 30 days). The following is Linda Kobert’s favorite excerpt from her winning work (official tally: 50,272 words) titled Aunt Jane.

Ashley, the protagonist, is working at an independent book shop in downtown Charleston, South Carolina…

The man at the counter was the type of guy Justin would have called squirrelly. He was short and wiry, in his forties, maybe, with thinning hair that probably hadn’t been combed for several days. His grey eyes darted everywhere, never resting on one thing for more than a few seconds. Ashley couldn’t tell if his mouth were naturally misshaped or if it was a scar on his upper lip that pulled it up on one side so that it looked like he was smiling even when he wasn’t.

He’d already mounded a stack of books on the counter, but he told Ashley when she started ringing them up that he wasn’t finished yet.

“I’m looking Margaret Rhett Martin’s book on Charleston’s ghosts,” he said in voice a sounded like gravel.

Ashley glanced at the stack of eight books he’d already collected. The man had gathered every book they had on the interiors of historic Charleston homes, one on haunted ships in Charleston harbor, and a couple that told the famous ghost stories and legends of the low country.

“Let’s look over here on the local history shelf,” Ashley suggested, leading him through the stacks to a row of shelves behind the new arrivals. “Looks like you’ve got a project going here,” she said as she handed him the book.

“Yeah,” he replied. “You might say that.” He grabbed the book and hugged it to his chest.

Ashley was startled. “Yes, well… is there anything else…”

“I need that book, The House on Tradd Street,” he barked.

“Sure,” she said, not feeling very sure at all. “It’s over in fiction. That one is a novel, you know.”

“Course I know,” he said, his eyes darting around the room.

Ashley found the book, but before she could pull it from the shelf, the man grabbed it from her hand. “Maybe you think it’s fiction,” he growled.

Ordinarily, Ashley paid almost no attention to the books customers plunked down on the checkout counter in front of her. She scanned them and put them in a bag, took their money, and said thank you for stopping by. But she was intensely curious about this guy, and she couldn’t help wanting to get him talking. So as they wound their way back to the front of the store, Ashley said, “I live on Tradd Street. Do you know something I don’t know?”

“You live on Tradd Street?” The man looked at her with eyes that grew wide as he spoke, the whites showing all around the beady gray orbs in the center.

“Yeah, in a house that looks a little like that one.” She pointed to the picture on the cover of the novel she’d just found for him.

“You seen the haint?” His shoulders drew up, making his head appear to withdraw like a turtle into the collar of his white shirt.

“What makes you think my house has a ghost?” Ashley smiled, but tried not to laugh at this suspicious little man with a fascination for ghosts.

“Oh, it has a haint alright.” He was dead serious. “They all do, those houses in the historic district. ’Specially the ones like this,” he indicated the photo on the cover of the novel. “The ones what was built ’afore the war, they all have haints. Some of ’em ain’t none too friendly either.”
“Well, I’ve never seen a ghost at my house, friendly or no.”

“How long you live there? ’Cause they won’t show themself ’less you been there a while and they think they can trust you.”

“I guess I’ve been there long enough.” Ashley didn’t want to say too much about where she lived or how long she’d been there. This guy was getting weirder and weirder the longer they talked, and she didn’t want him showing up on her doorstep like a ghost in the night trying to scare her into believing there really were haints in her house.

“You show me your haint?” the man asked, looking her directly in the eyes for the first time.

Ashley withered under his gaze. “Sir, there isn’t a ghost in my house, I assure you.” She finished tallying the cost of his purchase and slipped the last of the books— The House on Tradd Street—into a large shopping bag with handles. “That’s two eighty two eighty five.”

The man reached into the front pocket of his dirty khaki pants, pulled out a wad of bills, and peeled off three, crisp one hundred dollar bills. This time it was Ashley’s eyes that were wide, and she tried not to stare as he laid them carefully, one by one, side by side on the surface of the counter, smoothing his fingers over Benjamin Franklin’s face and turning each bill so old Ben looked in the same direction. While she lifted the money from the counter and tucked it under the till in the cash drawer, he held up his dirty palm waiting for her to count his change into it.

“I reckon it just hasn’t showed itself to you yet,” he said after recounting the change and stuffing it into the other front pocket of his pants.

“What?” Ashley said.

“Your haint. Now me, I’m the kind of person a haint will come out for.”

Ashley had no trouble believing this. In fact, she would have no trouble believing he might be a ghost himself. But just now she was regretting having started the conversation with him in the first place, and she just wanted the guy to get out of the shop. She hoped she hadn’t given him so much information or attention that he might want to come back and haunt her some more trying to get her to give him a private tour of her aunt’s antebellum house on Tradd Street.

“Thank you for stopping by,” she said cheerfully and handed the shopping bag over the counter to him. “I hope you enjoy your books.”

The man pulled his head back into his white shirt and lugged his books out the door.

Ashley followed him with her eyes, relief washing over her to see him go. She took a deep breath and turned back to her work. There was a line of five people standing in front of her, watching her with smiles on their faces.

“What a nut case,” she said, shaking her head and trying to giggle. Her laugh was strained, though, and she couldn’t quite bring a smile to her face. “Who’s next?” she said reaching out to take the books from the next person in line.

(c) 2009 by Linda J. Kobert