by Rida Rangoonwala, Age 18, USA
This short story was the winner of an LTC Insider Plus+ weekly writing challenge.
An Impossible Demand
“Adriana, you have a meeting with a Mr. Jestyr for 2:30.”
I sighed, turning from my computer to face Nicole, my anxious secretary. “Send him straight in when he comes. I’ll have this paperwork done in the next half hour so it won’t be a problem.”
She smiled, relieved. “The paperwork this time of year’s a menace isn’t it?”
I chuckled. “It makes me consider retiring early, for sure.”
We exchanged more small talk before I turned back to my computer, and Nicole headed off to answer some urgent emails, promising to send me a cup of coffee.
If I’d truly hated paperwork, I would have never agreed to the career. I’d always considered it one of the “duties of the job,” but, lately, the piling monotony had driven me to an imaginative desperation. I knew something had to change, since I had dreamt of retiring just a year into the job. I’d started working on another project, something of a childhood dream of mine, but it was going to be a while before anything came of it.
The creak of the door brushed aside my thoughts. I turned, expecting to see Nicole. Instead, I was met with the sight of a formally dressed young man, a look of determination on his face, carrying what was unmistakably a cup of mocha.
I smiled. Nicole had probably gotten caught up with something; it wasn’t unusual. “Could you just set that on the table please?”
He carefully placed the cup on the rim of the desk, so that a single prod would leave the carpet smelling like coffee.
I turned back to my computer, making some markings on the sheath of papers surrounding me. The man’s voice surprised me–I thought he had left.
“Ms. Adrian Ogata?”
I was caught off guard. He acted as if he had no idea who I was, and, though ours was a large workplace, it was odd to hear a colleague address me that way. Though, come to think of it, I didn’t recall ever having seen this man. I’d assumed he was one of those new graduates that came in every year, but still…
“That’s right. I’m assuming Nicole sent you,” I laughed, watching for his reaction out of the corner of my eyes.
He bit his lip, but gave no other indication of having heard me, choosing instead to plough ahead with his interrogation.
“I don’t wish to take up too much of your time, so I’ll be straight to the point, Ms. Ogata. You can never write anything ever again.”
I considered calling security, but decided that I was overreacting. “Excuse me, Mr.–”
“Jerome,” he cut in smoothly.
“Mr. Jerome, I feel like there’s been a misunderstanding here.”
He smiled, but there was something about the way his facial muscles were taut that reminded me of a lion.
“There’s no misunderstanding here, Ms. Ogata. I merely wished to tell you that you can, by no means, continue writing.”
“I understand that you might be new here, but I find your demands highly disturbing, Mr. Jerome. I would hate to have to call security, so if you could please…”
I gestured to the door, choosing to ignore the possibility that he might refuse. In the whole year I’d been working here, a situation this strange had never come up. It wasn’t even as if the man was the harassing type or anything. He just seemed bent on getting me to stop writing.
The man smiled. “That would be unfortunate, especially since you would accomplish nothing, Ms. Ogata.”
What was he going on about? Was the man a nut-job?
“If you give me your word that you’ll never write again, I promise I’ll leave immediately.”
My response was to pick up the receiver and call security. I held it against my ear for a minute, nonplussed by the Jerome-freak who stood watching as if he didn’t have a care in the world. I almost dropped the phone when the line dropped. Lord, the one time I actually needed one of their “offered services,” and they don’t pick up!
Jerome tilted his head and sighed. “You shouldn’t blame them. It’s a tad difficult to attend to the phone when you’re frozen in time.”
Nicole’s office was right next door. If I could just get her attention…
To my surprise, Jerome moved away from the door, gesturing outside with an exaggerated bow.
“It’s my office, and I can freaking leave whenever I want.” Somehow, my huffiness made me feel like I was fifteen years old again, arguing with my parents. It wasn’t the sort of nostalgia I needed. I’m a grown woman now. I can definitely handle one weirdo.
Steadying my trembling legs, I sprinted outside, willing desperately that there was no one standing in the hallway. With wisps of hair stealing out of my neat up-do, and my blazer and skirts swishing to the beat of my pencil heels, I would definitely destroy the image I’d worked to conserve. An average, phlegmatic IRS auditor: that’s what I was.
“Nicole!” I smiled and walked over to where my secretary was typing away at the computer.
She didn’t respond.
“Nicole?” That was when I noticed her fingers poised in air right above the keyboard like the fingers of Beethoven as he reached for his last notes. Her eyes were fixed on the screen and seconds ticked by without so much as a blink from her.
“When you’re frozen in time.”
I screamed when I saw his shadow.
“You were over there.I swear. You were in my office…what are…how did you?” I sank to the floor, burying my face in my palms.
Jerome’s eyelids twitched. “I walked.”
Using the back of Nicole’s chair, I got to my feet and turned defiantly to the man. “Who the blazes are you?”
“I thought I told you. The name’s Jerome.”
“This…this thing.” I gestured widely to Nicole’s office, including the motionless form of my secretary in the gesture. “How?”
“Mr. Jerome, there is nothing even slightly unimportant about an entire office of people stuck in time.” I felt the hysteria threatening to submerge me, and it took everything I had to keep it at bay.
“Actually, it might be the whole city,” he shrugged. “They’ll be all right if you could just reassure me that you will cease writing from hereon.”
“My entire job is paperwork!”
Jerome smirked. “Forensic auditor for the IRS? That’s a respectable field. No, I’m referring to the trash you waste your free time on.”
That made me pause; no one knew about the children’s book I’d been working on at home. I’d been killing myself over it, and, somehow enjoying every minute. My plan had been to get it published and see where things went from there because I didn’t want to be an auditor for the rest of my life. I looked up at the man, exhausted. “How do you know?”
His smirk grew. “Never mind how I know. Do I have your word that you will cease your writing activities at once?”
“I’m not giving up writing, whatever happens.”
“Ms.Ogata, you asked who I was. I suppose you might call me the Ghost of Your Miserable Future.”
I didn’t bat an eyelid. “You’re from the future?”
For a second, he seemed bewildered but recovered too quickly for me to be sure. “You don’t seem surprised. Were you expecting it?”
I was surprised. For some reason though, it made perfect sense. I suppose the human mind is a whole lot more willing to accept an explanation when it has to confront ridiculous event after ridiculous event.
“Why do you think I shouldn’t write?”
Not that his explanation was going to change anything, but since he’d gone to all the trouble of coming here and scaring me out of my wits, the least I could do was mock what he had to say.
It was a treat seeing his eyes narrow.
“Can’t, not shouldn’t. I’m from the future. I know certain…things.”
“Well, pardon me for not being inclined to give up on my dream because you happen to know…things. Anyways, why should you care? Do people in the future have enough spare time to poke their nose into random people’s lives?”
It was the first time that he actually seemed flustered. “Some family curses happen to stick with time.” With a small flick of his head, he reclaimed himself and all the annoying suaveness of his personality. “Ms. Ogata, you have a wonderful, stable life right now. What if I told you that were you to somehow, by some mean chance, become a writer, you would be ostracized, your family life would dissolve, your friends would desert you and you would be miserable?” He seemed stunned by the greatness of his own speech and actually gaped when a snort of laughter escaped me.
“Mr. Jerome, I’m writing a children’s book, not a call to revolution.” I couldn’t help smiling; I understood now that he meant well but he seemed to be turning something simple into a soap opera. He looked older when he was discomposed, and I wondered just what age the man was.
“I was speaking hypothetically, Ms. Ogata. What if something like that did happen?”
I stood up, dusting off my skirt before meeting the man’s eyes. “I never wanted to be an accountant. I despise paperwork and offices and formal clothes. I hate drawn-out calculations. But it was something to do in college, and it made everyone happy: my parents, my friends. At any rate, it’s silly making eighteen-year olds decide their fate. I thought I could just learn to be happy and that even if I wasn’t happy it wouldn’t matter. I’d be just one of a bunch of miserable people. Writers weren’t successful–if you couldn’t eat, who cared if you could write?”
“But I do. I do care. And what you said about me, about everything that I might lose, it won’t happen. I won’t let it happen. Because, as long as I’m doing what I love, I don’t think I can be miserable. And people might think I’m crazy, I’m having an early midlife crisis, but it’ll be okay. I trust the people I care about and they’ll be all right. When they see I’m happy–and maybe I have a light wallet, or a crazy schedule, or a ton of pressure–but when they see I’m happy, they’ll be fine with it.”
If he looked old before, he looked ancient now. The shadow of lines in his face had hardened, and his brows were knitted tightly. But it was his first real smile. And when I left Nicole typing away madly in her office, and sat sipping my coffee in my own, I was thinking about what he’d said before vanishing.
“I’ll let you take your chance.” And then, “I’m glad they all got to hear that.”
Between wondering who “they” were and coming to terms with everything that had happened that afternoon, I could only wonder if my next book would be a sci-fi novel.
Rida says: “I’ve been writing short stories and poetry since elementary school and hope to one day see my name on the cover of a novel. For the time being though, I’m focusing on finding my voice and learning how to become a better writer.”