Over the past several weeks, I have been busy writing based on some pretty specific prompts. One of which was the idea of “magic pens.” The publication didn’t pick up either of the stories I wrote for them—and since I can’t imagine reusing such a specific topic, I am posting them both here. There are many other short stories in the works, and I look forward to sharing them with you as they become available!
(reading time: 7 minutes)
It was an unusually hot afternoon in the market—many of the shoppers had retreated to one of the dimly-lit tea shops clustered around the city square. Being a newly arrived tourist, I wanted to make the most of my time and didn’t know how long I’d have to wander the fabled bazar. I passed from fruit sellers—looking weary in their pale caftans—to weavers to pottery makers. The only thing that had particularly drawn my interest was the wares of an antique stained-glass window dealer that had been salvaged from demolished holy sites. The prices were outlandish, however, so I kept walking.
I had just decided that the air was sweltering and that I too would retreat from the square—perhaps back to my room for a nap—when a vendor called to me.
“Young sir! Young sir,” he cried, motioning vigorously towards me.
Normally, I would ignore such entreaties, I assure you. Anytime someone seems overly eager to engage me, I feel that it is best to turn the opposite direction. But something in his presence attracted me—perhaps it was the jaunty angle of his conical hat or maybe the metallic thread in his robes glistening in the artificial twilight of his stall. I had taken more than a step in his direction before shaking my head and finally turning away.
“Young sir,” he continued his entreaties, “I know you. Your mother passed away unexpectedly last winter. You are twenty-seven years old. You arrived in our country two days ago.”
The hair on the backs of my arms became erect. All of what he shouted was true. The vendor gleamed at me with the satisfaction of a fisherman sinking his lure into his prey. I circled back to face him.
“How do you know all of that?” I demanded. My mind ran through the possibilities: he slipped money to the concierge at my hotel, he went online and searched my social media presence.
I don’t want to overly dramatize the encounter, but there was a supernatural aura to this moment. It felt like the past and future were conspiring to bring me here, to this exact place.
“I am aware of who you are,” he whispered, “because my secret cargo has spoken to me. There are items that I keep hidden except in rare moments. I only bring them forth when they call me to approach a specific passerby.”
Frankincense burned in a tray and billowed perfumed smoke, making my eyes water. The man retreated to the far corner of his stall and peeled back a richly woven rug to reveal an iron-bound trunk. He groaned as he heaved it aloft and then staggered forward to prop it on a leather stool.
“Few have seen what I am about to show to you. These items only reveal themselves to those that they deem pure of heart. Be honored, young sir, for it’s been many days since I have last proffered these wares.”
I restrained myself from rolling my eyes. I’m sure that you would have, undoubtedly, had better judgment than me, friend. You probably would have exited right then. I was tempted, I’ll admit—I imagined myself to be too savvy to be taken in by hucksters’ tricks. I assure you, I am usually quite discerning. But there was something about this man that pulled me like iron filings to a magnet. I leaned forward as he produced a ring of jangling keys.
The lid of the ancient box creaked open, and dust flitted into the sky. I looked around and discovered that the market had become unusually quiet. There were no shoppers nearby, no one to watch what was transpiring between us.
The top remained suspended on creaky hinges—the merchant pulled back a velvet cloth to unveil an assortment of delicate-looking pens. Some had ivy carved into their barrels, some were worked with gold and silver inlays. I swear to you—again trying to restrain any tendency for exaggeration or justification—I heard the pens humming. I leaned closer, my face mere inches from them, and watched them vibrate in their crate.
“Truth pens,” the bearded merchant said proudly. “Pens that can reveal the past, describe the present, or illuminate the future.”
I reached and grabbed ahold of an inky blue barrel. The colors shifted under my fingers like an aurora swirling in a night sky. Electricity pulsed as I pulled it higher.
“Ah. You have pulled a pen of the present. Anything you write will reveal the truth of what is happening in the world. If you want to know if a politician is lying, it will tell you. If you want to know if your lover is being faithful, it will share that as well. The location of any ship, treasure, or lost item. All of these things, it will reveal to you.”
He paused and returned his focus to the box. He withdrew a jet black pen with silver stars and held it aloft before me.
“A pen of the past. It will illustrate any past experience and allow you to relive it again. Any memory—even those that you have forgotten. Revisit your greatest triumphs, discover new insights from times of loss, heal moments that felt unresolved with the gift of vantage. Watch memories as if they were happening for the first time, but with the advantage of age and experience.”
He placed the pen back into the container and pulled out an emerald neighbor embedded with clear jewels. He sighed as he took in its shape.
“A pen of the future. Anything you write with it will come to pass. Ask for great fortune—and it will appear on your doorstep. Fame and success—that will materialize. Anything your heart can desire.”
His face scrunched up in concentration, his thick, graying eyebrows pulling close together as he studied my face. His eyes pierced to my very bones as he looked into me.
“All of these pens come with great risk. Pens of the future—while they can manifest your dearest wishes—they may do so in unexpected ways. A fortune you may find, true, but it could come at a terrible cost. Perhaps it was stolen from a widow or an orphan—perhaps a theif drops it at your doorstep as the guards watch. The pen of the past—some have revisited memories so often that they find themselves unable to return to the present—they become prisoners of their own histories.”
My mind flashed back to the day before my mother passed. We hadn’t been on great terms then. Oh, I’ll admit it: we were fighting horribly. She was so disapproving of how I’d been living—and I snapped at her. Told her to get out of my affairs—it was my life, my choices. I used unkind words that I sincerely wish I could have taken back. I could envision myself wanting to replay those memories, searching for a sign that I wasn’t as cruel to her as I fear that I was.
“How much?” I asked, my mouth drying. Desire yanked at my belly.
“For you?” The merchant asked, making a convincing impression of thinking of the price for the first time. “Four-thousand gold crowns.”
My jaw dropped—I may have laughed.
“You’re kidding.” I pushed the pen back towards him.
“Okay, okay,” he replied, refusing to take the instrument. “Three-thousand.”
Three-thousand was more money than I had saved in any of my bank accounts. I placed the pen in the velvet-lined box and turned from the stall.
“Wait! Young master, think! The price may be steep, but imagine all that you could gain from the purchase. How did you think I found you today, knew who you were? The pens told me!”
He revealed a piece of rolled parchment from one of his voluminous pockets. Written in neat, loopy handwriting was a message:
A young man is in the market today. He is six feet, two inches tall with stubble and blue eyes. He has been in the country for only two days. He wears denim jeans, red sneakers, is twenty-seven, and recently lost his mother this past solstice.
I ask you, how would you have responded? All of what was written was true. Again, my mind attempted to piece together ways this man could have surreptitiously uncovered such facts about me, but any explanation fell short. Regardless of his earnestness, I still did not possess the resources for such a purchase.
“I’m sorry—I just can’t afford it.”
“Two thousand,” he said, now desperate. He quickly glanced to the side, searching for something. Or maybe I’m just imagining that observation in hindsight. Perhaps he wasn’t as nervous as I think he was.
“I only have three-hundred crowns on me,” I said, pulling my purse from a pocket. “I have little more in the rest of the world besides. So, even if what you’re telling me about them is true, I still cannot afford one.”
“Okay! Okay!” the merchant relented, sounding increasingly ruffled. “The pens say that you must own one. If that is all you can pay, then I shall accept it—though it is quite an unheard-of bargain you are winning from me.”
“Wait, I didn’t say I would offer to pay that—give you all my money! I need funds to live on for the rest of my trip. Besides, you have not even proven to me that these pens can actually do what you say.”
“You want proof?” he asked, sweat trailing down his cheeks and disappearing into his beard.
“I do,” I said, crossing my arms.
He went to the crate and withdrew out the emerald pen with the jewels. He materialized another scrap of parchment from a pocket—this one blank—and wrote upon it with his back to me. He finished with a staccato tap and passed me the paper.
You are about to leave—you will never see me, this stall, or my wares again.
“Well, I suppose that’s ab—“
The world went dark.
Then, later—a full day has passed, you tell me—I found myself the floor of this prison. My head aches, and I have a bump the size of a goose egg. I have no idea who attacked me, but I suspect that the merchant was right: I will never find him or that stall again. My purse is gone—I doubt I will ever see that, either.
Now that I have shared my story, how about you, friend? How did you end up here?
I would like to know if…wait just a moment. What’s this?
You…you wouldn’t have a scrap of paper on you, would you?
(reading time: 8 minutes)
Doctor Bulmer rechecked her watch, sighed, and lifted herself from the padded chair where she spent too much of her day. Creaking open the door, she poked her head into the lobby.
“Celeste, has he called or sent a message?”
“No, Doctor Bulmer,” the receptionist replied. “But you know what he’s like.” She made a facial expression inappropriate for her role as an administrative assistant at a therapist’s office, but Doctor Bulmer only nodded knowingly and didn’t chastise her.
“Well, if he shows up, please send him right in.”
The young woman smiled, and the doctor retreated. She went to one of the windows and pulled down the shade—the afternoon sky was now too bright since the rain stopped.
She had just finished revising her agenda when a click sounded at the door. She turned to discover a damp-looking man entering sheepishly.
“Sorry—I’m late,” he said, sliding his thick glasses back up the bridge of his nose.
“It’s quite all right, Timothy. Please come in and make yourself comfortable.”
He shrugged a dappled trench coat off his slim frame and laid it over a chair. She noticed that the lining was a close approximation of a famous plaid pattern. He wiped his hands through his limp hair and crossed to the couch.
“Tea?” she asked enthusiastically.
“Er, no—no, thanks.”
She nodded and returned to her chair. She pressed her fingers to the outside of her own teacup—frowning slightly as she discovered that it had cooled.
“How have things been since last week?” she asked as she drew a notebook and a pen off her side table. Three pens remained beside her in a perfectly neat row, each evenly spaced from its neighbor.
The wiry man sighed and squeezed his kneecaps with his palms. His ankles rocked back and forth, never settling, even while seated.
“Not so good. I know—I know you’ve been encouraging me to see other people’s points of view, to not get so frustrated when others act stupidly. I’ve got to tell you, though, doc, people are jerks. I’m surrounded by assholes. Everywhere I go.”
“I see,” she replied, taking a sip of her too-cold tea. The leaves had turned bitter.
He moved his hands down and began to massage his shins. “I just feel like you and I keep talking about things—but I’m not making any progress. It’s been, what, four months, now?”
“You know this is a process,” she said, trying to keep the sigh out of her voice. “It can take time before we see any real breakthrough. Sometimes it’ll feel like one step forward and three steps back.”
“I guess.” He pushed the black glasses back up his nose.
She glanced again at the array of pens at her side, studying one in particular, as if deciding something.
“I have an idea, Timothy. I want you to write down what you’re feeling—in detail. Sometimes writing about experiences can have a different effect from simply talking about them.”
The man shrugged. “If you think so.”
She nodded slightly and reached for the pen at the end of the line—one with a maroon barrel and brass fittings. She pinched it delicately between her finger pads. She swallowed as she passed it to him.
“Here, take this—there’s some paper in that basket—and I want you to write down what moments, precisely, you thought could have gone better.”
He accepted the pen—and for a moment—it almost seemed to glow in his hand. He placed one of the blank sheets on the barn-wood table before him—tip hovering above blankness.
“Go on, just write,” she said encouragingly.
Marta complained about the way I made her coffee again. If she’s so particular, why can’t she make her own damn coffee?
Timothy saw himself back in his office. Fluorescent lights and gray-clad cubicles hovered in the background. But he wasn’t sitting at his own desk—he was in Marta’s. He thumbed his magenta nails impatiently as he waited for his coffee to arrive.
Late again, he thought to himself.
A stooping, sad-looking man with heavy spectacles came through the doorway. He didn’t smile or even make eye contact with her as he approached. He practically dropped the coffee cup on her desk, dark droplets speckling the nearby documents.
“Here,” he muttered quietly, under his breath.
“Thank you, Timothy,” he replied, trying to sound patient while reaching for a napkin to blot up the mess. “Is there sugar in here already?”
He shook his head again without really looking at her.
“You know, Timothy, I think many of us would really appreciate it…if you work on being a little more friendly as you go about your tasks. You don’t seem very approachable a lot of the time; we think you could be a bit more enthusiastic supporting the team.”
He just nodded and shifted side to side.
“Okay. Well. Thanks for the coffee—and, please, think about what I just said.”
He skulked from the room.
Timothy lifted the pen up from the page, his eyes widening.
“Yes?” Doctor Bulmer inquired, leaning in. “You seem startled. Everything alright?”
Timothy didn’t respond. He blinked three times in quick succession and then shook his head as if trying to clear it.
“Do you want to keep going, then?”
He put the pen back to the left side of the page and began writing again.
The man on the subway didn’t hold the door for me, which is why I was late. People are so rude!
Timothy was reading a newspaper, seated next to the train door. He impatiently glanced down at the watch peeking out from under the wool cuff of his green peacoat.
“Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, for the inconvenience,” the voice announced overhead. “The tracks have been cleared, and we will be on our way momentarily. Please stand by.”
Finally, he thought. He wasn’t the only one who was eager for this delay to be over—others also had to be late for meetings.
On the far side of the platform, he noticed a gangly man in a trench coat fumbling with the turnstile. The electronic reader didn’t seem to be accepting his card.
“Hold the train!” the man called out, slamming his pass emphatically.
Timothy shook his head—this man really thought someone was going to prop open the door and delay the train even further after waiting all this time? That man could just wait for the next one.
The steel sliding doors crept closed just as the man made it through the turnstile. He continued to shout for someone to halt the train for him as he ran. No one did.
Timothy’s body pressed into the plastic seat as the train accelerated away from the station. He really didn’t understand how people could feel so entitled to inconvenience everyone else just to spare themselves. Another train would be along in a few minutes.
The pen lifted from the page again. Timothy stared at its tip, disbelievingly.
“Some new insights or perspectives? It’s amazing what jotting down our thoughts can do, isn’t it.”
He set the pen down onto the tabletop, his hands quivering slightly.
Doctor Bulmer leaned back against her chair and studied his face.
“I uh—I guess I was the impatient one, huh? I guess I shouldn’t have gotten so frustrated.”
“Oh yes?” she asked as if surprised. “What makes you say that?”
He ran his palms over his face—he looked stunned.
“I, uh, I don’t know. I just got a new perspective.”
“Oh, lovely,” she replied and took a sip of her lukewarm tea. “It’s very good to consider the point of view of others, isn’t it? Makes us realize things aren’t always quite what they seem.”
“I guess…I guess it does.”
Nibbling his lower lip, he scooped up the maroon pen again. He tapped it twice before returning the nib to the page.
My date this past weekend, Cassie, was so rude. If she didn’t like me, she could have just had the courtesy to say so, instead of just walking out in the middle of our date.
“Don’t you want to ask me anything about myself?” he asked hopefully at the nervous-looking man seated across from him.
His dress felt too tight. He probably should have not worn double spanks—he could barely breathe.
The man continued to fiddle with his phone and flick his fingers across its screen.
“Where I come from or anything?” he continued on encouragingly.
“You’re from Idaho. It said that on your profile. Where’s that bread basket? I’m starving.”
He couldn’t believe he got dressed up for this. This man was incorrigible.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll drop it off soon.”
He made a show of looking for the waiter but really was just scoping out the quickest exit. As his long hair whipped over his shoulder, he found both together—a man in a white jacket took an elderly couple’s order who was seated beside a side door. Maybe he should give this guy one more chance.
“Was it a nice day for you at work? You do administrative work, I remember.”
“Not really,” he replied, again not really looking up from his phone.
With no further response forthcoming, Timothy decided that was it—he had enough. He’d taken his sister’s suggestion to give online dating a try, but after four horrible first dates—this one being by far the worst—he was through with trying.
“Excuse me, I’m just going to go to the ladies room.”
He pushed his chair back and shimmied out of it. The man across from him barely grunted. Not even bothering to be subtle, he pulled his jacket off the back of the chair and walked straight for the door. As the waiter made eye contact with him, he rolled his eyes and then glanced back at the half-emptied table. The waiter smirked apologetically.
The pen lifted from the paper.
Jeremey’s hands were clammy—his whole body was coldly sweating.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Doctor Bulmer asked.
He shook his head—his eyes were wide as a frightened doe’s.
“I—uh—I’m…I’m the asshole, aren’t I?”
Her face remained expressionless. “Why do you think that about yourself?”
His head continued to bob back and forth.
“I just…I need to go.”
He rushed to standing and strode the short distance towards his coat.
“But we have nearly a half-hour left. Are you sure you want to end your session early?” She looked perplexed.
“I just remembered something I need to do. I will…I will be back next week.”
He barely had one arm threaded into the coat’s sleeve before he was already out the door.
She stared after him for a moment, smiling quietly, before standing to cross to the couch he’d just vacated. She looked down at the page he had written and skimmed the contents, her mouth silently forming the words she took in with her eyes.
She folded the sheet precisely in half and crossed to a small fire burning in the fireplace. She flung the page inside and watched it transmute into black curls. Returning to the table, she retrieved the pen and replaced it on the table beside her chair. Again, it sat on the far end, evenly spaced next to the three others by its side.
She patted her hair and quietly muttered, “People always say they want a breakthrough…”
She shook her head in dismay.
“At least I only gave him the maroon one. Imagine if I had passed him the green.”
Outside, emergency sirens blared. She made a mental note to follow up with him tomorrow—self-discoveries sometimes made people behave rashly. She didn’t want him to do anything untoward.