A Triptych Tale …

The Posthumous Novel
of Edward L. Heard

A Triptych Tale

 

Becca bit back a gasp when the shade broker stepped out of nowhere and into her condo kitchen. For a second, Becca saw her mother in the broker’s stout figure and pulled-back wavy hair, and she felt a pang of loss again.

But this was a stranger, with a sharp chin and a conservative but fashionable pantsuit. The shade broker sat down on the breakfast nook bench and pulled a rustling stack of parchment from her briefcase. “I understand you would like to trade part of your life in exchange for having the shade of Edward L. Heard to return for a period you believe sufficient to finish writing his science fiction book series …” she glanced at the parchment before carefully enunciating, “Phoenix Nebula Pioneer?”

Becca launched into fangirl mode with an eager nod. “There were supposed to be six books, but he only wrote five before he died. Maureen — his wife — she never even found his notes for the last one. The fifth book ends with the captain finding a stowaway on her spaceship right when some aliens with psychic parasites are trying to board, and I just have to know how it ends. I have to.”

“And what period of time do you require?”

“I’m not sure. If he made an outline, I think … six months, maybe?” Becca swallowed.

It was a big chunk of life to hand over for a book, but PNP wasn’t just books to her. She’d read them through twice, from The Voyage of the Lorikeet to The Railgun Mynahs, while her mom was in chemo. Better than mere escape, they gave her something to believe in while family and medicine and all the bedrock of real life crumbled beneath her feet. She’d been rereading the books ever since.

The broker consulted a chart. “At a rate of one week of the shade’s time for one year of yours —”

But this was a stranger, with a sharp chin and a conservative but fashionable pantsuit.

“A week for a year?” Becca’s voice came out in a squeak.

“Surely you didn’t expect a one-for-one exchange.”

“No! Of course not. I just … I thought it would be more like a month of my life for a week of his time.”

The broker regarded Becca with a steady-eyed poker face. “I make no guarantees, but some anecdotal evidence suggests that the lack of bodily requirements and worldly distractions can make a shade’s production more efficient.”

Becca took a deep breath. “Can we make a contract for him to stay for six weeks?” It might be enough, and she didn’t know what she’d miss from her own life. A brilliant career, a happy marriage, traveling the world. Once she’d read this last book, she could move on.

“I am revising the contract now.” Words bloomed like bruises from within the blank parchment. The broker pushed the papers to Becca and handed her a fountain pen that was cold to the touch.

Even when wet, the ink absorbed the light instead of reflecting it.

#

Just after sunset the next day, the broker strode into Becca’s kitchen with someone trailing behind her. “This is the shade of Edward L. Heard.”

He looked the same in death as he had in life: skinny, with eyebrows low under his newsboy cap. Becca couldn’t tell if his ponytail were graying; he was pale gray and translucent throughout.

“I hear you go by Ed,” said Becca, a welcoming smile tense on her face.

Ed didn’t say anything.

“All bargains are final,” the broker said firmly. She continued in a reeling-off-the-fine-print rush, “I will return at nightfall six weeks from tonight to retrieve the shade. Any work left behind becomes yours. Best wishes in finding the ending you seek.”

The broker didn’t wait for thanks or goodbyes. Becca stared at the expressionless shade of her favorite writer. “Well,” she said as cheerfully as she could, “come see your office.”

Ed walked with a limp, probably from the accident that killed him. Maureen Heard had often joked that she wished he wouldn’t cross streets while planning dialogue. She had not made that joke in the four years since his death.

Becca couldn’t tell if his ponytail were graying; he was pale gray and translucent throughout.

Becca gestured into her office/guest room. “I made it as much like your office as I could. There was a picture of your desk in a magazine once, and I heard you used WordStar, so …”

Ed walked into the room and sat in the swivel chair. She could have run WordStar in an emulator, but she knew he wrote on an old PC with no internet, so she’d bought a DOS box with all the trimmings at a garage sale.

Becca held her breath as the computer rasped through boot-up, then exhaled when the noises settled to a hum. Although the keyboard remained silent, letters began to creep across the monitor, amber tracery against the black screen.

“I can turn on the lights, if you want. Or do you need some reference materials, or music? I have a friend who’s done some great filk songs about the crew of the Lorikeet; she was a big hit on the con circuit last —”

“A shade returns with one task and one desire,” said Ed in the tone of one who does not wish to start a conversation.

Not wanting to distract him, Becca settled on the futon with her laptop and read her fanfic boards. Tempted as she was to tell her online friends, she knew better. If she told them about Ed, half of them would call her crazy and the other half would try to find out where she lived.

When she went to bed, amber still flickered in the darkness.

#

After that first giddy weekend of knowing that Phoenix Nebula Pioneers was progressing in her office, Becca started to worry. Six weeks was not a lot of time to write a novel, even for someone who sat there pecking away on WordStar 24/7. The Railgun Mynahs took four years.

“Ed …?” she began in a tentative voice.

“I’m working.” It was what he always said, and it always kept her from doing whatever she was going to do next: check to see if her typing nearby bothered him, ask if he’d enjoy the smell of coffee, offer to get a message to Maureen through a friend who did programming for PhoeNebPiCon.

Becca didn’t want to spoil the story by reading the book ahead of time, but she checked the page count in the border of the program every few hours and put the numbers into a spreadsheet with the times of observation. Word count would be more useful, but she could estimate that.

At the end of three days, it became clear: Ed typed faster when she was in the room.

Becca didn’t want to spoil the story by reading the book ahead of time …

Becca unfolded the futon and brought in her alarm clock. It was weird trying to fall asleep in front of a relative stranger — and a married man, at that — but the increase in typing speed gave the only indication that Ed knew she was there.

After another two days of rushing home from work to eat dinner on the futon, Becca drew up an estimate of how many words fit on the screen and figured out how fast the page count was changing. She realized that although there was a slight chance Ed might meet the word count of his shortest book, there was no way it would match The Railgun Mynahs. And the general series trend ran towards longer books.

Becca rescheduled her appointments: dinner with friends, haircut, dentist, the mammogram she’d been avoiding. She ordered groceries for delivery. On Monday, she asked her boss if she could work at home more often.

After two weeks of watching the amber characters trundle by, she filed the HR form to take all her saved vacation. She wouldn’t see her dad at Hanukkah, but things had been strained between them anyway. After her mom died, neither of them had much to say.

Becca and Ed were going to see this through.

#

One night three weeks later, Becca sat in the dim glow of the amber letters trying to ignore her father’s worried voice leaving another message on her answering machine. She startled when Ed swiveled in the chair and announced, “It’s done.”

“What …?” It hadn’t taken nearly as long as she’d expected; Becca felt a punch of disappointment for her lost time even through her elation. “Congratulations! How wonderful! Can I read it?”

Ed nodded without a word and stood. Becca scrambled to the seat and read straight through The Lorikeet Makes Landfall, too excited to turn on the light even though the bright letters made her eyes ache in the dark.

Three hours later, she pushed away from the desk with a sigh. “It really is all here. I know what happens, and how things turned out for everybody.” She smiled at Ed, wondering if he could sense her disappointment. “Thanks.”

“It was the best I could do,” said Ed.

It was basically an outline, if an outline of full sentences and sometimes almost-full paragraphs. Wooden dialogue, flat settings, skimmed-over action. No spark of imagination in the telling of the story. It was a book report, not a novel. “It doesn’t read like the other books,” she admitted.

“My heart wasn’t in it.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m so sorry, Ed.” She struggled to say the next thing. “I thought you were writing faster because I was a fan.”

Ed turned empty eyes to her. “I wrote faster because you were the client.”

Becca sat for a long moment, exhaustion tugging her body down. “Is there anything your heart is still in?”

“Not a thing. A person.” He didn’t need to say who.

Becca flicked on the dot-matrix printer and started to print the work. Over the printer’s stutter and screech, Becca said clearly, “Broker, I would like to renegotiate my contract.”

After about a minute, the broker’s stout form stepped through the doorway.

Becca wiped her eyes, then her nose, and said in a shaky voice, “I made a mistake. Ed can’t write more than the Wikipedia version.”

“We do not offer refunds.”

“That’s not what I’m asking. It’s just … I was so certain he wanted to write the book I wanted to read, I dragged him back here to do something he didn’t care about anymore. If you think she’d want it, could you please give my last week to Maureen?”

The broker lifted an eyebrow. “An unusual request.”

“I just wanted so bad to read the end of the series I started when my mom got sick. When she died … She was dying for so long, we said goodbye so many times. We said everything. I thought he would want to finish his book, but he died before Maureen even got to the hospital.”

Maureen,” Ed murmured. There was more longing in his utterance of those two syllables than in the entire document he’d spent five weeks typing.

“My heart wasn’t in it.”

The broker pulled out the inked parchment and watched the letters change. “Your offer has been accepted.” She set the contract on the desk and handed Becca the cold pen.

After tucking the signed parchment away, the broker looked from Becca to Ed and back. “What I am about to say is not part of our contract. You have been kind to this shade’s widow, and so I offer you what kindness I can: Reschedule your mammogram for this week, and put your affairs in order.”

Becca felt a chill wash over her. Unable to keep her voice from cracking, she asked, “Is that where my six years went?”

The broker’s face was still as a graveyard angel’s, but her eyes were understanding and soft. “Depending on the course you choose, we will meet again in eleven to nineteen months. I will come for you myself.”

The broker took Ed’s translucent hand and led him into the hall, leaving Becca alone with a detailed synopsis of Edward L. Heard’s last book printing onto tractor paper.

Becca knew from watching her mom’s death and dealing with the aftermath that it was important to take care of the paperwork. She ran trembling fingers through her hair and thought about how to proceed.

The broker said that Becca owned the book. If she uploaded this study-guide version to any of the fanfic sites, several fully fleshed-out versions of it would be available in her lifetime. But somehow, that didn’t seem right.

Instead, she sat down at her laptop and started an email to her friend who worked for PhoeNebPiCon. I bought an old computer for kicks, she began, and I think it may have belonged to Ed Heard. It has a thorough outline of what looks like the last PNP book, and I’m wondering, can you help me get it to Maureen Heard? If it’s real — and I have a hunch it is — I bet she’ll want it. I know he would want her to have it.

The sun was rising. Soon Becca could call her doctor and get that mammogram moved up. First, though, she would call her dad. She’d been neglecting him.

Knowing how it ends wasn’t the most important thing after all.

Laura Blackwell is a writer and editor living in Northern California. Her fiction has appeared in various publications, notably the Lovecraftian She Walks in Shadows anthology. Formerly a technology journalist, she is now copyeditor for Shimmer. You can find her at www.pronouncedlahra.com