Past Stain

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“The stain is spreading to your past.”

She blinked, staring down at the words, which stared right back at her. “What am I supposed to do with this?” she asked, waving the scrap of paper about.

The coach frowned. “Just try to let it inspire you,” she said before hovering on to one of the other writers.

Kim opened a fresh page in her notebook and copied down the words in her nicest print, which was mostly legible. Then she adorned them with flowers and a googly-eyed little lizard. A botched butterfly turned into a stain, which at least had something to do with the prompt she’d been given. The lizard carelessly stepped in the ink-stain and trailed little blue footprints all up and down the page.

“All right, people!”

Kim started. All around the circle people were shuffling their papers intently, and the coach was looking for a volunteer to read an excerpt.

Her eyes lingered on Kim, who shook her head vehemently. “It’s still really… raw. It needs a lot more work,” she gave her best imitation of being defensive over a very emotional story/poem. She thought she saw the coach crack a thin, approving smile, but maybe she was imagining it.

Later that night, when she was sorting her notebooks, she came across the lizard’s blue footprints and the crumpled strip of paper. She tore out the page of doodles and added it to her pile of reminders. She had to pay the electric, and she had to get new water colors. Her last set were mostly crumbs on the bottom of their little plastic cups, stained with long use. She’d gone through them in less than six months.

She cracked open the box to see if anything could be salvaged. She’d been hard on her brushes, two of them had to be tossed outright, and one more was in grim condition. Kim selected the one brush that seemed in best shape, and two cubes that had a tiny bit of color at the bottom. Her recent devotion to sepia tones had tapped out every shade of brown, red, orange and gold, but a pink and one blue still had something in them. She scrabbled for an extra sheet of watercolor paper, and casually flipped over the boxes to check the color names.

Her brush traced out the outline of the little lizard with its bulging eyes, curled tail and trail of prints. The pink looked pale against the paper, so she used it to flourish leafy vines around the little fellow. Now he was a curious reptile trekking all alone through a sea of rosy-colored foliage.Contrary to his sad origins, this lizard didn’t have any stains on or around him. For a spur-of-the-moment scribble using leftover paint, it came out pretty good.

When a key turned in the door, Kim glanced up. Time had run away from her again; the clock showed quarter past twelve, and Archer, her roommate, was coming in from a late shift at the tea-house down the street.

“Miserable, motherfucking, wretched, utter fucking lowlife,” Archer mumbled. This late in the week, her midnight rants dissolved into the incomprehensible, frequently just swears tied together with no rhyme or reason. Today was particularly bad.

“Rough night?” asked Kim sympathetically.

Archer ticked it off on her long, knobby fingers. “Shower, whiskey, sleep. No talk.”

“Fair enough,” said Kim. It was bedtime for her, anyway, she decided as she struggled to remember whether she’d eaten any supper, and visions of blue lizards toddling merrily along white paper deserts crowded her thoughts. Whatever it was she was concerned about before had fled her mind already, replaced by a bone tiredness and a season-inappropriate desire to dive into her comforter.

***

Everything was so strange. Everything had been turned on its ear, and she had no idea why. She had no one to turn to, didn’t even know what direction to turn in. Who would she ask for advice? Who could possibly instruct her on this impossible dilemma. This was supposed to be impossible. Things like this, they just didn’t happen to people like her. Now even the room itself was turning sideways, twisting like a box tumbling down a hill on a rainy day, bent and crumpled, the damp cardboard writhing and losing its shape.

Reality was losing its shape, and there was nothing she could do about it. She hung her head in her hands and cried, while in the slowly distorting room, a piercing noise grew louder, hammering its way into her head.

***

Kim arrived at work bleary-eyed and out of sorts. She’d overslept and had no time to stop for tea on the way, which made her feel even worse. Her mother had always taught her that even the worst upside-down morning can be made better by a little something nice, and tea had always been the something nice she chose. She settled heavily in her chair and opened blank eyes at the computer screen, not taking in much of anything.

This day couldn’t be over soon enough.

At lunch she grabbed a smashed sandwich from a street vendor and ate it distractedly while wandering the streets, feeling a little dazed and not all there. It occurred to her that there was something unpleasant on her mind, but she wasn’t sure what it might be. On her way back to the office she stopped to pick up a tea and something in a nearby store caught her eye. It was a tiny accessory store, the kind that only sells the cheapest hats and handbags and packets of twenty plastic hairpins that break before you know it. The display was cluttered with colors and patterns, but she picked out the thing that drew her eye.

It was a blue scarf. Tea in hand, Kim wandered to the storefront and ran a finger along the flimsy viscose.

“Like it?” The saleswoman popped up, seemingly from nowhere.

Kim made a noncommittal noise and blew on her tea.

“Nice color,” said the woman, determined to make a sale. “Cerulean, looks good on you.” She flung a tail of the scarf over Kim’s tan cardigan and nodded approvingly.

Kim had her doubt about the suitability of the blue spectrum. Everyone always said she was an autumn, or something like that. “How much?” she asked, feeling resigned.

“Dollar fifty.”

This was ridiculous. The tea had cost more. It was simply too cheap to leave behind. The lady obligingly took her crumpled dollar bills and cut the tag off the scarf with a pair of tiny sewing scissors. She wore it back to the office and got two compliments while riding up in the elevator. Maybe the scarf was good luck. Maybe it would bring back her muse.

Maybe that was what had been weighing on her, without her realizing it? Her little failure at the writing workshop? It seemed like an awful lot to get worked up over. After all, it was only one meeting in one workshop, everyone had days off, she never could really write on demand, the prompt wasn’t too great, she’d never really written science fiction or whatever else that was supposed to be, there were so many reasons not to be upset.

Then again, how long had it been since she’d written something? Something she was really pleased with?

Maybe the stories were gone.

During the idle moments at work, Kim had a habit of googling inane phrases for her amusement. That day she decided to be unusually topical, and googled “cerulean lizard”. Maybe that little doodle of hers could be turned into a story, after all. She got up to make herself a tea, and when she got back to her desk, there was a sudden flurry of calls from marketing. Kim was halfway home by the time she realized she’d never actually tabbed to the results.

When she got home, Archer was lounging on the sofa in her shorts, reading a beleaguered paperback.

“Why is it,” she asked, flipping over on her back and laying the open book on her bare belly, “that heroines in this type of book always have some ridiculous, symbolic name? Who wakes up from ten hours of labor and says, ‘Oh, yeah! I’ll name my kid Warioress Deathblood Nohaven, that’ll lead down the road to happiness’?”

Kim shrugged. “Some people don’t have the patience for naturalistic characterization,” she said. “How often do these characters even have living parents, anyway?”

“Good point,” said Archer. “Maybe they were all named by the Doomcouncil of Ominous Mages.”

“That sounds about right.” She wandered to the kitchen, took a beer out of the fridge and popped it open.

Archer assumed one of her customary strange poses, half-draped over the back of the couch. “Beer? Really? Something must be up.”

Kim shrugged again. “Malaise,” she said. “Sometimes you just feel like crap about your life and you don’t know why. What would you name an action heroine, anyway?”

“I guess,” said Archer, but she looked unconvinced. “Something normal, I suppose. Not too normal, not like, Jane Jones. But yeah, Charlotte,Elizabeth, Jessica, Rose. What’s wrong with normal? I mean, the whole point of the genre is supposed to be about what magic robot alien unicorns feel like when they invade the real world, so having a heroine named Aphrodite Doomscry makes no sense, unless she’s a magic robot unicorn princess.”

“Which she usually is, or turns out to be,” Kim pointed out. She settled herself on the beanbag, letting her ass and back sink into the yielding seat.Getting back up would be a pain, but who even cared?

Archer waved a dismissive hand. “Fuck that noise.”

“But seriously,” Kim interjected suddenly, “all English names? Seriously? Not even any French or Irish?”

“Ugh,” said Archer, slapping her forehead. “Not what I meant at all. I guess they’re just the first names that occurred to me.”

“Gianna Falco, half-angel vampire hunter,” Kim suggested.

“Trinidad Vega, heir to a multinational centaur racing corporation,” Archer countered.

“Centaur racing?” Kim boggled. “That makes no sense.”

“I’m so bored with fairies,” confessed Archer. “So fucking bored.”

“If Aphrodite is out, what about some more obscure mythology?” asked Kim.

“Pomona Chase, undead detective,” said Archer. “Not half bad, but the two-one syllable name makes her sound like a best-selling author.”

“Like Kim Campbell?”

“Fuck, you’re right,” said Archer. “You sound like you’re a gender-swapped version of Superman, or something.”

Kim giggled and sank deeper into the beanbag. “Gender-swapped Lois Lane would totally get arrested for stalking Superlady.”

“Superwoman,” said Archer insistently.

“Superdame.”

“Superchick.”

“Supergam.”

“Supermiss. Or, no, Supermiz.”

They collapsed into helpless giggles.

***

Archer’s only advice was, ‘Write something, you miserable fuck,’ so Kim sat down and proceeded to do just that. Most of what came out was a shopping list and snippets of half-remembered nursery rhymes, but the exercise was strangely satisfying. While she was trying to recall a song about a hyacinth, she idly googled the word, bringing up a bright spread of images dominated by a particular bluish-violet shade, punctuated by pink and gold. Kim glanced at the watercolor doodle that lay on top of her perpetual paperwork mess. She pondered. Perhaps it could use a touch of gold, once she’d gotten some new colors. She would have to do that at lunch tomorrow, assuming she was less discombobulated. And, no more writing workshops on weeknights, not once this one was over.

Hyacinth would have made a good name for a lead character, especially one whose past was stained. She was pretty sure Archer would think it was cliché, though. Maybe another flower, or another Greek myth? Or both? Kim let her mind wander over all the mythology she remembered, which was considerably less than the barista who was currently snoring on the living room couch. Reluctantly, she got up and gave Archer a good nudge with her besocked foot.

Archer grumbled.

“Go to sleep,” Kim said. “For real, in your bed.”

She groaned a protest, but complied, shuffling off and leaving the door behind her not quite shut.

Kim eyed her computer and mentally told it to go screw itself. Instead, she picked up a mostly-empty notebook and a green pen and took them to bed. Under her comforter, with only the reading light and Archer’s still-audible snores filtering from under her door, she wrote the first thing that came to mind:

The stain is spreading to your past.

We do not know what is causing it.

That much was certainly true.

Iris awoke with a start. The room around her was blindingly white, or perhaps her eyes were sore. Where was she? She shifted, and felt a sudden pain. Mumbles and blotches converged over her face, but she couldn’t get her eyes to focus. Where were her glasses?

“Argle bargle understand me, miss?”

Kim stifled a snort. This was probably the least realistic description ever of waking up from a coma, or whatever it was that had happened to Iris.For some reason, giving her a name (and a pair of glasses) had made the character solidify a little in her mind. She felt comforted by this palpability; maybe it would make her point of view easier to grasp.

Kim blinked; her eyes felt blurry, and the clock radio showed ten from one. Definitely past her bedtime.

***

She ran on bare feet, but the hallways around her refused to end. Every corner turned into another corridor exactly like the one she left. Everydoor she passed looked like every other. A labyrinth. She lost count soon enough, her mind felt fuzzy and barely conscious.

She ran, and a double glass door yawned open in front of her. Howls came from the other side, and flashes of some bright color that she couldn’t name. She stopped her running and stared warily at the open doorway and the blurry greenish figure who was gesturing at her, inviting her in. Was it safe?

***

She had to stop staying up late to write, it was preposterous, and having a terrible effect on her work. For a few blissful seconds, Kim sank into a fantasy of playing up her fatigue and having a superior nod sympathetically and send her home to get some rest. Nonetheless, she knew her tiredness and irritability were all her own fault, so she squashed the urge to cut herself a little too much slack. For lunch she grabbed a bagel and swung by the art supply store, and on her way back to the office she texted Archer that they had to have some real food for dinner tonight, and no, pizza doesn’t count.

The afternoon was a blur. She slipped out of the office as soon as she reasonably could and took a cab home, placating her budgeting mind by vowing to take the fare out of the takeout budget. When she got home the apartment was empty and dark. Archer had gone to work and left a potof rice on the stove for supper. While she was heating up a bowl, Kim checked the fridge. She was ready to scavenge, but instead found new shopping: an unopened carton of milk, some yogurt, and various fresh fruits.

After a decent meal and two glasses of milk, Kim felt ready to take on the world. Rather, she felt ready to do about an hour of writing and then go to bed early and sleep like a log.

She typed her scanty scribblings of the other night into a new document, but something was bothering her that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. The half-page of writing she had produced was garbled and disjointed, and the timeline was off. All of these things could not be happening consecutively, not if they were going to make sense. Well. Starting the story from Iris waking up in the hospital, that made perfect sense. In fact,she should probably wait as long as possible before revealing how she’d gotten in there, or what was wrong with her. Of course, to reveal it, she would have to know it herself.

Kim lapsed into an unfortunate childhood habit. “What happened to you, Iris?” she asked the screen.

She flipped a few pages in her notebook to see if she had recorded any such insights last night. There was nothing, except a half-finished phone conversation with her mother, in which she had inadvertently miswrote her name as Isis.

“That’s a nice one,” she said to herself. Caving to her impulse, she got up and pulled one of Archer’s books out of the living room shelf. “Wait, maternal spirit? That doesn’t sound right.” She bookmarked the entry and left it on the coffee table.

“What happened?”

“You were located, wandering in the middle of the road,” said the nurse. “A minivan braked just in time, you’re lucky all you got was a concussion.”

The information swarmed around in her head, not quite resolving itself. “Oh.”

The nurse frowned. “Do you remember your name?” he asked.

“What day is it today?” she asked, at almost the same time.

Kim yawned as she saved the file. She was out of ideas and out of oxygen, so clearly it was time for bed. Before turning in, she wrote a note on a post-it and left it on the book for Archer to find.

***

Her head pounded, but she answered the phone nonetheless. “Mom, mom, what is it? Is it an emergency?”

The response sounded urgent, but garbled.

“You’re breaking up.”

Static, with only a few discernible words. She could make out ‘photo’, ‘time’, ‘find’ and something that sounded like ‘scared’.

“Mom?”

A long, shrill beep. Disconnected.

She stared at the receiver in her hand for what felt like long minutes. A feeling of menace was creeping up on her, and a long, cold shudder sneaked down her spine.

She clicked the switch and heard the dial tone, but she had no idea who she could call for help.

***

Kim woke suddenly in the middle of the night. Her bedroom was pitch black. No light filtered in from the street through the shutters, or under the door from the silent apartment. She shuddered, an eery sense of wariness settling on her. Gradually she realized what had woken her up, and she reached to her bedside table for her rarely-used dream journal. The words flew misshapen from under her pen and, once they were gone, she found no difficulty in falling back asleep.

Saturday morning came and found her in bed, weighing the pros and cons of breakfast vs. staying in bed. Eventually she went to the kitchen and emptied out the last crumbs of some colorful cereal, making a note on the pad on the fridge to get some more. The apartment was empty; Archer probably had a morning shift. Kim made tea and checked the clock on the microwave; it was a little past noon.

She took her second tea to the living room and set it on the coffee table. Then she went to the bedroom and fetched her dream journal. Rereading last night’s entry, it almost sounded like a part of her story. Maybe that was because her story made no sense and was just pieced together from disparate parts that never seemed to mesh. She typed it into the computer anyway, in its own file, waiting to be edited into something more coherent.

***

Once, everything had been normal. A normal job, a normal house, normal friends to go out with to bars on normal Friday nights. A normal family with two sisters and an elderly family bulldog, and family dinners that were never as frequent as Mom would have liked. Peach and yogurt cake for dessert, and the rose-patterned curtains in the dining room that Dad had always hated. Sometimes after the dishes they’d take out the photo albums and get all nostalgic. Dad had eventually capitulated and gotten a digital camera, but all the childhood photos, right up to Dinah’s graduation, were glued in navy blue albums with cracked spines.

It had been just such a normal Sunday night when everything started going wrong. Dad and Mom were flipping indulgently through the album from the Grand Canyon trip, exclaiming all the usual comments that they’d all heard at least thirty times. Every now and then she didn’t have the energy for these repetitive trips down memory lane, and that night she’d had a too-large piece of cake and all she wanted to do was lie on the sofa with her eyes closed.

“Hey, honey, come here, take a look at these! Do you remember this day?”

She almost groaned as she slowly got up and made her way to the others, her sisters leaning eagerly over the back of the armchair, following her mother’s journey through the many photo albums stacked in front of her. Mom looked up at her expectantly and pointed to the open pages, six photos on each side. Slowly, she knelt next to the armrest and examined the photos one by one. Dad in his silly old hat leaning over the beat-up old Chevy in the blazing sun. Dinah holding Naomi by the hand, both of them in shorts and cartoon-printed tanks. A blurry one of Mom and Dad sitting at a picnic table, probably taken by Naomi.

“Yeah, Mom,” she said, a little dismissively. “Of course I remember.”

Her mother shook her head and pointed at another picture on the opposite page. “I meant this one.”

That, right then, was when everything went to hell.

***

Archer came in from work at around three. “Judging from the state of the living room, either you’re having a good writing day or you’ve started your inevitable transformation into a living tornado.”

“Hi,” said Kim sheepishly. “I was going to clean before you came home but I–“

“–Lost track of time?” Archer finished for her.

“Thanks for the note, by the way,” said Kim, brandishing the post-it reply.

“Did you end up using it?” asked Archer.

“Sure, it works great,” said Kim enthusiastically. “Exactly what I was looking for. Lunch?”

“Grilled cheese?” suggested Archer.

“Do we have any pickles?”

Archer hefted a plastic bag in her hand up in front of her. “We do now.”

Kim almost laughed out loud. “You think of everything.”

“Everything for lunch,” said Archer, and winked.

After they ate and cleaned up, she let Archer read part of the story. As she read her eyebrows got closer and closer together, until a thin crease formed between them, right above her nose.

“What do you think?” Kim asked nervously.

“You think maybe it’s too much in chronological order?” said Archer, and Kim couldn’t really tell if she was being earnest or sarcastic.

***

The nurse was trying to get her attention again.

“What?” Her head hurt more than ever.

“Miss, you never answered my question. Do you remember your name?”

She stared at him blankly.

***

On Sunday, neither of them had to work. Kim got up first and went down to get a newspaper, a carton of orange juice and some fresh rolls, which they then split for a late breakfast. Archer ate her rolls plain and doodled on the crossword halfheartedly, in pencil. Kim finished the last of thestrawberry jam and fanned herself with the sports section. It was getting onto summer.

“I sort of feel bad for her, I guess,” she said. “It doesn’t seem fair that everything gets screwed up for you just because you live in a story and the people reading it are bored.”

“Pass the juice,” said Archer. “Would you throw away an hour of your life reading a story where people eat breakfast, or go to the movies, or paint the living room, and nothing happens?”

Kim thought about this for a minute. She drained her glass and said, “You’re right, you know. We should probably paint the living room.”

***

The creature paced back and forth across the passageway before her, huge and menacing, covered in vividly blue scales, dark leathery wingstoo big to spread trailing behind it. A dragon.

Why was a dragon pacing the halls of Dieter Plastics, Inc.? Specifically, why was he – she? It? – stalking a random accountant whose strangest day to date had involved getting complimented on her yellow polka dot miniskirt? Anat stood paralyzed in the hallway, less than twenty steps away from a huge, impossible predator, and all she could think of was how much he reminded her of that plastic dinosaur she’d found in a forgotten kitchen cabinet.

She felt a hand on her shoulder, and was just about to turn around to see who it was.

“Don’t!” hissed an unfamiliar voice. “Don’t turn around, don’t make any sudden movements, don’t say anything. If you do what I tell you, I can get you out of here.”

Anat was not about to turn down any help. No matter how creepy the stranger behind her, he definitely wasn’t a dragon; the hand on her shoulder was totally human.

She shuffled slowly backwards and away from the stalking beast, the minutes feeling like hours. Suddenly, the man behind her grabbed her, shoved her into a janitorial cupboard and slammed the door behind them both.

“Quick, help me barricade this!”

She obliged, handing him a pair of mops and lending a shoulder when he pushed a big metal cabinet across the door.

Panting, he turned and regarded her. He was a skinny dude with a beard, wearing pale green scrubs and a scowl that looked like it had applied for citizenship of his face. “You’re new,” he said.

“New to what?” she asked.

“The stain.”

***

Kim let the computer go to screen saver and opened a brand new package of water colors. She eyed the greens and selected a minty-type shade that she thought might do for scrubs, and wondered what sort of clothing Anat the accountant wore to work. She lined up the colors next to the paper and grasped a clear image in her head before she picked up a pencil and outlined two figures, a mess of mops and buckets, and a square opening, high on the wall behind them. They had to have some way out of the cupboard, after all. What sort of story would it be if the dragon won?Well, the dragon’s story, she supposed.

As she sketched in Anat’s messy hair and the nameless man’s ill-fitting – probably stolen – clothes, Kim tried to sort the timeline out in her mind. Obviously Anat thought that the incident with the family photos was the beginning of the whole affair, but what if she was wrong? That way, by the time she knew that something was happening to her, it was already too far gone. Besides, the very first line of the story said that the stain spread to her past, which meant it hadn’t started there. The plastic dinosaur, she decided, had to be the first incident; it was just so innocuous-seeming, no one would have ascribed it any special significance.

The dragon showing up, that was the point of no return. In between that and the hospital scene, anything could happen. Could and probably did. There were more incidents, of course; the stain was all over the timeline; she just didn’t want to write them all out. Maybe there were dozens of them. Maybe this whole affair was taking place over six months.

***

“You were found wearing this,” said the nurse, holding up a hanger bearing a floral-patterned sundress. The dress was scuffed and stained, and its hem was raggedly torn. “The damage appears to be from the accident and the fall. How long have you been out on the streets?”

She stared at him blankly, then turned back to the fogged-up window. Wiping her hand over the glass, she revealed a streak of the landscape outside: bare treetops, a grim sky like concrete, thin lines of rain tipping from the clouds onto the damp pavement below.

The nurse changed his track. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

She turned to him but didn’t see him. Her eyes were focused on somewhere else. “You’ll forget, and then you’ll remember again,” she said,“but not until everything else is gone. No one knows why it works that way, but it does.”

The nurse blinked. “I’m calling psych,” he said, throwing up his hands. “I can’t do anything for you, lady. Sorry.”

“You’ll remember what I said when everything else is gone!” she cried out after him. She didn’t know why, but she felt sure she had to. He needed to know. He wouldn’t understand it now, but someday, when he most needed it, that knowledge would be there for him.

***

“So, how do you cure it?” asked Archer once she’d finished reading the latest installment.

Kim tsked. “You’re so practical. I don’t think that’s the point of the story at all.”

“You don’t think?” said Archer, raising both brows.

“Okay,” admitted Kim, sighing, “maybe I’m not one hundred percent sure where I’m going with this.”

“She needs a time traveler,” Archer determined. “Someone has to go around her past and delete all the crap that you dumped in there to ruin her shit. Actually, maybe she needs to fight you to the death to erase your deleterious influence.”

“My influence was to make her exist,” Kim pointed out. “Is that deleterious?”

“Maybe,” said Archer. “This life she’s stuck in is pretty grim.”

“No!” said Kim. “Absolutely not, this was supposed to be an optimistic story.”

Archer shrugged. “Maybe she’s a vampire.”

“A time-controlling vampire?” said Kim. “Those books you read must be getting pretty strange.”

“No, I mean,” Archer hesitated, “like when you become a vampire. And then, you stop being human. But you’re not dead, technically. You’re just not human anymore.”

***

The room around her was huge, cubical and blank. Its walls, floor and ceiling were colored an identical, pale pink. The whole room could have tumbled over in any direction and remained the same, apart from the throng of fifteen or so strangers who marked the floor, set it apart by standing on it.

“She’s not ready,” said a gray-haired woman emphatically. “She remembers, she can’t know.”

The skinny man in the scrubs shook his head. “You weren’t in that corridor, you didn’t see what I saw. We have to take her, it’s too dangerous out there. For her, and for the outsiders.”

A second man, strange to her, shook his head slowly. “It wouldn’t help,” he said. “She wouldn’t remember anything we told her.”

“Who are you people?” she yelled at them, frustrated.

The gray lady put a hand on her shoulder to try to calm her, but she shook it off.

“Did you do this? Are you responsible for what’s happening to me?” She grabbed him by the front of his scrub shirt and shook him with both fists.

“No, of course not!” He was angry. “I told you, you’re like us. The stain did this to all of us, and we all used to be like you. Not like you, like the outsiders.”

She dropped his shirt like it was on fire. “I’m not like you,” she said. “This isn’t happening to me, it can’t. I’m like them. An outsider? That’s me. Where’s my phone? I have to call my mom. Let me out of here!”

The woman with the gray hair opened a door in the opposite wall that wasn’t there before and mutely gestured her out. As she climbed over the high doorstep she didn’t spare a look behind her. Those people had nothing to do with her. She slid open her cellphone and speed-dialed her parents’ home number. A concerned voice answered, reassuringly familiar.

***

“Uh, it came out really long,” said Kim awkwardly. She clutched at the sheaf of papers. “I think I’ll only read an excerpt.”

“How long?” asked the coach warily, her eyes on the pages in Kim’s hands.

Kim flipped the pages’ corners and counted silently. “Eight pages,” she said.

Someone in the room whistled.

“Eight pages in a week?” said the coach faintly. “We should all be so lucky.”

“What if it’s not any good, though?” asked Kim. “There’s nothing too special about writing eight pages if they’re terrible. And, I don’t know, I think the pacing is off?”

The coach’s mouth flattened. “Please,” she said, “read us an excerpt and let’s see what everyone thinks.”

She read.

“Do you ever feel as though it’s unfair to put characters through the things we do?” she asked the coach later, once the meeting was dispersing.

She stopped gathering discarded pages and stood still, regarding her. “Sometimes it feels as though the characters we write about are almost real people, and we become tempted to think of them as having personalities that can resist us. Since your heroine comes to a bad end, I can understand why you might feel like you had punished her unduly. But think, if you didn’t let her suffer, you’d have no plot.”

“Actually,” said Kim, “it’s supposed to be an optimistic ending.”

“Hmm?” said the coach.

“She’s taken into the fold,” said Kim, but it was too complicated to explain.

“You know what?” she said suddenly. “E-mail me the whole thing, and I’ll give you some notes. After all, you only read a short excerpt.”

On the train home Kim stared out the window and thought again about Anat, and the deal she had cut her. Technically Archer was correct, and she was the stain that had blotched all over her life. She did get a whole new community out of it, even though she lost contact with her parents and sisters, and there was the man in scrubs, who one of the workshop people seemed to think was destined to be a love interest. Kim hadn’t even considered whether Anat would have one such, she was busy with more important things.

Without realizing it, she had lapsed into a habit of mumbling to herself. She could feel someone’s eyes on her, and when she half-turned she saw a man standing next to the door, watching her. She started when she realized that, under his raincoat, he was wearing green scrubs. Hair rose on the back of her neck, and her hands crushed around the seat’s arm-rests. He was walking up to her.

“Hey,” he said.

She stayed silent.

“Um,” he said, reaching up to scratch the back of his neck. “Uh, sorry. It’s just, I saw you on the train last week, mumbling to yourself, like… Uh. I was wondering what you were doing. Never mind.”

Kim’s fear deflated rapidly, and suddenly she felt so silly. “I was just writing a story,” she said.

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