Original fic. 1600 words. Complete.
When my author died, I made a pilgrimage. I want to say that I did it right away, that I left the faucet running and the windows wide open and hopped the first bus that passed near me to get there, but things are different now than when I knew him. Personal things. Career things. Things that fit in a minivan; kids, a dog. There were three of them by then, children, a nine-year-old girl with an unsettling beauty and dark, far-reaching eyes, and another girl and a baby boy, both blonde like me, known collectively as "the little ones." The children knew something was wrong immediately, but none of them had heard of him beyond the shelf of books in the guest bedroom, unopened, unsigned. I didn't need to read them anymore -- the text felt embedded beneath my fingernails, always there but in the hazy back of my consciousness -- but it would have felt strange not to at least own copies. My husband never opened them either, worried he wouldn't like what he read, that he would imagine me too clearly in the steamier scenes, but he never complained at the presence of the volumes or even suggested that I shouldn't go to the house to be with what was left of him, before even the ghosts were swept away.
I had waited far too long.
He was dead a week before my older daughter and I shuffled loose the domestic coil, leaving my husband harried with an obscenely long list of instructions: Water the plants with this water, the humidifier with this water. Make sure not to pack any sugar into the preschool lunches, or the teacher will send home angry notes again. Disinfect the baby's bottle. Don't let the little ones feed the dog cheese anymore or she'll get sick all over the rug. We took the minivan, because my husband hates driving it to work, and as I unstrapped the carseats from the back I wondered, how did I ever turn into this?
En route, Charlotte, my daughter, didn't say very much. She was always like that -- thoughtful -- like she was quietly puzzling out the universe rather than expending energy on useless chatter. I suspected she had figured out most of it already, even when I wasn't giving her all the pieces. By late afternoon, though, she grew cranky and frustrated, bored at the seemingly endless cow fields that were novel at 10 a.m. when we first passed the city limits. I didn't really know how to get there, assuming that I could find it by memory and feeling alone, but it had been almost ten years, and I had always taken the bus before. It was dusky already when I finally found the old farm house, after asking directions at a series of other similar old wooden houses in the area.
Charlotte wasn't surprised that I knew how to break in, probably reasoning that I wouldn't have driven ten hours out of my way on the off-chance that the executor of the author's will, perhaps a lawyer on his publisher's payroll, had perhaps left the door unlocked.
"Is it exactly as you remember it?" she asked after I had picked open the broken latch on the side door and let us into the basement, bypassing the main, most livable floors of the house entirely. Her brown eyes flickered familiarly in the receding light.
"Start looking," I commanded her, explaining my order only after I already started searching beneath the only-slightly-more-musty couch cushions. I had brought her along to help, but I wanted to find it first. "For papers. Writing. A book. Anything unpublished." In fact, his published works had dropped off considerably in the last ten years, but I knew that this only meant that he was writing for other eyes, not that he had stopped writing.
"What's the book called?" Charlotte asked, gamely opening the clothes dryer to check inside.
"I don't know."
Eventually, we had to scale the stairs into the other rooms of the house. Whenever I thought of him, which wasn't often anymore, I imagined the rooms and walls exactly as I remembered them, his life as static as a published page. The differences were fairly minute, in reality, and I was disappointed for all the mental effort I'd spent on the long drive over, bracing myself.
Charlotte found about a hundred pages beneath a mattress, but they began and ended randomly, mid-sentence, leading me to believe that he had perhaps hidden his treasure in disparate locations to keep it from being exploited at once. We took the house apart to find it all -- carefully at first, then gleefully tearing out false bottoms of dresser drawers and ripping paintings off the walls and out of their frames to get at the few leafs of paper the author had scurried away. We stacked up the pages on the kitchen table until we found the section that looked like the first.
'Unfinished, Untitled' was handwritten on top. I read a paragraph, another, and it was unquestionably the beginning of the scattered opus, because it detailed so clearly exactly where we had left off.
"Who's it about?" my daughter asked, not what, but who, like she already knew.
As I read the unnumbered pages, in whatever order I picked them up, I realized why I had never returned to this house while he was alive. I had changed more than the text in front of me had allowed me to, and he would never have forgiven that in one of his creations. He wrote thoughts into me that still had the whimsical passion of my youth, that same passion that had sent me up here twelve years ago in search of the man who wrote the deeply piercing turns of phrase I had found in a library that had propelled me into my life full-force. He had aged me, too, made me learn life lessons essential to a woman's twenties, gave me wisdom I had lacked in his first few bestsellers, adding experience without taking anything away. The pages were well-handled, and I imagined him removing them from their hiding places when he was lonely and reading them over, the way I sometimes pulled out my children's baby albums when Charlotte seemed too worldly and I felt the need to retreat into simpler days. On paper, I had given birth to a boy.
Chapters were missing. I got the feeling that there were thousands of sections scattered throughout the house, his window into a world he would have liked better than the real one, all leading up to a sudden, dead end the week before. The last few words were still clamped in the roller of his typewriter, mid-scene. Tearing up the floorboards and the walls to find the rest of the story seemed futile, almost, because the whole thing was destined to remain unfinished. Untitled.
Charlotte didn't mind when we left before I finished reading what we had found. I took a few pages with me, at random and for purely sentimental reasons, but I left the rest there. The publishing house could find all of it, take on an editor to cut short stories out of it or hire another author to bring it to completion. It would be published: the continuing story of the author's previous twelve novels, the trail of which had been lost over the past decade. His characters deserved resolution.
We drove back past the cowfields until we found a Comfort Inn with vacancies posted. Charlotte fell asleep on the way and I carried her inside, even though she was nine and I was nine years of exhausted. When I set her down she looked up at me.
"Are we going home?" she asked, eyes drawn and worried, like she considered it a possibility that I would abandon the benign life I had forged, my practical husband and two little blonde, blue-eyed children, to pull someone else's fantasy over myself.
"In the morning," I promised. "Go back to sleep."
She didn't, for awhile, but I broke down and cried for a few minutes anyway as I remembered through my exhaustion that something beloved had been lost, some part of me and all of him bundled up together in a mortuary somewhere awaiting burial. Maybe that was what I was really grieving, I thought, that other me, the better me that I had never managed to live up to even when I had stayed in his house as a living model. I had been loved since leaving, but I had never again been recreated. Over the years, when the inanities of preparing lunches and changing diapers had begun to leech away at my spirit I thought about her and was pleased that she still existed, on paper, at least.
I missed what he saw in me.
"Charlotte..." I knew she was still awake. "When we get back home, I want you to read his books. You don't have to do it right away."
She was too young for most of them -- they were graphic and I remembered how each volume had left me raw and exposed. Someday, I wanted her to know.
"We can read them together, if you want," she offered.
I nodded back. My husband would hate it. "Okay."
Charlotte watched me in the light of the motel bedside lamp as I undressed in silence, her dark eyes wonderfully comforting.