by Will Raven
In the spirit of the Halloween season, here’s a new short story with a spooky twist.
Jack Fowler stared at the blank screen and prayed the words would come. He sipped on black coffee and began nervously tapping his left foot on the oak floorboards.
The rain pitter-pattering on the window intensified a hangover brought on by swigging gin from a bottle all night. He was slowly drinking himself to death.
Jack remembered little about the hours before he awoke. His head felt like tiny jackhammers were chiseling away at his brain. He sat slouched over his laptop, restless and confused.
He rubbed his deep-lined forehead and looked back at the monitor. Still no words. Writer’s block, he feared, had stifled his imagination once again. In frustration, he began typing randomly.
To his dismay, nothing appeared on the screen. He struck more keys, but got the same result.
“Piece of junk!” he yelled, pounding his right fist on the desk. He rebooted the computer, hoping it was just a glitch. Waiting for the machine to power up, his mind filled with self-doubt.
I’m a pitiful drunk, he thought, And I will never publish again.
Fifteen years ago, just 32-years-old, Jack wrote a best-selling horror novel, “Dancing on My Grave.” He has yet to finish another book. Young and foolish, he lost a small fortune on a series of bad real estate deals. His drinking and gambling in Vegas didn’t help either. His feats of boozing clouded his judgment and his addictions drained his bank account.
Suddenly, Jack heard a knock on the door. It was the landlord, Alice Quimby. For the past two years, Jack rented a room in her three-story Victorian home in rural Maryland. He liked the quiet living quarters and country scenery. He hoped to recapture his writing form there.
Mrs. Quimby felt safe when Jack was around. She loved the fact that she housed a once popular author.
“Come in,” Jack said, forgetting Mrs. Quimby was confined to a wheelchair. He moved quickly to open the door.
At 77 years old, Mrs. Quimby was all skin and bones. She wore black-rimmed glasses and had a lazy left eye that sometimes twitched when she got nervous. Despite her limitations, she still cooked her own meals and managed her own affairs.
“I heard loud noises,” she said, entering the room.
“That was me,” Jack said. “I’m having trouble with my laptop and it just—”
Alice interrupted. “I never liked those bloody computers, anyway. In my day, we always used trusty typewriters.”
Jack flashed a grin. He recalled in college how the keys on his old typewriter constantly got stuck hammering out stories for the literary magazine.
He walked back to check on the laptop. He flicked his fingers across a row of keys. The screen remained void.
“I think my laptop has fried,” Jack said. “It’s toast.”
“That’s too bad. How long have you had it?”
“About six years and I never got a damn thing published with it.”
“This may sound old fashioned,” Mrs. Quimby said. “But how would you like to use a typewriter instead?”
“You gotta be kidding,” Jack said, shutting down the laptop.
“No, I’m serious. There’s an old manual typewriter in the basement.”
“Does it still work?”
“I bet it does” Mrs. Quimby said. “But I want to be straight with you.”
“Straight about what?” Jack said.
“That typewriter has got some bad blood.”
The horror writer in Jack wanted to know more. He leaned in closer.
“My late husband typed his suicide note using that thing,” Mrs. Quimby said grimly.
Jack winced. But he remained curious like someone slowing down to see a car wreck.
“Very tragic,” he said.
“And before that he used it to write obits for the wire services.”
“So he was a journalist?”
“Before he hanged himself right in this very room. I came home one night after playing cards with some friends. There Henry was, hanging from the ceiling,” she said, pointing to a large wooden beam that ran horizontally across the center arch.
“Awful,” Jack said. His head throbbed.
“And just like me, that old typewriter’s been gathering dust ever since.”
“It must have been devastating.”
“Isn’t life a big joke anyway and the joker always gets us in the end?” Mrs. Quimby said, sounding like a fortune teller.
“Life’s definitely got its wild cards,” Jack quipped.
“You know I’m a big fan of yours, Jack. So if you think that typewriter might do you some good, by all means use it.”
“I suppose it can’t hurt to take a look,” Jack said.
“Just be careful,” Mrs. Quimby warned. “It’s been quite some time since anyone has been in the basement.”
Alice spun her motorized wheelchair around and rolled back to her room. She moved about the house pretty well and used the stair lift when she needed to go floor-to-floor.
Should I do this?, Jack debated. He quickly concluded that he didn’t have enough money to buy a new laptop and change might do him good.
He headed to the basement. As he approached the door, he thought about the times his mother told him not to go in the cellar as monsters lurked there. He squeezed the brass knob. The door was unlocked, and he gently opened it. The hinges creaked. He stared into the darkness and the darkness stared back at him.
Jack turned on the lights and poked his head inside. Two low-hanging pendant lamps flickered before one gave out. He glanced at the support poles and electrical wires that lined the ceiling.
He started down the rickety wooden stairs, waving off cob webs in his path with one hand and tightly gripping the railing with the other.
A rat scattered across the floor at the base of the steps. The creepy space was cluttered with boxes, assorted junk, and personal belongings that the Quimby’s had collected over the years.
Jack’s eyes were drawn to the center of the basement. Perched atop several crates was the typewriter—a vintage red Olympia machine. He guessed it might be a 1960s model. It was covered with dust, but it looked in good condition.
An aged sheet of paper was inserted in the cylinder. The carriage was flush left, seemingly waiting for someone to come along and type.
Jack’s eyes widened as he read a single line of type.
“I can help you.”
The sentence rattled Jack. He believed the words spoke directly to him. He wondered who had written the text when Mrs. Quimby said the typewriter sat idle for many years.
Curious, Jack typed a reply. The keys worked perfectly. The ribbon had mostly dried up, but still left a faint impression.
“How can you help me?”
Jack really didn’t expect a response and he didn’t get one. Oddly, something about the typewriter touched his soul. He felt a peculiar bond with the metal box.
Perhaps it was the eerie message that seemed to speak to him. Or maybe the clickity clack tranquilized him. He imagined recapturing his literary magic. Fame and fortune would surely follow.
Jack heard a rat squeal, snapping him out of his fantasy. Time to leave, he thought. But not without the typewriter.
Next to the machine was a small metal box containing a typewriter ribbon. Jack put it in his pocket and then lifted the typewriter with both arms. He quickly remembered how heavy the old manuals are compared to laptops.
Jack hauled the machine up to the main floor. The weight put added pressure on the aging staircase. The wood groaned with each step. Reaching the top, he gasped for air. Exhausted, he climbed the steep master stairway to the landing, then waddled toward his room.
His arms nearly gave out. Grunting, he double-clutched the typewriter and held on until he made it to the bedroom. He plopped the machine on the desk. His heart pounded. Shortness of breath.
Jack stepped over to the liquor cabinet. He opened a bottle of gin and took several swigs. It seemed to calm his nerves. He started daydreaming again.
The typewriter is my ticket back. No more writer’s block. I’m gonna be rich.
Jack yanked the paper out of the typewriter and tucked it in the desk drawer. He removed the old ribbon and replaced it with the new one. He drank another shot of gin, then opened a fresh ream of paper. He loaded a new sheet and smiled.
Now the words will come, he thought. For months, Jack had a concept for a novel in his head.
A cold, calculating tenant had bonded with his landlord—a wealthy, old widow—for years and plots to kill the woman for her inheritance. But that’s where the story had always stalled.
What method does the murderer use and what happens next?
Jack put his fingers over the home row keys. He felt an urge to type. Yet, like so many times before, he hit a brick wall. Anxiety quickly seized him. He guzzled more gin and fast grew sleepy.
Jack passed out on the bed and slept for hours. He awoke in the dark at the sound of the typewriter.
Clickety clack. Clickety clack. Clickety clack.
The machine typed on its own as though a ghost might be pecking away on the keys.
Jack listened in disbelief. He turned on the small lamp on the nightstand.
Suddenly the clatter stopped. He stepped closer to the typewriter that seemed to beckon him. He read the fresh, mysterious words on the page.
“I can help you, Jack. Isn’t that what you need? Help getting over that dreadful writer’s block that’s driving you to drink. I can fix things in your pathetic life.”
Jack felt insulted and yet intrigued. Tottering on the brink of insanity, he typed back.
“Who or what are you?”
“I am the devil himself. But don’t be alarmed. I’ve got a really sweet deal for you, if you do it right?”
“Why don’t you show yourself?”
“I think it’s best that we communicate this way.”
Jack still couldn’t believe he was having a conversation with a phantom typewriter, much less Satan.
“So what are we talking about here?”
“I am talking about you becoming a best-selling author again. But you’ll have to perform a little deed in return. What do you say?”
The page had quickly filled with type. Then magically the paper rolled out of the typewriter. It flipped face down on the desk. A new page reloaded by itself and the carriage returned to the top of the page.
This is wicked, Jack thought. He felt a strange weariness overwhelm him. He knew making a deal with the devil was a bad idea. But he was desperate.
He stared at the blank sheet of paper for a few seconds and typed a response.
“What sort of deed?”
“I want you to kill Mrs. Quimby.”
Jack cringed. The devil’s work, he thought.
“Why do you want her dead?” The typewriter fired back.
“I got my reasons. None of which concerns you.”
“Did one of your deals go bad?”
“Come on Jack. You act like you’re some sort of saint. But I know you thought about getting this house once the old lady croaks.”
“Alice told me she might leave me the house since I’ve been kind to her. But that doesn’t mean I ever thought about killing her.”
“Old Quimby adores you, Jack. And she’s got no husband or children. No one but little old you.”
“So you want me to commit bloody murder and fry in the electric chair. You’re a sick bastard.”
“Have it your way, Mr. Fowler.”
There was little space left on the page. The typing stopped. The page rolled off the cylinder all by itself. It flipped face down again on the desk.
Jack waited for something to happen. He wanted the conversation to continue, but the typewriter remained curiously silent.
He grew increasingly anxious as the seconds and minutes passed. He guzzled more gin.
Disturbing thoughts entered his brain. He fancied strangling Ms. Quimby, while she lay sleeping. He squeezed the gin bottle with both hands until it shattered. The jolt shot him back to reality.
Suddenly the typewriter carriage slammed left. Clickety Clack. Clickety Clack. Clickety Clack.
“Well, my friend, have you changed your mind?”
Jack wasn’t certain about anything anymore. Still he had more questions. He typed back a response riddled with errors. The alcohol had taken its toll.
“You said you’d make me a bestt-selling autor again.”
“That’s right. The plot’s all in that marvelous brain of yours.”
“What plit is that?”
“The one you can’t seem to write. A ruthless, desperate tenant kills his landlord for her inheritance. Does that sound familiar?”
“What are you trying to say?”
“The killer is you, Jack. But you’ve never had the balls to carry it out.”
Jack grimaced. He knew it was the ugly truth.
“Until you actually murder the old maid, the plot will never advance.”
Jack suddenly felt sober. He quickly pecked a response.
“So let’s get on with it. How do I kill her?”
“You decide. Just make sure it looks like an accident.”
“How about Saturday night?”
A knot tightened in Jack’s stomach. That was just two days away. He shook his wrists and typed a reply.
“After dinner then.”
The page had filled again with text. This time Jack pulled the paper out of the cylinder himself. He meshed it with the other pages and tucked his little conversation with the devil in the desk drawer.
Intoxicated and exhausted, Jack stretched across the bed. He quickly drifted into sleep.
The next morning, he awoke fresh and full of energy. Everything seemed different. No hangover. No headache. Just clarity and a strange inner peace. He took a morning shower and changed clothes.
Jack sat down in front of the typewriter. It was fully loaded with a blank sheet of paper. His fingers tingled as he planted them on the keys. His story finally came into focus. He began typing. The words flowed freely from his mind.
The writer’s block was gone. So was the urge to drink. He wrote page after page. He worked through lunch and into the afternoon. Then a repeated rap on the door. It was Mrs. Quimby.
Jack recognized the familiar bang and let her in.
“Hello, Alice, how are you?”
“I haven’t seen you all day,” she said, holding a copy of Jack’s novel in her lap.
“That typewriter has been a blessing, and I’ve been writing non-stop.”
“Glad it’s working for you,” Alice said.
“Just today, I’ve completed three chapters.
“Do you have time for our usual tea?”
Mrs. Quimby had become accustomed to their Friday afternoon tea.
“I hope you won’t mind if we skip it today. I really want to keep writing.”
“I understand,” Alice said.
“How about dinner tomorrow evening at six o’ clock?” Jack asked.
“Why that would be lovely,” she nodded, surprised by the gesture.
“I will cook us a delightful meal,” Jack said. Evil thoughts of poisoning Alice’s food seized him.
“It’s a date,” Mrs. Quimby said.
“Now I must get back to work,” Jack said.
“And I must get back to my reading,” Alice replied. She was reading Jack’s best-selling book for the third time.
Jack closed the door behind Alice and went straight back to the typewriter. He pounded away for hours. The chapters stacked up one after the other until the pile grew to more than 50 pages.
At midnight, Jack finally called it quits. The next day, he resumed writing at a rapid pace. Never before had the prose come so easily. By late afternoon, four new chapters were done.
Then he reached a pivotal point in the novel. How would the tenant murder the landlord? His mood darkened. The dreaded writer’s block returned. Anxiety quickly set in and so did his thirst for alcohol. He grabbed the gin again. Two hearty swigs.
Suddenly, the typewriter went clickety clack. Clickety clack.
“Hitting the bottle again, my friend?”
Jack scowled. He knew it was Satan trying to get under his skin. He fired back.
“You might say the devil drove me to drink.”
“All your worries will go away if you just keep your end of our little agreement.”
“I thought about poisoning Alice’s food, but that won’t look like an accident.”
“A horror writer like you can do better than that.”
“Have you got any suggestions?”
“No, Jack, this is your story.”
“Easy for you to say. I’m the one who must execute the plot.”
“I am confident you will find a proper method. I wish you well.”
The page was full. Jack pulled the paper from the roller and stored it in the desk drawer. He reloaded the cylinder with a fresh white sheet and returned the carriage.
It was five o’clock and time to cook dinner. Jack headed downstairs to the kitchen. He prepared Mrs. Quimby’s favorite meal—spaghetti and meatballs, along with a side of garlic bread.
On a large tray, he brought their dinner upstairs to the library, where Alice waited for him. It was the spot they had their tea.
“That smells wonderful,” said Mrs. Quimby, inhaling a familiar aroma as Jack entered the room. Fresh tomato sauce. Tender pasta. Green parsley. Ground beef.
Jack put their plates down on the table and poured a light red wine into two goblet glasses.
“I hope you like it,” Jack said.
“So good!” Alice said, finishing up her first bite.”
“Thank you,” Jack said, reaching for the bread.
“How’s the novel coming?” Alice asked.
“I’m halfway through the draft.”
“What’s the story about?”
Jack blinked. “About a guy who makes a deal with the devil.”
“What sort of deal?” Alice asked, sipping some wine.
“Alice, I don’t want to give away the plot.”
“Have you got a title yet?”
“The working title is: When the Devil Writes.”
“Sounds nasty,” Alice said, “I can’t wait to read it.”
Laughing, Jack said, “Why don’t we have some devil’s food cake for dessert.”
“Actually, I have some cheese cake in the fridge,” Jack said.
“That would be marvelous.”
That evening Jack felt increasingly nervous. The thought of killing Mrs. Quimby weighed heavily on him. The old woman had always been kind to him. She had never uttered a discouraging word. And now he planned to end her life.
“I was gonna watch some television downstairs,” Alice said.
Jack was silent.
“Want to join me?”
“I better get back to my writing,” he said.
“Okay, I really enjoyed dinner,” Alice said. “Need any help with the dishes?”
“Thanks, but I’ll take care of it.”
Alice pivoted and rolled herself toward the stairlift. Jack shadowed her. He waited until she reached the top of the stairwell.
“Alice, I’m afraid you must die,” he said numbly.
Stunned, she looked back at him. Her lazy eye twitched.
Jack charged at Alice, shoving her down the staircase. She screamed, tumbling forward in a violent spiral. The chair flipped and rumbled like a roller coast car gone off the tracks.
Alice banged her head on the railing, then sprung from the wheelchair, breaking her ribs on the steps. The flying object ultimately landed on Alice’s frail frame, collapsing her lungs. Tiny blood streaks ran down her right cheek.
Jack looked on madly. Part sickened. Part jubilant. He slowly walked down the steps. The closer he got to the carnage, the more his stomach churned. He stood over Mrs. Quimby.
The damaged left wheel of the chair wobbled on its axis. He lifted the wreckage off her. She let out a final groan and died.
The deed was done, Jack thought. He wasted no time calling the cops. He told them that he was in his room writing when he heard Mrs. Quimby scream. He further explained that he had raced out to see what happened and found Alice dead at the bottom of the stairs.
The police questioned Jack for a solid two hours. Over the next two months, they conducted a rigorous investigation. They suspected foul play, but had no conclusive evidence.
Curiously, Alice had not made out a will.
In the end, Jack was cleared. He was ordered to vacate the house at the end of the month. With each passing day, he wrote profusely. The words came easily once again. In a few short days, he completed the novel. He was content.
Jack stretched out on the bed. He lit up a fine cigar. Something he always did after completing a manuscript.
This little beauty, he thought, will get me back to the top of the best-seller list.
Suddenly, he heard clickety clack, clickety clack. Jack sprang off the mattress, dropping ashes on his red flannel shirt. The devil was back, he surmised.
“Congratulations Jack, for finally finishing the book.”
Confident, Jack typed back.
“It’s a great piece of work if I do say so myself.”
“Too bad you’re never going to enjoy its success.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re headed for the big sleep.”
Jack’s heart skipped.
“You’re joking, right?”
“Doesn’t the joker always get us in the end.”
Jack remembered that Alice spoke those very words.
“That can’t be you, Alice. You’re dead.”
“After what you did to me, do you think I could ever rest in peace?”