Autumn leaves rustle across the manicured lawn, and you rest on the park bench, bemoaning the state of your world. It’s good to some, harsh to others, but fair to none. You come here to escape the constant roach-crushing sporting event on replay in your apartment. Someone should breed a dog that eats roaches.
Rent is three weeks late. Your landlord is probably anxiously awaiting your return, eager to berate you. He doesn’t like you. The feeling is mutual.
Your stomach rumbles, but all that’s at home is a 7-month-old bottle of Italian dressing in your fridge, an old lemon, and some vitamin powder your sister Sarah gave you before she died. You tried it once. Never again. But knowing it was the last thing you saw her touch, you just can’t throw it out.
“Nasty crap didn’t help her,” you whisper to the pigeons flocking around your ankles. You toss them the remainder of the moldy loaf of bread. The thought of finding cash for groceries makes your eyes water. Or is it something else?
What would it be like to look forward to the future? Your friend Drew knows. He always talks about how exciting life is. He started that business repairing circuit boards in washing machines and six months later bought a house in FoxGlade. You didn’t even know washing machines had circuit boards. Pretty sure yours doesn’t. Drew’s washing machine plays music. Even his toaster has ringtones. Probably easy to be excited about the future when you’re as rich as he is. He’s offered you a job multiple times, but his wife Mia works there, and she’s a bitch. Actually, she isn’t a bitch, she’s just model gorgeous.
The pigeons flock around your feet, cooing for more bread. “At least someone appreciates me,” you say. They peck in agreement. It makes you smile until a needled beak pecks your ankle. “Little turds!” you snap at the portly flock. You shoo them away, but they refuse to scatter, so you toss the empty bread bag and they dart after it.
Blood tickles your ankle. You dig through your purse, pretending to look for a tissue, even though you’ve not bought those in over a year. You got fired from three jobs in three months because of ‘cutbacks,’ and your unemployment ran out five weeks ago. What will happen if you never work again? Will someone take care of you? Can you survive being homeless? If your parents were still alive, they couldn’t help. They’d squandered your inheritance on that business scam that took every last dime.
The wind picks up, whisking your empty bread bag toward the lake. You leap up and chase after it. You hate it when people litter. It lodges against a tree. Stuffing the bag into your pocket, you notice a little notebook by the tree trunk.
You turn to leave, but something about the way the book sits perfectly propped, the pen clipped straight along the edge, and the bookmark tucked neatly near the back told you it belongs to someone. The owner will certainly want it back. Maybe there’s a name inside?
Curiosity overtakes you.
You open it. No name. You turn the page and read:
On the next page, various ink colors fill the lines, blossoming outward to the margins, curling up the sides of the page, and eventually tucking back under the original lines. The writing shrinks ever smaller, almost unreadable.
More money. More sex. Different wife. No wife. LOTS MONEY. Little fame. More fame. Multiple partners. FAITHFUL wife…
The list goes on and on, the subjects changing. You scan the smaller words:
two cats. no cats. small dog. no barking.
You squint your eyes, focusing on the tiniest script:
Catherine alive. stay young. live forever. travel world.
The trail of words leads to the very top left corner of the page, where you saw what you thought must be the last words written:
Was the owner recording all their wishes in a single journal entry? Were they worried about running out of space?
You flip the page. The colors and script are completely different. Large cursive pink, purple, and glitter-like orange words fill the page. But the same pattern emerges — shrinking letters, wrapping around the lines and crammed into every blank space. Several phrases larger than others stand out:
Make John love me. Date John. Sex John. Marriage John. John divorce. MARRY JOHN. Three kids. Better job. John job. John love. New friends. Money NOW. MORE MONEY. John vacation. Kill Sandy. John wreck. John hospital. Rescue John. JOHN’S FORGIVENESS. John’s love. John’s compassion. John die.
The scribbled letters flood every corner. The next words strike you:
You flip through the pages, each displaying different inks, each in unique handwriting. One written in… French? Another in Russian?
The stories bring shivers to your body. Every page ends tragically–an amalgamation of jealousy, greed, pursuits of pleasure, and treacherous grasping for control. A repetitious pattern occurring until every phrase eventually spirals into a black hole of despair. It appears as if each writer got their wishes — and it destroyed them.
You close the notebook, snap the elastic band across it, and fling it away. The hairs on your arms stand upright. You march out of the park and get in your car. Turning the ignition, you hear a single click. You try again. Nothing. You realize you’d left your lights on.
“Dammit!” you scream, pounding the steering wheel. “Why the hell now?”
Tears flow. You collapse your head on the wheel. Sleep overtakes you.
Jerking awake, you turn the key again, hoping for a miracle. Apparently, today isn’t a day for miracles.
Your thoughts circle back to the notebook. It has evidence of people who did terrible things. You should take it to the police. There might be a reward. Or maybe they’d accept it, then throw it in the trash after you leave. Or… someone left it as a prank. But what if it worked? There’s no way. What if someone else finds it?
You scurry back across the lawn and survey the area. Where is it? You couldn’t have thrown it far. You scour the ground on hands and knees, all the way to the tree line. It’s gone. “Why, God?” you shout at the sky.
Trudging back toward your car, you step on something hard. “Yes!” you shout, picking up the book. You dance an awkward jig. “Yes, yes, yes! Gotcha!” Twirling, you bump into a lamppost. It doesn’t matter.
Back in your car, you flip to the last page — the only blank one — unclip the pen, and start to write. Only you don’t. Warnings flood your mind. The memories of what the other 239 pages hold haunt you. Images of desperate people asking for different flavors of the same thing. Happiness from money, satisfaction by using others, comfort from ordering their world to their liking. All ending in misery.
You begin to write, Start car.
But stop. Are you truly that desperate? That delusional? You believe a book can magically make something happen just by writing the words?
For a moment, you consider driving to the mental hospital. Then you remember you’d have to walk.
But if you did have a magic notebook…? You’d never work again, never take a risk, never have to trust. Never know if others really loved you. Never truly live. You’d shrink your world onto a page to serve your own needs. Your life would become the most comfortable prison imaginable.
You sit there, clenching the steering wheel.
You get out of your car and walk home.
By the time you arrive, it’s 5:17 A.M. but you don’t sleep. You sweep your kitchen. You don’t remember using the broom before. Grabbing the vitamin powder out of the fridge and mixing the last of it in a glass of water, you toss the container in the trash. Raising your glass to the ceiling, you shout, “To you, Sarah!” before chugging it down.
You gather old shoes, clothes, and several DVDs into a box and scribble on it, for sale. You’ll take it to the consignment shop later.
You pull out your grandmother’s antique silverware collection, still in the original box. You’ve never used it. Not because you don’t like it, but because your scuzzy apartment was never worthy. “Thank you, Mammaw,” you announce, “but it’s not for me.”
You search for it on eBay, stunned at the prices. You list it online for half its value and receive three bids within five minutes. Sold for $750. You spend two more hours cleaning, then take a shower.
It’s 8am. You post online that you’re looking for a roommate. “Got a good one for me, Sarah?” you ask aloud.
You head to the consignment shop. On your way out, you bump into Jack, your landlord.
“Rent this week, or you’re out,” he barks.
You nod and write him a check for $500.
He waves it in your face. “If this’s bad, there’ll be hell to pay.”
“It’ll be good,” you say with a radiant smile. “Can I bring you breakfast when I come back?”
He looks stunned. You take that as a yes and leave.
Your arms ache when you finally reach the consignment shop. “What could I get in cash now?” you ask.
The clerk takes five minutes while you browse. “Nine dollars and seventy cents,” she says.
“I’ll take it.”
On your way back home, you pickup an all-star special from Waffle House. The order is $6.97. You hand the cashier the $9.70 in your pocket. “Keep the change,” you say, smiling.
You drop the food off in Jack’s office.
“Is this poisoned?” he asks.
“Only if you eat it every day.” You hope he declines so you can eat it. He doesn’t.
You walk to Drew’s office. Mia’s working the front desk, all hair, lips and eyes.
“You’re beautiful,” you say. “Are you a model?”
“Awww, you’re so sweet,” she says. “Are you here to see Drew?”
“Great! Have a seat. I’ll let him know.” Her nails click as she texts something on her phone. Before your bottom hits the chair, Mia says, “He’s ready for you!”
Drew meets you in the hallway.
“Eleanor? Are you okay?” he asks.
“Yes. I just…” You stop short.
“You finally ready to take me up on my offer?” he asks.
“Fantastic!” He gives you a bear hug, and you realize it’s the first time another human has touched you in… you can’t remember. Your eyes water.
“Hey, hey,” Drew says, “You sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine. My car broke down at the park so I walked here.”
“Mia, call a towing service, please, then join us.” Drew grabs your arm. “Come on back. We’re having company breakfast.”
“Do it every day. Helps freshen our minds in the mornings. You hungry?”
“Good. We’ll talk about your first contract after we eat. Project’s on a one-month timeline. I need someone smart enough to get this across the finish line. Commission is 12K, all up front,” he says with a wink.
“Count me in,” you say.
This is the day, you think. Today, everything changes.
One year later, you sit on the same park bench, delighting in the state of your world. You flip open the notebook and reread the opening lines:
An entire year has passed and you have never put it to the test; never written a single word on the 240 pages of that little book. It wasn’t necessary. You’d found all the magic you needed. With a smile on your face, you grab the pen, flip to the last page, and write two words: