1,200 / 50,000
There was a crack in the linoleum next to his left foot, spiraling away from him toward the doorway as if seeking escape. It looked the way he felt.
Stories are generally characterized as narrations with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Early examples include such works as Homer’s Iliad and the Thaumaturge, by an unknown author. However, it might be argued that neither is a very good example, as the Iliad doesn’t really have a beginning or an end, while the Thaumaturge is basically all beginning and no end. It might also be argued that these shortcomings make them better examples, since they hold truer to life than most modern stories, life being nothing but beginnings and middles and ends all jumbled up into an infinity of possibilities. . . .
From the entry on ‘Stories’ in Corbel & Squinch’s Universal Compendium of Everything
Ian knew it was the wrong thing to say, but it was the knowledge that comes too late, locking the door after the unwelcome visitor has already forced his way in. Which seemed to characterize most of his conversations with his father, if he stopped to think about it.
The silence on the other end of the telephone was that of an explosion or some other bad thing waiting to happen. He could almost hear his father trying to rein his temper in and then deciding that there was no reason to. It was a process Ian was painfully familiar with. Still, he was surprised when his father started speaking again.
"You what to be a what, exactly?" There was less outrage than he was expecting, which was almost certainly a bad thing. It certainly wasn’t a question, no matter how it was posed.
"It doesn’t matter, Da." Of course it did, but he still had a remote chance of deflecting his father’s inevitable blow-up to someone cuter or less financially dependent. "I know I’d never find a job in that field. That doesn’t have anything with me declining the opening at Hodder & Stoughton’s."
"Bullshit," his father growled, which really was unfair. "This has everything to do with you having your head up in the clouds. Most undergrads would kill for this sort of opportunity. You’re not even out of college yet–do you have any idea what I had to do to get you first shot?" Ian scrubbed his eyes and wondered vaguely if banging his head against the wall would improve matters.
"Yes, da, I do. You took Mr. Hodder out to lunch and regaled him with stories of my merit and how under-appreciated it is by my professors. And then you bought him a bottle of wine, waited for him to drink most of it, and at the opportune time carefully mentioned that I was doing mechanical and thaumaturgical design. Maybe you even threw in the vague promise of a home-cooked meal by Mom or a round of golf. In any case, you spent an part of an afternoon schmoozing."
That had definitely been the wrong thing to say. Ian had to hold the receiver away from him to avoid temporary deafness. His father’s voice sounded tinny when he did that, almost comically so, but there wasn’t anything funny about it. Ian stared at the floor and tried to remember why he had called home in the first place.
". . .not going to foot the bill any more."
"What?" That was bad. Very, very bad. If his Da had just said what he thought he’d said. . . .
"You heard me." He wasn’t shouting any more, but the tight control he was now exhibiting was more worrying. Shouting happened too regularly to mean anything anymore. "If you don’t take this job and start getting better grades, I’m not going to pay for you to continue going to college." Ian clutched at the phone, suddenly wishing that someone would cut the phone lines so he wouldn’t have to continue the conversation. It would only delay for a little while what was already happening, but he’d take the delay quite happily.
"Da–" There was a crack in the linoleum next to his left foot, spiraling away from him toward the doorway as if seeking escape. It looked the way he felt. "My grades are fine. The classes I’m taking are really hard–no one gets A’s in them. Ask any of my professors. The only way I could get better grades would be to stop sleeping and do nothing outside of class except study."
This plea for understanding was received in silence, but it was a thinking silence. He might be able to pull it off–
"All right, but you’d better accept that job."
–if his da didn’t say that. Ian stared hard at the crack, which ended an inch or so from the doorway. So close. . . .
"I can’t, Da." He tipped his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. The day had been too long, and all he wanted was sleep. "I’d go crazy after two weeks working there. You know that."
"Well, then. You’re on your own." The click of his father hanging up on him was final, and without mercy.
Knowing it had been coming didn’t make it any easier to deal with. He sat for a while and listened to the dial tone, unable to convince himself that there was any reason to get up off the kitchen floor. He might have sat there all night, eyes shut against the disaster staring him in the face, if his roommate hadn’t come home. The sound of key in lock was just enough to get him standing, to hang up the phone and start to react to what had just happened.
Not that he was sure how to react. Screaming seemed out of the question, as did crying and scrubbing down the kitchen. But he had to do something–the walls seemed too close, and he couldn’t yet even consider telling his roommate the news. Instead, he grabbed his coat and headed outside, exchanging only a brief hello on his way out.
The stairs seemed unusually precarious, leaning towards the floor many levels below, although he knew that they were reasonably level. Lights flickered as he passed them, as if sensing the panic building inside him, pressure which he didn’t dare release.
He distracted himself with yellowed walls, scarred with mementos of fights and drunken revelries: patches of fresh paint and plaster, stains which not even bleach could remove, clean spots on the wall glaring reminders of what once was. The banister beneath his hand was rubbed beyond smooth, the grain of the wood exposed and raised against his fingers like a weathered skeleton. If he paid attention, he could tell where he was on the stairwell simply by how worn the banister was.
Outside, it was almost raining, skies long since dark, the night air half-visible around the street lamps. Each breath was tangible, full of mist and the scent of the dying year. He was alone, unbounded by walls, and–alone. No one to remind him of who he was, of why he had just thrown away his father’s plans and aid.
His shiver was due solely to the night air, he told himself, and began walking west.
Nighttime held little fear for him, even in the city, and he had little success in distracting himself as he walked. No footsteps followed him, no stranger ducked out of an alley and into his path. Few people were willing to brave the threat of rain, and the half-dozen he saw were all across the street, hurrying along without even a glance at him. Not that there was any reason for them to look at him, but it made him feel odd–as if he might be invisible.