Fiction: Ashes

Paige had three days left to live before she had to lock her screenplay, and she intended to burn every one of them.

She would burn them cleanly, maximizing each joule of energy, until there was nothing left but ashes. Then she would mix the ashes (with whatever people mixed them with), to create a sort of metaphorical, celebratory war paint.

Because on the fourth day, she too, as she existed — as The Screenwriter — would be dead. And like The Phoenix, in her place, The Filmmaker would rise.

Paige rubbed her right temple. The responsibility of finalizing her script was having a deleterious effect on her everyday metaphors. She was tired.

Paige’s boyfriend stumbled into the kitchen, still dumb with sleep.

“Morning.”

He touched her shoulder. The gesture warmed her, but it also seemed to pull her in two, acting as it did in opposition to the inescapable gravity of her laptop, and the latest draft on its screen.

“Again?” he asked.

Paige did not answer. She gave up on him, and turned her full attention back to the screen. She stabbed a few keys, and drew blood with the stabbing.

“It’s done, babe.”

Paige waved him away, answering both him and herself.

“No. It isn’t.”

 

***

Two days.

Paige had not showered for a while, and probably wouldn’t yet. She had at least eaten today, but not much.

Of coffee there had been plenty. And water to stay hydrated. And more coffee to keep up her baseline, to avoid the migraines.

An untimely migraine would be disastrous, not that there was ever a timely migraine, although she supposed upon reflection that it was possible, and could even think of a few select people she would wish a well-timed migraine upon, had she the power.

Later that night she would offset the wakefulness of too much caffeine, if it happened (it probably would happen) with herbal tea and a long hot overdue shower and maybe some prescription drugs.

She was in a cafe. She only dimly remembered how she got there.

The printed sheets that made up the made-up thing were stacked in front of her, along with two pens. A red pen and a blue pen, both among her chosen standard, as they contrasted nicely with the black and white of the page. Paige hated missing her own notes, which could happen if she moved too quickly through annotations made with sneaky black pen ink.

Paige felt less-than-fine this afternoon.

She could no longer remember the difference between her red notes and her blue notes. There may not have been one, in the first place. She sipped coffee. It was bitter and cold, which pleased her in its unpleasantness. She wanted to feel unpleasant, at the moment. 

There hadn’t been a difference between the pens. She remembered now. She had started with the red pen but after a while had found it too aggressive. Blue had felt gentler.

Three hours passed, during which Paige successfully took a ten minute break to talk to her boyfriend, who seemed to miss her but he didn’t push it. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she placed a reminder to appreciate his patience, at a time wherein she’d be more capable. She was decidedly not capable in the short term. God have mercy on anyone who loves a writer.

She also succeeded during the break in not crossing the street to buy cigarettes.

Paige hadn’t smoked in ten years, and even when she had it had only been two or three a day. But she fantasized about cigarettes all the time when on deadline.

It was the idea of ashes, again. Of finding herself that much closer to the combustion of life. Physically a part of it. Sucking in the toxic vaporous remains of eradicated organic (and chemical) matter, consequences be damned.

Manmade climate change suddenly made a perverse, death-obsessed sense to her, which was too big a thought to entertain at the moment and so Paige tipped back her cup and swallowed the dregs of her cold coffee which this time tasted like failure and imminent doom.

She eventually incorporated only two of her twenty-plus red and blue notes that day. On her way home she stopped for a few drinks with a friend. While waiting outside the bar for her ride share home, she asked a nearby woman for one of her cigarettes, then took one drag of it before offering the thing back.

This action not make any sense to the disgusted woman, who was also clearly unhappy with Paige’s waste. Paige had failed to measure up as a true partner in suffering, which was probably true. Hers was a deeper commitment to dying alive, one that mostly dispensed with aids and props and relied more frequently on the tried and true practice of constant, unfettered, often dark (but not always) introspection.

Paige thought about offering to repay the woman a dollar or two for her misplaced trust, but her car arrived. And, besides, she felt she had already done a service to her sister-in-arms, by illustrating just how easy it was to start small in embracing the absurdity of daily life, and then combatting it in kind by countering with such small rebellions as an under-utilized, cast-off, cigarette.

Her boyfriend had already fallen asleep by the time Paige got home. She woke him up in a way that she felt acknowledged his patience and faith but also gave her the relief she needed to get to sleep without the pills.

She took the pills anyway and didn’t feel bad about it.

 

***

Paige woke late on the final day, mildly hungover and faced immediately with the challenge of lassoing her desperate, wildly rioting anxious mind, which flailed in pursuit of any escape out of the present moment and into a future to which it would never belong.

Once this was done, and after two aspirin and some water, she felt calmer.

She read a clean printout of yesterday’s draft over coffee, while seated comfortably on her couch, under a blanket even though it was a warm day.

When she was done she put the pages down and went for a walk, marveling at how simple it could sometimes be to walk out the door and into the world (it did not always feel so simple).

The day seemed brighter and sharper than any other had been in months. The air held a sweet freshness. Images danced in her head. Feelings swelled in her that were not entirely her own, but were yet still a part of her.

The Filmmaker was rising.

 

***

When she returned from her walk, Paige regarded the stack of pages — from a comfortable distance. They looked the same as they had when she had left, although she herself had changed.

It had been right to pour herself into the script as she had, to agonize over it, to bargain (carefully, as much as that can be said) with her sanity and physical health, in order to deliver it to this moment.

But now the moment was here. Things would of course change, but probably not by much, and not in any way that would resemble The Way It Had Been over the course of the past many months.

Then she read the script one last time, languorously, tenderly, and with a detached awe that separated its genesis and iteration from the woman she had been during its creation.

This story was commissioned by Liz Manashil. Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed it, consider sending $1 or more to the author via Venmo or PayPal.

 

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