A NOVEL BY KATIE GEORGE
“One life… A little gleam of time between two eternities.”
THE SECOND NOTE came on a crisp autumn day, snuggled in dead strips of violets. Fitting, considering that I was stepping on a pile of dead leaves at that precise moment, and the crunch sounded like the growl of my empty stomach. I was on my way to the cafeteria, and suddenly I didn’t feel so hungry anymore, though my body thought otherwise. College was a constant battle between anxiety and starvation, and the note didn’t help things.
But this was the secondnote.
I gripped the seemingly aged envelope between sweating, clammy hands. If this was a joke, I’d sock whoever was up to it. If it was real, then there’d still be consequences. Who would mess with me? Who’d want to mess with me? Who’d be stupid enough to?
I stared at it like mustached art critics fixate on Picasso. I held it like a mother clutching her baby when all she wanted to do was toss the chubby thing in the crib. And I finally caught the gumption to open it, my stubby fingernails crackling against the paper, something snapping inside me like a fistful of hair stripped from the base of the skull.
I knew, even then, that what was happening would not get easier, that this situation would only fatten up like slaughterhouse cattle, and I needed to prepare myself. Make something up. It’s what you’re good at, Eliza. Defend your senses before it’s too late.
And so, as I walked, my aching feet rigid against too-tight tennis shoes, I sorted through the possibilities. What if it was finally somebody who started to like me? What if it was somebody who wanted to let me know that I was attractive, important, admired?
A secret admirer didn’t sound so bad when I thought of it like this.
But then the world bit into my jaw, and I was left reeling instead.
And so I did.
The note was on a piece of snow white paper, so white I felt like I was gripping an icicle. The font was sprawling, looped like a woman’s writing, but I knew it wasn’t a woman’s writing. This was something else. This wasn’t a love note, or a congratulatory note, or a mistake. This wasn’t a joke, and it wasn’t real, and there was no one to punch for it.
The icicle punctured my skin, leaving a trickle of blood to foam against the paper. Even the paper cut didn’t sting.
Emerald looks stunning on you. And, by the way, I can’t believe you haven’t told anybody yet. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? Of course you do.
Only four little statements, addressed to Elizabeth from Yours truly. Who even came up with that stupid, perfunctory phrase anyway? Yours truly? I was nobody’s except my own, and the two words sounded a whole lot like some ’50s gibberish. No one wrote letters anymore, which was a pity; but I didn’t want to start a new trend like this, with some creep watching over me and critiquing my meager fashion sense. It was in poor taste.
That was what threw me off.
My fingers gripped the metal door handle to the caf, and I wanted to scream. I hated the food and the overwhelming hordes of zombie-like twenty-year-olds, but I was even more zoned out than normal. Who was watching me? Who knew, and called me Elizabeth anyway? Who was there?
The endless grumble and scream of the everyday college kids sprayed drops of anxiety all over my body. I entered the lobby and wanted to take cover. A pack of freshman girls slid past, squealing about some frat party that night, while I still held the note in my hand, a scaly scab on my finger. Though the girls were only in my periphery for mere seconds, I stared at them with forced unease. As soon as they zoomed by, there was a youngish guy with floppy hair and a bad mustache. He was pecking away at his phone, headphones jammed tight in his ear canals, and he glanced up at me, a snarl on his lips. I almost tripped over my feet at the situation, but managed to carry myself away from these people and to the food.
It was seven o’clock, but there were still too many people here. There were always too many people. The dish of the night smelled rotten and looked like fried squid, and I settled once more for stale cheese pizza and a warm Diet Coke, thanks to poor refrigeration. It cost ten dollars, and I wanted to send my university a thoughtful note (maybe addressed from Yours truly?), but I finally grabbed my food and dodged outside to the patio, away from the endless cacophony of young people, to the freedom of anywhere else.
The patio was an all right place. It overlooked the lumpy hills of the college, and if you strained your eyes enough, you could see the Little Fork River cutting against the valley. Since it was another crisp autumn day, it was mighty chilly outside, and my skin was already stained pink from the temperature. I shuddered and pulled my sweater tighter to my bursting skin, though it was cotton and thin and wouldn’t do much to help me.
But even if I was freezing outside, at least I was alone.
I pulled out my books and slammed the second note into my stats assignment. It would all go away. It didn’t mean anything. It was not like I was being threatened, or harassed, or assaulted. It was simply a critique of my fashion sense, however odd that may be, and did it mean somebody was watching me? A lot of people were always watching me. I had a sometimes prank gang with some of my friends, so it would be natural that they’d prank me back. But we hadn’t pranked each other in months, maybe even a year. Maybe this was still a joke. It could be. It could possibly not be.
“Get back to work,” I hissed at myself, hoping that this would be the cure: A tongue-lashing from myself. As if that ever does anything.
But one thing did the trick.
All the textbooks in the world didn’t matter for the work I whipped out from my backpack. The unfinished manuscript was in my hands like a gold rush, and I smilingly set it down across from me. One hundred and fifty double-spaced, back-to-back printed words on a page. A book, if you want to call it that. The only work that mattered to me.
My hands caressed the glossy pages as I admired my second novel. A gust of wind slammed against me, but my hands were locked against the book, and though the pages wanted to flutter away from me, they had no choice but to stay just where they were, ready to be clobbered by a rigorous editing process. I whipped out a pen and highlighter to begin this somehow soothing procedure, and my spirit was dampened just a tad by the roll of a boom of thunder in the distance.
“Seriously?” I shouted to no one in particular, since no one else was outside. It was fall—not exactly thunderstorm season—and here we were, having this random pop-up storm. At least it would keep all the other college kids away.
I glanced over the hills and noted the hint of the black clouds out in the distance, but I was going to hope and pray that it stayed over that way while I worked here. I didn’t want to go back to the apartment, since I knew what I’d stumble into there, and the library was under reconstruction, Starbucks was closed, and my friends’ places weren’t the best locations for creative discovery.
I took a bite of the stale pizza and tried not to spit it out like regurgitation. I took a swig of the Coke and imagined, years down the road, when I would finally be established and have a regular job. Who would that Eliza Oehlstrom be? What would she do in her spare time? With whom would she spend her spare time? Nobody has time to answer what if questions, because they’re infinitely endless, and so I returned to the soft comfort of my writings, my pointless musings. She probably wouldn’t be eating pizza that tasted like swollen cardboard.
I leaned over the pages and pretended I was Stephen King, at the cusp of my literary awakening. I had everything to gain, nothing to lose.
Unimportant, said my racing heartbeat. It was not even important. Everything to gain, nothing to lose. The stakes are high, and at the same time they’re low. It’s all a matter of choice.
The note was just a joke.
“Elizabeth?” somebody whispered, clear as iced glass, and my body immediately tensed like the harsh snap of a noose.
A gust of the stormy wind blasted across the table, but my hands were firm against the stack of papers. I twisted around and examined the surrounding area, searching the empty tables and the untrimmed hedges. There were trees leaning against the columns of the patio. But no psychos, nothing but the sound of the whistling wind. A bird flapped its wings out of nowhere, and it leapt into flight faster than I could blink.
And now I was hearing things.
My eyes were bulging out of my head, and my hand ached to text my roommate, but Sarah wouldn’t believe me. How could she? She’d think the second note was from an admirer, that I was hearing things. After all, she was probably not wrong. That being said, I couldn’t help but squirm in my chair. My hand was twitching, and my skin was flayed by the crisp air. Put on a jacket, Eliza. Where’s your umbrella, Eliza. Who are you, Eliza.
The words on the page were blinking at me like stars, each word a slice of terror. What was it I’d written? And yet I thought this was literary excellence? I thought I could compare myself to Stephen King?
She walks across the pond’s cool, fresh edge, the skin of her feet chafed from the rocky shore.
No one called me Elizabeth.
“My name’s Eliza,” I whispered to myself, a little mantra, and another gust whipped across my face, stinging my skin this time. After I removed a clump of hair from my chapped lips, I looked up and saw Will, and my heart sunk like a damaged vessel. He was oblivious, just for this moment, but he’d see me at any second, so my eyes darted low. I dipped my head down, a writer focused on her most prized work, pushing the rest of the world away. Pushing Elizabeth away, and the person who called her name.
I wanted to hear him call my name, I wanted to hear his voice, but there was nothing but the sly, snaky hiss of the wind. And the only person who called for me was my imagination.
Though I couldn’t focus now, because of a stupid boy, I had to pretend like I was hard at work, like I had a purpose for being on this patio, all alone despite the foreboding weather, the diving temperature, the thud of my heartbeat that felt like it would jump out of its cavity.
I circled a phrase in thick red ink that smeared like blood. The words meant nothing.
It was a long, arduous walk back, but variables don’t matter when you get the chance to go home.
As soon as my eyes finished the sentence, they put me in jeopardy. I blinked up, just for the briefest of seconds, and Will saw me too. There was a catapult in me, and I swore I’d float to my death like a popped balloon. Will lifted up two fingers in a cool, casual wave.
He was at the table just across from mine, despite the endless, friendless tables all around. He was the kind of guy who wants to be around people, even though he was more quiet than most. He smiled at me, and it felt like a mustache had been pulled from the top of my lips. Painful.
“Eliza?” he asked, because I was staring at him, at Will, like a real creep.
“Hi, Will,” I said, steeling my voice, feeling like there was a giant glob of pepperoni on my front teeth. I hated small talk, and I hated it even more with him.
“How’re you doing?” he asked, though I wasn’t sure if he wanted the answer or not.
“How are you?” I shot back, though I didn’t mean to be rude. I should have answered his question.
“Good, I guess,” he said, pointing toward his books. “A lot to study.”
This was what we always said to each other. We were always poring over our work, too busy for anything else. When we saw each other on campus, we always sent each other personal little smiles and waved and said a chipper hello, but it was moments like this when it was so obvious that your heart could just burst.
In any other circumstance, maybe Will and I could have been something. Something great.
It’s obvious he wanted to talk to me; I wanted to talk to him. But where would it even begin? Where could it begin?
My eyes fell back to my book. Always got your head in a book, Eliza Oehlstrom, so that when the people pass you by, you don’t have a clue.
Suddenly, I was reminded of the shallow voice, right behind my head, a terrifying nightmare. Elizabeth.
My soul was clamped down tightly, and I was certain I would pass out, if a tornado didn’t get me first.
Will was talking to me, but I couldn’t hear him, because of my bleeding heart and that same hypnotic voice, like Scandinavian ice down my spine: Elizabeth, Elizabeth, Elizabeth.
“Eliza?” Will asked, and I remembered everything.
Everything came back again, all at once.
The strange obsession with my name.
Maybe I needed that storm to come for me after all, let the storm wash away my grizzled bones and picked-at flesh.
I stood up, my feet digging into the soles of my worn-down tennis shoes. Without another word, I slipped away from Will, from the truth, from the thing that called me Elizabeth.
I hope you all enjoyed this excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Yours Truly, which should be out in the next few months. This book has been a very personal one to write, though very therapeutic as well.
Yours Truly has taken months to write, and it’s not necessarily my favorite novel ever. And, to be honest with all you, I am still in the throes of the editing process.
That being said, it has been a while since I’ve published any new novels, and this book is a good change from my normal material. I do believe that writers should challenge themselves, and therefore I wanted to go a different path in tone.
I hope you guys enjoyed this snippet. Just know more will be coming shortly.
Until next time,