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i think i'm going to kill you, annie, he thought, and smiled warmly at her. i really do. i may go with you - probably will, in fact - but i am going to go with a by-god bellyful of caviar. things could be worse.

"that was great, but i can't eat any more," he said.

"you'd probably throw up if you did," she said. "that stuff is very rich." she smiled back. "there's another surprise. i have a bottle of champagne. for later... when you finish the book. it's called dom perignon. it cost seventy-five dollars! for one bottle! but chuckie yoder down at liquor store says it's the best there is."

"chuckie yoder is right," paul said, thinking that it was partly dom's fault that he'd gotten himself into this hell in the first place. he paused a moment and then said: "there's something else i'd like, as well. for when i finish."

"oh? what's that?"

"you said once you had all of my things."

"i do."

"well... there was a carton of cigarettes in my suitcase. i'd like to have a smoke when i finish." her smile had faded slowly. "you know those things are no good for you, paul. they cause cancer."

"annie, would you say that cancer is something i have to worry about just now?" she didn't answer.

"i just want that one single cigarette. i've always leaned back and smoked one when i finished. it's the one that always tastes the best, believe me - even better than the one you have after a really fine meal. at least that's how it used to be. i suppose this time it'll make me feel dizzy and like puking, but i'd like that little link with the past. what do you say, annie? be a sport. i have been."

"all right... but before the champagne. i'm not drinking a seventy-five-dollar bottle of fizzy beer in the same room where you've been blowing that poison around."

"that's fine. if you bring it to me around noon, i'll put it on the windowsill where i can look at it once in awhile. i'll finish, and then i'll fill in the letters, and then i'll smoke it until i feel like i'm going to fall down unconscious, and then i'll butt it. then i'll call you."

"all right," she said. "but i'm still not happy about it. even if you don't get lung cancer from just one, i'm still not happy about it. and do you know why, paul?"

"no." because only don't-bees smoke," she said, and began to gather up the dishes.


"mistuh boss ian, is she -?"

"shhhhh!" ian hissed fiercely, and hezekiah subsided. geoffrey felt a pulse beating with wild rapidity in his throat. from outside came the steady soft creak of lines and rigging, the slow flap of the sails in the first faint breezes of the freshening trade winds, the occasional cry of a bird. dimly, from the afterdeck, geoffrey could hear a gang of men singing a shanty in bellowing, off-key voices. but in here all was silence as the three men, two white and one black, waited to see if misery would live... or - ian groaned hoarsely, and hezekiah gripped his arm. geoffrey merely tightened his already hysterically tight hold on himself. after all of this, could god really be cruel enough to let her die? once he would have denied such a possibility confidently, and with humor rather than indignation. the, idea that god could be cruel would in those days have struck him as absurd.

but his ideas about god - like his ideas about so many things, had changed. they had changed in africa. in africa he had discovered that there was not just one god but many, and some were more than cruel - they were insane, and that changed all. cruelty, after all, was understandable. with insanity, however, there was no arguing.

these wretched musings were interrupted by a harsh, half-superstitious gasp from hezekiah.

"mist" boss ian! mist" boss geoffrey! look! she eyes look she eyes!" misery's eyes, that gorgeously delicate shade of cornflower blue, had fluttered open. they passed from ian to geoffrey and then back to ian again. for a moment geoffrey saw only puzzlement in those eyes... and then recognition dawned in them, and he felt gladness roar through his soul.

"where am i?" she asked, yawning and stretching. "ian - geoffrey - are we at sea? why am i so hungry?" laughing, crying, ian bent and hugged her, speaking her name over and over again.

bewildered but pleased, she hugged him back - and because he knew she was all right, geoffrey found he could abide their love, now and forever. he would live alone, could live alone, in perfect peace.

perhaps the gods were not insane after all... at least, not all of them.

he touched hezekiah on the shoulder. "i think we should leave them alone, old man, don" you?"

"i guess that be right, mist" boos geoffrey," hezekiah said. he grinned widely, flashing all seven of his gold teeth.

geoffrey stole one last look at her, and for just a moment those cornflower eyes flashed his way, warming him, filling him. fulfilling him.

i love you, my darling, he thought. do you hear me?

perhaps the answer which came back was only the wistful call of his own mind, but he thought not - it was too clear, too much her own voice.

i hear... and i love you, too.

geoffrey closed the door and went up to the afterdeck. instead of throwing himself over the rail, as he might have done, he lit his pipe and smoked a bowl of tobacco slowly, watching the sun go down behind that distant, disappearing cloud on horizon - that cloud which was the coast of africa.

and then, because he could not stand to do otherwise, paul sheldon rolled the last page out of the typewriter and scrawled the most loved and hated phrase in the writer's vocabulary with a pen:

the end


his swollen right hand had not wanted to fill in the missing letters, but he had forced it through the work nonetheless. if he wasn't able to work at least some of the stiffness out of it, he was not going to be able to carry through with this.

when it was done, he put the pen aside. he regarded his work for a moment. he felt as he always did when he finished a book - queerly empty, let down, aware that for each little success he had paid a toll of absurdity.

it was always the same, always the same - like toiling uphill through jungle and breaking out to a clearing at the top after months of hell only to discover nothing more rewarding than a view of a freeway - with a few gas stations and bowling alleys thrown in for good behavior, or something.

still, it was good to be done - always good to be done. good to have produced, to have caused a thing to be. in a numb sort of way he understood and appreciated the bravery of the act, of making little lives that weren't, creating the appearance of motion and the illusion of warmth. he understood - now, finally - that he was a bit of a dullard at doing this trick, but it was the only one he knew, and if he always ended up doing it ineptly, he at least never failed to do it with love. he touched the pile of manuscript and smiled a little bit.

his hand left the big pile of paper and stole to the single marlboro she had put on the windowsill for him. beside it was a ceramic ashtray with a paddlewheel excursion boat printed on the bottom encircled by the words, souvenir of hannibal, missouri - home of america's story teller!

in the ashtray was a book of matches, but there was only one match in it - all she had allowed him. one, however, should be enough.

he could hear her moving around upstairs. that was good. he would have plenty of time to make his few little preparations, plenty of warning if she decided to come down before he was quite ready for her.

here comes the real trick, annie. lees see if i can do it. let's see - can i?

he bent over, ignoring the pain in his legs, and began to work the loose section of baseboard out with his fingers.


he called for her five minutes later, and listened to her heavy, somehow toneless tread on the stairs. he had expected to feel terrified when things got to this point, and was relieved to find he felt quite calm. the room was filled with the reek of lighter fluid. it dripped steadily from one side of the board which lay across the arms of the wheelchair.

"paul, are you really done? she called down the length of hallway.

paul looked at the pile of paper sitting on the board beside the hateful royal typewriter. lighter fluid soaked the stack. "well," he called back, "i did the best i could, annie."

"wow! oh, great! gee, i can hardly believe it! after all this time! just a minute! i'll get the champagne!"

"fine!" he heard her cross the kitchen linoleum, knowing where each squeak was going to come the instant before it did come. i am hearing all these sounds for the last time, he thought, and that brought a sense of wonder, and wonder broke the calm open like an egg. the fear was inside... but there was something else in there as well. he supposed it was the receding coast of africa.

the refrigerator door was opened, then banged shut. here she came across the kitchen again; here she came.

he had not smoked the cigarette, of course; it still lay on the windowsill. it had been the match he wanted. that one single match.

what if it doesn't light when you strike it?

but it was far too late for such considerations.

he reached over to the ashtray and picked up the matchbook. he tore out the single match. she was coming down the hallway now. paul struck the match and, sure enough, it didn't light.

easy! easy does it!

he struck it again. nothing.

easy... easy...

he scratched it along the rough dark-brown strip on the back of the book a third time and a pale-yellow flame bloomed at the end of the paper stick.


"i just hope this - " she stopped, the next word pulled back inside her she sucked in breath. paul sat in his wheelchair behind a barricade of heaped paper and ancient royal stenomongery. he had purposely turned the top sheet around so she could read this:

misery's return

by paul sheldon

above this sopping pile of paper paul's swollen right hand hovered, and held between the thumb and first finger was a single burning match.

she stood in the doorway, holding a bottle of champagne wrapped in a strip of towelling. her mouth dropped open. she closed it with a snap.

"paul?" cautiously. "what are you doing?"

"it's done," he said. "and it's good, annie. you were right. the best of the misery books, and maybe the best thing i ever wrote, mongrel dog or not. now i'm going to do a little trick with's a good trick. i learned it from you."

"paul, no!" she screamed. her voice was full of agony and understanding. her hands flew out, the bottle of champagne dropping from them unheeded. it hit the floor and exploded like a torpedo. curds of foam flew everywhere. "no! no! please don't - "

"too bad you'll never read it," paul said, and smiled at her. it was his first real smile in months, radiant and genuine. "false modesty aside, i've got to say it was better than good. it was great, annie." the match was guttering, printing its small heat on the tips of his fingers. he dropped it. for one terrible moment he thought it had gone out, and then pale-blue fire uncoiled across the title page with an audible sound - foomp! it ran down the sides, tasted the fluid that had pooled along the outer edge of the paper-pile, and shot up yellow.

"oh god no!" annie shrieked. "not misery! not misery! not her! no! no!" now her face had begun to shimmer on the far side of the flames. "want to make a wish, annie?" he shouted at her. "want to make a wish, you fucking goblin?"

"oh my god oh paul what are you doooooing?" she stumbled forward, arms outstretched. now the pile of paper was not just burning; it was blazing. the gray side of the royal had begun to turn black. lighter fluid had pooled under it and now pale-blue tongues of flame shot up between the keys. paul could feel his face baking, the skin tightening.

"not misery!" she wailed. "you can't burn misery, you cockadoodie brat, you can't burn misery!" and then she did exactly what he had almost known she would do. she seized the burning pile of paper and wheeled about, meaning to run to the bathroom with it, perhaps, and douse it in the tub.

when she turned paul seized the royal, unmindful of the blisters its hot right side was printing on his already swollen right hand. he lifted it over his head. little blue firedrops still fell from its undercarriage. he paid them no more mind than he paid the flare of pain in his back as he strained something there. his face was an insane grimace of effort and concentration. he brought his arms forward and down, letting the typewriter fly out of his hands. it struck her squarely in the center of her wide solid back.

"hoo-owwg!" it was not a scream but a vast, startled grunt. annie was driven forward onto the floor with the burning stack of paper under her.

small bluish fires like spirit-lanterns dotted the surface of the board which had served as his desk. gasping, each breath smooth hot iron in his throat, paul knocked it aside. he pushed himself up and tottered erect on his right foot.

annie was writhing and moaning. a lick of flame shot up through the gap between her left arm and the side of her body. she screamed. paul could smell frying skin, burning fat.

she rolled over, struggling to her knees. most of the paper was on the floor now, either still burning or hissing to ruin in puddles of champagne, but annie still held some, and it was still burning. her cardigan sweater was burning, too. he saw green hooks of glass in her forearms. a larger shard poked out of her right cheek like the blade of a tomahawk.

"i'm going to kill you, you lying cocksucker," she said, and staggered toward him. she knee-walked three "steps" toward him and then fell over the typewriter. she writhed and managed to turn over halfway. then paul fell on her. he felt the sharp angles of the typewriter beneath her even through her body. she screamed like a cat, writhed like a cat, and tried to claw out from under him like a cat.

the flames were going out around them but he could still feel savage heat coming off the twisting, heaving mound beneath him and knew that at least some of her sweater and brassiere must be cooked onto her body. he felt no sympathy at all.

she tried to buck him off. he held on, and now he was lying squarely on top of her like a man who means to commit rape, his face almost on hers; his right hand groped, knowing exactly what it was looking for.

"get off me!" he found a handful of hot, charry paper.

"get off me!" he crumpled the paper, squeezing flames out between his fingers. he could smell her - cooked flesh, sweat, hate, madness.

get off me!" she screamed, her mouth yawning wide, and he was suddenly looking into the dank red-lined pit of the goddess. "get off me you cockadoodie br - " he stuffed paper, white bond and black charred onionskin, into that gaping, screaming mouth. saw the blazing eyes suddenly widen even more, now with surprise and horror and fresh pain.