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In the front room, typewriters ticked and tacked letters and words onto crisp white pages rolled between platens. The workers chattered as they often did, not bothering to watch their hands clicking and scrolling and ticking like clocks racing through the seconds. Someone wailed.
“Oh, dear,” cried Mrs. Sheffield. “Oh, dear!”
The door jingled lightly as her paperboy streaked to her desk with a heap of papers furling softly. Hugh Williams stood, proud of his work, ready, delighted to talk. “Mrs. Sheffield,” he said, “did you hear?”
“Hear!” Mrs. Sheffield grasped the corners of her desk. “Oh, oh, what in heaven’s name are we going to do?”
The ticking stopped, fingers posed above metal-gilded keys.
“I can’t believe it!” She stood up, paced, sat back down. “You know,” she called, “something has to be done!”
The Office looked at her. Mr. Jacob Ismay pushed back his chair. “See here, Mrs. Sheffield, won’t you explain to us what’s going on?”
“Well,” she said, “it’s—it’s a bit of a problem. Mrs. Dodgers, you know—she’s wonderful, just brilliant—she’s done some calculations for us.” She fumbled about with a flurry of loose papers. “They’re here, I know it—here!” She held up a page with numerals sketched across its face.
“Well,” said Mr. Ismay, “what does it mean?”
“Oh, how do I tell you?” She looked to Hugh for help. “Hugh—“
“We’ve hit the limit,” said Hugh.
“That’s right, the limit. In fact, by today’s journal, we’ve”—her lips grew tight—“gone right over it!”
The Office was quiet. Mr. Ismay’s face was blank.
“You know,” Mrs. Sheffield asked, “what that means, I hope?”
From the back of the Office, Miss Carlene Ruben spoke. “I’d like to speak to Mrs. Dodgers, if you don’t mind, before we all go losing our heads. This hasn’t happened before, of course! She could be wrong. She might be.”
“Oh!” Mrs. Sheffield shook. “But she’s not! It’s what we’ve waited for. And at the same time hoping it’d never happen. All words used up! No one created any new ones, of course.”—she shuddered—“Neologism! Just imagine what we’ll have to do! How did we expect things to turn out? All possible ideas—gone! Themes used and wrinkled and hung out to dry!”
The Office was still, and dead, and the heartbeats of its workers wound up in little tight beats like swelling drums. This was their doom, and though each knew one day it would arrive and knock, grinning, at the Office door and jingle the bells and stoop inside, slowly, and laugh before their faces distraught and red to resist all things new and fresh. This was the day when the air would stiffen to reshape inside their shivering skulls their brains and change them— for who, in this age, would read a journal with new words, new stories, new ideas?
Mrs. Sheffield trembled. Mr. Ismay and Miss Ruben shook inside their heads, thinking. And Miss Ruben was the first to speak.
“We had better do something.”
“Of course,” said Mr. Ismay, “but we don’t know how, do we?”
They sat silently for a moment.
“I mean,” said Miss Ruben, “we could, only could—“
“No.” Mrs. Sheffield sniffed. “It’d be too radical, too against everything. We can’t make up things. That’s not the way we work, I work. We’ll have to use the old stories again.”
Hugh, who had been standing in the corner, spoke up. “We could just ask Mr. Shane for some help.”
Mr. Shane, yes. He was the thinker, the brooder. Far from the Office, he lived in a rickety house with paint stripping away, a house that officials had tried to tear down years before. No one could make him emerge. Through the years, he had grown and his body had morphed into piece of his house, having lived so long in it that his bones turned to wood and his skin to paint.
Mrs. Sheffield’s jaw waggled hopelessly. “Ask him!”
“But,” argued Hugh, “he would know. Certainly he would.”
The others did not defend Mrs. Sheffield.
And so, Mr. Ismay, Miss Ruben, and Hugh rose, and each put on a coat, and stepped promptly from the Office. Thirty minutes later, they looked up at front of his house, with its shrubs seeping up over the window-eyes. Miss Ruben knocked, once, twice, three times. And there they stood for a minute.
“He doesn’t answer the door,” said Hugh. “You’ve got to go in yourself.”
The door was unlocked. The three stooped into the house.
“Where do we go?” Miss Ruben looked about the doors that framed the stretch of hallway.
“I don’t know,” said Hugh. “Let’s go this way.” He turned to the right, fiddled with the golden brass handle of a door. It would not open. He tried another. And through the house they went, to rooms with tables and chairs and lace-cushioned sofas covered in delightfully thick sheets of dust tucked away for years carefully like hidden presents. The house was muffled, almost, with the dust, and their voices were hushed and far away as if they stood a valley apart and not next to each other. Hugh bent forward to each doorknob slowly, and twisted it with his full arm. At the last door, he gave a yelp, and jumped! Here lay Mr. Shane, like a chair. It was true, Miss Ruben could not distinguish him from the rocker in which he lay, where his back began or the wood pillars held it. And his head was shriveled like a prune, his ears reduced to loose pieces of skin. He did not hear them.
Hugh walked around the chair, to the front of it. “Mr. Shane!”
His eyes were closed, and he appeared dead, but he at Hugh’s touch, he flew into the air.
“You! Who’re you?” His eyes rotated wildly in his head. “What’re you think you’re doin’?”
“Mr. Shane, sir, I’m only here to talk to you. Hugh, remember? I came last week. Last week, and we were talking about all those things you did back in the war and where you worked. And you were telling me about the town when you were little and how the journals—“
“Journals! Yes, those were great back then. I remember those—ah, what a time! I was writing for one, it was called the Becton—yes, the Becton Paper, and it had all ‘a those stories that you write, and—say, what do you do?”
“I’m working at the Office, Mr. Shane, sir. I deliver the journals.”
“Ah, that’s right, that’s it! How’s that, then?”
Mr. Ismay circled the room to front Mr. Shane. “It’s about that, actually. See, we’ve run into some trouble over there. Hugh—he said you’d have something to say.”
“Yah!” said Hugh. “Because you wrote for the papers.”
“It’s because—well, put simply, there are no more stories!” Miss Ruben smiled stiffly to show small white rows of teeth. “Mrs. Sheffield’s in a state of shock! And Mrs. Dodgers— do you know her?—well, she’s the one who figured the whole thing out in the first place. It’s just deplorable! Every last idea used, every word, every phrase! And the thought of making new ones—well, I tried to suggest it, but it’d be, let me say, looked down upon, at the very least. There simply aren’t any more options.”
“No?” asked Mr. Shane.
“But what should we do?”
“You‘ll‘ve gone an’ lost your minds, I swear it! What should you do? I think, m’dear, you’d be better off asking ‘what can you do?’ And the answer to that? Think!”
Mr. Ismay’s eyes shone like marbles in the dim room. “Think! Do you really mean that? Why, we haven’t in years!
“S’right. An’ do it soon, too. Don’t need any more idea restrictions. Good God, we’ve already got those, haven’t we? No new words, ideas. ‘We don’t need ‘em’ was the reasonin’ for that. Well, let me tell you!” He snuffed in the dark air of the room. “S’not good for the mind. You’ve got to imagine, and experiment, an’ write it all down and do it again a thousand more times! Don’t do that, and what’ve you got? A paper with dull ideas. An’ dull ideas don’t work.”
“Wow, Mr. Shane,” said Hugh.
“‘At’s right. ‘At’s the way it used to be. ’S a lost solution. Lost in time, or rather, with it.”
“You know?” asked Miss Ruben. “I’ll start right away, and call the Office, and let them know what we’ll do.”