2016 Short Story Competition Runner-up

“The Collector” by Laura Lamb

i

Acklyn had an aversion to public speaking. And so, a few days before he was due to make his big presentation to the company, he began to plot ways to get out of it.

There were, of course, all the usual excuses, but he had run that well dry a long time ago now.

He thought he’d go to the library to see if there was anything on the advertisement board. He didn’t really like technology; he would rather go to a building full of paper and dust to research the things he was looking for. Thankfully, most people were the opposite of him these days, so the place was nice and warm and quiet, a refuge from the harshness of winter.

The noticeboard was tucked away in a small, long-forgotten corner of the library, barely visible to anyone not particularly looking for it. Since the move to virtual reality or clouds, or whatever they called it, most people used their own devices to post notices to each other, so the board was fairly neglected; five messages scrawled across the backs of old library record cards. They used to put them in the front of every book in the library to keep track of who was borrowing what, but not anymore.

Faced with such a graveyard of human connections, Acklyn decided it would be respectful to read through all of the notices. Three cards looked as though they had been written by the same person; all contained memos regarding old furniture they didn’t want anymore. The fourth note was asking if anyone would like to join a dance class that took place on the second Tuesday of every month in the park opposite. The ink was faded, so Acklyn guessed that no one wanted to dance on Tuesdays anymore.

He didn’t know it yet, but the fifth note was Acklyn’s ‘get out of jail free’ card. It contained a telephone number and address, underneath a brief description:

The Collector.

While it didn’t particularly seem like a solution to his current dilemma, he felt drawn to it. He reached in his back pocket and pulled out a small notepad. Clicking a mechanical pencil three times, he scribbled down the address.

ii

“Come in!”, said a voice from behind the large door, its wood gnarled and cracked along the edges. “It’s a bit stiff so give it a good shove”, the voice mumbled, pre-empting Acklyn’s struggle.

Acklyn leaned his entire body weight against the door and it groaned open. The entranceway opened out onto a much larger space than seemed possible from the exterior. Crumbling plaster walls met with rusty red floor tiles and unsteady mahogany shelves; home to thousands of precariously balanced but perfectly labeled bottles, jars and containers.

Surveying the dimly lit room, he struggled to see where the voice had come from. Acklyn’s eyes began to adjust to the darkness. A small figure shuffled out of the shadows towards him.

“And how can I help you sir?” asked the voice.

“I…saw your advertisement in the library and…”

It was at this point that Acklyn realised he didn’t actually know what had led him here, other than his own curiosity.

The old man detected Acklyn’s uncertainty and quickly lost interest, turning his back and rifling through several stacks of yellowing paper.

Distracted by the sheer volume of vessels surrounding him on every side, Acklyn scanned the shelves nearest to him in the hopes of finding some kind of explanation he could offer up. To his right, containers marked beard trimmings, brown, a-e and sneezes, 1904-1945. To his left, large jars filled with clear liquid, home to what appeared to be chili peppers, but whose labels read: appendixes, children aged 3-14. Acklyn shuddered, feeling a sickness rise up in his throat. The old man, unflustered by Acklyn’s lingering and unexplained presence, continued to shuffle through old files, all covered in writing smaller than it seemed humanly possible to write, or to read.

Before he could even tell it was a voice from inside him, Acklyn blurted out a string of words that jumbled in the air and hurdled clumsily over the man’s left shoulder.

“IhaveaproblemandI’mhopingthatyoumightbeabletohelpme.”

The old man turned, peering distrustfully at Acklyn through misty lenses.

Acklyn cleared his throat. “Please.”

Warming instantly, the man’s entire face took on a new form as it broadened to a smile, revealing two rows of rickety teeth; skyscrapers wedged into a claustrophobic city skyline. He held his hand in front of Acklyn’s face, wiggling it from side to side. Springing abruptly into action, he grabbed a key from his back pocket, and scuttled across the room. Dust danced in the streaks of daylight that peeked through gaps in the endless rows of shelves. Acklyn studied their carefully choreographed routine as he waited for the old man’s return.

“I have just the thing for you”, the old man gleefully exclaimed from behind Acklyn. Acklyn swiveled round on his heels to find the man very close behind him, clutching a tray containing five seemingly empty mustard jars of different heights and styles.

“I haven’t even…How do you…” Acklyn didn’t have time to begin another half sentence before the old man jumped to respond.

“This place is my world young man! You think I can’t tell what someone needs the moment they step foot under my roof?”

Acklyn shook his head, embarrassed and bewildered, and sheepishly looked down at his shoes. He wondered if the old man also had any jars containing new black shoelaces.

“Take two breaths from each of these jars first thing in the morning before your important meeting, and you should be pleasantly surprised”, explained the old man, gesturing to the tray with a nod of his head.

“But…there’s nothing…in them, sir…?”

The old man half-smiled, and tilted his head slightly to examine Acklyn a little further.

“These…very much contain something, young man. Very precious, unique and important contents, actually. They are the nervous hiccups of five of the bravest minds of our time.”

Acklyn looked on, in disbelief.

“They are all you need to sort your little problem out, I assure you. Now take these, and don’t forget – two sips from each, on the morning of your expected ordeal.”

Skeptical but utterly desperate, Acklyn accepted and handed over several crumpled notes in exchange for the five recycled condiment bottles.

iii

The day had regrettably arrived. Acklyn rose early, unable to sleep for more than an hour at a time. He had tried everything; he’d relocated from the bed to the sofa, he’d consumed a sea of chamomile tea. Nothing had worked, and when it reached 5.06am, he conceded.

He showered and dressed in solemn quiet. The journey to work felt arduous at the best of times; this morning it was a lifetime of tyres, endlessly rotating and gripping against icy winter roads. Finally pulling up outside the mottled stone building that housed his office, Acklyn reluctantly gathered his belongings and took tentative steps from bus to entrance. The world looked greyer than he remembered, as though it were despondent for him. He had already been warned by his managers that if he failed to make a good impression today, it would be “the end of the line” for him. The pressure was too much to cope with, and Acklyn was already beginning to resign himself to failure and unemployment.

Inside the lift, he pressed the button marked 87 and the small metal box lurched up, floor-by-floor. Why can’t this old thing just break down already? he muttered under his breath. Wedged amidst a crowd of businessmen in dreary monotone suits, no one acknowledged him. Instead, they continued to face forward in silence, all looking up, watching as the floor numbers lit up and went dark again, climbing ever higher.

Finally, the lift reached the 87th floor. Several anonymous suits filed out ahead, still staring upwards, as though their necks had stiffened and they had no choice but to continue.

“Your turn next, Atwood”, boomed a voice to his right. Acklyn’s eyes met with Charles Spievack, a small, rotund man. They had worked opposite each other for years in an office where everyone addressed each other by surname, and Charles had never bothered to learn his first name. A clock ticked loudly in the noiseless foyer, and an adjacent tannoy crackled to life: “Atwood, we’re ready for you now.”

Two sets of doors in front of Acklyn swung open on automatic hinges, beckoning him to proceed. Fumbling in his briefcase, Acklyn grasped the five miniature bottles, one by one, unscrewing their caps and swigging on their ‘empty’ contents. Spievack looked on nosily but soon lost interest, returning his attention to the scab above his brow that had occupied him for the last fifteen minutes.

The invisible contents of the bottles left a strange aftertaste in Acklyn’s mouth as he walked towards the boardroom.

Holding his breath, Acklyn entered the room and turned to face his audience. Another sea of grey; this time disinterested faces numbed from years of tedious work. Clearing his throat and willing the ceiling to collapse in on him, Acklyn opened his mouth. Only, words didn’t exactly follow. Instead, he let out an almighty hiccup, bursting the bubble of monotony in the room. Composing himself, he thumbed nervously through his notes. As he looked down at the creased sheets of paper in his hands, a gasp rippled across the room.

Startled, Acklyn looked up. A string of words had followed his hiccup, and now they hovered before him in the air, silent but formidable:

“Human life

                       for us is sacred, 

            but we say if any life is to

     be sacrificed, it shall be ours…

we will put the   enemy in the 

                          position where they have to choose    

             between giving us freedom or giving us death.” 1

Stunned, Acklyn surveyed the reaction of his spectators. These words had nothing to do with his presentation, and he was fairly certain he had never even heard them before. He couldn’t deliberate for long; as he tried to restart, second and third hiccups rolled up from the depths of his digestive system and tumbled out into the room.

      “Books are for use, 

                       not for show; you should own no book 

               that you are afraid to mark up, or 

    afraid to

                    place on the table, 

 wide open and face down.” 2

Monumental successions of words hung in mid air, their suspended letters rotating slowly like a paper mobile circling a playpen of grown men.

    “Courage is doing     what you’re afraid 

                    to do.    There can be no  

           courage unless you’re scared.”3

Trying to reclaim what little chance he still had of keeping his job, Acklyn attempted to herd the letters into the corner behind him. They wouldn’t budge. Finally able to speak for the first time since entering the room, Acklyn mustered, “I’m so sorry about this, I really don’t know what to…” Before he could finish however, out burst a further hiccup, rather violently.

      “You have brains in your head. 

                 You have feet in your shoes.        You can steer yourself,   

      any direction you choose.” 4

Mortified, Acklyn shook his head. He was doomed. And yet, the board members were fixated. None of them broke their gaze to look at him for an explanation. Acklyn felt a final, resounding hiccup lurch forth.

“Well George, we 

                                   knocked                 the bastard off.” 5

Suddenly and without warning, the silence broke. Bemused chatter filled the room as the letters fell like bricks to the floor, disappearing into the carpet. As though under a spell, the board members stood up in unison and broke into an ovation.

Acklyn rode the swell of applause out the door. He took the lift down, appreciation still resonating in his ears. He decided to skip the bus for a few stops and take a walk. Icy pavement crunched against the tread of his shoes and the empty jars clattered against each other in his briefcase. And oh, what a glorious sound.

____________________________________

1 Emmeline Pankhurst

2 William Lyon Phelps

3 Eddie Rickenbacker

4 Dr Seuss

5 Edmund Hilary

____________________________________

7 thoughts on “2016 Short Story Competition Runner-up

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