You've all heard the expression, "There's nothing new under the sun." As a writer, I've heard it and said it many times. Meaning that there are few ideas out there that haven't already been explored. You can be bold and original in how you approach that idea, that is true, but it's not uncommon to write a story and then find others that have a similar premise.
I've had a couple of memorable instances of this. Many years ago I wrote a short story called "Jumping" about a young man who can teleport. I had been submitting around for a while when a movie called Jumper was released...about a young man who can teleport. The way this premise was handled in the movie was vastly different from my story, but the surface similarities (not to mention similarities of title) were enough that I immediately stopped submitting it.
Also a few years ago I wrote a novel entitled The Exchange Student. The story involved time travel as well as a plot to stop the Kennedy assassination. I sent it to a few publishers who rejected it, then set it aside for a while. And then King's 11/22/63 came out, a novel that involves time travel as well as a plot to stop the Kennedy assassination. I thought all dreams of publishing my novel were over. The stories are actually nothing alike, mine was primarily a gay love story, but I felt any publisher who looked at it would immediately think of the King novel. Eventually I did find a home for it though, and I'm very grateful.
And I just had another experience, this time again with King. Probably five or so years ago I had an idea for a story about a college student who writes obituaries for the local paper as a part-time job, and he discovers that if he writes an obit for a living person, that person will die. I even wrote about five pages of it, calling it "The Obit Writer." I put it aside for other projects and never got back to it, but I always liked the idea and planned to finish it someday. And then I was reading up on King's upcoming collection and some of the stories included, one of which is called "Obits" and is about a columnist that kills people by writing obits for them.
I know now I will never finish "The Obit Writer." I'm sure I would handle it very differently than King, but the premise is specific enough that the similarities are insurmountable. It's disappointing, but it also just sort of goes with the territory. But in order to give life to some of these unusable and aborted projects, I'm posting here the short "Jumping" as well as what I had written on "The Obit Writer."
Jon Humphries first manifested his unique ability at the age of ten, although he had no idea what was happening at the time.
He had asked his mother if he could ride his bike down to the park to meet his friend, Samantha, from down the block. “Have you cleaned your room like I told you to?” his mother asked.
“Not yet, but I’ll clean it when I get back.”
“I’ve heard that one before.”
“Please, Mom. I promise I’ll clean my room later.”
“I’m sorry, Jon, but the answer is no. I’ve been telling you to clean up that pigsty for a week now. You’re not leaving this house until your room is in order.”
“But that’s not fair!”
“Up to your room, young man. March.”
His lip stuck out in an exaggerated pout, Jon whirled around and bounded up the stairs, making as much noise as possible. His mother turned back to the table she was dusting, and behind her she heard Jon say, “I shouldn’t even have asked. I wish I’d just gone to the park.”
His mother turned to scold him, but Jon was gone.
At first she thought he was playing a game, hiding from her to teach her a lesson, but when she still hadn’t found him forty-five minutes later, she began to worry. She called her husband at his office, frantic, and he left early to look for his son. He drove around the neighborhood, finally locating Jon at the park, climbing the monkey bars with Samantha.
His father gave him a spanking, and his mother yelled at him while crying. Jon maintained that he didn’t know what happened. One second he was walking up the stairs to his room, the next he was standing in the park by the slide with no idea how he’d gotten there.
That story earned him another spanking.
The next time Jon used his power, he was seventeen. The incident when he was ten had faded from his memory completely.
He and Samantha, still his best friend all these years later, had paid the janitor at their school to make them a couple of fake licenses, identifying them as twenty-one. They went to a local gay club and used the licenses to try to get in. The bouncer at the door wasn’t fooled and turned them away, confiscating the IDs.
“Damn it, I thought that was going to work,” Samantha said, her hair teased and her eyes caked with frosted blue eye shadow.
“Fifty bucks down the drain,” Jon said. He was wearing a pair of leather pants and one of Samantha’s sheer blouses.
“Wanna go back to my place and get wasted?” Samantha asked. “My old man’s probably passed out on the couch by now. We can finish off his booze, and in the morning he’ll think he drank it all himself.”
“I guess, there’s nothing better to do.”
“Come on,” Samantha said, turning her back on Jon and heading down the street.
“I really wanted to go to the club, though,” Jon said from behind her. “I wish I could get in there.”
Samantha turned back to her friend, but Jon was gone.
The next day, when she called him up to yell at him for ditching her, he told her a wild tale. He claimed he had gotten in the club after all, although he had no idea how. One second he was walking down the street behind her, the next he was standing in a bathroom stall inside the club.
Samantha hung up on him and didn’t speak to him for two weeks.
By the time Jon turned twenty, he had spent three years experimenting with his power—which he had come to call “jumping”—testing its scope, its limitations. Just by stating the destination aloud, he could instantaneously transport himself anywhere he desired. He always ended up in some secluded spot, somewhere his sudden appearance would go undetected. Jon had a lot of fun in those three years, jumping to locations all around the world, exotic vacations that required no bankroll. He kept his ability to himself, not even discussing it with Samantha. He feared being thought crazy, but also the notion that, if believed, he could end up in some government facility, being tested and prodded like a lab rat.
He had recently begun dating a young man named Bill, whom he’d met in his college Intro to Psych class. One night they went to see a movie they’d both been dying to see, but when they got to the theater, they discovered the film was sold-out.
“Too bad,” Bill said as they walked back to the car. “I’ve heard some really great things about the film. I was looking forward to seeing it.”
“Yeah, me too. Maybe we can get tickets tomorrow.”
“Maybe. I really had my heart set on seeing it.”
Jon stopped a few feet from the car, a strange smile curling his lips. “I’ve got an idea,” he said.
“Give me your hand.”
“Just do it.”
“Okay,” Bill said, laughing. “I didn’t know you were so big on public displays of affection.”
Once Bill had clasped his hand, Jon said, “I wish we were in the theater.”
“Yeah, well, if wishes were horses and all that,” Bill said. “But we’re just out of luck, I guess.”
Jon looked around the parking lot, the cars, the lamps, the people walking by. “Hmm,” he said, “I guess I can’t take anyone with me.”
“What are you talking about?” Bill said with a frown.
“Nothing,” Jon said, shrugging. “Let’s go grab a bite to eat.”
By the age of twenty-nine, Jon’s ability to jump had become such a part of him that he rarely thought of it as special anymore. He used it for mundane things, like if he was running late for work or locked himself out of the house. Once he’d used his power to take a tour of the White House after hours, but he’d nearly been caught and hadn’t risked anything like that since.
On Christmas Eve, he and Bill—whom he’d been living with for the past six years—were driving to Bill’s parents for dinner. Bill was behind the wheel.
“I dread this,” Jon said irritably. “I hope you know that.”
“Of course I know that,” Bill said slowly, spitting the words out like chunks of glass. “You tell me every five minutes, so it would be hard for me to miss.”
“We could have accepted Samantha’s invitation to dinner, you know.”
“Jon, we haven’t been to see my parents since March.”
“I don’t even know why I’m going. Your mother hates me, she doesn’t even make an effort to hide it.”
“I think you give as good as you get. Need I remind you, last time you called her a shriveled-up old crone.”
“Hey, I was merely standing up for myself. God knows you don’t stand up for me.”
“She’s my mother, Jon. What do you expect me to do?”
“Nothing, I don’t expect anything from you.” And then, without thinking about the consequences, Jon said, “I wish I’d just stayed at home.”
After the funeral, Jon and Samantha stayed at the graveside long after everyone else had gone. Jon stood by the casket, crying silently.
“It’s all my fault,” Jon said, swallowing a sob. “I did this, I killed him.”
“Jon, don’t say that,” Samantha said, placing a hand on her friend’s arm. “You can’t blame yourself. It was an accident; you weren’t even in the car at the time.”
“I didn’t mean to do it,” Jon said softly, as if talking to himself. “It must have startled the hell out of him when I jumped, I bet that’s why he lost control of the car.”
“Jon, you’re not making any sense. Come on, let’s go.”
“Oh God, I’m sorry,” Jon moaned, leaning over and pressing his cheek against the coffin lid. “I’m sorry, Bill, please forgive me.”
Samantha turned away, giving her friend privacy for his grief. Behind her, she heard him murmur, “I wish I was where you are.”
And when she turned around, Jon was gone.
THE OBIT WRITER
Kenny took the job because he thought it would be easy money. He’d been fired from his job bagging groceries at the supermarket when he’d gotten mad at his boss and called him a limp-dick fuck, and since then things had been tight. His folks sent him a monthly allowance, but that was hardly enough to keep him in booze. He’d been checking the want ads daily, but it was hard to find a part-time job that fit into his schedule with school and would still leave him time to party with his friends.
But this job was perfect. The local paper was looking for someone to write obituaries. He could work from his dorm room, no boss breathing down his neck, and the money wasn’t too bad. No experience was required, and the ad concluded with, “A great opportunity for students.” So Kenny had sent in an application, as well as an issue of the school’s literary magazine that featured some essays he’d written for English Comp. Two days later he got the call; he was hired.
“Sounds kind of morbid to me,” Kenny’s roommate, Evan, said one night while they were getting stoned.
“What’s so morbid about it? I mean, it’s not like I’m performing autopsies or something. I’m just writing up obits.”
“What do you say about the people? I mean, you don’t even know them.”
“The paper will send me some information given by the families of the deceased, and I’ll just write it all up with some snappy prose and a few standard phrases like, ‘Gone home to be with Jesus,’ and they’ll send me a check.”
Evan took a long toke on the fat joint they were sharing and said, “Man, what if one of ‘em doesn’t like what you say and comes back to haunt your ass.”
Kenny laughed so hard the joint slipped for his fingers, and he fumbled for it before it burned the carpet. “Dude, you’ve been watching too much Tales from the Crypt.”
“I’m just saying, it’s a lot of responsibility. You’re basically making the final statement for these people, summing up their lives in a few short lines, a memorial to who they were, setting the tone for how they’ll be remembered.”
“Jesus, Evan, how many joints did you smoke before I came in?”
“None. But I did have a couple of my special brownies.”
The two stared at one another for a moment then broke into high-pitched giggles. They finished the joint and then watched the musical version of Reefer Madness on cable.
* * *
Kenny’s first obit turned out to be harder than he was expecting. He had all the information he needed: date of birth, date of death, names of spouse and children, job, hobbies, even favorite song, but Kenny found it hard to put it all together in a way that was coherent and respectful. He’d figured he could bang the thing out in ten minutes or less, but it ended up taking him the better part of three hours to get the thing written. And that was after he’d looked up some obituaries online and used them as models.
When he was done, he emailed the finished obit to his contact at the paper and turned his attention to his World Civ book. His midterm was first thing in the morning, and he hadn’t done much studying at all. Okay, he hadn’t done any studying. He glanced at the clock and saw that it was approaching midnight. Evan was sleeping across the room, mouth wide open as snores burst from him like machine gun fire.
Kenny sat at his tiny desk in the corner, his book open in the circle of light thrown by the lamp, and tried to concentrate on the Fall of the Roman Empire. The names and dates were just a jumble of confusion to him, and he found it almost impossible to keep his eyes open. At quarter past one, he finally gave up and threw himself into bed fully clothed.
* * *
It was Kenny’s Junior year of college, and this was the worst grade he’d ever made. He’d made some bad grades, sure, but a 26. That was just pathetic. The red F mocked him from the front page of the test. F, for “Fucking Imbecile.”
After the class was dismissed for the day, Kenny stayed behind and approached Professor Wyndam. The old man’s glasses were perched on the tip of his nose, and he glanced up at Kenny as if the student were something unpleasant he’d stepped in.
“Uh, Mr. Wyndam,” Kenny started.
“That’s Dr. Wyndam, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh yeah, sorry. Well, Dr. Wyndam, the thing is…I was just wondering, is there any way I can maybe do some extra credit to bring my grade up?”
The left corner of Wyndam’s mouth rose in a smirk. “What do you think this is, Junior High? This is university, you either do the work or you don’t. You obviously haven’t been doing the work, and your grade reflects that.”
“Enough,” Wyndam said, rising and heading for the door. “I told you at the beginning of the semester that I don’t do extra credit. I don’t grade on a curve. You make the grade you earn, end of discussion.”
“But if I flunk this class, I’ll lose my scholarship.”
Wyndam stopped and turned back. “And how is that my problem?”
Kenny floundered for a moment, not sure what to say. “If I lose my scholarship I won’t be able to finish school,” he said, his voice a pleading whine that drilled into his own brain.
“Then I guess you should have worked harder,” Wyndam said then walked out of the classroom, leaving Kenny alone with his F.
* * *
When Kenny sat down in front of his computer that evening, he was still fuming. Evan had gone out with Kyra, the chick he was dating, and Kenny had the dorm room to himself for a few hours. Which usually meant he’d be breaking out the magazines and Vaseline and giving himself a little happy, but he wasn’t in the mood tonight. He couldn’t stop thinking of that asshole Wyndam.
Wasn’t it the professor’s job to help his students learn all they could? Okay, yeah, Kenny had flunked the midterm, but shouldn’t Wyndam be encouraging him to improve his score? Shouldn’t the professor be doing everything in his power to make sure Kenny left the class with more knowledge than when he’d arrived? Hell, if Wyndam really cared about his job, he’d have offered to let Kenny retake the exam.
Wyndam stared down at the information he’d been given for his latest obit. One Mrs. Beulah Myers, an eighty-three year old retired schoolteacher who had died from an aneurysm. Kenny tried to get to work, but he just couldn’t concentrate. His mind kept returning to the big fat F, to Wyndam’s smug dismissive attitude, to the possibility of losing his scholarship and having to leave school. Wouldn’t that just thrill Kenny’s father? The old man had always said his son was a good for nothing, and getting kicked out of school would sure prove him right.
If only Wyndam wasn’t such a prick. Kenny wished like hell he had taken World Civ last year when it was offered by Dr. Phelps, who everyone said was a piece of cake. But no, instead he’d taken Abnormal Psych during the time World Civ was offered, and only because he’d known Amanda Vine was taking Abnormal Psych and he’d been trying his damndest to get into her panties. Amanda had resolutely ignored him, he’d barely squeaked by Abnormal Psych with a C, and he’d gotten stuck with Wyndam this semester.
Kenny tried to push all that out of his mind and get back to Beulah’s obituary, but his heart just wasn’t in it. Now maybe if he was writing an obit for that bastard Wyndam…maybe then he could be loquacious and inspiring. Maybe that was the motivation he needed.
With a twisted smile, he deleted the few lines he’d written for Beulah and started anew.