The Writing on the Wall
A short story
Aliza Khoury bit the tip of her forefinger and wrote in blood on the wall: Open sesame.
The day before:
Ethan dropped his briefcase onto the tiled front hall floor and crumpled beside it. He loosened his tie, slipped off his suit jacket, balled the jacket into a makeshift pillow, and rested his head on it.
“Hon, are you okay?” Aliza called from their bedroom. “I heard a crash.” When there was no response, she said, “I’m coming!”
Aliza sat down beside Ethan, who was curled into a fetal position. He had managed to remove one loafer and half of a sock. His phone was beside him, open to a breathing app.
“I used the breathing app to meditate the entire way home, but it didn’t do any good. I’m a wreck.”
Aliza kissed her husband and lay facing him. She reached for his hand, intertwined her fingers, and asked, “Do you want to tell me about it?”
“No. I mean yes.”
Aliza frowned. “Tell me.”
“Lily Green, who’s one notch up from me on the totem pole, took credit for my work. Again. She deleted my name from the marketing proposal, substituted hers, presented it to the VP, and now the VP is singing her praises, while I’m chopped liver. I hate her. I wish she would die.”
“I’m so sorry, babe. I wish I could help.” Aliza snuggled with Ethan.
“Yeah, me, too.” Aliza’s touch steadied Ethan’s erratic heart rate and returned color to his face. “I’ll get over it.”
“You shouldn't have to get over it. She shouldn’t steal your hard work.”
“I can fix us something delicious for dinner.” When Aliza remembered she’d been writing all day and hadn’t had time to shop, she amended her words. “Let’s find something you love from Uber Eats.”
After dal makhani, tandoori chicken, samosas, and naan filled their stomachs, Ethan plopped onto the couch and aimlessly flipped channels. On one of them, Chris Hemsworth’s voice boomed, and Natalie Portman’s voice boomed back. Aliza sat next to him, resting her head on his shoulder.
“I hate Lily Green.”
“You have every right to hate her. She’s a thief. She hurt you. Watch and relax, babe. Fall asleep here if you want; I’ll be beside you.
When Ethan returned from work the next day, he dropped his briefcase on the front hall but did not collapse beside it. Instead, he bolted into their combination bedroom-office, where Aliza wrote her horror novels. She was nearly finished writing her fourth terrifying tome.
Aliza spun around, and Ethan gave her a long, passionate kiss.
“Wow, that’s a big change from yesterday.” Aliza stood, wrapped her arms around him, and kissed him back. “What happened? Why such a great mood today? I'm not complaining, but did you get a promotion or something?”
“Green broke her arms. Both of them!”
Aliza gasped. “No.”
“Did she break them in a revolving door?”
Now it was Ethan’s turn to gasp. “Yes. How did you—?”
Aliza sat Ethan on her Aaron Miller chair and pressed the page-up button six times. “Read.”
Lily Green’s company, Nixie Insurance, was the first to install an AI revolving door.
“Nixie Insurance—my company.”
“Hush. Read, love.”
The AI revolving door was the brainchild of company vice-president Alex Morgan, who said that electrical revolving door speeds should not be one size fits all: Fast walkers don’t want to waste time in a slowly rotating revolving door, but others, including parents with small children and the elderly, want slower doors. The key is for the AI to deploy cameras, lasers, and infrared sensors to determine people’s walking speed, gait, and relative health before they enter.
As a fast walker who was always annoyed by people who looked at their phones while walking and slowed her down, Lily approached the revolving door on its activation day with an enthusiastic skip. But, because the AI hadn’t been trained to interpret a skip, it rotated at full throttle, spinning her like a single sock in a dryer. She broke both arms and was rushed to the hospital.
“Oh my god. Did you hear about this on the news or something?”
“When was Lily’s accident?” Aliza asked.
“About eight thirty.”
“I wrote this before eight o’clock, just after you left for the office. I added Lily Green as a character to my novel. I wanted something bad to happen to her to make you feel better even though ‘all characters in this novel are a work of fiction and any resemblance to people living or dead is coincidental blah blah blah.’”
Ethan pressed his nose to the screen and reread those paragraphs. “Are you saying you knew about the accident telepathically?”
“That can’t be because I wrote this before she broke her arms.”
“Then are you saying you can predict the future?”
“I don’t know what I’m saying.” Aliza nudged Ethan off her chair and also examined her work, expecting to see an ancient curse in Egyptian hieroglyphics or incantations in Apalachee. She brushed her hair aside, shook her head, and leaned back, causing the chair to squeak. “I have an idea.”
Aliza pressed control-enter to start a new paragraph and wrote:
Sirens, car alarms, trash trucks, and jackhammers conspired to disturb New Yorkers’ sleep that night, as they did every night. If you wanted peace and quiet, you moved to Vermont or the Hamptons or slept with an orchestra of white noise machines, hoping to create a sonic barrier between your bed and the city that never sleeps and never wants you to sleep.
But as loud as the city was, the sudden melon-sized hail that pounded New York drowned out all those sounds as the ice balls battered buildings and cars, shattered windows, and pulverized umbrellas.
Aliza jumped out of her chair.
Ethan took three fast steps to the window.
Enormous hail fell on New York City.
Aliza placed her hands back on the keyboard and typed, As suddenly as the hail storm appeared, it ended, and New York was okay again.
The hail stopped like somebody had flipped a switch.
“Whoa,” Ethan said.
“Whoa is right.”
“Try another. We have to be sure.”
Aliza’s hands shook. Her chest heaved. She breathed gulps but felt lightheaded, as if the room’s air evaporated. Godzilla trampled the trees in Central Park.
An earthquake shook their building.
They dashed into the living room, where Ethan changed channels to New York 1. Shaky footage of a five-story tall lizard filled their forty-inch screen. “First destructive hail like New York has never seen before, then what can only be described as the Godzilla of Japanese movies…” the reporter narrated. “Is it the end of days?”
“Stop it,” Ethan said.
“Yes, yes,” Aliza said, running back into the bedroom.
Godzilla vanished into thin air was all she could think of. No time for fancy prose.
“Godzilla’s gone,” the reporter said before fainting.
“All right,” Ethan said. “Your laptop has magical powers. Oh and by the way, thank you for putting Lily out of action. But I think you shouldn’t use this machine anymore. It’s dangerous, babe.”
“Okay,” Aliza said, using okay as a filler word because she wasn’t sure how or for what purpose these powers came to be and wasn’t willing to give them up without discussing this at great length with Ethan. The ability to create reality by writing about it had already helped Ethan, so what else could it do? “But I need to try something first.”
Aliza scribbled into her Moleskine notebook, her Pelikan fountain pen scratching the paper as the turquoise ink melted into the page. When a pair of Macaws landed on their window sill, Aliza nodded to Ethan and said, “It has nothing to do with the computer.”
Gerald Hays and Lucinda Wells were the two analysts on duty at the National Security Agency who sent the alert. Their job was to monitor the computers that monitored worldwide communications and computer activity for anomalies that could threaten the United States. After the NSA’s XKeyscore system correlated three highly unusual events in New York City—enormous hail, a giant lizard, and thousands of Amazonian parrots blanketing the sky—with the data from a computer geolocated in apartment 7H on 112 East 61 Street, it only took fifty-six minutes for eight field agents from the Manhattan bureau of the FBI to knock down the door to Aliza and Ethan’s apartment.
Aliza wasn’t arrested. She wasn’t read her rights or given any. She wasn’t brought before a judge. The FBI agents made Aliza wait in her apartment for an hour until two more people arrived. The new arrivals said nothing but merely flashed identification badges at the FBI agents. One of the new agents put a hood over Aliza’s head while another bound her hands behind her with zip ties. They frogmarched her to a sedan, drove for an hour, and questioned her for four hours, after which they hooded her again and drove her for a long time. Still blindfolded and cuffed, she rode an elevator down and was escorted into a small, windowless room with a bed, bureau, and separate bathroom.
“You can’t do this to me. I have rights,” Aliza screamed at the silent man and woman dressed in dark suits. “Where am I? Where’s Ethan?”
Silence met her again.
“What have I done?”
“How long will I be here?”
“Forever,” the woman said.
The suits left, bolting the door from the outside.
“How long will it be until they realize that it’s not the computer that has the power to create something out of nothing, but that it’s me?” Aliza answered her question instantly. “They probably already figured that out. Time to exit.”
Open sesame, she wrote on the wall in her blood.
Aliza walked through a large circular opening in the side of the room that led to a forest.
Aliza wandered for an hour before coming to a gas station outside Yellow Spring, Ohio, where she pilfered a pen, notepad, and box of bandages from the station’s convenience store. She transformed tree leaves into twenty dollar bills and bought a train ticket to New York.
From Penn Station, she took a taxi to her apartment. She approached her building carefully. They probably already knew she had escaped, but would they guess she made it to New York so quickly without money or credit cards? Best not to take chances.
An ambulance sat in front of the building. The setting sun reflected off the skyscrapers, bathing Manhattan in red.
Aliza Khoury dyed her black hair blonde, sprouted a mole above her lip on the left side, and grew three inches, she wrote.
Two bored paramedics milled around the ambulance.
Aliza Khoury wore a windbreaker with FBI in big yellow letters on the back. Her gold Special Agent badge hung from her neck.
She walked to the ambulance.
The paramedics looked at Aliza’s badge and waved her through.
Aliza leaned into the ambulance and pulled back the black sheet covering the body inside. A bullet hole sat in the middle of Ethan’s forehead.
“No!” she screamed. “What did you do?! You killed him.” She kissed Ethan’s cheek.
“You bastards fucking murdered him.”
She took Ethan’s lifeless hand. He was missing three fingernails.
“You tortured him! You’re animals. You’re going to pay for this. Do you hear me? You’re going to suffer.” Her yell echoed off the buildings’ windows.
Her tears made puddles on the pavement.
She hovered the Bic pen over the notepad.
A dozen agents stampeded toward the ambulance, guns drawn. Despite Aliza’s appearance change, one of the agents recognized her. “Aliza Khoury, do not move!”
The FBI agent was less than a dozen feet away.
Aliza's legs froze. Her brain froze, words scrambling in her head, neurons sparking primordial thoughts. She glanced back at Ethan and then put her pen to the pad.
“Fuck everyone,” she said to the agent.
The moon crashed into Earth.
If you enjoyed The Writing on the Wall, I think you’ll also like my short story, Stories Not Yet Told.
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