Deadlines. Oh, how Langston Parker hated deadlines. They always seemed to crawl toward him at first, picking their way leisurely through weeks of plotting and typing and revising and retyping; but then they suddenly screamed, “BOO!” and leaped out from behind his computer monitor to torment him through the final weeks leading up to publication. His editors loved setting them. He was all too adept at breaking them.
He leaned forward in his computer chair, squinting at the screen through eyes clouded from lack of sleep. Four empty mugs stood at easy reach around him, resting on stacks of discarded manuscript. Stacks that were growing taller with every passing hour when they should have been shrinking – the Day of Reckoning was a mere seventy-two hours away, and he still had fourteen chapters to write.
The bags under his eyes twitched, as though encouraging the lids above them to close. Parker blinked them into submission and rested his fingers on the keyboard once more. They spit out a sentence: “And, taking her warm hand in his, he brought it to his lips and kiss it…”
“Excuse me, Mr. Parker.”
He gasped and spun around. He hadn’t thought Margaret was home yet—
There was no one there.
“Please correct your error, Mr. Parker. It is irritating me, which is not something that you should desire to happen.”
He scanned the sentence and caught the mistake. Kissed, he typed instead. Then it occurred to him that a disembodied voice had just ordered him to fix a grammatical mistake, and that he had obeyed. This was not like him; hearing disembodied voices, that is.
“Thank you,” he said hesitantly, just in case.
As he had expected, there was no answer.
Parker turned back to the screen. His fingers flashed across the keyboard once more. “’Oh come away with me.’ she breathed. ’Come away and let me be the one you spend the rest of your life with.’”
“Now I am irritated. There are no less than three errors in those two sentences. If you do not find them, then I shall become angry. My anger is even less desirable than my irritation, Mr. Parker.”
Panicking slightly now, he stared at the sentences. “There’s nothing wrong,” he ventured. “They’re fine.”
There was a silence.
“Mr. Parker. Fix them now, or you are a dead man.”
Cold terror, spurred by caffeine, gripped Parker’s heart. He read and reread what he had written, searching frantically for the mistakes, but they eluded him. “Where are they?”
“You have five minutes, Mr. Parker, or in the name of English grammar I will personally purge you from the annals of literary history.”
He leaped up and darted about the room, throwing open doors, flinging cushions aside, but could find no one. “Who are you?” he shouted. “Why are you doing this to me?”
“Those who cannot use proper English have no business writing in it. I would suggest that you correct those sentences now, by the way; you have only three
Parker raced back to the computer and sat down, his hands trembling on the keys. But he still could see nothing wrong with what he had written. “Please,” he moaned. “Tell me what I did wrong.”
“If you cannot see it, then I do not see why I should correct you, only to allow you to poison the English language even further than you already have.”
“But – but I have editors for this!” he cried. “They’ll find it! They’re there so I don’t have to focus on this!”
There was a silence that carried in it more hostility than any words Langston Parker had ever heard.
“So.” The voice was cold. “That is how you see it. You don’t have to use proper grammar, because there is someone else to do it for you.” The air swelled, and the voice suddenly seemed to come from all around him, pressing against him like a tangible force. “It is imbeciles like you who are responsible for the sickening decline of one of the great tongues of the world! It is you who made English the laughingstock of the Indo-European language family! It is you who has destroyed the credibility of the written word as a preservative force! In a thousand years, one could read your book and believe through your idiocy that there is nothing wrong with a dangling participle! With a comma splice! With a split infinitive!”
Parker cowered against this grammatical onslaught. “What’s an infinitive?”
“Mr. Parker.” Now, every word was a blatant threat, filled with a righteous fury that seemed to emanate from the air itself. “I have been lenient until now, but that statement completely shredded any integrity as a writer you might have had in my eyes. You have a single minute to redeem yourself. If you do not manage to correct your errors in that time, then you will meet your final deadline. And no editor will be able to save you.”
Parker broke down and wept. “You’re an illusion!” he screamed. “You’re an exhaustion-induced hallucination! A waking dream! I don’t believe in you! I don’t believe in you!
“Thirty seconds, Mr. Parker.”
“No! No!” He snatched at an empty mug and flung it at the monitor. It plunged through the screen in a shower of sparks. With a whirr, the computer died. “You can’t kill me because you don’t exist! There’s no way for you to really kill me!”
“Your time is up. Let it be known that the last sentence you ever spoke contained a split infinitive – a fitting epitaph for your miserable, word-butchering existence.”
The atmosphere seemed to gather at a single point beside the couch, thickening to give the voice a body: a blurred conglomeration of text, fonts weaving back and forth across a humanoid form that stepped forward menacingly. A very real sword appeared in Times New Roman, its point brushing across a vengeful Century Gothic smile.
“Come and meet your final deadline,” it said. The sword flashed, blood splashed like spilled ink, and Langston Parker died on top of his own misspelled work.
The sword faded, and the being bent over Parker, its mouth questing for the ink that smeared the pages on which he had fallen – but before the errors could meet its tongue, its head jerked up as though it had heard its name called from far away.
Its eyes narrowed into Courier slits. “Rice,” it hissed, and faded back into the air, leaving Parker’s body for the coroners. All it took was the page containing his last ill-fated sentences – food for the journey.