Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash

Sixteen-year-old Josie dreams of becoming a writer; perhaps then her brilliant mother will treat her like a person, instead of a character in one of her novels. Gifted with the ability to bring stories to life, her mother doesn’t just pen bestsellers—she’s written Josie’s life, ensuring her daughter never suffers, fails or disobeys her. Her power rests in her fountain pen. Write it, and it is real. Cross it out, and it disappears into fiction again.

But one dark and stormy night, Josie’s mother vanishes. Her fountain pen falls into Josie’s hands, and for the first time in her life, Josie has the power to write her own story, and the stories of those around her.

Chapter Four

I shuffle to my room, shut the door, and curl into the reading chair under my loft bed, surrounded by my books. When I moved in with my aunt and uncle, I didn’t expect to get my own room. This used to be Uncle Nate’s home office. When Mom and I came to visit, my uncle would blow up the air mattress for Mom, while I always shared a room with Cara. I love my cousin, but there have been many times over the last year when I was glad for a private refuge. A place to disappear into daydreams and secrets, or a good book.

But tonight, stories provide little comfort. In every book I open, the words blur with tears.

A photo of Mom and me sits on my bookshelf. It was taken the Christmas after I turned 11, the year before Rochester appeared for the first time. That winter, we both caught terrible colds after arriving at Aunt Sarah’s, forcing my mother to take a break from writing. In the picture, we sit cross-legged in front of a twinkling tree, with bowls of soup in our hands and a half-finished Scrabble game between us. We look cozy, like a family. A more accurate photo would be Mom bent over a notebook while I played alone. Or me smiling obediently, while she rushed out of the frame to write.

In the corner of the Christmas photo, next to Mom’s knee, is a notebook and the pen. Even ill, she kept the pen close. When her cold cleared up on Christmas Day, she locked herself in Uncle Nate’s office as soon as I’d opened my presents. “Inspiration struck,” she said. “Can’t ignore it.”

Now, her pen is mine. I consider sweeping it into the trash, on top of the college brochures, with their glossy promises of success.

Instead, I tuck it inside Jane Eyre for safekeeping. In unskilled hands, the pen could spell danger and disaster. Even my mother, who wrote in red ink almost every day, had stories fail.

The stories began when I was very young. I don’t recall when I first heard them. In the beginning, I assumed my mother was talking to herself. She did that often, muttering while she tore cellophane off microwave dinners or burrowed through the laundry for clean socks.

“Thinking aloud,” she’d say. “Part of the creative process.”

But soon, I heard other voices when I eavesdropped at her library door. Deeper voices, melodic voices, voices in strange accents who talked about things I didn’t understand. Either Mom had developed multiple personalities, or she was not alone.

Rain or shine, Mom never let me play outside by myself. We couldn’t afford a full-time babysitter, so I spent much of my early childhood playing outside her library while she worked. Stretched out on the sticky kitchen linoleum, I’d listen through the locked door to the voices and wonder if I’d ever meet their owners.

One day, when I was about five, I got lucky.

I lay on my belly under the kitchen table with my Barbies. Standing them on their pointed toes, I made the dolls act out what I imagined the muffled voices behind the library door were saying.

“Let’s go out!”

“I’m too busy. I have so much work.”

“You never take me anywhere. We never have fun!” I waggled the blonde doll’s legs and made her trot away. “Josie and me are getting ice cream at the park, and you can’t come!”

Play-acting punishment, I knocked over my other Barbie with its nest of tangled brown hair. The doll skittered across the floor, just as the pocket doors of the library shuddered open.

Scuffed Converse sneakers, the soles rusty with red mud, stepped in front of me. Their owner bent and picked up my doll. Under my breath, I sounded out the words on the back of his T-shirt: Widespread Panic Fall 2000, Athens, Ga. Blood seeped from his scraped right knee, staining his ripped jeans.

The man spotted me under the table, held out my doll, and grinned. His face, haloed by honeyed curls, was pale and sweaty, as if he were ill. Worst of all were his eyes: white, empty spaces, like someone had stolen them.

I trembled. What if he tried to take my eyes?

“Well,” he drawled, sharp incisors glinting. “Who do we have here?”

I shrunk under the table and covered my face. “Mom!”

Hurried footsteps and a sharp, “No!”

Then silence.

When I opened my eyes, the stranger was gone. Mom knelt in his place.

“Oh baby. Oh, Josie-Bean.” Crawling under the table, she pulled me into a hug. “I’m so sorry. I should have never — I’m sorry.”

I clung to her shaking body, letting her rock me with every apology. I couldn’t recall the last time she’d hugged me so tight, and I burrowed into her warmth. Why was she crying? As Mom drew away, her fingers left wet, red smears on my arm.

“He hurt you!”

“Oh, no, baby. It’s only ink. See?” She wiped her hands on her cardigan. “That man is gone, and he won’t come back, I promise.”

Over her shoulder, I eyed the dusty footprints on the linoleum. “Where’d he go?”

“That doesn’t matter.” Mom sat back, bumping her head on the kitchen table. “Ow! Let’s get out from under here. Let's leave this house! Come on—we’ll get ice cream, okay?”

A few days later, Mom said, “Come into the library, Josie. I want to show you something.”

Her library? I wasn’t allowed in there. Was this a trick? But she held out her hand. Abandoning my coloring books at the kitchen table, I followed her inside.

Mom shut the pocket doors, and while she rummaged through the notebooks piled on her desk, I greedily took in my surroundings. The room was white as a blank page, from the cream shag carpet, plush under my feet, to the loose fluttering papers tacked to the walls with pushpins and Scotch tape. Books lay in stacks of ten, twenty around the perimeter, like growing stalagmites. Mom’s desk, with its wheezing computer and clusters of used coffee mugs, sat at the end of the narrow room, opposite the screen door leading to the front yard. That must be how he got in. Why didn’t she lock it?

A lumpy couch in yellowed ivory, like a discolored tooth, took up the middle of the room. I perched on the edge, the carpet tickling my bare toes.

“Josie, do you know the difference between real and pretend?” Mom said, sitting beside me.

I recited my answer carefully, as if in school. “Real means you can touch it and see it. Pretend is only in your imagination.”

“That’s right.” Mom sucked her bottom lip between her teeth and curled her fingers around the notebook in her lap. “That man you met—which was he?”


Mom shook her head. Her knuckles turned white as she clenched the notebook tighter.

“Pretend?” I guessed. I wanted to please Mom, but I didn’t know the right answer. Pretend people didn’t bleed. They couldn’t leave dirty footprints or steal your toys.

But real people didn’t have eyes like empty spaces. They didn’t disappear when you looked away.

My perplexed frown amused Mom, and she smiled. “That man was both real and pretend.” She bent the notebook’s cardboard cover back and forth. “I imagined him. He lived in my mind.” Here, she paused, and drew a black-and-gold fountain pen from her sweater pocket. “But then I wrote what I imagined, what I believed to be true, and he became real.” She uncapped the pen and pressed the nib to a blank page. Ink bled slowly, leaving a dark red dot.

“I’m sorry he scared you. I wrote him because I thought he could help us, but he wasn’t right, so I’ve sent him back.” She recapped the pen. “Where he belongs.”

I stared at the crimson ink spot, heavy and damp in the center. If I squinted, the fuzzy edges seemed to wiggle. Mom’s hand clenched tight around the pen, as if she was afraid someone would take it.

“Will he come back?” Real or pretend, the memory of the man’s blank eyes and predatory smile made me want to run and hide.

“Not unless I write about him again.”

“Can you write something else?” I wanted to see this magic trick. I wanted in on the secret. Mom’s writing was still wondrous to me then, like pulling rabbits out of hats. Childish, cheap entertainment, no harm done.

Mom had expected I’d ask because she unscrewed the pen cap again. “Watch carefully.” She shut her eyes and became motionless. I forced myself not to fidget, sensing that even a wrong breath would break the spell. After a long silence, Mom exhaled with a whoosh, opened her eyes, and pressed the pen to an empty page.

A brown and white shaggy dog with one cocked ear scratched at the door.

Mom read the line aloud as she wrote. “Now wait,” she said, recapping the pen and turning toward the screen door. I turned too. I didn’t know what I was watching for, but my mother’s intense stare told me it was important.

A minute passed, then five. Bored, I lay on the couch and imagined pictures in the water stains on the ceiling: a bunny, a butterfly, a dog.

Mom rolled the pen between her palms. “It usually works faster than this. I must be tired.”

A skittering noise from beyond the room caught my attention, and I sat up. “What’s that?”

“Probably the mail—oh!” She laughed. “How stupid of me. The front door! Well, go look,” she added with a mischievous wink.

I ran from the library to the front hall and threw the door open.

A brown and white miniature poodle sat on the step, one ear cocked. It barked at me, three yips in quick succession, then ran to Mom’s library.

Giggling, Mom scooped up the dog and let him lick her chin. “He’s perfect.” She held the dog above her head, cooing and making kissing noises. “He looks just like Jasper. That’s the dog I had when I was your age, before Dad hit him with the car.” Cradling the poodle like a baby, she beckoned me closer. “Pet him, Josie.”

I scratched the dog cautiously behind his ears. His shiny button eyes reminded me of my stuffed toys. “He’s so soft.”

Mom smiled. “Remember what I wrote?” She pointed to the notebook and pen on the sofa.

The brown and white fluffy dog with one cocked ear scratched at the door.

“I meant for him to come to the screen door, but he came to the front door instead, like a proper gentleman,” she crooned, kissing his curly head. “Details are important. You have to be precise. Careful.”

Mom set the dog down, and he scampered off to explore the room, sniffing at corners and stacks of books. Picking up the pen and notebook again, she knelt before me and held my gaze with a hard look. “I wrote the dog, and this pen made him real. Anything I write with this, if I believe hard enough —” she held the pen aloft like a torch “—is real, until I cross it out. Do you understand?”

I looked at the pen in her hand and traced the red scrawled words with my fingers. Anything Mom wanted she could make appear. Yes, I understood. Grown-ups always got what they wanted; people listened to them. Only children had to ask permission. The pen was no different than money, strength, tallness, or being able to leave the house by yourself, traits I associated with being grown-up, with being someone who mattered.

Mom hugged me and kissed the top of my head. “The pen can be useful, you’ll see. It helps me take care of you and gives us the things we need. And that man won’t come back, I promise. I won’t let him hurt you.”

Thinking about the man’s eyes, blank and cold, I shivered again. The dog trotted over and nuzzled my hand until I stroked his soft head, and my fears eased, the ghost-eyed man forgotten. I’d always wanted a dog, and now I had one. But there was more I wanted.

 “Could you write about Dad?” I’d never met my father. Mom said we were better off without him. But with the pen, she could write the perfect father, whomever she wanted.

The color drained from my mother’s face. “No, Josie.”


“Because we don’t need him,” Mom said, lifting my chin. Her eyes were black and unwavering. “We’re fine. Just the two of us.”

In showing me the pen, Mom had let me into a secret club, just us two, and I felt special. Years later, I realized it was also a club of secrets, and you’d better not tell.

The dog licked my bare feet, his rough tongue tickling my toes. I patted his cottony head again, and he yapped three times.

“Jasper, hush!”

The dog barked again, louder this time, and growled at Mom.

“Jasper, stop that.” Mom stomped one foot. “Come here.”

The dog ignored her, scampering around the room, his stumpy tail wagging. I laughed.

“Josie, don’t encourage him.”

“Maybe his name isn’t Jasper.” He didn’t look like a Jasper to me. He looked like a teddy bear, with his cuddly face and bright eyes. I clapped my hands. “Come here, Teddy. Here, boy.”

Mom’s lips twisted in a moue of displeasure. “His name is Jasper. That’s what I named him. Jasper, come here!”

The dog cocked his head, took two steps toward Mom, and barked again.


Turning around, the dog darted to the nearest tower of books, lifted his leg, and peed. I clapped my hand over my mouth, giggling. Silly puppy.

Mom sucked in a sharp breath. “That’s it. Time to go. Say goodbye, Josie.”

My joy evaporated. “Why?”

“You're not old enough to care for a dog.” She crossed her arms. “Say goodbye, now.”

Pouting, I knelt, stroked his curly fur, and kissed his head. “Bye, Teddy.” He licked me again, and I clung to his soft, wriggling body, unwilling to let go.

Then my hands were empty, curled around air. Shocked tears stung my eyes, and I looked to my mother for comfort. “Where did he go?”

She shrugged and held out the notebook. “Home.”

A brown and white shaggy dog with one cocked ear scratched at the door.

Crossed out. No more. Even the wet spot had vanished from the carpet.

Mom dropped the pen into her cardigan pocket. “Where he belonged.”

Sobbing, I ran through the house, calling: “Here puppy! Here Teddy! Come on, Jasper! Come here, boy!”

I searched every corner and cried until my voice went hoarse, but no dog appeared.

He’d been in my arms, a warm ball of fur. Then he wasn’t, with a quick slash of the pen.

About the Author

Sara Pauff

Sara Pauff is a professional communicator, part-time storyteller who primarily writes young adult fiction and is at work on her first novel. Her short fiction has been published in Half and One, and On the Run. She is also a regular participant in the VSS challenge, in which writers craft a 500-character micro-story based on a one-word prompt. You can find her on Instagram and Threads at @spauffwrites.

Read more work by Sara Pauff.