Thomas tried to avoid eye contact with the homeless milling around his apartment. He possessed a long-standing fear of being mugged on his walks to and from the university. He knew he presented a target. His clothes might as well be a bullseye buttoned smartly to his body. Today was no exception as it was Oxford day, both in shoes and choice in button-up. Oxford, he thought about the college with longing–one day he would make it there. One day his novel would get him in.
It was early and the mist limited his sight line to a matter of feet. He tried to walk confidently down 11th, but this was the most dangerous block of his commute, so his ears were perked sonar detectors.
Thomas picked up footsteps, approaching quick behind him. This is it. He thought. Here it comes. He gripped his backpack straps and shut his eyes. A shove to his shoulder sent him stumbling down the alley to his right.
Thomas turned to face the inevitable: There stood a young man with a wild look in his eye, drowning in a black hooded sweatshirt. For a weapon he held the exact same Target-brand steak knife that sat in Thomas’ utensil drawer.
He felt a tinge of disappointment that his assailant was African-American, and therefore perpetuating what he considered a damaging stereotype. Then again, in his neighborhood Thomas represented the vast minority, so the chances of it being anyone other than an African-American was statistically nil.
“What, you think this is an interview?” The man held up the knife to ensure it had not suddenly transformed into a microphone. “Gimme the fuckin’ backpack!”
Thomas slipped the bag off his shoulder, but froze, his heart replaced by a jackhammer.
“I can’t,” he croaked, watching the knife wave threateningly.
Steak Knife’s eyes caught fire. He tickled the middle button of Thomas’s Oxford. The shirt, not the shoes.
“My laptop,” Thomas said through a stone in his throat. “It has the only copy of my novel. I… Uh…”
“A novelist?” The man checked over his shoulder, shrugged. “OK, so you got it backed up somewhere. Now hand it over.” He yanked on the backpack strap.
“Well, no,” Thomas yanked back. “I’ve been meaning to do that, but, you know, busy-busy.”
Steak Knife sighed. “It is very fuckin’ convenient that you need the most expensive thing you own.”
“Look, you can have my debit card and all my money. Everything else.”
“So you got money?”
“OK, no,” Thomas admitted. “At least not until my financial aid clears.”
“A student?” he said, his eyes disbelieving. “And you are going to school to be a novelist?”
“Yes,” Thomas started to relax. He had captured Steak Knife’s attention. An art lover, perhaps. Someone who understood the power of language. A fellow scribe, maybe?
“Wait, let me get this,” Steak knife massaged his temple with his free hand as if processing a particularly difficult equation. “Taxpayers pay your tuition? And after all that help from society, instead of medicine, or science, or even a decent trade, you decide to put on some fancy ass shoes and be a novelist?”
“Well, I didn’t decide to be a novelist,” mumbled Thomas.
“Let me guess, it chose you?”
Thomas shrugged. That was exactly what he was going to say.
“You have no car. Your apartment building is a known prostitute den. And you haven’t even bothered to secure the one thing in your life you willing to get stabbed for?”
“I have really been meaning to back that up.” Thomas shook his head. Prostitute den, really? “OK, ok, I can promise you, if you let me keep it, I’ll make a copy. That’s the first thing I’ll do. Uh, scouts honor?”
Steak Knife shook his head. “I’m done playing tug-o’-war with you.” He ripped at the strap with both hands in a powerful display of balance and power.
Thomas was flung forward in a pitiful display of balance and power, landing on his knees at Steak Knife’s feet. He knew it was begging time. “You haven’t heard what the novel is about yet.” Thomas gasped, clinging to the strap. “Please! Novels can change the world!”
Steak Knife sighed. “What’s it about then?” He gave the “come on” gesture with his knife hand.
“If I’m going to give up a laptop, this should be one fucking world-changing novel.”
“OK, give me a moment to get a pitch together.” Thomas scrambled back to his feet.
“It better have some aliens in it,” Steak Knife said. He loosened his grip and rocked back on his heels. A slip of a smile exposed his straight white teeth. “A first-contact story that teaches us about our own humanity. Something that sheds a light on the way we treat our planet and shit.”
“Oh, it’s not…”
“None of that faster than light travel bullshit,” he waved the knife in Thomas’s face. “Don’t be throwing out the word ‘quantum’ because it magically solves your story problems. You can do your own damn research. Here me?”
“It’s not science fiction,” Thomas cut in.
“You don’t think he world needs more scientists?” Steak Knife’s jaw rippled with tension. “I’ll tell you this right now, one day I’m going to be a scientist and get off this Rock.”
Thomas thought about asking what exactly he meant by “rock,” but decided better of it. “OK, OK,” he began, sucking in a breath. “So picture this, a young writer. Lonely, isolated from the world by the clarity of his vision. He is writing, drinking coffee, when he meets this girl… she’s very beautiful but can’t quite see it. She’s a painter who only paints with black. Very strange, and there are some funny scenes of banter about that. Anyway, she’s had some trauma in her life… daddy issues if you know-”
Steak Knife groaned. “And people like you say I don’t contribute to society?” He spit. “Shit.”
“Excuse me?” Thomas’ felt anger blossom in his chest. Who was Steak Knife to critique his work?
“Listen, I volunteer at my church. I give my time gardening for the food shelter. Take care of my baby sister. I’m not perfect, I realize I have some deep seated issues, but at least I contribute something to my community.”
“You obviously don’t understand art. What the hell would you know? Can you even read?” Thomas hated that this man was making him sound like a racist. He wasn’t. He knew he wasn’t. He couldn’t be, he voted democrat.
“Oh, because I’m black and mugging you, I’m illiterate?”
“Oh, and you’re the art expert? With your face tattoo?” Thomas shot back.
“Least I didn’t write a novel for other novelists. You’re just jerking off all over a page that’s already covered in other writer’s jizz.”
“That’s…” Thomas had no response on that level. “Graphic…”
“And so is a knife wound.”
Thomas felt tears bite at the corners of his eyes. He was going to lose everything to this… this… idiot!
“You know what you should do?” Steak Knife began peeling Thomas’s fingers off the strap one by one. Thomas noticed the knife was now more of an afterthought, resting loose between his fingers.
“You should change your major to something that will earn you a living, that’s first.”
Thomas wasn’t listening. He was watching the knife bob up and down, balanced in Steak Knife’s grip.
“And in the meantime, get a part-time job tutoring kids in your own neighborhood. Start a new novel about something more interesting, and for the love of God…”
Thomas never found out what he should do for the Love of God. He reached out, snatched the knife from Steak Knife’s fingers. He gripped it like he was about to cut through the film on a TV dinner. The air left the alley for a moment. Steak Knife and Thomas were caught in the black vacuum of space. Thomas lunged forward, the blade disappeared in a forest of dark fabric. The air returned in one hamburger-tinged gasp from Steak Knife.
Steak knife stared down at the steak knife. He fell to his knees, his eyes gaping question marks.
Thomas cleared his throat and checked the empty street before stepping out. He refitted his backpack straps, and thumbed 911 into his phone.
He knew he’d have to make up the karmic debt at some point. This man was bad, though, obviously. And a horrible judge of the craft. He decided it would be good of him to fit ‘Steak Knife’ somewhere in his novel dedication. Make the man famous.
He was a block down the street, no longer feeling the urge to avoid eye contact with the local vagrants, when he noticed a splatter of crimson on his toe. He grimaced. His Oxfords were ruined. On second thought, his debt had already been repaid.
*Stillman is a senior at the University of Washington Tacoma, where he studies writing and global engagement. He is also the former fiction editor of UWT’s Tahoma West literary arts magazine. He has two cats, one wife, and a vintage Royal typewriter that he thought he was going to use for writing one day. They all live together in small brick building on Hilltop where they can be found making Mexican food and drinking beer (the people can, not the cats and typewriter).