Bernadine Abbott was not what anyone would call a people person. She never initiated conversations and seized any opportunity to escape one -- bending over to tie her shoe or peering more closely at a window display than was absolutely necessary. Too many people felt the need to engage in small talk once eye contact had been established. When human interaction was completely unavoidable, she wasn’t rude in her replies, just very concise. She treated words as if they were rare coins and doled them out frugally.
Bernadine had been working for more than thirteen years as a proofreader at a large publishing firm, she was an avid reader so it was the perfect job for her. It only felt like work when the book she was proofing wasn’t any good. If the manuscript was a good one, she would read for pages and pages, so caught up in the story that she would forget that she was supposed to be checking for punctuation or grammatical errors and would have to backtrack to where she had made her last notation. That was really her only shortcoming, for she had a shrewd eye for mistakes. It wasn’t her place to tell authors how to improve their stories but sometimes she felt tempted to contact them with suggestions.
Even when she wasn’t at work, her mind was lost in a book. At least as home she was able to do so in a comfortable chair with her feet up and a cat in her lap. With each book she read, she felt as if she were actually a character in the story being told, not always the protagonist but often that was who she related to.
One manuscript she was working on now was just so lifeless, she couldn’t help but think that she could write something better herself, a very common occurrence among the profession of proofreaders as one can well imagine. In the beginning, she started making minor changes that the original author might not even have noticed. She was sure he had been half asleep when he wrote it anyway, it was so terribly dull. She realized she would have to retype the entire thing so the publisher wouldn’t suspect that she had tampered with the actual story. She was doing this at home on her own time. Typing furiously at her desk all day would draw attention because typically she would read silently, quietly making notations in the margin with a red pencil.
The author’s manuscript has been completely tossed aside now and Bernadine is writing her own novel. She was secretly thrilled with her project and stayed up later and later each night, typing away. She couldn’t believe how much more alive she felt actively writing a story rather than being a passive reader. She made herself the heroine of the story, and gave herself much better attributes than she had in this world. How wonderful this was, a complete reinvention of self! She didn’t notice the changes in herself but others were starting to. Her skin which had always been a bit pale and tired, now positively glowed. Her eyes, usually bleary and bloodshot from too much squinting at fine print, absolutely sparkled. Bernadine as the heroine of her own story was now doing all sorts of things the real Bernadine had never dared to do. She rode horses, she swam in oceans, she drove fast and even smoked a few cigarettes. Now she was even going to have a romance! She took many liberties with her character-- she made herself younger, taller, slimmer and better looking. She had never felt so free. This is what she should have been doing all along --writing instead of reading. What Bernadine didn’t notice, was that she was using bits and pieces of all she had read over the years. Really, haven’t nearly all stories already been told in some fashion or another?
After several weeks of trying to do both her regular proofing at work and writing all night, Bernadine’s work begins to suffer. Not only is she very tired at work from working on her own novel but now she resents the work of others. It makes her impatient and she keeps thinking of ideas for her own work in progress. The pile of unread manuscripts begins to pile up and to keep others from noticing, she pulls a few from the stack every couple of days and puts them in her bottom desk drawer. When the drawer is full, she simply starts disposing of a few at a time in the paper shredder at the end of the hall. Bernadine feels no guilt whatsoever, so much that is written these days just isn’t all that good anyway. Why subject the world to more printed mediocrity? What she is working on is sure to be a masterpiece.
One night she gets so involved in her writing that the sun is starting to come up and she is still typing away. She realizes she will be worthless at work and decides to call in sick, something she has rarely done, so no one questions it. She takes a short nap, makes herself a fresh pot of coffee and resumes typing. She is getting so close to being done and doesn’t want to quit. Her novel self is just so much better than her real self. She has really let her apartment go, there are dirty coffee mugs everywhere, her houseplants are withered and her cat is feeling neglected. Her story is reaching the climax now, and she can’t wait to see how it ends, she hasn’t plotted her story ahead of time and that is what has kept it exciting for her. The further the story progresses, the more it seems that the characters are acting on their own accord and writing their own story. She no longer feels as if she is in control, she is just the typist now and not the writer. Bernadine continues in this manner for several days, sleeping as little as possible and calling in sick each morning. Yes, it is a terrible case of the flu she has seemed to have contracted after all these years of never having even the slightest of colds. Finally she is done. She takes a long bath, and lies down to get some rest. What could be more romantic than her own beautiful and noble death at the end! What Bernadine doesn’t realize as she falls deep into her final sleep, is that she truly wrote her own ending. She dies within her novel, and that is where her body is now. The apartment is empty except for the cat who is discovered a few days later by the landlady, Mrs. Mabel Bartlett. The publishing company had become quite concerned, not just over Bernadine’s absence but the unread manuscripts hidden in her desk drawers have been discovered and there have been a slew of angry calls regarding other work that is missing completely. The office gets permission from Mabel to sort through Bernadine’s things to see if perhaps some of the missing work was brought home. All that is found is nearly a thousand typewritten pages of Bernadine’s own novel in which no one has any interest. Bernadine has only one living relative in existence, a nephew who declares he doesn’t have time to come collect her things and that they can be disposed of as seen fit. Mabel keeps the cat, and gathers the manuscript which have been strewn about in the search and takes it home with her.