Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Weekly Short Story: Letter E

writing, fiction & once upon a time 5 min read

On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published four ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.

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It’s part of the curse of being me that everything wonderful has to come with constraints and caveats. I can imagine all the best things, but my brain immediately adds the asterisk and footnote that spoil the fun a bit. It’s a profound deficiency of my personality. The only upside is that it lends itself to ideas for stories.


This thing is a nightmare. It’s a dream come true, but also a nightmare.

I wasn’t especially close to my grandmother, but she was generous to me for my entire life — at least, up until her last few years when her mind started to go. I didn’t see her too much during that time because I was busy with work, and my mother said it might be best to just remember her as she was. I think she even stayed in that gigantic house of hers right til the end.

I have a boring job. Customer service, all day wearing a headset and hating the public. I should have worked harder in high school. I could have gone to university. I could have done anything I wanted. And now, maybe I can.

My grandmother’s estate was worth a hell of a lot, so I was surprised and pissed off when I found out she’d left me none of the money, and just her old typewriter. I remembered seeing it on the little desk in her study. It was in a transparent case that was locked, so you could see the thing but not play with it. Drove me mad as a kid. I guess she remembered that part, at least.

I was going to just throw it away, or maybe offer it to my mother. It had no use for me. I don’t write letters, or anything else, and if I wanted to I’d send an email from my phone. I didn’t even know how to get ink for the things. Or the spools, whatever they’re called. Still, when you get a typewriter, you at least press a few keys and listen to the sound of it. So I did that.

Then I got some paper — I keep some in a cupboard along with a cheap printer, whose only purpose in life is letting me return Amazon parcels from time to time — and I put a few sheets into the old, elegant, and vaguely creepy machine. Then I hit some keys again.

That’s when I found out that the E key is broken. I mean, the entire lever must have been snapped off at some point. The actual E is there at the right position, but it’s sitting way down behind the others, and it doesn’t come back up. You can’t use it. Which, as it turns out, is a massive pain in the neck.

If a key is going to break when you’re typing in English, it’ll be the E. Most common letter in the language. We use it all the damned time. But not if you’re using my grandmother’s typewriter. No big loss, though, because it’s just an old machine — so imagine my surprise when I discovered it has the power to give you anything you want.

Now I know how she made all her money. Now I know where her long run of incredible good luck came from. Now I know how she was able to be so generous. She cheated! Had a magic typewriter the whole time: type a wish, and it comes true. But at some point, the goddamned E key broke.

Do you have any idea how tough it is to manifest your heart’s desires in written English without using the letter E? You can’t even say “heart”. Or sex. Or money. Or fame. Oh, you can say good luck, but you’ve got to find workarounds for every little thing you want to do. It’s like torture.

You can type Johansson, but you sure as hell can’t type Scarlett, if you know what I’m saying. You can type loads of cash, but you can’t type bank account balance. There’s a lot of inconvenience.

Self-improvement hits these stupid barriers too. Thin and muscular are fine — I’m both of those now — but you can’t say taller or handsome or even attractive. But you can say intriguing and charismatic. I’m the very model of those qualities these days.

But don’t get me started on revenge, and real world-changing stuff. You can’t say prime minister or president. You can’t say ruler, or head of state. You can’t say dead, or killed, or even heart attack. But check this out: you can say myocardial infarction. You can say total pulmonary obstruction. You can find a way around.

I have a huge thesaurus now. I got an actual paper copy — using my loads of cash — because I didn’t want anyone to find my web searches for words that might end up seeming suspicious after you watch the nightly news. When I need or want something, I go and find synonyms, and I also take the opportunity to draw over any containing the letter E with black marker pen, to make it easier next time. You start to really get an eye for seeing that bloody letter. It jumps out at me everywhere now.

I’ve got big plans. For one thing, I’m pretty sure that “Ms S Johansson who plays Black Widow in MCU films” will get past the typewriter’s filters for specificity and grammatical correctness. I think she’s going to have a twin somewhere, and that person is going to find me intriguing and charismatic. And I think that there are also some presidents and prime ministers who could do with a myocardial infarction.

It’s weird, though. Not this incredible power, I mean; of course that’s weird. But it’s not the part I enjoy the most these days. I have a gigantic rural manor (can’t type massive country house), and all the classic motor cars (not vintage automobiles) I could ever want, along with loads of cash, but the thing that I really look forward to is researching my language workarounds. In the thesaurus, and on wikipedia and other sites when I want to learn more about the nuances of meaning. I didn’t even know the word “nuances” a few months ago.

You can’t learn a whole bunch of vocabulary and etymology without getting a kind of perspective on the world. It kind of gives you hope, by stealth. It gives you understanding.

I still have my plans. There are still the big things I want to do with this power. It would be strange if I didn’t want that. But now I want to learn, too. That’s the greatest surprise for me. With this machine and its broken E, I could rule the world. But that’s not what I want. I want to learn instead.

Honestly, I’m thinking about going to college.


That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.

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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.