Word Count by Quinn D. Connor
(Banned Books Week writing contest winner)
I watch my words, I write.
Today, these are all I have left. I glance at my wrist-ticker as it clicks down from four (I), to three (watch), two (my), one (words)…
The river is alight with sunset. I watch the cars on the bridge with the page in my lap. Every evening, I bring these leftovers here, the few miscellaneous words I’ve scrounged for myself. I save them out of the “pleases,” “thank yous” and “hellos” that could devour them. I’m a miser. Still, they never add up to much.
But four words isn’t nothing. Could say, “How was your day?” or “Pass the salt shaker,” or “I love you, mom.”
I could. Yet I hoard them to waste, just for me. Mine.
I tear each spent syllable from the page so I can hold them separately, their weight. I fumble for the lighter. The flame licks each paper square, and I send those little fires out on open air. Fireflies in the night.
Word allowances reset at dawn.
There are four categories: Professional (200), Social (150), Emergency (100), Miscellaneous (75). Others have better allowances. People with big jobs. Not coffee people, like me. The idea was to make a more thoughtful world. Measured speech. Protecting young ears. Use your words wisely. You’d think internet trolls would be gone, but they still scrounge together a few swears to tear folks down online. Now the world is filled with orchestras. Harp players. Murals, fountains, mosaics. You should see our ballet.
It’s pumpkinspice latte season again. There was a petition to make “pumpkinspice” one word two years ago. Small, crucial savings.
Every day, I stand behind the counter. I watch my words.
And I watch her throw hers away.
She’s an activist, shouting with signs on Senate steps, and offering greetings to strangers, given like spare change. Cheerful rants filling shocked silence. Flutter of birdsong in an empty sky. When we were kids—word counts started at 13 then, not six—she couldn’t adjust. At first, she couldn’t stifle the chatter. But she grew up unwilling to censor herself.
She wears a red scarf around her throat when it’s cold. Unruly black curls. Half the time, she runs out of words by morning coffee, simply pointing to the menu with two taps of her fingernail. Eyes full of words, apologies, you know me. Restricting facial expressions is extreme politics, most believe. Unreasonable. Difficult to police. Only, presented with her eyebrow quirks and meaningful smile—I understand why, to some, even a face is provocative.
In the glow of a window, a elderly man passes his wife a sugar bowl when she beckons. Cotton silence presses on my tongue.
Somewhere, kids play, shout, scream. Their babbling runneth over.
It’s windy at the river later. I sit down, draw my knees up tight. My jeans smell like steamed milk. Ticker glows with a big 3.
Use your words, I scratch, a giant scrawl, pressed so deep into the page it almost breaks my pencil. USE YOUR WORDS
She sits down beside me. Cardinal-wing red around her neck. She nudges our elbows. Hello.
I nudge back, shy she caught me out here. We know each other’s rituals, and always have. Usually I do this one alone. I loop our arms and sheepishly show her the wasted scribbles.
She smiles. Shows me her ticker like a secret. There’s a miracle on her wrist. One word left. We sit, fortunes reversed. Me, bankrupt. Her, with a sudden bounty.
She must’ve saved it. She takes the pencil and the paper, and flies across the page. Her ticker clicks to zero. But she’s beaming, handing me a gift.
USE YOUR WORDS WILDLY
Warmth fills me. The wind can’t get in me anymore. I pinch her side—she’s ticklish— and we laugh. Cars rumble over the bridge. This time, I don’t tear up the words to burn. These I save, running my fingertips over the big letters, where one handwriting becomes the other. She makes her W with two Vs, while mine is an airplane’s loop-de-loop. They’re perfect together.
It’s another day, and the mintchoc latte is back on the menu. “Cortado” is her last word. She has a binder with her, action items, appeals for the governor. School lets out across the street, puffer jackets dispersing in a full rainbow of colors. Many walk from school over to the library, like we did, long ago. I take my break with her outside, while she savors her final word to the dregs.
I’m down to one when across the street, the man turns the corner. I’ve seen him before. He’s one of the Restricted. He’s easy to spot. He carries the same worn scraps of paper, stamped with government seals. His carefully regulated allowance. Everyone knows. Everyone’s been shown the same “please,” the same “thank you,” the same “I would like to apply for a job.” Yellowed and worn. He never speaks. He cannot afford a mistaken syllable, when all are handcuffed.
The kids see him. Vultures gathering over the walking dead. There are rumors about Restricted people: rumors are still too powerful for the word counts to suppress.
He makes himself small. They crow. One snatches for his pocket, where he keeps his phrases.
She storms to her feet, inhales—but her ticker flashes red. She grits teeth, claps her hands.
The man is pushed down. He holds a slip up like an offering, but the kids waste their words to burn him. The slip is taken. Torn. A phrase he won’t get back, because appeals for more phrases take weeks.
She rips off her scarf, waves madly. The kids don’t see.
I want to go back to work. Then I won’t see. I’m not the type. Not her. I watch my words.
They dig into his coat. Pull out handfuls of yellowed phrases, and throw. They scatter, carried away on high winds.
She opens her mouth, invisible gag.
One isn’t nothing.
I shout for us both.