Radio Play: The Red Pen

The Red Pen
An evening of The Carmen Online Theater Group’s Chronicles of Terror.

The Full Transcript of the Story

The package arrived battered and ripped. Exotic stamps covered so much of the brown paper exterior that it was hard to read the sender’s address. But David Gatewood’s address stood out just fine, as well as the “To Editor” addendum next to his name. Most requests for an editor came via email these days, but hey, work is work.

David took the package to the kitchen table and pulled out some kitchen scissors, which were clearly necessary to unwrap the package—it was liberally smothered in packing tape. But twenty minutes later, all David had to show for his efforts was a paper cut on his finger and a slash across the palm of his left hand; jabbing scissors into several layers of tape and cardboard hadn’t been a good idea. The person who had sent the package had obviously made the box himself (or perhaps herself, no point in being sexist here) from several boxes. Underneath the rips and tears, David could just make out an Amazon logo. With so many packages delivered by that behemoth of a company, it wasn’t a surprise that people reused Amazon boxes for their own mailing needs. This sender, though, seemed to have used every box he could get his hands on; after two top cardboard layers, David discovered yet another box. It was a Russian stacking doll approach to packing.

“Better be worth it,” David said as he carefully wrapped his hand in paper towels. His own blood already stained some of the discarded shreds of cardboard under the kitchen table.

He stabbed the exposed layer of packaging with the viciousness it deserved. This time, the scissors hit emptiness after penetration. David’s face bore a dark smile. Got you now.

After another five minutes, the top of the box was practically destroyed, its remnants everywhere, and a stack of yellowing papers held together with one of those giant alligator clips was revealed inside. The manuscript—David assumed that this was what it was—was cushioned with paper napkins from some Slavic fast food restaurant. The napkins featured a small bird logo and writing in a language David didn’t recognize, but assumed to be in a Cyrillic alphabet. At least the napkins didn’t look used.

David set the manuscript on the table, then picked up the box, ready to crush the whole thing—no recycling would take this mess. But it felt heavier that it should for an empty package. With some trepidation, he stuck his uninjured hand into the package and rummaged among the wadded napkins. Sure enough, there was another box. David groaned—he didn’t relish the thought of fighting another package for its contents.

The package inside the package was also wrapped in several layers of packing tape—this sender’s preferred method of packing, apparently. With a sigh, David pickup the scissors and started liberating the contents. After several minutes and no major injuries, he was able to open a newly created lid. And within, nestled among additional bird napkins, was an ornate fountain pen, a small vial, and a hand-written note:

Dear Mr. Gatewood,

I hope you would be kind enough to accept my simple story for your careful edits. Your reputation of a masterful word craftsmanship have reached even my humble parts of the world. If you do do the honor of improving my prose, please use the enclosed pen and ink for your notations.

I await the results of your work with trepidation and hope.

I hope you will find the work easy and the fee acceptable. 20 BitCoins have been transferred into your account.

Yours humbly,

The Author

David read the note several times. He didn’t have a Bitcoin account, although he wasn’t averse to having one… in theory. In practice, he would rather get a check or a PayPal payment. But with Bitcoins at $600 each, the amount was significant.

“The weird ones are never easy and rarely simple,” he said under his breath. He left the mess in the kitchen, deciding he needed to disinfect his injuries. There was no telling who, or what, had handled that stuff. “No one touch anything,” he yelled out into the house.


Several days later, David still hadn’t looked at the strange manuscript—although he had cleaned up the packing mess and moved the papers and the pen to his home office. But there was a lull in his work—some of the regular writers he worked with didn’t submit their manuscripts on time—and David turned to look at the yellowed stack on the far edge of his desk. He might as well get an idea of how bad it was; perhaps he would find a polite way to turn this author down.

He sat back and started to flip through the typed pages. It wasn’t bad. The story started with an action sequence. The main character—a twenty-something-year-old blond heroine—seemed spunky and interesting… potentially. But the spelling and grammar were the worst! The spell-checks and grammar wizards of modern software certainly made a huge improvement in most writers’ basic competency, homonyms and homographs not withstanding, but they could only do so much. He flipped a few more pages. He decided he could do the job in a few days—the manuscript was a lot shorter than it looked, thanks to a big font and bigger margins (sure signs of an amateur).

David pulled a pencil out of his mouth—how did it get there?—and tried to add a simple Oxford comma. The pencil didn’t leave a mark. David pushed harder. He could see the paper almost tearing under the sharp point of his pencil, but as soon as he lifted the tip, it self-repaired and looked completely unmarked. David tried crossing out a word. Same result: no correction, no mark of any kind. He sat back, an unpleasant tingling going down his back. His eyes drifted toward the small box with the ornate pen and ink.

Setting the manuscript back on the desk, David reached for the pen and unscrewed the top. It was shaped like a little bird. He couldn’t be sure, since he had thrown out every napkin used in the packaging, but the bird looked the same as that logo. There didn’t seem to be an easy way to fill the pen other than to just pour the contents of the ink bottle directly into the body of the pen. So David shrugged, pulled off the rubber stopper, and poured. The ink was thick and viscous and had a dark reddish-brown hue. David was worried he might get some of the substance on his skin or the table, but the ink practically sucked itself into the pen. In fact, the entire contents of the bottle flowed into the pen, down to the last drop. That didn’t feel right; there seemed to be more ink in the bottle than space in the pen. But whatever.

David screwed the pen back together and leaned over the paper. “Not ‘alterior’ but ‘ulterior,’” he mumbled to the manuscript. The pen rolled a beautiful red cross-out line. Small embellishments turned simple editing marks into beautiful script.

“Hmm,” said David and made a few more edits. All were transformed into beautiful notations in bright red.

There was a metallic scent in the air. David had just a hint of it, on the tip of his tongue. He gently brushed his fingers over the red ink. His fingers tingled and the strange smell got stronger.

Over the next several hours, David didn’t get up from his desk. He meticulously edited page after page, his fingertips turning red with blood-colored ink. He was vaguely aware of his wife calling him to dinner and then to kiss his children goodnight, but he couldn’t leave the work. He was completely focused on the pages in front of him.


David woke with a start. He didn’t remember going to bed. He wasn’t even sure what day it was. But it was light outside.

He stood up and walked to the bathroom. The face in the mirror startled him. His face showed several days of beard growth, and his eyes had a drawn, haunted look.

“Honey? Honey!” he called. But no one was home, apparently. Stephanie, his wife, must have taken the kids to school or was out on an errand or something.

David walked downstairs to the kitchen. He felt pangs of hunger. How long had it been since he had eaten last? He didn’t know.

On the kitchen table was a note from Stephanie: “I am dropping that manuscript package at the post office for you. I hope you got paid well. And don’t do that again—you scared us half to death. Love, Steph.”

So. He must have finished the editing job, but he didn’t remember a word of the story. And he didn’t have a record of any of the edits—it had all been done on paper. With a start David realized that he didn’t even remember preparing a package for mailing back to the author. Didn’t he have trouble reading the return address? He ran back to his office and looked at the desk. The pen was still there, waiting for him. His fingers tingled, jonesing for more red ink. He looked at his hands. His fingers and even his palms were covered in that horrible stuff.

David grabbed the pen and tossed it in a wastebasket. Then he took the whole basket and walked it to the garage to dump into the garbage bin. Satisfied, he walked back to his office to return the small basket to its place.

He stopped short. The pen was right in the middle of the desk.

He grabbed it again, ran into the garage, and stuffed the pen deep into the garbage. His hand came out with coffee grounds and other crap all over it. But he was sure the pen was down there this time. David washed his hands in the laundry sink and walked back into the house. This time, he didn’t return to his office. Instead he made himself coffee and breakfast. He sat and pretended to read a newspaper.

After almost an hour, he couldn’t wait anymore. He practically ran into the office.

The pen was right there, waiting for him. David picked it up. Not even a hint of coffee grounds or dirt clung to it.

The doorbell rang, followed by a knock on the front door. David tore his eyes from the pen and went to open the door. A delivery man was standing outside with a cobbled-together, over-taped package under his arm.

“Mr. Gatewood? Please sign here, sir.” He extended the clipboard, waiting patiently for a signature receipt of delivery.

“I… I don’t want it,” David managed to say. But his hand was already signing the form… in blood red ink.