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art by Shannon N. Kelly

The Pencil of Truth

Shamus Maxwell is a writer, film-maker and photographer. His feature film The Oracle, about a woman who can answer any question put to her with the absolute truth, but only at the point of orgasm, was shown at the SFF-rated Athens Int'l Sci-Fi & Fantasy Film Festival, where it came second or third in all three audience awards (and he's still a bit annoyed about not winning). He lives in South London and does pretty much whatever he wants until his money runs out and he has to go out and work. You can check out some of his photographic and video work at www.cruellestmonth.com. He also has stories coming out at Everydayfiction.com and in Bourbon Penn.

The shop was almost bare. A few unpromising objects lay scattered willy-nilly on its rickety shelves. As he gazed at the forlorn selection of wares Magnus was approached by the proprietor, an old and wizened man with a mild, yet sinister, grin.
"Are you looking for anything in particular, sir?"
Magnus smiled.
"How about some kind of magical object that will change my life, at first for the better, then for the worse, at which point I'll come back here to find the shop has disappeared and be forced to try and unload the object on an unsuspecting victim? I'll either fail and die in some horrible way, or succeed and live with the guilt."
"Sir is experienced in these matters!"
Magnus laughed.
"I have several pieces that fit the bill," continued the old man.
"Say on!"
"How about a prism that allows you to see into your past?"
"I have my memory for that--and things that have been forgotten should probably stay that way."
"Very wise, sir. Perhaps I can interest you in a Monopoly set that adds and subtracts money for your bank account according to your fortunes in the game?"
"I was never much good at Monopoly. What else have you got?"
"Well, there is this."
The old man brandished a well-worn pencil.
"Let me guess," said Magnus. "Whatever you draw with it comes to life?"
"Goodness me! That would be far too powerful! With such a pencil, a man could actually conquer the world."
"I'm sure it would have some flaw that would allow for its turning on the user."
"Yes, but chaos would ensue nevertheless. Someone would inevitably draw some nasty mythological creature that would end up attracting all sorts of unwanted attention."
"So what does it do?"
"Why not give it a try? Write something. It doesn't matter what."
Magnus took the pencil in hand and, on the back of an envelope he retrieved from his pocket, wrote: 'I am on my lunch hour.'
The old man glanced over his shoulder and chuckled softly. Magnus looked at what he'd written. It read: I'll never make it as a photographer.
"What the hell?"
"Did sir harbor ambitions in that direction?" enquired the shopkeeper.
"Just what is this thing?"
"A magic pencil. It tells the truth--nothing more."
"But I didn't say anything about wanting to be a photographer."
"It doesn't answer specific questions. One can never predict what it will tell you. But it never lies. Such an object could be useful, don't you agree?"
Magnus pondered for a few seconds, then tried to write his address.
Man United will win the League eight more times before the fall of Western Civilization.
"Now that's more like it," said Magnus quietly. "If only it would say in what years…."
The shopkeeper smiled.
"You begin to see its uses?"
"Yes, but look, isn't there any way to control what kind of thing it tells you?"
"I'm afraid not. The pencil has a flaw in its design. I wouldn't be selling it otherwise."
"How much?" he asked, not wanting to waste any more time.
After obtaining the pencil for a surprisingly (suspiciously?) reasonable price, Magnus hurried back to his office. He set in front of him a brand new sheet of printer paper. All he needed was one concrete but hidden fact about his immediate environment to test it, and one concrete future sports result he could place a bet on, and he'd be a rich man. And if the pencil told him a few home truths in the meantime it was a price worth paying.
He tried to write his name.
Robert earns more than me but does less work.
That could be true--probably was. Not easily testable though. He tried again.
Bloody useless! Again.
My boss is masturbating in the toilets.
Magnus jumped up from his desk and headed straight for the men's room. He entered quietly, tiptoeing along until he found an occupied stall. Unable to hear anything, he entered the adjacent stall and crept up onto the toilet seat. Ever so carefully, he raised himself up so he could see over the partition. A tiny smile crept across his mouth.
He had confirmation.
Back at his desk he took up the pencil once more and tried to write 'I'm outta here!'
My wife has group sex on Tuesday afternoons.
Somewhat to his surprise, the shop had not disappeared.
"Ah, I see the pencil has told you one fact too many!" said the shopkeeper as Magnus entered.
"Tell me it can lie!" shouted Magnus.
"I'm afraid not. I assume you've done some tests."
"Yes, but how do I know it doesn't alternate truth with lies?"
"You can never know for certain. It's never lied to me though. For example it told me you'd be coming back."
"So what--you think I'm returning it?! You're mad! I'm not that easily put off! Besides, it can't tell me anything worse than it already has."
"True. I suppose you may as well get some use out of it now that it's ruined your life."
Magnus couldn't think of anything to say, so he turned on his heel and left the shop, determined to do exactly as the proprietor had suggested.
The old man waited patiently until he heard a screeching of tires, a thud and some screaming, then he walked out into the road and retrieved the pencil from Magnus's pocket while everyone else was busy recoiling in horror or calling an ambulance.
He sat in his easy chair and examined his list, scanning down to the item he wanted.
Monkeys will one day evolve into a second human race, long after the first has perished.
Star Wars isn't the best film ever made, but then neither is The Godfather.
Fermat was joking.
A man will buy this pencil, but I'll get it back the same day. The circumstances will amuse me.
"There it is," said the old man, and crossed the item out. In pen.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, February 13th, 2012

Author Comments

I wrote this story partly as a response to some thoughts I had about Penny Crayon when I was a child, which for some reason resurfaced recently. If you don't know it, Penny Crayon was a children's show about a girl with a magic crayon--whatever she drew with it would come to life (and be under her power, I think). Even when I was eight I thought that was silly--her power was virtually unlimited. The girl could have conquered the world! Or gone down in flames trying. The other inspiration was my own film The Oracle, about a woman who gives people truthful answers to their questions, at which point they often discover that they didn't really want to know in the first place. So magic crayon plus truths you don't really want to hear became... The Pencil of Truth! Probably. I don't really remember."

- Shamus Maxwell
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