“Buy me a coffee?”
I can smell the man so strongly, I don’t even want to look at him. Let alone that any eye contact will most likely just encourage his inquisition. Instead I glance around at the others waiting to catch the transit. No help there. The schoolboy has found something intriguing about his shoelaces, and the woman is looking down the street, presumably looking for the bus.
“How ’bout some change?”
He isn’t going to go away on his own, so I have no choice but to reply. With an excuse already forming on my lips I look up at him. And my throat locks up tight. The man, if he can loosely even be called a man, is hideous. His dirty, tattered clothes look like they’ve been worn for at least a year straight. Smudges of grime cover his sallow face, and his encrusted fingernails are at least a half an inch long.
Any semblance of an excuse having fled from my mind, I can only stare at this derelict numbly. He returns my stare, void of reaction, and holds up a ream of ragged papers to my face.
“I’m a writer too, ya know.”
I can barely even nod to acknowledge him. The smell has gotten worse, but the disgust growing inside me seems like a distant thing. He tilts his head slightly and smiles.
“I’ll read you some. I bet you like it.” He hacks phlegm from his throat and spits it on the sidewalk. Holding the papers close to his face, he begins to read. “You blaspheme in the face of sovereignty? Your punishment will be unending-”
The sudden hissing of brakes startles me from the frozen trance. A quick look, it’s the six. My bus. Hurriedly I get on, not looking back, and as the doors close, I can hear him calling after me.
“Ya liked it, din’cha?”
My hand is shaking as I show the driver my pass. I seek out an empty seat, being careful not to look out the window, avoiding at all costs another sight of that wretched man. That was strange. Of all the people he could have talked to, why me? And what about the writer bit? How did he know? Okay, it’s perfectly reasonable that he saw my picture on…
“Hey!” A very quick, startled look across the aisle and I see the kid who’s talking. “You’re Martin Chase, aren’t you? Oh, man! Can you sign my book?” He’s looking at me like I’m a god. Waving a damn book at me. Which one is it? Gibberish, that figures. It couldn’t have been something good. Where’s my pen. I’ve got to have a pen. Anything to make him go away.
A deep breath. I smile at the kid and take his book. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Kevin. Oh man, wait’ll I show this around!”
“To my friend, Kevin. Best wishes, Martin.” P.S. Watch out for filthy, psychotic bums. I hand the book back to him. “Take care, kevin.” He doesn’t stop grinning all the way to his stop. At least it helps my nerves calm down.
“He wants what?”
Cleo stands there looking at me with an amused expression on her face. “The King in Yellow. Not just a new paperback copy, mind you, but an old edition hardback.” She turns back to the pots on the stove, stirring something that smells absolutely delicious. I look back down at the Christmas list for Brody, crossing that one off.
“Like that’s just going to appear out of thin air. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get an old copy of that book?” She looks back over her shoulder at me, one finger in her mouth, tasting whatever sauce she’s concocting over there. “Not to mention expensive.” An eyebrow arches. “He’s just going to have to be disappointed. I went through the same phase when I first read that book. Heck, it was one of the biggest influences on my decision to become a writer. But that old paperback was good enough for me, and it’ll just have to be good enough for him.” A slight tilt of the head, and back to stirring the sauce. I know that body language, and this decision isn’t going to end here even if the conversation is.
I step back to look at the tree and make sure it’s straight. “Brody. Could you get me the lights from the bag?” His footsteps go trouncing off to the dining room. The tree could go a litle to the left, so I get back down to turn the screws. Up close, and in the light, there are a lot more brown needles than there seemed to be in the lot. The tree will probably be half dead by Christmas. That’s the price you pay when you go to buy a tree at night.
“Here you go, dad.” The slap of the boxed lights hitting the floor is followed shortly by the click of the television set being turned on.
“What, you’re not going to help me put up the lights?”
“Come on, dad. It doesn’t take two people to put up lights. I’ll help with the decorations… when this show’s over.” Brody settles back comfortably onto the sofa.
The first two strings go on, and it looks like the third and last string will just fill in the empty space. I open the box, pull out the lights, and for a second am too confused to say anything. They’re all yellow. Why the hell would anyone want a string of all yellow Christmas lights?
“Honey? Why did you get a string of yellow lights?” Brody turns his attention away from the T.V. to look. Cleo comes in from the other room with a quizzical look on her face. “Did you know these were all yellow?”
“Martin, if I knew they were all yellow do you think I would have bought them?”
“I don’t know. I thought it might be a cute little way of…” I trail off the sentence, realizing that Brody is sitting right there. He watches the T.V. intently, looking like he isn’t paying attention to any of this. He’s not a stupid kid. Now he’s going to get his hopes up for nothing.
“I didn’t even know they made strings of yellow lights. Who buys stuff like that? Too weird to be a fluke though. Someone must have dropped them into the wrong bin by mistake.” She turns, walking back into the other room. “I’ll go back and return them tomorrow.”
I nod my head silently, unable to think of anything else to say, or do for that matter. It is Brody who finally breaks the silence.
“I guess we have to wait to decorate the tree, hunh?”
“Brody. Did you sign up with some book club?” I look at the box in my hands. It’s addressed to Brody, from some company called Dream-quest Books. I hear the footsteps tromping down the stairs. He stops next to me, looking at the box.
“No, not me.” He looks up at me, mock innocence pasted on his face. “Maybe it’s a Christmas present from grandpa.”
I tuck the box away under my arm. “Well then, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we.” The disappointment that flashes in his eyes is very brief. With a shrug of his shoulders he heads back up the stairs. My gaze falls back to the box. A strange uneasiness comes over me, and I’m not sure why.
I take the box into my office and shut the door. Working my fingers into the glued end, I peel it open, and slide out the contents. It’s a wrapped present. Plain and simple. There’s no tag, the company must have put it under the wrapping. Feels like a hardcover. Strange paper too. Maybe I should open it, just to find out who it’s from. Probably a relative, but it never hurts to be safe. I pick at the taped edge of the paper. And the door opens.
“Martin, what time are we… Ooo, what’s that?” Cleo gets a smile on her face, slinking towards me.
“Uh. Just a present for, uh, Brody. I was about to go put it under the tree.”
“Oh.” A hint of a frown. She probably thought it was something for her. “Who’s it from?”
“I don’t know,” I say, turning the package over in my hands. “No, tag. Company probably put it inside the wrapper.”
“Well, I guess we have to wait a whole week. It’ll be a surprise for all of us.” A coy smile. “Now what was I… oh yes. When do we need to be at the Marlen’s?”
“Oh, wow! I knew it! I totally knew it” Brody pulls the book from it’s strange wrapping and holds it up. For some reason, I’m not surprised. I should be, but under Brody and Cleo’s happy gazes, both of them apparently assuming this was all my doing, I can’t find it in me. I can only sit there. Smiling. Brody opens the book with disbelief. The King in Yellow, by Robert Chambers. First printing.
“Martin, come on. You told me that two weeks ago.” My publisher sits across his desk from me, and I can’t tell if the concern on his face is for me or his checkbook. “You’re pushing the terms of leniency to their max. Now, I’ve got to get something from you. Anything.”
“There’s not much to get, Ken.” I don’t look at him. I can feel him staring at me, formulating his thoughts.
“What are you telling me?”
“I trashed it.” Still not meeting his eyes. “Didn’t like where it was going.” He leans forward.
“This late into the game, I don’t think that’s your decision to make. There are investors involved here. You need to have something.” After staring at me for a few seconds he goes on. “If there’s something going on that I need to know about…” The sentence hangs in unnatural silence. I finally look in his eyes. There’s something in them that resembles wariness.
“What?” I ask curtly, and my voice sounds angry.
“What the hell are you thinking about, man? You look like you want to kill somebody.”
“No, the other guy in your chair. For a second there you looked about as pissed off as I’ve ever seen you.” Leaning back in his chair he relaxes a little. “Anyway, I’ve got some other appointments, but remember this little talk. I don’t want to have to be a hard-ass with you, so don’t make me. Please.”
What was I thinking about? I don’t remember it being anything that would make me angry. Odd. “Right. I’ll try and get you something by the end of the week.”
“Thursday would be even better.” Smile.
“Like I said, I’ll try.” I let myself out.
“Been to Hali?”
That smell. That voice. Not today. It’s just the wrong time to have to deal with this nasty little cuss. What did he say?
“How ’bout some change?” Looking up at him, I am once again shocked at the disgusting visage.
“What did you say?”
“Change. Change is good.” His lips are cracked, and as a grin spreads wickedly across his face they ooze glisteningly. A bile begins to rise from my stomach, I look away. Need some fresh air.
“No. I don’t have any. Please go away.” My head spins, whiteness closing in on the fringes of my vision. I put out a hand to steady myself. Someone takes it. A grip on my arm, holding me up. The smell doesn’t go away, it just gets stronger.
“You have to be strong to survive.” The rasping voice is so close it could be in my head. “Be strong enough to remember.”
The grip on my arm and hand is released and I tumble to the ground, crying out.
“Buddy, you okay?” I open my eyes, looking up at someone. A black man. I don’t know him. “You want a hand up?” He non-commitally reaches down.
“Where did he go?” Looking around, I try to spot the filthy derelict. “Did you see which way he went?”
“Who you talkin’ about?” You were the only one here when I showed up just now.” I look at my watch. It’s ten minutes later than I thought it was. Looking over, I see my shoulder-bag, right where it was. This is not normal. I must be ill.
“I, uh, must have passed out. Or something.” Reaching to take his hand, I let him help me up. “Thanks.”
“You sure you’re alright?”
“Yeah. I just want to get home.”
The five minutes it takes for the bus to arrive are the longest two hours of my life. About halfway home I realize that I’ve been shivering, and it isn’t cold outside.
My body doesn’t stop shaking until I’ve spent twenty minutes in the shower, and even then I don’t feel better.
“How come I can’t come with you and mom to celebrate your book thing?” Brody stands there looking at me like I’ve just taken away his right to have any fun in this life at all.
“It’s not just the book, we’ll all do something together for that later. It’s Valentine’s day too you know. And my publisher wanted to take me and mom out.” He doesn’t look convinced, and his mouth twists slightly. “I promise we’ll all go out tomorow. Okay?” He nods, and sluggishly heads up the stairs. I call past him. “You almost ready, hon? Ken made the reservations for six.”
“Okay, I’m almost ready. Just hold on.” That means five more minutes.
“I gotta hand it to you, Marty, this one takes the cake.” Ken holds up a glass of champagne. “You’re giving King a run for his money now.” Everyone around the table laughs. “I honestly didn’t think you were going to pull it off, and then you finish the thing in a week.”
My wife interrupts, “Keep in mind, none of us saw him practically all week…” More laughter.
“Hey, when you’re on a run, you gotta go with it” Ken says, smiling at her. “Really though, Martin, some of that stuff was a lot more sinister than anything I’ve seen you write. What inspired you? I mean, just out of curiosity.” Some of the others nod in agreement, looking at me with piqued interest.
What to say? Some deranged homeless person was the inspiration for the best book of my career? Not very poetic. True, but not poetic. I look past them all, through the window, rain running down its surface, at the hands pressed tightly against the glass. Past the hands, the ragged coat covering their owner’s arms, to the rivulets of muddy water running down his face. Through the filty locks of matted hair, and into those eyes.
The wine glass drops from my hand, and as I gasp sharply, whatever bit of food happened to be in my mouth lodges firmy in my throat. The glass hits the floor, shattering, seemingly in slow motion. The table comes alive.
“Are you okay… Martin, what is it… Oh my God… What happened… Waiter… Is there anything I can do for you?”
The whole time, those eyes drilling into my head. Shapes moving behind him, caught only peripherally, don’t seem real.
“…getting red… Honey, can’t you breathe… Hit him on the back… No, you have to…”
Tiny crow’s feet appear at the corners of those eyes, almost like he’s smiling. What could he find so amusing in his current situation? Me? What’s so funny about me? Insulted, I tear my gaze away and back to the confusion around me. Half of them are looking at me with concern, and the other half are scrambling to get near me. My wife grabs my face, trying to force open my mouth, and I can only wonder what the rest of the restaurant thinks of this display. Someone grabs me under the armpits, trying to lift me from my chair. Having had just about enough, I bat their hands away. My wife doesn’t seem to care, and clutches at my mouth again. She’s saying something, but I don’t pay any attention. It’s unimportant. I turn away from her clawing fingers.
II I notice then, that the hands are gone from the window.
Air. I need air. The reality of the situation hits me as my vision begins to go hazy. Desperately I turn back, trying to find Cleo. There is only a wall of distorted faces. Reaching out, I try to choke the thing from my windpipe to no avail.
There are hands on me. Pulling me. I don’t even wonder whose they are. I don’t wonder much at all.
“ …he’s waking up.”
On my back. Mouth dry. Tastes bad.
I try to open my eyes, but can’t. They just won’t obey me. Somewhere in my head a faint twinge of anger sparks at that. I try to move my arm instead.
“Honey, can you hear me?”
The voice is familiar, but I can’t quite place the owner. My hand reluctantly moves to my face, rubbing my eyes. They hurt. I try to open them again, and this time my eyelids grudgingly part. A face is right in front of mine, someone leaning over me. It isn’t familiar.
“You’re back! I can’t believe it!”
She’s crying now. It must be someone important if she feels this sort of emotion, but I just can’t relate to the tears. I look around the room. It’s clean. Very clean. And very white. The woman grabs my face, kissing it, uttering joyful comments. The room has one window, and outside a tree blows in the wind. I have a vague recollection of someone looking in through the window.
Looking at the woman again I ask, “where is the man who was here?” My voice sounds strange. She looks puzzled.
“What man? The doctor? He’s around somewhere. Do you need him- should I call- are you feeling-“
I look away, not interested in her babbling. She must feel my disconnection, for her hand slowly draws back from my face, and she quiets. “No, not the doctor, the other man. The man who was watching over me.”
Her words come hesitantly. “I don’t know who you’re talking about, Martin” Is that my name? Funny, I can’t remember that either. “There hasn’t been anyone else while I’ve been here, and I’ve been here every evening.” Every evening? She makes it sound like I’m always in this bed. I suppose I could have been, I don’t recall. I look back.
“Eighteen days, Martin. You’ve been in a coma for eighteen days. The doctor said that it didn’t look good, but I knew you’d come back. Brody will be so happy to see you awake.” Something important about that. Brody is someone important. It’s not coming to me yet, but it will, I can feel it. Just have to give it time. A coma.
“A coma?” That’s not right. How… “What happened?”
“Don’t you remember? You… “ The doubt suddenly disappears from her expression, and I can see she’s figuring out that I don’t know who she is. “You don’t remember, do you? You choked on something, Martin. At dinner with Ken. You swallowed, and something got stuck in your throat. I thought… I though you were… “. She covers her face with her hand. Hiding her tears from me, sniffling.
I try to remember, but it isn’t coming back.
“Be strong enough to remember.”
I grab her hand. “What did you say?”
She is shocked out of her tears, and looks confused. “What? I didn’t-“
“Something about remembering. What did you say?”
“Nothing. I didn’t say anything.” Tears begin to run from her eyes again. “I’m going to call Brody. He’ll want to know you’re awake.” I dismiss her with a small gesture of my hand, turning back to the window. Watching. Waiting for the face to appear.
When she brings Brody to see me I am disappointed. I expected some sort of recollection, but there’s nothing. Just a kid. A young, obnoxious kid.
It doesn’t feel like home. They tell me it is, but nothing is familiar. A bunch of junk on shelves. Tacky furniture, cheap dishes, ugly yard. But then the study… Seeing it, something, just a piece, clicks into place. I’m a writer. I remember that now. And I was working on a book. I touch the keyboard hesitantly, afraid that everything I’ve remembered will shatter away like a house of cards. But it doesn’t. It feels… right. This is home.
I pull the page from the printer tray, scanning it over. It’s good work. My best yet. I turn back to the monitor, next scene already in mind, and Cleo’s voice breaks the spell.
“Martin,” Martin, Martin, Martin. “I’ve got to get to work. I’ll see you tonight. Love you.” Anger wells up in me. Obviously she loves me. She doesn’t have to tell me all the damn time. Why can’t she just leave? Like I’m going to worry – oh no, where did she go? What will I do now?
I take a deep breath. This is bad. My anger has gotten worse, even if my memory has gotten better. I know it never used to be like this. Though I’ve remembered names, things, events, none of the emotions that should be attached to them have come.
My stomach growls at me, and knowing that nothing is going to spring forth from my mind and onto the page now, I get up and trudge to the kitchen. Cereal… nothing but gaggingly sweet kiddie crap. No eggs. I pull out sandwich makings: bread, one slice of meat, no mayo, mustard. I squeeze the mustard container over the first slice, and halfway over the second when it spurts the last of its contents onto the slice. I turn it over in my hand, not believing the betrayal. And then I throw it as hard as I can into the kitchen wall, where small drops of yellow snort from its spout onto the wallpaper.
No sooner than the container hits the floor, I realize what a childish display that was. I laugh a little. And then I laugh a little more. Man, I’ve got to get the hell out of this house. Serious cabin fever.
Eventually, I find myself at the bus station. I have no idea which bus I want, or where I’m going, but I find myself looking at the timetables.
“Ya liked it, din’cha?”
I freeze. Sweat breaks out on my face, and I begin to shiver.
“Ya got change? Yeah, I can see ya got change. Dat’s good.” A hacking laugh.
I want to look at him, but my head refuses. A shuffling sound, and I can feel him press closer to me. His stench is overwhelming, and my stomach lurches, bile rising into my mouth. Still I can’t move. And it angers me. It’s the anger that frees me from my stasis. I turn to face him… and he’s gone. I spin around, looking up and down the terminal, but there’s no sign of him.
Hands pressed against the window. The rain. Dirty strands of hair. I close my eyes, trying to remember the face. That damnable face. But I can’t.
It is a fearful thing to fall. To fall into the hands. “…the hands of the living God.”
My eyes snap open. My head is resting on the desk next to my keyboard. Brody is looking at the screen, reading aloud.
“And now you will be enlightened as to what fear can truly be.” He looks at me, sees that my eyes are open. “That sounds kind of like the King in Yellow, dad.” His head starts looking back toward the screen, but is halted as my hand darts out, grabbing his chin. Immediately a cry of pain begins to form in his throat.
“Shut up.” One of my hands grabs the back of his head, while the other clamps over his mouth. “If you cry, you’ll wish you hadn’t.” His eyes are large with fear and surprise, I’ve never done anything like this to him before. “Now, why were you reading my book? You know it’s not done, and you know that if it’s not done, you don’t read it. Right?” Nothing. No response. “You’d better answer me. Do you read my book if it isn’t finished?” Slowly, ever so slowly, his head motions no. “That’s right. Now, I should punish you. But I think you’ve learned your lesson. Right?” Again, slowly, yes. “Good. And if you mention a word of this to your mother… you think you’re afraid now, well, I’ll show you what it means to be afraid.”
I take my hand off of his mouth… and he’s smiling. I look him in the eyes, mustering up all the anger I can, and it dissolves, is swallowed by the emptiness that I see there. His smile gets bigger, and his eyes threaten things beyond my understanding. I can’t look away. They draw me in. Kicking and screaming they pull me closer.
“So, father, what does it mean to be afraid?” And the smile never leaves his face.
I jolt awake, my hand knocking over the coffee cup on my desk. There’s no one in the room. No Brody. I rub my eyes, trying to shake the image of his smile from my mind with the other vestiges of the nightmare. Turning to the monitor, I look to see what I last wrote, hoping to lose myself in the book again…
… and now you will be enlightened as to what fear can truly be.
“Come on Marty. That’s just unacceptable.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I’m their best damn seller, and he’s telling me no. I just sit and stare at him. That long stare that says he’s going to have to walk the walk. I’m not going to give up just because it’s unacceptable.
“People buy you to get scared. People pay to read a book that will keep them up at night with the lights on because they’re too damn afraid of the dark. You can’t expect to publish a play just because you feel like you want to. We don’t even publish plays for cryin’ out loud.” He leans back in the chair, starts to say something else, and loses the words.
“Well, maybe I should take it to someone who does.” It hangs there. He gives me a good long stare, the kind that weighs what’s at stake. Finally he speaks.
“You’d be in breach of your contract. You know that, right?” Contract. What’s a few bucks? I could care less about my contract. I’ve got a horror play to die for, so why should I care about whether or not I’m going to owe them money if I take it somewhere else?
If he thinks I’m going to back off because of that he’s… “… got another thing coming.” His jaw drops.
“What did you… Are you threatening me?” He looks at me in disbelief. “Marty, what the hell is going on with you? I realize that you had a little brush with death a while back, but it doesn’t mean you get your run of things because you feel like it.” Hmm… I must have been talking out loud. What did I say?
Actually, I don’t care what I said. Let him take it as a threat. What’s he going to do, “…cry about it? Yeah, what if I do take my play somewhere else? You’ll be sorry, that’s what! You’ll be very, very sorry!” I stand up forcefully, knocking the chair down behind me, storm out the door, and slam it shut behind me.
Ken’s secretary looks up at me curiously. “Mr. Chase, is everything…” I don’t even hear her finish as I stride from the office. Outside I take a long, deep breath of air. I feel liberated. No more deadlines. No more nitpicking at my work. Free of the, fix this, cut that, re-word these, paltry little edits that have stifled me for so long. Now I’m beholden to no one but myself, and I wonder how I survived for this long in any other way.
“I will write what I want to write!” The bold statement rings out true, and I am strengthened even more by hearing it. I hurry towards home amidst the crowds of staring passersby. There’s still so much left unfinished, and I’m inspired by the recent turn of events.
All the way home I hear a voice in my head whispering to me I’ve done the right thing, but I can’t quite place whose voice it is.
“Dad, c’mon, we don’t want to miss any of the fireworks.”
I blink. My eyes focus on the empty page, the cursor blinking in a field of white. I don’t know where my mind has been, or what I’ve been thinking, but it hasn’t been about writing. I stretch the kink out of my neck and get up. “Okay, I’m coming.” Brody’s waiting for me out in the hall, when I open the door.
“C’mon! It’s almost dark!” He hurries off toward the garage. Cleo comes out of the kitchen, and I feel the familiar pang of guilt when I see her. It’s been almost a month since the scene in Ken’s office, and I still haven’t told her.
“You’d think he’s never seen fireworks before,” I mutter. She just gives me a look. Not amused.
“So, what does Ken think of the new book?” I’m driving, so I don’t have to look at her. Good thing.
“Well, I haven’t really heard anything from him.”
” That doesn’t seem much like him. Usually he tears right through your books. How long has he had it now? I mean, you finished it a couple of weeks ago, didn’t you?”
“Well, uh… not really. I’m, you know, kind of touching it up.”
“Oh.” It’s silent. Which is fine, as long as she’s not thinking about it too hard. Fortunately, timing prevents anything too catastrophic.
“Hey, we’re here!”
It’s a great show. Not surprising, since the fireworks show is always good on the 4th. It just seems better this year for some reason. I guess I’ve been working too hard. I should really tell her. She’s going to find out sooner or later.
“Dad, check out that one!”
“Yeah, that’s great.” She’s going to try and make me go back to him. I know her. She’ll say I have to make up with him, and try to get him to take it. Which he won’t. I’m torn between feeling disgusted at myself for wasting all that time working on a play, and ashamed at myself for feeling disgusted. What was I thinking? I know Ken would never take a play. I’m not a playwright. I do horror. Books are an entirely different thing from stage.
What was I thinking?
“Wow, honey, look at that!” At Cleo’s urging I look up.
A massive bloom of red is spreading through the sky, it’s center a white hot sun of sparkling flame. As the expanding arms begin to arc downward, the color changes to orange, and then yellow. They continue downward, never fading. They stretch, reaching toward me, as though trying to touch me before sparking out of existence. But they don’t fade. Closer. Closer. A chill runs down my back. One by one, the fingers begin to blink out. All but one. It just keeps coming, and finally, when it seems there will be no escape, it’s gone.
A small piece of ash drifts down, landing on my cheek.
I start breathing again.
Cleo has the exact look I pictured on her face all the times I’ve thought about this moment.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“Well…” What am I supposed to say to that? I didn’t know how? Because you’re going to make me do something I don’t want to do? “I don’t know.” Bad answer.
“Oh. You don’t know.” Her eyes are on fire. “Well, let me tell you what I do know.” I look around for somewhere to sit. “Don’t you look away from me! You’re going to hear me out on this one!” I settle for leaning against the counter, the strength slowly seeping out of my knees as I look back at her. “You were impossible to live with while you were writing that thing. You hear me? Impossible! You were unresponsive to any contact I tried to get out of you, not to mention Brody. You were irritable, demanding, and downright mean.” It’s true. I don’t know how to explain any of it. I don’t even remember most of the period I was working on the play. “And I’m not going to have it all be for nothing. Do you understand?” I nod. A small, timid gesture. “I don’t care what you have to do with that play, but you’d better do something, because it’s been too much of a pain in the ass to have you just let it sit there.” She takes a long drink out of her wine glass.
“I don’t think Ken will take it.”
She puts the glass back down. “Well you’re still going to try. I want that thing out of here. Ever since you’ve finished it, you’ve done nothing but sit in that office. No typing, nothing to show. Get rid of the damn play, Martin. Let it go.”
My mouths opens and closes a couple of times, and I feel very much like a grounded fish. “I tried. I told you. They don’t publish plays.”
“Well, he hasn’t read it yet, has he? Listen to what I’m saying… I want the play out of here. I think you underestimate your power over him. If you give it to him, he’ll read it.” She pauses, as though coming to a decision. “You know what? You can do it tonight.”
She’s crazy, and that’s exactly the look I giver her. “What do you mean tonight?”
“I mean, take it over there tonight.”
I look out the window. “Honey, not only is it ten o’clock at night, but it’s pouring down rain! Can’t it wait until tomorrow when this storm is over?”
“No. It can’t. You wanted to be difficult, now I’m going to be difficult.” She’s got that look. The one that says I can whine and cry and yell, but none of it’s going to do any good, because until I take the damn play over to Ken’s place I’d better not even think of trying to do anything else. I’m just stubborn enough to not give up yet.
“And why should he even read it? He said no once already. It’s not like he’s going to have had a sudden change of heart.”
“Then put it in his mailbox.”
“What, just leave it there? What if he doesn’t read it?”
“Then he doesn’t read it. But you’ll have tried, it’ll be out of your office, and just maybe you can get back to writing. And maybe we can get back to our lives.”
It sounds like the end of the conversation to me. She takes another drink of her wine, polishing off the glass.
I shouldn’t have stood for it. What would she have done? Nothing. She couldn’t have. I never should have come out here. I lean forward, turning the windshield wipers up to high, trying desperately to see the road through the downpour. It’s no good, and I slow down even more, trying to keep a constant distance from the center-line reflectors. It’s about the only thing I can do… or see.
I ring the doorbell again, waiting. No answer. Forget it. I’m soaked, irritated, and tired. Plus I’ve got a long drive back to my house through this rain. I stuff the package into his mailbox. It doesn’t want to fit, but after some minor mangling, I manage to get it in. I step back. This isn’t right. Something tells me that this isn’t how it should be, that I shouldn’t leave it here. Too much invested. Too much at stake. Slowly, reluctantly, I force myself to turn around and walk back to the car.
What’s he going to do with it? Is he really going to read it? What if he just tosses it away? I don’t have another copy. I pull the steering wheel to the right as the reflectors drift toward the center of the car.
Ahead of me, a pair of headlights appear around the corner. They’re the annoying yellow halogen kind, the one’s that are way too bright. It looks like they’re in my lane. I flash my lights, but they keep coming, straight on.
As they get closer, it’s apparent that they are indeed in my lane, and I flash my brights again. Straight on. I swerve over into the opposite lane… and they mirror me. Probably some crazy teenager trying to act tough. Out with his buddies, all of them drunk. I steer back into the right lane again, and again the headlights follow me. They’re getting awfully close. I squint my eyes, trying to find the center line against the bright glare of the oncoming lights. Closer. I yank the wheel to the side, careening off the road. The car jolts up, and then dives downward. It slams to a standstill, and my head whips forward painfully.
My hands fumble for the door handle, and at last find it. Releasing my seat belt I tumble from the car, into the downpour, trying desperately to catch some glimpse of the vehicle. Nothing. It’s a straight road in that direction, and the rain can’t possibly hide the lights. But there aren’t any. There just aren’t any.
I kneel there for a minute, already completely soaked through, rubbing my neck and staring down into the mud. I get up. I look at the car, the front end buried in the mud-bank. I look toward home. I look at my wet clothes.
I start walking.
“It’s been an awful long time.”
“I’m not calling him, and that’s final.”
“Don’t be stubborn, just…”
“No. I already took the damn thing over there, and I didn’t want to. I’m certainly not going to call. How many times do we have to have this discussion?”
She just glares at me.
“What? It doesn’t matter. I’m working on my new book, you seem to be able to tolerate me, so let’s just forget about it.”
“You know how I feel about this.” Her hands go to the hips. I’ve got to end this scene quick.
“Yes, I do. But I’m still not calling him. And on that note, I’m going to go out now. I’ve been shut up in that room all day, and I need to get out.” I turn around, and start walking out of the kitchen. If I’m lucky, I’ll make it to the door. I am, and I do.
As though there has to be something more said, even if it’s off topic, Cleo calls out after me. “Pick up some milk on your way back. We’re almost out.” Wow. Talk about getting off easy.
It’s almost eight-thirty when I pull back into the driveway. I turn off the lights, and stare at the car parked out front. Ken’s car. It was such a good evening out. Shame I have to come back to this. If she called him, so help me I’ll… I’ll what?
What is the big deal, really? Is there some reason I shouldn’t want him to be here? Maybe he read the play and liked it. That still doesn’t change the fact that she shouldn’t have called him over behind my back.
Sighing, I open the door and step out.
I’m not relishing yet another argument with Cleo over this damn play. I should probably let it go. Just act as though everything is okay, and never mention it again.
I move up the walkway.
That’s what I’ll do. I’ll just forget the whole thing. I won’t let it bother me that she called Ken. I’m writing again, so I’ll just go on. Things are just about back to normal, so why should I keep dragging this thing out?
I pull out my keys, fishing for the right one.
I could go so far as to apologize. I have been somewhat of a monster to her and Brody. I’m not sure what got into me. Ken even mentioned a couple of times that I was acting strange. I didn’t think anything of it at the time.
I put the key to the lock, and the door opens slightly from the pressure. Unlatched. I’m going to have to get the frame fixed one of these days.
They say that some actors get so involved in their roles, that they need therapy afterwards to become themselves again. Maybe that’s what happened with the play. I was so involved that I started to see things differently. I’m glad it’s done. And I do think apologies are definitely in order.
I push the door open and enter.
Things need to be set right with Ken too. I know he’ll like the book I’m working on now. It’s not as good as the last one, but not my worst work by far.
Shutting the door behind me I hang up my keys, and go into the kitchen. Empty. Strange.
It’s only because of the unusual silence that I hear it. A muffled sound, almost like a moan, coming from the hall. Or the bedroom. I’m sure it’s the bedroom.
My hand grabs the counter, probably the only thing keeping me standing. I feel light-headed. The empty wine bottle seems to laugh at me. I grab it by the neck, strangling it, choking off its mockery. How could I have been so blind? Brody going to a friend’s. Cleo almost driving me from the house. How long?
Slowly, deliberately, one foot in front of the other, I start toward the end of the hall. The phone begins to ring. I barely notice, and move steadily onward. The bottle is now dead in my hand, nothing more than a tool. It’s weight feels good.
Closer. Almost to the door. I hear the sound of movement… the bed, creaking slightly. The headboard, thumping lightly on the wall. The sound of bodies, moving together.
I stop in front of the door, breathing heavily. Bright spots flash in my vision. Shutting my eyes tightly, I try to maintain focus.
Click. “Hi, you’ve reached the Chase residence….”
My eyes open. A hand that doesn’t seem to be mine reaches for the door handle, turns it, and opens the door. Feet that must belong to someone else move me forward, into the room. And the eyes that I can’t help but to look through gaze upon the scene within. He’s on top of her, fully clothed. His back to me. She lies under him, one leg twisted at an awkward angle, as though struggling.
“…is Jim. Where are you Brody? Weren’t you coming over tonight? Anyway…”
My legs become my own again, and I slump against the door, strength gone. The sound it makes seems like an explosion in my ears. Ken becomes still, and straightens up. He turns toward me. As his body moves, I can barely make out Cleo’s face on the bed behind him. Her mouth is open, as though trying to scream, but motionless. Her face a sickly purple. His hands move from her throat as he turns to face me completely. Some sort of mask is on his face. A full face mask, but one which is far too small for him. It’s pale, with ragged edges. Edges the color of crimson-brown. It’s probably a child’s mask. There are hints of freckles on it. Just like Brody has. His shirt is stained with the same ugly red as that on the mask, and streams of it run down his chin and neck.
He stands up straight, looking at me through the grisly eye-holes, unblinking. And kneels, forehead touching the floor.
Mechanically, I raise the bottle up, and bring it crashing down on the back of his head. His body slumps to the side, as the shattered remains of glass fall from my hand. Stumbling toward Cleo, I brush her face lightly with my fingers. She is still.
Walls spin around me as I ramble through the house. I find my son in his room, and a long, aching shudder racks my body from deep within.
Some time later, I recognize the phone, and remember to call the police. There’s been an accident.
Before they arrive, I happen across a pile of paper in the bedroom. It looks like a play. Something in my head tells me to hide it. So I do.
People finally arrive.
They take me away.
“If you’ll just sign here Mr. Chase, you can be on your way.”
“What am I signing now?”
“It’s just a release form, saying you’ve gotten all of your belongings back.”
“I see.” I sign it. “What’s today?”
“It’s the thirty-first.” He takes the paper when I’m done writing, giving me some kind of receipt. “Well, that’s it, sir. You’re free to go.”
Go. Go where? I know where. There’s only one place to go, one person to see.
He started it. All of it.
“That one. I want that one.”
“Ten bucks. No refunds.”
“That’s fine. Just fine.”
I can hear the cars rushing by overhead. The sounds of trucks and busses, speeding along to their destinations. I’ve arrived at mine.
There is trash everywhere. Discarded litter from the freeway above. Empty gin bottles, beer cans, and crumpled sacks of fast-food. The smell of urine is overpowering. But he’s here. I see him hunched over a pile of junk, rocking slightly, muttering to himself.
After walking up behind him, I stop, waiting.
“Ya remembered, din’cha?”
“Yes, I remembered.”
“You strong enough?”
“Oh yes. I’m strong enough. Stronger than you.” I kick him, hard, in the back of the head. He tumbles forward into the dirt, rolling onto his back. Leaping on top of him, I grab his face. His hands claw up my chest, wrap around my neck, begin to squeeze. Letting go of him with one hand, I reach into my coat pocket, pulling out the rusty, ten dollar knife from the pawn shop.
I put the blade to his cheek, and begin to carve.
His hands squeeze harder, and my vision is turning white. A gurgling kind of scream emits from his mouth as I continue working the knife around the outside of his face. The sound of his screaming changes when his lips are peeled away, and his grip lessens lightly, weakening. The white in my vision begins to fade into a dull yellow.
As I finish severing the last strands, his grip falls away altogether, and his cries cease. He looks at me, unable to blink, and is still.
Looking around, I check to see if anyone has perhaps heard the noise and is coming to investigate, but there seems to be no one. No curious passersby. No early trick-or-treaters, hitting the suburban outskirts. No commuters, waiting for the bus. Just me. And the one who was too weak. I drop the knife, and examine the item clutched in my other hand. Tenderly, I spread it out, turn it over, and place it carefully over my own face. It fits perfectly.
I have to be strong. To fail is blasphemous. I will not fail.
I drag the remains to some nearby brambles, cover it, and return to the collection of refuse and garbage. Digging through, I find what I’m looking for. The pages are dirty. Some are torn, dog-eared, soiled. But it’s all there.
The play. My play.
I lie down, clutching the pages to my chest. Closing my eyes, I make myself comfortable on my new bed. This is home.
And I smile with my fresh, new face.
People come and go, some do not notice me. Many of them try not to notice me. All of them rushing, too busy, too scared, too vacant. Every day I come here to watch. Waiting. They come here to walk their dogs. Or exercise. Or fish, though they’ll never catch a thing. Or to prey on the opposite sex. Or just to escape.
A man approaches the nearby bench and sits down, stretching his legs out, opening a book. He’s wearing glasses with wire frames. His hands flip the pages hungrily, and upon finding the held place, his eyes devour the words within. There’s the slightest tremble of a smile on his lips.
He’s dressed well. No wedding ring. Healthy skin. It looks like he meets his fair share of people and leaves an impression.
I struggle to my feet, and approach. The man’s nostrils twitch the slightest bit as I sit beside him on the bench, and I speak for the first time with my new voice.
“Buy me a coffee?”