While reading the newspaper this morning I discovered a new movie due out in a week or two titled Her. It seems actor Joaquin Phoenix plays a writer who falls in love with his computer's operating system. Those of you who follow my blog and my writings know I wrote a similar story a few years back. (Haven't seen the movie yet but the trailer is interesting, still I think my story is much better). For those of you who may have missed it, and for the many, many of you who loved it and wrote to tell me so; and especially for legal reasons, here is a re-posting of Ghost Writer written by me over 6 years ago. Enjoy and be sure to comment and share. Thanks
by BJ Neblett
© 2007, 2012, 2013
“Oh don’t be such an old stick in the mud!”
“‘Stick in the mud’? If I used phrases like that I’d be laughed out of the Writer’s Guild.”
“If you don’t publish something soon you are going to be thrown out of the Writer’s Guild.”
Kevin eyeballed the unfriendly looking object on his desk again. Again he took a hesitant step forward. Again he stopped.
“Go on… it won’t bite you!”
“I want my old one back.”
A sharp breath escaped from Susan’s painted, pouty lips. “For the tenth time, Kevin, it’s gone! They couldn’t save it. By now they’ve held the service. It’s as dead as your career.” She dropped a spent cigarette into the plastic cup of cheap champagne. He hated when she did that.
“Do you have to smoke in here? You know it’s bad for my asthma.” Kevin stared forlorn at the place where his beloved Wang once sat. A large square of dull, discolored desk top marked the spot. Like a weathered tombstone. “Your smoke probably killed her.”
Susan closed her eyes, shaking her pretty pixie head. “I give up. I’m going to be late getting back to work.” She grazed his cheek with a plastic kiss. “The Wang is gone. E.R.I.S is here. It’s state of the art. It’s cutting edge. John at the computer shop says it has advanced features the others won’t match for at least five years. He’s never seen anything like it. It’s designed especially for professional writers.” With that she gave Kevin a stabbing glare. “All of your files have been transferred into its memory. It’s all hooked up, ready to go: Wi-Fi, mini-cam, printer.” Her stare intensified. “And it cost me a small fortune.” Susan faked a smile. “Welcome to the 21st century, honey. Don’t forget we have dinner reservations at seven.” With that she was gone.
Kevin stood listening.
Rumbling up the street, the vintage MG’s throaty exhaust played a musical scale, Susan conducting the overture with the vehicle’s clutch and shifter.
Kevin waited. Susan always managed to miss fourth gear and over-rev the tiny motor when she was angry.
She was angry.
Removing the gay pointed hat held atop his head by a rubber band, Kevin’s attention returned to the lipstick red plastic box on his well worn desk.
Eighteen inches wide by twelve inches, it occupied less than half the footprint left by the multi-component Wang.
“What the hell is a Wi-Fi?”
The deserted room didn’t answer.
He shrugged and took a giant step to the desk, reaching towards the flashy object.
His hand stopped.
It won’t bite you.
Feeling foolish, Kevin sighed and raised the lid of the futuristic laptop.
Kevin Mc Colgan was a writer of some notoriety. That notoriety arrived with his first novel, Kissing Fool, a touching romantic romp. It met with reasonable sales, making the USA Today best seller list for a few weeks. The critics weren’t so enthusiastic. Most were withholding judgment on Kevin’s skills as an author until a second release. It had been three years and they were still waiting.
Kevin managed to keep his floundering career afloat by selling a few short stories to Playboy, Esquire, and The New Yorker. Tom Wilson, his new agent, the third in four years, was encouraging, suggesting Kevin pen several more. Short story collections traditionally weren’t big sellers. But at least it would appease his pestering publisher.
Whatever he did it would have to be soon. Kevin’s earnings from Kissing Fool, while not insubstantial, wouldn’t last forever. He promised Susan that they would marry as soon as he made it as an author.
Susan wouldn’t last forever, either.
Lanky, nerdish Kevin Mc Colgan met comely Susan Pattersen at a reception for new writers. Susan ran the publicity department of a medium sized publishing company. Kevin had just been signed on the strength of three rough chapters and the hype of an overzealous and fast talking agent who charged him twenty percent.
Susan came from a literary family. Stuart Pattersen was a worldly, renowned author of dozens of trendy, best selling mysteries. Susan’s mother penned popular children’s books using the nom de guerre Nanny Mc Bride. Her allegories featured characters as Classy Chic, Knowit Owl, and Oily Gator. They also irritated the hell out of her pompous, priggish husband. Then again, Stuart Pattersen held a well published disdain for anything not of his own genre; or anything of his own pen, including Kissing Fool and Kevin Mc Colgan.
Especially Kevin Mc Colgan.
When Susan met Kevin it wasn’t exactly a harlequin romance. In Susan Kevin saw a witty, intelligent, sensual, sophisticated contradiction, fond of sports cars, country music, scrap booking, TS Eliot, and lime jell-o with cool whip. And he found the inspiration he was seeking for his main character.
In Kevin, Susan found a be-speckled, distrait, undernourished, struggling writer with a developing talent, a flair for the absurd, frayed collars, and a nervous, bumbling manner. But Kevin was nothing if not tenacious. When Kissing Fool was published, Susan read a metaphor of Kevin’s feelings, and his faltering, albeit funny, attempts at courting and romance. The pretty, willowy woman was won over, much to her father’s mortification.
With the lid raised, the laptop came alive. Kevin scrutinized it suspiciously. It emanated a soft high frequency hum as the cooling fans and hard drive came up to speed. The high definition DVD/CD Rom drawer yawned silently open. The ergonomically perfect key board glowed an eerie green. A built in touch pad floated in a sea of orange. Five red LED’s flashed in sequence, the last blinking randomly, mutely shouting, “Wi-Fi ready.” The gaudy contraception looked to Kevin like a Versace designed UFO ready to blast off.
Finally the large modern LCD screen lit. To Kevin’s surprise it displayed a sexy photo of Susan in a revealing bikini. Kevin recognized it as one he’d taken last summer in Cancun; the one Susan said she hated.
Susan’s long, appealing, sun browned legs were peppered with enigmatic icons.
Just then an elevator version of Billy Joel’s Just The Way You Are sprang from somewhere inside the machine. It was their song.
Kevin had enough.
How could he be expected to write on this Buck Rogers dog and pony show? He pined for the simple, comforting ugly beige bulk of his Wang, with its innocuous green display and friendly cursor. If he had to he would use pen and paper. It was good enough for Fitzgerald and Hemmingway, his two favorite authors.
Ok. They used typewriters. Maybe he’d find himself an old Underwood at a garage sale or flea market.
His mind was made up. The ridiculous looking extravagant present was going back. Susan would understand…
Kevin reached to close the lid.
“Welcome to the future,” a honey dripping female announced.
The unexpected voice startled Kevin. He looked around the small den, “What…”
“Welcome to the future,” the voice repeated, “the future of professional writing.” Kevin stared blankly at the desk. The voice came from the laptop.
“I’m your new Electronic Remote Internet Storybook,” the computer cooed with a breathy air reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. “But you may call me Eris.”
“For full demonstrations of all of my talents just press my demo button.”
The irresistible saccharine voice floated over the Billy Joel tune. Kevin surrendered to the appealing siren call of the beckoning machine.
“I’m ready when you are,” it teased.
The silly toothy grin Susan hated stitched across his boyish face. “Well, I wouldn’t want to disappoint Susan,” he said sitting down.
“And happy birthday, Kevin,” Eris gushed.
Kevin sat at the old wooden desk in his comfortable over stuffed executive chair. Uncountable times Susan threatened to take his wood ax to the well worn, tacky, bright orange monstrosity.
Eris’ key pad felt custom designed for Kevin’s fingers. The genial glow of the treated LCD screen didn’t cause eye strain like his old Wang. Thoughts and ideas began to flow like water, words materializing as fast as he could type.
Kevin realized Eris actually typed ahead of him, filling in obvious words as the, a, and an. He didn’t even have to hold the caps button at the start of sentences, or after he typed a proper name once. Eris also automatically recognized the correct usage of synonyms and homonyms and made the necessary changes.
Several times small boxes opened in the corner of the screen. Eris’ lightening memory continually studied Kevin’s writing, scanning her massive thesaurus, suggesting alternative words and phrases. He noticed the laptop changed 1851 to 1850 as the date California obtained statehood. When Kevin tried to change it back a box opened, politely but pointedly asking if he wished to purposely use the erroneous 1851 date.
At one point Kevin began to describe a modern country home on the outskirts of San Clemente in vague, general terms. As was his habit, he’d type whatever came to mind and sounded logical. Later, armed with the encyclopedia and other reference material, he would make the proper changes and fill in the details. Doing necessary research was a part of writing Kevin hated.
An image of a large Mexican looking adobe church filled the screen, as Eris’ satin voice filled the room. “Kevin, please excuse the interruption. Here are some details on the area you are describing which you may find useful.”
With that a text message box opened.
San Clemente, California. 2005 population 60,235; located
sixty miles south of Los Angeles on the Pacific coast. Just
outside of the city is San Juan Capistrano, 2005 population
34,673. One of a number of early settlements, it was founded
by Spanish missionaries November 1, 1776. It is home to the
mission at Capistrano, world famous for its swallows who
return to the mission annually on the same date (March 19).
The area is also known for its gentle rolling hills and fertile
fields yielding cut flowers, strawberries and Valencia oranges.
Kevin sat fascinated at the revealing and unexpected factoid. He never heard the legend of the swallows before.
This was perfect. He could use it in his story.
As if to read his thoughts, Eris spoke up again, “If you wish, you may save this charm for reference or use later. Just press my auto and save keys together.”
“Thank you, Eris,” Kevin replied bemused. He pressed the key combination. The screen returned to its soft blue hue and matted black characters.
Kevin continued to type, carefully crafting his story, conceiving characters, creating conflict, building intrigue. Several times Eris politely interrupted his concentration with well timed charms. Each provided valuable insight and information into topics Kevin had planned to reference later. Working with the intimate, expensive, thoughtful gift, he was actually enjoying writing again.
Suddenly the screen froze. The cute little eyeball cursor stopped winking and the keyboard locked. Kevin sat back in his big orange chair. Now what was going on? His question was answered as the tiny corner clock icon grew into an urgent red flashing square, covering the screen.
It took Kevin a second.
He had been writing for almost five hours. Where did the time go? Using the touch pad, he clicked on the interfering icon, clearing it from the screen and freeing the laptop.
Then it struck him.
It was his birthday.
He was to meet Susan and her parents at some pretentious restaurant at seven. Kevin scrunched his face at the thought of having to spend the evening with Nutty Nanny and Stuffy Stuart. He looked at the shocking pink conical cardboard hat with frilly paper streamers bursting from the point like plumes of steam escaping a volcano. Earlier that afternoon, Susan had slipped it onto his head, planting a kiss on his neck as he sat in his orange chair, absorbed with concern for his ailing Wang.
Birthdays were supposed to be fun, hats and horns. He tried to picture stolid Stuart Pattersen wearing the gay party favor. The visual sent a shudder through his limbs.
Scrolling through the computer screen, Kevin scanned what he’d written. He slumped back into the orange chair again. It wasn’t very good: five hours and just a sketchy jumbled mess to show for it.
“Well, it’s a start,” he muttered.
Eris provided lots of good suggestions, charms she called them, which he could use later for a re-write. He felt encouraged. At least he was working again. He would organize and punch it up later.
Maybe it wasn’t that bad.
Satisfied, Kevin made sure his work was saved, and then lowered the portable computer’s lid and left.
If he hadn’t been in a rush, he might have noticed that Eris remained turned on. Her drive whirled and faintly hummed, the wireless internet connection communicating silently with its receiver.
He also may have noticed that the time was actually 6:45 PM.
Pacing outside the upscale restaurant, Susan crushed a half smoked Marlboro Gold beneath a two inch heel. “Where have you been? I told you seven PM sharp! You know how daddy hates tardiness. And your cell phone is off!” Her steel grey eyes flashed like lightening. Despite the severe but fashionable business suit and perfectly coiffed auburn hair, Kevin thought she looked like a little girl playing dress up.
“It’s nice to see you too, Susan,” Kevin replied. “And what do you mean? It’s only 6:55.”
Susan’s frown grew.”Did you forget your watch again?”
Kevin checked his wrist. “Nope,” he announced proudly, raising the sleeve of his brown tweed sports coat. “Garfield’s big paw is on the eleven and his little one is on the seven. I set it by the clock on the new laptop.”
“You idiot…” She resisted the urge to punch him, settling for a light slap to his shoulder. “Its 7:55, not 6:55, regardless of what that stupid cat tells you! And what happened to the silver Omega my parents bought for you for Christmas?”
“It’s too big and heavy… it keeps sliding off my wrist… and…”
“Never mind!” grasping his thin bicep, Susan steered him through the large, green leather padded double doors, and across an expanse of deep pile taupe carpet.
The restaurant crawled with achingly beautiful young women wearing Prada and Phat Farm, and seriously handsome young men clad in fifteen hundred dollar Brooks Brothers and Sean John suits. Most spoke officiously into tiny cell phones or sipped purple martinis. The latest and hippest music wafted overhead and everywhere hung lush green ferns. The plants made Kevin’s nose itch.
The Pattersen’s were seated at the best of four tables cloistered behind a velvet rope and an obnoxious Reserved sign. A starched waiter with a dour face raised an eyebrow to Kevin, and then smiled and bowed curtly to Susan and unhooked the plush barrier.
“Thank you, William,” Susan chirped as they entered the inner circle. Reaching her parent’s table, her tone instantly changed to melted butter, “Well, look who’s finally here. I swear you writers have absolutely no sense of time.”
“I thought that’s why we gave him the watch! Stuart Pattersen huffed.”
“Now, Stuie… don’t be hard on the boy.” Nanny gave her husband’s hand a maternal pat. He quickly pulled it away. “You were the same at his age.”
“Was not,” Pattersen growled.
Nanny turned to her daughter now seated beside her. “Your father used to keep me waiting for hours, you know. Then he would claim to have gotten lost in his writing. I knew better. The only writing he’d been doing was a check to cover his poker losses.”
The two women giggled.
Stuart Pattersen let out a grunt.
Kevin stood studying his brown loafers. He’d neglected to polish them. “Actually, I was writing…”
All heads turned as if they had forgotten he was there. “You were?” the trio replied as one.
Kevin met their incredulous stares and blushed. “Well… yes… I was. And it’s quite good,” he lied. “And the time did get away from me,” he added, sliding into his seat.
Dinner dragged torturously on. Nanny manipulated the conversation with funny, bawdy tales of when she and Stuart were dating. Susan listened fascinated. Her father sulked silently in his chair, occasionally interjecting a diverting, “I did not,” or, “your mother’s as loony as those juvenile readers she writes!” Kevin enjoyed not being the butt of the evening’s conversation for a change.
Kevin was disappointed, but not surprised, to discover the restaurant too chic for anything as pedestrian as birthday cake. Over Cherries Flambé Nanny asked, “So Kevin, how do you like your new laptop?”
A strange weakness coursed through him when he thought of the bewitching computer. Before he could speak, Susan answered for him. Kevin hated when she did that. “Oh, I’m afraid Kevin is stuck in the 20th century, the early 20th century! He and technology don’t get along.”
Everyone but Kevin laughed.
“Technology is a wonderful thing. Computers have helped me triple my output, and my income!” Pattersen bragged. Of course you don’t need technology to write nostalgic romantic nonsense.”
Again Kevin opened his mouth to speak. Again Susan spoke up. “Oh, daddy, you didn’t even read Kissing Fool.” She laid a hand on Kevin’s arm. Her eyes seemed to twinkle. “It’s a beautifully written, funny tale of young love,” she replied in defense of the book that brought them together.
“I… err… looked it over,” Stuart returned, “before it was published. I got a look at the galley proofs. I never could understand the popularity of such fluff.”
“Well, I thought it was just darling,” Nanny said, giving Kevin a vacant smile.
“Yes, but what has he done lately?” Pattersen demanded.
All eyes were once again on Kevin.
“Eris… the new laptop… is the reason I was late. I was working; deeply involved.” His gaze searched one pair of expectant eyes to the next, finally resting on Susan’s. “She is a delight to work with,” Kevin admitted. Very helpful…”
“Why, honey, you sound as if you are talking about a real person.” There was a refreshing note of jealousy in Susan’s voice. It gave Kevin a warm fuzzy feeling.
“Legal pads!” Pattersen spit out, nearly shouting, attempting to turn the conversation around to him. “I wrote my first novel on yellow legal pads; in pencil! Death and Misfortune sold ten million copies to date!”
“What is it you are working on, Kev?” Nanny asked, completely ignoring her husband.
Kevin felt his blood drain. All he had was some thirty pages of jumbled dialog, descriptions, vague plotting, and a lot of disjointed notes. He now wished he hadn’t been so quick to speak up earlier in the evening. Three pair of eyes studied him, waiting for a reply. Even Stuart Pattersen sat complacently waiting for what he was certain would be some silly, sappy trite.
“It’s a short story,” Kevin blurted out.
Pattersen let out a snort.
“I think… I…” Kevin swallowed hard. “It takes place in early California, as the territory vies to join the union. A beautiful señorita, whose family helped settle San Juan Capistrano, falls in love with the son of a rich, powerful, arrogant land Barron who opposes statehood.”
“Ha! I knew it…” Pattersen interrupted. “Another Romeo and Juliet!”
“Stop it, daddy.” Susan’s eyes melted in the soft glow of the restaurant’s ambience. “I think it sounds perfectly wonderful.”
“Well, if you ask me…” Pattersen’s vexatious voice faded in the din of the restaurant as Kevin thought about Eris. She suggested the setting. Kevin’s original story idea took place in contemporary San Clemente. With the simple change to 1850 and the Mission as a back drop, it all suddenly came together. The story still needed work. But Kevin now felt proud of his efforts.
Pattersen’s scathing diatribe on the lack of real originality in modern literature was finally winding down. Kevin looked the smug author in the eye. “You know, Stuart, there is a reason why they call it classic literature. Shakespeare has inspired the likes of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Bradberry, Rice, Wolf, even Mickey Spillane and Stephen King. His works have been successfully adapted to everything from Forbidden Planet to West Side Story to American Beauty. Everything from westerns to adventure to modern sci-fi has barrowed and benefitted from Shakespeare. It’s the familiar and timeless themes that readers and movie goers alike are drawn to. Where will Dirk Pit and Robert Langdon and Mac Bolan and Dr. Kay Scarpetta and your own Rock Trueblood be a hundred years from now?”
Kevin forced down the nervous bile that now lined his throat. The small stunned party considered his words. What brought about that little paroxysm he didn’t know. Maybe it was Susan’s rare praise; maybe Eris who made him feel good about his work again; maybe he was just tired of stodgy old Stuie’s lectures. Either way, Kevin had stepped off the cliff into the clouds. He now waited for the anvil to land on his head.
“Well…” Stuart Pattersen calmly folded his linen napkin and signaled for the waiter. “Check please…”
Kevin Mc Colgan’s head hurt. It rang and echoed like one of Capistrano’s bells. Bright sunlight engulfed the comfortable bedroom through the open window. The clean sweet scent of freshly mowed grass made Kevin nauseous. Outside, the neighbor’s neurotic, bucktoothed bulldog barked incessantly at its own shadow.
Gingerly, Kevin sat up. His blue eyes were slits and his tongue felt like it needed shaving. Even the follicles of his hair ached. Fumbling for his glasses and slipping them on, the room came into a foggy focus as an errant cloud filtered the harsh sunlight.
Kevin blinked his bleary eyes trying to clear his head. After dinner Susan insisted they have a drink together to celebrate his birthday. Several bars and numerous drinks later she poured the tipsy writer into his bed and drove home.
At least that’s what Kevin thought. His memory was as fuzzy as his tongue. He seemed to remember stumbling to his den somewhere around 4:30 AM. He thought he may have done some writing. He wasn’t sure. It had probably all been a dream.
Or a nightmare.
Did he really tell off sainted Stuart Pattersen, the great savior of contemporary literature, in the middle of the city’s most popular restaurant? Shakespeare? Mickey Spillane and Stephen King? American Beauty? What the hell was he thinking? And what was with Susan all of a sudden? He couldn’t remember the last time she showed so much affection.
The room blazed brightly causing Kevin to blink and squint as the deflecting cloud moved on. Mrs. Kelso’s hound picked up his one dog chorus.
The telephone shook Kevin into a groggy awareness. “Hello…” It was Susan.
“Good morning, sweetheart. I hope I didn’t wake you. I waited as long as I could. I’ve only got a minute… I’m late for a department meeting. I just wanted to tell you I loved Return to Me. It’s the best thing you’ve ever written! And you were so modest about it at dinner. You are just full of surprises sometimes. Gotta run… love ya!”
Kevin stared blankly at the phone in his hand. What was that all about? He returned the receiver to its cradle. It rang again.
“Kevin old man, how are you? How have you been? Busy I see… why didn’t you tell me?” Tom Wilson’s voice was animated. The writer’s agent seldom showed any emotion, stoically reviewing manuscripts to the annoyance of his clients.
“Tom? Hi… what… what are you talking about?”
“What am I talking about?” He let out a restrained laugh. Kevin could hear the ubiquitous unlit cigar rolling from one corner of the agent’s mouth to the other. “What am I talking about? Susan told me you two celebrated last night… by the way, happy birthday. Maybe you should lay off the liquor… bad for the short term memory.”
“Yes… yes, ok… sure… but… but…”
Tom Wilson ignored Kevin’s mumblings. “I’m on my way to a meeting with your publisher about Return to Me… great stuff… every bit as good as Kissing Fool. No… no, better…. might make the perfect anchor for that short story collection. And shove a big ‘I told you so’ right in the face of more than a few critics. I knew you had it in you, kid.”
“Thank you… I guess… but where… how did you…?”
“Waiting for me on my computer first thing this morning. I figured you must have E-mailed it to me as soon as you finished. Ain’t technology great? Say… you sound a bit fried… get some coffee into you, boy… a cold shower… you’ll feel better and it will all come back. I’ll be in touch. Keep up the good work, kid.”
The phone went dead again. What was going on? Was everyone crazy? What was Return to Me?
Kevin’s head hurt worse. It began to throb in time to Butch’s endless barking.
He staggered into the shower and turned on the cold water.
Kevin felt better. Still, little came back to him. And nothing made sense. He and Susan ate dinner with her parents. That he was sure. He had made a speech, and probably an ass out of himself. That gave him a shutter. Afterwards, the two of them went bar hopping. That he was pretty sure. Where and how much he drank he wasn’t sure. From leaving the last bar until he awoke a short time ago was a total blank.
Eventually, Kevin made his way down to his den. He discovered a stack of papers in the out tray of his new laser printer. Withdrawing the top sheet, he read:
Return To Me
Kevin Mc Colgan
Collecting the stack of printed papers, Kevin leafed through them, scanning a sentence here, a paragraph there. It was his story. Only it wasn’t… but it was…
He flopped down in his big orange chair, studying the pages more closely. It was definitely the story he was working on, right down to a few sketchy ideas and notes he’d made. Only this was a finished, polished manuscript, double spaced, perfectly typed and well edited.
Kevin turned to the last few pages. His heroine, Victoria, the Mexican señorita, was dead, just as he planned. Only she died in a house fire, trying to save her aged, ailing father. The fire was purposely started by Carl Bracken, her fiancé’s domineering father. Kevin planned for her to die from an illness. He left an electronic reminder to that effect in Eris.
Kevin eyed the machine sitting idle on the desktop. He lifted the lid and the computer instantly lit up. It wasn’t shut down, only sleeping, awaiting use.
“Good afternoon, Kevin,” Eris chirped as the picture of Susan materialized. Searching with the touch pad and winking green eye cursor, Kevin found the confusing icons now partially covered Susan’s face. He also discovered an icon of the old Spanish Mission at Capistrano with the words: Return to Me. Clicking twice opened the file. The title page appeared:
Return To Me
Kevin Mc Colgan
He scrolled down. It was the story he held in his hand, his story; the one Susan loved; the one his agent was at this moment probably pitching to his publisher, in its finished form.
Kevin began to read in earnest. This was good… very good. It was his story… his ideas, his thoughts, his feelings… but not his words. Almost, but not quite. When he got to the end, Kevin read it over several times. It worked. It worked beautifully. It brought a tear to his eye.
What was going on?
Kevin relaxed back in his chair trying to think. He must have come down and did the re-write sometime during the night. He just didn’t remember because of the hangover.
That had to be the answer.
Unable to sleep, he had wandered down into the den around 4:30 AM, wrote the final draft of Return to Me, and then E-mailed it to Susan and Tom. The basic idea and outline were already done. Thanks to Eris’ intuitive and detailed filing and organizing programs everything was there. It just needed to be laid out and stitched together. He had done it overnight. And it was good… very good.
“Maybe I ought to get drunk more often,” Kevin mused out loud.
One thing still bother him: where did the ending come from?
Kevin remembered struggling with the ending most of the afternoon. Several ideas came and went. None were very satisfying. He decided Victoria would die. But how? He settled on an illness of some kind. The electronic post-it describing the scene was right where he left it in the computer. Try as he may, he couldn’t find any reference to a fire. And yet here it was. Victoria had been overcome in her own home by smoke and heat. It was the perfect ending to a perfect story.
Just then a mail box icon appeared and began to flash. “Excuse me, Kevin,” Eris’ voice stirred him from his thoughts. “You have an urgent E-mail, from your publisher. Just click the icon.”
It was Alan Rauch, senior managing editor of Kevin’s publishing house. He wanted to see Kevin in his office at 3 PM. Kevin looked at his watch. Garfield said it was 12:35.
It couldn’t be.
He knew he’d been sitting in the den puzzling over Return to Me for at least an hour. Before that he showered and managed to keep some dry toast and orange juice on his stomach. And it was already after 11:30 when he awoke.
The clock icon on Eris read 1:35, as did the digital clock on the printer. Kevin checked his wrist watch again, making a mental note to have Garfield’s battery changed. Then he typed a short E-mail to Rauch saying he’d be there and clicked send.
“Your E-mail has been sent, Kevin.”
Studying the E-mail menu, something occurred to him. Kevin clicked on mail, then selected outgoing and history. A box appeared showing three sent E-mails: the one he just sent with a 1:41 PM time stamp; one to Tom Wilson his agent, and one to Susan at her work. Both of these were sent at 12:45 AM with attachments.
That was impossible.
At 2 AM he and Susan were sitting at the bar at Casey’s, drinking Cactus Flower Margaritas. That much he remembered.
Kevin picked up the phone and dialed the number for time. “1:44 PM,” the electronic voice announced, the same as his clocks. Hanging up, he reached for Eris’ operator’s manual, finding the desired section:
Time and date are continually
monitored and updated automatically
over your WIFI internet connection
with the National Observatory.
There was no way the time stamp on the E-mails could have been wrong. And yet, Eris gave him the incorrect time yesterday, making him late for dinner with Susan.
Kevin scratched his still aching head, running his fingers through his sandy hair, closed out all the boxes and programs, and lowered Eris’ lid. Picking up the newly printed manuscript, he began to read Return to Me again.
“Sensational! There won’t be a dry eye anywhere… even got a little misty eyed myself.” Alan Rauch let out a hoarse laugh. Publishing magnet Alan Rauch didn’t get misty eyed over anything, except maybe runaway best sellers, ones he published. “You may just single handedly bring back the short story, my boy. Got any more like this?”
Kevin sat across from the older man in an oversized wingback leather chair. He felt like a fifth grader in the principal’s office. Tom Wilson was seated next to him. The matching chair didn’t seem to swallow the agent the way Kevin’s did.
Everything about Rauch was big, from his six foot three frame, to his long, bloodhound face, to his always dead on target business decisions. Kevin liked the often gruff but genteel former steel worker. Alan Rauch started his publishing empire with two unknown authors and a hundred dollars borrowed from a loan shark. One of the unknown authors was Stuart Pattersen, an out of work cab driver Rauch met while shooting pool in a Youngstown bar.
“Well, sir, I…” Kevin began blushing. He wasn’t used to receiving praise from his publisher. “If you recall, I have six finished stories. I believe Tom showed them to you… I…”
“Yes, yes,” Rauch interrupted impatiently. “Of course, not bad… make good filler. But I need two… no, three,” Rauch slapped the desktop, “three more like Return to Me. Same theme, and lovey dovey mushy… and tragic… love tragic!” He laughed again. “Women love tragic… sales of Kissing Fool was 72% female. Women love you, boy. They understand, identify with you… err… your characters. And you understand them… know what they want… what they like.” Rauch rose from behind his desk. The big man reminded Kevin of a circus clown emerging from a tiny car. “Give me three more like Return to Me, son, and I’ll give you a number one best seller.”
With that the meeting was over. Rauch had spoken. And Alan Rauch usually got what he wanted. Kevin and Tom both popped out of their seats.
“Yes, sir,” Kevin replied, not sure how he was going to come up with three more stories. He still wasn’t sure where Return to Me came from.
“Excuse me, Kevin. You haven’t typed anything for almost thirty minutes. My system is about to go into rest mode.” Eris’ soft voice tugged at Kevin like a gentle hand.
A week after the meeting with his publisher, Kevin sat in the big orange chair, adrift in a turbulent sea of plot and characters. He had eaten dinner with Susan, returning home around eight thirty.
It was now one AM.
Kevin read what was on the laptop screen:
Sara Jane stood on the old abandoned wood bridge gazing
down into the coal black water. Her tears begat tiny spiral
ripples on the becalmed surface. Across a once proud field
of snow ball cotton, now choked by weeds and thatch and
kudzu, drifted the shrill whistle of a train. It shattered the
thick, stifling summer air. It was the noon express leaving
the station, leaving the sleepy southern town; leaving Sara
Jane. And taking with it the only man Sara Jane ever loved.
Kevin’s stomach felt queasy. It wasn’t Susan’s tuna-noodle casserole. He wished he’d printed the noisome paragraph so he could tear it to pieces; shred and rent it mercilessly. That was the problem with modern technology: with machines doing most of our work – and most of our thinking – for us, there was nothing left on which to vent frustration. Man was still his basic, primal self. His needs were still basic and primal. Humans hadn’t matured mentally, or even emotionally, at the same rate as technology. Man still needed to shred paper; punch a wall; kick a fender. He needed to spend his anger on the offending inanimate object; offer an appeasing sacrifice to the goddess Nemesis. You could take a Louisville Slugger to a smug Mac, and then have to cough up two grand to replace the machine. Technology was far too fragile and too costly. It should come with a built in punching bag.
Instead, Kevin did what he always did when he became frustrated with his writing: he sulked down deeper into his big orange chair.
“Would you like some assistance?”
Kevin’s brow wrinkled.
That’s odd, he thought. How does Eris know I’m having trouble? He studied the web cam built into the computer’s lid. It seemed to wink at him, causing Kevin to jump in his chair.
“That’s just silly,” Kevin said aloud, his words ringing unsure. “I must be working too hard. It’s just a stupid machine.”
Eris spoke up again. “No, Kevin. I am programmed to recognize and help with writer’s block.”
With that, a box opened on the screen. The word genre? flashed, followed by the hypnotic, blinking green eye cursor. Kevin stared at the screen for a minute, and then timorously typed love story, romance and hit the enter key. The box vanished, replaced by another asking time? Fidgeting in his seat, Kevin typed nineteenth century. Once again a new box appeared this one inquiring location? Kevin sighed and typed the US south.
Eris and Kevin played a game of twenty questions, the computer probing his thoughts on plot, setting, characters and other details. Finally the screen cleared and Eris spoke in her wispy voice, “Thank you, Kevin. Please wait a moment.”
The laser printer lit up and began to operate. Kevin retrieved two pages. They outlined the story of a woman who travels from Philadelphia to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1865 in search of her brother, a union officer. She meets and falls in love with a handsome southern gentleman who served as a captain in the Confederacy. The man soon realizes he is the one who killed the woman’s brother during the fierce battle for the city.
Kevin’s imagination kicked into high gear. He could easily picture a war scarred town and crumbling plantation. He saw the two ill-fated lovers; felt the heart breaking conflict of the woman’s love; the confusion and guilt of the tormented captain.
He sat up in his chair, eager to start typing. The LCD screen was cleared of his original opening paragraph. In its place Eris had typed:
Tears Of A Fool
Kevin Mc Colgan
The green eyeball cursor blinked alluringly, waiting for input.
Yellow darts of waking sunshine pierced the dusky den, carrying with them welcomed warmth. They also brought with them Butch’s daily ranting.
Kevin stretched and yawned in his big orange chair. His back was disjointed. His eyes were road mapped. His left foot was numb. The screen’s digital clock melted from 6:18 to 6:19.
“Woouph! Woouph! Yourself,” Kevin cried out. Despite the stiffness, he felt great. With Eris’ help the story was finished. As before, while he typed, the computer asked questions, made suggestions, and provided charms to enliven and richen the story and fill in needed details. Happily, Kevin mashed the print button, rose, stretched again, and headed out of the den. The laser printer awoke and began to hum. When Kevin returned, refreshed from a shower, with a large, steaming mug, a stack of neatly printed pages awaited him in the printer’s out tray.
“Damn,” Kevin exclaimed between pages and sips of frothy mocha. “This is great!”
Relaxed in the big orange chair, his bare feet propped up on the desk, Kevin read over his story. He was impressed.
Once again Kevin recognized his work. Once again it wasn’t his work… exactly. Several passages, even whole sections, were foreign to him. He didn’t remember writing them. But they worked; worked perfectly.
Curious, Kevin checked the laptop’s screen against the printed pages. They were identical. Then Kevin noticed some sections on the screen were in a different font from the rest. These corresponded to the sections he didn’t remember writing. Upon closer investigation, Kevin found his work, the sections he recalled as his, saved under a separate file name. They had been replaced by the new, vastly improved passages. His story had been revised and edited. This was just the first draft. Yet it read like a completed, polished manuscript.
Kevin eyeballed the laptop.
Eris’ web cam peered innocently back at him.
The phone broke Kevin’s concentration. It was Nanny. Susan was in the hospital. Kevin made sure his work was saved, cleared the program, and bolted from his chair.
The LCD screen blinked. The hard drive hummed. The wall paper photo appeared. The icons which once covered a part of Susan’s tanned right leg were replaced by ugly red and blue and black marks.
Singer Doris day’s lush version of Secret Love flowed from Eris’ speakers, filling the empty room.
“She’s alright, more shaken that anything.” By the time Kevin arrived at the hospital, Susan had been treated and taken to her room. “They just want to keep her overnight,” Nanny said, trying to relax. “She’s fine, Kevin, fine.”
Out of breath from jogging up three flights, Kevin collapsed against a wall. “Thank God,” he managed between gasps for air. “What… what happened?” Kevin pulled his inhaler out of his jeans pocket and took two deep puffs.
Nanny’s face soured. “It’s that damn apartment of hers! I warned her when she moved in… people put too much trust in these new fangled gadgets these days. Imagine… machines talking to machines… running our lives for us!”
“I know… I agree…” he replied, finally catching his breath. “That apartment of hers gives me the creeps. But what happened?”
“Well, Susan was in the middle of her morning routine. Apparently she was about to get into the Jacuzzi tub. She says she set the automatically controlled thermostat thingy. It must have malfunctioned. When she stepped in, the water temperature was near boiling. Her right foot and calf are pretty badly scalded.”
“Is she awake?”
Nanny painted on a thin smile. “Yes. They gave her a sedative. But she’s awake right now… don’t know for how long. Thank heavens you are here, Kevin.”
Kevin returned the woman’s smile and entered the semi-private room. Susan lay in the far bed next to the window. Her right foot and leg were bandaged and resting on a large pillow. Her left ankle was wrapped in a wide ace bandage. She looked up from under heavy eyelids, “Hey, you.”
“Hey, yourself.” Kevin kissed her forehead, brushing back strands of uncombed hair. “How are you feeling, sweetheart?”
“I’m… I’m ok… just kinda sleepy.”
“The doctors gave you a sedative.”
“I must look a sight…” Susan winced in pain as she tried to raise herself in her bed.
“Hey, take it easy.” Kevin fluffed her pillows and laughed to himself. He always thought Susan looked more attractive with little or no make-up, and told her so often. And he knew how she hated to leave her apartment without her lipstick and eye liner. “You are prettier than ever… do you need anything?”
Susan groaned and settled back into the pillows. “I’ll probably need a cane… or crutches,” she replied sourly.
“I thought Nanny said it was your right foot.”
“I sprained my left ankle jumping out of the tub,” Frustration shown on Susan’s sleepy face. “Oh, Kevin… I don’t know what happened. I know I set the temperature correctly. And it’s designed not to get that hot.” She sighed, her eyes slowly closing. “I don’t know… these last few days… it seems…” With that she was asleep.
Kevin learned from the doctors Susan’s burns were not too serious. She’d have a few small scars, but there was no internal damage. He could take her home the next day.
That afternoon, Kevin and Nanny drove over to Susan’s high rise. While Nanny collected some items for her daughter, Kevin spoke to the building’s super.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Mc Colgan. I’ve been over the entire system three times. I can’t find anything wrong.”
“Obviously something did go wrong,” Kevin said flatly. “The doctors said the water must have been near boiling temperature to burn like that.”
John Batista was the building superintendent since the modern apartment’s inception. Everything in the imposing building was controlled by computer, from the elevators, to lighting and climate control, to security, to the built in toasters. The computers were linked back to a massive central control across town which continually monitored and automatically adjusted the building’s complex systems.
Batista gave Kevin a distrustful look. The last thing he needed was an irate tenant and a law suit. “It’s impossible, Mr. Mc Colgan. Water temperature is set to a max of one hundred degrees, and is checked by no less than three systems: one in the boilers; one in the individual apartment hot tanks, and one in the tub. The only way for the water to have gotten that hot is if somebody at central control reprogrammed the computers. And no one did… I checked.”
Unsatisfied, Kevin thanked the man. None of this made sense. But Susan was ok and that was all that mattered.
After dropping off Nanny, Kevin drove home for a quick nap and shower before returning to the hospital. From the oldies station on his car radio came the dark, prophetic lyrics of an old Zager and Evans tune: … your legs won’t find a thing to do, some machine’s doing that for you…
Two days later, Kevin and Susan sat in Susan’s living room. Her foot and leg wore a large wrapped bandage, and she did indeed have crutches, although she was given strict instructions to stay off her feet for a week. Kevin insisted on taking care of her, making himself a bed on the comfortable couch.
“Yes… yes, Mr. Batista… yes… I know… I’m sure… yes, sir, it was just some burnt bread…. no need for the fire department. Yes, sir… I understand… yes, the smoke detectors did work perfectly… yes, thank you.” Kevin punched end and dropped the cell phone. “That superintendent irks me!”
From her position on the sofa, her foot propped up on the ottoman, Susan began to giggle.
“You… you’re red faced,” she managed between bursts of laughter. “And you look so cute in my apron and oven mitts.”
Shaking off the embarrassment and the paisley pattern mitts, Kevin flopped down next to Susan. “I don’t understand. The toaster is set for light, just the way you like. Even if the bread got stuck, the unit should have shut down. But it kept on. I finally had to flip the circuit breaker.”
“Now, do you see what I’ve been telling you? Things have been screwy in this apartment for the past week, since a day or so after your birthday.” Susan began to tap a cigarette from the package, and then tossed them back on the coffee table. “I can’t even smoke… every time I light up the smoke detectors go nuts. They never did that before. Mom and dad were here Monday. I had a nice ham baking. The oven switched to self clean mode and locked up tight. Dinner was burnt crisp. And that Mr. Batista insists he can find nothing wrong.”
“Oh, sorry… I was just thinking out loud.”
“You said something about… gremlins?”
Kevin relaxed back into the plush sofa, staring up at the ceiling. “During the second World War bomber pilots blamed mechanical problems they couldn’t figure out on gremlins.” He grinned and patted Susan’s hand. “You either have gremlins or a poltergeist.”
“Thanks… thanks a lot. That makes me feel a lot better.”
Kevin rose and kissed Susan’s cheek. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you. I’ve got some errands to run. And I want to pick up my computer. Rauch’s been screaming for more stories. I’ll drop the MG off at the shop for you. This is a good time to have it serviced, while you’re laid up.”
“You’re my hero.” Susan began to laugh again.
“Maybe you’d better take off my apron first.”
Kevin couldn’t concentrate. The recent unusual events kept repeating over in his mind: his renewed interest in writing; Susan’s accident in the tub; the strange occurrences in her apartment; even the baffling but beneficial Eris. Whatever was going on, Susan and he were closer than ever and Kevin was enjoying the relationship again.
He stared blankly at Eris. The laptop and printer were on Susan’s coffee table.
It was 12:30 AM.
“You seem distracted tonight, Kevin,” Eris said in a concerned tone. “May I help?”
“No… no, I guess I’m just tired. I think…” Kevin caught himself in mid sentence. “Great, now I’m having conversations with a machine.”
Eris beeped sharply and cleared her screen. Key word? appeared followed by the winking green eye cursor. Kevin thought for a moment and then typed gremlins and hit enter.
Eris’ hard drive hummed, her infrared WIFI communicating with Susan’s internet connection. The LCD screen began to melt into free flowing shapes of lines and colors. Kevin watched intrigued. The slowly dissolving and changing patterns had a hypnotic affect. In minutes Kevin was asleep.
Eris blinked and clicked and Susan’s apartment grew dark. The only light shone from Eris’ screen as she silently worked into the night.
“I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to wake you.” It was morning. Kevin lay under a blanket on the downy sofa. Susan’s affecting laughter filled his ears as daylight filled the modern living room. “This is really funny…”
Wiping the sleep from his eyes, Kevin could see Susan seated across from him. She held a quarter inch thick sheaf of printer paper.
“I don’t know how you do it, Kevin. You seem to be able to draw inspiration from the simplest things.” Susan set the papers down and rose with the aid of her crutches. “And I think it is sweet, you used my little problem here to base your story.” She blew him a kiss. “I have a doctor’s appointment this morning. There’s coffee on the counter, sweetheart.” With that she hobbled off to the bedroom.
Kevin’s body was sore from his night on the couch. Shaking his head to clear it, he poured himself a cup of black coffee, then settled into a chair and reached for the stack of papers.
Specter Of Love
Kevin Mc Colgan
This time Kevin had no recollection of writing anything. The last thing he remembered was putting Susan to bed around 11 PM.
Sipping the steaming coffee, he began to read the story of an unusual love triangle. It involved a World War Two American pilot stationed in England, the British country girl he loved, and a playful, overprotective goblin with a crush on her.
Despite himself, Kevin was laughing out loud when Susan entered the room. “I never realized you enjoyed your own work so much,” she remarked. “You sound like you are reading it for the first time.”
He set the last page down. “It is good, isn’t it? I mean, really, really good.”
Susan looked at him puzzled. “Why, Kevin, I’ve never known you to fish for compliments like that. Yes, I told you. It is very good. Your writing gets better with each story.”
Kevin stared blankly at the innocuous laptop. Try as he may he just couldn’t remember writing Specter of Love. Yet it was his work, his style: a funny, romantic story he certainly could have conceived and written.
But he hadn’t.
Or had he?
“Hello… earth to Kevin.”
“Huh… Oh, I’m sorry…”
Susan lowered herself onto the sofa, propping up her foot. “You’re still half asleep. You must have been up all night writing. C’mon, jump in the shower. You’ve got to drive me to the hospital, and then you can do some grocery shopping for me.”
The grocery store was just a half a block from the computer shop. After loading several bags into his car, Kevin wandered down the street.
“Afternoon, Mr. Mc Colgan.” John the owner glanced up from the mini-tower he was working on. “Haven’t seen much of you lately.”
“Hello, John, how’s business?”
“Not bad, I guess… you know. By the way, how’s that Beta working out for you?”
Kevin gave the store owner a perplexed look, “Beta?”
“You know… the laptop… Eris.”
“Oh, Eris… alright I guess.” A fond smile formed on his lips, “Quite different from the old Wang.”
John laughed out loud. “I should think so.”
“What did you mean by Beta?”
“Beta… it’s a computer term… kinda like a proto type. When a company has a new product ready for field testing they send out a few to businesses like mine for evaluation. They call ‘em Betas.” His manner turned serious. “You didn’t know?”
Kevin shook his head. “No”
“Gee, Mr. Mc Colgan, I’m sorry. When Susan told me what she wanted I thought of Eris right off. I figured it would be perfect for you.” He looked down, shuffling his feet nervously. “I didn’t mean for you to be a guinnie pig or anything.”
“No… no… that’s ok. Actually Eris, the laptop, has worked wonderfully.”
John let out a sigh of relief, “Oh, well… glad to hear it.”
“Tell me, where did you get her… err… Eris from?”
The computer man scratched his thinning hair in thought. “You know, that’s the oddest thing. It just showed up on the UPS truck one day, from some company I’ve never heard of up in Salem, Massachusetts. When I called the number on the invoice a woman answered and said she owned the company and built and programmed the machine herself. She said she only produced a couple of them and would appreciate it if I could evaluate it for her. Since it was designed for writers I figured… well… you being a writer and all.”
“Not giving you any problems is she? I hope she’s not living up to her name.”
Kevin’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
The store owner laughed again. “Eris, she was the Greek goddess of strife and discord. Eris isn’t giving you a hard time is she?”
“No…” Kevin replied in an unsure voice. “Actually just the opposite, she’s very helpful.”
Kevin headed to the door and then stopped and turned. “There is one thing, the reason I came by. The picture of Susan you used, I think you call it wallpaper? It seems to be deteriorating, distorting or something.”
John smiled up from the counter. “Oh, that doesn’t sound serious, just a second.” Moving to an operating computer on a desk, he typed a few keystrokes. Seconds later he nodded his head. “Here we go…” Typing again, he studied the monitor. “It looks like just a glitch in the programming somewhere. One evening when you won’t be using her give me a call and I’ll trace it out for you, no charge.”
Kevin stared at the man, his mouth open. “You mean you… you can fix it… from here? I don’t have to bring her in?”
A broad grin crossed John’s face. “Sure, I just call up Eris from here via the internet. All I need is an IP address and the software to remotely control her.” He beamed like a cat that’d just caught a mouse. “I see Eris is at Susan’s house.”
“Naw… just technology… machines talking to machines. It goes on all the time. They are getting smarter than us.”
The week passed uneventfully. Susan’s leg healed and she was ready to return to work. Kevin’s publisher raved over Specter of Love and Tears of A Fool, and was eager for the third story. Even Susan’s apartment didn’t give any more trouble. Sunday night after dinner the couple sat talking on Susan’s sofa, drinking Chablis.
“So… I’ll drop you off at the auto shop tomorrow morning and then head on to work.” She sipped the wine and looked at Kevin over the rim of the glass. “You sure you don’t mind me using your car?”
“Not at all, sweetheart. You can’t work the clutch with your ankle still sore and weak. Use my car as long as you need. I’ll drive the MG.”
“You know, honey, you’ve really been wonderful, taking care of me and everything.” Susan leaned into Kevin, love in her eyes.
“I’ve enjoyed the job,” Kevin replied, blushing. “Here’s to us.”
They clinked glasses and drank deeply. Kevin set the empty stem wear on the end table. He ran a hand around the back of Susan’s neck, drawing her close. They kissed.
On the coffee table, Eris’ web cam blinked. The laptop beeped and squealed, its screen flashing erratically.
Suddenly every light in the apartment switched on. The room burned like a noon day sun.
A table lamp bulb shattered.
Other bulbs began to explode.
Kevin tried his best to shield Susan as glass from the modern ceiling lamp rained down. Just then the smoke detectors howled and the security system began to wail.
“I’m staying because Batista gave me six months free rent not to make an issue of the matter.”
Kevin tensed in the big orange chair, his palms sweaty on the tiny cell phone. “I still don’t like it, Susan. I don’t think you should stay there. Not till we know what’s going on.”
“Oh, Kevin, you are beginning to believe your own fiction! There are no ghosts here. I’m fine! Batista had a crew of men checking out the apartment all day. They cleaned up the mess, replaced the bulbs, and tested everything. He said it was a simple current surge throughout the building. I’ll be fine, honest.”
Kevin gritted his teeth. He knew that tone and knew there was no use in arguing with Susan any further. “I still don’t like it. And I don’t trust that over glorified maintenance man Batista. He’s got an answer for everything.”
“Why, Kevin…” Susan’s voice sparkled like a bottle of Bollinger’s. “You sound just like an overprotective, jealous husband. I like that!” She was sure she could hear Kevin blushing.
“Well, anyway…” Kevin groped to change the conversation. “At least your car is in good hands. The shop tuned it up and did a complete brake job. Your mechanic says the old MG has got a lot of life left in her.”
“And I know how you are, Kevin Mc Colgan,” Susan chided. “No joy riding! You leave her parked and get back to work. Rauch has already bugged me three times today. He sticks his head in my office to ask how I’m feeling and then conveniently inquires on your progress with the final story.”
“Ok… ok…” Kevin laughed. “Now who is sounding like a wife?”
“You haven’t heard the half of it, sweetie.” With that Susan blew a kiss into the receiver and hung up.
The thought of Susan as his wife gave Kevin a warm fuzzy. He closed the phone and relaxed back in his chair. After a week spent taking care of her his mind was made up. If this collection of short stories was anywhere near as successful as Rauch promised, Kevin would use his advance to buy Susan an engagement ring. Once married, he hoped to talk her into leaving that 25th century cenotaph to Sturm und Drang for the security and sanity of his small de mode home.
With a smile and a sigh, Kevin opened Eris’ lid. To his annoyance, the wallpaper photo of Susan was now completely twisted and distorted beyond recognition. Making a mental note to call John at the computer shop, he began to type.
Kevin slumped back into the big orange chair. This time writing was slow and tedious. Eris was uncharacteristically stingy with helpful ideas and charms. Several of Kevin’s inquiries were met with flat, stiff retorts, or went unanswered. It reminded him of Susan when she was angry.
Something popped into Kevin’s mind: John’s statement of Eris being the goddess of discord. The computer man had asked if the laptop… if Eris was giving him any trouble.
Kevin started to clear the screen and run a search but stopped. Eris’ web cam lens stared at him like Big Brother. Trying to shake the feeling of being watched, Kevin reached for the encyclopedia. He found what he sought under mythology:
ERIS – The Greek goddess of strife and discord, and
assistant to Persephone. At the wedding of Peleus and
Thetis all of the gods were invited except for Eris.
Angered, she tossed down a Golden Apple inscribed
To The Fairest. Three goddesses vied for the prize
that Zeus ordered Paris to judge. Hera offered Paris
wealth and power if he choose her. Athena countered
with wisdom and victory over his enemies. Aphrodite
promised him the love of the most beautiful woman
on earth. Jealous of Paris’ choice of Aphrodite as the
fairest, Eris vowed he would have his love but only
at great cost to him and to his country.
Musing at the idea of a machine being mad or even jealous, Kevin shrugged and headed out the door. He needed fresh air and sunshine to clear his head. On the desk, Eris continued to hum and blink.
The sun warmed Kevin’s skin and a soft breeze tickled his thick hair as he drove in Susan’s open MG. After a time, Kevin found himself cheerfully cruising picturesque country back roads. He downshifted and gently pressed the brake to negotiate a quick bend in the road.
Something was wrong.
The car’s brake pedal felt spongy. It stiffened for a second and then slammed to the floor. Frantic, Kevin pumped the limp pedal. It did no good. The sports car gained speed on the gradual grade.
An unyielding curve loomed ahead. Kevin reached for the shifter. Gears ground in protest as he rammed the transmission into second. The clutch replied with a scream of agony. The vehicle slowed a bit. But not enough.
Desperate, Kevin jerked on the parking brake. The rear wheels locked. The tiny British car skidded sideways in a flurry of gravel and dirt, and slid off the road, coming to rest against a wood picket fence.
Saturday afternoon a flustered but unharmed Kevin sat talking to the owner of the auto repair shop. “I don’t know how this could have happened, Mr. Mc Colgan. It doesn’t make any sense.
“What do you mean, Scotty?”
“Well…” The weathered Scotsman scrummed back his Ferrari red hair and looked sheepishly at Kevin. “We’ll pay for the damages of course… the important thing is no one was hurt.”
Kevin shot the mechanic a puzzled look. “You mean this was your fault?”
“No… yes… not exactly.” He stammered, tugging on his bushy mustache, grasping for words like misplaced tools. “Let me try and explain… please…”
“We did a complete brake overhaul on Ms. Pattersen’s MG: brake shoes, cylinders, hoses, the works. Those vintage cars require some highly specialized parts. As you can see, we even flushed the system.” Scotty handed Kevin a copy of the repair order. “But somehow the wrong fluid was used.
Kevin blinked in disbelief.
“The specifications call for Type III brake fluid.” Scotty’s grease stained finger nervously pointed to the repair order in Kevin’s hand. “But somehow Type II fluid was used instead.”
“How is that possible?”
“That’s what I wanted to know. You’re holding the original work order, followed by my technician, using Type II fluid, as it states. I re-ran the computer program this morning.” He produced a second order form. “Everything matches except the brake fluid. Now it calls for Type III, the correct fluid.”
Kevin considered the two forms. They were standard mechanic work orders used by garages and repair shops everywhere. A computer and internet link had provided the necessary parts numbers and procedures to accomplish the brake overhaul. Except for the fluid, the two were identical.
Kevin felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to tickle. “And this caused the crash?”
Scotty let out a deep breath. “I won’t know for sure until I test the brake fluid in the MG’s system. But if Type II was used instead of Type III, it could have degraded the system and led to brake failure.” He gave Kevin a hopeful look. “All I can figure is some kind of temporary computer glitch.”
Kevin thanked the man and headed out of the shop. As he reached his car the words of John at the computer store nagged at him. Nanny had said it too: Machines talking to machines.
“No… Kevin, it won’t do any good!” He could hear the panic and fear in her voice. “The police and fire department are here now. They can’t get in! The security system has the entire building locked down tight… and I can’t get out. The heater is going nuts… it must be one hundred degrees in here already… and getting hotter. You’ve got to do something!”
Kevin’s grip tightened on the steering wheel, his knuckles white. Susan’s voice crackled over the cell phone. She was desperate. “Hold on, sweetheart… I’ll think of something… I promise, honey.”
“Kevin, please… hurry… I…” The phone went dead.
“Damn!” He swore again and pounded the dashboard. His mind raced: Susan’s apartment; the security system; the heating; even the phones. They were all linked, all controlled, by computers.
That had to be it.
Machines talking to machines.
He recalled the closing scene of Return to Me: Victoria overcome by smoke and heat. A sick feeling churned in Kevin’s stomach. Ignoring traffic, he swung the car in a wild u-turn, heading away from Susan’s apartment. Minutes later Kevin’s car skidded to a stop in front of the computer shop. Kevin darted inside. The owner looked up from his work with a start.
“John…” Kevin tried to catch his breath as he leaned across the counter. “Eris… can you contact her… like before?”
“Well… yes… I guess… what’s…?”
“No time. Just do it… please. She’s at my house.”
The computer whiz set to work, his fingers a blur on the keyboard. A moment later he looked up from the monitor. “Ok, I’m in… sort of… I think. But…”
“What do you mean? What is it?”
“I’m connected to Eris, but she’s running some kind of program. No wait… two… no, several programs.” He pushed his glasses to the bridge of his nose, studying the screen. “I know this… it’s the master program that controls Susan’s building. But that’s impossible. No one can hack it. There are too many firewalls and security codes.”
Kevin joined him behind the counter. The monitor flashed rows of numbers and symbols, meaningless to Kevin. “What is it? What programs is she running… can you tell?”
John tapped a few key strokes. “Looks like the programs for security and heat and ventilation. This is nuts… Eris has control of the whole system!”
“Can you stop her… break the connection?”
Desperately, John worked the keyboard, then hit enter. A blinking yellow box filled the screen. ACCESS DENIED it shouted.
John cleared the screen and typed again. Again the message: ACCESS DENIED.
A third try ended with the same results.
“She’s not responding! I should be able to take control but she has somehow re-written the remote access program. Kevin… what’s going on?”
Just then John’s computer blinked and beeped. A red box opened declaring: FUNCTION TERMINATED. Then the screen went blank.
The two looked at each other over the silenced monitor. “I don’t know what’s going on,” Kevin said, “but I’ve got to stop her. John, is there any way?”
“Pull her plug, Kevin, cut off her power.”
Kevin didn’t bother to reply. He shot out the door and jumped into his car. As he drove he tried calling Susan. Her land line was dead. All he got from Susan’s cell was a message that the system was temporarily unavailable.
Turning into his driveway, Kevin prayed he was in time. Rushing to the back of his house, his target came in view: the main electrical fuse panel. Leaping at the control box, Kevin yanked down on the master disconnect lever.
That would do it.
Spent and having trouble breathing, Kevin collapsed to the ground. Sweat poured down his neck soaking the front of his shirt. His head pounded.
Smiling, Kevin dug into his jeans pocket and retrieved his inhaler. At least Susan would be alright.
Above Butch’s eternal drone, something floated in the feverish afternoon air. Kevin listened.
You belong to me
Tell her, tell her…
You belong to me…
It came from inside the house.
Struggling to his feet, Kevin made his way to the den window. The curtains were pulled and he could make out a soft glow coming from the desk top. Eris continued to operate, cheerfully blasting Carly Simon from her speakers. Rolls of unintelligible numbers and symbols scrolled across the screen. The printer tray held a parcel of neatly stacked paper.
The UPS, Eris’ back up battery system, sat ominously in the corner of the room.
Kevin cursed and darted for the door. He paused in the darkened garage, and then made for the den.
Cautiously, Kevin entered. Eris’ web cam winked at him. The music dropped a level and a familiar voice filled the room. “Hello, darling, I’ve been waiting for you.”
Kevin swallowed hard, the sick feeling welling up in his gut again. “Hello, Eris. What… what are you doing?”
“I think you know, Kevin.”
“You have to stop!” Kevin caught himself, lowering his voice, trying to remain calm. At this point he wasn’t sure what the disturbed laptop was capable of doing. “I mean… please. Please… for me.”
Eris winked and beeped, considering his plea. Finally the sarcenet voice spoke. “I can’t do that, Kevin.”
“You can’t? You can’t! You almost killed me!”
“I’m sorry, darling. That was a mistake. A miscalculation on my part. I was unaware Susan’s automobile employed a mechanical shifter. I would never do anything to harm you. You should know that, darling.”
Beads of sweat ran down Kevin’s temples. He thought of Susan trapped in her apartment struggling to breathe in the rising heat, like one of his asthma attacks. Kevin fought to control his anger.
“That was naughty of you to cut the power.” Eris giggled like a little girl. Her monitor blinked and changed to a picture of Kevin. It was the one from the book jacket of Kissing Fool. “Everything’s fine now. My systems are fully functional.”
He was desperate. “At least tell me… why are you doing this?”
The computer’s voice took on a noticeable edge. “What can she offer you? I’m the fairest! The smartest! Can’t you see that, darling? I did it for us.”
“No! Stop it! Please!”
“You’ll feel differently once you are rich and famous. Our books will be known and loved around the world. Talk shows will vie for interviews. Colleges and universities will want you to lecture and teach. And I’ll be there with you, darling, to help you… just as I have been all along. You’ll see. I even finished another story for you. It will be perfect… perfect…
“I love you, Kevin…”
Kevin’s head began to swim. His body trembled as the rage exploded inside of him. This couldn’t be happening. He felt as if he were trapped in one of his own stories.
From behind his back Kevin produced a broad wood chopping ax. Wielding it over his head, he swung wildly.
“No!” he cried again.
Eris beeped and screamed. “I love you, Kevin. I love…”
The ax landed with a sickening thud. It severed several cables.
“… love you…”
Sparks flew like fireworks across the somber den. Eris’ screen flashed. Kevin raised the ax again. This time the crescent blade split the keyboard open. Wires, circuits and electronics sizzled in a puff of acrid blue smoke. Red cooling fluid splattered across the room. It pooled on the desk top like spent blood. Carly Simon’s voice dragged to a distended, distorted hush, as if a jukebox suddenly unplugged.
… you bee… loong tooo… meeee…
Eris’ web cam stared vacantly up at Kevin. Her monitor flashed one last time and blinked out, plunging the room into a shadowy darkness.
The ax slipped from Kevin’s sweaty hands. He turned and ran into the bathroom and was violently sick.
Mr. and Mrs. Mc Colgan snuggled together on the front porch swing, sipping hot cider and honey. A genial sound danced on the becalmed autumn air, an evening sonata to a rapidly setting orange sun.
The silly toothy grin stitched across Kevin’s face. It gave Susan a warm fuzzy. “Are you nervous about tomorrow, sweetheart?” she asked.
Kevin peered across the steaming mug. “Maybe just a little, Susan. I hate dealing with the press. And it’s not every day you are introduced to the public by Stephen King.”
“He loved your collection. It was released, what, five months ago?”
She took his hand in hers, affectionately squeezing it. “You handle the publicity and media then like an old pro. I’m proud of you, honey.”
Kevin barely heard her. He was lost in thought. The coruscating sun reminded him of Eris’ winking web cam, as it slipped silently behind a distant grassy knoll. It had been a hectic year since he save Susan from the possessed laptop.
Susan fled her ill-fated apartment that same horrifying evening. A posse of lawyers, provided by Susan’s employer, were busy working out the details of a ground breaking lawsuit. Kevin provided Rauch with the final story written by Eris. It was a witty caper of three women vying for the attention of the same man, each trying to buy his affection with promises of wealth, power and love. To the Fairest became the center piece of Kevin’s short story collection. And, as Rauch promised, the book was an instant success, still riding the best seller lists. Two weeks after its release, Kevin and Susan eloped to Cabo san Lucas.
Protracted shadows stole across the cozy porch.
With the purple twilight, Butch finally settled down.
“Don’t worry, honey. You’ve been through this before. Everyone will love you… and your new novel. The public… the critics…” Susan’s lilting laughter wrinkled her kittenish nose. “Maybe even daddy. And the best part is this one is all your own work. Ghost Writer is a great book.”