Sunday, June 9, 2013

Ghost Writer (Part Two) by BJ Neblett

Here's the second installment of Ghost Writer, another story in my Fantastic Literature collection. It will continue next week. Enjoy, and be sure to 'Like' and leave a comment.

Ghost Writer (Part Two)
by BJ Neblett
© 2007, 2012  

            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.
            11:40 AM
            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 of. 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 of. Where and how much he drank he wasn’t sure of. 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
            “What the…”
            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.

Continued next week!

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