The door swung open. “I do not hesitate,” he said, eyes glazed over, forehead cut and bleeding.
“Good,” said Mary, holding the shovel tightly, lips pursed. She was ready. Her eyes said it and more. Swing.
I gave up on any rational way of storytelling a long time ago. That’s not to say I can’t tell a story simply. It just takes on different beats than most stories out there. The above is from my latest story. She Walks Alone. It’s a terrible title. Sounds like a rape-victim western. It’s about a waitress in the Midwest who kills a psychopathic trucker. Typical thriller variety. My publisher wanted something sexy but suspenseful. The strong heroine angle is popular now. She kills him with a shovel and walks out of the café alone into a snowstorm. Yeah, I know. Cliché stuff.
Yet there was something in this story that hit a nerve with a woman actually living in the Midwest. Like I said, my stories may be typical, but my storytelling is definitely off the beaten path. The only reason, at least I assume anyway, for it getting published. This woman got ahold of my contact information somehow and wrote me the following email:
Dear Mr. Kyle,
I have just finished reading She Walks Alone after a friend recommended it to me. I don’t know how you know what you know. We must meet. I will be in Seattle on Sunday. Please meet me at my hotel lobby at noon. The address is below.
He’s still alive, Mr. Kyle. I didn’t kill him.
Of course I blew it off at first as some deranged fan’s idea of a joke. Or she just wanted to jump my bones. Either way it turned me off completely. A nice “liked your story email” is much preferable. But of course more often than not these days, people sound off on social media. They love you or hate you. I couldn’t quite make out what this was, but it seemed more in the like you column. But under crazy and possibly dangerous. The fact that she was going to travel halfway across the country to meet me is scary enough. But then to believe that she was the character in my story? Or at least it seemed that was what she was alluding to. My character’s name was Mary not Martha, but I suppose delusion is delusion regardless of accuracy.
That Sunday I wasn’t even thinking about the email or Martha Anderson. I was at home working on my next manuscript. My cell phone buzzed. It was my friend Connie. She wanted to do lunch as she had something exciting to tell me. I said sure, showered, dressed, and went out. I didn’t even think about the fact that the lunch spot was in a hotel. I just knew it was a place Connie frequented. I walked through its lobby to get there.
I knew her at once. She was standing near a table, the light softly focused on her face. She was clutching her beat up bag looking desperate and completely out of place. Her eyes darted around the room fervently. She wore tight jeans and a dark leather jacket. Her makeup was loud and her hair too poofy. She looked like a groupie of an 80’s hair band.
She leapt forward at the sight of me like a bumbling child. I suppose I was scared when I realized what was happening. But mostly I was just annoyed. I had forgotten about Martha Anderson until that moment. Seeing her brought the whole ugly thing into focus and my face tightened. She immediately apologized.
“Mr. Kyle… Mr. Kyle, I’m sorry. But I had to see you. Thanks for coming. Please, could we sit down and talk?”
The desperation ebbed and flowed as she tried to control it. She wanted to assure me of her urgency, yet tried to keep it down enough not to annoy me further. I hesitated. I was just going to tell her that there was a mistake. I was going to meet a friend. But then I thought, Connie can wait a few minutes. I was early anyway. What harm could it do? Then I looked at her bag again. There could have been any number of weapons inside it. I was acting stupid. I needed to get away.
She pulled on my arm and I looked into her eyes. Tears were beginning to swell. Regardless of whatever insanity lay inside the woman, I’m a sucker for displays of human emotion. I sighed and relented, letting my body drop from its tension. I let her lead me to a seating area of the lobby by a big window. I figured, well, we are in a public area. People on all sides. I decided to speak for the first time.
“Miss Anderson. I really don’t understand what this about. What did you mean when you said ‘He isn’t dead’?”
“Bill. Bill isn’t dead. Oh, I know you called him…Brian or something in your story and me, Mary…but that’s not what matters. What matters is you got everything else right. The snowstorm, the shovel, down to the details of the truck. The feathers he had hanging from his rearview. The crack in the middle with the stuffing coming out. The way he…his hair. It was so unsettling I cried for an hour after I read it. I don’t know how you did it. Did you talk to someone? Do you know him? I just have to know. Please.”
She waved her hands around a lot. Every time her purse strap would fall from her shoulder, she’d swing it back up again. She’d look me in the eye for a moment, but realizing it was too much and that she may start crying, she’d turn away. But her eyes would always search for me again. I could smell donuts and coffee from the coffee stand across the lobby and became distracted by it. I mean, what was I supposed to say to this woman? Yes, I met Bill in Fargo and we hatched a plan to find you and put you through a wood chipper? He’s at the coffee stand now getting donuts with Bob from Twin Peaks.
I turned my hands over and shook my head. “I just made it all up, Miss Anderson. I swear. Look, you seem in earnest. But either this is some sort of sick joke or you’re off your meds…I don’t know. And frankly, I don’t care. Good luck to you. I’m going to meet my friend now. Please don’t follow me. Have a nice time in Seattle.”
I stood slowly watching for a big reaction. But her head was bowed and I realized that she was crying. Again, I’m a stupid sucker. “Are you going to be all right? Can I get something or someone for you?”
“No. No, thank you. I don’t know why I thought… It doesn’t matter. Thank you for your time. I’m sorry I wasted it.”
She stood, brushed by me, and quickly made her way to the elevators, wiping her face and pulling up on her bag. That was not what I expected at all. I expected a big scene or more babbling or something. But not a quick, apologetic exit. I felt as if I was being pulled into a mystery, yet I knew all the while the whole idea was ludicrous. The woman was just some goofy fan and if I wasn’t careful, she could have a shovel waiting for me too. But I was just so taken aback by her fear and her commitment to her story and her reaction to my rejection of her claims.
I tapped her softly on the shoulder as she waited for the elevator and she spun around, shocked to see me standing there. She wiped her face again, her eyes big and anticipating. “Mr. Kyle?”
“Listen. Um. I’m probably going to regret this, but… Have you had lunch yet?” She shook her head tearfully, thankfully. “Why don’t you have lunch with me and my friend? On me. You can tell us your story—”
“I couldn’t tell anyone else, Mr. Kyle. Telling you was hard enough…”
“It’s all right. You can trust Connie. She isn’t like most of my friends, who are bunch of gossips. She’s discreet, trustworthy. I promise. And if you don’t feel right about anything, you can go at any time.”
Why was I trying to convince this woman to have lunch with me? Moments ago I wanted nothing more than to get as far away as possible, but now… I suppose she intrigued me. She was a project. A puzzle to solve, a gift to unwrap. There was something more to this whole ordeal and I wanted to see what was inside, behind all the tears of desperation. Research, it was research. At least, that was what I was convincing myself of at the time. After lunch, it would be much, much more.
“Hello,” said Connie cheerfully, putting out her hand. Martha shook it hurriedly, her eyes cast down, clutching tightly to her bag. “Please. Sit.”
“I owe you one,” I whispered to Connie as we all sat down. She smiled her biggest fake smile at me as if to say, “Fuck you very much”.
A waiter came and took our drink orders. We then looked to Martha, who sat like a little girl in a seat too big for her, her bag in her lap with her arms around it as if it were some sort of life saver.
“Martha,” I started. “Perhaps you could start with what happened to you and how you think it is so similar to my story.”
She fidgeted a little, looking at Connie thoughtfully, sizing her up. She must have decided she could trust her, or thought, “What does it matter?” because she shook herself from her childlike behavior, sat up, and began her story.
“I was working in a diner off Route 10. It was the dead of winter, and so we mainly got truckers and the odd snowmobile or the stranded or lost. One night we were closing and Jack, the cook, went home. The other waitress left me to close by myself. I didn’t think anyone was still there…but he was sitting in the corner, watching me. I then remembered him from earlier in the night. Bill, he said his name was. He jumped me. We fought. I was able to knock him down and make it out the back door. But no one was around. For miles. And the snow was coming thick and heavy. There was a shed behind the diner where we kept supplies. I found a shovel and when he found me I hit him as hard as I could. I walked out into the storm and flagged down a car.”
“Did you not have your own car?” asked Connie.
“He had slashed my tires,” said Martha.
“Very similar, Tommy,” said Connie, turning to me.
“Please don’t call me that,” I said flatly.
“In Tommy’s story though, she kills him. You don’t believe this…Bill to be dead?” asked Connie.
“No, he isn’t dead. When the police finally came, the only trace of him was his blood in the snow. He’s been watching me. Waiting. He may have even followed me here, I don’t know,” said Martha. She was on the defensive now and I realized it could come to a confrontation if Connie didn’t ease up on her.
“All the way to Seattle?” said Connie, eyebrows lifted.
Martha clutched her bag tighter. I was about to say something when the waiter came and asked if we were ready to order. After we had ordered (Martha only ordering a small salad), Connie sat back and surveyed our guest. I didn’t think of Connie as unkind, or at least not overly judgmental, but something was eating away at her. I realized she must have been bent out of shape because of the news she had so wanted to give was being derailed by a possible lunatic telling tall tales.
“Are you staying at this hotel, Martha?” she asked.
“Yes. My friend, who sent me your story,” said Martha, turning to me, “was the one who encouraged me to come here. She paid for everything. The plane ticket, the hotel…” She suddenly looked very dejected. “I don’t know why I came here, Mr. Kyle. I felt very compelled until the moment I saw you. I’ve come to see though that you have no idea of the truth and that your story is just some kind of freak coincidence.”
“Probably. But what if it’s not?” said Connie.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Well, let’s look at the facts. Martha had a traumatic thing happen to her that is eerily similar to the events of one of your recent stories. A friend gives her the story and encourages her to come out here to see you. Someone is pulling some strings somewhere, Tommy. You act like you’re completely aghast by the whole situation, but are you really?”
Connie looked at me gravely. I must have looked even more aghast. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying… I’m willing to bet Martha’s friend is a friend of yours too.”
The sentence hit me like a shot. But before I could say anything or Martha either (her mouth had fallen open at the suggestion), something hit the window next to us. A bum, from the look of him; battered clothes, dirty face, was slamming his shoulder into the window directly at us. “What the hell?” said Connie. He was gaining momentum, the window was shaking violently.
“It’s him; it has to be!” shouted Martha, flinging upward in a flurry.
“Now, calm down,” I started, standing as well, my eyes searching for anyone to come help. The homeless guy was continuing to bang into the window with heavy force. I tried to see his face, but it was obscured by a hoodie and a full, scraggly beard.
Our waiter came bouncing into view. “I’ve called hotel security,” he said hurriedly. He turned and we saw two security guards rush into the restaurant from the lobby. One of them was talking into a walkie-talkie clipped to his arm. The other left through the street entrance and began to approach the homeless person. The whole of the restaurant was watching us and it felt as if every eye was upon me. I felt nervous and jittery. I kept looking to Martha, who looked like a trapped mouse, not sure which way to run. Connie pulled her to her seat with a gentle tug, telling her it would be all right and to stay calm. It was a very kind moment. I felt like hugging her. But no one was looking out for me. I continued to stand there gawking like an animal in the street.
I could see the security guard mouth the words, “We’ve called the police,” to the homeless man. He was undeterred. He kept banging up against the window. I think (and maybe I imagined it) I could see it beginning to crack. Connie was pushed up against Martha now and they watched, eyes wide. I walked over to the waiter.
“This is ridiculous. Where are the cops? Why don’t they remove the guy?”
The waiter gave me a “Oh, come on man, I just work here” kind of look. “I’m so sorry, Sir. They’re doing their best, I’m sure. I don’t believe they are allowed to touch anyone without previous provocation.”
“Well, slamming up against the window at us while we’re trying to have lunch is provocation enough for me.”
I don’t know what got into me but I stormed out the front door to join the security guard. I heard Connie say worriedly, “Tommy, what the hell are you doing?” but I kept going without turning back. The security guard put out his hand and asked me to stay back, the cops were on their way. Seeing me though, standing there on the sidewalk, the bum stopped slamming into the window and stood there, a little unstably, looking at me.
“Do you know this guy?” the security guard asked me.
“I don’t think so,” I said. I tried to see into the man’s eyes, but it was nearly impossible. As if reading my thoughts, the man removed the hoodie and I could see him plainly. His eyes were drops of fiery pain.
“What do you want?” I said.
But he said nothing in return. A cop car pulled up and two cops got out. One talked to the security guard while the other confronted the homeless man. He didn’t even seem to notice them, he just kept staring at me. And then he walked away. The cops didn’t follow, they just let him go.
“But he was destroying private property,” I argued at them. “You should arrest him. He interrupted our lunch and scared the hell out of my friends.”
They were asking me a lot of questions now and ushering me back inside. I was fixated on watching the bum stumble down the street, until he turned a corner and was gone. It seemed like they were all talking at me now, asking questions. I looked up at the waiter saying, “He was eating alone.”
I looked to the window where we had all been sitting. Connie and Martha were gone. “Where are they?” I asked.
“Who?” asked a cop.
“My… friends I was having lunch with,” I said.
“You came in alone, Sir,” said the waiter. “You ordered a small salad and then that man showed up and started banging against the window.”
“No. I came here with my friend, Connie, and a woman I had just met, Martha. They were sitting right there.”
I pointed at the table and noticed there was only one drink sitting upon it and only one chair pulled out.
“Can we call someone for you, Sir?” asked a cop. He was tall and broad and looked like a football player. He loomed over me like a giant. But his voice was kind and it reminded me of someone.
“Who are you?” I said. The waiter scoffed and walked away. I felt a hand on my shoulder, turning me out the door. They all assumed I was crazy. I felt like Cary Grant in North by Northwest.
“We’re getting you a cab. Where do you live?”
I don’t know who was asking at this point, probably the cop. Everything was getting fuzzy. I almost had a drunken mobility at this point; I was wobbly and confused. Something was not just wrong, but out of sorts.
After they put me in a cab, I told the officers I was fine and could tell the driver where to take me. They seemed mollified and the driver turned out into traffic.
“Where to then?” asked the driver.
I told him an address and sat back into the crunchy, leather seat. I was mulling over everything that happened in the last couple of hours and trying to make sense of it. Did I just imagine it or was someone playing some sort of game with me? The thought had occurred to me once already. That’s why I was going directly to the source of the question.
Knocking on the door of a townhouse in Queen Anne, I felt a slight drizzle beginning to pat me on the head. I looked up. Clouds were moving quickly over the neighborhood and growing darker by the second.
The door suddenly sprang open and Connie stood on the other side with a surprised expression on her face. She was wearing a bathrobe and her hair was a mess. I had never seen her without makeup. She looked like she had been scrubbed raw. This wasn’t possible. I had just been with her at the hotel, literally minutes prior.
“Tommy,” she said, pulling her robe tighter together. “What are you doing here?” She looked behind her then back at me and attempted a smile.
“What in the hell is going on?” I demanded.
“What do you mean?” she tried innocently.
“Look, it’s been a strange couple of hours. Can I come in?”
“No! Yes, I mean. Yes, of course. Only just… uh, sit down. I’ll be right back, okay?”
I shut the door behind me as she scuttled off down the hall and out of sight. I sat down and sighed. I stared into her empty fireplace wondering what was happening to me. I couldn’t stop shaking. Yet in truth, I felt as if the world were shaking and I was sitting still. I held up my hand and looked at it. I looked old. I felt old. Suddenly I felt very emotional and distraught. Everything that I had done in my life, particularly my work; what was it worth? Who was I? My mind was swimming and spiraling and I had to calm down or I really was going to have a break. I tried (as much as one can try) to meditate while waiting for Connie. I closed my eyes and focused on my breath and the anchor of my body to her chair. After a few minutes, I truly did feel less disoriented. I was almost relaxed.
My eyes sprang open at the sound of Connie’s feet on her wooden floors. She had slipped into a tight pair of jeans and a t-shirt and pulled her hair back from her face. She sat down opposite me and smiled a little too widely.
“So? What’s up?” she said.
“Uh. What’s with all of theatrics just now?” I said, sitting up. I must have slumped down into the seat. I think I had been falling asleep more than meditating.
“Connie. It’s me. And I’m not talking to you over the phone. I’m here. I’m a writer. Which means I’m better at observation than most. What is going on?”
She sighed heavily and gave me a resentful glare. She shifted uncomfortably, watching me for any reaction. Her eyes relented eventually. “I can never keep anything from you, can I? Well, I was going to call you and ask you to lunch and tell you everything then. But then you show up here out of the blue. It was just rather unexpected.”
“What do you mean? I just came from lunch with you.” I was testing the waters. Obviously I hadn’t or didn’t or it was all in my head. But I needed to know what she knew and if she was in on the charade.
“Darling Tommy, it’s eight thirty a.m. Why on earth would we have just come from lunch? Are you all right? Are you on a new medication or something?”
A noise broke the silence that followed, of me staring at her incomprehensively, shocked by the announcement that it was still morning. A man came shuffling into view, eyes dewy and guilty. It took me aback to see, after a moment of scrutiny, that it was my editor.
“John? What are you doing here?” I said.
“John,” said Connie irritably. “We talked about this.”
“I know, but… Well, your conversation was a bit worrying to me so I thought maybe I could help. Tom, are you in fact on any drugs?”
I was completely out of my head by this point. I struggled to stand. I must have appeared to be on something. My movements were shaky at best. I could see myself being unsteady, but I couldn’t control it. My body was as limp as a wet towel and my mind was a churning jumble. Connie stood too and I saw John leap forward at me as all the spinning became too much and I collapsed, like a puppet clipped of its strings, banging hard against the floor.
“John. He’s waking.”
The room came into view through blinking bleariness. Connie was above me looking concerned. John brought a glass of something dark and told me to drink. I coughed up the whiskey, but I was up and awake now.
“Tommy, are you all right?”
Everything stopped. Connie and John looked frozen in time as if waxworks inside a museum. I stupidly waved my hand before their faces. Nothing. I pinched myself, believing I truly was dreaming this time. Everything else that occurred that day could have been explained, but this… I was at a loss.
“Hello? Hey come on, stop playing around,” I said.
“Oh, they’re not playing around.”
The voice came from the hall. The hair on my body stiffened. “Who’s there?”
Footsteps, like the echoes of dream, came clacking down the hall. A tall man appeared to fit those shoes. I fell back at the sight of him. He was so clearly rendered I hardly thought I could be awake anymore. I thought I must be dead. His eyes were sunken and his lips long and pursed. His dark hair fell into his face and he brushed it back just as I had written him to do. He wore a flannel shirt with a pack of Marlboros in the front pocket. His skin was weathered and wrinkled and his smile, along those creepily long lips, made him look like a villain from an anime. He wore beat up blue jeans and leather skin cowboy boots. He brushed the hair from his eyes again and pulled a smoke from his pocket. Taking his time, he lit it with a zippo that bore a naked woman on its front, erotically thrusting out her chest.
“Tom,” he crooned. His voice was so cracked and harsh, it sounded as though he was always whispering his last words upon his last breath. But there was also, underneath all of that hardness, a satin-like swoon, as if Dean Martin were in there somewhere. “You are in a little bit of a corner, ain’tchya?”
“What…how?” I managed to say. My crotch felt wet and hot and I realized I must have peed myself.
“Oh. Tsk tsk, little boy. So confused and lonely. Maybe someone needs to shake that head of yours. See what comes out, eh?” He circled around the sofa and sat on the edge. Getting a clear view of me, he looked down to see my wet pants. “Oh,” he whined. “You’ve wet yourself. Tsk tsk, you sure are a little boy. Where’s my girly girl now, I wonder? Hmm? Come on, I haven’t got all day.”
“W-what?” I stuttered.
“What? How? That all you gonna say, little boy? So disappointing. I don’t like to be disappointed, you know that. So where is she?”
“Who…whom do you mean?” I said.
“Martha, you twat. Who do you think? Listen, this isn’t going to go well for you if you don’t start squawking. And I mean soon. You know where I keep my weapon of choice.”
I did. A Bowie knife sheathed in a leather case stuffed down his right boot.
“Listen, I don’t understand what’s going on here. I met Martha for the first time today at a hotel downtown. And that’s where I left her…or thought I did. And that’s all I know, I swear.”
Heat and adrenaline were rising up within me. I felt more alive and more aware than I had in months. My eyes were glued open watching my creation strut around Connie’s townhouse, while Connie and my editor stood solid and unmoving. He had taken out his knife at this point and was pacing back and forth, brandishing it in the air as if he were up to bat.
“I like this place. This city. It suits me,” he said.
“I really doubt that,” I said.
“Really? You don’t think so? You live here.”
“You and I are quite different. What do you want from me? I don’t know where Martha is and I don’t know how and why you are here.”
He frowned and flung the knife into the floor. It made a harsh, splintered noise as it rocketed into the wood. I jumped and my back cracked.
“Listen little boy, I don’t want to be here anymore than you do. But here I am,” he said, palms out, walking toward me. His smile had come back and I knew what that meant. “Do you really think I want to fuck you and not her?”
He was at my throat almost at once. I didn’t have time to back away, I had been too concerned with the pain in my back. As he strangled me, his crazy eyes were pressed close to mine. His breath was like smelling death. When he let go and backed away, I coughed for what felt like minutes. He pulled the knife from the floor and muttered under his breath, “This isn’t fucking Deliverance.”
I caught my breath eventually and shifted my legs to the floor and sat up best I could. “While I appreciate that, Brian—”
“Bill. Sorry, Bill. While I appreciate that, what do you want me to do?”
It was like waking from a dream. One moment here was there, the next Connie and John were awake and looking at me funny as I was staring at nothing and no one.
I went home after that. I took a handful of sleeping pills and slept for a number of hours. When I woke it was night. I looked at my phone. Twenty missed calls and seven texts. I flung the phone to the floor and buried my head under my pillow. Then I heard an odd sound, like breathing, and I turned on the light. I sat up, pulling the covers over my chest like some girl in a movie. “Who’s there?” I said.
The door creaked open and for a half a second I thought I was going to die. Here was Bill coming to kill me in my bed. For no other reason than I told him he wouldn’t like Seattle. But the person who came inside my bedroom was Martha.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
“How do you know where I live?” I asked. It was barely relevant at this point, but I was still living under the delusion that there would be some kind of realistic explanation for the last day.
“You gave me your card,” she said. “At the restaurant.”
“I did?” I said, blinking and trying to remember. She nodded. “All right. Um. Hand me my pants.”
She rushed over to my chair and took my pants to me, looking at me like a puppy in trouble. I suddenly didn’t feel vulnerable anymore and so I dressed in front of her. She watched quietly, her fingers flitting around her purse nervously. Once I was dressed, I gestured for us to leave the bedroom and escorted her to the living room. Once she was seated, I walked sleepily to the kitchen and poured us each a big glass of red wine.
“Here,” I said, returning to the living room and passing her the glass. She took it thankfully. “So,” I said, sitting down opposite her and taking a grateful swig of the wine. It immediately warmed me. “I’ve had a really fucking weird day, Martha. And I’m starting to think this all leads back to you somehow. Would you mind explaining to me what happened at the hotel? Where did you go?”
She took a big gulp of wine and wiped her mouth afterward a little shamefully. “Mr. Kyle, you’re in danger. They’re getting closer now. I don’t know how close, but close. And Bill…”
“Hold on. Who’s close? Who are you talking about?”
“I really mustn’t say.”
“Come on, Martha, give me a fucking break here.” I was up and pacing. “You pop into my life, a little too conveniently, and next thing I know a homeless guy is nearly attacking us, you disappear with Connie, Connie is fucking my editor, and Bill shows up—”
“You saw Bill?” Wine swept down her front as she stood. “Oh. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come here.”
“Here. It’s okay. Let me get something for your shirt.”
“No, no. Thank you. I should go. I can’t stay.”
“Please. At least let me call you a cab.”
“No, I can’t wait!”
She was screaming. Her eyes were watering and her face was red. I took her by the shoulder. “I won’t let him harm you. Fuck, how is he even real? How is any of this even happening?”
“Good questions, little boy.”
We both turned to see Bill saunter slowly into the room, looking like a ghost in the dim light. He was waving the Bowie knife in front of him, as if being plagued by a swarm of bees.
“Mr. Kyle…” Her voice was strangled. I pushed her behind me. She picked up a ceramic vase and held it before her defensively.
“Get out of my house right now.” I tried to sound calm but it came out all fluttery. “And leave her alone.”
“I should applaud you, little boy. Taking such steps to protect your creation. But you know I am going to do what I came here to do. Neither of you can stop me. And now really, did you actually think you could? She only got away from me because you never finished writing the god damn story.”
My heart skipped a beat. “What? Of course I did. How else would Martha have read it and come here?”
“That’s what they told her to say,” said Bill. He was around my sofa now. Martha and I backed up instinctively. Martha was in serious defense mode now. She was clutching the ceramic piece in her hand so tightly, I thought she was going to crush it.
“And who is they?” I said.
“Tsk tsk. Time will tell you. Step aside now, little boy. I have unfinished business to take care of.”
I turned to look at Martha. Her face was set and determined. She nodded at me, a little tearfully, but also a little defiantly, and brushed me aside. “Martha,” I pleaded, but she only nodded at me again and pushed me farther aside.
“I’m not going to let you,” she said to Bill. “I’m not going to let you.”
“Let me what, girly girl? Twist this big knife into your abdomen? Too late for that, I’m afraid. This is how they want it to end. And they want him,” said Bill, pointing the knife at me, “to witness it.”
“I’m not going to let you touch me,” she said. “You won’t ever touch me.”
Bill laughed. His hoarse cackle sounded like an engine backfiring. It was so abrupt and shocking that I stumbled backward and tumbled into a chair. He saw his opportunity and leapt at Martha, who swung as hard as she could. The vase went crashing into the side of his skull. Even though I could see it cut the side of his head, he still came at her. She shouted as he dug the knife into her stomach and twisted sharply. They both swung to floor in a heap, a lamp going down with them.
I pulled myself up quickly, but it wasn’t fast enough. When I stood over them, Bill was digging his knife in and whispering into her ear. A knock pounded at my front door and I turned my head in its direction. When I looked back down, Bill was gone and Martha was choking on her own blood. I knelt down and took her hand.
“We’re going to get you help,” I said.
“He never touched me. Thank you, Mr…”
Her eyes fell still and I pulled down her eyelids with a deep sadness in my heart. All of the muddling confusion and want for answers was replaced by an eruptive anger. The knocking was still pounding and so I stood up and strode to the front door and swung it open, ready to break someone in half. It was Connie. She stepped back at the sight of me.
“What the hell, Tommy? I’ve been calling you all day. What are you doing? And why do you look like that?”
“Get in here,” I said, pulling her inside.
“Jesus. A little rough, aren’t you? What gives?” she asked as I pushed her aside and shut the door. Taking her by the arm again, I pulled her into the living room. “Ow! Tommy!”
“Look at this!” I shouted as I drug her to the spot where Martha was sprawled out dead on my floor. But there was nothing. Not even a drop of blood. The lamp was still knocked over, but other than that and the wine, there was no trace that Martha or Bill had been there. I dropped Connie’s arm.
“Thank you. Fuck. What? Are you doing some night time redecorating?”
“She was right… there. Just… a moment ago,” I said, tumbling back into my chair feeling defeated.
Connie found Martha’s glass of wine and picked it up. “I see you were expecting me. Or was it someone else?” She took a drink from the glass and then stared at it. “There is lipstick on this glass, Tommy. Are you having some kind of weird romance I don’t know about?”
“You’re one to talk,” I said.
“About that. Look…”
“Never mind that. I have more important things to figure out right now,” I said. “Did we have lunch today?”
“No. We’ve been over this. You showed up at my place this morning ranting about having lunch with me when it wasn’t even nine o’clock yet. Tom. Seriously, what is going on with you? John and I are really worried.” She sat on the edge of the chair that Martha had sat in. I regarded it and the glass she was holding for a long time until she interrupted my train of thought. “Tommy. Hello? Talk to me, please.”
I shook myself and looked into Connie’s eyes. They seemed sincere. “Okay. Look, if I tell you everything that’s happened to me today, you promise not to laugh or have me locked up? I’m still struggling to figure this thing out, okay?”
She shrugged and nodded. I realized that was about all the commitment I was going to get from her. She would react in the moment, regardless of how much I prepared her for it. I stood and took the lamp from the floor and put it back in its place. The bulb had been shattered. I thought about the first moment I saw Martha and how she had looked shattered. I had felt she was my responsibility. Someone wanted me to feel that way, so that when she was truly and irrevocably broken, they could watch me try and pick up the pieces. I swung around to Connie.
“Let’s go get lunch,” I said.
Connie shook her head. “What?”
“Or dinner, or whatever. Just wait here while I get dressed.”
“Tommy!” she called after me as I left the room to change.
The hotel looked innocuous on first glance. I didn’t see our waiter from the afternoon. This time it was a waitress and she smiled at us in a friendly enough way when I asked her if we could be seated by the window.
“Okay, Tommy, we’re here. Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” asked Connie, as we took our seats, the same seats from earlier in the day. Another person came over and poured water. He too smiled politely at us. I looked on them with suspicious eyes, all of them. Even Connie, who was becoming irate with me. “Tommy, for fuck’s sake.”
“Listen, you’re just going to have to trust me, okay? I think I might be following a thread here and I want to see where it leads. I’ll explain everything, I promise. For now, just go with it,” I said. I knew she wasn’t going to just go with it. That wasn’t her speed. But she slowed down at least, flapping her cloth napkin over her lap as if she were spanking a baby, then looked up at me and sighed.
“Fine. You’re buying. And there will be lots of drinks.”
“Fine, good. Order whatever you want.”
I waited. Connie ordered drinks and she sipped from a cocktail, her eyes wandering around the room, waiting for something to happen as well. I wondered if we were waiting for the same thing. I sighed and sat back.
“Well, I guess that’s it,” I said.
“What is?” asked Connie.
“My big intervention. I thought for sure this would be the end of it, that I would get some answers. Maybe the whole thing is in my head.”
“Very astute of you, Thomas,” said a voice from behind me. Connie’s eyes lit up. I turned around to see John above me. He was smiling a little too broadly. He pulled out a chair and sat down. The waitress came and he ordered a glass of wine.
“John?” said Connie. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to see how Thomas is getting on. That’s why you’re here too, am I right?” said John, adjusting his sleeves by pulling on the end of them. He was eerily calm and smug. Much more so than I knew him to be.
“Why are you here, John?” I said, leaning forward.
“Hm. Did you enjoy your day, Tom? Was it something of an ending for you? I suppose not. You look at everything as if it is a beginning, don’t you?”
His glass of wine came and he swished the liquid around in the glass, nodding a thank you to the waitress.
“John, what the fuck are you talking about?” moaned Connie, slamming down her cocktail on the table with a thump.
“Connie,” said John. “Go to the bathroom for a good ten minutes and don’t come back until those minutes are up.”
Connie jumped up, tossing her napkin to the table, and left for the bathroom without so much as a word or a glance my way.
“Connie?” I called out to her but she didn’t turn back.
“Now we can talk,” said John. “That is what you wanted, is it not?”
“Wait, are you…? Oh,” I said, sitting back again, realization coming over me. “Why?”
“I don’t believe that question is relevant,” said John, smirking. It irritated me.
“It’s absolutely relevant. It’s the only fucking relevant question to ask. Why the fuck did you put me through this today and how?”
“First off. I didn’t put you through anything. At least not personally.”
“So you didn’t act alone,” I said, folding my arms.
“Tom, you talk as if there is some conspiracy against you. There is no such thing. We simply want it to end. Endings are important, are they not? I mean…don’t you feel compelled to write it now? The whole story. What happened to Martha out there on the snowy highway…”
“I did finish that story, John. You worked on it with me.”
“No. We planted that idea in your head. But you never actually finished it. You believed you had because it focused your energy on the characters, not the ending. You thought you knew what happened…but it is just one of many possibilities.”
“So by that logic, what happened in my living room was a possible ending.”
“Yes, exactly. Look at us as your own personal committee. We help you, Thomas. Tighten the bows.”
I thought about this for a moment. It was a little too convenient. “Let me ask you something, John. Are you and the rest of the committee omniscient? You can manipulate time, people, circumstances?”
“No. But we can set your brain ablaze,” said John. The smile had slipped away.
“So I’m dreaming right now? All of this,” I said, waving my hand at the room, “is in my head? None of this is real.”
“Well, define real, Thomas? What’s real to you here could be very real to the synapses firing in imagination land of that brain of yours.”
I didn’t buy it. Nor did I buy his smug act. There had to be a trigger to make him sweat. Something he didn’t want me to know.
“The homeless guy,” I said.
“What about him?” said John, the smile edging its way back into his lips.
“What was the point of him? I mean, he got me out of the hotel, got me confused. But you could have had Brian or Bill or whatever you want to call him, show up at any time. Why wait? And if you were controlling my characters, then why have me run around like I’m in some Hitchcock film? The answer was simple all along, according to you. You wanted me to see an idea for the ending to my story.”
My attention was turned to the window. Bill and the homeless guy were looking in. They were standing only a couple feet apart, staring through the window. But they weren’t watching me, they were watching John. John may have flinched at the sight of them, but it was so subtle, I almost missed it. He sat up, pulled another swig of his wine, and leaned forward toward me.
“However you want to spin it, Tom. It is what it is.”
“Is it?” I asked, my eyes veering toward the figures behind the glass.
Connie reappeared. She smiled at both of us as if nothing odd was happening. John stood and she took him by the arm. “Goodbye, Tom,” he said. “Good luck with the ending.”
“Bye, Tommy,” said Connie. “I’ll call you.”
They walked out through the lobby of the hotel. Obviously they weren’t going to go by way of the front door. But I would. I paid the tab and made my way to the sidewalk. Bill and the homeless guy turned to face me.
“What now?” I said.
“Little boy is smarter than he looks. That’s good for you. This way,” said Bill and he and the homeless guy began to walk away from me down the street.
Following them, I found myself wondering all the while what was real. I looked down at my hands, the street, the people passing by. I even pinched myself and slapped my face. Bill and homeless guy didn’t look back.
We eventually turned into an alley and walked through the back door of a café. Inside, the smell of coffee was overwhelming. Couples, sitting across from one another, sipped coffee and shared gossip. The baristas looked like modern hipsters, bearded and tattooed. One of them was eyeing the homeless guy distrustfully. Bill ordered three coffees and we sat down in a corner, the baristas ignoring us for the moment.
The homeless guy spoke first. “I know you have questions,” he said to me. “But it’s better to wait until we can show you.” I nodded and sipped the coffee. It tasted burnt. “There is something magnificent about the human imagination. Something elusive too. There are colonists who don’t think the same way. But they could, should we be able to persuade them.”
“Why would you need to?” I asked.
Bill answered. “Imagination is a kind of fuel. Without it people go hungry. They are dying, but they don’t want any medicine because they believe it poison.”
“Are you not able to supply it yourselves then?” I said.
“No,” said homeless guy simply.
“So John is…what, one of these colonists?” I asked. The coffee was making me feel lightheaded and I suddenly wondered if it was spiked somehow.
“Your editor John is still John,” said homeless guy. “They are able to take on guises and masks. They wanted to stop us from developing you to write more beginnings.”
“I think that’s enough for now. Drink your coffee,” said Bill forcefully. I shut up, but wondered whose side Bill was on. Was he a colonist or one of the…whatever he and homeless guy were or…my head began to whirl around in shaky circles. I couldn’t keep my eyes open and soon enough the room became a spiraling blur of wooden floor.
I heard voices. They were whispering voices like the sounds of birds chirping back and forth far off in the distance. My eyes eased open heavily. The first person I saw was Bill. He was smiling at me, but not the devilish smile of which I was intimately familiar, but a happy, serene sort of smile. He seemed happy to see me.
“Do you hurt much?” he asked softly.
“I…hard to move,” I managed.
“Hm, yes. It’ll wear off. Stay still for now. They’re coming.”
I turned my head sideways and saw a group of people coming down a corridor. They were the whispering birds, all in and out of each other’s ears. I was lying on a kind of table or alter and the room was so big and open and bright, it felt like a church.
The whispering people surrounded me and Bill and were silently looking down at me. Bill nodded at me, as if I was meant to say something ceremonial. I gave him a look like, “Look buddy, this is your show, not mine”.
“Well,” said Bill, slapping his hands together suddenly, which made me jump. I didn’t feel so heavy after that. “Let’s get on with it then.”
Fear came over me as if I were perched over the top of a tall building looking down. I had the thought that the whispering people were going to tear off their faces and ugly, big-eyed alien faces would be underneath and they were going to probe me and take my insides.
The group of people began to laugh all at once. Bill smiled down at me. “Why would we want your organs?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. What do you want? What am I doing here?”
“Saving the colonists, child,” said one of the people. She looked like a woman and sort of sounded like one too, but could have easily been a man. She or he seemed like a hybrid. The others too had a vague androgyny about them. It all seemed very natural.
My head hurt and I closed my eyes again. I heard Bill say something about it passing soon. I saw a wavy kind of blue energy behind my eyes. I saw a once great people divided. Hurried and pushed out by their government, they settled on Earth, to settle, to colonize.
I flung upward. “Why would you save them? Get them out! Get them out of here!”
“Let’s try again.”
The homeless guy no longer looked homeless. He was dressed in a long, white robe that seemed to glow. I felt like I was in the original Superman film.
“Your references amuse me, Thomas,” he said.
“What am I doing here?” I asked. The church or whatever, was empty now, but for us. The light played shadows on the concrete-like floor. I looked out at the light. It was something like the sun, yet less organic maybe. It felt like it had heat but also a computer’s brain working in at me, a spotlight watching.
“We are sending you back,” he said.
“Where am I now? Naked and kidnapped and…”
“Your flesh nor your sex interest us, Thomas. They must not be allowed to colonize your planet. They will take your imaginations and crush them to dust. We tried to intervene in their plans. They thought if your story had an ending it would be the end of it. Scare you into submission. But we have tried to develop your skills. We have been working on you for some time. And…many others. We want there to be the creation of many new beginnings. They want you and the other imaginationists to stop altogether. Your civilization would break down. No more stories would mean no more living. And yet, the colonists would suffer the most.”
“So Martha was theirs and Bill was yours,” I said, letting his words sink in.
“Yes,” he said and sat before me.
My entire body itched. He was so serene and elegant, I wanted to hug him. But I was also furious. My mind couldn’t catch up. “Why do you want me to go back?”
He chuckled a little, like a child with a secret. “You’ll see.”
The story I’ve just told you was up on the silver screen. The cinema down the street from my apartment. I struggled home, letting it all flex and stretch around in my brain. But it felt like so much cotton in my ears. I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t think.
I pulled out my laptop and went to Wikipedia. Martha Fantasia. She had written the screenplay. I found her agent’s email and wrote her a note, hoping it would get to her.
The next day I was stepping off the plane at LAX, looking desperately for a Starbucks. Waiting in line for a coffee, I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. It was an email from Martha’s agent. The screenwriter wanted to meet with me. How did noon work for me at this address? I clicked reply and answered: I’ll be there.
She didn’t look anything like the character in the film, who was also named Martha. She looked very Hollywood. Sunglasses, perfectly styled hair, thin and stylish. She stood up at the sight of me, pulling off her shades.
“Please,” she said, gesturing toward a chair. “Sit.”
It was the outside patio of a café. Of course, it was LA after all. I sat. A waiter asked if I would like a drink. I ordered a beer and sat up to get a good look at Martha.
“How did you do it?” I asked.
“Do what?” she said.
“Get it so perfectly?” I asked. “The film. It all, all of it, happened to me.”
“Yes, I know you named me Tim in the film…”
“Thomas. The reason I agreed to meet with you…”
A homeless guy came up to our table and that’s when Martha wanted to know what the hell was going on.
Dustin Engstrom is a playwright and fiction writer living in Seattle, WA. His fragments can be read at Ascent Aspirations Magazine.