Short Story: Feeding the Muse

"Some days, Simon, I really loathe you," Mariel said, with just a hint of genuine venom.

She dropped the Writers Digest on the table, its cover and front pages folded back to reveal a page mostly consumed by a photo of Simon at his writing desk. It was full of deep shadows, moody, and deliberately included the dark, heavy bookshelves that surrounded him, their worn hardwood planks supporting hundreds of hardback classics, sheaves of loose papers, and the occasional occult or funerary artifact - a human skull here, a hand of glory there. Block letters above it pronounced Simon to be the "Modern Master of Horror and the Macabre."

Simon sipped his espresso double-shot latte and produced a wry smile. "It's not my fault If you can't keep up."

She twisted her mouth into a sarcastic kiss and pretended to fix her lipstick with her middle finger.

"Some of us just refuse to sell our artistic integrity on the open market," she said.

"We've been here before, Mare. You know how I feel about that old cop-out." He set down his empty cup and reached for the magazine. "Those words have been uttered by every writer ever to put ink to paper. All writers are haters. Until they become successful."

"That doesn't make them any less valid."

"Nor does it make them a real argument against being successful." He looked at the page, then dropped the magazine with a sigh. "Success isn't all it's cracked up to be, anyway."

She snickered. "And those words have been uttered by every writer who ever sold his soul to the entertainment industry and was accused of being a sellout. I just hope you remember the rest of us hacks when you get really big. Don't forget where you came from."

"It's just a couple of books," Simon said, "I may be hot stuff right now, but you know it doesn't last."

"'A couple of books'? Most of us are thrilled if we can get a couple of stories published!"

"You know it's really just about luck. Right place. Right time." His gaze drifted out the rain-streaked window toward the passing pedestrians and beyond. "I'm not any better than the next struggling author. Heck, I'm probably worse. I just got lucky."

"Throwing in the towel? Already?"

Simon grunted.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah. I'm fine," he said, his eyes still fixed beyond the glass.

"Well, I have to run," she said as she stood and gathered her things. "Meeting with my agent - can't be late again. We can discuss this oncoming bout of ennui tonight."

He nodded. She bent and kissed him on the cheek, then turned and left him staring out the window. She was in too much of a hurry to see that his eyes were fixed on a girl standing on the opposite side of the street. Her raven-black hair seemed untouched by the falling rain, and her steel-sharp gaze seemed to pierce into his soul.

. . . . .

Simon turned up the volume on his stereo.

"Sorry, Mare," he said more loudly than he usually liked to talk, "I missed that last part - I've got the top down. What did you say?"

"I said my agent said there was a good chance that one of the big New York publishers would pick up 'Hands on the Ground.'" There was a moment of crackling silence. "Mister 'I've Got the Top Down'!"

He huffed. "That's awesome. It's really good - I know they'll snatch it right up. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you."

"Uh-huh," she said. "What about you, big shot? When are you going to hop a red-eye and come visit your struggling pals back on the East Coast?"

"I wish," he said, shaking his head as though she were there to see it. "I'm working on the fourth draft of the screenplay for SONY, and Macmillan's breathing down my neck for the sequel to 'She Walks in Twilight.' I'm lucky I have time to eat and sleep. I don't think I've peed in three days."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," she said. "Just say it like it is: you're too big for us scribblers down here in the dirt. I'm a big girl. I can take it."

Simon laughed. "At this point, I think I'd rather be down there getting dirty with you still."

"No you don't," she said, "And if you do, you're even dumber than I thought."

"That's what I've been trying to tell you for years," he said as his gaze drifted to his rear-view mirror. "I'm nothing special. Hell, you're ten times the writer I am."

"God," Mariel said, "That sullen modesty of yours just makes your success that much harder to digest!"

He smiled weakly, as if she could see it. He opened his mouth to respond, but he was interrupted by a loud "beep-beep" from the car speakers. Block letters on the stereo display announced an incoming call from: "That Bloodsucking Agent of Mine."

"Ah, crap," he said. "Sorry, Mare. I've got another call - Barney, no doubt relaying Macmillan's latest attempt to get blood from this stone."

"No problem, love," she said. "Give 'em Hell. I'll call you later in the week."

He punched the stereo display and switched calls, his gaze again drifting to the rear-view mirror.

"Barney, sorry," he said before his agent could speak, "I'm on my way home now. I'll try to get the last thirty pages hammered out tonight..."

The girl in the rear-view mirror looked back at him. Her cold blue stare met his gaze, unflinching despite the raven-black hair whipping around her face.

. . . . .

Simon sat at the antique cherry roll-top, the light of the computer monitor and a small LED lamp casting dark shadows across the heavy wooden bookshelves behind him. At the very edges of the pool of light, the modern finishes of the Malibu house - a stark contrast to the Baroque desk, chair, and shelves - were just visible.

"It happens to all of us, darling," Mariel's voice decreed from the cell phone sitting on his desk. "You know every writer gets writer's block sooner or later. Even big-time hotshots like you."

"I know," he said, "I've had it before. You know that. It's just... it's been a while. And it's never been this bad."

"It's stress," she said. "You're trying to do too much. Maybe you need to lighten your load. Cut out a few projects."

"If only it were so easy," he said. "Macmillan gave me a three-book advance on the next series, and I've got the deal with Spielberg's company. I can't just tell those people: 'sorry.'"

"I wish I could help you," she said, "But I'm doing a page-one rewrite on 'Hands on the Ground.' Martin says the concept's really good, and he has some interested buyers, but the story needs a massive overhaul."

"Sorry, Mare. I know how tough that is."

"Hah!" she said. "You haven't had to do a rewrite in over three years. You're fingertips bleed gold onto the page. I find it hard to believe that you remember what that's like."

"Trust me," he said, "I remember."

"It's just a bump in the road, Simon. You've been riding the gravy train so long, you've forgotten what it's like to struggle. But the creative juices will flow again."

"I don't know. It feels different this time. I feel... empty."

"Well," she said, "You're flair for the dramatic is still alive and well!"

He grunted.

"Hang in there," she said, "I'll touch base with you in a few weeks, after this damned rewrite's done."

"'Night, Mare," he said.

She grunted, and the phone declared that the call had ended.

He sat for a moment, staring at the blank screen.

"Where are you, Calli?"

She stepped from the shadows behind him, as if she had been lurking there - cloaked in her raven-black hair - the whole time. She took a step forward, leaned down, draped her arms over his shoulders.

"Poor Simon," she whispered in his ear. Her voice - the voice to whose dulcet tones he had once thrilled - stirred nothing within him. "I think we're done here. You've been delicious."

She kissed him on the temple, tenderly, lovingly, then stepped back into the shadows and was gone.

. . . . .

Simon woke with a start in his antique chair. The phone buzzed and rang on the desk next to him. He sat up quickly, nearly falling sideways from the chair as it lurched on a broken caster. He snatched up the phone.

"Yes?"

"Is this Simon Shea's School for Writers?" a nasally female voice asked.

"Yes," he said, "This is Simon Shea. Are you interested in signing up for classes?"

The speaker crackled as the woman broke into a bout of laughter.

"I'm sorry, Simon," she said. "I couldn't help myself!"

"Hi, Mare."

"How's it going, big shot?" she asked. "Those writing classes all sold out yet?"

A loud squeal on the other side of the one-room apartment drowned him out before he could answer.

"Hang on," he said, crossing the room and slamming the palm of his hand on  the side of the whining air conditioner until it settled into a dull, uneven rumble. "Damn AC! I'm holding my own. How's things with you?"

"Busy, busy," she said. "It looks like we've finally got everything in place to get 'Hands on the Ground' showing at the Winter Garden. But I had to call you with my big news: I just signed an exclusive deal with ABC for the series! How awesome is that?"

"That's amazing, Mare. I'm really happy for you."

"It's just like you said, Simon."

"How's that?" he asked.

"It's all about luck. Right place. Right time."

"Oh, yeah," he said. "I guess so..."

"Sill nothing? No flashes of that old Simon Shea brilliance?"

"I've got some stuff I'm working on," he said. "And I've just finished the final draft of  the spec script I told you about: 'Tears of Mercury.' I think it's the best piece I've written in a long time."

"That's awesome," she said, "Glad to hear you're getting back in the saddle. I told you it was just a bump in the road."

"You did," he said. "You're a good friend, Mariel."

There was a moment of AC-punctuated silence.

"Say," he said," Since you've got an in with the ABC folks, do you think...?"

"Sure," she said. "Email it to me and I'll float it around. We'll get you back on track before you know it."

"That's great, Mare. I really appreciate it."

"Of course, no problem," she said. "Hey, my manager's calling - sorry. I need to take it."

"Absolutely," he said. "Talk to you soon."

"Yeah," she said, "Talk to you soon."







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