The Books of Darkness
by Robert N. Stephenson
|Table of Contents|
The small groups talked writing and the business, about the only thing they could find common ground on. I wanted to talk about movies, fast cars, sexy women or holidays. I wanted to talk about the ghost in my house; the man who refused to let me rest. I heard the snickers, the short laughs coming at some lesbian joke. I knew how to live with it, pity they didn’t.
“Sod off,” I said, giving one group the middle finger. They turned their stares. I sipped wine. Being strong is one thing, being demure and polite another. I should have stayed away. Steven’s presence had shortened my temper, flushed away patience.
A newcomer, unaware of my reputation, introduced himself and then rambled on and on about his ‘what if’ dreams. I’d heard all the woes before, so I knew when to nod and agree. His eyes kept drifting to my breasts, a typical male action. Even when I told the guys I was gay their focus of desire remained. Men just didn’t get it. Not hetro men anyway.
“Are you always a dickhead?” I said, trying to escape, wishing he’d avoided me like the others.
“No, no,” he stammered.
I wanted to be seen, not bored to death “Then I suggest you shut up and piss off somewhere else.” I suppose living with a ghost changes you. I never used to be rude. Never.
“Sorry.” He took his bottle of beer and moved away.
Standing alone by the centre’s entry something caught my eye. A tall, attractive woman, another stranger; she looked a little out of place; an oddity in this collection of misfits and wannabes. I felt a sense of relief as our eyes met. She smiled. I returned the gesture. A good feeling, a warm acceptance, which I hadn’t felt in years.
After five minutes of meet and greet the meeting was declared open and we took our places, me at the back; the pariah and unclean. The meeting closed as all meetings do, and the dragging sensation returned. With bag under arm I escaped to the toilet.
Later, joining the flow of members to the supper tables and drinks, I wondered if I should eat something. I hadn’t eaten all day. The groups reformed and once more I was shut out. The bore had been absorbed by the others: Amanda whispered in his ear; no doubt he wouldn’t speak to me again. The thought gave me no sense of loss, more acceptance.
Exiled, I washed down cheese cubes with glasses of wine, lots of wine. Feeling a little numb, I turned to leave; there seemed no point in staying, I could be equally alone by myself. The attractive woman blocked my path.
“You’re Diana Arlyn.” Eyes hard and determined, a brilliant blue, peered from a slender, angular face. “I’ve always wanted to meet you.” Black lipstick parted slightly over the words. Her black hair and pale skin attracted me; she looked like she’d just stepped out of one of my books. She projected an aura that I couldn’t or didn’t want to resist. Being celibate for a while makes you needy.
“And you are?” I was polite but neutral.
This woman wore a mannish black suit, black blouse and an onyx broach; the lines of the suit emphasized her trim figure. Her voice, soft, accented, and old, far older than the twenty-five she looked, reminded me of eastern Europe.
“I am Sarina Jeppe.” She offered her hand. “I’ve read all your books.”
I liked her look. I’d visited Romania for a book signing tour a few years back; a gimmick trip as the book had been set in that part of the world. This woman had that look only the eastern regions could produce. Strong features, yet soft and appealing.
“I hope they were as enjoyable as they were to write.” I liked fans.
“I recognized you from the photo on a book jacket.” She still held my hand. “You look very pretty.”
She, too, was ignorant of my pariah status — or didn’t care what others thought. I ignored the comment on looks. If I had believed it, I would have thanked her. “You going to join the fellowship?” Her touch felt soft, warm. “The fees are reasonable.”
“You hide your period well,” she said.
“I beg your pardon.” I released her hand and took a step back. It was true I had my period, but for someone to be so forward; to even know took me by surprise. “That’s a bit personal, don’t you think?” I became self-conscious; didn’t know how to react. Did it really show?
“Sorry, I seem to be able to tell this with women, call it a sense. Forgive me.” She offered a smile. “I can see you are in slight pain, and you do hide it well. Most women I know wouldn’t even venture out if uncomfortable.”
I became wary. “It isn’t the usual thing people pick up on.” I scanned the room, had anyone overheard? No one looked my way.
“I read The Stainless Hammer of God when it was released. It touched me. I was very moved by your personal touch.”
Subject change. Good, talking about periods with someone I just met just felt wrong.
The Stainless Hammer of God was one of my better books, and I liked praise just like any writer, even if it does come after a personal affront. I’d written it when I was twenty, twelve years ago, and I knew my drug-related concepts were way above teenage readers.
“Thank you.” What would she have gotten from such a dark and brooding tale? “Didn’t you find it a bit challenging. I mean, you must have read it when you were thirteen, it would have been difficult to understand, surely?”
“You would be surprised.” Sarina moved in close. Perfume subtle, spicy. My skin tingled with her closeness. I felt strangely excited. “I came here looking for a writer,” she whispered. I could smell wine on her breath.
“Anyone I know?” She occupied my space, it didn’t feel intrusive.
“I came looking for one writer. You, Ms Arlyn.” She touched my waist. I didn’t pull away. “I want to tell you a story.” Her voice so soft I struggled to hear. “My life is quite interesting.”
I’d heard this line at least a hundred times before and should have expected what would come next. The excitement faded.
“I’ve written some notes and I need help to make sense of it all.”
The first reaction — excuse myself and leave. As soon as people learn I am a writer, they try to convince me the world is waiting to read their stories. It is an affliction of the profession. But, she was speaking to me, in front of the others. I wanted to be seen with someone intelligent willing to speak to me. Being beautiful and young came as a bonus. I’d been single for years and had a yearning for good female company; perhaps she would ease away the ache I felt for Samantha. I didn’t need love, or understanding, I didn’t even need emotional commitment. What I did need was company, someone to listen.
Remaining polite. “I’m certain your story is interesting, but I don’t ghost write.” Which wasn’t true. I had offered to write Lindsay Lohan’s story some years back. She had problems and her agent, with the usual closed-door policy as expected from the CAA, had balked at the idea. I still think I could have done an excellent job for her. There was a person’s story that did need telling.
She took my hand again, squeezed gently.”Please, will you help me?” Her eyes softened, the blue penetrating, alive, calling to me. “I really mean it when I say I have had an interesting life.”
She captured me, like any woman is captured by the attentions of another. I didn’t want to fight against the feeling. The book might be interesting. What in this woman’s life could be worth telling? She looked like a model, tall, leggy; perhaps a story of behind the scenes of the catwalk. Bitch talk and bad mouthing. I’d settle for a few drinks and a kiss at the moment, the pariah status isn’t something I really enjoyed.
“Perhaps.” I didn’t completely back away. “We would need to talk about it first.”
“Call me.” She scribbled her number on the back of a business card. “I need to leave, my energy is a bit low this evening. Please call.” She handed me the card and headed for the door. I liked the way she walked.
I drank some more wine before leaving. I would certainly call her, even if there wasn’t a story to tell.
* * *
The first time I’d seen Steven’s ghost I thought I was dreaming; I’d been recovering from a hard night at the Goth Club at the time. Been drinking for about a week, trying to drive away the images of the funeral and the animosity towards me. He’d appeared sitting at the dining table, looking sad and downtrodden, his usual pose. I rubbed my eyes and then he was gone.
The second time I’d just stepped from the shower, walking through the living room drying my hair. He was sitting on the sofa, a book in his hands, reading. I screamed, made a poor attempt at covering myself until I realized the man on the couch was indeed Steven Opie. I screamed again. Wrapped the towel around myself and tried to get my boozy bodies to react.
“Follow?” he said, though the voice seemed to come from within my head.
At first I didn’t know what to do. I froze and just stared. He was there in front of me, yet not there. The blue glow about him telling me something wasn’t right.
“What the hell is this?” Eventually finding my voice.
“Who are you? What do you want?” I blinked a few times, he remained. It looked like Steven, only he was dead. This time he gazed straight at me. It was definitely him, well the ghost of him. I went from fear to confusion in a matter of seconds, from there guilt settled deep in the gut. A drawing-down feeling like a period. I thought about running into the bedroom. Screaming even, but the whole situation, a surreal memory now, kind of galvanized my mind. It was though I stepped back and watched myself talking to the ghost and knowing what was going on.
I didn’t know what he was talking about. And being naked I wasn’t going anywhere.
He grinned, as though he knew something I didn’t. “You must follow.” Then he was gone. Just like that, vanished. Of course I questioned whether I’d seen him at all, then I saw the book he’d been reading lying on the couch. Something had happened. He’d been reading his own book, Me and Him. Did he recognize his own fraud?
I didn’t like ghosts, not that I’d seen them before, just the thought of them gave me the creeps and right then I felt creeped-out. I began shaking from far more than the cold. I just stood in the middle of the room and stared at the couch. Inexplicably, I felt ashamed. I had been arrogant enough to even go to the man’s funeral.
Later in the day I realized what I’d done. I’d played with the lives of real people, caused a real death. I shed some tears as the eulogies had been given. I didn’t really cry until I sat in my dining room hours later. At the time, it had been as if Steven and Samantha were just characters in one of my stories. That night it rained, heavy, heartfelt rain.
The lights in my home dulled to a melancholy yellow, and unusual for August, a thick fog had settled over the hills. A grey halo surrounded my home, clung to the garden. As I thought about the suicide and the single email to Steven’s publisher, I emptied the contents of a bottle of twenty-five year old scotch. The bite didn’t bite after the first half dozen glasses. Steven’s wasn’t the only death on my mind. I thought of the old man who died on the river. Uri. Could I be responsible for his demise as well? In a way he’d helped me bring Steven down.
I spent most of the next two days in bed. Ill in so many ways. Steven wanted me to follow him in death. I was determined not to if I could help it.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2009 by Robert N. Stephenson