[2002-07-25] Hail to the King

Hail to The King

a short story

Copyright © 2001 by
Sean Michael Ragan

Steve Potter was up late.


The hours had slipped past him, from twelve first, to one (that special time), and then on from one to two and from two to three and from three to four and then, before he knew what was happening, it was looking like another all-nighter for Stephen Ambrose Potter, Literary Master of Horror and Grue.

It was the new book again, of course. That damn book. Or, as he had come to think of it lately, The Book. Capital T. Capital B. Certainly in italics. Probably in parentheses. Possibly even set off on a line of its own between paragraphs.

He was going to do it.

In the other room, the word processor was waiting, the cursor blinking patiently in the upper-left-hand corner of an endless expanse of white. This was always the most terrifying moment, beginning, when you were eyeball-to-eyeball with infinity in the person of a bottomless Page. It was all potential until you made that first keystroke, and had to swallow hard on the fact that, inevitably, to give form to the infinite was to diminish it. All the marks on the Page are black.

He smiled to himself, pacing in the darkened living room. All the marks on the page are black. That was clever. Like something from one of his reviews.


He tried to stop that thought from coming, but only succeeded in muffling it, driving it underground where it would surely seep back into his reverie, sooner or later, like poisoned water under the wall of a castle. Best, at that point, just to throw the gates open and meet the besieger head-on.

So he let the thought come: His reviews:

The LA Times had called him, "the prevailing master of horror."

Esquire had suggested that someday he might "outdistance even Poe."

Playboy maintained ardently that "anyone not familiar with at least his major works cannot truly be considered literate."

And no less an authority than the New York Times, the holy god-damn New York Times, had said and-I-quote, "With this latest work, Steve Potter may well have transcended the limits of his genre to become the most formidable American author of the last twenty years." That was in 1997. July 22nd, to be exact. Page B18, to be exact.

But there was another review, from a relatively obscure source, the Charleston News & Courier, that had stuck in him just as deeply as that accolade, albeit for a different reason:

"Steve Potter writes horrorbooks and, as usual, this is a damn good one," the reviewer had proclaimed. "Maybe even too good. I'm beginning to wonder if maybe 'good' isn"t even the right word. I'm beginning to wonder, in fact, if maybe Steve Potter has got hold of something he can't quite handle. Or maybe It's got hold of him."

Tabby had laughed, reading him that review out of a paper she'd picked up at a gas station somewhere in South Carolina. They'd been vacationing, trying to travel incognito, taking back roads and stopping in out-of-the-way places. He'd waited in the car while she'd gone in, used the bathroom, and come back out with a Diet Coke and a copy of the CN&C. He'd ribbed her about buying a Diet Coke every time she stopped to pee and how that only exacerbated the problem. Then they'd driven on, in silence for awhile, as she scanned the news.

Then she read him the review.

He laughed with her, when she read it, but it was mostly forced, and she laughed a good deal longer than he, as if she knew how words like that would creep under his skin, and maybe she was getting back at him for the Diet Coke comment. And they did creep under his skin. Inside his head, the words had made a sound like stones falling in deep water, and he was angry with her, because now there was no way for her to unsay them, nor he to unhear them.

Now they were in his head.

That was the thing with words. They were dead on the page, but once you took them into your mind they tended to sprout, like seeds blown on the wind, and grow and spread and germinate and cross-pollinate with whatever words were already growing there. Words like channeling.

Steve padded into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. It was a nice one, the refrigerator, of a type called Sub-Zero, with wood-paneled doors cut and stained to match the cabinets in Tabby's custom-built kitchen. The shelves in the doors were the same depth as the shelves inside, so that you didn't have to reach way into the back to find anything. His beer was right where it should be, on the third shelf down in the left-hand door, and he reached in and broke one out of the six-pack. Normally he didn't drink while writing, but tonight he was more wound up than usual. Tonight it would do him good.

He walked to the table and sat down in semi-darkness. Outside, the moon was full, and the light coming through the bay window was almost bright enough to read by. It was certainly, he laughed to himself, bright enough to write by.

Especially when you don't have to see the page, or even be awake, to do it.

He popped the top on the beer.

It was a common belief, he knew, among writers and musicians and artists of every persuasion, that their work, in the moment of creation, hadn't come from them so much as it had through them. He remembered a lecturer at the University of Illinois--a writer's writer whose novels were much too serious to make any money--insisting that characters and stories lived somewhere up in the ether, waiting for the receptive individuals code-named writers to tune into them and give them life through words. If a story wants to be told, he'd pounded the lectern and proclaimed, it'll find a writer and use him. If it's not you, it'll be somebody else. So keep your ears perked up.

It was a common belief, sure, but Steve wondered sometimes if the experience of channeling a story--of being written instead of writing--was something that anybody really understood besides him. His ears seemed to be perked up all the time. He'd get letters from fans, editors, relatives sometimes, talking about parts of his books he couldn't even remember writing. There were times when he'd sit down in front of the Page, reach out for that first letter on the keyboard, and wake up some four or five hours later with the better part of a novel still smoking on the screen in front of him, hot and fresh and deliciously terrifying. And he'd have no idea what was in any of it, except in a general way to know that it was good, that he was really going to scare the piss out of people this time, and then he'd go back and read it and, sure enough, he was right: It'd scare the piss out of him and anybody else who dared pick it up.

But where had it come from?

The first time a fit like that had seized him had been while he was writing Scarrie, his first major commercial success. They'd been living in the trailer, Tabby and he, she working as a 3rd-grade English teacher and he staying at home to mind the store and the baby, and, supposedly, to hack away at the Great American Novel. Although, as Steve remembered it, he'd been doing more drinking, those days, than writing. The baby wouldn't stop crying, that morning, and he'd gone back and forth from the empty page in the typewriter on the kitchen table to the crib, trying to figure out if she were wet, or sick, or hungry, or dirty, or just what the hell was the matter with her and

(why wouldn't she just shut the fuck up and let him write)

if maybe he needed to call the doctor, just to be safe. And then, as if she'd heard the thought, she'd stopped crying and lay still in her crib, looking up at him with those wow-you blue eyes. Tabby's eyes. At that moment a voice came in his head, quite clearly and distinctly in the silence after the baby's scream, saying:

You couldn"t afford a doctor, anyway, you fucking deadbeat hack. I could lie here in this crib and ROT, from the inside out, hemorrhaging and screaming and going blind. Going deaf, dumb, and blind, and there wouldn't be a godddamn thing you could do about it, asshole, because you're a bust-out. A waste. Your best years are gone and if there were genius in you, the world would know by now. The world would know and I wouldn't be lying in this shitty crib in this shitty trailer in this shitty part of town with some shitty disease that's going to make me FUCKING ROT, Steve-O. From the inside out.

Sitting in the moonlit silence at the table in the dining room of his palatial New England home, Steve Potter looked down and saw that his beer was sitting there, open but untouched, and he reached for the can and tilted his head back and took a large, healthy swallow, not bothering to taste it on the way down--a large, healthy swallow that left the can empty, with only a pissant rattling around in the bottom. Reflexively, he crushed it flat and pitched it into the trash on the other side of the room. Never mind the fucking nickel.

He remembered, dimly, that he'd staggered away from the crib that morning and gone to the fridge (that piece-of-shit fridge that had kicked out more heat in the summer than the air-conditioner could keep up with and forced you to choose between cold balls and cold beer) and taken out another six-pack, the last one in the house, and carried it back to the typewriter, where he'd broken one off and chugged it down. Then he'd sat forward, reaching for the typewriter, and--

--woken up the next morning as Tabby shut the front door behind her. It was late, judging by the light slanting through the bedroom window, and Jesus Christ how his head hurt. Tabby had come and gone again and he didn't remember a damn bit of it, knew only that he was staring down the barrel of one mean motherfucker of a hangover and, oh lordy, how he must've tied one on last night. She was pissed. He could tell that in the way the door had shut behind her, and in the way she hadn't bothered to wake him up, either when she came home last night or when she left this morning. And he still hadn't written anything. How much longer would it be before she lost patience with him? She wouldn't leave him, he knew, but there would be a talk--a talk that she'd have planned out well in advance and which would begin with the words, "Steve, baby, I think we need to reconsider our priorities..."

He'd swung his legs over the side of the bed, gingerly, and stumbled out into the kitchen, and from all the way across the room he could see the note magneted up on the door of the fridge. He'd stopped, then, considering whether or not he could really stand to read it, on top of the hangover, and then he'd figured what the hell, might as well get it over with. It was the Live Toad Principle: Eat one first thing in the morning and you can be goddamn guaranteed that nothing worse will happen to you all day. He felt his way over to the fridge, looked at her writing there, which said

(the words rang like bells in his memory)

I'm so proud of you, baby. You were writing when I came home last night, so I didn't want to bother you, but I could tell you were on a streak and I was really excited. I woke up when you came to bed and sat up the rest of the night, reading it. It's wonderful, Steve. I mean, it's terrifying. But it's wonderful. I think you've really got something in there. I let you sleep in this morning because, God knows, you deserve it. Love, Tabby.

And then he'd looked over at the table and seen it, lying there, a pile of manuscript pages an inch thick, neatly stacked with a cover sheet and the title--"Scarrie"--centered on top, like the postman had just delivered it that morning. But it hadn"t come in the mail: The next line on the cover sheet read, "A novel by Stephen Ambrose Potter."

He'd sat down, flummoxed, and begun to read.

And as he'd read, bit and pieces of it had come back to him, like stale memories of a dream: The shower scene, the scene with the kitchen knives, the scene with the bucket of blood and the terrifying, apocalyptic conclusion. It was raw, but it was good. His headache was going away. He'd picked up the red pen beside the typewriter and begun to make notes as he read, shifting sentences here, the odd paragraph there. There was a prologue he thought might work better as a flashback at the beginning of the third chapter, and even as that thought occurred to him he was reaching for the typewriter to pound it out. It came effortlessly, and after he'd slipped it into the pile and drawn large, bloody Xs to excise the prologue, it came to him in a bright flash of joy that he was holding his first book in his hands. It wasn't the Great American Novel, no, but it was a Pretty Damn Good American Novel, and by the next afternoon he'd had it retyped and in the mail to his agent.

There'd been some tense weeks, of course, while Eddie shopped it around, but it really wasn't very long until the offer came, and then the contract came, and then the first check came, and it wasn't as though they'd struck oil in the backyard but it was more money than he'd ever made in a single year, and it was enough to put a down payment on a house in the burbs and get them the hell out of trailertown forever. Oh, yes: And it was enough to buy some decent health coverage for the baby, who thankfully never needed it, and grew up to be strong and bright and curious and talkative and almost as pretty as her mother.

And they lived happily ever after.

Bullshit, of course, but it is true that things were never really that dark again, not so dark as they'd been that one morning, standing over the baby"s crib with a vision of blackness and failure and death. There'd been bad times of course. He'd been struck a hard blow when his father died, and then

(oh god)

there was that horrible business with that poor kid out in California, at USC, who had killed those three girls

(he didn't just kill them Steve-O he beat their brains out with a fucking roque mallet)

and then himself

(he beat his own face in with the same mallet cop said he never saw anything like it)

and then two weeks later Steve had gotten his letter, somehow addressed to him at home, with perfect neat penmanship and good diction and a nice ear for prose and a very polite message from a very polite young man, thanking him, saying that he'd read all his books and liked them very much. He was his Number One Fan.

Oh, and P.S., Steve-O, just by the way: I got your message. I got your message loud and fucking clear.

Steve got up and went back to the refrigerator. He took the six-pack (now a five-pack, really) out of the shelf and carried it with him into the study. Words could have strange effects on people, sometimes.

He went over to the desk where the word-processor was waiting. He set the beer down to one side and pulled out the chair--

And the Englishman's book was lying in the seat.

Steve looked down at it.

(oh dear god jesus no this isn't happening no)

He took a step back and leaned heavily against the desk, looking at it lying there in the seat of his favorite chair. His writing chair. Fingers ran up the hair on the back of his neck. His heart was beating faster and louder than he cared for it to, these days.

That book. He'd left it upstairs in the reading room. He was sure of it. In a locked drawer.

But there it was, right in his chair, seeming to...seeming to what? Just seeming. That was all it ever did.

Steve looked around on the surface of the desk. His eye settled on a heavy Swingline stapler, which he grabbed and used to gingerly prod the book across the seat of his chair to the edge, where it fell whump, clack on the floor.

And opened.

Some reflex made him look away, and he stood there, in the study, a grown man frozen from fear of a book, deliberately staring at the broken pull on the desk drawer so he wouldn't have to be staring at that open page. He reached down--still staring at the drawer--and felt around with the stapler until he found one edge of the book, slipped the stapler under the cover, and--

--his finger brushed gently against the flyleaf.

It was like a hit of really good cocaine, the kind he hadn't had since the seventies; like somebody had stuck a needle with a seven-percent-solution in his fingertip, and the rush had traveled up his hand and arm and into his body and spread all over him like a warm blanket, like a second skin, like sex.

It was everything he could do to pull his hand away.

He gave a little gasp, then, and completed the motion, flipping the book's cover closed with the stapler and then falling, falling away from it out into the middle of the study, sitting down heavily on the floor.

God, he felt like shit. A beer would've helped, but they were so far away, on top of the desk, and the book was over there, lying closed beneath innocuous library-green canvas covers. He shivered at the thought of how easy it would be to just go over and pick it up, and oh GOD how he wanted to just go over and pick it up, and kick back in his chair with it, maybe light a pipe, open it up, and...

And nothing.

He rolled over onto his feet and walked out of the study without looking back, turned right and went down the hall, heading toward the back door. He was dizzy, at first, but felt increasingly better as he moved away from it, and by the time he reached the mud room, he was certain this was the right course.

He turned on the light and reached for his boots. There were no socks here, but what the hell, he wouldn't be wearing them very far. He sat down on the trunk with all the pool toys in it and began to tie them on.

The first time he'd opened the Englishman"s book had been...what? Five, six weeks ago? Meaghan had brought it back for him from Cambridge. He'd never quite gotten used to the idea of having a research assistant, much less the squads of them Random House had tried to assign him in the beginning. But Meaghan made it easy: She was charming, funny, and sharp as a surgeon's scalpel. What's more, she was gorgeous, with big, inquisitive, celadon eyes and a shock of blonde hair which she dyed a brilliant red because, as she put it, "I was tired of everyone thinking I was a ditz." And her figure! Voluptuous, classical curves, with creamy skin that made him wish he had a bowl of strawberries to dip in it. He was an old married man, of course, and wasn't supposed to be thinking such things, but...Jesus!

He'd taken her to lunch at the end of the summer, before she went back to Berkeley, as a way of saying "thank you," for all her hard work. His last book, The Willywhackers, was just starting to take off, and it was looking like it might be another bestseller. And she'd done the lion's share of the nitty-gritty, spending hours sifting through that loony bin of all libraries, the occult section, looking for spells or grimoires or stories or incantations or anything else that would lend the necessary realism to his colony of satanic cannibal-plutocrats lurking in the sewers of New York City. The work was beneath her, he felt, because in addition to being brilliant and beautiful, she was also a magnificent writer, a real literary artist who didn't have to depend on genre-gimmicks to achieve an effect. He himself was no slouch, mind you, but in his heart of hearts he knew she was better, and so it struck him as slightly unjust that she should be spending her summers slaving away for him, and not pursuing her own art. And after four glasses of red wine, he'd told her so.

"You"re a great writer, Steve," she'd replied with a mischievous smile. "And I bet Random House still hasn't told you how much they're paying me for this gig."

He allowed as they had not.

"I won't tell, exactly," she"d responded, "but it's a lot. You"re a multi-million dollar industry, Steve. I made enough this summer to keep me in Dom Perignon and kindbud for at least two years after I graduate, with nothing else to do but sit around on my ass and 'pursue my art,' as you put it. And that's not counting all the other summers."

Steve had nodded, embarrassed and grateful for this chance to change the subject.

"So you're coming back next year, then?"

Her smile widened. "If you'll have me."

He finished his wine at a gulp and set the empty glass on the table.

"I don't think I'd care to have anybody else."

And she'd just looked at him, then, and suddenly it had seemed very, very hot in that restaurant. But he'd held her gaze relentlessly, waiting for her to say something or make some gesture to break away, but she wouldn"t.

Eventually, he'd caved, glancing down at the table and clearing his throat.

"How was your vacation?" he asked softly.

She held his eyes for a moment longer, then broke away to play with something on her plate.

"It was wonderful," she said, "I love England. Especially London. And I kept having the most incredible de ja vu, like I'd been there before, you know? In a past life?"

He'd nodded. "I hear that happens to a lot of people."

"Well," she said (and now she was bending over to get something out of her purse), "it's an old place."

She'd come back up and held it in her lap, whatever it was, and fixed him with that same, sultry look and that same, impish smile.

"I brought you something," she'd said, and then she was holding it out to him, a crusty old volume with yellowed pages and an innocuous, library-green canvas cover. He'd reached across and taken it from her, and even then it had seemed warm to him, like holding a kitten, like it somehow wanted to be held and was purring at him, in some invisible way, begging to be opened.

"What is it?" he asked her.

"It's a book."

He fixed her with a go-to-hell look that made her giggle girlishly.

"By a man named Sterling Carroll," she continued. "He was Lewis Carroll's son."

"Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll""

She'd nodded. "The same."

He'd turned the book over to look at the spine.

"All of Parker's For a Posey," he said, reading the title. "What the hell does that mean?"

"I have no idea."

"OK," he'd said, playing along. "What's it about?"

"It's..." she paused, and the smile was back. "It's impossible to describe."

"Is it scary?"

She'd only nodded, then, quite seriously.

Steve got up from the trunk in the mud room and clomped back down the hall in his boots. In the study, the book was waiting for him, crouched on the floor beneath the desk. He steeled himself, drawing a deep breath, and marched over to the chair, looking down at it.

It was a book of nonsense verse, of the type the elder Carroll had been admired for--full of paradox and double entendre and neologisms arranged just so, such that the effect of the words and their juxtaposition on the page was unnerving in a way you couldn't quite put your finger on, like the lines and shadows of a Gorey illustration. The longer you looked, the longer you held the page in your mind, the more you became aware of an effect originating from the spaces between the lines, like a Moire pattern, an effect that was at once profoundly unsettling and darkly exhilarating, like a fantasy of rape. Just like a fantasy of rape, he'd thought. Like a bloody erection. Like the heft of a shotgun. Like the taste of...

And all at once, on a sudden impulse, he'd snapped the cover closed with a violence that had surprised them both. And in the silent beat that followed, a strange and inexplicable thought had occurred to him. And that thought was:

Too late.

Across the table, Meaghan was grinning at him, he thought (and not without irony), just like the Cheshire Cat.

"Creepy, huh?" she'd prompted.

He was not quite ready to respond. He'd looked around the restaurant, slightly dazed, and noticed that something seemed different, somehow, some nuance of light or shadow in the atmosphere. It was as though the words had changed him in some subtle way.

"Jesus," he'd murmured. It was all he could muster.

She leaned across the table to him, then, pitching her voice furtively. "It was written by a madman," she'd said, her eyes going wide on the last word. "Sterling was a professor of literature at Oxford, specializing in the gothic. He began that book only a week before war broke out in Europe. He became obsessed with it. By the time the blitz hit London, Sterling was in Bedlam. He finished the book and died, a raving lunatic, while the bombs were still falling."

Steve swallowed thickly. His head was full of the echoes of those words, those strange and terrible words that were either madness or genius or both. They haunted him.

"It's very rare," Meaghan continued. "Only a few copies were printed. I found that one in a crate in the back of a used book dealer in the Strand."

He looked down at the volume in his hands. It was purring at him, he realized now, rewarding him somehow just for touching it. He felt great, holding it, and all he'd have to do to feel better was just open the cover and begin to read.

Slowly, he set it down on the table beside his plate and took his hand away.

The book seemed to pout. He felt the beginnings of a headache coming on, a thickening of his sinuses like he was maybe coming down with something. His nose felt itchy, and his eyes watered. His stomach gurgled restlessly.

He looked up at Meaghan.

"Does it seem to you that...ah..."

"That it wants to be opened?" she'd said then, completing his thought.

He nodded, and so did she.

"Yes," she said. "Yes it does."

"Jesus," he murmured again.

And then she smiled:

"I knew you'd like it."

And now he was standing over it in the study, shod in his heavy boots, and it was purring at him again, whispering to him that it was just a book, just an old and charming and very interesting book. A very rare book. A book that was certainly valuable and might, in fact, be useful to him in his work. Here, after all, was an entirely new technique for frightening people with words, a technique that bypassed narrative and went down to something...deeper. He hadn't looked at it for very long, that first time, but the words had stayed with him in the interim, and as they'd grown in his mind he'd come to realize there was a principle behind them, a method to the apparent madness with which they'd been constructed. And if he could just read a little bit more he'd be able to grasp that principle, to wrap his mind around it and maybe even put it to work for him...

He lifted his foot and brought it down hard, sending the book skittering sideways across the terrazzo floor. He followed it, dribbling like a soccer player, maneuvering the book out the door, down the hall, and across the living room toward the front door with a series of small kicks. And the book was pouting again:

Aw, come on, Steve-O! Don'tcha wanna play with me?

Yes, he answered it back silently. Yes, I do, you bastard. But I won't.

He opened the front door and--very gently, so as not to give it any excuse to open again--worked the book across the raised threshold with his feet, and out onto the front porch. He stepped out after it and began dragging it steadily across the cement beneath the toe of his right boot, limping like a man with a game leg. The night was very still, and in one of the trees at the bottom of the driveway, a whippoorwill was crooning its lonely mating cry. Steve brought the book to the very edge of the porch with his feet, at the top of the stairs leading down across the lawn, and stepped back.

It was there, poised on the edge, waiting for him to do something.

He paused, then, and looked out across his place. The moon was bright, and he could see down the hill and across the creek all the way to the front gate. Estate was the word most people--newsmen included--used to describe his home, but that seemed so...so pretentious. It wasn't an estate, it was just his place. And he'd worked hard to earn it: Seventeen books, and almost a hundred short stories. Sales in the hundreds of millions of volumes. The best-selling novelist of all time.

So why did he feel so dirty, all of a sudden? Like he'd cheated, somehow?

He had never written that Great American Novel--it was true. He was popularly successful beyond all precedent, for a writer (with the possible exception of Moses), but the cognoscenti were and always had been nearly unanimous in their opinion: He was a one-trick pony, and it just so happened that one trick was the one everybody wanted to see. There was a small, academic counterculture that made a lot of noise about respecting his work, seriously, as literature, but it was a political move. They were all Marxists, at heart--the kind of sniveling wash-outs that gave weight to the expression, "Those who can"t, teach." For them, his work was respectable precisely because it was popular, and that was the same kind of aesthetic that acknowledged television as a respectable art form and Genesis as a respectable musical ensemble. It was true, Steve thought, that popular artists were capable, intermittently and perhaps even accidentally, of poetry, but it would never be literature. Steve wasn't literature. In all probability, he would never be literature.

And that, friends and neighbors, was a hard fact to swallow.

Steve looked down and saw the Englishman's book there, on the edge of the porch. He was only dimly conscious of having kicked it out here, having been lost in this depressing reverie about...what? Failure? The nobility of the starving artist? The spiritual depredations of selling out? He wasn't generally the self-pitying type, nor, he thought, as he looked across the moonlit grounds of his estate, did he have much right to be. He got to spend his time doing what he loved, telling stories, and it had made him one of the wealthiest men in America.

But that's what the Devil does for you, isn't it, Steve-O? Just and fair compensation.

He shook his head against that thought, and then realized: It was the book. It was still whispering to him, only it was embittered, now. He'd kicked it while it was down, and its feelings had been hurt. All this bullshit about selling out was its way of punishing him, of belittling him by eroding his confidence in the thing that he valued most about himself, like a manipulative lover. So that he would begin to feel like he needed it, like maybe he oughtn't to leave it out here in the cold, because it might not be there later, when he'd need it most...

Enough. He was through fucking around. He raised his foot and brought it down, kicking the book hard, sending it flying down the slope of the front lawn. It came open in the air, the pages fluttering like wings, like it might suddenly turn into a bat and flitter away, and at that thought Steve felt a twinge: What if he really did need it? And then he noticed that it'd come down not so far away on the lawn, really, and that it had landed on its back, in an open position.

But he was already turning away, stomping back across the porch into the house, where he slammed the door behind himself and locked it tight.

There, he thought savagely. If the cat comes back again, I'm going to set the bastard on fire.

He went over to the couch in the living room and sat down, working at the laces of his boots. The book was angry. That much he could feel, even across the width of the living room and through the closed door. But it was a hollow anger, an empty threat. The book couldn't hurt him now. He'd beaten it.

Hadn't he?

He left his boots sitting in front of the couch and padded back into the study in his bare feet. The five-pack of beer was still sitting where he'd left it, on the desk beside the word processor, and he went over, picked it up, and broke one off. He felt the weight of the can, the coldness, the condensation beading on the sides. He reached up and slipped a fingernail under the ring of the pop-top.

Maybe it wasn't such a good idea.

He put the beer down, back on the desk, and went out of the study, down the hall, and back into the living room. He picked up his boots and carried them back through the house to the mud room, where he left them, just as he'd found them, sitting on the drying mat beside the back door.

In the kitchen, he sat down at the table beneath the bay window and rested his chin on his folded hands, his arms propped up beneath his head.

He was afraid.


The new project (The Book) was daunting. He had a vision of it, an idea of how brilliant it could be, but he wasn't at all sure his talents were up to fulfilling that vision. There would be things in it he'd never tried before, things he wasn't sure would work. The plot was nonlinear and multi-layered, a story within a story within a story. The style would be hallucinatory, the diction lyrical and at times even nonsensical. Parts of it would be written in the second person.

But that wasn't really what was bothering him. He'd met that terror before, the terror of beginning, and faced it down. Seventeen times he'd faced it down, and he would do it again tonight.

And that, he realized with a shudder, was what frightened him--that certainty. He would go back into the study. He would sit down at the desk. He would reach out for that beer, pop the top, and chug it down. And then he would sit forward, reaching for that first letter on the keyboard...

And then what would he do?

Or, rather, what would be done to him?

Was there something up there, in the ether, waiting to use him?

Was it using him even now?

Had it been using him all along, ever since that morning he'd stood above the baby's crib and thought that he would give anything, anything at all, for a best-seller?

Words could have strange effects on people, sometimes.

He almost laughed out loud, then. How many times had he written this story? A man caught and held and driven by his own nature, pulled on strings like a puppet by pOWERS oUTSIDE? Jack, the protagonist in The Shinning, had been such a victim; so, too, had Louie Screed, the melancholy doctor from Sour Ground; and Walton Burrough, the stuttering writer from the infamously-adapted-for-TV That. In fact, when he thought about it, all of his major characters--or at least, all his favorite ones--had been pawns, more or less, in a gambit-game of Good against Evil, a game played on a board that was much too big for them to comprehend.

And then it occurred to him: Maybe all the times he'd told this story, he hadn't just been writing--maybe he'd been practicing, trying to find a way out for the man at the mercy of a fORCE infinitely larger than he, a fORCE that saw him turned inside-out, that knew where all his buttons were and knew, perfectly, how to push them to get just the results iT wanted.

And he knew then, sitting in the darkened kitchen, as he'd always known, writing, that there was no way out. It was always your own nature, ultimately, that damned you. Even if it did have a little help from oUTSIDE.

And he did laugh, then. Easily. Naturally.

It was craziness, thinking like this.

He got up from the table and walked into the study. He went over to the desk. His chair was already pulled out, waiting for him. He sat down. He picked up the beer again and put his fingernail under the tab.


He bit down hard on that thought, severing its head, and it died quickly, without so much as a whimper.

He popped the top on the beer and took a sip. It tasted great. He tilted his head back, chugging, and finished it all in one mighty gulp. Then he crumpled the can in his fist and pitched it across the room at the wastepaper basket. It ricocheted off the rim, bounced high into the air, and came down, plop, right in the middle of the trash. Never mind the fucking nickel. He was worth thirty-three-and-a-half million.

He was feeling great, now. Ready to go. It was going to be a good one, this book.

(The Book)

Maybe his best yet.

And then, illuminated only by the eerie, phosphorescent light of the Page, Steve Potter sat forward, and began to write.

last modified 2002-07-25