Permanent pause. That’s what’s become of the moment I first saw the burned-down ruins. I’ll forever be standing there on that roughly-asphalted and pot-holed road, clutching the slick polyester of my graduation robe, feeling and seeing my hair tremble in time with my knocking heart and ragged breath.
Up there is where my window used to be. The night before, my hot pink polka-dotted curtains probably reached through the broken glass, as if trying to get away from the flames devouring them. I’m sure the aluminum siding framing the window burned white-hot, warping and melting. And black smoke competed with the orange flames, as both desperately sought oxygen.
There’s a poem in there somewhere, or at the very least, a haiku. If it hadn’t been my gutted house, my dead family, I probably would have sat in the grass verge next to the road and scrawled some words to add to the bulging accordion file that served as my writing portfolio. Maybe I’d have run home and eagerly shared the new scrap with my mom. Or, if she was too busy, I would have pestered one of my sisters, neither one of whom understood my zeal for the written word but both of whom humored me, nonetheless, when I was bursting with inspiration.
But it was my family. It was my house. Gone. Forever.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t eventually write about it. My family, however, will never read it.
Exactly twelve years after my high school graduation and the fire that killed my entire immediate family in their sleep, I nervously fidget outside the office of my brand-new editor at Thornfield Publishing in Boston. If someone wrote this detail into a book I was reading, I’d laugh and put the thing down. Twelve years to the day? Really? The coincidence is too hokey, too cheesy, too… twee, as the English say… to be believed by someone with even the most willing suspension of disbelief. And if I were to write another book based on my life (continuing where I left off in the book currently being published), I’d change this detail to make it more believable. I’m pretty sure any editor worth his or her salt would force me to change it, anyway.
What is it about May 23 that brings about such massive change in my life? Is it fate? Is it destiny? Is it the result of a curse? Or is it merely what it seems to be: an eerie coincidence? Anyway, maybe I’m being too dramatic or putting too much stock into today’s meeting.
Or maybe my friend, Gus, is rubbing off on me, even though last night was the first time I’ve seen him since graduate school. As much as I love him, I’d hate to think I was turning into him. He gets all a-twitter and sees signs and omens at the slightest provocation and flaps his hands and croons, “Oooooh, creepy!” about 50 times a day, for occurrences as mundane as his Burger King order ringing up as an even dollar amount. He has a regular tarot card reader and psychic, despite the fact that he sometimes has trouble paying the rent on his postage stamp-sized studio “apartment” in a trendy part of Beantown. Let’s just say that staying with Gus is bringing back many of the reasons that graduate school was such a stressful time in my life.
Back then, I thought it was simply the nature of the beast, but having been long-distance friends with Gus for the better part of the past five years, I’ve had an epiphany since reuniting with him last night: he’s one high-maintenance drama queen. It makes for some hilarious Facebook status updates, but it can wear a girl down to be in the presence of the real Dupuis.
We parted ways for the day at Starbucks a few minutes ago, and I’m still shaking. I have a feeling it’s not from the half-caff latte I drank, either. I knew from earlier research that the publisher’s offices were less than a mile from Gus’s apartment. All I needed was a verbal refresher and maybe some landmarks so I’d know I was on the right streets. But he turned it into a recitation that ended up resembling something close to a game of Twister with an auctioneer.
“So… You’re gonna go out there and then you’re going to make a right at the light… right at the light, right at the light, right at the light…. Going straight, going straight, going straight… past the fruit stand, which is not a fruit stand in the winter, but it is right now…straight for a while, straight for a while…”
So far, it sounded a lot like his love life in college.
Then he startled me with a loud, “STOP! At the butcher’s that looks like a bakery—I totally thought it was a bakery for, like, the first three years I lived here, until this one day, there was a hog-pig-thing hanging in the front window, and I was like, ‘Huh? What does that have to do with cupcakes?’ Anyway, you’re gonna cross the street there, because… well, trust me, this is the easiest place for you to cross, because they’ve got all these shrubs they’re growing in the middle of the street, in the median-like—probably some environmental effort, which I’m all for, but sheesh! Sometimes it makes it hard to get around. Then when you get to the other side, you’re going to walkwalkwalkwalkwalk, past the shoe repair place—the nice one, not the crappy place—past a ton of law offices, a church, a church, and another church…”
At this point, he paused to suck in a huge breath, and I almost told him that I’d look it up on my phone, but then I noticed he was actually sweating, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was going to all this effort for nothing. Plus, I had to admit it was impressive how he had such a vivid recall of all the places in his neighborhood.
“Now you’re almost there; you just have to wait at two more crosswalks, and don’t be confused when there’s a Starbucks at one of the intersections—you’re not walking in circles; it’s a different one; this one’s so much better, though, or I would have taken you there this morning, because then all you’da had to do was walk next door and voila! Thornfield Publishing! Where your future awaits!”
I smiled weakly at his enthusiasm, feeling gray and lackluster next to him. “Okay. Got it,” I fibbed, giving him the thumbs-up.
Grabbing his messenger bag from the back of his chair, he stood, giant coffee in hand, and said, “Now, I gotta scoot. My new boss is about to flip her lid at what she calls my ‘little tardiness problem,’ and when I joked, ‘No one’s complained ’til now, little missy,’ she said she did not appreciate my familiar tone, so I guess I’m on some sort of probation and woooo, Mama, I do not want to test this girl’s temper. You can tell she’s one of those people who keeps such a tight rein on her emotions that someday she may surprise the heck out of us all and poop a diamond during one of our story idea meetings! And if that’s the case, I wanna be on her good side, if you know what I mean.” Suddenly, he tilts his head and smiles, “She kinda reminds me of you, come to think of it.” That makes him laugh so hard that he rocks forward at the waist and almost spills his coffee. “Oh, shit. Now I really gotta go. Good luck! I’ll call you on my lunch break—if I get one—to see how things went. Ta-ta!”
And he was gone, leaving a residual shaking in my hands and the faint scent of cologne probably inspired by David Beckham or someone equally sporty-yet-metrosexual and costing about $100 an ounce.
As soon as he was out of sight, and I was sure he wasn’t coming back, I plugged in my current location and the publishing house’s address into Google maps and got some straightforward walking directions. It told me that my walk would take less than fifteen minutes, but I left the Starbucks with thirty to spare, not wanting to be rushed and panicked if something kept me from getting there that quickly.
Big mistake. I would have rather rushed than sit out here with too much time to think about what might happen behind that huge wooden door with the brass nameplate pronouncing the room beyond to be the professional domain of:
Lucas A. Edwards, Ph.D.
I talked to my agent, Tullah, this morning, before my hair-raising coffee shop tête-à-tête with Gus. She was extremely supportive and encouraging, although something she let slip has been nagging me ever since: “And so what if he’s not thrilled about this new assignment?”
When I’d questioned the statement, she’d laughed nervously and played dumb. “What? Oh! Nothing. Sorry… I have you confused with another client. My bad. Listen, Jayne, I have to go. Big… meeting.” Never mind that it was four a.m. in her west coast time zone and hardly prime time for “big meetings.”
Now only a wall and a door separate me from someone who’s pissed off at me before we’ve even met, for reasons I’m not even clear about. And this someone is most likely a person who’s used to getting his way. And despises anyone who prevents that from happening. Crotchety old crone who farts dust, probably set in his ways, always on the verge of retirement but never leaving, much to the chagrin of his colleagues.
Yeah, I can tell by the nervous look of his administrative assistant that he’s a real piece of work. Her face looks frozen in apprehension, like she spends so much time wearing that expression, it’s taken up permanent residency on her face, at least when she’s in this building, behind that desk, waiting for His Nibs to outline his latest demands. He probably shouts them at her, too, standing uncomfortably close, breathing his halitosis into her face, daring her to make even the slightest grimace, even when the spittle starts to fly.
I’m wincing sympathetically for the young woman—who introduced herself earlier as Sally—when the door swings open as if by remote control. Nobody comes forward, but Sally glances at the open door and then says pleasantly to me, “You can go in now, Ms. Greer.” As I pass her desk, she asks, “Are you sure I can’t get you a glass of water, a can of soda, anything…?”
I stop and look down at her, trying to interpret the motivation for this repeated offer. Is it my imagination or does she look like she’s pitying me? Like she’s mercifully offering me what could be my last beverage… ever?
Well. There’s absolutely no need for that. I’m a strong woman who can take care of herself. I’ve done nothing but that since I was eighteen years old. Buried my parents and my little sisters. Worked my way through college and graduate school. Beat out sixteen other applicants for a special fellowship in London as part of my post-graduate work. Waited tables and delivered pizzas. Scrubbed toilets, picked up trash, and schlepped popcorn at a movie theater so that I wouldn’t have to touch the money my parents left me, money that I want nothing to do with, anyway.
So if this Mr. Edwards (or Dr. Edwards, I suppose) thinks he’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever faced, he’s sorely mistaken. Maybe. And his intimidation tactics are wasted on me. Mostly.
As I enter the office, which I notice right away is surprisingly devoid of the expected dusty books, autographed author photos, and ostentatious, cut-crystal awards, he turns slowly from the window, where he’s been standing with his back to the door, looking intently at something outside on the street way below.
“Ms. Greer,” he says flatly, giving me a half-hearted wave.
Okay, so I missed the mark on the “old and crotchety” bit. He’s decidedly young-ish and… un-crotchety-looking. He’s quite the snazzy dresser, too, in his gray three-piece suit, one piece of which (the jacket) is draped over the back of his chair, therefore revealing what appear to be solid-looking arms in a white dress shirt and a broad chest covered by a dapper vest. If it weren’t for the scowl on his cleanly-shaven face, I’d say he was quite handsome. If you like that brooding look. Which I don’t. Not really.
Now he sneers, and I see he has nice teeth, although they’re wasted on someone who can’t even muster a smile when meeting someone new. Fake it for me, okay, Dr. Edwards? Just this once. And then at every meeting we have after this, you can show your true colors.
A stickler for manners, I step forward and reach out my hand, forcing him to either shake it or offend.
“Dr. Edwards,” I return his curt name-only greeting.
“Nobody calls me that,” he says shortly without offering an alternative. He seems to consider not shaking my hand, but then he takes a tiny step toward me and gives me one of those cold-fish handshakes that men are so fond of giving to women. I make a point of grasping firmly and pumping our hands with feeling. He withdraws as soon as possible and waves me in the vague direction of a grouping of chairs and a sofa centered under a hideous light fixture made of deer antlers.
When he sees me warily eyeing the chandelier, he mutters, “Gift from Tom Ridgeworthy. Supposed to be a joke, but it’s kind of grown on me.”
He turns his back to me as he searches his messy desktop for something, so he doesn’t see the shocked look on my face at his mention of one of the most successful writers of political thrillers today. He didn’t say it in a name-dropping manner; as a matter of fact, the nonchalant way he said it made it sound as if he wouldn’t be surprised if I told him Tom Ridgeworthy had given me an equally-bizarre gift once, as if everyone’s received a gag gift from the bestselling author.
He eventually finds what he’s looking for and, pen, notebook, and iPad in hand, crosses the room, choosing the seat opposite me in the grouping that would be cozy if it were in the office of someone a bit cuddlier—like Ebenezer Scrooge.
“Well, then,” he says, his attention on the touch screen of his little toy as he swipes and taps away with his long, graceful fingers. “Here we are.”
I think he’s stating the obvious, at a loss for anything else to say, but then I realize he’s arrived at his iPad destination. Turning the gadget around so that I can see it, he shows me a screen with a lilac and yellow book cover. The title of my book, The Devil I Know, rests in the center of the cover, the words nestled in the slender pale arms of a faceless woman.
In response to my wrinkled nose, he says, “Not to your liking? What about this one?” With a swipe of his finger, a different book cover slides onto the screen. This one is mint green with the title in hot pink letters between the tire marks left behind by a 1950’s-style convertible driven by a red-haired woman in a yellow headscarf, which trails behind her in the wind as it appears to be coming loose from her hair.
“Uhh… Hm.” I try to figure out how to diplomatically phrase the question that’s on the tip of my tongue after seeing both cover designs.
“These are simply some preliminary designs.” He swipes to the next one. “No?” he asks again, as I barely glance at a cover that features a rearview mirror with pinky fuzzy dice hanging from it and the eyes of a woman in dark Jackie-O sunglasses in the reflection.
Before he can continue with this nightmare slideshow, I say, “But… those… don’t have anything to do with what happens in my book.”
He looks surprised. “They don't?”
I narrow my eyes at him. “No.”
Puzzled, he turns the iPad around so he can look at the images right-side-up again. “Well, I… Hmm… Interesting.”
I chuckle nervously. “Of course, you’ve read the book, so you know that. Right?”
When he continues to stare at the fuzzy-dice version, I prod, “Right?!”
Startled, he looks up at me and blinks. I think the animals who donated their body parts to his light fixture must have worn the same expression in their final moments. Imperiously, he answers after he recovers his usual bored look, “Well, yes. I’ve… skimmed… the first few—”
“Chapters?” I finish hopefully for him.
“Pages,” he corrects weakly.
Instead of responding, he redirects my attention to the horrible cover designs. “You’re right; these are hideous. As soon as our meeting’s over, you can bet I’ll be having a stern talk with the folks in Art Design. These covers are absolute shit, no matter what’s between them.”
I tense. “What do you mean?”
He sets the iPad aside and scribbles a note on his pad of paper. “I mean, I’ll make sure they know I’m not happy they wasted my time with such irrelevant covers.”
“No. Not that. Although… they’ve wasted my time, too.” When he simply stares blankly at me for pointing that out, I continue, “No, what I was referring to was your comment about ‘no matter what’s between’ the covers. As if my book deserves a nicer cover than those, in spite of its inferiority.”
He waves away my claim and says irritably, “What? I didn’t say that. You’re putting words in my mouth.”
I sit back and regard him skeptically. “Yes… I must be,” I pretend to concede. “Since you’ve only skimmed the first few pages, you wouldn’t be able to make a fair judgment of it, anyway.”
“I’ll have you know,” he replies, puffing out his chest, “that I’ve been in this business nearly twenty years and can spot a bestseller from the first sentence!”
“Impressive,” I say, finding courage from somewhere previously unknown to me as I boldly state, “Then I guess you’ve read all you need to read of my book. And you know it’s a winner.” At least, that’s what everyone’s been telling me for the past few weeks.
“It has potential,” he allows smugly. I want to punch his square jaw.
Instead, I snap, “Oh, do tell!”
Returning to the blasted iPad, he pulls up some text, which I immediately recognize as the middle of the first chapter of my book. Using a fancy feature, he circles in yellow one long sentence.
“Your sentences are too damn long.”
“I will not dumb it down for any reader,” I instantly bristle.
Ignoring me, he continues, “In emotional passages such as these, short, brisk sentences are more powerful. They make the reader read at the same pace that the protagonist is thinking. Or even breathing. Think about it: when you’re upset, do you feel in long, prosaic sentences? No. You think like this: ‘I hate this fucking asshole. Who does he think he is? When can I leave?’ I know I think in short bursts when I’m angry or annoyed. ‘I can’t believe this. Saddled with a no-namer. She writes fluff, for fuck’s sake!’ See?” He looks up at me and holds my eye contact, as if we’re talking about nothing more emotional than the price of unleaded gas.
I blink in a way that probably makes me look insane. But I honestly don’t know how to respond to what he’s said to me. To my chagrin what finally falls from my lips is a lame proviso about the version of the book to which he’s currently referring. “I’ve changed a lot since that version. I tweak it all the time. I like to tweak.”
“Not anymore, you don’t,” he informs me. “From here on out, you don’t touch a damn syllable in this manuscript unless I tell you to.”
“Anything else?” I snip.
“Yeah. Since you’ve pointed out I don’t have the most current copy, you need to email that to me by the end of the day. Preferably by 2 p.m. Or if you have a copy with you,” he nods toward my ever-present laptop bag, “you can leave it with Sally on your way out.”
Dismissed, he effectively says by standing up.
“You’re going to actually read it?” I ask caustically, taking my cue from him and rising from the sofa. There’s no way I’m going to let him look down on me.
Disgusted with my childish question, he sighs and answers, “Of course I am. It’s my job, isn’t it? If you get it to me by two, like I’ve asked, I’ll have my first run-through completed by the end of the day.”
“How gracious of you.”
Maybe it’s my sarcasm. Or maybe it’s the traitorous wobbling of my voice when I say that. Either way, he seems to soften.
“Listen. Ms. Greer. Don’t take it personally, alright? Your manuscript doesn’t fit into my usual genre. And I’m a bit annoyed that I have to divert attention away from my other authors—who are established writers with proven selling power—to hold your freshman little hand.” When I say nothing, he finishes in the same patronizing tone, “Surely you understand.”
I loop my laptop bag over my head and drop it from such a height that I grunt when the weight settles on my shoulder. “Totally,” I tell him in a stone cold tone of voice as I walk alone to his office door. Then I make sure it’s wide open before I turn back to him and loudly say, “And you are an asshole,” before stalking from the room with my nose in the air.