27/04/2011 in Original
When Angela Thatcher’s third novel sold its millionth copy, Jay Leno asked her how she wrote her books. Though the details escaped her afterwards she remembered the answer being something about hearing the divine voice of the muse, then, hammering that out into a novel in a quasi-orgasmic display of her superior talent. Whatever the line, she remembered she got a laugh.
Of course she was talking completely out of her ass.
She was a fiction writer; she lied for a living. Angela Thatcher wasn’t even her real name, but the pseudonym was easy to understand considering she was born with the unfortunate moniker Penelope Ganymede Rosalinda-Hart.
Her father had been an astronomy buff…
Besides, anyone who could actually call her on her bullshit didn’t need to be told about the struggle with the craft or the search for inspiration. Leno wasn’t the place to talk about that sort of thing. You came on, spouted your clever witticism, pimped your book, than ran home to count the stacks of cash that inevitably rolled in.
The truth stayed between her and the laptop, which stared up at her with indifference, the cursor mocking her with its rhythmic pulse at the head of a blank document entitled “Murder by Sex.”
She sighed and closed the computer, exchanging it with the mai tai that sat on the canvas fold-out beach table next to her.
“Captain Morgan, you are my only friend,” she said as she sipped the drink, rubbing her stomach softly with her free hand and wondering if the laptop was giving her a tan line.
She shouldn’t feel this old, not at twenty-eight. Especially tanning on a Hawaiian beach. Her cloth folding chair sat on perfect sand, just a shade off white and free of foot prints save for the single trail that led to her chair. Crystal waves lapped gently at the shore, clear diamond breakers rolling up only inches from her toes with hypnotic rhythm. Hell, she had enough cash in the bank to ensure that she had this slice of paradise to herself, how much more did she need before she could enjoy it?
Penelope frowned and wiped the beading sweat from her glass to stare at her faint, distorted reflection. She had always known she was beautiful. One of those few women who had no complaints about her body. Full red lips, clamped grimly around the butt of a cigarette, and wide blue eyes stared back at her. Her body, tightly curvaceous, covered only by the thin strips of cloth that passed for a bikini in this part of the world and a gallon of SPF 75, spoke of health conscientiousness and good genes.
In school she’d been unabashed about how she looked, full of the confidence that comes from being both smarter and prettier than everyone around her and honest to god apathy for anyone who disputed it. Back then she’d been all low cut tops, short skirts and heels, letting her blonde hair and full D-cup (both natural, thank you very much) set up them up so she could knock them down with her fabulous intellect and creative potential. She’d flirted shamelessly, just because she could.
Now she wore hoodies when she went out in public and told men in bars she was a lesbian so they wouldn’t hit on her.
The problem was she’d been a failure. Her first book (the only one with her name at the top) had flopped. It hadn’t simply failed to sell but had gone up in flames in a way that her publisher had never seen before. To this day no one could tell her why.
It wasn’t that it was poorly written. Her agent, editor, and publisher had all assured her of this so many times it had become insulting. She’d written the thing, damn them, she knew it was excellent. But when a publisher puts a book in every major retail outlet in the country and book sales total a four digit number, they tend to take notice.
That she’d gotten a second book deal at all was a tribute to her agent, though she’d been forced to make a few changes. A pen name, both to make her more accessible and to separate her from the horrid stink of failure.
And she’d been forced to give up fantasy writing.
Just like that Penelope Ganymede Rosalind-Hart, the aspiring fantasy/sci-fi writer had become Angela Thatcher, romance/crime novelist, and one of the hottest new authors on the scene. Never mind that she had to suppress her gag reflex to pound out this drivel. After her second book took off, her editor had suggested she add a vampire to the mix. Might as well jump on the bandwagon, since she was halfway there anyway.
She’d replied with a look that suggested she was thinking of ways to dismember him slowly and the idea had quickly been dropped. Instead she’d sacrificed her pride and literary sensibilities to produce her latest monstrosity, a concoction of weak suspense and out-right graphic pornography she’d considered a lark when she’d submitted it. A mockery of the genre that she was sure would quickly be rejected by her editor. One reviewer had said, “Ms. Thatcher has produced her finest work yet, proving she is more than a one-hit wonder, but a true player on the literary scene.”
She’d wasn’t sure if her resulting evening spent vomiting was the result of her disgust or the fifth of rum she’d tried to drown herself in.
Now she lay on her beach in Hawaii, trying to bring herself to do it all over again.
She finished the mai tai, flicking the little umbrella with her tongue idly around the rim of the glass. She had the makings for another, but at this point she was thinking of just filling the thing with neat rum. Hell, why not pull straight at the bottle. No need to stand on ceremony out here.
She reached for the bottle but paused, leaning half out of her beach chair. Had something just moved behind her?
Her house lay at the top of a small cliff on north side of the big island. Her beach lay between a pair of rock spurs that stabbed out from the cliff into the sea, framing a small strip of sand. She’d bought the place for the view and the solitude, not minding that she had to descend six flights of stairs through the thick overgrowth to reach her private piece of the shore. It felt exotic, like she removed herself from civilization when she stepped off her deck.
Now she realized how isolated she truly was.
The exotic jungle foliage that climbed the slope towards her house concealed anyone descending the stairs with their dense folds. If filled the slope like fans at a football game, seated in a massive set of bleachers, her house on top, the rocky spars preventing them from slipping over the side.
Whoever descended now wasn’t coming via the stairs, but through the terrain. Who or what-ever, she amended after a moment, because the closer they drew, the heavier and less human the sounds became.
Penelope stood, stubbed out her cigarette, and slipped her sandals on with feigned calm. Her mind was racing, deciding whether or not she should make a break for her house. The only other way off her beach was to swim for it. She was a strong swimmer, but it meant circumnavigating one of the rocky spars which extended half a mile out into the open sea on either side of her beach.
She took a deep breath and laughed, “I’ve been reading my own stuff too much lately.”
In all likelihood it was a wild pig, havelina weren’t they called? Some creature just meandering across her property, and here she was ready to call the police or just start screaming hysterically.
Instead she picked up a piece of driftwood and moved over to a tree on the edge of the jungle. Whacking it against the trunk she shouted gibberish, hoping to frighten whatever it was off. After a minute she began to feel silly.
The movement stopped, still concealed by the dense overgrowth. It did not move, but stared at her through the leaves. She couldn’t see it well enough to get a clear sense of it, just the impression of a dark, indistinct shape. It’s breath came in a long hiss, slowly in and out.
Penelope took a step back.
It was most certainly not a pig.
Though it didn’t move any closer, she could tell that it was at least as big as she was, though lower to the ground. Its breath came in a low hiss, like a reptile. The image of a snake large enough to swallow her whole flashed into her mind and refused to be displaced. Penelope hated snakes more than anything… except spiders.
Her brothers had kept a pet snake that they often hid in her room to torment her as a teenager. She begged her father to make them get rid of it, but he’d complied only after they’d put it in the bathroom with her while she was showering. It had slithered up over the side of the tub and stared at her, unblinking while she could only stand frozen with shock and horror. Her shrieking had brought her father, who had tried his hardest not to laugh as he fished it out and finally consented to be rid of the thing.
He’d gotten the boys a pet tarantula instead.
The image of a massive half-tarantula half-anaconda wormed into Penelope’s head. That proved to be too much for her. She broke for the stairs back to her house at full speed. She didn’t care what the cops thought of her, she wasn’t going into the gullet of some monstrous spider-snake.
She crashed through the brush in her bikini. The limbs scratched and tore at her as if reluctant to let her pass. She held onto her stick with both hands though she knew it would do her no good in the face of the spider-snake. Still, she’d give it a stout whack before it swallowed her whole, or cocoon her, or whatever it was that spider-snakes did to their victims.
Something was wrong.
She couldn’t find the stairs. It seemed like she’d been running for miles, but that was impossible. Her little beach was a closed box and she couldn’t have wandered out of it. She should have hit the beach by now if nothing else.
She stopped, panting. She could still hear the sea, but it sounded strangely distant, muffled by the trees surrounding her. The way sound echoed, the breakers seemed to surround her, but never grow closer when she moved.
The sound of the creature, however, was very clear.
And always behind her.
She fled blindly, trying to protect her face from the slapping branches with her arms. The palms reached out at her, every frond a long, slender hand with too many fingers clawing at her hair and clothes. A fallen log, chest height blocked her path and she leapt at it, scrabbling at the slimy, mossy surface. She rolled over, certain she felt the breath of the creature nipping at her toes as she pulled them over.
The man blended so seamlessly into the greenery around her, she almost ran into him before she saw him. For a moment she thought he had stepped out of the bole of one of the large palms.
She took him in with a glance. Naked from the waist up, he’d smeared his narrow, tightly muscled chest with thick green paint the color of the trees. His pants looked like leather, an earthy brown, the same shade as the unruly hair falling in tangled curls around his sharp, angular face. His almond shaped eyes were blue, but not like hers. Deep, almost electric, but watery and shimmering, as if they emitted their own light. Unnaturally slender, tight, whip-like muscle corded his narrow frame.
In the instant she absorbed all this, he moved.
He poured like water across the space between them. He was not much larger than she was but struck with such speed she didn’t have time to react. Her feet, still mid-step from her head long flight, flew up into the air.
Time dilated, the world contracted.
He pressed against her, one narrow arm around her back, the other clutching a long shaft of wood, tipped with a stone spear point. She didn’t feel like she was moving, just hanging suspended as the green world rotated around them.
Then time reasserted itself with nauseating suddenness. She was flying through the air. He held her as they cannonballed through the foliage into a small clearing. The ground rushed up. Somehow, the man broke her impact.
She slid across the grass, alone.
She tried to sit up, stunned but mostly unhurt.
He was already on his feet, his eyes darting across the tree line, spear held low and ready. Penelope tried to stammer a question, but there was no time. The creature burst through into the clearing, all fangs and claws. Her breath caught. Deep green, darker even than palm fronds through which it emerged, the creature was covered in thick scales like a snake, but it moved on four legs, low to the ground.
Penelope shuddered; it was much larger than she, three times her length from head, down its long, sinuous neck, over its narrow body, to the tip of its long muscular tail. Leathery wings were folded across its back like a cape.
A dragon, Penelope realized as it leapt at her.
Then the man was between them, slipping across the intervening space like smoke on a breeze. There was no impression of his legs moving, though she was certain they must have. He slid through between the dragon and the damsel like a skater on ice, just one fluid motion.
He checked the dragon’s charge. Too small to block the thing completely, he diverted it. The pair flew through the air over Penelope’s head as she pressed herself to the ground, squeezing her eyes shut. In the darkness she heard the man shouted something in a high, clear voice, but in no language she understood. The dragon roared and hissed. Then only heavy crashing as the two struggled.
Penelope didn’t look up ‘til the sound ceased.
The man stood over the dragon, his spear buried behind the creature’s left foreleg, pinning it to the ground through its heart. He looked over at her, pulling his wild hair back from his face revealing two long, pointed ears.
Not a man at all, then, but an elf.
She rose, looking from elf to dragon.
“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?”
Shrugging, the elf jerked his spear from the dragon’s corpse, “Perhaps. Does it matter?”
She wanted to reply. She felt she must answer that question, that the answer was incredibly important, but she could not. The world began to grow indistinct around them. Something was calling her, and she knew that she was waking. They stood like two figures in a painting as the canvas unraveled from the edges until it was just the two of them. She reached out for him, shouting something even she could not understand, but all that remained of the elf were those to perfect, almond shaped eyes.
And then even they were gone.
Her cell phone was ringing.
Groggily she fumbled for it on the table, knocking it over onto the sand. Swearing, she grasp for it blindly and finally scooped it up. The sand clung to it, and she shook it trying to dislodge the stubborn particles before pressing it to her ear.
“Hello?” she asked, stifling a yawn.
“Penny? It’s Sam. I’m sorry, did I wake you?”
“Yeah,” she said, sitting up and stretching in her chair.
“Sorry, I always forget the time difference,” Sam’s voice came back.
“I was just napping, Sam. What’s up?”
“I was wondering if you had given any more thought to that tour we talked about last week. My phone’s ringing off the hook with stores requesting you do signings.”
Angela Thatcher looked down at the laptop sitting next to her on the table.
“Yeah, Sam. I don’t think I’m really in the mood to write any more of this crap right now.”
“Okay, then. I’ll book the flight to Portland for Friday? We can start with a swing through the northwest first.”
“Whatever you say, Sam.”
She hung up and stood, pressing her hands against her lower back and stretching her spine. Somehow sand had gotten on her chest and she tried to brush it off, but that proved counter productive, as her hand was still coated in sand from the cell phone.
Shaking her head she grabbed her laptop and headed up the stairs to take a shower.