Someone watches me from within the shadows of the curving metal archway of Hotel TwentyThree across the street. Although all I can see is a vague dark shape, I’m sure of two things—it’s a man, and his eyes are fixed on mine. Protectively, I pat the stack of freshly printed pages tucked in the inner pocket of my black, woolen coat and lick off my peppermint lip gloss.
The icy rain has turned the sky into a hazy, vertical river and I press my back into the farthest corner of the tiny bus shelter and hope the man can’t see me. The next bus won’t be here for another 20 minutes, perhaps longer due to the storm. I’m running out of time.
A car drives through the gutter creating a small tidal wave of grey water which soaks into my soft leather boots. An old oak tree scrapes its branches against a third-story window of the hotel and raindrops thunder against the bus shelter’s metal roof. I pull the edges of my black woolen cap further over my ears and try to disappear.
Time folds around me, an odd constricting as if I accidentally wrapped my checkered scarf too tight around my neck. Several people come and go through the doors of the hotel, but I stare at the dark shadowy shape of the man willing my instincts to be wrong. A dog barks. Another dog answers.
The rain stops for a brief minute and the sun casts a single ray of light onto the shiny wet pavement in the center of the street. It’s at this moment the man reveals himself by taking two steps forward. He’s tall and thin with a sharp, angular face. I wrap my arms around myself and take tiny sips of the too-cold air.
He’s found me again. His piercing blue eyes meet mine and I’m falling. The deepest part of the ocean. The dark spot on the moon. Chaos.
It doesn’t matter how much time goes by or how far I travel, he finds me every time. My body can’t decide how to react—it flushes hot with anticipation and shivers with fear. He makes me crazy. I look for a place to run, but it’s pointless. He’s already spotted me.
Without breaking eye contact, he crosses the small foyer and steps off the curb. His careful, graceful movements suggest he might be kind and gentle. He isn’t. He’s a fierce rushing river. A smooth, hard stone. A prowling, sleek panther.
The rain returns, but he’s unfazed by the water falling onto his curly, thick, black hair. He walks straight into the road and past the spot the sun touched moments ago. A battered grey truck almost doesn’t see him, but slams on its brakes at the last second honking madly. He doesn’t look up but instead keeps his eyes fixed on mine. An invisible cord pulls him closer and I wonder who controls it—him or me.
A raven cries out and my legs stop working. I fall sideways into the glass wall of the bus shelter and see the word “rouge” written in cursive red letters. I close my eyes and his scent reaches me—saltwater, driftwood, and wet paper. The day we met, more than 20 years ago, plays as it always does when he arrives.
Mother didn’t want me to come on her beach vacation, but my father didn’t want me either. I sit with my back pressed against a large piece of driftwood writing in a notebook my 7th-grade English teacher gave me on the last day of school. It’s got a field of bright sunflowers on the cover and I love it.
I’m trying to ignore the sounds my mother and her new boyfriend are making under the stripped umbrella off to my right, and the fact his hands are under her bathing suit again. It’s slightly overcast but the beach is packed with families. I wish I’d been allowed to stay in the hotel room.
My teacher says I have a natural writing ability and I’m trying to prove myself worthy of her compliment by writing a poem about the ocean. My words flow slowly and I’m concentrating so hard I don’t notice the boyfriend until he’s ripped the notebook from my fingers.
“What do we have here?”
“Please, give it back!”
My voice sounds desperate and it makes him smile. I hate the look on his face. My mother isn’t around to see what happens next. How he stands with one hand on his hip and holds the book up high with the other. How with a ridiculous screechy voice meant to imitate me, he reads my words loudly for everyone within earshot to hear as I run around him grabbing at the book.
Flowing, like my breath, the waves whisper
my name. “You aren’t wanted here,” mother
said, but the wind tells me another story.
The boyfriend laughs, as does a mother and son sitting on a beach towel a few feet away. Others join in and by the time my mother returns, the boyfriend has thrown my notebook into the ocean. It bobs up and down in the waves erasing my words, sucking the ink to the bottom of the sea.
My mother tries to comfort me, but I run from her, diving into the cold churning water. I fish out my soggy pages, cradle them to my chest, and run along the beach until I find an empty rock cave. I sob into the echoing space, listening as my pain becomes its own kind of thundering wave.
It’s in this moment of sorrow, as I tell myself writing doesn’t matter anyway, the man appears. At first, he’s nothing more than a silhouette in the cave entryway. A shadow I tell myself is an illusion or a trick of the light, but then he comes closer and I feel his warmth. His blue eyes meet mine and I fall into them, the color of sapphires or the hottest part of the flame.
I’m scared of him at first, but he stays with me for the rest of the trip. He speaks to me of love. He tells me to trust him. When I get home, I pack up all my books in a box and shove them into the back of my closet. I don’t need words anymore.
Opening my eyes, I see him staring at me. He looks exactly the same today as he did in the cave—fiery blue eyes, black leather knee-high boots, tight grey pants, a flowing white shirt, and a gold brocade jacket with a high sweeping collar. A medallion sits on his chest, a silver circle with a large blue stone. I resist the urge to touch it, as he presses closer. A soggy cigarette hangs from his perfect pink lips.
“We meet again, my love.”
I want to argue with him, to scream “I’m not your love,” but I’d be lying. Every part of me wants to dive into his arms and let him smother me with suffocating kisses. He knows this and presses close enough to warm my lips as he speaks.
“It’s been a while and I see you have written more. Still struggling, are we? Still fighting to be heard.”
I don’t like these words. Standing upright, I place my palms on his broad chest and push hard. The heat of his body moves through mine. He takes the cigarette from his lips, tosses it into a puddle, and pushes himself into my palms. His muscles tighten beneath my hands and my words come out far weaker than I intend, fading to barely a whisper with the last word.
“I’m fine. I don’t need you. I prefer the struggle to you…”
He steps back, pulls my hands from his chest, and kisses each fingertip. Shivers of memory come with those delicate, breathy touches—decades lost in his seductive embrace. I’ve missed him. As he speaks, he unwinds the scarf from my neck.
“Come with me, my love. I have a room across the street covered in candles, waiting for you. The bath is drawn, warm, and smelling of lavender. You only have to let the pages go, take my hand, and we can spend eternity together. Isn’t that what you really want?”
Dropping my hands, he grabs tightly to my waist and snaps my body to his. The pages flatten between us as his mouth finds the spot on my neck marked years ago by him. He kisses it softly, using his lips and tongue. My body screams in response, begging me to surrender. His voice oozes around me, through me, invading every cell.
“Aren’t you tired?”
His lips are on mine now. Honey. Buzzing. Madness. I’m slipping, but he holds me in place with his strong arms. It would be easy to be his again. Isn’t this what I want—to be loved? Pulling back he cups my face with his hands. His eyes are madness maddened—swirling pools of intensity.
“You’ve tried so hard, but you aren’t very good, are you? It hurts me to see people laughing at you. They don’t know you like I do. I’m the only one who truly sees you.”
Tears fall instantly at these words and his large hands move from cradling my face to circling my neck. His thumbs press into my throat, trapping my words, making it hard to swallow. He drips more warm poison into my ears and I think of Hamlet, and then Ophelia.
“You know all those people who say they like your writing…they are being nice because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. They are lying to you. I’d never lie to you because I’m the only one who loves you. I’m the only one willing to tell you the truth.”
While still speaking in the soft tone of a lover, he takes one hand off my throat and unbuttons the top button of my jacket. He’s going to take my words and throw them into the puddle with his cigarette. They will become mushy garbage. Aren’t they already?
“You’ve given it a try and it didn’t work out. The time has come to stop trying. Writing and creating isn’t who you are. They are a thing you tried and failed at. It doesn’t have to define the rest of your life.”
He’s at the second button.
“You deserve a life of ease and comfort. No more waking up early to write or trying to make deadlines nobody cares about. You can sleep in. You can throw away all those pesky books and notepads. You can stop thinking so much. All we need is each other to be happy.”
He’s at the third button.
“You are a fraud, my love. It’s only a matter of time before everyone knows. It’s best you stop now and give up this silly, childish dream. Honestly, it’s foolish to cling to dreams at your age. Aim lower. Be content with less. I’m all you need now. Let me be your dreams.”
His hand slips into my jacket and his fingers touch the stack of freshly printed pages. Dreams. Dreams. Dreams. The word becomes a hole and I’m falling, falling, falling. I land at the bottom and sit in the blackness. It’s cold and scary, but I know this place. I’ve been here many times before.
I light a match and stare at the tiny dot of warmth in a sea of nothingness. I watch it with fascination as it grows and grows. Images come into view in the flickering light, words too, they dance and play—cave drawings, ink on parchment, a typewriter in a back room, a glowing laptop.
I’m surrounded by a sea of sunflowers. The bright golden blooms move slowly with the setting sun. I’m not alone. Characters stand around me, a bit hazy and unclear, but they are speaking to me. A tiny fairy who doesn’t like flowers. A teenage girl stepping out of the shadows of a dark family legacy. A world where art has become weaponized.
What will happen if I quit writing? Will he truly love me and care for me? He’s left me before. Once I give him my words to destroy he disappears. Without the struggle, he doesn’t want me.
I’m Alice sitting across the messy tea table from the Mad Hatter. “First you lose all hope, and then everything is arranged in the best way.”
I’m Dorothy standing beside Glenda the Good Witch in the courtyard of the Emerald City. “You’ve always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”
I’m Anne sitting across from my friends discussing exams. “I’ve done my best and I begin to understand what is meant by the ‘joy of the strife.’ Next to trying and winning, the best thing is trying and failing.”
His scent surrounds me and pulls me back. The smile on his face has left and he’s gripping the pages within my pocket hard and pulling at them. They won’t budge. Not an inch. He’s breathing heavily and the hand holding my neck loosens at the sound of the bus approaching, its hissing brakes sound like a freedom bell.
I grab his hand and pull it out of my jacket. His eyes are darker now, grey storms in a sea of blue. The bus door opens as I’m buttoning my coat closed.
“I’ve got to meet my editor,” I say. “It was nice to catch up.”
His cheeks redden as he reaches a weak hand toward me. I sidestep it easily. The power he held over me has temporarily lifted. Even if his words are true, I’m going to keep writing. My characters need me and I need the struggle. Life isn’t about easy.
The bus driver and I exchange pleasant words as I pay my fare and take a seat in the back near a window. When the bus is pulling away, I look at him. He’s the same as ever, beautiful and scary. Our eyes meet and in them is the familiar “see you later” look. He will return. Nothing about him ever changes, but I do. I’m getting stronger.
“You have no power over me,” I whisper as he becomes a blurry image lost behind swirling raindrops.
Author’s note: I’ve another short story for you this week. I’m taking a writing class called “Exploring Your Aesthetic” and the assignment was to personify one of the plagues of being a writer. I chose Imposter Syndrome and made him into a lovely little homage to David Bowie’s Goblin King. It was supposed to be a short writing exercise, but I spent days on it and decided to share it here. Let me know what you think and have a wonderful day!