Estimated reading time — 33 minutes
“Did you get my story written?” Christie asked as she came through the front door just after two. Normally she wouldn’t be home for another couple of hours but apparently the schools had let out early that day for something to do with testing. She didn’t care enough to fully explain and Shane didn’t care enough to ask any further when it came up over dinner the night before.
“Your story?” he acted surprised. “What story is that?” The sarcasm earned him a smack in the back of the head even though she had to walk across the room to do it.
“My dream…” she said before kissing his cheek and then playfully smacking him again.
“Oh yea…” He knew exactly what she was talking about but could, in no way, let an opportunity pass to tease her about it. “You mean that inane diatribe from this morning?”
“Hey,” she frowned as though her feeling were hurt even though they both knew that they weren’t. “Come on now…you said you need story ideas. It was a great idea.” Shane could only chuckle.
“Okay…” he didn’t even know where to start. “Let me see if I’ve got this straight. Your idea is about being on a road-trip in the desert with a guy that you may or may not know when you hit a road-block of sorts; only it isn’t really a road-block. From there they charge you fifteen cents to pass through…orrrr…you can work off the fifteen cents in their little community; which, let’s hope, is at a rate of at least fifteen cents an hour.” Christie nodded her approval so far despite the mockery.
“The first time you pass through you have the change but the next time you try…and I have no idea why you would try again but…the next time you have no money. So you and your friend, which you still don’t seem to know, are forced into labor in a mid-sized civilization which…what…you couldn’t see it from the road-block?” She confirmed. “So now you’re in this city where they may or may not give you lemonade which you may or may not spill? And…the whole thing was…let me see if I got this right; ‘all kind-of freaky and scary…sort of’. Does that about cover it?”
The young occupational therapist threw her hands up in disgust. “Geez…I guess when you say it like that it sounds kind of stupid.” Shane stood and stretched and walked over to hold his wife in a loving embrace.
“Not at all baby,” he whispered in her ear before kissing her neck. “It’s just a little raw, is all. I can work with ‘raw’.” She returned his kiss with one of her own, passionately on his lips.
“So that means you’ll write it then?” she used her sexiest, Jessica Rabbit voice.
He gently bopped her nose with the tip of his own before saying, “No…it’s a stupid idea” and laughing. Christie shoved him away and pointed a finger. One of the best things about their relationship was their ability to both give and take adequate amount of shit from each other, although that might have been a little too much.
“Go ahead mister…you just laughed your way to the couch tonight.” She was smiling but he wondered for a moment if she was serious. It was unlikely but a little extra-sweet for the rest of the evening was probably in order. He hated sleeping on that damn couch. She wasn’t wrong about his request for ideas, however. Writing could be a fickle mistress.
Sometimes words could come flowing with ease as his fingers would struggle to catch up with the stream of images and phrases offered up by his personal creative ether. The brilliance and clarity that could come, often unexpectedly, from one’s own subconscious could be both rewarding and addictive at the same time. So perfect could those instances be, lost in the translation of ideas greater than oneself, that the desire to recreate them could turn into an obsession. Losing himself in those moments he like to call “the writer’s high” was a drug unto itself. Endorphins firing him into a cerebral symphony of self-indulgent congruence. In this regard, as far as Shane was concerned, great authors were nothing more than junkies chasing their personal dragons.
The other side of that coin is the dreaded “writer’s block”. For every monsoon of harmonious worded bliss, there lies a barren drought just beyond the horizon; a hellish struggle with one’s own sanity. When these moments occur there can be much pleading and praying; a distressed struggle to do more than pull useless fragments of jutted sentences out of what was one once considered to be a working brain. Often grateful for useless ideas or tired clichés, a writer can be their own worst enemy in those instances and “desperate” becomes the word that settles in the spot where other words usually spring from.
This is where Shane had found himself for nearly three months now. Following a three-year period of narrative bliss wherein he produced three best-selling novellas and a compilation of twenty-two short stories that was still hanging around the New York Times top one-hundred, he was experiencing a drought of epic proportions…at least as far as he was concerned. Shane’s imagination and creativity were his modus operandi; known for his ability to craft an engrossing tale on the spot. Usually he had two or three manuscripts working at the same time with more ideas on the back burner, just waiting for their chance to see fruition. Unfortunately, that was no longer the case.
There was no real explanation for the current dry streak he was in. Christie suggested that it was nothing more than a temporary let-down from all the success he had achieved in such a short amount of time but it didn’t feel that way. It felt more significant than that; especially when he had been used to being able to create fictions with nothing more than a single word for inspiration. That’s how both “Branded” and “Mortar” came into being and they were two of the most well received stories in his last book.
As disheartening as the epidemic was for Shane, he tried not to let it affect his personal life. They weren’t hurting for money…and probably never would again. The deadline for his next book wouldn’t come for another thirteen months so there was no real hurry to regain his mojo, and even then it could be pushed back further if it became necessary. He was smart enough to know that he had a good life and a beautiful wife and there were others out there who had it a lot worse. It wasn’t like he wasn’t writing at all.
There were nearly five hundred pages of disconnected thoughts and ramblings, situational conversations, random events and loads of descriptions for characters that didn’t exist anywhere else. He thought that, if he just continued to type into his keyboard, something would eventually come to life as a compelling story. So far that hadn’t been the case but there were bits of gold here and there that he could mine for use later…assuming his writer’s block eventually came to an end.
“What are we going to do about dinner?” Christie asked after changing out of the brightly colored Scooby-Doo scrubs she wore to work with disabled children all day; breaking the train of thought he’d obviously been lost in. Shane hadn’t really thought about that and after a short round of negotiations they settled on delivered Chinese food; neither of them really wanted to go back out with a cold front just moving into the area. They watched “Jeopardy” while they ate and then burned a couple hours with Netflix before going to bed. Shane did not have to sleep on the couch.
Just before falling asleep in each other’s arms, Christie jerked upright with a couple of violent sneezes. Shane, of course, said “bless you” and didn’t think a whole lot more about it before drifting off. It was, however, the first thing that popped into his mind when her alarm went off the following morning. Well…actually the second thing. The first thing to come into Shane’s head was the unbearable jackhammering on his temples. He threw his feet to the floor and tried to sit upright only to have the pain force him back into a horizontal position. He was sick.
Not just a little bit sick either. It was a full-blown case of the flu. Apparently, there was a particularly virulent strain going around the school system and Christie was kind enough to bring it home to him. She was feeling a little under the weather herself but not in nearly as bad a shape as her husband. The next four days passed in something of a fevered miasma with only bits and pieces actually breaking through the fog and sticking in his consciousness. He remembered the doctor’s office…vaguely. Then there was a bath maybe…some soup that he may or may not have thrown up afterwards…Christie helping him to change clothes…struggling to walk to the bathroom…the smell of Vick’s Vapor Rub and the television in the background…Wheel of Fortune? It was all one big hazy blur and when it finally ended it felt more like a dream or distant memory than the last few days of his life.
Christie hadn’t been hit with the bug as hard as he had and she worked through the illness, despite her unused sick days. She informed him that when she was home, however, his behavior was erratic to the point of being downright amusing; providing her with more than a few chuckles at his delirium. On the second day of being infirmed, it seems that he had been convinced that he was Winston Churchill and was extremely upset that British Parliament and the Queen would not allow him access to the internet. Not really knowing how to console such an issue, she gently reminded her husband that there was no internet in Churchill’s day. Mind you, that was only the tip of the iceberg for his particular conundrum, but it was enough to bring him to tears and then, gratefully, restless sleep.
The next morning, he was troubled over the fact that he didn’t have any type of identification card that reflected his status as a Netflix member. When she tried to explain that it didn’t really work that day, Shane refused to believe her; convinced that it had something to do with the fact that he never finished the last season of “Breaking Bad”. All in all, she had to admit that he was the funniest patient she ever had. “I’m glad you enjoyed my brush with death,” he had told her sarcastically as she left for work the next morning, but in truth he was glad to just have the energy for sarcasm.
It had been one of the worst cases of being sick he had in recent memory and it had nearly drained him. He was feeling worlds better but the lack of protein and nutrients combined with his throwing up nearly everything he had consumed in the last few days had his energy level at an all-time low. It was probably best if he spent another day in bed recovering and getting fluids in and with a cup of coffee in one hand and his laptop in the other, that’s exactly where he headed. Fortunately, Christie, the clean-freak that she was, had already changed the sweat stained sheets he had been using and the moment he climbed between them sleep was tugging at his eyelids. He just wanted to check his email and then he would crash.
He fired up the little Dell and in a couple of minutes was clicking his inbox. There was one from Zack marked “You’re killing me”. That was unusual; Zack, his editor, never got in touch with him out of the blue like that and he was nowhere close to any deadlines. He opened it up; in addition to the email there was an attachment labeled “Writer’s Block”.
The email read: “Hey brother, I got to say that I’m really hating you right now. How in the hell do you expect me to keep a job if you send me stuff like this? It’s a complete non-edit…as in: it’s perfect. Not one error that I can find. I’d appreciate it if you would screw up a little bit just so I can keep getting a paycheck. That aside…very impressive work. I thought you said it would be awhile before you had anything for print? You been hiding this one? Although I must admit, it’s a little different than what I normally get from you. Not that it’s bad…in fact, I loved it. It’s just that you don’t usually go in for the horror stuff nor the self-introspection but it’s good that you keep expanding your horizons. Honestly, I can’t wait to see how you finish this one off. Part two should be a doozy. Give my best to Christie and ttyl. Zack. P.S. I sent an advance copy to RJ over at Random House so we can probably get to print in a couple weeks.”
The word ‘confusion’ did nothing to describe the overwhelming bewilderment Shane was feeling as he double-clicked the manuscript he had no recollection of sending to Zack…let alone writing. There it was at the top of the page, however: “Writer’s Block by Shane Hilton”. Scanning through the document showed him a total of five-hundred and twenty pages. When the hell could he have written that many pages? Assuming the absurd that he somehow produced a story from a barely-conscious and impossible to remember state, it had still only been four days. Even when he was smack in the middle of “the zone” and on absolute fire with words pouring like an open faucet, Shane had never produced more than fifty or sixty pages in a day; this thing was twice that.
Shane read the first sentence and, although all he wanted to do was close his eyes and sleep, one sentence turned into one paragraph and then a page. It was compelling and it did kind of sound like something he would write but each word felt new and unfamiliar. It was an eerie sensation and he fought slumber for nearly two-hundred pages before it overcame him and even then his mind refused to go anywhere else. How could it?
The protagonist of the story was named Shannon…an author and an obvious representation of himself with the same mannerisms, dirty brown hair and scraggly goatee. Enjoying some degrees of popularity, Shannon and his wife, Kristin, had a good life in a nice home with modest expectations for the future. The first hundred pages could have been a daily testimonial blog about Shane’s home life in greater detail than he would ever knowingly share with other people…let alone place in a novel for the world to read.
The part following that detailed the epic writing slump that Shannon experienced after having some modicum of success with three consecutive, highly-touted books which sold extremely well. For Shane, it was an intense déjà vu. He allowed the sandman to win around the time that the tale significantly diverged from his own experience. Shannon grew ill from an influenza virus as well but, rather than the four-day flu that Shane suffered through, grew much worse and fell into a coma for nearly a month.
The story didn’t jump ahead from there or change its point of view but instead gave its reader a glimpse of a subconscious trapped in an unconscious state. Within the coma there was another Shannon who was also trapped. The construct his mind had devised as his prison was a large, black, seemingly endless house; room after room after room, door after door after door, a labyrinth of useless space. Shannon spend weeks wandering the catacomb of wooden architecture looking for an exit or a window or…anything that would keep his impending insanity at bay.
As of the last words that Shane was able to read before passing out, laptop still heating the comforter, Shannon was finally making contact with something…or rather…someone. Unlike all the unoccupied rooms before, the character walks in to find a person seated with their back to him. He cannot tell if it is a man or a woman but they are wearing a fedora or cowboy hat…something with a wide brim. All that could really be seen was a silhouette against a white computer screen behind it. Shannon takes a few more steps, just far enough to read the words “Writer’s Block by…” written on the top of an empty page.
That was where Shane left it but it was far from done with him. None of what Shane read sparked a single ember of recognition but…it was clearly his. Be that as it may, it terrified him. Because he didn’t know where the plot was going when he should have at least had an idea, the scenario didn’t just haunt his dream a little bit; it blossomed into a full-fledged nightmare. The person in the hat wasn’t actually a person at all in his dream, but a demon of sorts: a wish-wielding genie whose bottle was a person’s trapped mind. It was both grotesque and enigmatic at the same time; a charismatic creature who offered an endless string of temptations for the small price of one’s soul.
Part of what made Shane such a remarkable story-teller was his ability to harness and manipulate his dreams. When he was twenty he took a three week course on mastering dream lucidity complete with dream journal homework and trigger insertions, which much like the confusing movie “Inception” presented well, were mental constructs that you consciously created in your subconscious in order to retain control over the dream. Shane’s was a yellow, rubber ball that would bounce through whatever wild situation his dream-self found himself in, if for no other reason than to remind him that it was, in fact, a dream…his dream. From that point it would become easier to manipulate the dream without actually losing it all together.
At 3:00 pm, locked in a battle of wits with a soul-sucking humanoid beast, the yellow ball bounced through the room, which was without form up until that point. After the ball’s passing, they were in the living area of the studio apartment Shane occupied for three years during college. The actual time spent there were some of the fondest memories that he had. It was his happy place. When he was there…he had an advantage, and, before too long, the demon seemed to realize it.
The thing’s final offer before Shane banished him away was its most tempting: it would help him to write the greatest story he had ever produced. It would earn him the fame of going down in history as one of the greatest authors of all time. The fame and fortune did nothing to seduce Shane, but the recognition for creating a literary masterpiece did tug at some of his deeper desires somewhat. Instead of accepting the offer, however, he kindly showed the visitor the door to his apartment and, subsequently, his mind before waking with a pounding headache in newly sweat-soaked sheets. Maybe the fever wasn’t done with him after all.
Hearing Christie’s keys rattling in the front door, Shane closed the dead laptop on the bed next to him and made his way to the bathroom for a shower. Not that it really mattered but he didn’t want her to have to see him in bed for the fifth consecutive day…plus it was highly unlike that she would want a whole lot to do with him in his current, well perspired condition. He could smell himself and that was never good.
For some reason Shane didn’t bring up the email from Zack or, more importantly, the manuscript despite it’s being right on the edge of his thoughts the entire time. It wasn’t like he was trying to hide it exactly…he just needed to wrap his own mind around it a little better before he tried disseminating it to her. At the minimum he needed to finish reading it first and even though part of him was anxious to do so, another, much larger, part was in no hurry to get back to the story whatsoever. There was something about the content he had read so far combined with the fevered dream and his complete and total amnesia regarding the whole damn thing and…it frightened him.
He was of two minds on the subject but when Christie kissed him goodnight and headed off to bed for the evening, Shane chose to go to the computer in his office and do some reading; his intention so resolute he even brewed a small pot of coffee. Since he wasn’t on his laptop he had to find the email and download the manuscript again but in a few minutes he was back to page 196 and with a hat-wearing silhouette facing a bright computer screen in a dark room. Shane did his best to push the earlier nightmare from his mind so he could read without outside influences coloring his opinion of the piece. Then again…if it all came from his mind anyway then did it really matter? The Catch-22 made his head spin a bit but he foraged forward anyway.
Deep in the heart of the eternally endless black house Shannon was coming face to face with the only other occupant he had come across in more time than he had been able to keep up with. The man in the hat was not actually a man and it wasn’t really a hat. The creature’s head was just an extremely odd shape. It was an eternal being from another dimension outside the physical reality Shannon lived in and its only way of making contact with the few, very special people that it did was through a deeply meditative mind; a monk, Zen Buddhist, shaman, wise Indian chief or…someone in a coma. When it did find a connection it was able to grant the wildest wishes they could think of.
Shane had to quit reading. Sweat had begun to bead on his brow. Part of him said that the story was hitting a little too close to home and the other…rational…side said, yea you idiot; of course it hits close to home…you wrote the damn thing. That did make sense. It might not have been so upsetting if his headache wasn’t starting to come back. The coffee would help…hopefully. After Shane took a bathroom break and refilled his mug, Shannon began his negotiations with malformed bringer of gifts.
“Zaelza” was what it asked to be called but Shannon didn’t like the taste it left in his mouth so he didn’t use it often. At first it offered the things one would expect to see: riches, women, fame…revenge; but it was already in the writer’s head and knew its way around just a bit. Zaelza didn’t take too terribly long to get to the meat of his offer. He knew exactly what Shannon wanted most in his heart and with Zaelza’s guiding hand, Shannon would write the greatest novel he could ever imagine. It would be a plot that would endear itself to practically every reader with lyrically quote-worthy wordsmithing that would be remembered long after his demise. Its brilliance would be easily recognized and celebrated. Not only that, but it would be the first of many, many more equally enchanting novels.
The offer captivated Shannon as much as it did Shane. Unfortunately for Shannon, however, he did not choose the same path. There was no happy place nor dismissal of the demon. No…an accord reached between the two was what there was and it was sealed in blood. One might wonder how a psychological agreement could be sealed in blood…Shane did, but it turned out to be accurate in a sense. Shannon’s coma-induced dream version of himself could bleed…did bleed…quite a bit in fact. Laughing maniacally, the creature stripped away his flesh, inch by painful inch, until he was bled completely dry. At that horrendous point of dying so painfully on the inside of his coma Shannon simultaneously awoke on the outside.
Shane stood up and began pacing the room. What the hell…seriously…what in the holy hell? Never before had he written of such violence. It was a type of graphic gore that he personally found distasteful. Why on Earth would he have ever put that scene in a story? If this really was his work then he could already see a serious effing edit was in order. He had done suspenseful before but this was outright torture-porn. In truth, Shane didn’t know if he was more upset at the explicit scene or at the fact that Shannon had come to a bargain with the beast that felt, more than a little, like the one from his nightmare. It took several long minutes and a fresh cup of coffee before he could continue…but he did continue.
There were no lingering effects from the coma and Shannon retained no memory of his time within it. It was, for all intents and purposes, a miracle recovery. The doctors were beyond themselves having long since pronounced him nothing more than a vegetable with odds of recovery somewhere on par with winning the Powerball. In no time Shannon was back home and writing again and the novel produced itself in less than a week. It was a feat remarkable even to him. He had no idea where it was coming from; there was no preconception at all. It practically wrote itself without him, a stream of consciousness flowing from unknown depths straight to his keyboard.
When it was finished it was about a writer struggling for new ideas. Gee…that was beginning to sound familiar. The writer goes on a great journey in search of ideas and overcomes many perils in outlandish situations. In the end, despite all the magic he experienced to get there, he was still unable to write any of it down. It was poetic and articulate and just stupid enough to be wildly popular. Shannon enjoyed the fame of touring the book and before too long found himself sitting down to attempt another one. It, much like the last, seemed to come from practically nowhere with no forethought.
It was about an actor who starred in a play only to discover in the end that he was actually just a fictional character in a different play. It was all very cerebral and more than a touch cliché but once again the masses ate it up with gleeful ‘give me more’ grins. Even more fame led to smug conceitedness; Shannon’s relationships begin to deteriorate. His wife leaves him and takes half his money. There are more books, more fame, a second wife who eventually leaves as well and a drug problem. Towards the end of his life he sees that there have been a great many more personal losses than critical gains and in the end the demon comes to collect anyway.
At the age of eighty-two Shannon has a stroke and, after being rendered unconscious, falls into a coma for the second time in his life. The old man Shannon is returned to the never-ending black house and it all comes back to him; he remembers it all: the wandering, the finding and the deal. He hears Zaelza approaching from several rooms away but he is too elderly to run anymore…it would be pointless. That wasn’t to say he cared to be skinned alive again but one thing he did learn in his wasted life was “a deal is a deal”.
The final chapter is, for the most part, a lengthy conversation between Shannon and the demon; full of witty repartee and sly conniving. Shannon does his best to convince the demon that it would be worthwhile for it to give up its claim on his soul if he were able to do something for it; to grant its wish so to speak. Shannon knows he is grasping at straws but somehow something takes hold. Zaelza did have one secret desire that the man could help him with as it turned out.
It wanted to be free to roam in the physical world…in our world, and the old man could help him do it if he agreed to allow Zaelza to take his body. Shannon’s body would wake up from the coma in the hospital…only he wouldn’t be in it. The benefit of that decision would be that he could have his soul back and it could progress to whatever point it would have gone to when he died. So basically…he’d be dead.
On the flip side, he would be unleashing an ancient evil onto an unsuspecting world and there could be no telling the waves of destruction and death it would bring with it. That act alone might be enough to condemn his soul to hell even if he did win it back. It was an impossible decision…and that was the end of the book. With a postscript notation to look out for the exciting conclusion in part two. Part two? Where the hell did part one come from? In a way it really sucked. Shane wanted a conclusion. He had to admit though, it hooked a reader and would guarantee sales for a follow-up. It was a sound contribution and just as good as or better than anything he had done to date although he really could have done without all the weirdness surrounding it or his lack of recollection in creating it.
Shane leaned back in his chair and rubbed his temples. It was five in the morning and too much coffee had him wired. It a bad combination with his tired eyes and he opted to go with watching the sunrise on the deck with his Mp3 player. Breakfast with Christie was a rare treat and around eight in the morning he finally decided to catch a few hours of sleep; determined to keep it to a nap so he didn’t screw his entire sleep schedule all to hell. Deep REM sleep came in a matter of minutes and before Shane knew it he was face to face with the misshapen night-terror again.
“What did you think?” it asked in a low rumbling voice like thunder way off in the distance. “Did you like my story?” Confused and pissed, Shane began frantically looking around the abyss they appeared to be floating in but for the life of him…he couldn’t remember what he was looking for. It seemed important. Of course the moment the yellow ball came bouncing out of the darkness, he remembered; and more importantly…he took control. Only once they were back at 212 Maypop Street, just two blocks from the university, did Shane dare to look back at the rasping interloper.
Even then it was difficult to manage as another big problem reared its head. The thing about lucid dreaming is that you know that you’re dreaming and can, as a result, affect the dream in any way you want. The bottom line is a realization that the entire environment is a product of your own mind; no matter how foreign or bizarre it seems it is still based on something within your own psyche. Baring that in mind, the other problem was that Shane could not seem to affect the demon itself. It seemed to conduct itself by its own volition without Shane having a clue what it would say or do. It felt like an intruder. Deciding that he could always evict the thing again if worse came to worse, Shane chose to confront it head on for the moment.
“So you’re the one that wrote it then?” He wanted to convey a coy smugness; a comfort that would let the trespasser know that he was the one in charge in there…even if it didn’t reflect the way he truly felt. It’s true that the yellow ball’s appearance always emboldened him but this wasn’t like the typical dream, if such a thing existed, and his confidence was nowhere near where it would usually be. Perhaps if he had been able to convert the creature into a pink bunny or a hockey-puck with googly-eyes it would have been business as usual, but since that wasn’t the case, it fell more like a strategic entanglement. Like Risk or Chess, each move would need to be calculated; especially against an opponent who had obviously played the game a lot more than he had.
The creature chuckled; or at least that what Shane though that it was. It sounded more like a large tarp flapping in the wind than a biological reaction from a living being. “Do you remember writing it?” it finally asked. Shane thought for a moment before answering.
“What if I did remember writing it?” He was afraid the false bravado was starting to show cracks. The thing’s barely humanoid face twisted into what Shane guessed to be a smile although it more closely resembled a sneer; its black and rotting teeth exposed in its skull.
“You,” it continued, “can lie to me all you want but it will be the same as lying to yourself. I’m already inside. I know your truths already.” Shane was quiet, not yet ready to call the demon on his bluff. “For example…I know what the true fear in your heart is. You’re afraid that you’ve already made the deal with me and just cannot remember doing so. How would that manuscript exist otherwise? Tell me I’m wrong.” He couldn’t. The son-of-a-bitch hit the nail on the head. It had been the unspoken thought that had been repeatedly pecking away at the back of Shane’s mind all day and now that the interloper had allowed it in, he was petrified by the certainty of it. It was the only part of all of this that made any sense at all.
“I would never do that.” Shane knew that much wasn’t a lie. It wasn’t just something he wanted to believe either; he knew himself better than that. No one in his family was particularly religious when he was growing up but Shane did believe in the soul, heaven and hell regardless. Looking at it analytically, part of him would admit that part of the belief came from the comfort it gave; the knowledge of continued existence beyond our time on Earth. After all, no one likes to think that this is all we’re given.
The comfort provided by thinking we’ll have more time on the clock was only a small part, however. There was something intangible and unmeasurable in the core of his being that just knew that it was true; in his deepest depths he could feel it. For that reason alone, Shane knew that he would never, even in an abject dream-state, trade away his soul for anything…let alone a damned book. His soul, his eternal existence, his afterlife…these were things he took very seriously.
The demon chortled again. “Maybe…maybe not,” it replied cryptically. Shane began pacing in the area behind the couch that wasn’t really there.
“Are you Zaelza?” he finally asked. There was no real reason for asking other than to buy additional time to think. Shane was certain he already knew the answer to that one.
“Are you Shannon?” the thing replied, splitting its lips with its sneer-smile again. It was Shane’s move.
“You said you wrote the story…you tell me.” He still expected that he knew what the thing would say. He was wrong.
“What if I were to tell you that you weren’t Shannon? What if I were to tell you that you weren’t even Shane?” This definitely got Shane’s attention, but only so much as to wonder what game it was playing at. “What if I told you that neither of us is as real as you think? What if, much like our friend in the story, we were just fictional characters created in a story written by someone else entirely?” This was unquestionably not what Shane was expecting to hear but, despite the ludicrous nature of the claim, it rattled him to the core for some reason.
“You see Shane…your wonderful life…your wife…your home…all of it…doesn’t exist. Your memories…Henry, the golden retriever you had when you were a kid…they’re all just words on a page. Every thought you have comes straight from the mind of someone else.” The room was beginning to spin as the details of the environment began to fade away. He was losing control of the dream. He wanted to wake up but wasn’t able to.
Shane began to frantically look around…he needed his trigger. “What’s wrong Shane? Do you need a yellow ball?” Shane glared at the creature; he hated it for so many reasons in that moment but the biggest, without a doubt, had to be the fact that it was right. “I’ll see if I can help you out,” the sadistic beast continued, calling out dramatically to the air, “Mister author…would you please provide us with a yellow ball so that my friend here can wake up and return to the reality that you’ve created for him?”
It occurred to Shane that it was being sarcastic and merely trying to mess with his mind but when the yellow ball bounced into view it was more disturbing than a relief. Regardless, he jerked himself from the dream and sat upright in bed. It was just after noon and although he still had some time to sleep…there was no way in hell that was going to happen. The rest of the day was spent in an irritated malaise. Several times Shane would find himself in front of the bathroom mirror just staring into his own eyes and wondering. Everything just seemed so detailed. From the birthmark on his chest to the memory of his grandmother’s funeral to the way Christie smelled in the morning after she got out of the shower…it all felt so intricate and real. Was what the nightmare suggested even possible or was he just losing his mind? Were his thoughts being typed letter by letter by unseen hands?
Every activity was accompanied by the agitating sense of doubt and when his head began to ache again he couldn’t help but wonder if someone was writing the words, “Shane’s head began to ache”. By the time Christie got back from work he had nearly worked himself into an anxious frenzy, pacing large circles in the backyard. Despite the forty-degree weather, he wore no coat; fixating on the cold air biting into his skin and wondering if it was a real sensation or if some sick, unseen force had guided him out there for the sake of a plotline. It had not been since college that Shane had been forced to think about such metaphysical ideas.
Solipsism, he remembered, was the philosophical concept that the only thing in a person’s world that could definitively be considered “real” was what was inside of one’s mind. The entire world outside of one’s thoughts could possibly exist as nothing more than figments or constructs. In other words, a person could only know that they were real and not anything else beyond oneself. The mental pretzel Shane twisted himself into the first time he tried to wrap his mind around the concept all those years ago in class was nothing compared to what Zaelza’s suggestion was doing to him.
He never remembered any lessons or conversations on the concept that oneself might actually be the figment in someone else’s imagination…and how could he? How could any sentient person actually take the idea seriously in the least? “I think therefore I am” …right? Shane’s pacing was picking up significant speed and he was oblivious to it and everything else. It might have turned into an outright job had he not run headlong into Christie who was standing in the yard with a large blanket to wrap around him.
“What on God’s green Earth are you doing out here?” She was genuinely shocked. This was a new one. Sometimes Shane’s behavior could be a bit erratic when he was working out a story in his head, but never anything this…stupid. “You are trying to get over the flu and you’re out here in a tee-shirt…have you lost your mind?” She thought that perhaps the fever had returned until she got a good look at the expression on his face: a combination of fear and confusion…a young child who had become separated from his mother for the first time. It frightened her.
“I think,” he finally said, “that maybe I am.” Christie wrapped the blanket around his shivering form and led him back into the house and straight to bed. He didn’t feel like he had an elevated temperature but, obviously, there was something wrong with him. Tucked into the sheets, she was hoping that he would fall asleep but he just laid there, staring at the ceiling.
“Baby…” she said, kissing his cold and clammy forehead, “I’m going to call Doctor Morris and see if we can get you back in. I don’t think you’ve got this thing licked after all.” Shane said nothing. What could he say? There was something wrong with him…that was for sure, but it was undoubtedly nothing Dr. Morris could do anything for. His was the type of suffering that came from questioning one’s own existence. It was an existential conundrum that seemed ridiculous on the surface but had taken control of his mind regardless. Even as he laid there and listened to his wife on the phone with the receptionist at Dr. Morris’s office, Pam, Shane could not help but to wonder if the woman on the other end of the line were anything more than one word in a paragraph.
Did Pam have children…a husband…a drinking problem; or did those things only come into being because he had been written into thinking about them? He was starting to hate himself. This was an unnecessary trip into insanity caused by nothing more than an amnesia filled week of being sicker than he had ever been. That was all it was and if he didn’t get his shit together soon it would turn into much more than that. His brain had been on a fever fueled trip through the abyss and now he was letting it get the better of him. Of course he had written the manuscript and all this stuff about a demon wanting his soul was nothing more than the story’s impression left on his subconscious. This is where he was at when he fell asleep again.
The dream-state came quickly and, much to be expected, Zaelza was there again…at least that’s what Shane had begun to think of the thing as.
“You never answered my question,” it prompted right off the bat. Shane remembered.
“If I liked it or not?” Zaelza nodded gleefully. “Well,” Shane continued, “it was okay I guess. I’ve certainly seen better.” The creature knew he was bluffing.
“Not by you.” It replied. “Don’t forget…it’s pointless to lie to me.” He already knew that, as much as he wanted to deny it. Disgusted and not sure how to proceed, the Dream-Shane took a look around their environment for the first time; they were in the black house from the story…or at least the way Shane had imagined it while reading the manuscript. That definitely wouldn’t do. As far as he could garner, the never-ending structure was more than a mere backdrop or set piece…this was where it lived. This was Zaelza’s domain and here, he was the trespasser…or more accurately, the hostage. Shane needed some yellow-ball action.
“It’s not coming this time.” Zaelza broke his train of thought. It clarified even though Shane knew exactly what it was talking about. “Your bouncy, bouncy yellow ball…” It chuckled its vibrating leathery laugh that made Shane sick every time he heard it. “It won’t be making an appearance this time and…we won’t be going anywhere else until we get this sorted out.”
Deep in the heart of the black house, Shane could feel a slight tugging at his shoulders. Looking around, he could see nothing that would have caused the sensation; wholly unaware that it was actually the residual effect of Christie violently shaking his unconscious body. He had no idea that his wife had been trying to wake him for twenty minutes nor heard her on the phone with 911. He would be completely unaware as well, of being loaded onto an ambulance and rushed to Mercy General Hospital’s emergency room and, as the world passed by in a flurry of motion and noise on the outside, all Shane was aware of was himself and Zaelza and four wooden walls. As far as he knew, he was still just sleeping and not buried deep within a coma. Even still…no yellow ball meant no control…and no waking up until he was awoken.
Shane was frightened…there was no doubt about that; but what he was feeling more than anything was anger. The loss of control of his own mind, the lack of memory, and the major mind-fuck Zaelza was laying on him…it was all just too much and it was pissing him off.
“What the hell do you want from me!?” Shane finally screamed at his baneful companion. That was really the big question, wasn’t it? The beast took a few steps forward halving the distance between them before answering with its own question.
“Don’t you know?” it rumbled. Shane hated its voice; feeling each word as much as hearing it.
“If I knew I wouldn’t have asked!” he spit at the thing. Zaelza took another step and Shane raised his closed fists before him, unsure if he actually planned on striking the demon or not. To the best of his knowledge, Shane had only been in one fight in his entire life and it was over the ownership of a G.I. Joe figure when he was nine years old and even then he lost badly. He was more Sarah Lee than Bruce Lee. Zaelza shared its creepy smile at Shane’s defensive positon but didn’t take another step.
“Relax my friend,” it offered. “You are so jumpy. You act as though you expect me to slowly skin you alive.” Zaelza laughed again, reveling in its own sense of humor. Shane got the joke but for some reason didn’t find it nearly as funny. “I’ll tell you what I want Shannon.”
“SHANE!” he blurted out, correcting it and bringing about more nauseating snickers.
“Shane…right. My apologies,” it did a slight curtsy, very flamboyant in its movements: a showman craving an audience. “Shane…Shannon…it can be so hard to keep all you fictional character straight.” Not this shit again! “What I want is a deal for your soul. You already know that. You’ve seen what I can offer you…a taste of what can come of your future.”
“What?” Shane countered, “Like Shannon…who finds fame and fortune only to lose everything he truly cares about and loves? Is that what I’m trading my soul for?”
“Oh come now…” Zaelza waved its arms as it spoke. “Don’t tell me you, of all people, can’t recognize a story. It was all a plot with elements from your life…but it wasn’t your life. I can give you anything…including happiness and the love and adoration of all your friends and family. No one will ever want to leave your side. You will be loved and admired as one of the greatest authors of all time. I can deliver one hit after another and they will all sound like they were written with your voice.” None of this was really hitting home with Shane; there were too many discrepancies and too much against his nature for a creature that supposedly knew him so well.
“I don’t understand. Why do you want my soul if this is all just a story? What difference does it make to you?” he asked. Zaelza was quick to answer.
“It’s the way the story is written.”
“So what will you do if I say ‘no’?” Zaelza did a little twirl and then answered with a shrug.
“Who is to say?” This was clearly unacceptable to Shane.
“What the hell does that mean? You don’t know what your own actions will be? You can’t tell me what you’re thinking about possibly doing?” He was starting to get himself really worked up. The whole thing was so unimaginable it was borderline infuriating. This was a spoonful of crap way too big for him to swallow.
“Do you?” This stopped Shane in his tracks. Did he? Had he bothered to think through the possibilities? What would he do to end this nightmare? It was apparent that the yellow ball wasn’t coming. Did he really have any clue how to proceed? “Look at it this way. It is just the way the story is supposed to end. You sell your soul. You lead a long life of beauty, wonder and bliss…and our dear readers get a completed tale.” Shane vehemently shook his head.
“No! No! No! No!” He didn’t want to be hearing this. It took a moment for the childish tantrum to pass but it did. “Tell me this then,” he finally said, “what about the deal in the story…the other story…you wanted to possess Shannon’s body in return for his soul. Is that something you really want? Is your final goal to possess me and be free like the other version of you?” Zaelza only shrugged again.
“I couldn’t tell you. Believe it or not, I’m just a minor character. I honestly have no idea what my motivations or desires are. Wanting to complete our deal and making sure you retain your fear of me are the only defining qualities I’m aware of.” That had to be bullshit. “Besides…I thought we already went through this: that was only a story. That wasn’t really your life.” Shane shook his head again.
“But according to you…my life is only a story as well.”
“It’s not ‘according to me’. It’s the way it is; whether or not you choose to live in denial. We are both nothing more than words on a page and images in a reader’s mind. That’s why it really doesn’t matter what you should do. In fact…the best thing that you can do is to do your part in making sure that this is as entertaining a story as possible. As a writer…it is your responsibility.”
Overwhelmed by the irrational logic of it all, Shane was beginning to feel defeated; his anger fading into apathetic malaise. “But,” he muttered weakly, “I don’t want to lose my soul. It’s my soul. It’s mine!”
“You’re assuming that you have an actual soul to offer.” There was no sympathy in the demon’s voice but it was the exact tone needed to strike a chord. Shane slumped to his knees, his gaze falling on the cracked and worn floor beneath him. What if it was right? The longer the idea simmered the more he felt the truth in it. He really didn’t have a soul to worry about. Shane Hilton didn’t really exist and the only thing he could do was to agree to the deal. Tears began to fill his eyes and he couldn’t help but wonder if he was actually sad or if it was only written for him to be so.
Finally, he lifted his head and make eye contact again. “Tell me then…how does this story end?”
“Just different, mom. I really don’t know how to explain it.” Christie had been pacing a trail through the upstairs hall, bedrooms and connecting bathroom; stopping momentarily to take in her own haggard reflection. Day after day, for twenty-eight days she had lived in a chair next to a bed in a hospital room, watching her husband wither away into a shadow of himself, not realizing that her appearance was changing just as dramatically. Her skin was gaunt and pasty, exposing her cheek bones and the dark circles around her eyes. She looked more like a patient than some of the actual patients did.
They had come so close to losing Shane that she had almost allowed the doctors talk her into accepting the worst…almost. In truth, she never gave up hope and when he finally came out of the coma it felt like a personal reward for her perseverance in optimism. Of course, the entire experience was made that much worse by that damn book’s release and the media frenzy that attached itself to the story. There were those who even questioned the authenticity of Shane’s condition…after all, a writer releases a book about a writer who goes into a coma and then said writer then goes into a coma himself? They were circumstances beyond the realm of believability for many people…but they all bought the book still.
Christie read the book herself in two days while her husband laid next to her with tubes and machines keeping him alive. She hated everything about it. Maybe, objectively, there were some good things that could be said about it, but ‘objectivity’ was not something that could have been asked from her in that moment. It was way too personal for any type of outside viewpoint she might have been shooting for. Had Shane been fully ‘alive’…she would have killed him. There were extremely personal details and experiences that he had no right to put in a novel. Let alone one that he sent to print without telling her about! The son-of-a-bitch had betrayed her trust in a big way and she hated herself for hating him in those moments and then she hated him again for making her feel that way.
Then, when he did miraculously come out of the coma stretching and yawning as though it were just a long nap, did Shane explain any of it to her? Did they sit down and talk about it at all? Did they even take the time to just ‘be together’ after such a traumatic experience? No, no, and no. He hadn’t even kissed or held her in an embrace. The day after he awoke, he was back home and disappeared into his locked study where he had been banging away on his computer for four straight days.
“It’s just like he’s a different person. We’ve hardly spoken at all…all he wants to do is write…I know mom, and I want to give him space if that’s what he needs right now but, I don’t know, the moments we are together…he’s quiet and doesn’t seem to remember where anything is…he’s forgotten stuff about me and the past…yea…you’re right, I know. The doctor’s said brain damage was possible, said we really wouldn’t know the full extent for a while…of course I love him mom…no…I’m not considering leaving him but after the fucking book I probably should…well hell mom, you read it too; are you gonna tell me that it wasn’t a major betrayal of my trust? To think that he was even considering writing a sequel…I know mom…I know.”
She finally stopped pacing and fell into the plush comforter on the guest bedroom bed. Even though it was a ‘guest bedroom’ it was her secret napping spot. She would never tell Shane but the sleep she got in there was always better than that sleep she got in the main bed with him. “I just…I just want my husband back; I want Shane back. I don’t feel like I know that person downstairs…it’s not him…I’m sure you’re right mom; it’ll just take a little time. I’m being over-sensitive, I’m sure.” She sighed. “Okay mom…I guess I’ll let you go. I think I’ll take a nap since it seems unlikely that I’ll be seeing much of Shane today. Yea…okay…no, his next check-up is in a couple days and of course I’ll keep you posted. Okay…I love you mom, bye, bye.”
Her cellphone’s battery was nearly drained and, since it served as an alarm clock as well, Christie forced herself from the comfortable mattress and onto her feet: her charger was in the other bedroom. As she turned the corner out of the guest room and into the hallway she ran smack into Shane’s chest, nearly knocking herself down in the process. The collision did nothing to stagger Shane and, given the fact that he was just out of a coma, Christie thought it a bit odd. Her husband helped her to her feet and, once they were face to face, she could see the weird, twisted smile he wore. It was an expression that she had never seen before; foreign on his face and unnerving to no end.
“What the hell baby?” she asked, trying not to look at that smile. “You scared the piss out of me…maybe literally; I’ll have to check.” He didn’t laugh. Even when her jokes were the worst…he always laughed. Her smile faded. “Are you okay sweetie? Do you need to lie down?” Shane just shook his head ‘no’. “What is it then?” His smile shifted a bit into something a little closer to a sneer and he put his hands on her shoulders…hard.
“I finished it.” His voice was low and raspy and she wished he had taken a drink of water beforehand.
“What baby?” He stayed quiet for along moment and suddenly she felt a type of concern she had never felt with Shane before. In fact, the only other time that sensation had come over her was in college with a guy she dated for a week before finding out the hard way that he was a psycho. The last time she was with Brad he had been drinking and his words were coming out with an edge as sharp as a knife. His eyes were wild and he was a heat-seeking missile looking for a violent explosion. Christie’s instincts told her then, much as they were saying now, to get the hell out…but this was Shane…wasn’t it?
She jerked herself free of her husband’s cold grasp and scrambled down the stairs past him, pausing only long enough to grab her keys and purse. It might have been an irrational overreaction and if that was the case then they would work it out later but…his face. If it wasn’t for the inhuman look on his face. In the end…that was why she fled. By the time she was behind the wheel and pulling out of the driveway, Shane was standing in the doorway with a contorted smile. Christie was unable to hear him when he finally spoke.
“I finished part two.”