Authors: Felicity Sparrow
“It’s entirely possible to write a story with more, um, sensual appeal,” I say, “without compromising the brand’s—you know, the brand’s integrity, and without significant adjustment to the over-arching plot. We’d need to make a few minor changes to the protagonist’s motivation, but…”
It’s hard to speak up with Sylvia looking at me like that, as if she’s contemplating the most convenient way to pop my head off of my neck without staining her plush leather sofas.
My limited courage shrivels under the scrutiny of her beady eyes.
I’m not supposed to discuss my ideas for the Moonlight Sonata books without going through Sylvia first. That way, she can decide what she likes best and present those concepts to the editors directly as her own. I don’t mind if she gets the credit. I’m happy to do what it takes to maintain status quo.
That instant of bravery may have cost my job.
Meekly, I add, “It was Sylvia’s idea.”
She is not mollified. “Don’t embarrass yourself,” Sylvia says. “The adults are having a conversation.”
I’m twenty-four but suddenly feel like I’m a child again. She’s good at doing that to me.
“Sylvia, she’s defending your idea.” Mario is playing with fire, saying anything vaguely favorable about me where others can hear.
The author’s eyes flash. “She is
My cell phone buzzes, indicating that I’ve received an email.
If I wait long enough, and if the others aren’t foolish enough to give me more attention, Sylvia will allow me to finish out the meeting despite her dismissal. She wants me to write her book. In fact, she’s made it clear that she plans on making money off of my writing until she succumbs to cardiac arrest.
Since I’ll end up writing most—if not all—of this train wreck of a book, I need to know the outcome of the conversation. I need to be in this meeting.
However, that particular buzz of my cell phone tells me that I’ve been contacted by the other author I assist.
is summoning me.
I have other work. Other places I need to be.
I stand and make for the front door.
Sylvia’s show of control has bolstered her confidence. She’s complaining about the uppity staff as I leave.
It will make her feel better, if nothing else.
As for me? I’ve never felt smaller.
My car is baking in the sunshine of her driveway, too hot to touch. I jam my key in the ignition and leap out again before the seats can burn me.
The air conditioner needs a few minutes to get up to speed. In the meantime, I breathe the fresh ocean air, watch gardeners and billionaire retirees putter around the other McMansions on Sylvia’s street, envy the seagulls wheeling through the clouds.
I feel the urge to cry.
Five years. For
, I have written this woman’s books. I don’t care that my name appears nowhere on the cover. I don’t care that the eight figure advances are deposited directly into her accounts while I’m paid slightly better than the copy boy, though Durand-Price was my father’s lovechild. I don’t even care about the time I sacrifice to ghost write for her—I love the act of writing.
It’s the indignity that’s getting to me. Having to deal with that woman all the time. Being treated like a child.
“What changes to the protagonist’s motivation?”
That voice snaps me out of my glum reverie. I hurriedly wipe the tears off my cheeks and turn to greet the newcomer.
Grosvenor has joined me outside. He is a stout man wearing a suit in Sylvia’s favorite color—eggplant with a subtle paisley print. An unconscious appeal to her bizarre ego.
I contemplate jumping in my car and speeding away. “Excuse me, sir?”
“You said that changing the protagonist’s motivation could make the book sexier. Tell me how.”
Now Violetta is standing outside with us. I suppose the meeting is over, or else Sylvia is taking a breather to cram more ice cream into her face.
“The heroine is a middle aged woman.” It comes out of me reluctantly. “If we begin the book with a divorce and shift the themes to that of a second coming-of-age, we could add some sensuality in rediscovery of self. She already has a May-December romance with the guy who sells the flower on the corner. Adding some spicier scenes might even work well as contrast to the scenes of her lover’s cancer recovery.”
Violetta and Grosvenor exchange thoughtful looks.
“Sylvia isn’t wrong when she says that sex is selling well,” Violetta finally says. “Maybe she’s long overdue for joining the trend. She’s becoming outdated, not timeless.”
The director’s lips thin. “It could work. Maintains the integrity and the inspiration…”
“She’s good.” It takes me a moment to realize Violetta is talking about me.
“The last seven books, eh?” Grosvenor asks, and Violetta nods.
That’s the number of books I’ve ghost-written for Sylvia.
They know. They’ve been talking about me.
I’m hot all over now, stifling in my semi-casual professional clothing, wishing that I could get into my air conditioned car and vanish to my other client’s house.
Violetta shows Grosvenor something on her phone. “The sales keep increasing. That’s not entirely due to my efforts. It’s the reviews—readers adore the fresh style that ‘Sylvia’ has been developing.” Her eyes bore into me. “They love
. What she brings to the brand.”
“Have you been writing for long, dear?” Grosvenor asks me. He is sounding extra kind now that the talk is of money, and making more of it.
I can barely speak above a whisper. “All my life.”
“She has been tutored well,” Violetta adds. “She’s flourishing under her mentor.”
Violetta knows. How can she know?
Nobody knows about the informal workshops I’ve been given in writing.
“I’d like to see a new outline by Wednesday, Christine,” Grosvenor says. “Is that possible?”
I’ve already been reworking the book.
“Yes,” I say.
He rubs his shriveled fingers against his eyes, massaging them into the sockets. “Thank God. Maybe we won’t go bankrupt this year after all.”
He walks back inside, muttering to himself.
Violetta lingers. Her gaze is like razorblades down my spine. “Don’t forget to check your email,” she says, as though she could possibly know the distinctive buzz heralding emails from
, and then she finally follows Grosvenor.
I’m locked inside my car when the shaking hits me.
For the first time, the director is acknowledging the greater role I’ve played in Sylvia’s brand. Violetta has recognized my talent. She attributes the growing sales to my growing ability as a writer.
be a dream come true.
I don’t want to be optimistic about this. I don’t want to think it might turn into anything more. Considering Sylvia’s mood, the fact I’ve survived the day with my job intact is enough to have adrenaline screaming through my nerves.
My thumbs shake as I unlock my phone and open the email.
, of course. My other author. My client, my mentor.
He wants me to visit him.
A car pulls into Sylvia’s driveway alongside mine as I turn off the emergency break and begin inching down the slope.
It’s the new editor—the man that Grosvenor and Violetta have been waiting to meet.
He steps out of the driver’s side of the car. Slams it behind him. The sunlight catches his hair, glinting off of auburn waves that fall to his shoulders. Having such long hair shouldn’t look professional, but on him, it does. The square lines of his tailored suit make sure of that.
When he turns to look up at Sylvia’s house, I catch his profile and forget how to breathe.
That arched nose. Those sculpted cheekbones. The playful eyes. I haven’t seen him in so many years—not since he was first developing what have become incredibly masculine features—yet I recognize him in a heartbeat.
The new editor at Moonlight Sonata is Raoul Chance.
My foot hits the gas, sending me down the driveway a little faster. The cough of my engine draws his attention.
Our eyes meet through the windshield.
Does he recognize me?
What happens if he does?
I can tell by his gestures that he wants me to stop the car so that we can talk, but what I can’t tell is exactly what he wants to talk about.
It’s probably business.
I’m sure it must be business.
More likely than not, he’s already fielded calls from an infuriated Mario Stone. Raoul doesn’t realize who I am, and he wants to admonish me for upsetting the crown diamond of their publishing house, the great Sylvia Stone.
Surely, the editor isn’t trying to stop me because of all the summers we spent together at my father’s house as children, but I can’t convince my heart of that. It’s fluttering wildly against the inside of my chest like a caged songbird.
I pretend not to see him, pretend that his gaze on me doesn’t burn all over my aching skin, and accelerate down Sylvia’s familiar driveway in reverse. I’ve left her in a hurry to escape her temper or run errands so many times I don’t even need to check the rearview mirror.
Raoul Chance. I can’t believe it.
It really is a day for miracles.
By the time I cross the border into Maine, my heart has slowed a little bit.
But not all that much.
Visiting my second author always gets my adrenaline going.
He lives on Lake Symphony. You’ve never heard of it, although I’m sure you’d recognize it if you saw its weedy shores and algae-riddled waters. My mentor has written a lot of books taking place in remote Maine locales identical to Lake Symphony.
His writing has embedded the place in the public consciousness, elevating his lake to mythological status.
I know, because the first time I visited his lake house, I was struck by a surreal sense of recognition—the feeling that I had visited that lake before.
At a glance, I had instantly recognized the rotten wood of the fishing dock. The overgrown trees clustering the shore. The particular way the sun reflected off the water and clouds of mosquitos swarming its surface.
It was impossible for me to have visited Lake Symphony before taking this author as my client, of course. I’d never had cause to visit the state of Maine in my life, much less a gloomy little lake overlooked by a single, joyless house.
Yet I knew I’d been there before.
Maybe not in my waking hours, but in nightmares.
I still find it unsettling to go to Lake Symphony, and I’ve been working with the sole occupant for almost a year now. It doesn’t help that I still don’t have the gate code, which is required to enter
exit. I still have to drive up to the comm system, press a button, and introduce myself before I’m allowed to pass through the barbed wire fencing.
The trees are trimmed around the fence to make it impossible to climb, but as soon as I pass through, I’m consumed by forest once more. It’s so dense as to be lightless. I feel eyes watching me as my Kia crawls up the unpaved driveway.
The whole presentation is creepy and paranoid, yet utterly appropriate for its lonely inhabitant.
That’s because Erik Duke is my second author.
Internationally bestselling horror and thriller author. The man behind the pen for dozens of number one
New York Times
bestselling novels to have been published in the last thirty years. Hailed as one of the greatest names in American horror literature, his name usually spoken in the same breath as other greats like Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft.
The author who has never made a single public appearance, not at conventions or press conferences or industry parties.
The author worth billions who has given two phone interviews throughout his entire illustrious career.
The author who’s standing at his bay window waiting for me to arrive, barely visible through the reflection of sunlight on glass as a specter of a man who drifts away as soon as he sees that I’ve made it safely through his property.
My heart still races every time I see him, and the way he disappears from his window doesn’t do anything to make my agitation abate.
When I’m in his domain, he is always watching me.
I have my own parking space in front of Erik Duke’s house. He’s cleared away the brambles so that I can park my Kia beside the front stairs. I know it must have been Erik who did it because he doesn’t have a groundskeeping staff, or any staff at all—no housekeepers or personal chefs for the greatest living horror author. He’s too private for that.
Sylvia Stone might fill her house with people eager to bow to her, most of them shirtless young men with six packs, but Erik prefers his solitude.
I step out of my car and slam the door. There’s more clearance than usual around my bumpers. It looks like he’s trimmed the weeds back again, maybe that very morning.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit touched by the gesture.
Erik isn’t waiting for me at the front door when I enter, but it’s unlocked, like it always is when he expects me.
I push it open.
His entryway is tidy, but dusty. He doesn’t spend much time in here. The furnishings are sparse—a few prints from professional photographers, a rug that he bought from an artist who lives in the nearby town.
The second floor stairs overlook the entrance. He might be up there, but it’s too dark to tell.
“Hello, Mr. Duke,” I call out, knowing that he’ll be listening even if I can’t see him.
With that greeting, I go about my business, unconcerned by the fact that Erik had summoned me yet not shown up for so much as a “good afternoon.” Even if he wants me around, he doesn’t always emerge for my visits.
But the evidence of his involvement is always there.
Unlocked doors. Lights turned on. A fresh jug of iced tea in his 1970s avocado-colored refrigerator.
The newest pages of his manuscript are on the counter in his kitchen, which is as narrow, tidy, and unused as the entryway. He writes his first drafts on typewriter. Erik’s a bit of a dinosaur where that’s concerned, but I find it terribly charming. And I never fail to be impressed by how immaculate these drafts are. He leaves a few notes in the margins where errors have been made, but such mistakes are few.