Jim Eberhardt stared at the blank monitor and waited, hoped, prayed for the ideas to come. They didn’t. The cursor flashed on and off, mocking him.
Jim told people he had writer’s block, but that didn’t even begin to cover it. Jim had published his first short story at 23, after more than 80 rejections. After that first success, it was like a floodgate opened in his mind. He wrote and wrote and found a market for his work. Sixteen more of his stories were published in the next six months, and he started working on a novel. An agent contacted him, got him a deal with a publisher for the book and Jim got the biggest check he’d ever seen. The novel, a horror/mystery about a blood-borne killer, called “HemoGoblin” was a wild success. Most of the critics praised it, and it stayed on the bestseller list for five months. Royalty checks were still coming in, eight years later.
Jim hadn’t written a thing since. His head was full of static. He had tried, sure, had sat at the keyboard faithfully, every day. Sometimes, he even typed. But it was garbage. He had lost his touch. Eight years of crippling writer’s block. Jim tried everything he could think of to find inspiration. He watched the news; he surfed the web; he trolled the various small press sites looking for fiction calls and inspiration; he read and read and read. Nothing helped.
Most days he stayed in bed until the sun was well up. He had lost his give-a-damn and doubted he’d ever get it back.
Jim put his head down on the keyboard, gently so as not to damage the keys; someday, he might need them again. On the screen, row after row of lowercase g’s filled the document. The computer “pinged” at him. He lifted his head. On the bottom of the screen, his email icon was flashing. Jim clicked on it. He had a new note from a woman he knew, a fellow writer, older by a few decades and wildly successful. She was also quite likeable, so Jim felt shitty for envying her. He opened the email.
Hey Jim, it read. Still having trouble writing? I may be able to help. I’m retiring from it all, so am passing on this opportunity to you. Let me know if you’re interested. Cheers! Susan.
Jim replied with Yes, please. He’d try anything at this point. Within seconds, Susan shot back a message with a phone number and the name Chris. Jim stared at that for a long time, wondering who Chris was and how he or she could help him write. He wrote the name and number down and turned off the computer.
Finally, he called. It’s not like he had anything else to do. It rang three times, then picked up.
“This is Chris,” a man’s voice said, cautiously friendly.
“Um, hi,” Jim said. “I got your number from Susan Telling…”
“Oh yeah,” Chris said. “Suze said you might call. It’s Jim Eberhardt, right? Of “HemoGoblin” fame?”
“Yes,” Jim said. He couldn’t imagine anyone calling Susan Telling Suze.
“Good book. What’s up, Jim?”
“I have no idea,” Jim said. “Susan gave me your number, and seemed to think you could help me write.”
“Yep,” said Chris. “I can do that. Why don’t we meet? I hate doing this sort of thing over the phone. You know that coffee shop downtown? The one by the library?”
“Sure,” Jim said. “I can be there in about 20 minutes if that works for you.”
Jim walked into the cafe and looked around. He saw one man he knew, though not by name, and nodded at him. The other guy “shot” him with his finger. Jim was a few minutes early, so he got in line to get coffee. Jim wondered if one of the men in here was Chris. He realized he had no way of knowing and wished they had agreed on some sort of code: I’ll be the one wearing the green sweater, or something. Jim ordered a hazelnut latte and sat where he could see the door. His drink was too hot, so he took off the lid. A few minutes later the door opened, and a man walked in, looked around and saw Jim; it was obvious the man recognized him. He walked over and put out his hand.
“Jim Eberhardt, I presume?” Jim took his hand without getting up.
“Guilty,” Jim smiled. “Knew me from the jacket photo?”
“Yes, sir,” the man said. “The last eight years have been kind. I’m Chris. Good to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Jim said. “Have a seat. Can I get you a coffee or something?”
“That’d be great,” Chris said. “Mocha; skim; three shots. Thanks!” Chris sat down at the tall, round table. He was around 30, Jim thought, casual dress, brown hair, slightly thinning, gut running to paunch, three-day stubble on his face. As Jim walked to the counter to get the man’s drink, he tried to imagine what Chris did for a living. Truck driver? IT guy? Farm hand? Hairdresser? Looking at him, it was impossible to tell. In the few minutes it took for the barista to make the mocha, Jim’s mind wandered. Chris was a private detective, on a case. He was tracking down a stolen relic that supposedly could grant wishes. It was worth a fortune. No. Chris was a former Olympic gymnast, who had suffered an injury and let himself go. Now, all he does is watch other people play his old sport on TV and get maudlin drunk and tell his bored girlfriend about the glory days.
Ideas. These were ideas. He recognized them. When the mocha was placed in front of him, he grinned at the girl in the apron.
“Thank you,” he said, dropping two bucks in the tip jar. She thanked him back. Jim carried the hot cup with its protective sleeve back to the table, set it in front of Chris and sat down.
“So, Chris,” Jim said, “what do you do? For a living, I mean.” Jim sipped his coffee. It was cooler now, just right.
“I’m a muse, Jim” Chris deadpanned.
“Huh,” Jim said, keeping his expression neutral.
“I was Susan’s muse,” Chris went on, “but she’s tired and doesn’t want to do it anymore. So, she cut me loose. I asked her to find me another writer, and she sent me to you. I gotta say, I’ve read some of your work, and I’m happy to be working with you.”
“I’m sorry,” Jim said. “but, you’re a guy. Aren’t the muses supposed to be beautiful girls in diaphanous gowns?”
“Some are,” Chris nodded. “Some are guys. The pretty girls get all the press, not surprisingly. Male muses are largely overlooked in the mythologies.”
“You’ll forgive me,” Jim said, “if I’m skeptical.”
“Of course,” Chris said. “I’d expect you to be. But, let me ask you something, Jimmy. You have some story ideas at the counter? Stories about me?” Chris leaned across the table and met Jim’s eyes.
“I did,” Jim said. It was a whisper.
“I did that,” Chris said. “And I can do that as many times as you need. You can write again, Jimbo. Short stories, novels, whatever you want. That’s my gift. That’s my job.”
“What do you get out of it?” Jim asked. Both men were leaning forward now, almost touching. Their voices quiet, intense.
“I’d like to say the satisfaction of a job well done,” Chris said, “but, I’d be lying. It’s symbiotic. Writer needs a muse, and muse needs a writer. We thrive on each other. We each benefit in our own way. Also, without a writer, I’d probably cease to exist.”
“Okay. That makes sense, I guess. But, here’s what I don’t get: how did I write before you came along? I have a bestseller, you know?”
“Yep. I know,” Chris said. “You were really cooking there for a while.”
“I was,” Jim said. “So, how do you explain that?”
“Easy,” Chris said. “You’re a good writer, and you had good ideas. For a while, that worked on its own. Then, somehow, your ideas ran out, or you lost your connection to them. It happens. You’re hardly the first.”
“Where are you from?” Jim asked.
“Originally, I mean.”
“Does it matter, Jim? If I was created by a god, by forces of nature, by a fluke? I fill a need, just like you do. People need stories, Jim. And storytellers. To tell you truth, I don’t even remember how it started. I’ve been around a long, long time.”
“All right. I guess I’ll buy this. So, how does this work?” Jim asked. He sat back. Chris sat back, too.
“You have my number. You get stuck, you call me. We meet like this, and I give you the ideas. I also have email.” Chris passed Jim a business card. On it was Chris: Professional Muse and the same number Jim called that morning and firstname.lastname@example.org.
“‘Greekmuse dot com’?”
“Like that? I bought the url a few years ago.”
“This is crazy weird,” Jim said. “You know that, right?”
“I know. You’ll get used to it, Jim. Now, I think you should go home, fire up your computer and write something, don’t you? Go with the Olympic athlete story. That’s the better one.”
“Okay,” Jim said. “I’ll do that. This has been… surreal.”
“I get that a lot,” said Chris. “Thanks for the coffee.” Chris toasted Jim with the cup.
Seven months later, “Cast Out of Bronze” hit the shelves. It was huge, shooting to number four on the bestsellers list that first month. Jim dedicated the book to Chris – who knew?
Susan Telling came to Jim’s first signing. She looked awful, like she was 98 instead of 68. She was in an electric wheelchair, her skin hung on her bones like spanish moss. But, her eyes were bright and she was smiling. Jim tried to hide his shock, but felt he might be failing.
“Jim,” Susan said, reaching for him. Jim took her hand carefully, worried he might crush it. “So good to see you writing again.”
“Well,” Jim said, “I really owe it to you, don’t I?”
“Not at all, Jim,” Susan said. “We both benefited from the arrangement. Chris and I were together too long anyway.”
“I’m already working on my next novel,” Jim said. “And I have ideas for more. I think I’ll write some more short stories, too. I haven’t done that in years.”
“Take your time, Jim,” Susan said. “There’s no rush. Make it last. Really. It’s better to pace yourself.” Jim smiled and nodded at his old friend, but he was being polite. The ideas were back, and Jim was going after them full bore.
Years passed, as they do, and Jim wrote fifteen bestsellers; he got very rich and enjoyed moderate fame.
Jim’s books got better as he wrote, but his health was failing. He was afflicted with early onset arthritis, and his doctor told him that the stress of churning out book after book was aging him prematurely. Jim, at 54 looked like a man nearing 80. Slouching on the exam table, wrists and fingers throbbing despite the mild painkillers he had taken, Jim had a sudden vivid memory of the late Susan Telling in her wheelchair telling him to pace himself.
Jim considered his muse.
Chris never changed. Same age, same clothes, same paunch, same three-day stubble. It was a consistency Jim had found comforting. Now, he wondered again what exactly Chris got out of their relationship.
When arthritis made typing impossible, Jim called Chris and asked him to come over. He introduced Chris to Donald Hayes, a young writer who was struggling after some initial success. The young man was skeptical but willing to try anything. After writing Chris’s number down, Donald left them alone.
Chris gave the old man a gentle hug and a light kiss on the cheek.
“You’ve been very good to me,” he told Jim.
“About that,” Jim said. “I need you to tell me something, Chris.”
“How do you stay the same?” Jim asked.
“I’m immortal, Jim,” Chris said, “You already knew that.”
“Yeah,” Jim said, his breath coming slower now, “but how?” Chris looked at him for a long time, listening to the old man’s labored breathing.
“You feed me,” Chris said. “I stay young because I take your energy. I eat the years off your life, Jim.”
“So, you’re not really a muse then?”
“Oh no,” Chris said. “I am a muse. We keep that part of it quiet. Bad press, you know? Why do think we always show the beautiful, half-naked girl muses? Though, they feed on the writers, too.”
Jim Eberhardt lay back on his recliner. He looked at the bookshelf over his desk and all his books on it. Jim thought of the girls and how their college tuitions were covered. He thought of his second house in Florida and the four different cars in the attached garage of this house. Jim thought of the fan mail he’d gotten; the impact his stories had made in people’s lives. Jim closed his eyes.
“Worth it,” Jim said. He sighed deeply and passed away. His muse, Chris, sat with him a while. The muse didn’t like developing attachments to mortals; they were so fragile. But, Jim had been more than just a good meal. He was a good man, and Chris already missed him.
A single tear rolled down his cheek and fell off his jaw. It landed on the floor with a small “tink.” Chris stood up, looked around one last time and walked out, anticipating the inevitable call from the new guy.
Later, one of Jim’s twin girls, Helena was going through her father’s effects in his study when she stepped on something hard. Helena picked it up: a small diamond, flawless, beautiful. Helena felt sudden fatigue as if everything were catching up to her all at once.
Helena stood in her father’s study for a moment, holding this tiny diamond tear, aching with loss.
Suddenly, she had an idea for a great story.
[Ken MacGregor’s work has appeared in anthologies from Siren’s Call Publications, Hazardous Press, Bloodbound Books, and others. His stories have appeared in magazines and podcasts. A short film he wrote, directed and acted in was an official selection for The 2013 DragonCon Film Festival. Ken is a member in good standing of The Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers. He eats healthy food, works out a lot and has a deep and abiding passion for coffee and beer. Ken’s muse really is a guy from Detroit. Ken lives in Michigan.]