Short Stories

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The Collaborator

Jerry had his back to me, sitting at the computer, leaning back, sipping his morning coffee. Kona Coffee has a distinctive sweet aroma, though I had never tasted it…and never would.

I stood behind him patiently waiting.

He put the mug down and continued to stare at the blank screen.

I had to smile when I saw the scene painted on the mug. Pooh Bear with his paw in a honey pot. An easy-going, laid-back, take the world as it comes attitude. It captured the way he wanted to see the world…not necessarily how he actually saw it. Healthy, good looking, at least in my opinion, and still a young man, he took life too seriously at times. Probably accounted for the tinge of gray at only thirty-one.

He was a hard-core coffee drinker and I had learned not to bother him until he had had his second mugful. Finally, it looked like he was ready to start the day. But he also looked out of sorts. Through the screen’s reflection I could see he hadn’t shaved, a rarity, and he kept cracking his knuckles oblivious to my presence. Something was definitely wrong. 

I strolled up trying to gently worm my way into his senses. I walked around to the other side of the desk. Flipping the hair off my face I smiled. I tried to keep a light tone to my voice. “Good morning, Jerry. How’s it going today?”

“Sirene.” A quick glance to acknowledge me and then his head turned back down to the screen. “Nice dress. Red. Wasn’t it blue the last time I saw you?”

I looked down and was surprised to see it indeed was red. Not my best color. And also, not an answer to my question.

“Thanks.” I stood there and waited for an answer.

The silence stretched until he looked up his eyes meeting mine. “Not really.” Then he turned his eyes back to the screen.

“Not really what?” I tried to keep my tone sunny even though his simple non-answer irritated me.

He continued to glare at the screen in a way that made me a little apprehensive. Again, silence until he answered with a woebegone tone, “Good day. It has not really been a good day.” He started to absentmindedly hit the “f” key over and over again.

The “a” key would be bad enough, but the “f” key…that’s serious. It was starting off to be a really tough day.

“I’ve got nothing else to do, want to share?” I had to get him out of this funk quickly. If I could, I would take his hands in mine so at least he would stopping hammering hitting the “f” key. I had to do something to change his focus…or else.

He hemmed and hawed, but at least quit hitting the “f” key. Instead, he just twisted his lips and leaned back in his chair again with his eyes closed.

I could see his motivation disintegrating quickly. I had to do something to change the way this was going. “What are you working on?”

A grunt wasn’t exactly the best response, but at least he was still engaged and hadn’t totally given up…yet.

“A really good project presented itself.” He opened his eyes as he leaned forward, his eyes glued to the computer screen once again. He ran his hand through his thick hair pushing it out of his face. The strained look in his eyes contrasted with his otherwise youthful face. “And I’ve got nothing.”

He always acted like this when starting a project, but if I let it go too far, I might not see him for a month or longer. Keeping up a friendly timbre I tried to get more out of him. “What’s the project? When is it due?”

His body tensed at the question, but after a moment he told me. “Well, I haven’t exactly gotten it yet. It is a submission to an anthology that is due in about a month. No more than 2,500 words.”

“Any specific theme?” It was important to keep asking questions so he would keep talking.

“Get this.” His voice carried a bit of sarcasm with it. “The Adventure of Creating. And here I sit without a single creative thought in my head.”

I opened my mouth to respond but shut it tightly until I could get my anger under control. Not a creative thought. How could he say such a thing? After a couple of deep breaths, I calmed down. “Okay, we can deal with this just like we have in the past. You just need to take some time to mull the project over. We can work on this together to come up with a really great story for the submission.”

A cynical smile settled onto his lips, and he shook his head side to side. “You don’t understand. I have to come up with at least a story idea in the next…” He glanced down at the time displayed in the bottom right of the computer screen. “In like the next forty-five minutes. The publisher wants an e-mail from me to see if I have a story that might fit for the anthology, or I have to pass on it.”

Oh crap! I thought as I closed my eyes. I needed to focus. It was a real crisis this time. I knew if he didn’t at least get a story submitted, whether accepted or not, he wouldn’t talk to me for months. A not too subtle thought struck me, What if he quit and never came back? We had been collaborating for a couple of years now and he could be moody, but he had always come out of it in the past. I had to make sure he did it again this time.

Jerry rolled his eyes, exasperated, and I could see he was tired. He must have been up half the night. His next words confirmed this before I could ask. “I found out about this yesterday and I have been trying like crazy to come up with an idea.”

I wish he had gotten with me earlier rather than letting it get this far.

He continued to gripe, “Even just a sentence. Something to capture the story. Something I can pitch to the publisher of the anthology. But nothing. Nada. Nichts. Pick your language. It still amounts to a blank page.”

He pushed back his hair again.

In the midst of everything going through my mind, I thought I would suggest to him that he needed a haircut. Yeah, that would be helpful right now. Focus, focus, I couldn’t afford to be distracted.

At the moment I was a little peeved at him. “Why didn’t you get me? You know I would be there for you anytime of the day or night!” Sometimes I just wanted to kick him for being so immature, but that wasn’t going to happen. We were collaborators and I needed him as much as he needed me…maybe even more. Without him I would be…well, I hated to think about it. But at that moment I just wanted to yell at him to put on his big-boy pants and quit whining. 

His voice became defiant. “Since when have you waited for an invitation? You could have just butted in…like you normally do.” His sarcasm was not helping either of us.

“You know better than that!” My voice rose another octave, but I had been through this enough times to know that it wouldn’t help solve anything. I needed to get us past this and focused on the real issue. I stared directly into his eyes and softened my voice. “I’m sorry. If I had known, I would have been there. I just didn’t know. Did you try to call me?”

I could tell without him saying anything that he hadn’t. He had that little boy caught in the cookie jar look. The pouted lips and downcast eyes.

Finally, he said softly, “I was busy.”

“Busy?” It was hard to keep the frustration out of my question, but I managed. I know we are collaborators, but sometimes I just wish I could go off on my own.

“I was working on taxes and promised Elaine I would paint the upstairs bedroom.” He perked up as if that seemed to explain everything. “Both took a lot of focus. You know how it is Sirene.” Which was an absurd statement…even for him.

Regardless, sometimes you just have to get past the past. I tried to console Jerry with one of my favorite sayings. “Well, it is what it is.” Which was one of the real truths I had learned over the years. “We still have maybe thirty minutes. Let’s see if we can put something together that you can e-mail the publisher.”

Jerry nodded and his body relaxed a little, a good sign. At least things were moving in the right direction. Sitting up straighter, he put his fingers on the keyboard and waited. I walked back and forth while I twirled the ends of my hair. For some reason it always helped me to think.

“Okay, we have to have something that is creative.” I stated the obvious as I walked, but it helped the thinking process. Jerry just sat there waiting for me to come up with something, as usual. Then I got an idea that seemed perfect. I stopped and put both hands on the desk looking at him over top of the monitor. “What is more creative than writing?”

“Huh?” Jerry’s vocabulary sometimes amazed me.

“So, why not a story about a writer trying to create a story?” I wish I could just start typing it myself. It would be a lot easier to brainstorm if I could type my own thoughts rather than rely on Jerry all the time.

He tilted his head and stared up into the corner of the room for a few moments before a smile spread across his face. “That‘s pretty clever. A writer.” He hummed and I looked down over the screen as he typed Writer and then next to it the word Protagonist. He sat back, his smile fading as his brows knitted before asking, “Whose the antagonist?”

Antagonist, antagonist, ran through my mind. What would make a good antagonist? Then it came to me. “What about the publisher, or better yet the writer himself. Why not make the antagonist what every writer faces, Writer’s Block? That should strike a chord with many of the anthology’s readers.”

“Yeah.” His smile returned as he typed Writer’s Block and next to that Antagonist. Without any prompting he typed writer [Protagonist] wants to create a story, but his own Writer’s Block [Antagonist] is keeping him from writing the story [Conflict].  Then he said “Writing, creating a story, is one of the scariest things I have ever done. Yet, it is the most exciting and the most satisfying thing at the same time. I guess you can’t get more adventurous than that.”

“Great! I think you’ve got it.” I could see we were over the hump. He was on the road back. Even if the story wasn’t picked up, he would be okay now.

We spent the next few minutes laying out the entire story. It was a simple story about a Writer that was stuck, unable to come up with a single story idea, and then his collaborator would come along and help him. Together they would overcome the Writer’s Block and create a powerful story. And with that Jerry started typing wildly, filling the screen.

I took another deep breath and felt satisfied that a major crisis had been averted, but also, I knew tomorrow could be a repeat of today. Or not. It is what it is.

I started to leave when Jerry stopped typing and asked, a little fear at the edge of his voice. “What about a twist? Without a twist this is just another story of a writer talking with his collaborator about writing a story. What’s the big deal? What makes it so different?”

That was the fun part about writing. At least for me. The part that made all the hard times worth it and all the frustration of working with Jerry something I could overlook. The twist. I continued to fade out, but told Jerry before I disappeared, “The collaborator isn’t real. It’s the writer’s Muse.” Then I laughed and finished fading out waiting until he needed me again. The last thing I saw was the smile back on his face.

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