This story is by Kat Mueller and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Kat sat in her trusty, cushioned chair with her purple lap desk perched on her bent knees. On it, there was a smattering of notebook paper and scribbled sentences. Tears came to her eyes as she started pushing out the next few paragraphs. Her character was suffering and felt for him. Ached for him. When she tried to write his most painful scenes, he kept wrenching back, unable to face any more pain. She didn’t blame him. This draft was sure to leave her with a headache.
Just then, her eyes began to droop against her will, as if she had drunk a whole bottle of Nyquil. Her body was being pulled in and she could not fight it.
No. No. Not again.
But it was too late. Her eyes locked closed and then sprang open. The world shifted.
Kat stood on a curb next to a tall, gray lamp post, her dirty blonde hair nearly lifting her up with the whipping wind. Next to her was an out-of-business grocery store with a faded, red logo painted on it. The slew of buildings beyond that resembled empty garages.
She glanced down and was relieved to see that her entire body was covered in long, black clothing. She was thankful for that much, at least, knowing what lie under all that fabric.
There was no time to waste, and she didn’t have to look far to find her target. He was the only other person in sight.
James stood on a corner just ahead of her. His reddish brown hair rustled with the breeze, making him stand out like a beacon against the gray town. He wore ripped jeans, a black t-shirt, and combat boots that rested against a beat-up skateboard.
He would not know or recognize her, but she certainly knew him. She would always know him.
She moved quickly and stood close enough to smell a faint scent of cigarette smoke on him. “I have a problem.”
He looked over to her and flicked his eyebrows up, his eyes dull with disinterest.
She tried to keep herself from grunting in frustration, the urgency of the situation gnawing at her. “You have to help me, James.”
He looked genuinely surprised for a moment, no doubt wondering how she knew his name, but then his face returned to a lemon-sucking scowl. “No way. Whatever your problem is, I’m not your guy. I’m not getting pulled into any more shit.”
She looked at him over her dark-rimmed glasses, like a librarian might. “Is it because your brother is a druggie and your family takes their anger out on you, even though you’ve never even tried weed?”
His cheeks flamed at her, matching the red tint of his hair. He grabbed his skateboard, and then turned and pushed past her, slamming his shoulder into hers.
“You’re some kind of next level stalker-bitch,” he called back to her.
She immediately followed him, ignoring her smarting shoulder and his hostile attitude. She had to make him listen.
“I can go on, James,” she said to his back. “I could have found that out by talking to the right people, I’ll admit. But how about this? You’re scared shitless of snakes. And you’ve never told anybody that. Never.”
He whipped around, his skateboard clattering into the street. His jaw was set and his eyes were blazing.
She sighed. “I can tell you more, but I need your help. You’re the only one who can help me.”
He gave her an evil grin. “I’m not into popping cherries today. Try me tomorrow.”
She rolled her eyes. “This is my fault. I made you this way, after all.”
He roughly collected his skateboard again, and then continued down the walk. “I don’t even know you.”
She ran up to him and grabbed onto the sleeve of his black T-shirt, pulling him around to her. His angry eyes shot to her, and she knew he was preparing some nasty crack. Before the poison could leave his lips, though, she yanked up her sleeve to reveal her arm.
Whatever was on his tongue fizzled and his eyes glassed over as he stared in awe.
“Shit,” he murmured. “That’s a hell of a tattoo.”
“It’s not a tattoo,” she breathed back. “Have you ever seen a tattoo like that?”
Her entire arm was completely covered in black, swirling…words. There were so many that only a centimeter of skin could be seen between them.
“They are everywhere,” she said, lowering her voice. “And I mean everywhere.”
She could tell by his furrowed eyebrows that she had captured his attention.
“Come with me,” she said with finality, and he did.
Ten minutes later they were sitting in a local coffee joint with dim lighting and dirty card tables stacked along the wall in a haphazard fashion. It had no door, just an open rectangle at the front, and no one save for them was inside, not even employees.
“I don’t think this place is open,” James said, looking around.
“It is,” Kat said back. “I just didn’t get time to write in the employees and other customers before this happened to me.”
He looked at her, realization dawning on him. “I get it. You’re one of my brother’s protégées. Whatever the hell you’re on, I don’t—“
“That’s not it and you know it.” She stared at him until he backed down.
“Let me finish,” she spoke fiercely. “I need your help and you are the only one who can help me. I need to get out of here.”
He smiled at her. “Don’t we all? There’s not a teen in this town who doesn’t want to blow this shit-hole.”
She took a deep breath and continued. “I mean I need to get out of this story.”
He stared at her.
She gave him a ghost of a smile. “Don’t play stupid with me because no one knows you better than I do. No matter how many classes you flunk out of, I know you have a penchant for reading the finest short stories you can get your hands on, particularly Hemingway. I know you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
He chewed on a straw, eyeing her, but neither confirmed nor denied anything she said. She didn’t need him to though.
“So,” he drawled, “what role do you play in this story of ours? A fucking annoying-as-hell damsel in distress?”
She gave him a real smile then. “I’m the author.”
A minute later they were trailing down the sidewalk again with James muttering about drugs and some other nonsense.
“How else do you explain these words that have been branded into every inch and crevice of my skin?” she asked him. “They’re my words. I was writing you into a painful situation, but you’ve always avoided things that hurt you instead of facing them. We all do, I suppose. Anyway, you started fighting me so much that you’ve trapped me here with you until you let me do what needs to be done.”
He stopped in front of her and ran both of his hands through his hair, and then turned to her. “You are so full of shit.”
She stared at him, unflinching. “You’ve only got a couple more pages from here. Then you know what happens? To you? To everyone? You’re gone. You can’t exist past my writing. I need to get the hell out of here and back where I belong so I can finish this damn story and save all of you.”
He nodded his head, chuckling. “Okay, okay, fine, I’ll go with it. I have nothing to lose, do I? My life is fucked as it is. So, how the hell do I get rid of you?”
She smiled at him. “You give me my pen back.”
“A pen?” he asked with a note of hysteria. “All you need is a damned pen? Sure, okay, I’m sure there’s one on the ground in the damn park. I’ll find you the perfect ballpoint if it will make you go away.”
She tried to stop him from walking away, but he was moving too fast this time, so she sped up as best as she could to match the stride of his long legs.
“You’re going to be okay, I promise you,” she said through huffing breaths. “But there are some things that need to happen that you won’t like, things that will hurt. You have to trust me. You have to give my power back to me and let things happen as they need to.”
He stopped then and rested his hands on his hips, his head hanging low. “And how do you know that everything will be alright?”
Kat walked around to him, faced him, and waited until he looked at her.
“Because that’s what I planned from the beginning,” she said. “But it won’t be easy. You can’t go much farther without me, and I can’t get out of here and fix things without you.”
He sniffed, looking a bit like the small, innocent, red-headed boy she imagined him to be once.
He shrugged his shoulders. “So, you want a pen, then?”
She flicked the corner of her mouth up. “That was just a metaphor. No, I want you to go back home and visit your parents.”
He groaned through his teeth, though it sounded a lot like a hiss. “No fucking away. Do you have any idea what they have done to me? The way they treated me?”
“Of course I do,” she answered evenly. “If you want to guarantee that everything will go to shit, even worse than it is now, then don’t help me. If you really have so little interest in carrying on, then by all means, ignore me. But, remember, the best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
The line struck a chord with him, as she knew it would. He nibbled on his bottom lip and looked around, though she knew he was only avoiding looking at her.
Finally, he did look at her, his eyes glistening. If only fixing things were easier.
But she had written every other angle she could think of in the other drafts and they all ended with him dead. This was the only way she could save him.
“What do I do?” he asked her, sounding for the first time like he actually cared.
“Go home,” she said. “It will be nasty. There will be a lot of pain for you, and a lot of stuff that you shouldn’t have to face. But you will get through it. You have to trust me. You have to let me guide you through it.”
He nodded at her, looking genuinely defeated. It was an odd look on his tall frame, but she knew that she had finally gotten through to him.
He walked past her, leaving his skateboard this time but not looking at her, and headed back the way they originally came. It would only take him half an hour to get home, and then the fight would start.
As if she had been sleeping, Kat opened her eyes. She was sitting in her chair, once again, with the pen clutched tightly in her fingers. The scribbles of words, previously etched into her skin, were now on the paper in front of her. She straightened her back and leaned down with her pen pointed like a sword towards the demon that was her draft.
James started heading back to his parents’ house. He knew there would be hell to pay, but he was tired of being a vagrant on the streets. He would surely die that way, but he may have a chance if he faced what he had been avoiding for so long. He couldn’t explain it at all but, for some reason, this time, he felt ready.