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Steve Beai is a professional writer whose work has appeared in many publications. His new novel, Widow's Walk, has been nominated for a Stoker Award. He lives in Farmersburg, IN.


Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-2000 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

The Idea Man

by Steve Beai

 

     Crespo Ward realized his dream as it converged on the cusp of his nightmares. By asking around, the retirement party long since over, that tedious dance of shaking hands with well-wishers who wished him everything but, Crespo was able to call in a few favors that led him to the house where he hoped to spend his life doing what he loved most of all.
     The house was a good hour from Framingham, over bumpy rural stretches of narrow road, through a sunburst of changing leaves over the New England countryside, heralding the coming winter. A few wrong turns and frustrated glances at the outdated road map he had bought back at the Sunoco station in Framingham later, and he was pulling up the hard-packed dirt driveway, the U-Haul creaking painfully behind the Escort wagon.
     The grounds were somewhat overgrown, but manageable enough, Crespo reasoned, thanks to the early frosts which had stunted growth on the foliage. There was a gazebo off to one side of the house, its ornate sides a trellis for the creeping vines, now brown and dormant. As the car bounced down the lane, bringing the gazebo into view, Crespo imagined himself sitting in there, feet up, surrounded by silence, paper draped over his stomach and enjoying the last few warmer days of late fall. When the work was done, of course.
     The house itself was a solid-looking compact brick cottage with a small porch that jutted from a side entrance, adorned with white frames and long windows. A nice office, perhaps, but maybe too cold. Two dormer windows looked down from the second storey, thin curtains hanging open revealing darkness inside. The front door was wooden, intricately carved and, the agent had told him, "an original piece". Crespo thought that if anyone had restored or added onto the house, they had done one hell of a job. All lines converged with each other, each seam seamless in its continuity, every window frame of identical wood and design. Nothing looked newer or older than another piece. Crespo was impressed.
     He goosed the accelerator of the Escort, the U-Haul jerking dangerously off- course for a moment, but straightening out as the car trundled down the lane, coming to a stop alongside the grey stone steps leading to the original front door.
     Hardly keeping a reign on his enthusiasm, Crespo bolted from the car, forcing himself to move slowly, to take in as much as he could in these first moments alone at his new residence. He could smell the leaves on the grass, a dank, secret smell promising buried treasure and adventure underneath their wilted bodies. They crackled beneath his feet as he walked to the U-Haul, welcoming him like greetings from old friends. He could feel his mind clearing with each passing moment and discovery of newly-awakened senses. The mundane job, the pointless one-night stands, the lack of friends and his own ennui became tangible things now at the forefront of his thoughts, peeling away quickly like dead skin in a gale.
     Fumbling for the proper key, Crespo tried the lock on the doors of the U-Haul, opening it and pulling the doors away to reveal neatly stacked boxes and bags, the material culmination of his life. Soon, he would be doing what he loved most of all and by the looks of his new environment, the ideas would come, maybe even faster than he could write them down.
     For twenty years, Crespo Ward had written and called himself a writer, shamelessly denying his job at the Federal Building in Boston as a GS-11 Social Security Administrator. Before that, he had shamelessly denied his tenure in the military, except when he needed his ID to get a discount on some special offer at an appliance store, or special preference when applying for a loan. Through it all, Crespo Ward called himself a writer, and wrote about everything that came to mind; indignities suffered, triumphs achieved, places he had seen, things he had heard, and a great deal of stuff that he imagined while going about his day. For twenty years, he wrote and would he have been forced to live on his earnings as a writer, Crespo Ward could have gone to the grocery store maybe five times, or paid one month's rent in a cheap flat. For twenty years. Surprisingly, he blamed no one for this lack of recognition or minor acclaim, not even himself. Too many damn things to do in a day, and not enough hours in which to do them, and always in the wrong place, where the afternoon light wasn't good, or the spare bedroom was too cramped to flex his imagination, or the day had been just too damn long and he would find himself sapped, unable to eke out even one page on, at first, the Smith Corona electric and now the IBM Aptiva computer, or the neighbors were too noisy in this apartment or the neighbors played their music too loud in that apartment, or the Jehovah's Witnesses just would not leave him alone, no matter how much he begged, cajoled, or threatened.
     But that was all over.
     He left the padlock dangling open on the hasp and walked up on the front porch, carefully putting the only silver key on his ring into the lock on the door. The door was stubborn for an instant, but Crespo used his leverage to put the slightest oomph against the door and it came open into the house. A musky, not unpleasant smell filled his nostrils and he inhaled deeply as he stepped over the threshold onto the hardwood floor of the foyer, looking around in wonder and feeling immediately at ease and at home. He flicked the light switch on the wall, relieved when the fixture hanging above his head glowed to life, silently thanking the Electric Cooperative for getting the date of his arrival correct.
     He worked steadily, unloading the Escort first, putting his two suitcases inside the front door, off to the right out of the way, next to the archway into the living room. Then, he unloaded the back of the U-Haul, lugging box after box into the appropriate place a dozen or so marked kitchen into a cozy room with an imposing butcher block island smack in the center and a generous number of glass-faced cabinets, with two windows that looked out over the back yard, a few less marked bedroom into another lower level room, a simple four-walled space with a stingy closet and one window, a couple of bags in the bathroom with ugly, yellow- flowered wallpaper, but that could be changed, another dozen in the spacious living room, where a sofa, three chairs, a settee, and two other tables already sat, included with the house as the agent had said, and the bulk of the load into the upstairs loft, his office, where he would spend most of his time.
     The loft was expansive, yet cozy, owing to the sloped ceiling that ended at the dormer windows, giving the room perfect Southern exposure. A wicker-backed wooden chair sat alone in one corner of the room, opposite a sturdy oak desk sitting at an angle to the windows in the other corner. Another chair, a well-used, secretary model on casters, sat behind the desk.
     By the time Crespo had made the last trip and locked up the U-Haul, his legs and arms felt like rubber and night had turned the yard black. He decided he would set up his bed the next day, rifling through the boxes in the bedroom until he found his sleeping bag, wanting badly to take a soothing hot bath, but too tired to do anything except walk around the house one last time, lingering a little while in the loft, before going back downstairs and wrapping himself in the sleeping bag, immediately falling into a deep, dreamless sleep.
     The anticipation of the progress he would make that day woke him, like a kid on Christmas. He pulled out of the sleeping bag, stretching stiff muscles and putting their dull ache from his mind, allowing himself a quick breakfast of cold cereal and water from the bottle in his cooler, making a mental note to buy some cleaner for the stove and refrigerator, along with the other groceries he needed.
     Making relatively short work of the bedroom, methodically folding and hanging his clothes and organizing them in the tiny closet and assembling his bed, he took a break, stepping outside and plopping down on the edge of the porch, gazing around the yard and letting the silence surround him like a blanket, the scattered cries of birdsong high up in the trees the only sound.
     The respite was short, Crespo anxious to unpack the kitchen and living room, saving the loft for last. He went back inside the house whistling, sure he could begin writing that evening, or the very next day at the latest.
     The living room went quicker than the bedroom, Crespo thought, due to the existing furniture which he left as it was, satisfied with the last occupant's sense of arrangement. To his mild disappointment, the kitchen consumed the rest of the day, but he was pleased with his meticulous unpacking and organization. As night fell across the house, he found pen and paper and made a grocery list for the next day, sitting at the butcher block in the kitchen, the pen jumping crazily every so often as it hit a rough groove from past wayward knife chops. At ten 'o clock, he left the paper on the butcher block and headed up to the loft.
     Each new box held a treasure his writing reference books, a collection of pens and pencils, clustered neatly together with rubber bands, notes on observations he had made, concepts he had started then abandoned, a wealth of rejection slips, newspaper clippings from years of searching and cutting, his postage scale, desk calendar, sealed reams of fresh paper, a stapler, and his Aptiva computer. He worked on through the night, stopping briefly to open the dormer windows a crack, letting in the smell of the leaves turning to mulch on the grass, the rustle of the autumn wind through the low-hanging branches, brisk and refreshing as he went about his work. Sometime near dawn, the loft-office near completion, he fell asleep during one of his short breaks, curled up next to the built-in bookshelf behind the desk, under his neatly ordered reference books.
     He woke in the late afternoon, the steady rain rousing him. Closing the dormer windows, he drew a hot bath and settled into the tub, laying a hot washcloth over his face and feeling his muscles relax. Dressing quickly, he scooped the grocery list from the butcher block and went outside, unhitching the U-Haul and driving twenty miles into Gleasondale where he bought enough groceries to last him at least two weeks. When he returned to the house, just short of the U-Haul, he slowed the car to a crawl. Light glowed from the dormer windows and he frowned, sure he had turned them off before taking his bath. He stopped the car, headlights shining on the U-Haul, and left the engine running, hopping out and going up to the front door. The rain had stopped, but the wind had picked up, whistling through the yard and swirling the leaves noisily around his feet. He put a hand on the doorknob and turned it, but it was still locked. Feeling a vague sense of relief mingled with amusement, he unloaded the groceries, wiping down each section of the refrigerator as he put away the perishables. After making a light supper of a ham sandwich and hot canned chicken noodle soup, he went to the bedroom and slipped into a light grey cardigan sweater, his favorite for writing. Checking himself in the bureau mirror, he brushed back a stray hank of hair and left the bedroom, going up the wooden staircase to the loft.
     The secretary chair was surprisingly comfortable, fitting him like a glove. He settled into the well worn fabric, scooting the seat up to the desk and turning on the computer. As the monitor came up, glowing brightly, Crespo looked around the room, taking in every nook of the loft and admiring his progress. Plenty of time to fine tune the room, hang pictures, his bulletin board, and his wall clock. As he sat there studying his sanctuary, he decided that the room was too bright, pushing back and rising from the chair. He went over to the wall switch and turned off the overhead lights. The room dimmed considerably, releasing shadows from the corners. Not satisfied, Crespo walked across the room, turning off the floor lamp next to the wicker- backed chair. Now the only light was from his desk, illuminating the computer and the immediate area around the desk. He walked to the desk, glancing around the room again, and nodded, sitting down and rolling the chair up to the computer. The screen stared back at him, blank and stubborn.
     Crespo Ward reached out and levitated his hands over the keyboard. The screen waited patiently. They stayed that way, a Mexican standoff between man and machine, a surreal game of chicken, until Crespo lowered his hands to the keyboard and his fingers started typing, trying to keep up with him as he poured out a stream-of- consciousness burst of observations of his trip from Boston to Framingham to the house and the unpacking to the grocery store in Gleasondale where he walked the aisles in silence gathering his food. He liked to start in this way, roaming aimlessly around his mind, trusting the substance to work its way to the top of his thoughts. His fingers stopped and he leaned back, stretching, his stomach muscles tight and sore from two nights of unpacking and sleeping on the floor. He opened his eyes wide, looking away from the monitor and into the banker's light on the desk. The sudden change of focus made him blink several times and he rubbed his eyes and leaned forward and saw something.
     Beyond the green glow of the banker's light, in the wicker-backed chair across the room, sat the shadowy figure of a man, legs crossed, hands folded in his lap.
     Staring at him.
     Crespo Ward rubbed his eyes again, hard, leaning farther across the desk. Ordinarily, the sudden appearance of a stranger would have caused him to bolt and run, but this was not ordinary and Crespo could not believe what he was seeing.
     The figure was dressed in Colonial garb, from the powdered wig under his hat right down to his rough-hewn black leather shoes with big golden buckles in the center. He regarded Crespo, his face benevolent but expressionless.
     "...I...buh..." His own voice startled him; he realized he had not heard a human voice since leaving Framingham.
     "What are you doing?" the apparition asked, his voice low and measured, moving across the shadows of the room into Crespo's ears.
     Crespo suddenly knew that the man in the chair was not alive.
     He opened his mouth, managing only a dry rattle.
     The figure raised his arm, pointing through the gloom at Crespo.
     "That machine." The voice was more curious than menacing and Crespo watched the figure rise from the chair and start over to him. He thought he could hear the buckles on his shoes jangle as the ghost crossed the room.
     The apparition closed the distance between them quickly, Crespo curling up close to his desk, as if to stay in the light as much as possible. The figure came around the desk, disappearing behind Crespo. He could feel the spectre at his neck, dimly aware of a sudden drop in the temperature around him, and a familiar feeling came over him.
     The ghost was reading over his shoulder.
     "I am a writer also," the voice behind him said.
     Eyes bulging, Crespo sat frozen as a translucent hand came into view to his left and moved over the keyboard. With a sure movement, the hand closed, leaving one thin index finger sticking out and aimed at the keys. It descended slowly to the R key and passed through, first the index finger, then entire hand disappearing through the keyboard until only a frilly white shirt cuff was visible. Crespo was able to roll his eyes slowly up the red coat sleeve, stopping at the elbow, not wanting to look further. He suddenly wished that he had not turned off the lights, that the room had been just fine with all the lights on.
     The cuff hung there over the keyboard, Crespo waiting breathlessly for the ghost to speak again. Instead, the cuff moved downward, intersecting the D, F, X and C keys, moving toward Crespo, and he saw the hand reappear two inches from his stomach and he braced himself for the chilling touch as the hand passed through him and he felt nothing, nothing at all.
     In the shadows to his left he could see the vague form move across the room, returning to his seat. Crespo peered beyond the banker's light again, watching the ghost cross his legs and fold his hands in his lap, looking at the floor. He sighed.
     The feeling returned to his legs and Crespo pushed back from the desk, keeping the ghost in his sight. Swallowing hard, he found his voice.
     "Can I turn on some lights?"
     "I would prefer you did not." Raising his head, Crespo saw a sad smile cross his face. "Perhaps," he said wistfully, "we could write something together."
     In that moment, Crespo Ward was struck by the realization that the ghost meant him no harm. He allowed himself to look away from the figure for an instant, catching sight of a pile of pages on the floor, hundreds of thousands of unpublished, unwanted words that had filled twenty year's worth of his days and nights.
     He looked back at the figure in the chair and studied his face, really studied it, hoping against all odds that maybe he was, or had been Edgar Allan Poe, or maybe Thomas Paine. But he did not look familiar, did not look like anyone Crespo could remember from the history books.
     "My name is, uh, Crespo Ward," he said, still hopeful.
     The figure stood, bowing slightly. "Benjamin Wright."
     Crespo's first thought was Who? Then, dammit.
     And before Crespo could respond with a pleased to meet you, the ghost named Benjamin Wright told him of his inability to write in his present state, a condition he had endured alone for more years than he cared to remember. He told him of his longing to once again put pen to paper and bring forth a part of his mind that someone could hold in their hands. Words. He talked of his misadventures that night on the ship in Boston Harbor, throwing the King's tea overboard, of his small but significant participation in the Continental Congress in the summer of 1776, of helping to resuscitate a gentleman named Franklin, crazy as a loon and flying a kite in a lightning storm, recounting with glee the moment he noticed the prone man had soiled his britches, an involuntary response to nature's angry touch to the little skeleton key the old kook had attached to his kite string. And Crespo listened in rapt amazement, awestruck, dumfounded, bedazzled, and very, very impressed.
     Finally, he asked what all people ask when confronted by a self-proclaimed writer, a question he himself had been asked countless times by those who knew no better. He tried to catch it on the way out, but it blurted forth just the same.
     "Did you ever have anything published?"
     The ghost of Benjamin Wright averted his eyes, studying his shoes and the surrounding floor.
     "Alas, no. Some were distributed, but I found it a daunting task with little reward and I could never get a proper printer to assist me in the endeavor."
     It took a second for Crespo's modern mind to assimilate and interpret the words spoken by the apparition, but he came to the conclusion that Benjamin Wright had never been able to publish his work in his long-ago lifetime.
     So, in short order, they struck a deal.
     Crespo would gladly assist the ghost in realizing his desire to once again produce his stories and the ghost, in turn, would give Crespo the byline and any monies collected from any sales. After all, he was dead; he had no need of money and no use for the prestige of a byline. They shook hands as well as they were able, Crespo secretly aware that he had stumbled into a goldmine.
     In the days and weeks that followed, Crespo and the ghost of Benjamin Wright collaborated, rather, Crespo took dictation, adding an updated euphemism here and there, modernizing the language a tiny bit, but the stories remained intact, the product of a brain that had ceased mortal functioning generations ago. The manuscripts were carefully read and re-read, Crespo painstakingly proofreading and formatting the manuscripts, marketing as precisely as he could, which posed little difficulty since the stories were amazing, and sending them off to find a home. In all, twenty-six manuscripts journeyed from the isolated house in the New England woods to places ranging from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York.
     At the end of the month, the refrigerator still packed with most of the food he had bought in Gleasondale, Crespo Ward was exhausted, finding himself lolling in bed well into his daily writing routine one particular day.
     The ghost of Benjamin Wright visited him in the bedroom, the first time he had ventured from the loft.
     "Are you afflicted?" the ghost asked.
     Throwing off the covers and sitting up, Crespo fought a short dizzy spell before swinging his feet on the floor. He rubbed his temples, looking up at the apparition and noticing how strange it seemed for him to be there. The light in the bedroom made him look ... different, somehow, but he reasoned it away with the excuse of familiarity. Benjamin Wright seemed less like a ghost and more like a...roommate? No, that wasn't it. Man, his head was throbbing.
     He dressed slowly, the ghost regarding him in silence as he pulled on the lucky cardigan.
     "Any mail?" Crespo asked.
     The apparition shrugged. "There is nothing yet," he said.
     "Really?" Crespo said, eyes narrowed pensively. Jesus, the first manuscript had gone out over a month ago, if memory served correctly, and a lot of the markets had decent response times, a lot better than six weeks. Oh, well. Maybe they were drawing up the contracts even now. He forced himself to climb the stairs, each step wracking his body with fatigue. When he reached the top, he braced himself against the bannister, catching his breath, the ghost moving past him and into the loft.
     The day went badly.
     Crespo could barely get two words in a row onto the monitor without having to backspace and correct, muttering frustrated curses under his breath. The ghost indulged him patiently, finally suggesting that they take up where they were the next day, after Crespo could get something hot to eat and a good night's sleep. He readily agreed, performing the daunting task of descending the staircase, leaving the computer still humming softly in the loft.
     Around midnight, a sharp pain woke him, rocketing through his ribs and fading as he fought his way back from sleep. Sitting bolt upright in bed, Crespo let out a startled cry of pleasure. His head was clear, the aching gone from his joints. He jumped out of bed, searching hastily in the dark for his pants and cardigan sweater, not finding either one, but no matter. He went swiftly from the bedroom, taking the stairs two at a time up to the loft, wondering if Benjamin was ready to work as he threw open the door.
     Benjamin was sitting at the computer, typing carefully with two fingers.
     Crespo stepped through the doorway of the loft, beaming, about to say Guess what? I feel great! when he froze in his tracks.
     Benjamin was actually typing at the computer. And wearing his jeans. And his lucky grey cardigan sweater. He could hear the keys going click-click-clickety- click. And something else.
     He shuffled closer to the desk, coming right up beside it and stared down at a stack of opened envelopes, next to a stack of letters. No. Not letters. Publishing contracts and letters of acceptance.
     Every story had sold.
     Crespo put a hand to his mouth and was not surprised when the hand touched nothing but air, nothing at all.
     He was dead.
     Benjamin Wright looked up from the monitor, ecstatic. "Thank you!" he said.
     Standing there in his underwear, Crespo Ward was too busy wondering how he could punch the man to say "You're welcome."

THE END