by Heather J. Frederick
When Jim finished reading his story, echoes of his rich baritone faded in the room. For fifteen minutes he’d kept us mesmerized. The round of applause was enthusiastic. Well-deserved.
I sank lower in my chair, cringing against the coffee shop’s halogen lights. I hated reading after Jim.
“Really strong characters, love your voice.”
“Can’t wait to read more.”
“Your best yet!”
The accolades poured in. Jim puffed like a collared lizard. He looked like one, too, but that didn’t keep the girls away. He was a scrawny guy with bad skin, but he wrote like a rock star. Every word dripped with metaphor, allegory, alliteration, and... hell, I don’t know. I wasn’t as good. His story was about a mermaid who fell in love with a vampire, so a crazy sea witch turned her into a bat.
Don’t ask me. Somehow, in his hands, it worked.
As my turn grew close, my heart pounded faster. I rubbed the gold medallion in my palm. My lap was littered with yellow flakes, and every time I scratched my nose, my fingers smelled like rust. Underneath, on the dull surface of a coin no bigger than a half dollar, the edges of a word were beginning to appear: Fabula.
What a piece of crap token. In retrospect, the guy had been a bit sketchy. One of his horns had tilted dangerously. His cloak was kinda shabby. What had I expected, considering the circumstances? Yet he’d seemed sincere. Enough that I’d traded something of immeasurable value. Slightly tarnished, granted. But no money back guarantees should go both ways.
“Peter, you’re up,” Jim said.
I rubbed the token for luck, and put it in my back pocket. Stood. Cleared my throat. All eyes were on me. I swept mine across the room in a dare. The coffee shop alcove was packed with the only people who’d ever heard me read in public. I swear I saw a few smirks. Though I felt heat rising to my cheeks, I kept my face steady. You’re remembering the last one, I thought at them. But this one is going to be different.
After two paragraphs, I knew it had failed. By the laughs. The tears in their eyes. The pounding on their knees.
I clenched my papers until they crumpled. My eyes stung. I had to blink to clear the words. “And then the Banana Brigade” — How could it not be working? — “marched into the kitchen” — it was guaranteed! — “and tore the macaroni goblin limb from limb. His elbow hit the floor.”
The guffaws were deafening. Jim had his hand clutched to his belly, silent tears streaming down his cheeks. Each laugh wounded me like a sword.
I hadn’t been trying to be funny.
The girl in the black t-shirt next to Jim was wide-eyed and open-mouthed, frankly staring... in disgust? Definitely not awe. Perhaps shock at how awful I was. With her short, spiky black hair and wide, green eyes, she had always reminded me of a startled cat. My plan to ask her out vanished like a con man in a crowd.
Somehow, I made it to the end. The pickle fight in the pantry. The ruptured beet demon, mistaken for a spleen. Every gory bit of “The Hungry Nightmare,” my first — and last — horror story.
I slumped to my chair and dropped my head in my hands. Some weeks back I’d sold my soul for this, the chance to tell a story like Jim, to be noticed. I always thought demons would be hard to find, but for the right price, they’re only a shady deal away. I’d spent countless nights writing. You think writing is easy? You should try it some time. I’d been at it for years. It wasn’t any easier without a soul. I never could tell what gift I’d been given, or how the coin was supposed to help, but I was damned if I’d give up.
I suppose I was damned either way.
The demon had promised if I gave it my best, I would be rewarded. I’d given that story everything. My best just wasn’t ever good enough.
And then, I realized, the laughter had turned into soft applause. Nowhere near a standing ovation, but a solid, hands-together, round of appreciation. I lifted my head.
Jim spoke first. “You’ve really found your voice, Pete. I don’t know why you never tried comedy before. You’ve got a gift.”
“Very tasty,” said another writer, who cheered me with her coffee cup.
“Loved the characters.” “Your best yet!”
Around the room, person after person, fan after... fan.
It wasn’t all good. It never is.
“Needs a stronger opening.”
“Maybe a little too much violence,” said one guy, a known vegetarian.
You know what? He might be right. It occurred to me, for the first time, people could want to make a story better and like it at the same time.
That hadn’t been part of the deal. I’d asked for perfect. But the more I thought about it, a real demon probably wouldn’t have needed fifty bucks along with an immortal soul.
The girl next to Jim folded thin arms across her t-shirt, which declared My Car Is a Broomstick. “I thought it was too scary,” she said. She shuddered and hugged herself closer.
She met my gaze squarely, and looked absolutely serious.
I blinked. “I think I’m in love,” I said.
The room laughed. I laughed with them. I felt a hole, somewhere south of my sternum, north of my solar plexus... stretch. Tighten. And tingle, as if it were filling in.
Maybe souls were replaceable, after all.
Copyright © 2014 by Heather J. Frederick