I wrote the following short story some time ago; I have a file of it dated 2006 on my machine here, but its setting and some of the details in the original version (12″ laptop, 17″ CRT monitor, PDAs) suggest I wrote it around the turn of the century or in the last century.
A Writer’s Wassail
J. Andrew Watson stared at the screen on the laptop and didn’t like what he saw, but that wasn’t anything new. Perhaps it would be better if he was looking at a spreadsheet with numbers identifying a business disaster he could possibly avert through the application of his acumen, or if the screen contained a green-text-on-black hacked details of an international plot he alone could unravel. Instead, Jake found only the fourth paragraph of chapter four trailing off into irrelevance.
He stretched his arms out to the sides and placed them onto his head. By Chapter 4, Luis and Andromeda would each have an attraction to the other, but wouldn’t act upon it or admit it to the other. But paragraph 4 described Luis getting out of his import car, and Jake didn’t know how to punch it through into the passion that Luis and Andy would share. He closed his eyes a moment to contrive a situation where Luis would feasibly encounter Andromeda Mcyrtle at the chain drugstore.
Within the last paragraph, Andy perused the hair care products. Jake didn’t like forcing Andy into that situation, where Luis could happen upon her as he worked as a security guard. Andy didn’t care much for how she looked, and probably wouldn’t stop in to a convenience store over the local Whole Foods. He caressed the home row marker bumps on the F and J keys and thought some more about how every word choice, every scene choice, every comma would impact how the reader connected with the situation, with the character, with….
“Jacob….” a voice said.
Jake snapped his eyes open. The laptop’s tinny speakers hadn’t spoken. He looked immediately to the door of his apartment, but it was closed. He cast his eyes over the dim bookshelves, the media center, and the barely-used kitchen appliances. Nothing, not even a flashing light on the answering machine to indicate he had an incoming call. He couldn’t see Esmerelda, his cat, so he assumed she was sleeping in some secluded soft spot and not manufacturing noises he could construe as his name. Then the spectre appeared.
The apparition had long, dark hair and a full beard and thick glasses which distorted its squinty eyes ever so slightly. “Stephen King,” Jake whispered.
“The ghost of Stephen King,” the ghost of Stephen King said.
“I didn’t even know you died.”
“My status among the living, the dead, or the undead doesn’t concern you. We’re not here to talk about me. We’re here to talk about you, Jacob Watson. We’re here to talk about the rest of your life….however short that might be.”
“However short….” Jake touched his wrist and then his neck, happy to find the pulse.
“Relax, kid, I’m just putting you on. I’m not here to take you through the hidden portal at the back of your hall closet. I’m here to tell you that your writing is suffering, and that unless you change, you’ll cause untold misery and pain, mostly upon yourself but also upon those you love the most as your self-pity shrieks like a banshee foretelling your lost dreams.
“Tonight, you’ll be visited by three spirits. The first will appear at the stroke of ten fifteen. The second will come at the stroke of ten-thirty. The third will come….well, I don’t have to spell it out for you.”
Jake looked to the clock on the VCR; it was ten o’clock. “So soon?”
“You’re not the only guy who needs help.” Stephen King walked toward the darkest corner and began to fade.
“Mr. King, who cares enough about my writing to send me these three spirit guides?”
Stephen King turned and smirked as he disappeared completely. “That’s up to you.”
Jake rubbed his eyes and looked at the laptop. Had he been dreaming? He stretched a bit, looked in the refrigerator, used the bathroom, looked in the refrigerator, and sat before the computer again. He put his fingers into home row position and reread the last sentences. He swiped and cut the last paragraph in its entirety.
“Jake Watson,” a voice said. Jake looked up to see a man in a business suit, steel grey hair and sharp cheek and jaw lines, standing before the front door. “Good evening, it’s time for our ten-fifteen.”
“Who are you?” Jake asked.
“I am the spirit of Writing Present.”
“Shouldn’t I see the ghost of Writing Past first?”
“Listen, we’ve got certain procedures and processes to follow, just like you. So rest assured, we’re coming in the order designed to provide optimal learning and inspiration.” He stepped forward and gestured at the laptop. “Now, is this the novel?”
“It’s the beginning of the novel.”
“The beginning of a novel? Did you finish Demeter’s Warning?”
Jake reddened slightly. “No.”
“What about Proserpina’s Temptation?”
“That’s sort of on hold.”
The spirit looked over Jake’s shoulder. “Well, what is this then?”
“Andromeda’s Challenge. It deals with….”
“How long have you been working on it?” the spirit asked.
“About four months,” Jake said.
“That’s about a month a chapter. Have you written anything else in the interim? Short stories, essays, poems, perhaps a blog?”
“I’m focusing on the novel.”
“So it would seem. You focus on the novel quite a bit, don’t you? Too much, perhaps. Let us review the current days you spent with Andromeda’s Challenge.” The spirit took out a device of some sort and began punching buttons.
The scenery shifted around Jake. Suddenly, he was beside the lathe in the shop and without a chair to support him; he sprawled onto the cement floor.
“Combined Fabricators from 7 am to 3:30 pm, running a lathe and pushing a broom when needed.” The spirit tapped a stylus against his PDA. “It’s rather romantic that you’ve not settled down and taken a real job like your fellow Bachelors of Creative Writing.”
“It sounds boring,” Jake said. He planted his hands on the cement of the plant floor and pushed himself up.
The spirit touched buttons on his device and the scenery shifted again. Jake hit his head on the top of a table. Ignoring the pain, he crab-crawled between table legs and chairs to stand within the familiar lines of the Carmel Street coffee shop. His store.
“Carmel Coffee,” the spirit said. “12 to 20 hours a week depending upon the season. That’s more like what the world expects from liberal arts majors who hold onto their dreams.”
“It pays the bills,” Jake said.
“Ah, yes, the bills. You’ve got your share for a late twenties, don’t you? Rent, utilities, food, and student loans totaling…. That can’t be right. I could have bought a mansion for that in 1939.”
“Me, too,” Jake said.
“So you’re working and traveling about 65 hours a week to keep abreast of those bills. Meanwhile, you’re writing novels for how many hours a week?”
Jake looked to the counter. He recognized Ryan from the back. The barista was cleaning the counter or the pots, as befit someone on the closing shift. The windows were dark and the tables were empty, like they should be in the last hour of business. “I’m trying to dedicate twenty hours a week to writing.”
The spirit slapped a disbelieving scowl across Jake and touched buttons on his computer. Jake stood beside his computer chair once again. The spirit reached down and tapped on Jake’s computer. The monitor’s focus changed from the undercomplete novel to a roleplaying game. “Do you include your video game time within those twenty hours?”
“Sometimes I need a break,” Jake said.
“So long as the break does not comprise your entire writing life,” the spirit said.
“Well,” Jake said. He couldn’t think of an excuse why he hadn’t finished a novel, nor why he hadn’t finished anything else in some time. Perhaps he should call himself Ishmael. Or perhaps he should call his video game character Ishmael.
“Well, that concludes my visit with you, Mr. Watson.” The spirit pocketed its pocket computer. “The first spirit told you how it worked, no doubt. My antecedent will be along shortly.”
“Weren’t you supposed to teach me a lesson?” Jake said.
“I have showed you the present. Whether you derive a lesson from the things you will see tonight remains your responsibility.”
“How come I saw the present first? Wasn’t I supposed to see the past first?” Jake said. He tried to remember if he ever read A Christmas Carol or if he ever watched the movie or cartoon completely to know the order in which the spirits appeared. He wasn’t sure, and he feared his voice showed it.
“You’ll see the past in its time.” The spirit disappeared through the apartment door.
Jake watched the door for a moment and sat before his computer screen again. The computer clock said it was 10:18, but he knew the clock was about three minutes fast, which meant….
“Jake Watson,” a voice said behind Jake.
Jake started; his heart leapt to rattertat speed momentarily, but slowed as he recognized the spirit as the Spirit of Writing Future, although deep down he marveled that he could be startled, then comforted by the presence of a mere spectre.
The Spirit of Writing Future wore a shiny mechanicalesque suit that reminded Jake of the rocket pack men from middle seventies television. He didn’t have a helmet on, but Jake could see how one would fit into the tunic neck. “I am here to show you the future.”
“Okay,” Jake said.
“Now, the future I will show you does not represent a future that is certain from the outcome of your present actions; it is only a future that might be. Before we venture forth into the aeons, what do you expect the future to hold for you?”
“I don’t know,” Jake said. His dream paths diverged in the dark wood of the possible, according to his charting. He could remain a struggling writer, living hand to mouth, cranking out a series of unpublished or under-appreciated novels until he died, wherein some scholars would uncover his genius for the aeons. Or he could meet a girl, settle down, and raise a family while writing popular but relevant fiction. Oddly enough, those dreams rarely conflicted, nor did he interchange elements within.
“Do you know how you’re going to get to those futures?” the spirit asked.
“Well, I’m writing my novel.”
“Anything else?” the spirit asked.
“I’m too busy working and writing to do anything else,” Jake said. He had marshaled the arguments and sent them to the barricades whenever his family questioned his life or when Steve, his remaining friend from college, asked him when he was going to get a real job.
“So your plan for the future is to continue what you’re doing?”
“What would you suggest?” Jake asked. The spirit might have better insight into prophesy than Steve or his mother did.
“I don’t suggest anything, I merely question and show. Are you ready to see the future?”
“Sure,” Jake said.
“Grab my hand,” the spirit said. It clasped Jake’s hand and pushed a red button on its belt.
Jake expected the scenery to change, but nothing happened. He waited another second, but nothing happened in that second either. The spirit released his hand. “I don’t get it,” Jake said. “Where is the future?”
“Where, indeed,” the spirit said. “The future remains unwritten until you write it, but if you don’t write the future, the future writes you.” The spirit frowned. “Sorry, I’m working on expressing that, and it’s not right yet. You can dictate some of the future, and some of it is chance; however, if you don’t act to make the future, the future will still occur without your input.”
“Sure, sure, if you choose to not decide/you still have made a choice. You’re no Rush, though,” Jake said. “Keep working on it.”
“I’ll take your advice, then. As you know, I am but the second of three spirits…..”
“Four,” Jake reminded him.
“Three spirits of Writing Present, Writing Future, and Writing Past to visit you tonight. My counterpart will…..”
“Visit me at his appointed time, I know.” Jake smiled. “I’m afraid your lesson has been disappointing so far, but I won’t send in the comment card.”
“Good night, J. Andrew Watson. May your future be as you want it.” The spirit stepped toward the door and disappeared.
“I don’t quite understand the point of that,” Jake said. He sat back down on his desk chair, which creaked oddly and huffed down about an inch. He felt beneath for the chair for the lever that would raise him to ergonomic height but couldn’t find it. “What the heck?” he said. He looked under the chair, and the lever was nowhere to be found. Instead, he found an old pen wedged into the mechanism. Experimenting, he found he could adjust the height with the pen, so he did.
He turned to the computer. Instead of his desktop and a monitor, the desk held two curving panels that displayed the title “Chapter 7” and the beginning of a paragraph “Luis tried not to think of the woman from the convenience store….”
“Eh?” Jake said. He reached toward the keyboard to page up into the chapters he’d forgotten, but the desk lacked a keyboard or a mouse. “Where’s the keyboard?”
“You want the keyboard again, J. Andrew?” a female voice asked from the screen. “You’re so old school.”
A keyboard and mouse materialized on the desktop as Jake watched. He cautiously touched the Page Up button. The text moved up on the screen and, more importantly, the hard plastic button depressed with a click reminiscent of the 1980s computer keyboards. Apparently, he had gotten Luis and Andy into the convenience store for a chance conversation about a shared hobby and an intriguing possibility. “Looking back to Chapter 5, J. Andrew? I can show you the earlier drafts if you’d like, along with your recorded commentary for each.”
“No, that’s fine.” Jake folded his hands on his stomach and encountered an unexpected shape. Instead of the flat belly his metabolism continued to support, he found a roll of flesh. He lifted his shirt and looked; it was his belly all right. “What the heck?” he said. Where had that come from?
A dialog box displayed atop the fifth chapter of his novel with the date December 21, 2045 and the text “10:45 PM – appointment with past.” The computer’s voice added, “J. Andrew, it’s 10:45. Your appointment is about to begin.”
“My appointment?” Jake said. “What appointment?”
“Your appointment with the past,” the computer repeated aloud.
“When did I set that appointment?” Jake said.
“You set that when you bought and activated my core processes on August 14, 2039. It’s been the only appointment that has seen all of my upgrades and reactivations, so it’s an appointment from the past as well, is it not?”
“2045, eh? I must be almost fifty. I bet I look it,” Jake said.
“Oh, Jake, you’re as beautiful as ever,” the computer said.
The applications and screen faded to black, and the screen turned reflective. Jake could see himself as though in a mirror, but with the beginnings of jowls and with a haircut designed to hide the fact that his forehead suddenly ended four inches above his eyebrows. “That’s funny,” he said, expecting a trick. He reached up to touch the sloppy-long bangs he swept up and out of his sight, but his hand only met forehead. In the screen/mirror, his fingers traced up his new forehead until they met the velvet of his crewish cut. His larger-than-expected stomach dropped as he realized he might be in 2045, and only chapter 7.
“Sorry I’m late,” a voice said. The speaker wore a tunic with flared lapels and breeches tucked into leather boots. “I know, usually the past is gone, the present never leaves, and the future is late, but I was held up in the seventeenth century. You’ll know why when you see it.”
“You’re the Spirit of Writing Past?” Jake said.
“Well, I’m the Spirit of Writing Past, but I’m not out of date,” the man said. “Hey, it’s late, wouldn’t we converse better over a glass of something sweet?” The man clinked a bag hanging from his belt.
“What do you mean?” Jake said. Suddenly, the two of them stood in a crowded, underlit room that smelled strongly of sweetness and sweat. Large groups of men sat around tables scattered amongst the floor more randomly than the straw underfoot.
“Ah, William,” the spirit raised a hand to a man at a table.
The man, seated at a table with other men, waved a hand. Were he at a rectangular table, he would have sat near the foot; although the table was round, Jake still got that impression. The spirit pulled up a stool to the table, and Jake looked around until he found another and did likewise.
“And so I struck the fellow with my stick, and the stick broke; the fellow cared not for my mind and let fly with his own blows. Well, as you would expect, I fled,” said another man at the table. “But know you this; I again met the wife of Chetter, and as again, my stick broke not on her.”
“Or in her,” a man with a beard said. He unleashed a sound rougher than a guffaw.
“Without that false staff, you would have bested Chetter,” another man said. He spit on the floor at the point where a period would have cut off his sentence.
“Without that false staff, he would not have met Chetter’s wife,” the man with the beard said.
“Jacob is also a writer,” the spirit said to William.
“Ill luck!” William said. “For he competes with me, and for he chooses a life hard to pursue. Why do you write, Jacob?”
“Well, I’ve done it since I was a kid, and people tell me I’m good at it,” Jake said.
“Oh, I like that better, then,” William said. “That’s less to challenge me then. Tell me, Jacob, what do your fellows think of your work?”
“Do your fellows enjoy your wit and words?” William said. “Do you share with them the quotes and the quips of your characters? Perhaps to see if what you have written brings joy your sorrow to your friends to know if it will bring joy or sorrow to your audience.”
“Well, I submitted something to a contest and won an honorable mention,” Jake said. “But I don’t like to share something until it’s finished.”
“Ho, I like this fellow,” William said. “’I don’t like to share something until it is finished.’ Well, my good man, I warrant you finish little, which is good news for me, as there are but a few stages upon which to play. While you play at writing, my writing will play.”
“I’m going to be a writer,” Jake said.
“Well enow,” William said, “so long as you seek only to be a writer and worry not about writing anything.”
“He will be a boy till he is a body,” one of the others at the table said.
“We shall take leave, fellows,” the spirit said. “Drink well, and know immortality awaits every tale you share. Come, now, Jacob.” The spirit led Jacob away from the table until the table members focused again on each other and clinked his pouch.
Jacob’s eyes adjusted to the relative dimness of his living room. His desk had a keyboard and a mouse and his old monitor. He wanted to check the bottom of the chair for its lever, but he wouldn’t give the spirit the satisfaction of seeing it. “So that’s it?” he said.
“That’s what?” The spirit asked. “Oh, you actually wanted a cup of mead. Well, friend, to be honest, it sounds better than it tastes. Now, I bid you good night.”
“Wait a minute, didn’t you guys have a lesson to teach me? Aren’t I supposed to see something like my own headstone or something?”
“Due to liability concerns, we no longer show death scenes,” the spirit said. “We have shown you the present, the future, and the past. What you choose to take from these is to you.”
“It wasn’t even my past,” Jake said.
“Perhaps there was nothing in your past to provide inspiration nor illumination,” the spirit said. “But I am not here to debate you, I am here to leave you. Good night, Jacob Andrew Watson.” The spirit clinked his purse and disappeared.
Jake looked at the clock. It was 11:30 He sat in the chair by the computer desk, and it accepted his slouching form without complaint. He looked at the screen. The beginning of the fourth chapter still shuffled into the middle of a blank page and stopped. He looked at the last words for a couple of moments, thought about perhaps having them meet in the pharmacy and talk about a hobby they shared…..but what? Herb gardening? Cooking Chinese food? Hang-gliding over the Pacific coast? Which one of them seemed so silly in 2045? Jake felt his eyelashes brush his cheeks and sat upright.
“2045?” he said. “I’ll still be working on this book in 2045? I doubt that,” he said. “I’ve made so much progress tonight.” He looked at the clock. Since he didn’t have to get up until 6am, he could log in and play thirty minutes of Medieval Tourney and get six hours of sleep, or he could play an hour and a half and get five hours of sleep. He could pick Andromeda’s Challenge tomorrow night. After all, he’d read it was best to leave a scene in the middle of the action so he could pick it up easier at a later time. Tomorrow.
I have updated it according to the guidelines of my 2007 article “Immortality in the Details” for Writers Journal magazine by removing some of the specifics of the technologies. I’ve also changed the dates of the future–I had set them to 2022, which is not far in the future from now. Stephen King is still alive, or at least he was as of December 1, 2020. As far as I know.
Sadly, I projected the main character to be almost fifty in the far-future without having completed a novel. I have finished one and have started one or two others, but I have only finished, what, two or three short stories and maybe five poems since I wrote this story?
Clearly, my fear that I am wasting my time on earth goes far back, and so far, I am living up to it.
I have added the story as a page withouth the commentary. Perhaps some day if I update this blog to something other than this 10-year-old template, it will be featured more prominently somehow.