Horace Jones chewed his lip as he rode the elevator up seven floors to his Manhattan apartment. At the door he hesitated. Was it really over? Unlocking the door he pushed it slowly open and peered into the dark. “Hello? Domino?”
His black-and-white shorthaired terrier ran toward him, ears perked up.
“Is it safe?” Horace asked as he flipped on the light.
Domino thumped his stubby tail on the wood floor.
“All right then.” Horace stepped inside. Slamming the door he secured the lock and scanned the near-empty living room: one couch, one table, one chair, one empty bookshelf.
The dog ran to the couch barking. His tail knocked the table. A piece of paper fluttered gently to the ground.
“No!” Horace threw himself at the ground, sobbing. Fists beat the hard wood floor as hot tears streaked down his face. “No! Not again!”
Domino whined in confusion.
Defeated, Horace crawled forward. With trembling hands he lifted up the paper, dreading what he would see…
“A bill! Oh, thank all my lucky stars, a bill! Look!” He shoved the bill from the dog-walker in Domino’s face laughing giddily. “A bill!”
He rushed to the bookshelf to check the layer of dust.
Horace collapsed on his plush red couch, smiling at the empty shelves. “No one understands, Domino. They don’t realize the burden I live with.” For the first time in weeks he felt safe, completely at peace with himself.
Domino put his nose on the couch, brown eyes gazing up with total adoration.
“Right, food. Let’s see what we’ll have for dinner, shall we?” Horace hit his legs with forced enthusiasm and stood up.
“The gala today was awful, all those flashes going off. Five microphones shoved right up my nose. My mouth positively aches from smiling. I mean, really, how many questions can you have about a book? I’m a private person! I want a private life. Is that too much to ask?”
Tail thumping in expectation, Domino sat front of his food dish.
Horace opened the fridge. Leftovers from the week were piled in front, while older dinners lurked in the back enjoying complicated lives of their own. “I have steak tartar left from the dinner with Jay Leno yesterday. Cake left over from the buffet with Ellen the day before. And something pasta left from the lunch with Oprah that I went to on Monday. What would you like?”
A bark and a growl.
“Steak it is.” Horace emptied the Styrofoam box into the dog’s dish. “Eat up.” He pulled a left over sandwich from the back of the fridge and read the scribbled handwriting. “Writer’s conference? When did we last go to a writer’s conference?”
With a steak in front of him Domino was too distracted to comment.
“Probably not good for me then.” Horace tossed the wrap in the trash. He looked back in the fridge and, with a shrug, tossed the rest of the leftover food.
Domino whimpered, covering his eyes with his paw.
“We’ll go shopping tomorrow,” Horace promised.
He pulled a candy bar out of the vegetable drawer. “Cold, but tasty!”
The dog growled at him.
“It’s healthy!” Horace protested. “It has peanuts.”
He sat down beside Domino on the floor and watched the mutt enjoy his steak. Being a dog certainly looked nice. Easier than being a best selling author at least.
While his sixth book in three years was out, breaking earning records, Horace worried. The New York Times couldn’t get enough of him. His agent, who had started three years ago with a client list of one, was now the most sought after agent in New York. She still kept a client list of one.
And the Most Successful Agent expected her one client to keep her wealthy. When Evil Editor Madeline called The Most Successful Agent demanding to know when the next bestseller was going to be on her desk, The Most Successful Agent would turn to him.
Horace covered his face with his hands.
If he were lucky, very lucky, that sixth book would be his last. Maybe he could fade into obscurity. Maybe all this would just go away. He hadn’t meant for things to get out of control like this. It had been a joke, at first, a way to needle his friends at the coffee shop by showing them his finished manuscript while they slaved away at their own editing.
Sending a query letter had been a fun game… until the agents started calling. After that everything had snowballed and there hadn’t been a chance to explain the joke to anyone but Domino.
He peeked through the kitchen doorway at the bookshelf. It remained empty. Maybe the nightmare was coming to an end.
“Come on,” he said, patting the dog, “let’s go take our showers and get some sleep. Our devoted agent will be calling in the morning, bright and early, to drag me off to another interview. I don’t want to look as if I haven’t slept.”
He stumbled off to shower, trying to avoid looking in the mirror. He was over fifty and he hadn’t aged well. His PR people didn’t care; they told him he looked affable and jovial. Horace considered that over-kind. He was middle aged, overweight, going bald, and had bad teeth. But he never posed for the cover of the books so it didn’t matter.
He shaved, letting Domino play in the water while the shower warmed. Domino stepped out, shaking himself dry and trotted off. Horace tested the water, stepped in, washed, and groped around for his towel.
And groped some more, dripping water on the floor.
“Blast!” He scurried into the air-conditioned hall, shivering. Ran to the linen closet to grope there for a towel.
He pulled out a manuscript.
“Domino! Domino, we’ve been attacked!” The dog raced down the hall, skidded on the wet floor, and looked up at his sopping wet master. Horace shook the manuscript at the dog.
His ears flattened as his tail tucked.
Horace held the book near Domino’s face. “Try chewing it a bit.”
Domino yelped and ran.
Horace threw the infernal manuscript into the puddle of water and left it there while he dried.
Determined not to endure a seventh run as the New York Times’ best-selling author, he paraded past the manuscript to his room. He pulled on flannel pajamas, hands shaking as he did up the buttons.
A quick peek around corner confirmed the manuscript hadn’t vanished.
He cleaned the bathroom, scrubbed the toilet, disinfected the dog’s dish, and hung a dry towel by the shower.
The manuscript hadn’t moved.
Fear growing by the moment, he tided the house, dusting, mopping, straightening….
Realizing he’d run out of all possible chores except mopping up the puddle with the manuscript, he picked up the unwanted pages.
Times new roman, twelve point font, double-spaced. Just the way his agent liked it.
The water hadn’t even ruined the edges.
Shuddering, he slumped back to the bedroom, turned on the bedside light, and sat down to read the book. Domino hopped up beside him for moral support.
“Look at this first page!” Horace wailed. “It’s perfect!” Gripping, intense, passionate… “The New York Times are going to rave about this, I know it.” Tears blurred his vision.
He tried page two. Perfect.
Page three was even better.
“I know what the New York Times will say,” he said with a sniffle. “A brilliant masterpiece of cunning wit, enduring love, and a timeless metaphor for the human condition. They’ve done that to me before.”
Domino played dead.
“We have to get rid of this. I can’t face another book signing. I can’t go on Oprah again! No more parties! No more reviews! I can’t stand the pressure!”
He looked down at the dog.
“We burn it. No one will ever know. I’ll fade into comfortable obscurity. I won’t go insane and you won’t have to live in the pound with cats. No one will ever know that I can’t write to save my life. We end it. Tonight.”
Domino followed him to the living room and watched him start the fire.
“It’s for the best,” Horace promised.
He tossed the manuscript in and watched. The fire merrily burned away around the book. Flames kissed the manuscript. Hot breezes rifled the pages. Burning logs popped in accolade. But the pages didn’t singe.
The manuscript wouldn’t burn.
“This is a nightmare!” Horace threw another log on the fire and ran to hide under his blankets, praying the manuscript would turn to ash in the morning sunlight like the like sucking vampire it was.
All through the night he tossed and turned. Awards shows haunted his dreams. Hollywood directors calling for movie rights turned angry when he couldn’t remember the character’s names…
The next morning his sheets were drenched in sweat. The smell of animal fear permeated the room.
A key clicked in the lock of the apartment- his agent! He had to hide the manuscript before she found it!
Horace stumbled into the living room, bleary eyed and nauseous with worry.
His perfectly groomed agent perched on the couch devouring the latest, unsinged, manuscript.
“Horace! This is brilliant!” She gave him a very stern look. “Why was it in the fire place?”
“Oh, uh, well, you know how I feel about first drafts.” He gave her a weak smile. The future loomed dark with the promise of lies and television appearances. He would tell her. Right now, he’d confess that he hadn’t written the book. She could make everything go away.
But she laughed, smiling up at him as if he could do no wrong. “I don’t know how you do it.”
Resolve crumpled. Horace echoed her with a nervous laugh of his own. “The books just…. come to me. Isn’t that how it works for everyone?”