Notes: Oh thank god for my readerwife. I now have a plan, my friends. Direction, purpose, an avenue of discovery and displacement and renewal for this story. I have a way to make it work. And it will not be painless or easy, but it will be a better way than it was before. Phew. Now I can take the knife out of my heart that was stabbing me every time I sat down to write on this story.
And yeah, I’m considering a second serial. Possibly fantasy/steampunk. We’ll see, I’ve got to finish Cambion, it’s the one weighing on my brain now. Anyway, onward!
Title: Love Letters
Part Twenty-Three: Comfort Muppets
Monday meant that as far as Linda was concerned, Ben was back on the clock. She called him at nine in the morning precisely, and after avoiding her calls for a week Ben felt just guilty enough to pick up the phone.
“Benjamin!” God, how could she sound so sprightly all the time? “Good morning! Did you have a good trip? It must be nice to get back home, although I hope everything in Boston was just looovely for you.”
“It was fine,” Ben said, because the last person he was going to talk to about his week away was his agent.
“Good, good. Did you get a chance to write up chapter synopses for me?”
“You know I’m not done with the research yet, Linda.”
She tsked at him. “Benjamin, we’re on a time table,” she warned for the millionth time. “You have to keep up. You spent so much time on the proposal that now we’re a little behind schedule, and a little might turn into a lot if we’re not careful. I need chapter synopses by the end of the week.”
By the end of the…shit. “Give me the weekend too,” Ben said.
“Benjamin…honestly, I’d have thought you’d get more work done while you were in Boston.”
Yeah, me too. Memories of sleepless nights and tired days crawled back into his head, and he sighed. “Just let me have the weekend to finish the chapter synopses, okay? I’ll give you something next Monday.”
“Well, if you really feel you need the extra time…”
“I do.” He’d need at least that much time, with all the information from time at the library that he still had to parse through and more coming in today from Calanthe.
“All right, then.” Linda paused, then asked, “I don’t mean to pry, but are you okay, Benjamin? You sound exhausted. You’re not coming down with something, are you? God forbid you get something like mono right now, the schedule would never recover. Do you think you’re running a temperature?”
“I’m not sick,” Ben assured her. “Just tired. I’ll be fine, I’ll get this done.”
“Well, good.” Linda was quiet for a moment, and when she spoke again some of the treacle had leaked out of her voice, leaving her sounding more like a regular person. “It really is a great book idea, Benjamin. This topic has the potential to resonate with people, to give them a sense of connection to history that goes beyond patriotic stuff like flying flags and celebrating the fourth of July. I just want to make sure it gets done as well as it can.”
Ben was…touched, actually. “I know,” he said. “I want that too. I can write this book, Linda, I know what needs to happen. You don’t have to worry.”
“Good, good. Good! Lovely.” And her cupcake voice was back. “Then I’ll talk to you next week once you’ve sent me those synopses, Benjamin!”
“Sounds good, bye.” Ben turned off the phone and rubbed the front of his forehead for a moment. God, he felt tenser now than he had when he was in Boston, and that just wasn’t right. He was back in his own home, where the walls might be bare and colorless but at least he could hear himself think. He had over two thousand square feet all to himself, and that was a good, wonderful, relaxing thing for sure. Wasn’t it?
It was the work. Had to be the work. Ben’s time in the Boston Public Library had been useful, extremely useful, but he hadn’t had time to properly organize all of the information he’d copied. That plus the synopses (which he had known Linda was going to ask for, damn it, he’d known it and he still hadn’t been able to make himself work on them) plus the feeling of melancholy he was starting to associate with Ryan would make anyone tense. The trip might have been fun (kind of—the Ryan part was fun, and there was really a lot to recommend Jasmine, but the rest of it?) but it hadn’t been really productive, which meant that a lot of work had been pushed into this week that he couldn’t really afford.
Ben settled down into his chair, propped his laptop on his thighs and started to write. Synopsize, organize, clarify, extend. People who thought writing was an easy job, a lot of “ooh, that’s a good idea!” followed by careless clacking on the keyboard and a rapidly-finished product were so, so wrong. Writing, even writing nonfiction, was more than craft—it was art. And Ben knew just how hard making art could be, after this last week.
The only thing that pulled Ben out of his reverie were two texts from Ryan, one a picture of him that someone—probably Jasmine—had snapped while he was getting out of bed, looking sleepy and rumpled.
The other was a follow-up: Mmm so tired. Come back so I can sleep again.
Ben smiled at the text and saved the picture, but he limited his answer to: No rest for the wickedJ. Then he got back to work.
By the time Ben finally wound down it was eight o clock at night and he only just realized that he hadn’t eaten all day. He stood up, groaned and cracked his back and headed for the fridge to see what he could put together.
Huh, moldy cheese, moldy bread, limp lettuce…he could have the world’s most disgusting sandwich, or—yum, freezer-burned hamburger meat. Not good. Ben had totally forgotten the effect that leaving for a week would have on his already-meager supplies. Not to mention the smell—that smell was a task for tomorrow, he decided, and shut the door. Now what?
His question was answered by a rapid knock on the door. Ben knew that knock. “It’s open!” he called. A few moments later Heather walked into his kitchen, the usual offering of a six-pack in hand, but she didn’t look ready to watch Battlestar Galactica. She looked like she was about ready to cry.
“Welcome back,” she said, plunking the beers down on the table and sitting.
“Did you have fun in Boston?” she asked dully. Ben frowned.
“Some of it was fun. What’s wrong?”
Heather tilted her head toward the ceiling and sighed. “That obvious, huh?” She chuckled and ran a hand through her hair, loose for once instead of pulled back in a ponytail. “So, I did something stupid and now I need advice.”
“I think I’m the last person who should be giving out advice,” Ben said, sitting down next to her.
“No, you’re perfect for this. Hell, you gave me the idea, being all romantic and surprising your boyfriend in Boston.”
Uh-oh. Ben scrambled for something to say but Heather beat him to it. “Grab a beer. Trust me, this is a problem that requires alcohol. You’re going to think I’m so stupid…”
“I haven’t eaten anything all day, I really shouldn’t drink.”
“Dude, then get something to eat, because I’m not spilling my guts until you have a beer in your hand.”
They ended up ordering a pizza after Ben determined that, yeah, there was nothing salvageable in his kitchen except for dry cereal. Forty minutes later they had a pepperoni and mushroom pizza laid out on the kitchen table, the first pangs of hunger had been sated and Ben had a beer obediently in his hand.
“So what did you do?”
“Well…okay, so last week I was thinking about you dropping everything to go and see Ryan, and how sweet that was and how much he was gonna appreciate it. It’s a big gesture, a romantic one, who wouldn’t like that? He did like it, right?” She looked at Ben expectantly.
“Yeah, he liked it.”
“Of course he did, because he’s crazy about you. So I thought, well, maybe I should do that for Sarah, some sort of grand gesture of my own. Except Sarah is in Africa, and we’d already talked about me visiting and she swore I’d hate it there, but I decided, you know what, fuck it, you only live once and I wanted to show her how much she means to me. So I maxed out all my credit cards and bought a ticket to Accra.”
“To Accra?” That was the capital of Ghana. “I thought she lived in Togo.”
“She does, but it’s way more expensive to fly in there and the countries are right next to each other, so I figured I could just travel from one to the other once I arrived.” She laughed humorlessly. “I got approval for a month’s worth of vacation too. Wouldn’t be paid for most of it, but at least I could come back to a job. Then I called Sarah, because as much as I’d wanted to keep this a surprise there’s no way I’d manage over there if she wasn’t coming to meet me at the border, because I don’t speak French.”
“And what did she say?”
“She said…” Heather sniffed and wiped her face angrily. “She said that she didn’t want me to come because she was busy and had too much to do to be my tour guide for a month, that it was selfish of me, and that I should have asked her before I bought the ticket and I was too clingy and that she thought we shouldn’t be together anymore. She said we were moving in different directions and obviously didn’t communicate well and that…that I could box her stuff up and send it to her mom’s house.” Heather laughed, and it sounded awful. “The worst thing? Is that she’s kind of right. Things have been rough since she left, but I thought if I showed Sarah I was really committed, she’d be committed right back. Even if we spent the whole month living in a goddamn hut in the middle of nowhere, that would have been okay.” She shrugged and leaned back in the chair. “But it isn’t gonna happen now.”
Ben didn’t know what to say. At least Heather didn’t seem to want a hug or anything, but she was looking expectantly at him. Finally he asked, “Is the ticket refundable?”
Heather stared at him for a minute, then burst out laughing. This time it sounded like real laughter, a little wobbly but not full of the bitterness of her last attempt. “Seriously, that’s your question? I pour all my angst out to you and you ask me if I can get my money back?” She kept laughing, almost hysterical for a minute before she wound down. Ben just sat and hoped she wasn’t going to start crying in earnest. “Oh my god, you’re awesome. No, the ticket’s not refundable but I can change the date if I want to.”
“Do you still want to go to Africa?”
“I have no freakin’ clue right now. I mean, I was just going to see Sarah. What would I do in Africa by myself?”
“Travel. Explore. Maybe learn some French.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Heather looked pensively at the table. “Something to think about, I guess.” They sat in silence for a moment. “I left my iPad by the door. Wanna watch Muppets From Space?”
“There’s a muppet movie that takes place in space?”
“No, it’s muppets from space, it’s all about Gonzo and—dude, it’s a stupid comfort movie, you just have to watch it.” She grabbed her beer and slice of pizza and headed for the hall. After a second, Ben followed her.