The key slid into the lock. Richard entered his apartment, carrying his mail and his briefcase. He felt the stress leave his body as he crossed the threshold. He loved his apartment, even though it was much smaller than the house he had shared with his now ex-wife. He had his writing room. That’s all that counted.
Richard entered his sanctuary carrying another letter for the wall. Another story rejected. The wallpaper glue and letter dropped from his fingers. He smelled a faint fragrance of oranges. The hairs on the back of his neck rose. “Someone’s been here,” he thought.
Furtively glancing around, he approached the large and imposing desk. His writing notebook was on the left side, not the right where he had left it the night before. The paper in the antique Smith & Corona typewriter – a gift from his ex-wife when she believed in his writing – was no longer blank. It was filled with words.
Panicking, he ran from room to room. A two-bedroom apartment doesn’t take long to search. Nothing else was touched. The smell of oranges followed him.
He phoned the police. They told him to file a report online. The officer he spoke with was serious but Richard could hear the contained laughter in her responses. She asked him if he cleaned with orange-scented products. She also suggested that he change the locks.
Unsettled, he returned to his writing room and approached the old, wooden desk. Richard removed the paper from the typewriter and set it down. He sat and leaning forward, he read. “Hmmm, this is good,” was Richard’s first thought followed by, “I wonder who did this. They ruined my story though. Hacked it to pieces.” He ripped up the paper and tossed it in the wastebasket beside the desk.
He glanced around the room and saw the rejection letter and glue on the floor, illuminated by the setting sun shining through the window. Picking them both up, he placed the letter face down on the desk and brushed the glue on the back in quick, easy strokes. It had taken 25 letters to perfect the process so that the glue was even and the paper didn’t bubble on the wall. He walked to the corner behind the door and with great care, hung the page. “Last spot on this wall. I don’t know what I’ll do when every spot is taken. Maybe start in the hallway.” He glanced at the one open space in the middle of the longest wall. It was waiting for his first acceptance letter.
After returning the wallpaper glue to the pantry, Richard pulled his notebook towards him and wrote. As he wrote, he glanced at the papers in the waste basket. Why would anyone do this? Two hours later, he placed his notebook on the right of the desk, turned off the light and went to bed.
The constant beeping of the alarm clock jarred Richard awake from the dream of Greek goddesses and opulence. He reached over to turn the alarm off. “That can’t be right,” he thought when he saw the time. He looked at his watch. “Oh shit. I’m late for work.” He launched himself out of bed, hopped into the shower and got dressed. Richard grabbed his bag as he ran out the door.
“What a day.” Richard sighed, fumbling with his keys. They fell to the floor. “Crap.” Retrieving them, he jiggled the door key into the lock. It felt good to be home after the brutal day at work.
He changed into sweatpants and T-shirt before retrieving his tools. He replaced the deadbolt lock with the new one he had picked up from the hardware store and made sure to put the key on his keychain. With that job done, he pulled out last night’s Shanghai Noodles from the fridge and dumped them on a plate. Three minutes in the microwave and it was ready to eat. Richard lingered over his dinner.
He washed the dishes and headed for his refuge. At last, it was time to write. “There’s that smell again,” he thought. The veins on his neck throbbed as he got closer to the desk. His notebook was on the left, again. And there was a small stack of sheets on the right. The beginning pages of his story taunted him, all retyped and edited. Good thing he changed the lock tonight. No more story annihilations after tonight. He picked up his pen and wrote.
When his fingers cramped, he stopped. He dragged himself to bed, no longer worried about midnight visitors.
Richard breezed through the next day. He whistled “It’s a Wonderful World” as he walked home. People stopped to look at him as he walked by. He never noticed.
He remembered to use the new key for the deadbolt and entered his apartment. He kept whistling as he changed. He headed to the kitchen to heat up the last of the Shanghai Noodle before heading to his writing room. Tonight was going to be a good writing night. He could tell.
The smell of oranges tickled his nose. “What the hell? How did they get in here?” Like the previous two nights, his notes were neatly stacked on the right of the typewriter with his notebook on the left. Nothing else was moved. Richard sank into the chair. He didn’t look at the typewritten pages. He picked up his pen to write. Thoughts swirled in his head. They didn’t gel together into a story. Finally, after an hour, he gave up.
On a whim, before he turned out the light, he took a piece of paper and wrote in the middle
Who are you?
He propped the paper in front of the typewriter in hopeful anticipation of an answer from this mystery editor. As Richard brushed his teeth he thought who could be doing this and why me? Lying in bed he pictured his neighbors, his family, his friends – none of them were interested in writing. Sleep finally settled in.
The first rays of sunshine broke through the curtains and struck Richard in the face. He blinked. Remembering the note from last night, he bounded out of bed and walked down the hall to the office. There, in the middle of the desk, sat a response.
I’m your muse. Every writer has one, even if they
don’t pay attention to them. Call me Callie.
I’m here to make you a writer.
“I didn’t ask for help,” Richard thought, his brow furrowed. Publishers encouraged him to keep writing even though they rejected his stories. Scanning his wallpaper of rejection letters, the proof was there.
The day dragged along slower than a turtle crossing the road. Callie occupied his mind. Who was she? What did she want? He was a writer already so the note she left had to be a ruse. How did she get in? What if she was a con artist? And round and round he went until it was time to go home.
He shovelled the burritos he’d picked up into his mouth, barely chewing before he swallowed. He left the dishes in the sink. At last, it was time. He perused the typed pages and continued from where it left off. Ideas came to him, fast and furious. When his hand cramped, he wrote one last thing – a note to Callie.
I am a writer already. Been writing for five years.
Thank you for the editing. If you’re going to keep doing this,
shouldn’t we meet to set ground rules?
By the way, you’re going to have to learn my style
of writing. You can’t keep cutting things out willy-nilly.
One more thing, how did you get in here?
Richard opened his eyes. Five a.m. and the birds were already singing the joys of the days. He sighed. His mind circled around the question of Callie. He turned over hoping for a few more minutes of sleep. After five minutes, Richard gave up. His mind wouldn’t let go of Callie, his writing, his job. He padded to the bathroom and then to the kitchen. He needed coffee.
Slightly more awake and armed with a cup of coffee, he went to his sanctuary. A faint scent of oranges greeted him. He was not surprised when he saw the piece of paper on the desk. Leaning down, he read.
I can see you are a huge success with
your wallpaper of rejection letters.
There’s a message there, Richard.
Ever thought of getting some help?
Richard frowned. He was a good writer. The rejection letters told him so. He was going to have to straighten her out. And why would she ask about getting help?
Callie’s letter distracted him all day. His boss had to ask him three times about Mrs. Jones’ account in a meeting. It got so bad that he asked Richard if he needed to go home. Richard told him something – couldn’t remember what – and made it through the day.
After supper, Richard reread what Callie had typed the night before. He burst out laughing halfway through. He liked what she did with this latest installment. She was getting his writing. This might work out, after all.
I don’t need help. I need practice.
It’s just a matter of time before somebody
says yes. You never answered my question.
Can we meet somewhere? We need to establish guidelines.
Thanks for the editing.
Richard woke before the alarm clock. No birds or sunshine this time. Sitting up, he ran his fingers through his hair. After brushing his teeth and making coffee, it was time to see what she wrote. He didn’t like it at all.
How long have you been practicing?
Shouldn’t you at least have one acceptance by now?
Part of your problem is that you like to tell us what’s
going on rather than showing us.
Do me a favour – For tomorrow, don’t use the words “to, decided,
because, tried, when, in, with, felt, knew, believed,
realized, thought, prayed, wondered, hoped, considered.”
And you’re welcome.
“I’m not going to do that.” Richard said out loud. “How dare she, anyway?” He paced. She didn’t come right out and say it. Well almost. She thought he was a lousy writer. He paced some more. He would show her. He could write wonderful prose without those words. Feeling challenged, he got ready for work. Lots to formulate today.
In a break from his routine, Richard ate in the office that night. He wrote as he ate. Bits of rice fell onto his page. He brushed them aside and kept writing. At 2 a.m. he put his pen down.
Callie, I did what you asked.
I’m not sure why but there you have it.
Lots of editing to be done.
Exhausted, Richard groaned when the alarm clock sounded. The birds and the sun outside his window were much too cheery. He crawled out of bed and padded to the writing room.
Richard, this is good.
Do it again.
Thus, a routine was set. Richard would look at Callie’s review in the morning and check how much editing she had done. He would go to work mulling over her new set of instructions. After dinner, he would write. Callie would type it with edits. She would leave new instructions.
Richard, your dialogue is stilted. Try reading it out loud.
Callie, my neighbor asked me if I had a girlfriend.
Heard me talking to somebody. Are you still reading my stories?
I don’t see as many changes.
Richard, of course, I read your stories.
You’re starting to write like a writer.
You’ll never be perfect – but that’s okay.
At least now your writing is engaging.
I have one more thing I want you to do.
You have 5 senses. Use them all in every scene.
Callie, I didn’t use all of them for every scene.
Close but no cigar. Listen, it’s been over a month.
Are we ever going to meet? And thanks
Richard, it’s almost time to send
this story to a publisher.
Do you have an ending for it?
Richard froze as his heart sped up. This story was his baby. He had coddled it, walked at night with it, laughed at it, and wept with it. For the first time in five years, he was scared. What if they didn’t like it?
Richard, this is ready. I made one small change. The word “slashed”
fits better than “lacerated”.
Annoyed, Richard crumpled her note. He read the story from start to end. Callie changed more than just the word. She rewrote whole sections. She had done this before and that was okay while he was learning. But really… it was his story and he wanted to tell it his way. It was time to set her straight.
Callie, “slashed” doesn’t get the true horror of
the action across. And you didn’t just change one word.
You changed whole sections.
This doesn’t feel like my story anymore.
I know what I want the reader to read and this
doesn’t even come close.
Don’t do this again. I’m going to have to rewrite this.
Richard turned off the light and went to the bathroom. He looked at himself in the mirror as he brushed his teeth. He looked the same as a month ago. He sure felt different. Almost like a writer.
The next morning, he grabbed his coffee and went to his writing room. Only the faintest of orange scents hung in the air. No typewritten pages for him to review.
Richard, this is your story. My changes
were done to enhance what you’ve done.
One piece of advice – the reader will decide
what they want to read. Your job is to give it to them.
Do you know what they want?
Irritated, he typed out the pages from the previous night before going to work.
Callie didn’t come that day nor the next. Richard cursed her. How could she be so irresponsible? Didn’t she know that Richard depended on her to give feedback? What if she didn’t come back?
As the deadline to submit approached, Richard left notes for Callie. He apologized and pleaded. He needed her to look at the ending of his story. Could she please give him feedback? The silence was deafening.
The deadline to submit arrived. Callie still wasn’t talking to him. He knew she read his notes. He found them laid flat on the desk rather than propped up against the typewriter. He stayed up one night, hoping to catch her. She didn’t show. For the first time since Richard started writing, he was unsure if he should submit. The story felt incomplete without Callie’s input. He waited until the end of the day, debating in his head – should he or shouldn’t he? At last, he sealed the story in the envelope and sent it. His hands shook as he did it.
Days and the weeks went by. Richard wrote every day as always. The joy and anticipation that had been a hallmark of his writing time no longer existed. He missed Callie. Eventually, even the scent of oranges went away. He stopped writing notes to her.
Richard’s hands trembled as he opened the letter from the publisher. He skimmed it, ran his hand through his hair and jumped up. The Muse had been accepted. They want him to expand the story a little. Oh yes, could he substitute the word “slashed” rather than “lacerated”?
He danced around the room. He kissed the letter and held it up as if he were holding a baby. He kissed it again. He whooped it up. He sat down. Tears found their way down his cheeks. After awhile, he went to his bedroom and from the back of the closet, took out the frame that he had bought so long ago. When his ex-wife believed that he was Ernest Hemingway in the making. Bringing it back to the office, he set it on the desk. His phone rang.
“Hello. What? There’s been an accident?…Is he okay?… Can you tell me what happened?…. Have you called my parents?… Tell my brother I’m on my way…. I’ll be there in 10 minutes.” Frame and letter sat, forgotten on his desk, as Richard rushed out.
The birds had started their day by the time Richard returned from the hospital. It had been a long night. His mom and dad were already at the hospital when Richard rushed in. A policewoman arrived shortly after. She asked about his brother, where he lived and other details. During the conversation, she told them that his brother was lucky to be alive – good thing he was wearing his seatbelt. The drunk driver who hit him wasn’t wearing his. He didn’t make it.
Richard crawled into bed and instantly, fell asleep.
Hours later, he jerked awake – his dream interrupted by the neighbor’s dog barking and a lawnmower being powered up. He stretched, got up and made his way to the bathroom. A slight scent of oranges hung in the air.
Recognizing the scent, he hurried down the hall to the writing room. There, in the centre of the longest wall, his framed acceptance letter hung.