As mentioned, we’re starting a new challenge — the Genre Writing Challenge. Each round, the three writers — Perry, Gary, and me — will write a story on a given genre. The Twins decided the Second genre is Thriller.
For the record, thrillers can be almost any genre, so this was likely a poor choice on our part, especially since it’s difficult to define thriller as a completely different and standalone genre.
We’re again staggering the publication of the stories, this time beginning with Gary’s story. Perry’s will go up on Tuesday, and — FSM-willing — I’ll have one for Thursday.
Our usual disclaimer:
The writing challenge has no restrictions, and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG range, with a few perhaps pushing into the R range. Those ratings are guidelines, but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same goes if you are not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
So, without further ado, here’s Gary’s contribution to the Thriller genre.
Wait . . . first, the blurb:
Prepare to be thrilled in more ways than one. This story starts with a crime and ends with…just read and find out for yourself.
Copyright 2023 — R. G. Broxson
(3,725 words – approx. reading time: about 14 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“911. What is the nature of your emergency?”
“I’ve been robbed.”
“Ma’am, are you in danger right now?”
“No. The thief is gone. Everything’s gone. It’s all gone.”
“Ma’am, before I dispatch a unit to your location, can you tell me what was taken?”
“My muse. Somebody stole my muse.” Ellen, hearing her own words out loud, hung up. When the police arrived to follow up on the dropped call, Ellen showed up at the door in a loose bathrobe, flip flops, and a thong wielding a bottle of tequila; she was a terrific actress. The officers were happy to write it off as a misdial and suggested Ellen seek professional help.
Ellen wasn’t actually tequila drunk…yet. But that was plan A, B, and 3. Her muse really had been stolen and she was heart-broken, disoriented, and felt gutted like an aquarium angelfish. Before starting plan A through 3, Ellen called the contact number for the SAG union psychiatrist and made an emergency appointment for the next day—she took the second strong shot of tequila and made the appointment for late in the afternoon.
After the call, Ellen sat on her front porch, poured more sloppy shots, and cried. Her tears were not searing or salty; they were tepid and desalinated. Somewhere near the middle of the Mescal label Ellen reflected on her day. She scrawled loopy notes in her diary right up to the moment everything faded to black—black and white. Ellen had gone completely color-blind.
Ellen awoke with a worm in her mouth—half a worm. She had executed her alphanumeric plan of brain cell destruction perfectly—A. drink B. cry 3. pass out. Her phone buzzed like an angry hornet. Ellen looked at it like a monkey minding a blue banana. And then synapses started firing and neurons ignited, just like Ellen’s old Datsun that sometimes needed a couple of accelerator pumps to get’er going on cold mornings. Coffee helped. Fresh air helped.
Ellen slowly, like a butter-pillar from its cocoon, struggled to emerge. She awoke and squinted up at blinding sunlight, seeing only a day of brightness and potential before her. As reality rushed back to her, a mythic wolf, Fenrir, swallowed Ellen’s sun, squatted on her front lawn and shat out shadows. Ellen shrunk into those shitty shadows, wrapped in her blankets like the reluctant butter-pillar, refusing to emerge and fly. She simply couldn’t start her day. Polly, her muse, was gone and her imaginings and her creativity, like the Nordic wolf and the butter-pillar thingy, were unfocused, fragmented, and just plain stupid for a middle-age woman with a hangover.
Late that afternoon, Ellen managed to emerge. Her metaphoric butterfly wings were as limp as left-over lettuce and just as airworthy. She perfunctorily showered, blew out her hair, and dressed herself. Ellen checked her appointment book, barely able to read her own handwriting. She bucked up and Ubered her way to the address she had scrawled.
The afternoon was now drab and dim, slate-gray, cold and overcast as she entered the high rise and searched for the correct floor and office. Her elevator dinged dully and Ellen emptied out in front of a black and white placard that pointed to various offices. Ellen turned left; her least favorite direction. She pushed open the door, checked in with a red-head receptionist and waited in the anteroom for her union-prescribed psychiatrist.
After a wait of minutes or hours, time is skewed in such places; a bent woman emerged from the interior office. She was sobbing. The receptionist offered her a wad of Kleenex like a departing gift carnation and the weeping woman accepted the miniature bouquet, dabbing at her tomato-red face.
The phone rang with a drilling buzz. Ellen flinched. The receptionist looked up at Ellen, the only person in the waiting room. “Ellen Stillborn; is there an Ellen Stillborn here for the doctor?”
Ellen waved, looked around and felt foolish. “Ellen Stillman,” she corrected, looking around to make sure she hadn’t stumbled into a gynecologist office. The receptionist pressed her palm to the receiver and announced, “Mrs. Stillborn, you can go in now.”
“Awe, Mrs. Still…”
“Miss Stillman,” Ellen corrected the doctor before the mistake went viral.
“Yes, of course. I have you down for my four-o’clock. Let me take your coat.” Ellen shrugged off the long black coat like battle-scarred armor and the host hung it primly on a hook. “Please sit down and get comfortable,” the psychiatrist waved at an array of furniture that somehow included a wicker swing. “I’m Dr. Bzzzzzzz,” she mouthed her name just as her phone rang, washing away any discernible consonants and vowels required to form an actual name.
Ellen pretended to hear the name and nodded, smiling wanly. Ellen looked at the psychiatrist’s chest closely, almost luridly, hoping to spy a badge or name tag. Then Ellen realized that she wasn’t even sure if her doctor was male or female, Mr. or Mrs. or Miss, or perhaps just Dr.
The psychiatrist was slight, bearing delicate features, sporting short slicked-back hair and wearing a sleek pinstriped suit and dark tie. Ellen assumed it was probably brightly colored but all she saw was monochrome. To her, the ensemble looked like black and white striped prison garb on prom night at the penitentiary. She had lost her muse and with it, all color.
Think, Ellen, think, she thought. Her mind wanted to scream Mr. or Mrs. Pronoun. But that couldn’t be right, could it?
Ellen was spared some embarrassment when her psychiatrist spoke directly to her in a decidedly feminine tone. She invited Ellen to sit down in a straight-back chair, not a couch as she had imagined. The doctor sat across from her with crossed ankles and began taking notes on a legal pad.
“Your message to the answering service was a bit cryptic when you made the appointment. The service transcribed it for us. Something about a missing mouse?” The psychiatrist referred to her laptop, scrolling down.
“No ma’am, no.” Ellen shook her head and flapped her hands. “It’s my muse that’s missing, and she’s not a mouse, she’s a cat—a calico.” Ellen smiled and relaxed, somehow assured she had clarified everything.
The psychiatrist crossed out something on her legal pad and began writing again more intensely. “I see; your so-called muse is missing?” She glanced up at Ellen who was nodding north and south. “And your muse was a cat?” she paused. Ellen nodded. “And there was never a mouse muse?”
Ellen stopped nodding. She wasn’t sure which way to shake her head to confirm the last question, so she just replied, “No muse mouse.” She felt like she was giving unexpected testimony to Congress and should have probably pleaded the fifth.
“Can you show me your cat?” The psychiatrist asked.
Ellen froze again, unsure what was being asked.
“Your muse? Do you have a picture?”
“Oh, yes, of course.” Ellen laughed nervously and fumbled for her phone, tapped a code twice to get it right, and began flipping north, then south, then sliding east, then west.
“C’mon,” Ellen muttered to herself. She looked up apologetically. “Just got this new cell. Perhaps my Polly pix haven’t descended from the cloud yet.” She shrugged, chagrined.
“So, Miss Stillbrane…”
Ellen didn’t even try to correct her.
“… when, exactly, did you lose your muse?”
“Yesterday,” Ellen replied confidently. “When I got home, she was just gone.” Ellen tried not to tear up.
“Can you tell me more about what happened, what preceded this loss?” the psychiatrist probed with an open-ended question.
Ellen was actually excited to tell her tale; she was a natural storyteller. “I am a director, you see. I make films.” She pressed her palms together and rubbed them like she was ready to create sparks, start a fire. Her eyes danced as she humble-bragged, “You may know me from the critically acclaimed and peer-nominated indie films View from Peru or Orange County Blues.” Her eyes widened expectantly. She tried to turn this declarative statement into a question, but the pragmatic psychiatrist didn’t reply.
“My cat, my Polly, my muse, was always there to inspire me in the creation of my films. We did it together. When I sat down to write, she would curl up on my lap. When I got stumped, I would stroke Polly’s crazy-colored fur, look into her bright yellow eyes, and always, it never failed, there I would find an idea.”
“Yes, I see,” the psychiatrist nodded and jotted.
“I had an appointment yesterday morning to pitch my latest idea for a new music video to a bunch of mogul media producers at a prominent network.” Ellen could remember every detail and was excited to share the details with anyone and everyone until the psychiatrist stopped her in her tracks.
Dr. Noname held up a finger, and Ellen stopped mid-sentence. The nameless doctor moved her perfectly manicured digit slowly toward Ellen’s face and pressed her pad firmly to Ellen’s lips. “Do me a favor, Mrs. Stillnoise. Put your artsy little director ball cap back on, preferably backward, sit in your high-back director chair, and tell me your story from that singular, professional perspective. I want you to take yourself completely out of the picture and give me a third person omniscient point of view. It’s a therapeutic trick that I like to use on my cinematic clients. I believe I can get a better representation of you, your work, and your problem if I can eat popcorn in your audience for a scene or two.”
“Brilliant! I love a receptive audience,” Ellen beamed. She tussled her diary out from her bag and flipped to the latest passages. “I’ve got a personal script to pull from.” She excitedly flapped her notebook like a dead seagull. “And I can improv like a mutha.” Ellen snapped a Z with her fingers with newfound fervor.
Ellen quickly skimmed her recent entries. She found her loopy log from the previous evening and began narrating with the Shakespearean voice of Desdemona, riffing from her notes: “The morning began with a hearty breakfast for Ellen and Polly, Ellen’s fat calico cat. When Ellen was approached about the cat’s unique sobriquet, Ellen would smile and laugh, fore she loved to tell the story. My cat Polly wasn’t named after Long John Silver’s cracker-addicted parrot or for her positive Pollyanna personality—she can be a positively ferocious feline, Ellen recounted. My Polly was named for famed artist Jackson Pollack, the abstract painter. I see in my cat’s calico coat the soulful spatterings he produced on blank canvas as he vomited up a palette of possibilities from above, using an 8ft ladder to get a God’s-eye view of his stellar creation below. Ellen Stillman, Polly’s new pet, was a young and talented director and she just wanted someone to give her a chance. She just wanted the world to remember her name after she was gone. They called him Jack-the-Dripper, she lamented. It was clever and cool and it stuck, but it was just a dumb name that stuck. It wasn’t who he really was.
Ellen skimmed her journal and picked back up. “Ellen distinctly remembered watching a large banana spider spin her web as she lounged on her back porch eating breakfast that very morning. There, as the sun’s glorious rays danced on the dewy web, Ellen read the familiar, silky words “Some Pig” magically woven into the tapestry of the gossamer web.”
“Yes, ma’am, you’re right, Ellen had replied to the spider. This is some pig. Ellen took a huge bite into the sausage, egg, and cheese, Jimmy Dean biscuit she held to her lips. Ellen’s eyes closed as she savored the sacrifice of such a dedicated and delicious porker. Sorry, Charlotte, Ellen’s glazed eyes met the many eyes of the spider. Charlotte just smiled and winked a few eyes and waved a leg at Ellen in jest.”
“Fade to black,” Ellen bowed her head in a gesture of reverence, for herself. When no one applauded or commented in the small office, she simply continued. She droned on and on about the industry intricacies of presenting a detailed video to executives, producers, and investors. Her psychiatrist took notes and even feigned interest. As it does in most stories, the conflicts rapidly climbed the pyramid of rising action and moved inexorably toward the awaited crescendo—the climax.
So, at the very end, after the big zombie dance, the cool dude in the letterman jacket turns to his frightened girlfriend…and his eyes go yellow.
Ellen opened her own eyes and turned to the producers, waiting for their reaction. Only jumbled mumbles of confusion came from the dark circle. Ellen searched for smiles and found only scowls.
The young director, out of breath from her pitch, fake-smiled like a cheerleader that had just finished a flawless routine and ended with a vag-rending split, punctuated with a one-hand fist pump. She waited…vulnerable…exposed…and waited some more, until her toothy smile no longer matched her anxious eyes.
Helpful Ellen finally felt obliged to coax and coach her addled audience; He turns into a fucking werewolf. Don’t you friggin’ get it?
Still narrating the scene to her doctor, Ellen explained, “That’s when the room erupted with laughter. That was the last thing Ellen had expected. Maybe a few oohs and awes, maybe a polite patter of golf applause, but certainly not laughter. This was not a comedy after all, and she was not a clown.
Ellen continued to describe the scene from a director’s point of view.
The bright lights powered on and the slide show that Ellen was presenting faded into the ultra-whiteness of the walls. Ellen blinked into the brightness and could now see their fleshy faces; old fat men with jiggling jowls in shark-skin suits elbowing each other and trading jibes. Ellen felt like a sighted woman in a room of eyeless idiots; but father fate had placed these idiots in charge. Ellen’s fake smile faded into a frown.
“Elaine,” a spokesman interrupted the table babble.
“It’s Ellen, sir.” Ellen corrected.
“Yes, Elaine, we…” the man surveyed the round table of producers, “we think your idea stinks.”
The room erupted again with guffaws of praise for the octogenarian. Some rabble-rousers blew raspberries of derision for the presentation.
Ellen, no stranger to criticism, and an indie award-winning director, spoke up. “Might I ask why…” she paused for dramatic effect, and then added, “gentlemen?”
With tiny black eyes buried in folds of fat, the senior producer glared at the young director as if she had just taken a giant dump in a tiny teacup. He smirked and replied matter-of-factly, “Werewolves aren’t niggers.” The room roared again with back slaps and here-heres. It was settled. Ellen’s proposal was shot down with a silver bullet.
“What, who?” Ellen snapped out of narration mode and back into fucked-up-and-needs-psychiatric-help mode.
“Your fat-face producer friends—they’re right. And they’re racists. But technically, they are correct when they say there aren’t any black werewolves,” the psychiatrist intoned clinically.
“Whose side are you on?” Ellen snapped, without actually snapping this time.
“Miss Stillwit, I am an impartial observer, remember what we talked about. I am your audience. Think of me as a film critic, a Siskel or Ebert without the signature thumbs-up or thumbs-down. I’m merely making a point. Lon Cheney, Jr., Michael Landon, Michael J. Fox, Jack Nicholson, and a host of others have been howlingly successful Hollywood werewolves; all white as the pope.”
“So, what you are saying,” Ellen shot back, “is that werewolves are racists?”
The psychiatrist fixed Ellen with a stare. “What I’m saying Ms. Stillwont, is that colors of all kind are important to a person in your profession. Black, white, or rainbow, colors must be considered in everything you do.”
Ellen took a moment to think about what she had said; after all, she was paying for psychiatric advice. “You’re right, and now I am color blind.”
“Now we are getting somewhere.” The psychiatrist put pen to paper. “When did your color wheel stop spinning? When did you lose your muse?”
“It was right after I confronted the producers.”
“Confronted? Confronted?” Is that the word you want to use, Miss Stillnotgettingit?” The psychiatrist flipped back the page of her legal pad. “Here it is…might I ask why, gentlemen? That was your strong response, your rebuttal to the producers and their bigoted critique.”
They both stopped and looked at each other. Neither broke the stare. Then, a tear welled in Ellen’s eye and rolled down her cheek. She sniffed and the psychiatrist snatched up a carnation of Kleenex.
“You are right. I let those cretins take everything from me. My pride, my confidence, my…my mojo. And then I just walked away, without a peep.” Ellen shook her head and blew her nose.
“So, what are you going to do about it?” the psychiatrist asked.
“Do about it. What can I do? They…they rejected me.” She blew again into the tissue.
“Who graduated second in her class at the University of Foreign Arts?”
“I did. I was number two at U-FARTS.”
“Who wrote and directed A View from Peru?”
“Who won runner up for the most colorful Indie film with Orange County Blues?”
Ellen wiped her nose one last time. “I did.”
“Who creates worlds like a goddess?
“Who stole your muse?”
Ellen looked at the woman for a long moment.
“I did.” Ellen’s eyes widened. The realization was on her face.
“How did you know?” Ellen asked the psychiatrist.
The woman walked over to the coat rack and pinched Ellen’s jacket from the tree. She examined it. “No cat hair.”
Ellen watched her, as one might watch a magician.
“No cat hair means no cat. No cat means no Polly. No Polly means no muse. Do you follow?”
Ellen nodded. She glanced at her phone, remembering that she had been unable to find a picture of her cat, her Polly, her muse.
“But those movies. Ellen needed her cat to help her come up with those ideas. She…I mean I couldn’t have done it without Polly,” Ellen argued.
“Is that so?” The psychiatrist looked unconvinced.
“Let’s try something. I want you to retell the story you told me about your morning. But I want a new ending. I want award-winning Indie film Director Ellen Stillman’s finale.”
Ellen thought for a moment.
The psychiatrist looked back through her notes. “Pick up from the point where they told you, werewolves aren’t…African American.”
Ellen gathered herself. She pretended that she held her cat in her arms. “Ellen was angry,” Ellen started.
“That’s it. Own your anger,” the psychiatrist encouraged.
“Ellen glared at the flabby, heaving, laughing, assembly of producers. She focused on one in particular. Ellen opened her mind and pushed. The producer’s head exploded. Bone, blood and brain repainted the room into an artistic splattering and showered the remaining producers. They laughed even harder. Ellen pushed again. One of the fat men turned to his neighbor and kissed him on the mouth. As they embraced, the amorous man drove his thumbs into his paramour’s eye sockets…”
“Cut! Let’s take a short break here,” the psychiatrist interrupted. She poured both of them a glass of water.
“Don’t get me wrong. I like what you did there. It was quite graphic and cathartic…I’m sure. But, let’s try a new tact, shall we. Maybe you should use your true talent, your words, to make your point this time.”
Ellen nodded again. She cleared her mind and began again. “You’re right, Ellen fired back at the producers. There are no black werewolves. The producers stopped laughing for a moment, perhaps shocked. They never tired of listening to those that agreed with their conclusions.”
“Much better, Ellen. Now you’ve got their attention. You can flip this around,” the psychiatrist nodded, sitting on the edge of her seat.
“There was once a man that sold shoes. He took his wares to Africa in hopes of getting rich. When he arrived, he looked around, packed his bags and went back home. When he returned to his hometown, a friend asked him why. The man said, I’m a shoe salesman, nobody in Africa wears shoes.
The other man, sensing opportunity, bought out his neighbor and took his wares to Africa. He got rich immediately. Upon returning to his hometown to visit his family, he ran into the man that had sold him the shoe business. The man asked him how he had fared. I’m richer than Croesus, the man replied. It seems that nobody in Africa wears shoes. It’s the perfect market for a good shoe salesman.
The producers looked at one another, wondering exactly where they had missed the point.
Ellen slammed her fists down on the mahogany table; all eyes turned to her. Don’t you see, there are no black werewolves. This is the perfect market for someone to sell black werewolves. I can do this; I CAN DO THIS!
The producers were silent for a moment. Then the man in the middle clapped once, then twice. The others were caught off guard, but quickly caught up. They all stood and applauded.”
“Bravo. A terrific ending to a marvelous story,” the psychiatrist clapped quietly.
The psychiatrist reached over her desk and offered a high five to Ellen. Ellen leaned out to meet her palm. Her chair tottered on two legs and Ellen lunged backward, overcompensating. As she fell in slow motion, Ellen saw the nameplate on the psychiatrist’s desk; it had been obscured by a pile of papers until now. It read Dr. Catherine Pollack. Ellen crashed down onto the hardwood floor. Everything went dark.
Ellen awoke. Her head throbbed. The first thing she noticed was the colorful label of an empty tequila bottle. Ellen blinked; she was no longer color blind. She thought of the old spoonerism, I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy. She tried to laugh at this, then choked and spat something out. Ellen looked at the pale blob on the floor and realized that it was a worm. Well, half a worm.
Had all this been a dream? A tequila and rejection-fueled dream. As she wondered, she felt the familiar purr of her cat, her Polly, her muse.
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