“Offended? This isn’t my offended face. I look like this because I’m tired. My weird-ass neighbor was blasting his crying soundtrack all night.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, must’ve been the ‘music’ that was making it so hard for you to walk last night too. Hey, if you think you might have a ‘music’ problem, there’s no shame in getting help.”
“Anyway,” I said, still fighting a blush. “You never told me what you write, Everett. I’m sure it’s something really groundbreaking and important. Totally new and fresh. Like a story about a disillusioned white guy, wandering the world, misunderstood and coldly horny.”
A laugh barked out of him. “‘Coldly horny’? As opposed to the very artfully handled sexual proclivities of your genre? Tell me, which do you find more fascinating to write: love-struck pirates or love-struck werewolves?”
And now I was seething again.
“Well, it’s not really about me so much as what my readers want. What’s it like writing Hemingway circle-jerk fan fiction? Do you know all your readers by name?” There was something sort of freeing about new January.
Gus’s head tilted in that familiar way and his brow knit as his dark eyes studied me, the intensity of them making my skin prickle. His full lips parted as if he was about to speak, but just then Pete hung up the phone and slipped into our circle, cutting him off.
“What are the odds, eh?” Pete asked, clapping her hands together. “Two published writers on the same little street in North Bear Shores! I bet you two will be shooting the shit all summer. I told you this town was full of artists, didn’t I, January? How do you like that?” She laughed heartily. “No sooner had I said it than Everett marches right in! The universe is on my side today, looks like.”
The ringing of my phone in my pocket saved me from having to answer. For once, I scrambled to answer the call, eager to escape this conversation. I was hoping for Shadi, but the screen read ANYA, and my stomach sank.
I looked up to find Gus’s dark eyes burning into me. The effect was intimidating. I glanced toward Pete. “Sorry—I’ve got to take this, but it was lovely meeting you.”
“Back atcha!” Pete assured me as I retreated through the maze of shelves. “Don’t forget to mail me an email!”
“See you at home,” Gus called after me.
I answered Anya’s call and slipped outside.
“SWEAR YOU CAN do this, January,” Anya was saying as I zoomed out of town. “If I promise Sandy a book by September first, we have got to have a book by September first.”
“I’ve written books in half that time,” I shouted over the wind.
“Oh, I know you have. But we’re talking about this manuscript. We’re talking specifically about the one that’s now taken fifteen months and counting. How far are you?”
My heart was racing. She was going to know I was lying to her. “It’s not written,” I said. “But it’s planned. I just need some time to hammer it out, no distractions.”
“I can do no distractions. I can be the Queen of Not Distracting You, but please. Please, please, please, don’t lie to me about this. If you want a break—”
“I don’t want a break,” I said. And I couldn’t afford one. I had to do whatever it took. Empty the beach house so I could sell it. Write a romance despite having recently lost close to all faith in love and humanity. “It’s coming along great, actually.”
Anya pretended to be satisfied, and I pretended to believe she was satisfied. It was June second and I had just under three months to write a book-like thing.
So of course, rather than heading straight home to work, I was driving to the grocery store. I’d had two sips of Pete’s latte, and it was three sips too many. I dumped it in the trash can on my way into Meijer and replaced it with a giant iced Americano from the Starbucks kiosk inside before stocking up on enough drafting food (macaroni, cereal, anything that didn’t require much prep) to last me a couple of weeks.
By the time I got home, the sun was high, the heat thick and sticky, but at least the iced espresso had softened the pounding in my skull. When I’d finished unloading the groceries, I carried my computer onto the deck, only to realize I’d let the battery die last night. I went back inside to plug it in and caught my phone buzzing on the table. A text from Shadi: No WAY. Sexy, Evil GUS? Did he ask about me? Tell him I miss him.
I typed back, Still sexy. Still EVIL. I will NOT tell him as I will NOT be speaking to him again, for as long as we both shall live. He didn’t remember me.
Shadi answered immediately. Hmmmm, there is LITERALLY no way that’s true. You are his fairy princess. His shadow self. Or he’s yours or whatever.
She was referring to another humiliating Gus moment I’d tried to forget. He’d ended up in a general math class with Shadi and mentioned that he’d noticed we were friends. When she confirmed, he asked her what my “deal” was. When she asked him to elaborate on what the hell that meant, he’d shrugged and mumbled something about how I acted like a fairy princess who’d been raised by woodland creatures.
Shadi told him I was actually an empress who’d been raised by two very sexy spies.
Seeing him in the wild after all this time was horrifying, I told her. I’m traumatized. Please come nurse me back to health.
Soon, habibi, she wrote back.
I was aiming to write fifteen hundred words that day. I only made it to four hundred, but on the bright side, I also won twenty-eight consecutive games of spider solitaire before I stopped to stir-fry some veggies for dinner. After I’d eaten, I sat in the dark, folded up at the kitchen table, with a glass of red wine caught in the glow of my laptop. All I needed was a bad first draft. I’d written dozens of those, spat out faster than I could type and then painstakingly rewritten in the months following.
So why couldn’t I just make myself write this bad book?
God, I missed the days when the words poured out. When writing those happy endings, those kisses in the rain and music-swelling, knee-on-the-ground proposal scenes had been the best part of my day.
Back then, true love had seemed like the grand prize, the one thing that could weather any storm, save you from both drudgery and fear, and writing about it had felt like the single most meaningful gift I could give.
And even if that part of my worldview was taking a brief sabbatical, it had to be true that sometimes, heartbroken women found their happy endings, their rain-falling, music-swelling moments of pure happiness.
My computer pinged with an email. My stomach started flipping and didn’t stop until I’d confirmed it was just a reply from Pete, with the address for her book club and a one-sentence message: Feel free to bring your favorite drink or just yourself :)))
I smiled. Maybe some version of Pete would make it into the book.
“One day at a time,” I said aloud, then swiped up my wine and wandered to the back door.
I cupped my hand around my eyes to block the glare on the glass and peered toward Gus’s deck. Smoke had been pluming out of the firepit earlier, but it was gone now, the deck abandoned.
So I slid the door open and stepped out. The world was cast in shades of blue and silver, the gentle rush of the tide breaking on sand made louder by the silence of the rest of the world. A gust of wind blew off the treetops, making me shiver, and I tightened the robe around me, draining my wineglass, then turned back to the house.