Short Fiction for Guests of the WordFeeder
(It’s time for something a little different.)
Friday, July 22, 2011
“Good afternoon, Nathan.” At precisely 3 PM, Dr. Cheryl Schreiber, Doctor of Psychology, somewhere in her thirties, opened the door to the loft where she lived and had her office. Even at a distance, he could feel the faint swoosh of air touching his face. “Com’on in.” Nathan had been waiting in the lobby Dr. Schreiber shared with the other professionals in the converted factory.
Rising quickly, Nathan took his eyes off the cable news that was playing on the flat screen on the wall across from where he had been sitting, turning to smile at the attractive woman he was there to see. Gray jeans, a white pleated shirt, her shoulder length hair shifting inexplicably when and however it wanted, she moved to greet him with a presence you could feel coming. “Hi.” He extended his hand, which she shook firmly. “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.” They were alone in the lobby, and spoke openly. “I just felt I needed to see someone and a friend said you.. said you were easy to talk to.”
“That’s good to hear,” she responded, turning and gesturing Nathan toward the open door to her office. Closing that door behind her, she pointed to the center of the room, well lit from skylights overhead and several very large windows cut into the original brick walls. “Please, have a seat, wherever you feel comfortable. …Can I get you anything? I’ve made some freshly squeezed lemonade?”
“Wow. Uh, that would be great.” He was hungry, being a person who needed to eat every few hours, and wasn’t just trying to be gracious.
While Nathan sat on the soft leather love seat, Dr. Schreiber came over with a tray, two glasses, a pitcher of the lemonade and some homemade, chewy oatmeal cookies, with pecans, but no raisins. “Here,” she said cheerfully. “Help yourself.”
Both glasses already had ice in them. Nathan poured one for himself and grabbed a cookie, sitting on the edge of the loveseat for fear of spilling something. Leaving his glass on the table, he held his left hand under the cookie, carefully taking a bite. These were, he estimated, three bite cookies in polite company, two if he’d been home, alone.
“Oh, don’t worry about dropping any crumbs.”
“Are you serious?
“No, actually I do care,” Dr. Schreiber smiled, mostly with her eyes, “but you shouldn’t feel bad if you do,” and then got down to business. “..So, I understand you’re a writer.”
“A blogger, actually. I have a blog. I write short stories.”
“Is it popular, your blog? I liked it.”
Nathan took a breath, which he held for a moment before starting to talk. “More and more so. Especially, lately, I seem to be communicating with my readers better, giving them a reason to come back for more.”
“Well, good. ..When you called, you said you wanted to talk about what you’re writing?”
“Yes.” Finishing off the cookie he’d been holding with a swallow of lemonade, “This is good. Very good,” Nathan leaned back and spread his arms over the top of the cushion to his left, and along the arm of the love seat to his right. Dr. Schreiber was sitting in a natural wood rocking chair across the table from him, a small yellow pad in her lap, a pen in her right hand, her feet crossed where the flats she was wearing touched the large oval rug that defined the area where they were sitting. With her left hand, she spread her fingers and combed her hair, pulling it back, away from her face. It was a natural, not at all suggestive thing to do.
“I’ve been thinking,” Nathan began to explain. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately.”
“Isn’t that pretty much what writers do?” Dr. Schreiber smiled, hoping to put him at ease. “Part of the creative process?”
“Go ahead. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“I’ve been thinking about writing something scary, a short short story that creeps out my readers… Did you have time to read any of my stuff?”
“Yes, I did. And I like them, the few that I read. Very creative. Fresh, easy to read. Always a surprise ending. I thought they were good, surprisingly good, to tell you the truth.”
“But none of them.. scary.”
“No. ..So what? Maybe that’s why I enjoyed them.”
“It’s the challenge. ..I try to write about different things, to push myself to see what I can do, to be funny sometimes, then serious, a little romance, and then maybe a mystery or fantasy sci-fi piece. ..But, whatever I write, there’s the one thing I want them all to have in common.”
“What’s that, Nathan?”
“You know what I really like?” Nathan wasn’t waiting for an answer. “I like it when I write something that stays in your head after you read it. Not just for a few minutes. The longer, the better.”
Dr. Schreiber’s expression showed her appreciation of his point, as if to say, “Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that what all writer’s want?”
“Yeah. I.. I’m just concerned that I’m beginning to go too far, that I’m stepping over some line..” He stopped, and let the rest of his breath out without talking. “..Anyway, I’ve been thinking lately it’s time I wrote something scary.”
“Stephen King scary? Slasher movie scary? Or just plain creepy?”
“No, no, although I’m not so sure about the creepy part. A little creepiness can..”
“Uh, a little, maybe,” Nathan was talking right at her, punctuating his words with the fingers of his right hand, “but you’ve got to be careful not to overdo it. Credibility is everything. I can’t risk distracting the reader.”
“I need him to pay attention. I need him, or her,” Nathan added, “to believe.” And then he stopped talking. Just stopped for a full minute Dr. Schreiber didn’t cut short. “..Anyway, the challenge is doing it without the threat or fact of violence.” Nathan held there, the tone of his voice instantly morphing from friendly to serious. “..I don’t like violence.”
Cheryl considered making a note, but thought it better not to, choosing instead to drop her pad and pen onto the area rug next to her chair. “Besides,” Cheryl was never afraid to offer her opinion, to engage her patients, “it’s hard to write violence, isn’t it, harder to put it down on a page, to elicit a visceral reaction from a reader the way a well crafted movie can with live actors and great editing.”
“You’re right. Absolutely. Even harder, much harder without violence. Even Hitchcock held out the threat, if not always the fact of something really bad happening to get his audience squirming in their seats.” Nathan paused for a moment. “Anyway, I’ve been thinking, for a while now, that…”
“Days, weeks, months?”
“Months. Thinking about how I’d do it.”
“You’ve dared yourself to do this, haven’t you?”
“Exactly. ..If not me, who would?”
“And? I mean, how’s it going?”
Sliding forward, Nathan became excited, moving to edge of the cushion, elbows on his knees. “I began breaking fear into its components. ..Remember,” Nathan reminded her, “violence isn’t an option.”
“Good to know,” she smiled, shifting to change the way she had crossed her legs.
“For one thing, there’s the element of surprise. Easier, as you pointed out, on the big screen than on paper, but doable, and essential. Second, you’ve got to make the reader think that you’re going to do something to him.. to her,” Nathan stared at his therapist, “to take or change something you,” he was talking right at her now, to Cheryl personally, no longer making innocent references to unspecified individuals, “..something you value greatly. Third, and this is really important, you’ve got to convey the reality of irreversibility.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, that what I take from you, what I change about you is irrevocable.”
“Like leaving a beautiful woman with a permanent scar.”
“But that would be violent.”
“Yeah. Of course. ..It’s just an example. Suppose… Suppose, on the other hand, that I changed your personality, that I made you mean, when being nice was the very thing you liked best about yourself, or made you promiscuous or, at the other extreme, completely disinterested in sex, and that I could do it without your ever knowing or being able to go back to the way you were.”
“I noticed you keep checking your watch. Don’t worry. You’re my last appointment today. We’ve got plenty of time.”
“Sorry.” That’s what Nathan said, but then he didn’t say why.
“So if I didn’t know you’d taken something from me, why would I care?”
“After I did this to you, it wouldn’t make any difference. You’re right. Your life, your personal and professional relationships would be different, but you wouldn’t understand why, might not think anything of it – except that maybe you used to go out with this guy, and now you don’t. You’re not even sure why you ever went out with him, or were friends with her in the first place.”
“So what’s the point?”
“The scary part is the knowing that it could, and would happen, but not knowing when or how. The scary part is knowing what you stand to lose, but realizing there’s already nothing you can do about it, nothing to stop you from losing it.”
“Okay, so you’ll be writing a story with that theme?”
Nathan went back to listing the elements of writing to frighten his readers. “And, most importantly, the threat has to be believable.”
“Isn’t that always the challenge you face as a writer?”
“It is.” Nathan’s eyes opened wide. “Although, to be honest, and the reason I asked to see you, it helps not to be bluffing.”
Cheryl was losing him, and beginning to feel uneasy. “Bluffing?”
“Yeah. The reader needs to have a demonstration ‘of my powers’,” Nathan almost laughed when he said it, “and then to wonder what else I’ve done.”
“Well, that all sounds impressive. I’m looking forward to reading it.”
“The thing is, Dr. Schreiber, you already have.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My blog. ..I’m running a ‘plug-in’ – a subroutine – that enables me to imbed messages, subliminal, hypnotic messages you don’t even know you’re reading.”
“Isn’t that illegal, Nathan?”
“So, are you going to report me?”
“I didn’t think so. ..Dr. Schreiber.”
“Would you mind unbuttoning your blouse?”
Cheryl heard what he said and reacted, initially, by deliberately placing both her arms on her chair, wrapping her fingers around the wood. Her face became serious, her lips pursed as she did her best to resist, but couldn’t and gave up, the muscles in her hands and arms willingly responding to his request. “How do you know,” she glanced down to grab the top button of her shirt, “that I wouldn’t be doing this anyway?”
“Oh, give me a break. I’m sure you wouldn’t. More importantly, so are you.” Once again, Nathan checked his watch.
“And you put this…” Sitting there, her blouse unbuttoned and open, Cheryl was aware, but helpless. “You’re running this plug-in in all the stories you write?!”
“Hey!” Nathan reacted to sudden change in the tone of her voice. “You’re asking as if I’m the only one doing this? You’re a Psychologist. You should know better. It’s all over the place, corporate sites, gambling and porn, and blogs, even dating services. You don’t ever wonder why people spend so much time on-line?”
Looking down at her open blouse, Cheryl started moving her hands to…
“No, no. Leave it open.” And she did. “..You’re lucky I didn’t ask you to take off your bra. ..Thing is, this isn’t about sex. This isn’t a boy-girl, male-female thing. As far as I can tell, it works on men at least as effectively as it does on women. It’s about making a point. ..On the other hand,” he smiled, dropping his eyes to stare at Cheryl sitting there across from him, “it’s good to be Nathan.”
“ …What else ..have you done to me?” Cheryl asked, a slight break and noticeable measure of controlled panic in her voice.
“We’ll talk about it later. I’m not sure when. Later, but you won’t know or remember this, so it won’t make any difference.”
“How long does it take, Nathan? How many stories does someone have to read?”
“Just one. Just a few minutes exposure, and then a few hours after that for the message to settle in. I’m not sure, exactly,” he shook his head slightly. “I’m just starting what I think you’d call the ‘clinical stage’ of my research. ..Thank you for agreeing,” Nathan stopped to smile, “..for volunteering to participate in my study. ..Thing is, I’m going to need your help perfecting my message, although,” Nathan was clearly impressed with himself, “seeing you sitting there? So far, so good.” He nodded his head slightly, reflecting on what he’d accomplished while he reached for another cookie. “I had no idea it would be this easy. ..Anyway, those papers you’ve written on hypnosis were very helpful, but there’s still a lot I don’t understand. Still a lot I need to talk to you about. ..What do you think? Twice weekly sessions?”
“In all your stories? Is that why readership is up?”
“No. Just a trial run. Just the one story I’ve written about this troubled writer who goes to see a hot young Psychologist. …It’s the one you’re reading now. I was great, wasn’t it? Be sure to tell your friends.”
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