Authors: Anthony J Fuchs
The Danger of Being Me
Anthony J Fuchs
Published by Acceleron Press
Copyright 2012 Anthony J Fuchs
and for Anna
This story is true, but this book is a lie.
The cursor blinked at me. I read the words again, and sighed. I didn't hate it. The line fell somewhere toward the middle of every opener I'd ever written. Better than the worst; worse than the best. It certainly rang truer than any of my other sentences. And I couldn't help laughing at that, because there was no story. There was no book.
Just ten words. An opening line.
I read those words once more, and hesitated. Whatever lay beyond that line felt dangerous, familiar, intimate. The cursor blinked at me, and I wondered if I could really tell that kind of a story. I knew the tale better than any other, and I knew that it would not be brief.
Because it was my own story. My own truth.
I traced my fingertip across the backspace key, thought a moment. Then I deleted the sentence, closed the file, and toggled back to the block of text titled ROOM 16.
This article. I read the title, shook my head. Such a fantastic idea three weeks ago, when I started. It seemed much less so now, as I sought out new ways to distract myself from editing the piece in time for tomorrow's deadline. The article ran four inches too long. I'd pitched it at every production meeting of the year, until Gale finally gave me the greenlight to write about the Gateway Motel. Three columns by four inches on Page Three.
At least I got a space above the fold.
The clock over the door ticked closer to seven. I leaned back in the chair, folded my arms, scowled at the block of text on the screen. Tried to stifle a yawn, and failed.
Prophecy Creek hosts its fair share of urban legends, and I write about most of them. Last May, I wrote about Francis Hyde, a ten-year-old whose vengeful spirit supposedly haunts the Sawmill Bridge where four of his classmates beat him to death in May of 1978.
The December before that I wrote about the Irresistible Grace Calvinist Church, a decrepit building perched on the pinnacle of Galloway Hill. Thirty-nine parishioners died of tetrodotoxin poisoning in that Church on Christmas Day of 1928, and the survivors abandoned it forever.
But I took the legend of the Gateway Motel personally. Eighteen years ago, Janice Everett spent the night in Room 16 of the Gateway with an aircraft mechanic she met at the Serenity Tavern in downtown Prophecy Creek.
She was eighteen. That summer, she intended to leave Prophecy Creek and head for Los Angeles. She would be the next Maureen McCormick. She had dreams.
He had drugs. Forty-one weeks later, I came screaming into the world on the fourth floor of Prophecy General at roughly the same moment that Amos Otis struck out in the top of the ninth inning of Game Six of the World Series.
Janice never heard from the aircraft mechanic again.
The Gateway hunches alongside a barren stretch of Route 119 inside the eastern border of Prophecy Creek. The Motel's forty-two rooms stand in a horseshoe: twenty-one on the ground level and twenty-one on the second floor. The ground-level rooms bear odd-numbered, and the second-floor rooms bear even-numbered. Room 16 sits on the second floor, second from the west end.
Since 1951, twenty-nine people have been found dead in Room 16. The earliest incident occurred on February 22nd, 1951. A freshly-married couple from Montreal stayed at the Motel on the way home from a honeymoon in Florida. The owner found Stephen and Jocelyn Fortier dead the next morning. The Wenro County coroner determined that they'd died from conium poisoning.
He found hemlock in their champagne bottle.
A businessman from Hobbes Landing hung himself with his belt on September 3rd, 1954. A Korean War veteran from Wintersburgh shot himself with his Browning M1911 service pistol on April 14th, 1955. A preacher's wife from Sylvan Springs drowned in the bathtub on January 31st, 1956.
The most gruesome incident on record occurred on Christmas Eve of 1981. A punk-rock band from Pittsburgh rented the room following a show, and all four musicians got high on angel dust. One of them shattered a mirror, and all four cut their wrists with the shards. In the time it took them to die, they smeared the room with their blood. One even scrawled out KLTPZYXM across the ceiling.
But I couldn't find a single reported death at the Motel between the day it opened in January of 1907 and the Fortier's visit in 1951. That struck me as curious, until I happened across an article in the Sports Section of a May issue of the
Wenro County Register
The Prophecy Creek Historical Society completed restoration of the commentator's tower at Camlann Fields Baseball Park that month, after the tower the collapsed three months earlier during a Valentine's Day earthquake, a 2.4-magnitude tremor. Just a bit of sound and fury.
Just eight days before the Fortiers shared their hemlock cocktail in Room 16 of the Gateway Motel.
And I’d made stories out of less.
But the article still ran four inches too long.
I scanned the text once more, found a needless adverb, removed it. I sighed, frustrated with my own wordiness. I couldn't find the focus of the piece, the center of its axis, the crucial gravity that locked its key details into orbit. I felt it just beyond my fingertips. The heart of the story.
If I cleaned up the article quickly, I might still stand a chance of catching the seven-thirty showing of
with the rest of the Hacks. The businessman and the soldier and the preacher's wife were all expendable. I knew that. But they brought depth and breadth, and I didn't want to cut them away yet. Not quite yet.
I bent toward the keyboard again, tapped
to save my work-in-progress. I yawned again as I pushed myself out of the chair, clicked off the monitor, rolled the keyboard tray back under the desk. The layout pages for the March issue papered the counters, tables and desks, ready to go to print in the morning.
The lone sheet of Page One waited in the far corner of the counter. I surveyed the articles, scanning the text for errors as Freddie Mercury's voice poured from a boombox on the teacher's desk in the corner. He was a shooting star leaping through the sky like a tiger, defying the laws of gravity. A racing car, passing by like Lady Godiva.
I made it all the way to Page Two before spotting a typo. I marked the offending word with a yellow sticky note, then scanned to the bottom corner of the page. I found an article under Ethan Gibson's byline, with a title reading "Jack of Hearts Names Miss February `98."
I couldn't help grinning. If anyone at the
took the language more seriously than me, Ethan did. I trusted his writing, but I reread the article anyway.
He detailed his interview with Rose Zarenkiewicz, a junior and a member of the Writers Club who received an anonymous sonnet on February ninth. The poem arrived on her homeroom door in a manila envelope with her name printed in black, a capital J and a heart in red in the top corner and the same symbol, inverted, at the bottom.
The ideogram of the Jack of Hearts.
But Ethan told a larger story. He focused on the fact that, by his count, Rose received the eleventh letter written by the anonymous poet since January of our junior year. Ethan wrote an article for the October issue, and he interviewed each recipient over the next six months.
He initially lobbied to call the mystery bard the Knave of Hearts, but Gale overruled him. Since then, with Ethan's help, the man called Jack became both a minor celebrity and a bit of an urban legend. And if no one stepped forward to take credit for the work, the Jack of Hearts might well become mythical.
I reread Ethan's byline, and I grinned again.
The phone mounted on the wall beside the door rang. I jumped as the silence shattered around me, then moved to the door and grabbed the receiver off the hook halfway through the second ring. "Room service."
"Michael," the caller said in a diluted Scottish brogue. He drew out my name into an admonition, disappointed and unsurprised that I'd answered. Traffic hummed in the background. "How did I know you'd still be holed up in that sweatshop at seven o’clock in the evening?"
I passed Ethan’s article and looked over Page Three. "Because people on your homeworld are clairvoyant."
"True," he said. "But if you print that, I’ll have no choice but to eradicate your existence from history."
I shrugged. "Who'd miss me?"
"I assume you're searching for typos," Ethan said. I heard the grin in his voice as I marked a headline on Page Five with a sticky note. I shook my head again.
"You know what happens when you assume," I said, passing Pages Six and Seven. The eccentric centerspread by the duet of Helen Regan and Winsome Donne stood on a pair of upright easels facing the back wall. I looked over the pages for their aesthetics, and spent no time looking for mistakes. Any misspellings here were deliberate.
"I imagine it’s some depraved human ritual involving helpless donkeys and Japanese apricots," Ethan said.
I paused at Page Nine, sure that Ethan must be laughing soundlessly at the other end of the line. I blinked at the text of an article about a political rally at Wenro County Community College. I blinked again, then slapped a sticky note over a dangling modifier and moved on.
"We're heading to the Constellation now," Ethan said. Something rustled from his end before his voice returned. "I could swing by. Pick you up."
I sighed. I could do it. I wrote half-a-dozen evergreen articles and saved them for such occasions, and surely at least one ran just about 70 lines. I could print it, clip it, and paste it, and still get out of the building before Ethan pulled into the parking lot. But that would mean putting the Gateway article on the shelf for another month, and I doubted that Gale would give me space for it again.
"I don't think I can tonight—" I said as I scanned the final layout sheet for Page Twelve. On the last page, above an interview with Dr. Alex Lombardi detailing his journey from Army Ranger to World Literature professor, and a preview of the Spring production of
, I found the monthly Senior Spotlight. A studio portrait took up the upper left corner of the page, showing a girl with gentle russet curls. Amber Chandler won the Rittenhouse Prize in February as the first teenager to do so, and the role of Betty Rizzo in Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's play.
I don't know how long I tuned out. But enough time passed that Ethan resorted to his shrillest whistle. I jumped. He laughed: "Ground control to Major Tom."
"I gotta go," I said, staring at the photograph.
He laughed again. "You're already gone, brother."
I nodded. "I'll call you when I get done here."
"You do that," Ethan said over a flurry of chatter.
He disconnected. I looked at the picture on Page Twelve. I could work with a subject like Amber. I'd never chosen anyone as popular as her, but I didn't think that would undermine the project. On the contrary: it felt like a bold statement. I slapped the handset back onto the base and returned to my seat at the computer screen.
I clicked the monitor back on, found my meandering article. I shook my head, opened a blank document. The cursor blinked at me. A charge built in my brain like static in a cloud, and I let it. I sat back, folded my arms across my chest. That storm of unformed thought built and swirled and crackled inside my head, and I waited.
And then a streak of heat-lightning flashed across my mind. I leaned forward and reached for the keyboard, thinking of a night four years ago when Michael Aday had spoken of days when it don't come easy, and days when it don't come hard, and days when it don't come at all.
Of the days that never end.
Ethan sat to my left that night four years ago.
Phil Michener flanked me to the right. Michael Aday's tenor rang through the overhead stereo of the Rinkomania Roller Rink, speaking of nights when she breathed fire, and nights she was carved in ice. Of nights when she was like nothing he'd ever seen before, or would again.
Across the table from us, Ben Kelerick sobbed. "Why would she do that?" He snorted. "Why?"
Phil eyed me. He wanted no part of this mess. None of us did. He could give Ben no answers, and now he wanted me to take over. My eyes went wide. I shook my head once. Phil sighed, leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "Who knows, dude? You know how girls can be."
I should have laughed. At thirteen, our collective knowledge about
how girls can be
could have been written on the head of a pin. Ben went on sobbing, and Phil looked to me. I sighed and leaned on the table. "You were only her boyfriend for like three weeks."