This is a short story coming in the collection for the holidays. I seldom post stories here; they belong on John Maberry’s Writing. I’m making an exception this time. All the writers out there will understand. Plus it’s a break from politics–hurray!
Carson sipped Irish coffee, bundled against the chill wind of a late October day on the Outer Banks. He sat on the third floor deck for its view beyond the barrier dune, rising 15 feet above the sand. The swimmers and sunbathers had gone. Only the beachcombers and solitude seekers remained this late in the season. He was among the latter. With the kids away at college and Sharon at her sister’s to “think about us,” he couldn’t face the empty house in Alexandria. Reading the backlog of beach books almost kept thoughts of Sharon’s surprise announcement away. He had just put down a thriller when he looked out to see a fiery column rising above the waves. It must have been a mile or two offshore. Only the bright yellow plume could be seen, even with the high-powered binoculars. No ship. No people. Nothing. What the hell is that? There’s no gas line out there. The sight had him baffled.
He called the Coast Guard at Hatteras Inlet. “Coast Guard, Petty Officer Harris speaking. Is this a boating emergency call?”
“No, I don’t think so. I’m looking offshore from Buxton, seeing a bright flame coming up from the water.”
“How far out is it? Have you seen any ships in the area?”
“A mile and a half, maybe more. Hard to tell from the shore with no landmarks to go by. No ships out there or anything else that I can see. The plume looks about the size of a power pole from here and goes up fifty or sixty feet from the surface.”
“Ok, we’ll send a boat to check it out. Thank you for letting us know. Please give us a call if anything changes.”
“Sure. Oh, and I didn’t hear any explosions or anything. One more thing—the flame isn’t bending much in the wind; looks like it’s under pressure. It’s yellow, by the way.”
Carson figured at least 45 minutes, more like an hour before they showed up. They’d have to come around the inlet to the oceanside and through Diamond Shoals, also known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic for all the ships that sank there over the centuries.
While waiting for the Coast Guard, Carson refreshed his Irish coffee. Barely three PM and he was on his third drink. The caffeine kept him up enough and the whiskey dulled the pain. The pain of not selling a book in ten years. Sharon’s billable hours at the DC law firm kept them financially flush. She’d made partner just after his last book sold. No coincidence his writing suffered after that. It took a toll on the marriage.
“So you think the booze will help the stories along, Carson?” That’s what she said, more than once, when she found him staring at a blank monitor slurping a drink.
“Hey, it worked for some of the greats,” he’d laugh before slamming down the glass. “I don’t know what will help. I’m trying; the ideas aren’t there—the words won’t appear without them.” That’s when the blowups came. Hurricane force words flying between them, loud as a storm screaming through the room. She once was his muse. No more.
After the last battle, she packed up a couple suitcases and headed to her sister’s house. He headed to Buxton. They had an oceanfront beach house there. Three stories, with decks wrapping around the soundside and the oceanside. Like the houses all over the Outer Banks, it was up on stilts, to let the sand and surf blow through underneath when storms breached the barrier dune. That saved most homes until the next storm surge that took them down and sometimes cut a new inlet to Pamlico Sound through the narrow section of Highway 12.
Carson went back to the thriller. Terrorists were attacking the East Coast from the sea. The book had them coming in by a mini-sub. The subs that used to be seen on science channel shows exploring the deeps became cargo carriers of choice for the drug smugglers. Staying below the waves made them less prone to detection by the Coast Guard. Couldn’t carry as much dope, but likely succeeded in landing more on the shore. The somewhat plausible plot had the terrorists using drug sales to fund their attack and getting the mini-sub to execute it. Hmm, maybe it’s a mini-sub here. One that sprung a major leak shooting that flame up through the water. Truth can be stranger than fiction. Nah. Well, if it is, the Coast Guard will get them. Carson enjoyed the book; the action kept him turning pages. He wished he had written it. Not a James Patterson bestseller by any means, but likely got the writer some decent royalties—maybe as much as $100K.
Carson finished the Irish coffee and put the thriller down. He picked up his binoculars to get a better look at the flame until the Coast Guard arrived. It hadn’t changed much at all since he first saw it nearly an hour ago. Sort of rules out a mini-sub. It’d have to be a very large sub to be burning with that much pressure after all this time. At least that’s what he thought. But then again, without knowledge he didn’t have, he couldn’t be sure. Then the flame abruptly disappeared, right before the Coast Guard cutter arrived. They circled around for a half hour before calling him.
“Mr. Taylor? This is Ensign Thomas from the Coast Guard. You called the station at Hatteras about a flame you saw off shore in vicinity of Buxton. We’ve been searching the area without seeing any sign of a flame or any debris out here. Can you see us from where you are?”
“Yes, you’re a mile or two north of my location. Just before you arrived, the flame stopped. I assume you have sonar or other sounding devices. Did you do any scanning below the surface?”
“That’s routine in reports like this. But we saw nothing under the water other than fish and sandbars. Are you sure of the location?”
“Well, like I told the guy I talked to at the station, it’s a little hard to estimate distance from the shore, but I think you’re fairly close north to south. I’ve been watching you from my deck. If you expanded the radius a couple more miles that should cover the entire area where the flame came up.”
“We could, but without any other reports of missing swimmers or boaters we need to know there’s something to find. No offense, but we need to ask you, Mr. Taylor, have you been drinking? We’ve already burned a lot of fuel without finding any indication of a mishap or other reason for combustion. As you may know, filing a false report of a marine event is something we take very seriously.”
“Hey, hey—I had an Irish coffee. I’m not drunk and I’m not seeing things. There was a column of fire coming up from very near to where you are right now. It lasted there about an hour or so. Maybe a methane hydrate deposit erupted, caught fire and then burned out?”
“Doubtful this shallow, Mr. Taylor. You’d have to be further off shore, at the edge of the continental shelf for that. We’ll take some readings for gases burned and unburned. If this happened as you say, there should be some residue. Not much odor detectible to the human nose for undersea methane unless it has significant impurities. We smelled nothing and our engines didn’t generate any flares. With air and water dilution, we may find nothing anyway but if our instruments show something, we’ll investigate further. If not, we’ll be on our way and let you off with a warning.”
“OK, I got you Ensign. Asshole! What, I’m going to call the Coast Guard for laughs? A little bit of Irish coffee and I’m seeing things? Sun dogs at midday with the Sun overhead? No, it’s out there.
Carson watched the cutter motor away, heading south. He went in to make a sandwich. He came back out and found the boat with the binoculars, nearing the tip of Hatteras. He watched them until they passed the shoals, heading for Hatteras Bight. That’s when the flame came back, big and bright. So whatever it is, it doesn’t like visitors. Implies a consciousness. Couldn’t be a coincidence. He thought better of calling them back. If it disappeared again, he’d be in trouble. It’s up to me to figure out what the hell’s going on out there.
He loaded some fins, a snorkel and mask into the SUV and put the kayak on top. He got in the water a few miles north. As he paddled out toward the spot, he saw a fishing boat go within a hundred feet of the brilliant column of flame. They seemed oblivious to it. Ok, I am losing my mind! Or I am hallucinating! It went away when the Coast Guard came within sight of it but now another boat goes right by as if it’s not there. That’s when his phone rang. An unknown number. He answered it anyway.
“Hello Carson. Don’t worry; you’re not losing your mind. We’re here to help you with your next story. Come a little closer, won’t you? We can explain everything,” the AI-sounding voice said.
“What? Who are you?” Carson tried sinking deeper into the kayak, without success, as the flame wavered left, right, higher and lower—almost in sync with the artificial voice.
“We’re friends Carson, though we’ve never met in person. We’ve given you storylines before, you just didn’t know it. We gave you words when you needed them. Plots when you were floundering. Whatever you couldn’t tap into,” the unknown voice said, soft and smooth, with no more emotion than the elevator music version of Stairway to Heaven.
“Oh sure! So where have you been the last several years when I couldn’t get a novel written? Been on vacation, have you?” Carson shook, shivering not in the wind so much as in continuing the bizarre conversation. Oh yeah, I need help alright, and not from an imaginary voice on my phone.
“Oh no, Mr. Taylor; we’re not imaginary. We’re right here, right now. No vacations. Just the vagaries of time and development. We had to help the guy that wrote the book you’re reading right now. You had phenomena to experience. Events to process. You must write from life. You’re ready for more now.”
“Ah, right. The wisdom of the ages. I’ve never heard a computer chuckle. Well why wouldn’t it if it can read my thoughts?
“You can put the phone down now. We don’t need it to communicate; we just called to put you at ease.”
“At ease? Seeing a burning light that no one else can, popping up from the sea! Talking to who knows what?” I need a couple straight shots; forget the coffee. Good idea, putting down the phone, though. If he dropped it over the side, it would be gone forever.
“You needed a new mindset. A new perspective. Something dramatic to break you out of the escape pod you put yourself into.” The voice came directly into his head now, as if his own reflective thought. “You can go back to the beachhouse now. We’ll continue our conversation there.”
“But aren’t you here, under the water?” Carson began paddling in an ever-widening circle, ready to jump into the water with mask and snorkel.
“In a way, virtually. But we can just as easily be with you on shore. The exercise paddling out here has oxygenated your brain—cleared the Irish coffee cobwebs somewhat. Paddling to shore will complete the process.”
“Ah, right. Here I’ve been thinking I needed more of it. Something to numb the senses.”
“You’ve numbed them enough Mr. Taylor. Time to sober up. We’ll let you collect some thoughts on the way home. You don’t want to be talking to us while you’re driving and the fresh air exertion getting to shore will go better without distraction.”
Carson turned west, paddling furiously to catch a wave he could ride in. Out of practice, he missed the break of the first one but caught the next. It carried him to the shallows. From there he made his way to the SUV. Thinking all the while on the absurdity of this afternoon’s events. I’ve heard of people suffering breakdowns like this. Seeing things, hearing things—things that aren’t real. Stress. Sharon leaving. Hell, she could go back to the house now; I’m not there. She can “think about us” all she wants now. But she’s from Venus. She wants to express herself to her sister, to share her feelings. Once she does, the marriage will be over. That’s the way of women—the realism, free of emotion and full of the logic of decision. Unless—unless she sees and believes I’ve turned a corner. That I can write again. That we can engage again. And I can stop draining bottles. A big if. But first, I have to get through this alien intervention, this breakdown or this delusion—whatever it is.
Carson parked the SUV. He left the kayak atop the vehicle and rushed into the house, dropping fins, mask and snorkel just inside the door. He headed upstairs to the kitchen. More coffee, without the whiskey. Carrying the cup onto the deck, he looked back out to the ocean. Nothing to see; no yellow flame. No sooner than he had sat down, the voice came back into his head.
“So, Mr. Taylor, you’ve safely returned home. Shall we begin?”
Carson waved his arms and nearly bolted from the chair at the unseen voice. “Oh yes. Let’s start with who the hell are you? A figment of my imagination? A hallucination? A product of a mental breakdown? Aliens from some planet of itinerant inspiration providers?”
This time he heard and felt a large laugh from the voice in his head. “Oh, you do have the writer’s imagination. It’s a pity that you’ve let it be suppressed by thoughts of your wife’s making partner, by insecurity, doubt and alcohol. You know of the Muses from Greek mythology. You know how artists speak of someone being their muse.”
“Yes, I suppose her success and my lack of it have troubled me. I used to think of her as my muse—inspiring me with stories of cases at her firm. That stopped when she made partner. But are you saying you are among the muses?” Carson slumped back into his chair, eyes moving as memories and questions took focus.
“If that makes you comfortable, you can think of us that way.”
“Plural? There’s more than one of you?”
“That’s not important. What is important is that you now have a story to write. A novel about a flame that appeared off the Outer Banks. Alien invaders? Terrorists? A break in the ocean floor? Whatever you want to run with.”
“But how? I haven’t been able to write anything of consequence for ten years,” Carson sighed, looking over the barrier dune at the ocean expanse and then the beach stretching north and south as far as he could see.
“You have the elements of a story now. Just sit down and the keyboard and get to work! You read the thriller. You saw the flame that no one else could see. There’s no magic. There’s only doubt or determination. The story’s not in the computer, it’s in you. It’s not in your wife. It’s not in a muse. Find whatever flame you need to break free. Maybe it will be a walk on the beach one day and a swim the next. Staring at a monitor or muddling your mind with Irish coffee isn’t working. Get back to work and back with Sharon. Your story can do as well or better than the one you’ve been reading. With all its faults, the book has done very well. Make yours a bigger seller than the potboiler.”
Carson looked up at the bright white cumulous drifting overhead in blue skies. He pondered the words that had run through his head. “You’re right, whoever you are. Maybe you’re me. Maybe I’m not having a breakdown; maybe I’m having a breakthrough.”
Carson heard nothing more from the voice. He spent a few more days at the beachhouse, typing an outline and some character sketches in the laptop. He felt confident now, that he could finish the novel over the next few months. Easier to do the research at home, on the desktop, with better web access than the Outer Banks. He closed up the beachhouse and headed back to Northern Virginia. He didn’t bother trying to call Sharon. She’d either be in the house or not. They needed a face-to-face, not a phone conversation.
“Where have you been, Carson? Off on a bender somewhere?” Sharon said, looking away from the cable news only briefly as he walked in from the garage.
“Well, I did have a few days of Irish coffee on the deck at the beachhouse. I caught up on some of the paperbacks there and went kayaking. I got started on my next novel. Got some inspiration from a thriller and the ocean views. I cut back on the booze. Clouds the brain too much.” Carson said, smiling broadly.
“You’re writing again?” Sharon’s eyebrows matched her rising voice.
“Yes, I got the breakthrough I needed. Got the book planned out. Need to do some more research and development but it will all go well. How about we head out to House of Dynasty for some dinner?
Carson never mentioned the yellow flame to Sharon. Sharon volunteered nothing about the visit to her sister; he thought it better not to ask. His book became a bestseller the following year.