He sat there, staring at the MacBook that lay in front of him, illuminating a blank screen. Jason’s deadline was in 4 days and he hadn’t written more than a page. The words simply wouldn’t come to his mind and his fingers couldn’t fake that he had a story to tell. He told the publisher he was working on a story, but he had nothing, and he knew it.
He had just gotten off the phone with his agent, Jack, who was yelling at Jason to write something as if he was Jason’s boss. He hated Jack. His previous agent, Lou, was perfect. Lou was a dark-skinned heavier man who seemed to always be having a good day. He wore brown suspenders because he said he couldn’t find a belt to fit around his belly, but everyone knew he simply loved the suspenders. He was a hell of an agent and one of Jason’s best friends, his only friend really. He was the one person who understood Jason’s process and why he was the way he was.
Every time Jason finished a novel, although he typically worked with the same publisher, Lou had 3 more publishers ready to buy the manuscript. He was always one step ahead. Unfortunately, he passed away last year and Jason had to look for another agent. He ended up getting stuck with Jack.
He hated Jack. Lou loved Jason’s writing; Jack loved the money it would bring him. Lou loved reading a new story, Jack loved receiving a paycheck. Jack would brag to the people around him saying he had the eye for spotting talent. Jason had already been on the New York Times Bestseller List twice so Jack had an eye looking in the same direction as everyone else. He was always pushing Jason to meet deadlines and always spoke about “pleasing the publishers.” To hell with the publishers, Jason thought. They could bitch and moan all they wanted, it only gave Jason more pleasure in watching them get heated when he missed yet another deadline. Jason had started doing it on purpose.
Jason sat at his desk in his light khaki pants, his ironed pale blue shirt, and his favorite dark blue tie with a beautiful floral design on it. He always wore this when he was writing. It started when he was in high school at St. Donovan’s. He loved the uniform code that everyone had to abide by, a solid color dress shirt, slacks, polished shoes, and a nice tie. It always made him productive. It was actually during one of his sophomore classes that his teachers discovered he was good with words. He was sitting in biology or chemistry, he couldn’t remember. He hated science. So he sat at his desk and while everyone was taking notes, Jason was worlds away writing a story. At one point, his teacher walked up to his desk, ripped his notebook from under his nose, and silently started to read what Jason had penned. The teacher then put the notebook back down, glaring at Jason, and told him to gather his things. Jason assumed he was being kicked out of class and would be sitting in detention or, as they called it at St. Donovan’s, JUG: Justice Under God. He always found it funny, JUG, as if God, this omnipotent super-being, really gave a shit that he wasn’t paying attention in his high school math class.
The teacher took him to Mrs. Cartwright’s office, an English teacher and the primary editor for the school literary magazine. She read his story and asked if he would be interested in writing for the magazine. He shrugged. Mrs. Cartwright had been teaching high school English for twenty years and had been in charge of the magazine for fifteen. She saw a lot of kids who thought they were the next Shakespeare but were more like the authors of those romance novels you’d find in a Walmart, all adorned with what seems to be the same cover. She had also seen quite a few really good writers, none of whom, unfortunately, continued to write after they left St. Donovan’s. She glanced back down at his notebook and said that he had a future in writing. He shrugged.
After working with Mrs. Cartwright for the remainder of his high school career, he was a fine writer. His stunning word choices finally had complex and compelling plots to go with them. After high school, he tried to write every day, like Mrs. Cartwright said that all writers must do. However, some days he wrote a lot, some days a little, and some he wrote nothing at all. But every once in a while, there would be that day, the day writers dream of when you seem to never run out of the story. He would keep it going as long as he could manage, with coffee constantly brewing. He wrote for three straight days without sleep, in the same clothes, at the same desk, stopping only to use the bathroom or to grab another cup of coffee when his eyelids seemed to get heavy. At the end of the three days, he had his first novel. All 60,000 words of it. Then he slept for twenty-six hours.
He loved writing in his khaki pants and his tie and his pressed blue shirt. It made him feel good, like he was productive, like he had a purpose. There was only one problem. He wasn’t writing.
Jason swirled the remaining whiskey in his glass. He gulped it down, despising the burn as it flowed down his throat. He didn’t hate alcohol, but he didn’t have a great fondness for it either. Unlike the cliche of a drunken damaged human being who released his or her inner demons through the ink he or she spilled, Jason wasn’t a drinker, hated the cliche, and hated people who assumed he fit it. Not every writer has skeletons in their closet or is damaged by something. But he did like a little taste of Jameson here and there. After two short glasses of it, he found he couldn’t enjoy it after that. Just enough to loosen him up and still enjoy the whiskey.
Jason looked around his room, a fairly bare one. It had two dark brown wooden bookshelves, all books in alphabetical order, a slightly worn gray couch he would nap on where one side slouched down a little lower, a lazy-boy chair he would read in, and his big mahogany desk, the thing he loved about the room, with his chair. The room had soft cream wallpaper and a window that looked out over the neighborhood below. He liked the simplicity of it. Minimal distractions, but not much to work with when searching for something to inspire a story.
Jason decided since his office wasn’t providing any inspiration, he would take a walk. He grabbed his black peacoat that his grandmother had gotten him before she passed away. She always said he looked so handsome in it. He checked for his keys, his wallet, and his smartphone and walked out. He didn’t have any apps on his phone because he refused to be another one of those imbeciles that spend their days wasting away in front of a tiny screen spending their time watching other people live their lives. He used his phone to call people or to text Jack since he couldn’t stand that man’s voice.
Jason started walking down his street towards the nearest busy street, Addison. He enjoyed seeing the livelihood of the gym and the cafes, but he always got a little depressed when he walked past Rabbits Bookstore. He felt humanity was going to turn into a bunch of morons once people stopped reading books. Jason blamed the schools. The only time he enjoyed reading growing up was on his own, when he got to choose the books he read. After taking literature classes in high school and getting his English degree, he could understand why people stopped reading. Their teachers made reading, a leisure activity, into work.
Jason walked further past Rabbit’s and saw a bar called Mugsy’s. Jason decided to walk in to have another Jameson since he wasn’t finding any inspiration elsewhere. There was a group of people behind where he sat at the end of the bar. In the group, two skinny but out-of-shape men were arguing and getting in each other’s faces. As Jason eavesdropped and drank his whiskey, he could hear them but they were now screaming at each other in another language. Polish. Jason’s grandfather taught him a few words in Polish when he was young. His grandfather wanted to teach him Polish as a second language, but Jason’s parents thought it would confuse him since he was just starting to read in school. Against his parents’ wishes, his grandfather taught him a few words and phrases in secret, and every time Jason learned one, his grandfather gave him ten bucks. Jason’s grandfather retired to Arizona shortly after so the lessons got less and less frequent.
The two men started shoving each other and the blonde-haired man smacked the beer glass out of the man in the black v-neck’s hand and it shattered on the floor. Their friends just stood on the sidelines to watch the fireworks, not even bothering to try to cool things down. Thinking of possibly using this as a story, Jason pulled out his favorite fountain pen that his father bought him which he carried with him everywhere, and grabbed a napkin off the bar, and began writing about the scuffle going on behind him. He filled the napkin with details before the drunken duo fell into him, knocking his whiskey all over the napkin, turning the ink into illegible black smears. The two men were unathletically wrestling and fell to the ground, neither throwing a punch, just pulling each other one way or the other. Now Jason knew why the friends all spectated, watching these morons “fight” was entertaining because neither of them knew how to hurt the other.
When the two finally gave up and apologized to each other, their shirts all smudged with dirt left from the shoes of previous patrons, the two men walked up to the bar and continued to drink together. Jason looked at his napkin, his story of the fight gone along with his whiskey. Whatever, he thought, it was a shit story anyway. He ordered another glass and gulped it down, his last of the night, and paid the petite brunette bartender.
Jason walked out into the crisp Chicago air and continued his walk down Addison. About a half-mile down, it smelled like something was burning. He walked down another block and was sure he could smell it as the smell was getting stronger. He looked around to see smoke but it was dark and there were too many trees. He followed the smell as it took him two blocks over.
He turned the corner and saw gray smoke coming from behind a house on the other side of the street. He got closer and looked down the gangway to see the back end of the house, flames tumbling out of the window. He couldn’t hear it earlier because of the traffic from the street. He ran up to the front door and started banging on it, trying to hit it loud enough to wake up the people inside if there were any. He then pulled out his phone and dialed 911.
The woman said the fire department was on their way. Jason already heard sirens down the block. That was fast, he thought. A squad car pulled up and two police officers jumped out.
“Do you live here?” the tall, muscular cop with tattoos down his arms asked.
“No, I just saw it and called.”
“Is anyone inside?” the female cop asked. Jason noticed her clear blue eyes as they ran up.
“I’m not sure, I tried banging on the door but no one came out.”
The officers ran past Jason and up to the door, shouting and banging on the door. The tall cop took a step away from the door and booted it in in one swift motion. The two ran inside shouting to alert anyone to come out. A few moments later, the two came out, coughing.
“The whole rear of the house is on fire. We couldn’t make it to the back,” the female officer said. She turned to her partner, “Damien, bang on the neighbors’ doors and get them all out of their houses for the next three down. You take the north side and I’ll get the houses on the south.” Both officers ran without hesitation to alert the neighbors. Jason looked in front of the house to see two cars parked directly in front. He assumed they belonged to the people who lived there, so he walked up to the first one, a silver Honda Accord, and tried to peek inside. He saw some Starbucks straw wrappers on the floor and a charger for an iPhone, but not much else. He walked over to the next car, a white Volkswagen Passat. He looked in the front but didn’t see anything, and looked in the back. A car seat. Jason felt his stomach churn as he grew more anxious for the fire department to show up.
The fire department arrived, sirens blazing, and three firemen went to the door and inside the house while the others got a hydrant opened. The three inside were only in for a few moments before they came back out and ran over to the truck. They spoke with the Chief who nodded and signaled to the others to start spraying the house. The firemen proceeded to drown the flames that were now tumbling out of the rear of the house. The fire had spread and was making its way to the front when the firemen got there.
Jason watched on as the firemen doused every inch of the red-brick home which was charred black above the windows while the rest of the neighborhood was illuminated with blue and red lights from the sirens. The flames began to get smaller and smaller as the firefighters kept spraying. Soon only black smoke was coming from the smoldering house, leaving embers of what was once someone’s possessions.
Jason was studying the crumbling house. He hadn’t seen anyone come out that wasn’t a firefighter. He wonders if the family and their baby were somewhere else for the night. He looked around at the number of people that have now gathered to watch as a house in the neighborhood was nothing more than a charred foundation. He saw a young couple, the father holding a small baby boy. He walked up to the couple who seemed oddly calm.
“Was that your house?” Jason asked. “I saw the car out front with the car seat.”
“God no,” the young blonde woman said. She had brown eyes and freckles, her hair up in a ponytail. “That’s our car, but the house is Gina and Rob’s. They’re always screaming at each other. They’ve had the police out here at least twice this month. I can’t stand them.”
Jason felt relieved. He looked back at the house, then at the police wagon pulling up. Two men jumped out and walked up to the fire chief and started speaking.
“Rob’s been locked up a few times and Gina hasn’t been able to hold a job longer than a few months tops. My sister is a cop and she said they both got arrested last month for fighting in a bar and Rob threatened to kill her with a broken bottle. I can’t understand why they wouldn’t just part ways. The epitome of a toxic relationship,” said the man. He was taller than his wife and had brown hair and blue eyes. He had a crook in his nose, probably from a schoolyard fight in his younger days.
Jason looked back at the house, seeing two gurneys roll out with two filled body bags. Jason looked on as they rolled past him and the young couple to the wagon. He couldn’t tell if he was supposed to feel sad for the couple, even though they didn’t get along from what he heard. He didn’t know them, so he wasn’t sure how to feel. As he saw the black body bags up close, he felt as though he should be sad, but he wasn’t.
He nodded at the young couple and started back to his place. He walked behind the fire truck and could hear the chief speaking with a young female firefighter.
“Looks like arson. She was tied to the bed and he was on the floor next to it. We found traces of gasoline around the room and on both bodies, and the male had what was left of the plastic gas tank next to him,” she said.
“Cops are out here every other week with these two and she always needs EMTs to look at her, but she never makes a report. He finally took it too far,” he says. Then the boots trail off as the chief goes to speak with some police officers.
Jason started walking back towards Addison. He was pondering all that he saw and what he knew. The couple fought all the time, enough for the neighbors and the police to notice. Thank God the baby didn’t live there, that would’ve made the whole scene even more tragic. The neighbors didn’t seem to like the couple very much. But why, if they fought so much, would they stay together in the same house? What could possibly keep those two together despite the obvious toxicity of the relationship?
Jason thought about the couple on his walk back home. He was puzzled. He couldn’t figure why, but obviously, there must have been a reason. When he unlocked his door, he turned on the lights and sat back down at his desk, resting his cheek on his fist. He flipped open his laptop and stared at the blank screen.
He put his fingers on the keys, and sat there for a few moments, thinking. He wanted to figure out why the couple was the way they were, what held Gina there, and what caused Rob to kill them both. Jason stared at the screen. His fingers began punching his keyboard and didn’t stop. He needed to know what would cause two people to put themselves through that. Jason decided that he was going to keep writing their story until he found out.