Story: Lifeline



By Will Greenway

Party goers pressing in around me, I stood on the veranda and realized I was alone. A teakwood guardrail kept people from toppling off and mingling with the rocks of La Jolla two hundred feet below. Smoke burned my eyes and the odor of alcohol tingled in my nose. I never partook of either. Waves rumbled, sea birds cried, and stars sparkled in the cloudless indigo sky. In my heart, I knew it was all for someone else.

Occasionally, jazz from deeper in the villa surged over the drone of conversation, the clinking of glasses and polite laughter. Beams of light shone out the windows and stabbed into the perfect night.

Nudging elbows and dodging drinks I moved until I had a little more breathing space. I glanced at the rail. The crash of the surf on the rocks seemed to grow in volume. I imagined the foam and spray lashing against jagged stone.

A voice close to me shattered the image.

“Mister Desperare, sign this please.” A woman held a book out to me, one of mine, titled Cages of Flesh. She smiled, looking like a wrinkled elf in a blue pantsuit.

“It’s for Daisy,” she said.

“Daisy,” Though my face felt numb, I managed a smile. Pulling out a pen, I took the book from her and wrote on the title page, ‘For Daisy, from the still imprisoned. Sinclair Desperare.

Taking the book, she examined my scrawl. “Thanks, I enjoyed this.”

“Glad you liked it.” 

She ambled into the crowd.

I looked to the stars. The surf beckoned. So alone. Did anyone understand?  Perhaps that was the price a man paid to be excellent in his art; to be alienated from the very people who adored his work.

Watching her go, I wondered if humanity had fallen under a spell. The critics said Sinclair Desperare was Poe reincarnated; a new age Lovecraft with a commercial flair. People loved to be scared. The stories I wrote bubbled up from deep in my soul. I screamed my message at three million readers. My letters from the edge went unanswered. It shook my faith in the depth of people’s understanding.

If one person could truly relate—I cut the thought off. I’d hoped too long already. Optimism only made it hurt more. I’d tried to find a person to assuage the pain, tried to change, to fit, to complement another person. All the contortions never truly bridged the gap. My craft inevitably opened a rift that would force us apart. Greater efforts only left me with more heartache and heightened sense of isolation. The stars looked dim tonight.

So alone.

Physics said it took almost 4 seconds to fall two hundred feet; more than enough time for a man to flash on his mistakes.

I slipped between two women. They didn’t miss a word in their chattering. Nearing the rail, the breeze cleared the atmosphere and I inhaled the tangy air. I loved the ocean and its relentless ebb and surge. Unlike me, it was autonomous, needing nothing but itself to survive.

A pace away I stopped, afraid to look at the churning froth below.

“Clair.” The voice rose. “Clair?”

A twinge of regret hit me as I turned from the seascape. My battle with the dark would be delayed a little longer. I recognized Jack Tangier pushing his way through the crowd. He wore a wrinkled sport-coat with the creases running the wrong way. An agent’s cut of my millions in book sales and he still looked as if he lived out of a suitcase. He was towing another man behind him; a lanky fellow with a narrow face, dark hair and a goatee.

“Hello, Jack.”  My voice sounded sharper than I intended. His book deal celebration was what had me standing here on a cliff side. I tugged on his sleeve. “You just get off the plane?”

Jack frowned. “No, why?”

“Only wondering.”  How could a man who negotiated for a living be so clueless when it came to being subtly insulted? 

Jack eyed me as if he suspected what I’d meant. “Clair, I’d like you to meet my newest writer. This is Ken Reeth.”

I shook hands. “Ken.”

The tall man looked down at me. He looked uncomfortable too. I suspected Jack wanted one of two things, either a blurb for Ken’s book, or to rope me into some prestige collaboration deal. Seeing Ken’s uneasiness, I decided it must be the latter. At best, I’d do the former.

“So, what are you writing now?” I asked.

“Right now?” Ken rubbed the back of his neck. “Westerns.”

I glanced at Jack.

He jumped in. “They’re great, Clair. The book that’s making the rounds is a humor/horror mix. The editors like it but nobody wants to take a chance.”

As if I never heard that before. “Fine, get me a copy. I’ll give it a fair read. If I like it, I’ll help find a home for it.”

My agent looked stunned at how easily I’d rolled over. Of course, he didn’t know how little anything mattered right now.

Ken gave me a wary smile. “Thanks, Mister Desperare, I look forward to hearing what you think.”

I sighed. “I’ll be brutally honest. We’ll go from there.”

His jaw tightened and he nodded. “I appreciate that. The work has to speak for itself.”

“Good man.” I shook his hand. His grip was firmer this time. “You’ll be successful. Just keep plugging.”

Jack dragged Ken away leaving me alone again to stare at the rail.

A voice in my head accused me of being two-faced. I’d hidden how I felt from everyone. Perhaps I’d externalized my chameleon nature too much. To write a successful story you need to live it. You experience it in the movie-theater of your imagination. By being in the heads of your characters you take part in the action.

Like most writers, I lived with this borderline schizophrenia, turning alternate existences on and off—knowing, thinking, feeling. Recently, I found myself wanting to live my own life less and less. Only when I wrote did I feel any relenting of the emptiness sucking at me. Ironic that it seemed the more skilled I became, the more it isolated me from others.

I’d already lived that way too long. Everyone enjoyed my fictions except me. I couldn’t escape. Rails guarded an abyss every way I looked.

If only I had something—someone to hold onto.

The breeze blew through me as if I didn’t exist. I took another step toward the barrier. Once over, I couldn’t turn back. My life had become a plot from one of my stories; hard decisions and harsh consequences.

Another step. I envisioned myself back at the word processor tapping the keys, feeling the tension of the scene. My protagonist staggered at the precipice. The whims of fate had robbed him of the will to live. His throat constricts. The dread of what he is preparing to do shoots through him— me.

The wooden bar is close enough to touch now, a doorway between realities. Cold unforgiving circumstances lie on either side. In the other dominion, people no longer experienced pain. They never felt alone or abandoned. They didn’t need understanding.

I reached out.

“Mister Desperare?”

I ignored it. I wouldn’t stop again for a trivial book signing, or to shake hands with a would-be author. Gripping the rail I felt the slick texture of shellac over wood-grain. The siren call of the breakers sounded louder than ever. I narrowed my eyes against the breeze permeated with the odors of salt and kelp. My heart pounded.

“Mister Desperare?”  The feminine tone became more insistent and closer.

My hands clamped on the teak. Writing talent seemed so worthless. The ability to entertain by shredding your soul onto a printed page. With each work you lost a piece of yourself. No one ever gave back. Ultimately nothing remained but an empty husk. It was a drug. When doing it, I felt alive. I never noticed the real world growing more pale. The only vibrant colors that remained lived in my fantasies.

Sad, so very sad.

The muscles in my arms went taut. I could vault the railing before anyone stopped me. Black and white were the only shades left. Best to escape before my sense of contrasts vanished as well.

So easy; a leg over, a little kick and I’d cross the veil. Colors didn’t matter there. Nothing would pick my soul apart without anything to fill the vacuum.

An elbow jostled my hand. My grip faltered. I caught a whiff of jasmine.

“Beautiful night isn’t it?”

I drew a breath. I found no space in my gloom for clichés. Not answering, I stared into the twilight. The whitecaps glimmered, spectral ripples on the moonlit sea.

“Are you feeling ill?” she asked, voice silvery with concern.

I felt like a statue. My abstraction held me rigid. My guts tightened. I’d lived on the edge long enough.

Choose a side. Renewing my grip, I leaned forward.

She tensed, perhaps sensing what was going through my mind. Her voice dropped. “Does it hurt that much?” A warm hand pressed my knuckles.

I glanced at her. Shadow obscured her face but I made out the curve of a high cheekbone. Red highlights gleamed in thick auburn hair. The hand touching mine was slim, the lacquered nails shaped precisely. She wore unusual rings engraved with ankhs and other symbols of mystical significance. They’d apparently been chosen for their unique design rather than their sparkle.

I didn’t reply. What could I say? I still possessed some dignity.

She studied me. I gazed at the stars, wishing to join them and leave this leaden feeling behind. Her presence changed nothing; only another twist in the action, a red herring to divert me from the true course. Being a writer, I knew about falsities. Writing is the art of the lie. Nobody plotted better than life. It always threw in an unexpected twist.

Go, get it over with.

“The world will lose a talented writer if you jump.”

Heat swelled in me. “Who cares what the world loses?  When do I matter?”

I saw more of her features. Her face was squarish and somewhat severe, but still attractive. The dark eyes that met mine hardened. “When you scream loud enough or you splatter on those rocks down there.”

“What if I don’t feel like screaming?”

“Better get used to splattering.”

“You’re a cold bitch,” I growled. “Go away.”

“No, I want to watch you do it. Go on.”  She shoved me. I staggered and almost tumbled over the rail.

“Hey!”  My throat tightened.

“I despise cowards. Face it or stop whining. Little wimp with all his money and talent. Somebody notice me or I’ll kill myself. Get a spine. Stay in the pool or get out. Choose. Do it—now!”

I stared at her. Her contempt was an icy knife jabbing into my guts.

‘Do it—now!’ she said.

So I jumped…


Sinclair Desperare put down the last page of his fiancé’s manuscript and rubbed his chin. He looked sideways at Julie. She toyed with her auburn hair, an expectant look on her squarish face.

“Aside from a point of view problem, you’re almost ready to put me out of business.” He paused. “I don’t recall being pushed or told to jump.”

Julie grinned. “I know, but nobody goes for sappy endings anymore…”

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