Sometimes it doesn't pay to be alive, much less get out of bed in the morning. The day was already half gone and she was drowning in dark thoughts, old memories and new fears. Briana Kilmer mentally shook herself, hoping to dispel the maudlin mood that threatened to become full-blown depression. She sat on an old wooden kitchen chair, her computer screen blazing white light into tired eyes and long fingers clutching a stack of computer paper. The manuscript in her hands represented many months of work but it felt more like years at the moment.
Pulling in a full, deep breath and letting it out very slowly almost helped. Glaring at the computer monitor like it possessed a demon, Briana confronted her face in its shining depths, "Here you go again. You finally get up the nerve to send your story in, even if it is only a group of amateur writers on the Internet, and you go out of your way to get the heebie-jeebies over it. What do you think they're gonna do? Maybe kick you out of the Wannabe-a-Writer Club?" The absurdity of the thought almost produced a laugh...but not quite.
Briana slammed the papers down onto her desk as a mixture of fear and frustration filled her. Groaning with fatigue, she shifted and stretched. After hours of writing, her butt felt numb on the hard kitchen chair. She stretched out long, bare legs to get the circulation going again. With kinks in her neck and eyes burning from lack of sleep, she came to the conclusion that becoming a writer was the only life to live after all.
"There is no easy way to anything, Bri, and you know it. Lord, do you know it. So stop looking for it and get to work. This book won't write itself, that's for sure."
But her head refused to take its own advice and went right back to mentally picking at the thorn stuck in her mind. Staring at a computer that refused to help with any answers, in spite of the high price paid for it, she tried to put herself in perspective. "How does a 48-year-old woman, with seemingly high intelligence, tons of experience and a heart filled with love to give, suddenly find herself unemployed, unmarried and unfocused in life? Not to mention, how I ended up waiting for a bunch of strangers on the Internet to tell me if I have enough talent to be a writer?" The answers just weren't there. To compound the idiocy, she was actually submitting another part of the story to the group and not liking herself very much for it.
"That damned newspaper story about the murder in St. Louis is what started this mess. I should've taken Ariel's advice and just went for another secretarial job." Grinning sardonically at herself, she let loose with a snort of derision. "Yeah, right! Since when have you ever given up before you were beat? Huh?" She smiled at the eccentric habit she had of talking to her computer then thought hard about the story she'd felt compelled to write and how it had started.
A large city, St. Louis had its fair share of murders each year. Usually, they were pretty much run-of-the-mill and Briana paid no special attention to them anymore but this one grabbed her imagination big time. The bizarre murder of a 35-year-old woman found the day after her disappearance, propped up in the front window of a Target department store, was what did it. Her tall, slim body was tied to a crossbar in such a way it made her look like she had been crucified. Draped over each arm were volumes of filmy material, bright yellow butterflies littering its surface, leaving the rest of her body completely revealed. She had a brown-haired wig on her head and her face had a layer of pale makeup on it so thick she looked like she had no face at all. The story had captured Briana's imagination to the point that she decided to write her first book about it. At least that gave her a start; something that had eluded her for weeks.
Since losing her job, most of her time had been spent on the computer searching the Internet for some kind of direction. Strange place to look but that was a start of sorts too. What Briana had discovered was a whole society of people, on personal sites and in chat groups that felt the same way. One of those groups catered to writers. They had welcomed her with open arms when she told them she was determined to finally write her masterpiece. After finishing part of her manuscript, Briana had suffered a momentary lapse of good sense, decided to see what they thought of it and sent the first three chapters of it in to the site for them to evaluate. Now, three weeks later, she fought off the sick feeling that her writing might be so bad that not one of the writers on the site would comment on it for fear of hurting her feelings.
Briana had also met Hank Devereaux, a retired California State Patrolman. Over the last year he had become a friend, a "cyber" date on a lonely Friday or Saturday night and a valuable and surprising source of information for her book. After all, if you can't trust a cop to tell you what it's like to be a cop, then who can you trust?
Clicking on "send" she sent off the second installment of the manuscript; this time braced and ready to repel any feelings of inferiority that might assail her.
At least I'm not giving up! I'll stick with this and find out one way or another if I'm a fool or not. Man, what an idiot you are lady. Go get a job will ya?
With those words of wisdom echoing off into her mental junkyard of stupid-thoughts-that-get-you-nowhere, a decidedly masculine voice intoned, "You have mail mistress." Feedback from her first submission, something she'd waited impatiently for, had finally arrived, all three of them. The first one was from a woman, having had one book published and a self-proclaimed pro now, telling her the book, so far, was promising.
Promising? What exactly did that mean?
The second, from another lady, simply said for her to keep at it. Again, did that mean she liked it or not? But the third, from a man this time, finally said something definite. He really liked the story and said he related to it. That comment bothered her for some reason. Not knowing why or how it bothered her, she chose to take it as a compliment.
Hey, sometimes you just need to take what you get, don't you?
His second comment was even more disturbing. He claimed he could help her with the 'details' of the killing. Now, that set off alarms! Every time a man offered to help with anything, it usually turned out he wanted far more back for it. To top that off, the offer, itself, was definitely not the kind of thing to reassure a woman living alone that the man offering had both oars in the water. He asked her to write and enclosed his email address, using the name "Gennas in Gehenna", another unusual item about him that struck her as strange.
Knowing the Net hosted a playground for nutcases, she decided to hold off answering him for awhile. Naturally impulsive, she had had to readjust her ways on the Net after hearing about some of the things that happened to naïve people. They gave out their names, addresses and phone numbers and found themselves with a human fruitcake on their doorstep...or worse. She liked meeting new and interesting people but would never go that far...or be that stupid. Laughing at herself again, she saw her head going in directions that usually got her in trouble. She resolved to take this seriously for a change and spare herself the mental bashing she knew she'd get if she didn't.
While trying to figure out just what it was about this guy's message that bothered her so much, a flashing envelope and a high pitched "Oh-Oh" sounded the arrival of a new message from one of her chat buddies. Smiling, she saw Hank's name and clicked on it.
The guy has excellent timing.
"Hi Bri. How does it feel to be in the ranks of the unemployed and able to lounge around all day? Are you busy? Want to talk a bit?"
Clicking on "reply" she typed, "I'm not busy and the only good thing about unemployment is being able to wear jeans all the time instead of pantyhose. And look who's talking! You retire at 50 and rag on me about taking it easy? By the way, I just got through reading some email responses to my story. You won't believe what I got."
A chat request popped up almost instantly, resolving itself into a full screen dialog box; split into two sections for viewing by both parties as they typed their individual messages to the other.
Gotta love this age of instant everything!
"I was hoping you weren't too busy to talk today. It's been a year now since Lana
died and I just felt like talking to a friend who understands what I've gone through. You've been with me through all this and I know that you care. It helps to have a friend like you to talk to, especially today."
"I'm never too busy to talk to you, Hank. And I did forget what today was. I'm sorry for that. You must think I'm a totally insensitive idiot to have prattled on about my story like that. You've got to be feeling terrible. And, Hank...I really do care how you feel." With a shock, she realized just how much she did care about how this guy felt and what he thought of her.
They had initially found each other by searching for chat buddies in the same age group. He contacted her requesting one and, for reasons she couldn't explain, she accepted. They discovered they had a lot in common and never seemed to run out of things to discuss. He said her name was the reason he chose her. It seemed whimsical that she had a French first name with an American last one while his was the opposite. He lived in California and she was born and raised there. There were so many parallels, within a few months they felt as if they'd known each other for years. They'd been chatting ever since and occasionally spoke on the phone. She enjoyed the sound of his voice, his quick wit, sense of humor and deep compassion for people. They usually spoke for hours on those rare occasions when he did call, usually during the holidays when a lack of family made life almost unbearable.
You're getting soft in the head Bri. Watch yourself or next thing you know you'll be actually falling in love. Bad news lady and you know it!
Interrupting her thoughts, he typed, "I know you care, Bri. That's why just talking to you helps me get through these bad days and worse nights. I have to change the subject; it's depressing me. Let's talk about you. You say you got email about your book? Tell me about it. I have a stake in this great work of art too, you know."
Knowing he was a sensitive guy who hated to let anyone know it, Briana let him move the conversation away from personal things and onto safer, impersonal ground. He was never very comfortable talking about his feelings. Knowing him well by now, she understood his need to lean on her, even if he wouldn't acknowledge it.
Wish he would though. Now where did THAT come from?
Telling him about the messages didn't take long. For the time being, Briana decided not to tell him about her reaction to 'Gennas's' message. She wanted to see if he got the same feeling about the guy. For reasons maddeningly hard to identify, she wanted his input but, like him, Briana never liked to let anyone know she needed help. Far too many years had been spent earning self-respect and independence to let even a fraction of it be compromised by someone who might abuse it or take advantage again. Hank was no exception, friendship or not, but one thing Briana had come to trust was Hank's ability to perceive things about people, due no doubt to his 30 years as a cop. He was incredibly reliable and intuitive. That's exactly why, when the story appeared in the St. Louis Democrat, Briana contacted him to see what he thought about it as an idea for her book. Of course, Hank was the perfect choice for the inside information needed about police procedures and personalities. They spent hours in chats talking about how to write it. His intelligence and quick grasp of complex meanings and innuendo impressed Briana to no end, not to mention his professional insights into those people who turned into walking nightmares. That kind of person was hard for her to understand, even though she knew all the basic psychology behind their behavior.
"Hey! You still there or are you wandering off into Oz again Bri? You're not letting some weirdo throw you, are you? You've been on here long enough to know it's loaded with them and how to protect yourself. But, if it's any help at all, I'll give the detective in charge of the case in St. Louis a call and see if he's willing to tell me anything. Sometimes they will and sometimes they won't, but I promise to try."
"Thanks, Hank. I'm having a hard time getting myself pulled together today for some reason. You're right, of course. I should be used to this by now, I guess and any information about the killings over there will help me with my research. This book is very important to me, Hank. I'm determined to do it right and get it sold."
"I hope you'll still talk to me when you're famous. We poor average, everyday guys won't have a chance with you then. And I know you can do it Bri. You're one of the most talented and competent people I know. So don't let anyone's opinion throw you. Okay? You keep writing no matter what anyone says or doesn't say! You hear me?"
She felt his smile deeply embedded in those words and it made her involuntarily smile back at the screen. She could mentally see his face, memorized from the photos he sent. His thick, dark hair was always tousled making him look like he had just climbed out of bed and his blue eyes crinkled at the corners with a smile in every picture. He was rugged and masculine without being overly so and his looks appealed to her. Everything about him appealed to her.
"I hear you, Hank but you should know by now you don't have to tell me to stick. Speaking of stick, how's the weather out there? Last I heard San Francisco was getting some snow. I bet my family is having a cow! They hate the cold with a passion. I can't even get them to come and visit me; they're so spoiled with California sunshine."
"You heard right. Not too much is sticking though. Well, listen, gorgeous, I have to go do some work for a change. I actually do work too, you know. Can we chat tomorrow night? I have a meeting with an old Trooper buddy tonight. I wanted to let you know so you wouldn't worry about me not being here. Or will you be too busy with your pack of admirers and boyfriends?" It was a standing joke between them that so many men contacted her to talk about their troubles, jobs, kids and wives. And, of course, the ever- present and abundant horde of men on there clamoring to play around in a 'safe' environment, without compromising their marriages. It exasperated her sometimes and he knew it. He liked to rub it in, so, she decided to rub right back.
"Boy! I wish I had so many I'd never have a moment to think. Besides, you know you're the only guy for me." She grinned to herself, knowing he was too. "I'll be there Hank, same time, same place. Bye big guy."
"Bye Bri. I'll be there too. You know you're the only woman for me too so don't let those guys in when they come knocking on your door!"
Logging off, and fully intending to get back to the book, she continued to sit there thinking about him for a few minutes, delaying the inevitable. Putting off facing the monster, even for a few minutes, usually resulted in what she laughingly referred to as her "little-kid-caught-in-the-cookie-jar" reaction; a self-generated guilt complex. It usually resulted in feeling compelled to exercise more to atone for it.
All right, already! I'll do it but I don't have to like it!
The phone ringing in the kitchenette brought her up short, making her realize her visit into fantasy-love-land, and the little side trip into Amityville, had eaten up valuable time. Inwardly groaning with dismay at this uncharacteristic and growing need for daydreaming, she picked up the phone determined to get her feet firmly planted back on the ground again.
"Hi mom! I just wanted to see what you were up to today." Her daughter-in-law, Ariel, always checking up on her and making sure she wasn't falling apart, was a daily caller. She loved both her son and his wife but sometimes they acted as if she suffered from senility, guaranteeing a nuclear reaction from Briana every time. Most of the time, she put up with it, letting them get away with their jokes about being born in the Stone Age. At other times, it irritated her so much she wanted to blow her top at them.
Curbing what Briana recognized as an unreasonable urge to explode, she replied, "I'm fine, as usual hon. I was just chatting with Hank and reading my email. How's Brian?" Resigned to a long conversation riddled with questions, Briana wearily sat down on a barstool and propped her chin up with a fist.
"Brian went to Texas to fix another networking problem that popped up yesterday."
"It seems like he's always gone these days. That's what he gets for being so smart. I still marvel at how far he's gotten in his company. For a guy still under 30, he's done extraordinarily well. I hope he knows just how very proud of him I am."
"He knows mom. And you know how he is. He won't stop until everything is perfect down there. The Boeing people know that and take advantage. They call him at the drop of a hat when they mess up all the work he's done there, knowing he'll come running, laptop in hand. He complains about it but he always goes anyway."
Feeling restless, Briana stood, phone propped on her shoulder, and moved to her desk, seeking a diversion while Ariel continued on.
"I miss him already. I have my class and my computer but when he's gone I feel like this house is too empty. By the way, I'm testing for my black belt this weekend. You feel like coming and watching? Brian will be home on Wednesday so we can make it a family night if you want. I do miss having you around. Since you started that book I hardly ever see you anymore! Please, mom?"
Briana hesitated, picking through all the bills piled on her desk. She closed her eyes, wishing her life would change; hoping for anything besides the day-to-day struggle to find a place for herself...and the boredom.
Taking a deep breath, Briana slumped in defeat. "Okay, hon, I'll be there. Well, I gotta go now. I've still got myself buried in my book and if I don't get back to it then it screams at me so loudly I can't do anything else until I work on it for awhile."
Ariel's voice brightened. "All right, but if you get tired of being cooped up in that closet you call an apartment I can come over and pick you up. I could use some company. Why don't you come over for lunch?"
A deep laugh welled up inside and bubbled out. Briana was always tickled at her daughter-in-law's tenacity. "We'll see, hon, it depends on how much this chapter grabs me. You know how I get when I'm into one of my projects. But, I'll keep it in mind. Okay?"
"Okay, mom. Call me if you need anything and don't stay on that computer all day. You need to get a life again. Bye." Without waiting for an answer, Ariel hung up.
Briana wondered out loud, "Why does everybody always think if you don't have a man in your life you don't have a life?" She threw the mail back down on the desktop in disgust.
Her son's marriage, although enviably happy and fulfilling, made both he and his wife blind to the fact that Briana was resigned to being a woman who isn't cut out for marriage. Briana had long ago come to grips with a few facts about herself. She was too independent, strong willed and too much of a loner and she knew it. On the other hand, Briana recognized that she still felt a deep need to love, give of herself and be loved in return. That was the conflict creating her current problems. She was lonely and truly wanted to find and love the right man. Problem was, Briana refused to be anything but herself in order to get him. Hard won independence in a man-dominated world was a prize she wouldn't give up for anyone.
Every man she'd ever met was either intimidated by her, repelled by her strength of character, wanted to tame and own her or wanted a substitute mother. She had made many mistakes in forming relationships with the wrong men before learning that hard lesson and, after failing at far too many of them, was finally reconciled to being alone. Like a crow to carrion, on the heels of those depressing thoughts came her painful memories of Bob. Thoughts she didn't want to have but they kept coming anyway.
"Why did he kill himself? What was so bad about his life that he couldn't live with it anymore? Did he blame me for the lack of any real love in his life? Why didn't I see it and help him?"
Feeling like an idiot for talking to herself again, she decided, for the thousandth time, to give up trying to find answers to questions only a man who had died a year ago could answer.
"Give it up, Briana. Let it go. You didn't love him but that's not why he killed himself and you know it. Actually, he didn't love you either. Face it lady he didn't love anybody but himself and ten years with a man who always wanted somebody, anybody, else wasn't exactly a real marriage." Of course, she knew she wouldn't give it up. She never gave up anything until it was resolved to her satisfaction, even if it hurt her to hang onto it. Her stubborn determination to keep on going, to find out, to control her life and feelings, was what kept her emotionally safe and surviving for most of her life. She truly didn't know how to be any other way at this late age. Besides, it worked.
Suddenly aware of her own blue eyes glaring intensely back as they reflected on the glass cabinet door and feeling guilty and angry at the same time, but not knowing why, she realized she was in danger of slipping back into her mental 'black hole' again. Aware the phone was still in her hand, she hung it up with a bang.
Taking all of four steps to the sink, she began to prepare yet another pot of coffee, the third within 24 hours. That done, she turned to look at her apartment, all three rooms of it. It was tiny but clean, affordable and, by her standards, more than adequate. More importantly, it was hers and that made all the difference in the world to someone who had shared a room with two sisters until marrying at sixteen.
Afterward, having a room or bed all to herself was not allowed, even when the marriage fell apart, nor had she been allowed to live the way she wanted. Her days were taken up with working as a secretary at minimum wage and her nights with housework, cooking, laundry and a sexually demanding husband, who didn't care if she was tired or not. At least he stopped being demanding when he discovered the low-life joys of adultery. By then her dreams were pretty much gone. The big dream had always been to be a writer. Briana had never given that dream up, and throughout the years had written several stories that she hid in a locked trunk. The fear of not being good enough, and having to give it up once she knew it for sure, kept her from submitting anything and testing it out.
Fear usually wasn't something Briana Kilmer was used to feeling, much less give in to. Growing up on the rough side had honed her and strengthened her. Being raised in neighborhoods where women and children were more likely to have black eyes and broken bones than not, produced either fighters or victims. She had determined at a young age never to be a victim to anybody. That simplistic view changed when she got married and found out how many subtle ways you could become one. Sometimes remembering those times helped and sometimes they hurt too much to think about for long. Today, they hurt so she pushed them out the door in favor of something more productive.
Busying herself around the apartment helped the day go by faster when she hit a blank wall in her story. She knew if she stopped worrying about it so much the ideas would just seep into her mind, like they always did. With an overactive imagination like hers it was sometimes hard to stop them, especially when she let herself fantasize about Hank. Today, she kept him out of her thoughts too and concentrated on getting the plants watered on the tiny balcony outside the living room. The balconies decorating each apartment were the most beautiful part of the old building.
At one time, the whole building had been a private home and these rooms had been private bedrooms, each one with a sheltered balcony overlooking the backyard. Even the backyard still showed a shadow of its former beauty. It was literally over-run with rose bushes, various other flowers and trees, giving the house a feeling of being out in the country. That's why she loved this place so much; its country feeling, crickets chirping in the garden, June bugs twinkling amongst the flowers and the quiet nights made her feel peaceful and at home. She loved to sit out on warm nights, amongst her plants, and watch the stars as she let herself dream of someday having the real thing. Her favorite fantasy was about a small cottage in the country and a strong man, who loved her as much as she loved him, living there with her; a man she could totally share her life and herself with.
The chilly weather put a damper on any return to warm thoughts along those lines so Briana returned to the computer and took up where she'd left off; staring at the screen and hoping for something to happen .
So much for your daydreams, huh kiddo?
The "something" came in the form of more email. There was only one but what it said froze her in place like a deer suddenly hit with a hunter's illegal flashlight. It was short but she knew those four lines had just changed a dull, normal day into the opening scenes of a Stephen King movie.
It read: You know too much Sweetheart. Seems I'll have to come see you soon so we can catch up on old times. I know you've been waiting for me. You won't have to wait much longer.
Gennas in Gehenna.