The man scratched impatiently at the page with the sharp needlepoint of the pen, the ink sluggish to form the letters that seemed to put themselves together in some dark crevice of his brain. It seemed the more he managed to write down, the fewer of his questions he could answer with the words that appeared on the paper.
“Who are you?” he said aloud, letting his hand drag and the pen droop as he failed once again to answer the most pressing of his queries. He rubbed at his eyes, dreary from fatigue and scratchy from the cold, a line of dried black caked along his palm from wet ink.
He should close the window. He should turn a light on.
Inside, at the dingy mahogany desk, it was nearly too dark for him to see properly anymore and his tea sat long abandoned in front of him. Outside, the sun was just beginning to reach the tops of the tall pines that edged the field beyond the drive of the disparate house, the tips of the highest branches dappled red and gold like the last autumn leaves before the snowfall. “Who are you?” he whispered. But the ink did not answer.
He set down the pen parallel to the sentence left unfinished, unpunctuated on the page and let his mind fall away into the quieting sunset. Streamers of light flooded the tree-line, checkering the ground, sending sparks into the darkening sky as night descended and the sun disappeared once more.
Peter Solace had been dead.
“Well that’s a right cheery way to start.”
Somehow, he found this slightly comforting.
“Oh, because of course, who wouldn’t?”
All the same, that did not change the fact that he was currently being swung lazily around the little finger of a little girl down a little alley and he felt oddly little. Littler than he had ever felt in his life before.
With a capital “B” he thought, like in the novels. That had been the Before and now here he was in the After. Not that he had any inclination as to what that meant.
As I have said, Peter Solace had been dead.
He was still dead, he supposed, only now he felt just slightly less dead, if that was at all possible. He was the only person he had yet had the chance to speak to who had died, you see, and therefore had very few experiences to go off of.
“Want to explain what this is?”
“Not particularly.” Sebastian continued to eat his sugared doughnut without the slightest care as to what John thought. If he was entirely honest, and he often was, he did not much care what anyone thought of his writing.
John nodded in false thoughtfulness.
“You know, you’re my friend. You’re like a brother to me. You’re great. You write great, but - ”
“ - but sometimes it’s just kind of, oh you know. You know what I’m getting at, Seb. You know.”
“Disjointed?” Sebastian suggested tiredly.
“Exactly! See? Told j’ya. You get me, and I get you. We just get it.”
Sebastian wondered what exactly it was John thought they got but he knew the loud and paunchy man wouldn’t know either and he decided to just let the matter be.
John was, despite how greatly it might have pained Sebastian to say, a rather ordinary little man. He didn’t exactly have ideas. One might say he simply borrowed old ones like other ordinary little people and refurbished them - none too successfully - to fit the purposes he believed he had. One might also say (and Sebastian had; he enjoyed that analogy quite a lot) that the furniture of his mind’s eye was upholstered in a mismatch of borrowed fabrics that were torn at the edges and sewn together with no great attention to detail. There were holes in the stitches and the patterns often clashed.
He was contradiction incarnate.
Oh, that’s good, Sebastian thought, now dangerously close to the imaginative void, that place in his brain which took irrelevant ideas and made them the most exciting of discoveries. He would have to remember it for later - pulling out his pen to jot down the phrase while John was trying to talk to him was probably not the best of ideas.
“Anyway, Seb. You’ve got one hell of an upstairs. One hell of a. You’re good and there’s nobody’s gonna object to that. It’s just that, yeah. That good stuff is stuck in all that, what word did you use?”
“Right, that. The good just gets stuck in that disjointed stuff and gets all jumbled. You’re the genius but us normal people can’t really get at it. It goes right over our heads, ya see?”
Sebastian was thinking there was a lot more then his writing that went over John’s head, but “Mhm, must be my genius. Well, thanks John. I - ”
“No problem, Seb. No problem. You know I’m always up to some free reading if you need it. I was just telling Car, I said, that Sebastian Cormack, he’ll be going places he will, just as soon as he gets that message - with a capital ‘M’ mind you - when he gets that Message under control and under the covers - if you know what I mean, Seb.” He laughed heartily and Sebastian had a fleeting but vivid image of the gaping, abyssal maw of a feeding whale. He waited a moment before hustling the thought from his brain, taking the time to consider it and judging it a viable comparison.
“Right, well - ”
“Car, she thought that was great, that was. Laughed all night, she did! Kept saying it back at me like it was the funniest damned thing she’d ever heard. I finally had to tell her - ”
God, when does he stop? Unfortunately, Sebastian knew exactly when John stopped and wondered how long he should wait before he phoned Sharon at the library to inform her he would most likely be out the next day.
“ - but you know how all that goes.” No, no probably not. “Anyway, Seb. Speaking of Ser, told her I’d meet her ’fore she’s off to school again. Can’t letter down this time, yeah?” Sebastian wondered who had mentioned John’s daughter, Serena and why, coming to the quick and usual conclusion that it probably didn’t matter all that much.
“Yeah - er, no. No, you can’t. I’ll see you later then. It was nice talking, John. Really it was. Have a good time with Serena.”
“I’ll tell her you said hullo then,” John said before throwing him a surreptitious glance and adding, “and Seb, you’re sure you don’t need me to do anything else? I can tell her I’m running late, it’s really no big deal - ”
He didn’t want to go. Meetings with his daughter always were, well, a bit dicey. Sebastian’s externally unremarkable two bedroom, one bath home had become a place of solace for John. Many nights had found the man right where he was now, seated across from Sebastian whom he fondly referred to as his “writer friend” in the well-lit living room of 37 Portence Street. He often, however inadvertently, used the unknowably illusive house as a hiding place, seeking refuge from his own simpler problems through the problems Sebastian came up with in his writing. He had always envied that about his friend, the fact that the writer seemed to just ignore what was happening around him, that he could focus only on what he considered important, things only he could see.
But Sebastian already knew all this and wouldn’t allow John to skip out on Serena this time, no matter how unpleasant the meeting would turn out.
“No, no. You go. I’m set here. I figure I’ll make some tea and work a bit more on this. I’m good. Really.” He stood. Taking a hint wasn’t really John’s forte and if Sebastian wanted him to leave, he would have to make the first move. John stood in suit, slightly crestfallen, and thrust out a meaty hand, presumably for Sebastian to shake. He smiled good-naturedly and accepted the offer, extending his arm and bracing himself for the too-firm grip associated with John. The older man’s boney knuckles stuck out from under the corded muscles in his fingers, digging jaggedly into Sebastian’s own, much more delicate appendage. Resisting with practiced ease the urge to wince at the contact, he waited to be released and opened the thick, green paneled door for his friend. John stepped outside and, with a final wave, tipped into the street and around a corner row of expensively glossed cars.
Sebastian waited until he was well out of sight before quickly shutting the heavy door and turning the cool bronze knob until it clicked satisfactorily. He took a moment to set aside a small stack of blank, black bound notebooks, little folded corners of ivory and ebony cards, placing them neatly on his desk for later. His brain wasn’t quite up to any writing yet. Some quiet was in order.
And he slunk off to the large window at the back of the study with a cup of tea and his thoughts his only company.