Dirk Hamel

Dec 21, 2016

13 min read

“Pretty Meta, Write?”

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer in possession of a pressing deadline, must be in want of an idea.

It was a tough job, killing a king.

But Dom was the man for it — perhaps even made for the job. He was of average build, medium height, and depending on the cut of his clothes, could be mistaken for anything from gaunt to athletic. His hair was a muddled brown, as were his eyes, and his facial features, although delicate, could have fit in anywhere. With a few smudges of dirt and a set of weatherbeaten clothes, he would raise no eyebrows swapping jokes with a coterie of weary farmers and travelers at a roadside inn. Yet clad in a well-tailored coat with hair carefully coiffed, he wouldn’t look out of place in one of the Neronian noble courts — just another pompous third son looking to sucker some poor sap into patronage.

Dom could slip on an identity like a pair of gloves, and he knew it. He was one of the most successful assassins in the history of the Empire — though, that wasn’t something anyone but his brothers and sisters would ever know. Killing a king wasn’t the hard part — but doing the job clean, that was. And getting out alive. That was why they sent him, he thought, smirking, and not some bloodthirsty mercenary with a poisoned dagger and an alley-piece.

See, everyone knew it. The Emperor knew, the King Branwick knew it, even the Neronian citizens knew it. Neron would fall within the year and there was nothing their under-manned and under-trained army could do about it. Regardless, the conflict would lead to a bloody, costly war in the marshes of Neron, so the Empire’s leadership had sent him, an assassin of the Blades.

Information had reached the ears of the Empire that King Branwick was planning to run with his family to escape the war. One quick, precise strike could destabilize the Neronian government, allowing a well-placed agent of the Empire to assume control. The perfect plan, provided he could pull it off.

He padded down the corridor, the soft leather of his boots little more than a whisper on the stone floor. He kept to the shadows, drifting through the halls like a specter of some long-forgotten vengeance. The royal chambers were just ahead—

“Wait, what’s wrong with this one, exactly?” Alice asked, smoothing out the ball of crumpled notebook paper Damien had thrown over his shoulder in frustration. She scooted closer to the space heater to read it, trying in vain to fight off the chill creeping in through the layers of pajamas she wore. College housing wasn’t exactly known for its insulation, but Damien’s apartment was especially bad. Just a few more months, though — they’d be graduated and off to bigger and better things.

“It’s just, well, I don’t really think I wanna write that kind of story for class,” he said, his pen already scratching again.

“What kind of story?”

He looked perplexed. “Like… you know, a fantasy story.”

He turned from his position at the table to look at her, his face shrouded in the oversized grey hoodie he was wearing. He called it his comfort hoodie, and he wore it whenever he wrote. For someone who was usually so precise about appearances, the superstition was kind of cute.

“But Damien — you want to write fantasy novels for a living, doesn’t this, y’know, seem like a good time to be practicing?”

He grimaced. “I mean, you saw what happened with my final story in Intro, I really don’t want a repeat of that disaster.”

“Okay, that was a much different class, you know that. The professor was a tyrant. Besides, didn’t Greg tell you to write for yourself, not for the class? I think he’d want you to write what you want, not for your audience.”

“Well, yeah, I guess.” He shrugged. “I don’t know, I also feel like this story isn’t really going anywhere.”

“I can help. You can bounce ideas off of me. Where were you gonna go with that?”

“Well, I was gonna have the assassin character make his way into the royal chambers, and find the king preparing to run away. The rest of the royal family is gone, so it’s just the two of them, yeah?”

“And?”

“And then they have a discussion, and there’s a moral decision he has to make. Like, whether or not he should kill the king, or just let him go. The guy’s not gonna try to fight back ever or anything, it’s just orders, he’s still supposed to waste him. Duty versus morality and all that shit.”

“So what does he choose?” she asked.

He smirked. “Well, that’s the thing. At the end of the story, he reports to his superiors to tell them he did it, but his wording is just vague enough that the reader doesn’t know for sure one way or the other if he did.”

“That sounds like a great story! Why don’t you write that?”

“I don’t know, Alice. It’s just … a lot. Even with what Greg said, this isn’t really the kind of class you write fantasy stories for, and I don’t really think I have the chops to do it. If I was a better writer, maybe.” He looked away for a moment, back at his notebook, and Alice could feel her heart break for him, just a little bit. “But right now, I just don’t think I can pull it off. Plus it’s super cliché.”

What could she say? Don’t worry babe, I think you’re a great writer. Why couldn’t he just believe her? Maybe she didn’t know any better, but she thought he was amazing. She wished he could see the value in the words he wrote, and the wonder in the worlds that seemed to spill so effortlessly from his mind. Creative writing had never come easily to her — she had always excelled at the critical side of the English curriculum, but anytime she tried to put pen to paper to create anything original, the only results were a few half-hearted doodles and a splitting headache. Even in literary analysis — her specialty — his writing had a certain delicacy, something she had never been able to match.

He smiled. “Don’t worry, Alice. I’ve got a better idea for a story anyway.”

“Okay, if you think that’s best. You’re gonna do great no matter what, I’m sure of it.”

Turning back to the desk, he laughed nervously. “Well, I don’t really have a lot of time to work with, so I hope you’re right.” He turned his head to look at her again, giving her a grateful smile. “Thanks.”

Alice turned back to her own work, frowning. While Damien crammed for his fiction class, she was drowning in cover letters and applications. Marketing jobs, publishing houses, even the odd communications position. Anywhere she could get her foot in the door.

It all just seemed so dreadfully mundane.

Either God had gotten really into Dungeons and Dragons, or the ghost of Gary Gygax spearheaded a hostile takeover — that was what Ryan had said, jokingly, when the whole thing started.

He was the first of us to be branded. One morning he woke up and he suddenly had these big block letters above his head:

Ryan Harris: Pyromancer

We didn’t quite know what to make of it — we couldn’t touch them, and they followed him around everywhere. Then we turned on the news, and discovered it wasn’t a phenomenon isolated to our apartment. It was happening to people all over the world, in non-stop waves. Jerry was next — later that day he burst into the living room, and above his head:

Jerry Lewis: Conjurer

Chad followed soon after — he got Paladin.

And me? I waited, and waited.

And waited. Over the next few days, as you might expect, things changed around the house. Ryan accidentally torched the couch in the living room one day, and Jerry used his newfound powers to summon sprites to fetch his beer from the fridge. Chad had always been arrogant and a little preachy, but after the branding, he just never shut up.

Then one morning, almost a full week after Ryan was branded, I woke up and stumbled into the bathroom, and there it was, floating above my head:

Andrew Chase: Thief

Seriously? I’ve never stolen anything in my life.

Things are a little tense in the apartment at the moment. There are monsters appearing in the streets. Orcs, goblins, demons, and the like. You would think that would be a problem for me, but I don’t really ever leave anymore.

The last time I tried, the people outside attacked me. They don’t take too kindly to thieves, and most don’t give me the chance to explain myself. I just don’t understand. Why is this my fault? It’s not like I chose this.

The girl across the street got Ranger, and she’s altogether too fond of her precious compound bow. I went out to get groceries one day, and was greeted with a barrage of arrows the moment I left the building.

Chad is a definite problem. He keeps spouting things about “defending the light,” and “punishing evildoers,” and stuff like that. He’s got a gang of morons that he roams the streets with now, mostly Knights and Clerics. They carry an assortment of baseball bats, hockey sticks, and the odd sledgehammer — which prove surprisingly effective for demon-slaying.

He watches me closely whenever he’s here. I’m starting to get worried he might do something crazy. He called me a “cutpurse,” the other day. Douchebag.

Joke’s on him, though, the only thing I steal is Jerry’s beer out of the fridge—

She found another paper on the floor when she came back with the coffee. After setting a mug on the table for him, Alice sat down with her own and read it over.

“So, I take it you’re giving up on this idea, too?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Yep,” Damien said, gingerly taking a sip. “Not really working for me.”

“Can I ask what’s wrong with this one?”

“Well it’s just, y’know, not really a good idea for a story.”

“What do you mean? This seems like it could be interesting. Not necessarily the most serious story ever, but I’d read it. I like fantasy, you know that. This even seems like it could end up being really funny.” She smiled encouragingly.

Pushing his hood down, he scratched his head. It took him a long moment to answer. “Well, it’s just … dumb. I thought I’d try my hand at a real-world story with some surreal, magical-realism type stuff, I guess? And it just turned out really bad. Everyone in my class, they’ve written these really amazing surrealist pieces, and it works super well when they do it. When I try, I just make a mess of the exposition.”

“Sweetie, it’s just the beginning,” Alice said. “ Don’t worry about it, I’m sure it’ll be fine once you really get into it.”

He grimaced and shook his head. “I know, I know, but this story just doesn’t work. It’s way too out there, just like the last one. The whole gimmick, with the floating names and classes and all? It’s just too much to ask the readers to believe, and I just don’t think I can realistically depict it without making it seem kinda hokey, y’know? More importantly, it’s just not publishable. If I want to go anywhere with my writing after graduation, I need to have a portfolio to work with, and maybe a story or two to send out, and I. Just. Don’t.”

“Who cares?”

“What do you mean?”

She set her laptop aside. “Greg said to write for you. Write the story you want to write. All that other stuff will come eventually. Besides, I’m sure there are magazines that publish fantasy stories. They may not be well known, but I’m sure they’re out there.” She smiled. “But it’s a start.”

“I guess.” He sipped at the coffee again. “Plus, I’m not really sure I know where I’m going with the plot, either. I don’t think I’d be able to wrap it up in a satisfying way within the page limit.”

“Alright, what did you have in mind?”

“I was thinking that Andrew would just mope around the apartment and stuff, then there’d be a big confrontation with Chad and all his douchey paladin friends, but eventually they’d need his help to steal something important from an antagonist that I have no idea how to develop. Tie it back to friendship and interpersonal relationships and stuff. You know, the human element.”

“To ground the story?”

“Yeah.”

“That sounds like it could be a much longer piece.”

“Yeah, well that’s part of the problem. I don’t really have time to lay out the plot for something that extensive. This story is due tomorrow, after all.”

They sat in silence for a moment. “Well, not to pile the pressure on, but you don’t really have that much time to work on anything else,” she said. “So you’ve gotta commit to something sooner or later. Preferably sooner.”

“Yeah, I know, I know. You’re right.” He ran his fingers through his hair, looking as though he was trying to scratch the it all clean off his head. “I guess I’ve got a couple more ideas to work with.” He looked at the clock on the wall. It was past midnight. “It’s getting kind of late though, I don’t want to keep you up.”

“It’s okay, I’ll stay up with you. These applications aren’t going to fill themselves out, you know. And one of us has to have a job, otherwise we’re gonna be living in a cardboard box after graduation.” She smiled. “Besides, how are you ever going to fulfill your dream of being a house husband if I don’t have a big-time corporate job?”

He laughed. “Well, you’ve always been the smart one, after all. If either one of us is gonna get hired, it’s gonna be you.” He turned back to his notebook. Alice opened her laptop, but when she looked up a few seconds later, he was staring right back at her.

“You know, I just …” he trailed off. “As long as we’re together, we can make it through this. You don’t need to find some big corporate job if that’s not what you want. Do what you want to do. I don’t ever want you to feel like you have to change for me.”

She didn’t really know how to respond.

We’re at a stoplight. Tommy’s driving, laughing and singing along to the song on the radio — something popular and repetitive. Mike is in the passenger seat, Tindering frenetically. And Claire …

Claire is next to me in the back. I’m looking over at her and she smiles this demure little smile and my heart lurches. Things have been different this summer. Her hand creeps closer to mine, and suddenly my mouth is very dry. The light turns green and as the car jolts into motion, she grabs my hand. Her eyes are shining at me and all I can think is that this moment is the first of many tiny secrets

A split second later the moment explodes and we’re flipping, flying, through the air. The left half of my head erupts in flashes of red and white.

My hand is searching, searching, but all it finds is empty space.

When I wake, my throat is sandpaper. My eyes focus slowly, and I realize I’m in a hospital bed, fumbling for a nurse call button.

The next few hours are a blur. A parade of stone-faced doctors and nurses and drugs that blunt my perception. I hear a lot of long, complicated things. I grasp at the ones I can understand — like “car crash,” and “miracle.”

There’s a lancing pain where my left eye should be, boring down into my skull. I hit the button for morphine. After what seems like an eternity, the world softens, and the dingy walls melt away. In the soft darkness, I can feel my hand twitching, grasping, for something. Why can’t I remember what it is?

When I come to, the sun is long set, the room lit only by the starlight.

There’s a figure sitting in a chair in the corner, a girl. I try to speak, but my tongue catches in my throat. I feel as though I should know her name, as if the most important thing in the world was to remember, but I can’t.

She smiles a small, sad smile.

There’s a cold, lingering kiss on my cheek, and the world fades to black—

“Wait, what?!”

“What?”

“Did he just die at the end, there?” Alice asked.

“No. Although I guess that is a little unclear. If I was gonna continue the story, I guess I would probably wanna clear that up.” He scratched his chin. “Yeah, by the way, she’s totally dead. He’s seeing her ghost and stuff. At the end, when he finally remembers her name, that’s when she fades away and disappears.”

“Jesus, Damien! What’s wrong with this one, why won’t you write it?”

“I can’t do it,” he said, his pen tapping a staccato his notebook.

“Why not?”

“Look, every story I’ve written for this class has been about younger male characters feeling sorry for themselves and whining and shit, I just can’t write another story like that!”

“It’s okay — what if that’s just your style? You said you really enjoyed that Junot Diaz story, right?”

“That’s just not the point. Everything I write is either reductive, or stupid, or just super cliché,” he threw his pen down in frustration. “And for some reason, I can’t write a female character to save my life. They’re all either one-dimensional or super objectified, and I just don’t know what I’m doing wrong.” His head sunk to the table.

“Hey.”

There was a long moment of silence. Alice hugged him from behind, trying her hardest to will something, any kind of strength, through her hands.

“Hey. Babe.” She repeated.

The only reply was a muffled groan.

“Hey. Turn around. Look at me.” He turned slowly. “You can do this. I believe in you. It’s like you said. As long as we’re together, we can do this. Here,” she said, “I’ll go make more coffee, I’ll be back in a few minutes. Here’s your pen. Just write whatever you want. Have fun with it. Write your story.”

When she came back, he had his headphones in. He was lost in concentration, bent over the table. His pen was moving mechanically down the page. She couldn’t see very well — he had his hood up — but she thought she could see a faint smile.

When she was sure he was focused, she flattened out the three crumpled stories and tucked them in her binder.

Someday, he’d see.

She opened her laptop again and pulled up a Google search:

how to start applying to grad school

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