The Literary Assassin

Fiction, fashion, and hand-to-hand combat by Holly Messinger

The ending of this is weak, but I couldn't think of a conclusion that didn't sound like a Lifetime movie.

You never forget your first stalker.

Muse

by Holly Messinger

August 1999
all rights reserved

Her voice mesmerized him. He kept his eyes closed when she read, letting the words wash over him, listening to their structure and intonation more than their meaning. He visualized the shape of each phoneme in her mouth, the way her tongue curled around the vowels, her lips caressing the consonants. His eyes lifted to half-mast so he could watch her lips move. Her mouth turned up at the corners as though she was just about to smile. Her eyes were downcast to the page, dark lashes over fair, young skin. Her eyelids were clean of makeup. That was another thing about her that fascinated him. It seemed to suggest she was open, honest, sincere. Not hiding behind makeup. Clean. Pure.

She had reached the end of the passage and raised her eyes expectantly. "Well? Any problems?"

Someone asked about the motivation of one of her characters--he couldn't keep all their names straight, but he didn't try. They were all rooted in some facet of her personality. They were all, as far as he was concerned, about her.

"Don't forget about the war camp," she said, placing one fingertip on the tabletop for emphasis. "Don't you think a man who's been through that kind of ordeal would withdraw from people?"

Another critic claimed that since they'd never been through the same trauma as the characters in her story, no one in the group was in a position to know.

"True," she conceded, "but in fiction, what 'most people' would do is irrelevant. You're working with one character, and you're the one who says how he will act in a given set of circumstances. So the question isn't 'Would he act this way?' but 'Did I justify the reasons he would act this way?'"

She always knew what to say. Arguments did not ruffle her. She was cool, confident. How he admired that about her. The way she dressed, the way she presented herself, all conveyed stylish self-control.

She was lingering, talking with the woman who organized the group. He followed a careful two steps behind them, as if taking in the conversation- they were talking about the upcoming writer's conference and who the guest speakers would be.

His hands were shaking. His gut was queasy. He hoped he didn't have bad breath. He rushed forward, eager not to lose her as she turned toward her car.

He spoke her name: Lauren.

She turned, straightening from tossing her bag in the back seat, eyebrows raised inquiringly. "Yes, Ralph?"

Hearing her say his name made him feel faint. He regurgitated the speech he had rehearsed: casual, friendly, non-threatening. Through the ringing in his ears he couldn't hear how it sounded.

Her smile widened, but something happened to the rest of her face, especially around the eyes. They went shallow, speculative. She pressed her fingertips together in front of her. "Thanks, but... no," she said. "I'm seeing someone, and I don't think it would be appropriate. But it was nice of you to ask."

He was retreating even before she had finished speaking. He understood. He had expected it, really. He muttered something about how he had to turn people down, too, it was no big deal...

She gave him another cool smile and got into the car.

He understood. Really. He was old enough to be her father. But he couldn't shake the instinct that told him she was something special. He was a musician, a poet. His soul was sensitive to beauty, physical and spiritual. She was both. She knew so much, could comment on any topic that came up in the group, however obscure. She spoke French. She pronounced forte correctly, so it sounded like Fort Knox, rather than for-tay, as most people said it.

And she could sing. He'd heard her, walking down the hall to the classroom where the writer's group met every Thursday, when she'd been ahead of him and unaware of his presence, singing an Ave Maria, her voice high and clean, with a touch of vibrato, strong and supported and un-self-conscious. His heart had nearly stopped in his chest. If he could have that voice to sing his songs... he thought of his stack of demo tapes, all returned in the mail with form-letter rejections... that voice, to carry his songs, and her confidence to back his efforts, and her person... He shuddered with emotion so great it made him sick. A man could do anything, with that kind of inspiration.

Thursday came around again. He considered not going to the writer's group, his anxiety nearly overwhelming him at the thought of seeing her after being rejected. Would she ignore him? Turn up her nose scornfully? Had she told the other women in the group, and would they all smirk and stare knowingly at him in smug amusement? Hitting on women half his age. Look at him. Bad teeth, bad clothes, no butt. Drives that ratty little car-

But he went. It was never really a question. He was compelled, drawn by something he couldn't explain or control. It felt like destiny.

And apparently she had not talked. No one looked at him strangely. None of the other women inched their chairs away or watched him from the corners of their eyes.

And Lauren- she came a little late, but she was there. They'd left her regular seat for her, waiting until she arrived to start. It was an indication of how important she'd become to the group in the three months she'd been coming. They all looked to her for their cues: when to begin, who was to read next, how they would respond to a piece.

He would have given his little finger for that kind of poise.

"Sorry I'm late," she said breathlessly. She flung her bag in the chair and unbuckled the top, whipping out her notebook and a bundle of pencils. "Happy Birthday to me," she sang, snapping the rubber band off the pencils. She slid a pencil across the table to each person. "It's my birthday, so I'm giving out presents," she explained.

Her gaze touched his eyes briefly as she passed him his pencil, her expression open and calm. Apparently she had forgotten about their meeting at her car. Or she simply was not bothered by it. Maybe she hadn't thought his proposition odd, at all. She had refused, she said, because she was seeing someone. But she'd never mentioned having a boyfriend in the group. She always came and went by herself. She spoke of work, frequently, and her parents, but never her personal life.

I'm seeing someone, and I don't think it would be appropriate.

So she was loyal, faithful. But maybe her feelings weren't completely engaged?

He looked up her number in the phone book. Lauren Herald.

There were three Heralds listed, all men's names. One in the suburb where she lived. He took his anxiety medication, fixed himself a sandwich he was too nervous to eat. His hands shook so badly it took him five tries to punch in her number. He clutched her pencil as the connection rang.

Her voice: "Hello?"

His tongue was paralyzed. He had to swallow twice before he could identify himself.

There was a short silence from her end of the phone. "What can I do for you, Ralph?"

Marry me, he wanted to say. But it was too soon in their relationship. He had something he wanted her to read, he said.

"Okay, sure," she said. "If you want to bring it next week, I'll-"

No. He wanted to mail it to her.

Another pause. "Why don't you send it to my post office box?"

Relief swept him; she hadn't refused. He wrote down the address she gave him, and felt he should explain. To thank her for being so kind. To tell her how much he admired her. It was easier for him to write it down. It would make him feel better to send this letter-

"Okay, Ralph, you can send it, but I want you to know I won't read it."

That was fine, he understood, he hastened to reassure her that he knew he was too old for her, but she was a wonderful person-

"Thanks, Ralph. I've got to go, now. I will see you next week," she said firmly, and said good-bye.

It was a rejection. He knew it was. She was very kind, and she hadn't said so, but she didn't want to acknowledge his love.

And it was love. His head knew it now, only now that his heart had been exposed and wounded. Too late to save himself. He was depressed, even more than usual. He saw his doctor, got a new prescription. Two medications, one to calm him down, one to cheer him up.

At least, at very least, he still had her voice. He continued to go on Thursday nights, to watch her and listen. He did not join in the conversations. He no longer played his demo tapes for the group. He did not approach her. He came alone and went alone, as she did. He felt the irony of it, that they could have ended each other's loneliness.

Eventually, it was too much to bear. He stopped going on Thursdays. He called up his musician friends, got them back into the studio, re-mastered some of his old love songs, thinking always of Lauren. The lead singer was a woman about his own age, made of wire and leather, with too much makeup and a rasp from years of smoking. They went to bed together a few times, which was a mistake. The proximity of another body in the dark-and possibly a side effect of the new medication- made him dream of Lauren. But when he reached out, her soft young skin withered and became bony, dry.

So he went back. After two months. He had consciously tried to mimic Lauren's sense of control, her confidence. He thought it was working. He felt stronger, more balanced. Maybe she would see it.

The first thing he noticed when he walked into the classroom was how crowded it seemed. There were twice as many people as there had been at the beginning of the summer. But his eye found her immediately, in the center of a group he didn't recognize: teenaged boys and middle-aged women, talking about poetry contests and rip-off scams.

She was smiling, reaching for her bottle of iced tea. Her eyes glanced around the room as she paused to draw breath, and her gaze landed on him, near the doorway.

Her eyes widened.

Her fingers fumbled.

The bottle of iced tea toppled.

Everyone jumped up. Lauren gave a nervous little laugh. "Call me Grace. I'll go get some towels."

She hastened from the room, not looking at him again.

He could barely sit still through that meeting. When it was over, she lingered, attaching herself to the elbow of one of the other women, chattering brightly.

He followed them, hastening to her side as they reached the parking lot, falling into step beside her, saying he needed to talk to her.

"I don't think so, Ralph," she said shortly.

He needed to explain some things, he protested.

Her companion was falling away uncertainly, saying goodnight. Lauren waved to her and kept walking. "You asked me out," she said matter-of-factly. "I'm not interested. It happens all the time. There's nothing more to say."

Desperately, he placed himself in her path. She stopped dead, her head going back, nostrils flaring like a startled horse. Every line of her body was taut, impassioned, dangerous. Like one of the characters in her book: strong, feminine, intoxicating.

He pleaded with her. That letter. He didn't want her to think he was threatening. He was a passionate man. He understood there couldn't be anything between them, but-

"I didn't read that letter, Ralph."

She hadn't?

"I told you I wasn't going to."

She just threw it away.

"Yes."

Well. There was nothing more to be said, was there?

She circled around him and he let her go.

He stayed away for another month, nursing his pride. She didn't want him, didn't even want to talk to him. She hadn't bothered to read his letter. But he couldn't quite believe that. Otherwise why would she have been so nervous? She had knocked over her tea when she saw him standing in the doorway.

Maybe, he thought, drawing a deep breath, maybe she was afraid of what he was offering her. Maybe she had been alone so long she no longer trusted men. After all, look at the stories she wrote; all about betrayal and revenge. Maybe she was afraid of being hurt again. Maybe she had simply been alone so long she didn't trust this new feeling, was overwhelmed by it.

Hope rose up in him.

He called the organizer of the group, asking if they still met in the same place, and assured her that he and Lauren had resolved their disagreement. The woman pretended she didn't know what he was talking about.

He was deliberately late for the next meeting. Lauren was already reading when he came in. She glanced up when the door opened and quickly riveted her eyes to the page again. A slight tremor crept into her voice, but she would not get up and leave; that he had been counting on. He took the empty chair directly across from her and sank into the sound of her voice.

The words she read were a surprise. He had missed a great deal of her story, it seemed, while he was gone those few months. She was reading a love scene, not explicit, but sensual and romantic. Apparently, her heroine had overcome her distrust of the protagonist. Excitement rose up in him, so he found it difficult to breathe. This was a signal, and the fact that she had done it unconsciously made it all the more sincere. She was ready to open herself.

As the group began to break up into smaller discussions, he approached her chair, crouching so he could look her in the eye. She took one quick look at him and busied herself packing away her papers, her body turned coyly away from him.

He was too breathless to speak coherently. If he could borrow her manuscript, he said, because he had a hard time following words read out loud, which was the reason he never commented on her work, but he was sure it was excellent work, and if he could just read it at his leisure-

"No, Ralph," she said.

But he'd guard it with his life, he wouldn't show it to anyone-

"No," she said again, threw the bag strap over her shoulder and started for the door.

He followed, frantic not to lose her. If she thought it was just because he wanted to read the lovemaking scenes in it, that wasn't it at all-

"It's just because you want something of mine, isn't that right?" she asked, turning to look him in the eye.

Well, yes. She understood, but she did not look pleased. She resumed walking.

But he had to make her hear the rest of it. How he had this anxiety disorder, but it just made him nervous, not dangerous, and he was taking medication, and her strength was such an inspiration to him, she was one of his heroes, and he didn't have many heroes, only Elvis Costello and Dr. Kovorkian, and although he was old enough to be her father, if he loved a woman he would love her no matter what, if she was burned or crippled or lost both breasts to cancer-

"All right, stop," she said, and turned to face him. She pointed two fingers at his chest. "This is totally inappropriate, Ralph. We have nothing in common, I'm not interested in you, and I never will be. You need psychiatric help. I know all about your anxiety disorder, and you need to be under a doctor's care. What you want you can't get from another person, and I wouldn't give it to you even if I could. Now, you thanked me once for being kind, and I've been kind, but I am not by nature a nice person, Ralph, and if you want to see how nasty I can get, then you just keep this up."

She punctuated this last with a jab of her fingers, not quite touching him. Her eyes were cold and fierce. She was magnificent.

As she turned on her heel and faded into the parking lot, he realized he had an erection.

The following Monday, he got a call from the woman who organized the writer's group, asking him not to come on Thursdays anymore. The next day, he called Lauren. As soon as he identified himself, she said, "Good-bye, Ralph," and hung up.

How he admired her strength!

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