The warm yellow glow of a single table lamp was all that Bobbi needed to know her mom had stayed up as late as she could crocheting and watching t.v. from the couch. The volume on the t.v. was set so low that there was no knowing if her mom was still awake or not. Bobbi shrugged off her coat quietly, just in case. She set the mail on the hall table unopened and spared half a frown for the few letters that seemed to be from publishers. She'd face their rejections in the morning; she'd been accepted by someone far more important tonight.
Bobbi was hoping her mother was only nodding off so she could share the good news, because it wasn't as if there'd been a lot of that lately. When was the last time she'd had a man's attentions to tell her mother about? A real man who flirted with her on purpose, not on accident? Who lingered in her presence out of enjoyment, not business? A man who was flesh and blood, and not just someone she'd made up with her typewriter?
Nevermind that the men she created were bolder than any man she'd met in person, as well as more observant and more intelligent. Bobbi's men were patient enough not to settle for the first floozy in a bright dress, and wise enough to see the heroine for what she was, even when she didn't see herself properly. Bobbi's men were at once more kind and more cruel than real men could afford to be, stopping short of nothing to claim the women that belonged to them.
Justin had been brave tonight and just dangerous enough to get her blood up. Bobbi knew she didn't have the most welcoming reputation, but he hadn't cared one bit. He smiled even though he could've been rejected. He caught her alone at night and invaded her space a little - and it was wonderful.
Stepping into the living room (parlor, her mother insisted, but nobody called it that anymore), Bobbi felt a gentle hitch of disappointment when she saw her mother half-sitting, half-laying across the couch with a T.V. Guide in her lap. The gray in her hair was glossed over by the lamp until it showed the ghost of the blond it used to be. No bottles of dye for Mrs. Evelyne DuChamp; it was natural or nothing. Bobbi remembered that and wiped the remnants of her lipstick on the inside of her sweater sleeve absently.
Drawing near, she asked softly, "Mom?"
Bobbi leaned down and pressed a kiss to the top of her mother's head. When her mom didn't stir, she whispered, "Sleep well, Mom" - and that was when she noticed the words slipping out of her mouth in ghostly letters, like hot breath on a chill winter day. She could read them as they trailed out and slipped into formation in the air.
Inside her layers of clothing, Bobbi's skin felt like it had been coated with ice.
Bobbi could clearly hear a voice inside her head, narrating: "This couldn't be happening. Not again. That had just been a dream, it had to be a dream. She all but bolted toward the stairs to see if there was something wrong in her room again - "
And Bobbi felt sick as her body was doing just that, sending hurried steps toward the -
" - one place it was not safe for her to go, her bedroom, where her typewriter lived in darkness underneath its cover until she brought it forth and said, 'Let there be life'." The narrator's voice was almost like her own but different enough to be disconcerting. A female voice, stronger and more sinister than her own.
"She knew she should not mount the steps," the narrator continued in sing-song admonition, like a child's fairy tale. "She knew she should not plumb the depths. But it was so beautiful, where she went! Who cares if, when she's done, she wept?"
The words weren't hers. An inaudible sob came out in a little huff and a few tears. Bobbi didn't write poetry anymore. She didn't write poetry after everyone's interest in her died, almost exactly the way she'd described it in quatrains she etched in her diary. She'd tried writing nice things, happy things, to see if maybe they would come true, but it didn't work that way. She didn't even think in rhymes after the epic poem she crafted for her high school English teacher turned out to chronicle his hidden love for the star of the basketball team. Her teacher had cornered her after class and slapped her across the face, unloading enough threats that she hadn't looked at him straight in the eyes again.
Bobbi hadn't known she was writing about him. She really hadn't.
"It just turned out that way," the narrator explained with feigned sympathy.
The upstairs hallway was dark and the dim bulb that came on when she flicked the switch -
" - only served to make the darkness more apparent. The wallpaper seemed dingy and the house sagged around her, old, like the neighborhood was getting, like her mother was getting, like she was getting while her hopes to be carried off by a good man withered away with the wallpaper..."
"Stop it!" Bobbi whispered, gripping the bannister with one hand and clenching her fist with the other. She wasn't going to go crazy tonight. Bobbi finished the last steps and resolutely strode toward her bedroom door. She would show herself there was nothing in there to fear. Then she would go downstairs and wake up her mother to talk about Justin over a late-night cup of tea.
"Except that Justin will never be what your Shadow Lover can be," the narrator warned. "The men in your stories - Jack the cowboy, Alexander the vampire, Alfonso the pirate - they're all just pale shadows of Him. And He knows more about pleasure and pain than any stock boy ever will."
Bobbi's brows drew together as she approached her door slowly, cautiously. She felt - no, she knew - that someone was in her room.
"You've been dreaming of Him all your life, telling yourself stories about Him in the dark until you could almost feel Him there."
Bobbi threw the door open bravely just to spite that voice, but when she flipped the switch, the light refused to turn on. Her fingers brushed the switch on the wall until it clicked a few extra times, loud and useless.
Of course the light wouldn't turn on.
"Of course the light wouldn't turn on." The narrator's voice now came clear as a bell from from the far corner of the room, where a shadowy shape crouched and swayed.
Things never worked right at a time like this.
"Things never worked right at a time like this," the narrator parroted, and then giggled.
"STOP IT!" Bobbi cried and the words unspooled from her mouth in large letters, floating into the darkness to the far corner, where something made the sound children make when the last bit of spaghetti snakes into their pursed mouths. Something was there, eating her words.
The hall light flickered and died, and as Bobbi drew in breath to scream she knew that He was behind her already. The arms that closed in on her were frighteningly strong and horribly familiar, sweeping above and below her breasts with proprietary ease. The voice that came like thunder rumbling under silk raised the hackles on the back of her neck the way it was supposed to, and she knew that voice as though she had heard it like her own heartbeat, underneath the entirety of her ordinary life.
But it wasn't an ordinary voice. And it wasn't an ordinary man.
"It wasn't really a man at all," the narrator said in carefully teasing tones.
"Roberta," He breathed, and her body shuddered too hard to be sexy.
Of course He would call her by her full first name, as a proper gentleman should. But then He took in a deep breath of her scent, in a way that was more wolf than gentleman, and she felt her bladder contract painfully. Bobbi groaned.
"Now, now, there's no need for that," He chided. "You know I would never hurt you."
When her heroes said those words in throaty tones, her heroines already knew the truth of them in their bones. Right now, Roberta DuChamp knew nothing of the sort.
"He was going to hurt her," the narrator explained in mock-serious cadence, "He was going to hurt her A LOT."
"Is that what you really think, my dear?" He asked, sliding a hand away from her throat so she might answer. "Is that the kind of story we're going to write together?"
"No," Bobbi said huskily but quickly. "No, I'll write - I'll write whatever you want." And then the tears came. "Just please don't hurt my mom..."
"Oh, shh shh shh," He said, rocking her from side to side indulgently. "You've already been writing the things I want. You even brought me here! And now you can put me in all the stories you could ever dream of!"
Bobbi cried more freely. She knew she shouldn't have written that scene two nights ago. She knew better than to ever put her own name and face into her stories!
"We're going to make millions of women wish they had me," He explained as the narrator turned on the light at last. Bobbi turned her head and caught sight of a figure that looked too much like herself.
"The narrator was herself," the narrator said, her voice taking on a false urgency. "But not. She thought she could almost see balled pieces of paper underneath the narrator's skin and typewriter ribbons hanging instead of her greasy hair. And her teeth were typewriter keys with letters written on them that didn't make any sense, and her eyes were the ink blots that had gotten on the sheets she'd hidden from her mother, and if this was what the narrator looked like, what did He look like?"
Bobbi nearly lost her footing, but His arms bore her up. They were strong and well-muscled, like they were supposed to be, and He had to be well over six feet tall to hold her that way. The clothing He wore was richly textured and deeply colored, but unsure of which style it was supposed to be. Not that His clothing was important.
Slowly the arms loosened, and Bobbi sank to her knees as she turned. There was a sword slung at His waist, a rapier with such fine detail that she reached out to touch it with a kind of stupid wonder. It was cold, but it was there. A mellow leather belt was slung across hips that were lean and somehow menacing, like the haunches of a big cat that might spring. The broad chest stretched up like a mountain and Bobbi noted that His skin changed from shades of brown to gold - sun-kissed skin, working-man's flesh. But atop His pillar of a neck was a shadowy nothing where His face should be.
"Bobbi could feel her eyes bulging out of her skull," the narrator supplied. "And you've got it right, that's how they look."
Bobbi's eyes swiveled to the figure of the narrator, which was wearing her other winter coat. It wasn't just narrating the scene any more, mirroring her thoughts and fears -
"It was its own creation," the narrator said with a smile.
"Oh God," Bobbi whispered. The words slipped out like icicles, and then broke up into shards.
"Oh, I'm more than god," He said, reaching down and turning her face toward Him. "Haven't you always said that stories were your life?" And He placed a pen into her hand while the narrator set a blank notebook before her on the floor. "Now, I want you to describe us in a place of words and wonders, where the fantasies of lonely women echo in sighs that crawl across the library walls..."
So Bobbi began to compose a tale set in a place far away, thinking that if she could write her mother out out of the scene, then at least she would be spared.
Her mother did not make an appearance in the new chapter, and neither did the narrator.
And Bobbi was on her own to write her way home again.