Disclaimers:This story is alternative (and absolute) fiction. It contains very little graphic material, but it does deal with same-sex relationships. It also deals with internal and external prejudices about those relationships, including stereotypes. The characters are neither warm and fuzzy nor politically correct, and most are very opinionated--so be warned that you may disagree with some of their opinions. (Even I do, and I wrote them.)
The first draft of this story was written in the fall of 1992, so all the characters' names (and most of the plot) were in place seven years ago. You will see why I considered changing at least one name.
To the best of my knowledge, all the characters, all the ad campaigns, and most of the companies are fictional.
Credits:Thanks to Rocky, Lyraine, D.J., and ArdentTly, who beta-read some or all of this fic. If you like it, partial credit goes to them. If you don't like it, they never heard of me and had nothing to do with it.
Wednesday, 5 a.m.
Much too earlythe morning after the art director's party, the local station that I'd fallen asleep to went back on the air, shocking me as awake as I was ever going to get in this life.
"Good morning, Meridian, and welcome to 'Early Edition.' Daybreak Don will be along shortly with the latest forecast for your Wednesday. In our top story of the hour, police..."
I shifted uncomfortably on the couch. So that was where the remote was. With some effort, I pried it out of my spine and punched buttons viciously, scanning the local channels. Infomercial. Evangelism. Daybreak Don. Evangelism. Evangelism.
In no mood to be saved, sold, or yapped at by weathergeeks, I punched up VH-1, which was just breaking for a local commercial block. The first ad in that block was one of mine: 15 jump-cut seconds of sweaty models in Spandex, ending on a freeze frame of a very healthy blonde. GET IT. FLAUNT IT, the title said--unnecessarily, really, if you looked at the blonde where the cameraman had. Did it matter whether viewers would know that the ad was for a health club?
Well, advertising was a living. Club West wasn't the worst work on my reel. And sex invariably sold itself, even here in God's Country. Why feel guilty about it?
Switching off the TV, I crawled off the couch--a triumph of will, under the circumstances--to start the coffeemaker and open the deck-door curtains.
The sky was scarlet. Somehow, sky that color seemed appropriate. So did the three crows circling silently over the condos.
Bloodshot, I squinted up at them. Christ, they were big for crows. Maybe they were really ravens.
Ravens. Why not? The morning after that much wine, this far into thirtysomething, what you want is ravens. Poe knew all about these things. How did it go?
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming...
Now why did that line come to mind? Curious.
The ravens dipped and soared in the bloody sky, soundless. Watching them made me a little seasick, so I gave it up after a moment and went back to the kitchen to see whether the coffee was ready.
I drank one mug standing over the coffeemaker, poured another--and nearly dropped it on the way back to the greatroom. A shadow was moving slowly across the carpet, the shadow of a woman, long hair blowing lightly in the hot wind.
Someone was out on the deck.
With one eye on the shadow, I parked the mug on the counter; felt along the wall for the fireplace tools; and then sidled toward the sliding glass door, gripping a poker, too scared to feel stupid. I took a deep breath, stepped out into the open...
And swore, throwing the poker halfway across the room. Now I felt stupid. It was only one of the ravens, come to rest on the deck rail, and the shadow that it cast was the shadow of a bird.
That did it--no more art directors' parties. Bad dreams all night, and now bad birds. I was starting to see things.
An hour or so later,I'd recovered enough to drive to work, thanks mostly to caffeine. The shelf in the shower stall was just big enough to hold a travel mug, which was why I'd installed it. Some mornings, it had literally been a life-saver. I believed in coffee the way everyone else seemed to believe in God.
There was no God, of course, or any such thing as enough coffee, either. But you have to have faith in something.
Work? Not likely. I was in advertising, so my job was to lie--not that I had any real problem with that concept. I was good at lying, and well paid for it. But I had no illusions about my means of making a living--therefore, no faith in it.
Community? Please. Mine was Meridian, a foursquare Midwestern capital of nearly a million people but really just a big small town built on a Baptist rock. A more buttondown, plain-vanilla place couldn't have existed outside Nick at Nite.
Actually, technically, nobody lived in Meridian anymore--at least, nobody I knew--but in the upscale burbs of the metroplex. The most beautiful of the Beautiful People lived in Greenville, a pretentious little place that had every chain restaurant and retail store on the planet. Of course, I lived there too. Except for the fact that I didn't have the cedar fence, the minivan, or the 2.3 Baby Gap brats, I might have passed, demographically, for any other Boomer on the better mailing lists.
All this was paradise if you were born for it but worse than inferno if you weren't. I wasn't sure whether I was or not. I'd been born in the area but had done too much time there and someday would have to get out. To a Real City, which had things like, say, real newspapers--as opposed to the Meridian Herald, which was printed entirely in crayon. I didn't avail myself of the Herald's dubious version of truth, or of the city's countless churches, or of what passed in those parts for culture. I detested gimme hats, bowling, monster-truck shows, and Elvisheads, among other things. I didn't have family close by or a fiancÚ anywhere. Naturally, these facts made me evil, by Meridian standards.
And on top of all that, just look what I did for a living.
Still, I didn't think I was all that eccentric. It was true that I dressed funny, compared with most people--more or less like a veejay, mostly in the darkest possible colors. Between my taste for rock-and-roll clothes and the fact that my hair had a will of its own, I generally looked like a refugee from some '80s hair band, which was a look that clashed with the pastel suburbs of Greenville. It was also true that I would talk back to the Devil himself, if he happened to annoy me, which was too much attitude for most people in those parts. And then there was the celibacy thing. But you couldn't call me eccentric if you were a reasonable person. Take my best friend, the ultimate cover-girl career woman. She didn't think I was eccentric; she just thought I was crazy.
A little reputation for crazy didn't hurt in my line of work, though, and J/J/G Advertising was one of the few places in town where a person could get away with being different. Granted, not very--even in Creative, most of the staff was as corn-fed as they come--but at least at J/J/G, people were more or less used to me.
What I really believed in, I guessed--besides coffee--wasn't work or family or community or God, but the right to be a little different. No matter what anyone thought. Some people insisted that I was bound for hellfire because I wasn't Just Like Everybody Else. OK--they had the right to be chicken-assed, hen-hearted morons that you couldn't tell apart with a scorecard. No matter what I thought. Difference again.
I wished that my small departures from convention made me happier, though. The trouble, I was starting to think, was that I couldn't decide what was scarier: being the same, or being different.
Maybe that was why I'd been having the bad dreams lately. Those dreams could be why the shadow had scared me. It could have been my Shadow, come to haunt me outside my head while I was awake and ready to recognize it for...
Naaah. That would be crazy. Besides, Jung was way too much work at that hour.
All that thinking was making my head hurt again, so I cranked up David Byrne on the MG's ancient tape deck.
Glancing into the rear-view mirror before changing lanes for the 10th Street exit, I would have sworn--for a second--that someone was in the back of the MG, in the well behind the seats.
Unnerved, I jerked around to check. Nothing.
"Crazy," I told myself firmly, and cut off a jacked-up Chevy pickup with a shotgun hanging in the back window
"Morning, Dev.You look very lifelike today, considering."
Not amused, I spun from the coffeemaker to the source of the voice. Cassie, damn her. She looked like something out of Vogue, as usual--every long, naturally blonde hair in place; both eyes clear, blue, and alert. How? The woman was three months older than me. Worse, just hours ago, she'd been so crazed on cheap wine that she'd offered to have Randy Harris's baby, right there in the art director's living room. Randy Harris, for God's sake--the guy was a chimp with a taste for cheap aftershave. Christ, Cass was out of her box last night.
Yet there she stood, the hypocrite, all business, far above her past. She was lucky she had a client with her; otherwise, I'd have had words.
"This," she told the client, "is Devlin Kerry. One of our assistant creative directors. Actually, she's our assistant creative director in charge of sex. You've seen the Club West series?"
The client gaped. "Club West?"
"That's our Devvy. Or was. You'll have to excuse her this morning. There was a little party last night, and...well, you see."
Over the back of the client's head, I narrowed my eyes at her.
"Club West," the client repeated. Then he turned to me. "Yes. I know those commercials. Maybe you could do a commercial like that for us."
Over the back of the client's head, Cassie shot me a Meaningful Look.
"I don't see why not," I said, raising my mug. "What's your product?"
"Service, Miss Kerry. Service. Mortuary service."
I spat coffee halfway across the staff kitchen. Cassie's expression went from meaningful to murderous.
"Well, we do have an image problem," the client said, injured.
"There are no problems, Mr. Kester. Only challenges. And we're here to help you meet them." Cassie gave him her very sweetest smile. It worked. It always worked. "Why don't we go upstairs and see Mr. Jenner now?"
As she herded the client past, she put a sharp elbow in my ribs.
"Pleasure," I lied, extending a hand. The client shook it gingerly.
As soon as they were safely down the hall, of course, I wiped off the hand he'd shaken. You can't be too careful with clients.
Or, in this business, with co-workers. And especially not with Cassie. I knew where she'd been.
The day was all downhillfrom there. Several of my fellow partygoers made a point of stopping by to tell me how well they felt. An illustrator quit, at the top of his lungs, all over the third floor, for nearly an hour. Two copywriters who couldn't agree on whether "mondo" was a word stabbed each other with pencils. And the word from the fourth floor was that Jenner, the aging head case who owned the agency, had punched out the head of the agency's law firm again, for whatever reason this time. I blamed the weird, violent mood of the day on the weather--solid rolling thunderstorms--and on Cassie's bad karma for bringing a mortician into the building.
Late in the afternoon, the Karma Queen herself dropped by, still mad, to give me what for. I was more than ready to give it right back.
"You venial bitch," I told her. "You yuppie-scum bloodsucker. You evil greedy sow. All this squealing over a penny-ante commission that you lost. It is not my fault. I am not responsible for your misadventures. Anyone with detectable IQ would know not to try to pitch sex to an undertaker, dammit. You must be out of your tiny mind. You must be..."
"You twisted creep. You two-bit pornographer. You make Caligula look like a piker. You are just too perverted for words. But let me see if I can find a few. Starting with..."
"Caligula's horse. Caligula's horse's ass."
"I never liked you."
"I never liked you first. I hated you the minute I met you, just to start getting in practice. You are the worst, the most terrible, the..."
I checked my watch. "Right. That's five. Are we through?"
"We're through. Thanks." Breathing relief, she sank back into my guest chair. "So why don't I buy you a drink? Or are you too good to drink with an account manager?"
"Depends on the account manager."
"Come on. I'll buy. We'll celebrate the Kester Mortuaries account."
Jolted, I sat up all the way. "What?"
"I got the account."
"You got the account? You mean you just put me through a Five Minutes' Hate over an account you already had?"
"Don't be mad, Devvy. I needed to fight with somebody today. You have no idea what a hangover I've got."
"Don't tell me your troubles. My head feels like a chemistry experiment."
"Well, I would think so. We tried to warn you about the wine. If that's what it really was. Greg said he thought he saw a tanker truck pull up to the back door around 10." She rubbed her temples, wincing. "Do you know you gave another State of the Union last night?"
Really? I vaguely remembered climbing up on the bar at one point, but mercifully, memory failed after that.
Cassie, not merciful and possessed of excellent memory, filled in the blanks.
"...and then you said that because you burn off your sex drive by working out--at Club West, for love of God!--you were going to be swimming the English Channel this weekend. In an hour, coast to coast. Then you told Randy Harris he was a mortally stupid prick and if he didn't stop laughing, you'd take his balls along as shark bait, assuming that he had any. Then you said..."
"All right, dammit, so I got a little personal."
"You got a lot personal. But you were right about the 'prick' part. Did you know he asked me to have his baby? Right there behind the loveseat?"
I smiled wolfishly. "Convenient memory, Cass. As I remember..."
"You remember nothing--you were drunk. And so was he. I hope."
Thoughtful silence descended over us. In that silence, we heard thunder rumbling again in the distance. I glanced out the window and then back at Cassie, who was staring at me. "What?"
"I worry about you sometimes. I really do. I think this celibacy business is making you weird. Weirder. Celibacy is fine for nuns and monks and 9-year-olds, but you don't have any religion, and you're getting older every birthday. How long's it been now? Four years?"
"Six? Oh, my Lord, that's obscene. You have got to let me help you. I'm your best friend. You can trust me. I'll fix you up with a reasonably decent guy. Always assuming that I can find one. But you leave that to me." Inspired now, Cassie got up. "Come on--we'll go to the Pig & Whistle. I met a cute stockbroker there a couple of weeks ago."
"Just what I need in this whole wide world. A stockbroker." Tolerance exhausted, I crossed my arms and glared at her. "Some friend you are. A stockbroker? My landlord's a stock..."
"Don't be so judgmental. You know, you're nothing but a hypocrite. You make all these sweaty sex-on-the-beach ads, and you don't even have sex anymore. Where do you get this stuff?"
"Sublimation, baby duck. It's all in the sublimation."
Cassie shook her head. "You're going to blow like Vesuvius one of these days. You're not safe to be around. Are you coming with me?"
"You'll be sorry. When you're dead and in hell, you'll wish you had those six years back."
"We'll talk about it then. I'm sure I'll see you there. They'll probably grill us on the same pitchfork, with my luck." Ostentatiously, I checked my watch again. "I've got work to do. Go without me. So long."
There was a long silence with no footsteps in it. I looked up. She was still there, and she was staring again.
"I wish I understood you better, Devvy."
"Don't get sentimental on me now. We've known each other too long. Go. Go to the Pig & Whistle. Don't forget to stop by the drugstore on the way. See you tomorrow."
Cassie left, muttering, and banged the door open on her way out.
At which point I switched off the desk lamp and turned to brood out the window for a while.
Cassie was my best friend,and she did understand me well enough. Within minutes of meeting me, she'd said once, she knew I had a big bad attitude and a big bad bark and no bite at all, and so, she'd said, we were going to get along perfectly, because she had the bite. (She was right.) She was too smart to sell advertising but liked the game too much not to. She also liked the thrill of any chase. And she liked me, so far as I knew, because I was always good for a verbal workout. Almost everyone else seemed to figure that because she was beautiful, she was fragile and about as bright as a firefly.
Beautiful, she was, not that I cared what she looked like, although if I'd had to describe her, I would have said that she had the face of a troublemaking angel. (She said I looked like my own evil twin, so you see why I qualify the "angel" part.) Men fell like dominoes at her feet, and Cassie adored dominoes. That probably was another reason why she liked me: I wasn't competition. She had more than a little trouble keeping female friends, and I figured that she was grateful for one ally among her kind. Even if that ally was me.
Why I wasn't competition was what she didn't understand. In truth, neither did I. Celibacy was just the best solution I could find for an insoluble problem.
It wasn't that I didn't have good reason for abstaining: It wasn't worth risking HIV for something that had never been any good anyway. In my experience, sex was overrated, to say the absolute least. I still felt that way. So did many of the women I knew. "Men," they'd say, resigned, disgusted. "Go figure."
Well, I had tried to figure. I had tried, period. But it was no use. Six years ago, I'd finally decided that men simply didn't work for me. I didn't hate them. I didn't want them exterminated. I just didn't want to date them anymore. Much less do anything more personal with them.
But I wasn't interested in the alternative, either. Wasn't my style. And it was probably too late to cross that street anyway.
Not that I hadn't wondered about it from time to time, though. Given my work, I was forced into regular contact with models, some of whom were stunning, a few of whom even seemed to like me, and I'd sometimes idly wondered whether everything I'd heard about models was true. Still, I had a vague idea of what a Ms. Right might be, and she wouldn't be some vapid stick-thin GenX princess. She'd be a brunette (yes, I recognized the narcissism quotient in that), of my generation, with all kinds of IQ, with a certain sense of humor--and OK, dammit, with movie-star looks. Also, it would be best if she were wildly inappropriate and utterly inaccessible. Safest that way, you see.
But even more inappropriate and inaccessible, and much less safe, was the woman I'd been dreaming about for the past six weeks or so.
I'd dreamed, regularly and in color, ever since I could remember. Dreams in themselves were nothing new. Neither were nightmares, really. But these nightmares were different--not just regular, but nightly; not just color, but three-dimensional color; so real that I could swear I saw a shadow slipping out the window the split-second I woke up.
Some Dracula movie, I guessed, was making trouble in my subconscious for some reason. The events of the nightmares were always the same, and close enough to the films to give that theory credence: My room would fill up with fog, and then there would be a vampire in my bed. The fact that this vampire was a she, not a he, was a minor detail as far as I could tell; a bite in the neck was a bite in the neck.
And the fact that the dreams, perversely, were more than a little erotic was a fact that I didn't care to examine. Movies are supposed to turn people on. It wasn't my fault.
Somehow, though, I knew that this explanation was only smoke. Whatever was down there in the darkness of those dreams wasn't coming from any movie. I could almost swear that I was feeling an actual draft from an open window, hearing substantial footsteps, seeing real moonlight on a sweep of long black hair. The dream was always the same, down to the needle-point pressure of the fangs at my throat and then the pause before...
I jumped several feet straight up. Kurt whistled softly.
"Jesus, boss. How much coffee today?"
"Never do that again. Ever. What do you want?"
"Nothing. I was just leaving, and I saw your door was open. What are you doing sitting in the dark?"
When had it gotten dark? I switched on the desk lamp to check. Seven-fifteen. "I was meditating."
"Uh-huh." He sounded unconvinced, which was just as well; J/J/G, like all agencies, already had enough stupid copywriters, and he already looked too much like a Stooge for my comfort. Larry, maybe, if Larry had had a walrus mustache. "I saw Cassie around 6. She said you two were going out to pick up sailors. I had to remind her that Meridian is landlocked. What happened?"
"I wasn't in the mood."
Kurt grinned and settled familiarly on the edge of my desk. "That's the trouble with you, boss. You never are."
"And the trouble with her," I countered, "is that she never isn't."
"I don't know about that. She's just a little too convincing sometimes. Know what I mean?"
No. But I knew he was going to tell me. The trouble with Kurt was that he'd never quite gotten over Psych 101; he'd minored in Human Behavior and now spent too much of his time analyzing ours. Heather, his copywriting partner, came to my office at least once a week to ask whether I cared if she killed him.
"The thing with Cass is that she protests too much," he said. "Nobody's that straight. In fact, nobody is straight--not all the way. You've heard of the Kinsey Scale? Zero all straight, six all gay?"
I reached for my coffee, which was stone-cold by then, and took a long swallow. "So?"
"So she's probably sexually confused. Not sure where she really falls on the scale. So she's acting out. You probably are, too. This celibacy stuff isn't natural any more than female promiscuity is. Are there feelings you're not in touch with? Is there something you're repressing?"
"The only thing I'm repressing right now, son, is my desire to make you dead. Sex is my livelihood, not my life. And it's none of your business anyway. Now you should get out of my office, while you still can."
Kurt laughed. "This would cost you a hundred bucks an hour anywhere else. You're getting it free. Want me to tell you about your childhood?"
"We may," I said darkly, "be overstaffed with copywriters. I may need to fire you. Let me sleep on it, and I'll get back to you. In the meantime, tell me this: Where do you fall on the scale?"
"Zero. A perfect zero. I'm the exception that proves the rule."
"Fine. You're fired now."
"Too bad you don't have a sense of humor, boss."
"Tell me something funny and we'll see. Tell me about your sex life. What's the zero for, besides the obvious? And does your wife know?"
I ignored that. "Maybe you protest too much. If all humans are bisexual at heart, and if you're human--and we won't know for sure till the autopsy--just how bi are you?"
"Me? Bi? Don't talk crazy." He winked and eased off my desk. "Well, good night. You ought to head home yourself. They've got tornado warnings out. We could all be in Oz in a couple of hours."
"Then walk me to my car. I've had enough Oz for one day."
The elevator tookwhat seemed to be an unusually long time to come. When the doors finally opened, I walked in, lost in thought about Kurt's damn scale--and almost walked into the most gorgeous woman in the world. Forget the movies, forget the magazine covers; this was a whole different order of gorgeous altogether.
And there was no question that she was the woman in my dreams.
Struck dumb, I simply stared at her. She stared back, all the way through me, her black hair and black gown blowing in a nonexistent wind. Her eyes were the color of dark rubies, with peculiar lights. I mean, the pupils were red. I'd never seen eyes quite that color before.
Slowly, she smiled. To my horror, two razor-sharp fangs began to rise in the perfect red curve of her mouth.
"Dev? What's the matter?"
The instant Kurt spoke, the woman vanished. Disbelieving, I passed my hand through the clear air where she'd been standing.
"Did you see that?" I asked.
When I didn't answer, he gave me a long clinical look. Then he tapped the big print on the back of the elevator car. "Bouncing Betsy. The talent from the Planet Mammary. We've used her at least a dozen times. This is yours."
So it was--the first print piece of the new Club West campaign. I hadn't even noticed it till then. But he didn't have to know that.
"It scared me," I said lamely.
"They scared you, you mean. That's OK--they even scare me. Do you suppose she goes out with married men?"
Rather harder than necessary, I pushed the lobby button.
(c) 1999, ROCFanKat
Continued - Part 2
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