DAVID WILDMAN WRITING EXCERPTS
FALL OF WATER (a novel in progress)
There’s an annoying drop of sweat clinging to the tip of my nose and something buzzing circles around my ear. A teenager whines that it’s too hot and why didn’t we just stay home and watch Google Earth? Another kid tells him that’s exactly the point, stupid.
At least one of them gets it.
This is my third period creative writing class and I’ve dragged them all out here into the woods this morning to find literary inspiration from something other than a computer screen.
One of the kids, Brenda, is holding my hand, acting as my guide and my eyes.
The agreed upon plan was to stay on the path that snakes around the trees, and then head back before we reach the river. But now we’ve arrived, and a shouting, giggling mass of footsteps are spilling out onto the bridge. Kids are running and getting stupid.
Ordinarily I’d be in control, but out here it’s different.
The briny smell of rushing water sends an electric jolt of terror through me.
A few seconds later everything changes for the worse, the wind has whipped up and it’s howling with menace. The temperature has dropped a good twenty degrees.
An object lands on my shoulder and I find my voice.
“Hey! Stop throwing things!” Something about its oblong shape and hard slimy texture seems familiar. I hold it up for everyone to see. “What is this?”
“Eww! It’s an eyeball!”
Now chunks of hail are clattering on the bridge like a machine gun ambush. The kids scatter for the safety of the trees.
I just stand there, facing the guardrail and the waterfall below, letting the frozen rain clobber me, and encountering a strange creeping sensation like something is moving beneath my skin.
Then, an apparition appears, hovering out above the torrent, a ghostly lady in white. I see her clearly in my mind. She’s calling to me, saying something about it being time to return…
This means nothing that I can understand, and yet some hidden part of me finds her message utterly compelling. Before I can stop myself, I have a foot up on the railing, brittle muscles stretch and I’m balancing on top of it, feeling the intense pull from below.
And suddenly it all makes blissful sense, my fear of water, the meaning of death, even the reason for my blindness…It’s a continuum, and I want nothing more than to complete the cycle and fulfill my purpose. I start to lean forward…
Then some other force lifts my body into the air. I’m suspended there momentarily and soon I’m back standing safely on the bridge.
I spin around, but nobody seems to be there.
Before long, the insane thoughts have dissolved like a bad dream in the daylight.
The hail has stopped and it’s quickly warming up.
I seem to be myself again.
Footsteps approach, tiny ones. “Are you okay Mr. Symington?”
“Don’t worry, Brenda, everything’s fine.” I hate lying to children but sometimes it just comes with the territory. “Let’s go join the others.”
It could be catastrophic if Brenda saw me teetering up on that railing. She was introverted and just coming out of her shell. This would make her start to question her own judgement for having trusted me. She’d also want to know what horrible thing had happened to make me this way.
And I wouldn’t have the slightest clue what to tell her.
DEATH OF A GHOSTWRITER
1 | TRANSGRESSION
Our big rear loader garbage truck rumbled down to a crawl in front of the old house. I leapt off the side runner with a bit of bored acrobatics.
It was just me that day, Carl was up front driving and because lazyass Don was sore from his ski trip, I was doing his work as well. For a few seconds I thought about how strange it was to suddenly find trash in front of this place we’d driven past for years and had long ago decided was abandoned. The front yard was shoulder high with scraggly weeds, the driveway was cratered like the surface of Mars and the diarrhea brown paint was faded and cracked.
Then I just shrugged off the weirdness and got to work, tossing bags into the hopper. As I reached down to take the last one, I realized it was open, and something inside caught my eye.
It was half a ream’s worth of paper, lying on a bed of yogurt cups and cereal boxes. The top page had the words “Death of a Ghostwriter” bolded across it. I picked it up, felt the weight. It was a manuscript that someone was throwing out, probably an early draft that was no longer needed. I tucked it inside my big orange coat to check out later.
As soon as I started reading during my lunchbreak, the thing sunk its teeth into me:
“Danielle stood on the street and tried to make out the top of the skyscraper, measuring the distance from pavement to parapet in fluttering heartbeats.”
Over the next few days or so, I read it in every waking moment, and soon got all the way through. It didn’t seem like a first draft, indeed it was quality stuff; a fast-paced thriller with a unique voice and professional polish. The plot was about a young ghostwriter in the late 1950’s who gets wrapped up in murder and intrigue.
We went by the house again a week later and there was no longer any trash outside, which somehow made everything all the more mysterious and disturbing.
One of the reasons the manuscript had fascinated me so was that I’d tried to be a writer myself, and had failed. My first and only novel “XO the Dog”, about a sentient pet that destroys a family, was rejected by every agent showing vital signs.
There was one who was different though, a man named Sam Octavia.
Although he’d rejected me like all the others, he’d continued his encouragement, and said he’d be glad to look at the next book I wrote.
Unfortunately I had nothing.
One night I smoked and drank way too much, alone in my attic office, brooding and feeling sorry for myself, despite having a wonderful kid and a great wife.
Meanwhile, the orphan manuscript for “Death of a Ghostwriter” sat on my desk, taunting me.
I got to thinking, and had a really bad idea.
No, I couldn’t do that. It was crazy unethical, just plain wrong.
But in my inebriated state the notion continued to eat away at me. I just couldn’t help wondering what might happen if I were to send the “Ghostwriter” manuscript to Sam Octavia. He’d most likely turn it down, and I would learn something, but what if he didn’t? What if he made me some kind of an offer of representation? Maybe I could use it to get some other agents to take a second look at my real novel…
If I hadn’t been completely fucked up I never would have gone through with it.
But I did.
Three and a half weeks later the agent got back to me with an offer from a publisher:
One hundred thousand dollars.
A few days later I stood on the cracked front steps of the old house in my filthy work boots, clutching the manuscript.
Part of me was holding out hope that the place was as abandoned as it looked, so I could then just stop this Good Samaritan nonsense, take the money and run. Lord knows my family could use it.
But the other part of me would crumble up in guilt, and never be able to look at a mirror again. It meant something pretty serious.
It meant living a lie for the rest of my life.
Anyway, there was also the issue of what would I do when the real writer turned up? Whoever it was had serious talent, and deserved all the money and recognition.
Ultimately my conscience won out, and I’d grudgingly decided to, at the very least, see if I could find out the identity of the mysterious author. My only clue was this broken down house, which was seriously starting to creep me out.
I took a deep breath and raised my fist.
But before I could knock, the door slowly opened on its own.
My gut did a backflip.
In the fading light, I could make out a figure, a woman with long, gray curls and a hint of a weary frown. She quickly disappeared into silhouette.
Then she spoke, her voice a low, wheezy growl.
“Come in. I’ve been expecting you.”
I flinched like she’d socked me in the jaw.
Right there, I should have handed her the stolen bundle I was holding and gotten the hell out of Dodge.
Instead, I found myself inside the decaying old house.
The door slammed behind, sealing in the darkness.
My nostrils flared as they met a distant stench. The dusty air made me blink.
“Look, I…just came to drop this off.” My voice felt so tiny, sheepish, laced with obvious guilt, mostly because I was completely guilty. I launched right into my bullshit explanation. “You know, it’s a funny thing, I was telling my agent about this novel I found, and he liked the idea so much he—”
“I know why you’re here. Stop talking and follow me.”
This tripped every self-preservation instinct I’d gleaned from a lifetime of watching horror films. You don’t go into the creepy house with the crazy lady. You shout at the stupid people onscreen who do that.
As my eyes started to acclimate to the darkness, I saw a hint of light, which had to be the dregs of the fading sun beneath the front door. The last chance for escape.
“It’s okay, ma’am, you seem to have some kind of power outage, so I’ll just leave this here with all the information for the agent and publisher…”
I reached for the door handle, but the damn thing was firmly locked.
That’s when the old lady’s voice cut through the air, warbling like a spooky theremin. “You can leave as soon as we’ve concluded our business. Now follow.”
Enough of this dark, creepy shit. I flipped on my cellphone flashlight.
She let out a shriek so terrifying and hideous that I immediately shut it off.
“Never do that again!” Her voice oozed with anger and indignation.
With no recourse, I followed her down a corridor thick with spiderwebs. I felt them sticking to the skin on my arms, hands and face, spitting them out of my mouth in disgust, and she seemed to pass through ahead of me without breaking any of them.
This journey into the house was happening in a moment eerily frozen in time, like I was captured there in a snapshot, taken by some higher power.
Then we walked into a large space, maybe a ballroom of some kind. From the outside, this house had looked too small to have a room that large in it. But all proportion was now skewed.
“I should tell you that, uh you’ve got a book deal.” I was still stupidly hoping to bring some sort of reason to the situation. “Info’s all in here.” I waved the package around in the darkness.
“Put that envelope down.”
I placed the package on the ground with shaking hands.
“Walk thirteen steps forward.”
“Do it! And don’t turn and look at me. What happens will be horrific. ”
Wait a second, should I really be this afraid? She didn’t seem to have a knife or a gun, or poison gas. It was just a weird old lady.
I decided to call her bluff.
“If you’re going to try to do something horrible to me, then have at it. Because you know what? I don’t think you can.”
“But you’ve missed the big picture. It’s not just you that’s in danger. Think of Oscar and Tara.”
I saw red, like a bull snorting at a waving crimson cape.
I went to flash her again with my phone light, but before I could even turn it on, she came at me. I flinched back in the dark as she slapped it out of my hand. I swore her laughter was coming from everywhere at once.
As I bent down and picked up my phone, it seemed clear I needed to play along, tell her what she wanted to hear, and then get out somehow, pick up my wife and kid and go to the cops.
“Start walking now,” she said. “I’ll tell you when to stop.”
When I arrived at the place she was directing me, I reached out, and felt a wooden surface.
“There is a candle on the shelf in front of you, and a book of matches to the right. Light the candle and look straight ahead.”
Now, by the light of the flame, I could see a series of shelves stacked with books, extending from floor to ceiling. I don’t know what I expected, but this definitely wasn’t it.
“Why are you making me stare at a library?”
“Do you recognize anything you see?”
What kind of a question was that?
I looked, and one of them actually did catch my eye, Train out of Body by Ellen Pilgrim. I pulled it out.
“I read this, when I was like twelve,” I said into the surrounding darkness. “I had to hide it under my pillow. My parents thought it was filthy.”
“I wrote it.”
Those three words exploded in me.
“You wrote Train out of Body? So, you’re Ellen Pilgrim?”
I flipped through it and noticed that most of the book was highlighted in red.
“Everything in red was my doing, all eighty-four percent. Look at another book.”
I picked up Hollywood or Bust, an early 70s bestseller known only for the huge Oscar-winning film made from it.
“I wrote ninety-seven percent of that one.”
“So now you’re telling me you’re Janice Killian as well?”
“My name is Danielle. And I wrote a huge part of all those books in front of you.”
“Wait a second, so you’re a ghostwriter? Like Danielle, the character in your book? Is it an autobiography?”
“The bound volume on the third row from the top. Take it.”
It was the only book in manuscript form. I pulled it out, and looked at the cover.
Death of a Ghostwriter by Mackie Boyle.
I dropped it as if it was on fire. “What the hell? I didn’t write that!”
“You told Sam Octavia you did, after you stole it from me.”
There was no defense to any of it, but I tried anyway.
“I didn’t steal it. I found it in your trash. You were throwing it away.”
“I’m serious. I pick up trash on this street every Tuesday morning, and I… I made a mistake.”
“Why bother trying to lie to me, Mackie? You put your name on a manuscript that didn’t belong to you. Then you found out what it was really worth after the fact, so you came back here in the hope of absolving yourself of guilt.”
She had me, with every single word.
“So, what do you want?”
Her voice softened. “You’re about to get your dream of becoming a successful author. Keep the money, all one-hundred-thousand of it. There will be a lot more to follow. The only thing you need to do is… nothing. And I mean nothing.”
“But why?” I pleaded. “It’s yours. Why don’t you take the deal yourself?”
“For my work to have impact, I must remain anonymous. I’ve never been credited for any of my writing. As far as the world outside this house is concerned, I’m dead. But there is one thing I can guarantee you. This is a bestseller.”
So now it almost made a little sense. It seemed she was a reclusive but very successful ghostwriter that had lost her marbles working in isolation. I thought about my first wife and the way she flipped out from her writing fame and soon after left me and our then five-year-old Oscar to go on tour and fuck anyone that asked if she wanted paper or plastic. The memory made me shudder. But if this lady actually was what she said, then the novel probably really would be a success.
“Sure you’re not going to want a cut? Not even a little? I mean, you’re not exactly living in the lap of luxury here.”
“I stand by my word.”
Something moved out in the darkness, and then made a hissing sound. It set off a fluttering high overhead. I desperately wanted out of this place.
“Now you will go home and prepare,” Danielle said, in her icy tone. “More people than you can comprehend are going to be asking you about this book. Read every page many times over. Learn the plot by heart. And remember, you must never mention we met. I’m watching all of you.”
This set me off again.
“Hey! Don’t you ever threaten—”
“I’m not threatening or bluffing, Mackie. But if you stick to the arrangement, everything will be fine.”
And so I took the bait, and the money, agreed to become a phony after all.
I almost laughed to myself at the sick irony of it: I’d gone there to keep from having to live a lie, and now I was practically signing away my soul in blood.
2 | THE VIDEO
“Come on, it’ll be fun! What’s it, twenty feet tops? Who’s with me?”
Don was teetering near the edge of the precipice, clutching a beer.
The four of us—me, Carl, Hank, and Don—were all drunk off our asses up on the roof of my apartment while the sounds of music and laughter bubbled away below. The occasion was a Sunday afternoon party for me, as I was soon to be a published author, and me and my garbageman buddies had gone up there to escape.
As usual, Don was contemplating doing something stupid.
“Can’t be hauling no barrels when you’re on crutches,” Hank said. “I’d have to fire your sorry ass…wait a second. That’s a good idea. You just go for it Donnie boy.”
“Mackie, you raked the pile and you know how thick it is, right?”
“Don, those are leaves down there, not a freaking Tempur-Pedic.”
Suddenly there was a shout from inside the house.
“What was that?” Don said from his precarious perch.
Without another word, I got up, backed in through the open window, and rushed to my son’s room around the corner.
“Oscar? What is it?”
He looked okay, cross-legged on the floor with his laptop, but I could tell from his ashen face something was wrong.
“Have you seen it?” he asked.
My heart was in my throat. “Seen what? What are you talking about?”
“I guess you haven’t been on the Internet. It’s the worst thing ever. Just…just horrible.”
This kid. He must’ve been trying to give me a heart attack, screaming like that for nothing. “If this is what it’s doing to you, maybe you shouldn’t be watching it.”
“Dad, you don’t understand. This changes everything. I mean, everything in the entire world. I’m not kidding.”
He paused for a moment, and then nodded to himself, having made a decision.
“I think we should watch it together.”
I curled up on the floor next to him, simmering with curiosity and concern.
He refreshed the screen and a video came up. The thing already had two million views.
It began with a scene of a woman in a light blue dress, perched on a faded green park bench in a wooded area. She was thin and pretty, gray streaks in her brunette hair, and the occasional wrinkle.
Something about her seemed familiar.
To her right sat an open attache case. She seemed to be reading a bound bundle of papers.
A figure jogged past in a momentary blur.
This seemed almost idyllic, not apocalyptic.
Then it hit me who she was.
“That’s Joyce Withier isn’t it? She’s one of the bigwigs at my publisher.”
“Just keep watching dad. It hasn’t happened yet.”
About ten seconds later she reached over into the case and pulled out a pistol.
She placed the shaking gun against her temple. Black tears poured down her face from the mascara.
Oscar grabbed hold of my hand.
Seconds later she pulled the trigger.
Her body was slunk back, her head splattered against the bench, the gun still in her grip.
I glimpsed the manuscript in her lap.
Somehow in my darkest fears I knew. The title was nearly covered in blood, but still legible.
“Death of a Ghostwriter by Mackie Boyle.”
I sat there blindsided, blinking helplessly, my own tears rapidly clouding my eyes.
And then I saw a body fall from the roof, past the window.
THE MYRIAD ERA (a novel in progress)
Guy’s fucking head was exploding.
It went on all night, a cocaine buzz to beat all others.
And now it was morning.
Usually even the best shit wore off pretty quickly, like big spectacle fireworks flaming out into cinders.
Not this motherfucker. It was hanging in there like goddamn Donald Trump.
He swallowed as many aspirin as he figured he could take without killing himself.
He got ready to Google “Cocaine” and “Brain damage”, but couldn’t focus enough to get it together. He could try calling Dave to see if the shit was doing this to him as well, but that was a bad idea. Doma would never let on anything was getting to him, even if he’d snorted battery acid and it cratered his skull. But he would delight in calling his boss a pussy, and he’d probably have a point.
Guy told himself to take a shower and shut the fuck up.
But then his phone beeped, and the calendar item came up: “Dr. Bledsoe – 10:15am”
He glanced at the time over on the corner of the screen. It said 10:07.
No shower for you, fool.
It would take him minimum ten minutes to get there. But if he didn’t go to this shrink appointment, she’d know, and he could be out on his ass. She was that pissed, more than anytime he could remember. This was pretty much the only thing saving his ass from eviction.
He tried to gauge his level of buzz. Still felt pretty much the way he did when he first snorted that long line of Doma’s premium Peruvian Marching Powder late last night. Guy could only barely remember the man depositing him on the doorstep and driving off in the early hours. He’d snuck in and climbed onto the couch as delicately as he could.
Now she was gone to work. This was a good thing for so many reasons, but mainly because there’s no chance she would have let him get behind the wheel of a car this way. And forget about asking her to drive him there.
Too fucked up on drugs to get to his drug therapy session?
Checkmate, before he had a chance to even put his pieces on the board.
She wouldn’t have expended more than two words: “Get” and “Out.”
Now he was thinking maybe he could call an Uber or something, but even if they magically got there in five minutes, there’s no way he could pay them enough money to speed through town at twenty or thirty miles over the limit.
No, this was a job for somebody really stupid and reckless.
But first he tried one last ditch effort to save himself.
“Dr. Bledsoe’s office,” the woman said on the phone.
“This is Guy Walsh.” He ran his fingers through his greasy long hair, felt himself grimacing with every word. “I’ve got a 10:15 with you and I’m running a bit behind, so could we reschedule ‘til, say, later in the day?”
The woman didn’t hesitate for a second.
“There are no more openings today, the doctor’s next appointment is in two weeks on…Tuesday, at 11. Do you want me to write you in?”
Fuck no. He could be on Doma’s couch by then, or worse.
“No. I’ll be there. Just tell him I might be a touch late.”
“Okay. Then we’ll see you when you get here.”
He was still wearing the same jeans and red button down corduroy he’d had on for all of yesterday. It probably stunk to high heaven, but his dripping coke sinuses had rendered him nose blind. He grabbed some anti-p from his suitcase and rolled it under his T-shirt, over armpits and chest.
Before he knew it, Guy found himself in the driver’s seat of his cherry red Porsche, one of the few remaining toys from the days when they could afford such things.
THE BOOK OF ENEMY (a completed novel)
When I was very young a part of me went missing.
A lot of years passed and a number of really incredible things happened before I finally realized it. In fact, were it not for an organization called Engine, I might have gone an entire lifetime without knowing.
Then again, Engine fucked me up but good, so these things do tend to balance each other out.
But there’s a lot more to it than that. This isn’t just about me. It’s about something so big and so terrifying that I struggle to find words for it. It has to do with why we’re all here, and what we’re really supposed to be doing with our lives. Engine was created to deal with this thing, but like I said, they have problems of their own.
Look, I know. Maybe you aren’t the sort of person who goes in for strange mindreading cults or outlandish concepts about the planet being alive, and actively trying to kill us. Believe me, I wasn’t either.
I didn’t ask to have a crazy story to tell.
If it’s going to make any sense though, I will have to begin it at a time before I knew about any of this, when powerful unseen forces were coming together at once, rushing towards a single point in space and time.
Just as with the universe itself, there was an accident.
THE RED RIVER VIRUS (published in The Huffington Post)
He doesn’t know how long it’s been since he first squeezed his eyelids shut to double the darkness. He’s been thinking about how the closing of eyes doesn’t close anything, just redirects the gaze inwards towards tiny drawn curtains of flesh and that this is what he will be forced to stare at until his stubborn brain gives in and shuts down awareness, and in that same thought he realizes that maybe what he’s actually fearing is oblivion itself, that this might be the final sleep of death, pulled under by the red river virus, and what excellent song lyrics those might be if he can survive and remember them. It doesn’t help that just before bed he’d taken a look at the infection moving from elbow to bicep, mercury rising up a flesh thermometer. It had marched right through his fading Motorhead tattoo like Hitler taking Poland, giving the gleaming skull and horns an angry glowing pink backdrop. He’d managed to get under the covers before Emily could glimpse it though, telling her only that he felt a little feverish. No way he’s going to any hospital, because man are they gonna ask questions. Anyway, if it’s really bad, he knows Emily will save him. She always has, always will...
The voice on the phone pulled me from a deep sleep.
“I hope I didn’t wake you.”
It couldn’t be.
“Wow. This is a surprise.”
It had been years, and it had ended ugly. Well, for me at least.
“We had some good times, didn’t we?”
There was something disturbing in his voice.
“I guess we did,” I said.
Was he being nostalgic, or was it something else?
“I hope you’re not calling ten years later to say you regret it.”
He let out his breath, which on my cellphone sounded like a flurry of static.
“I don’t like that word.”
“So what are you saying?”
“I’m saying…I fucked up. I mean; I’m fucked up.”
I couldn’t believe it. Everything I’d heard and seen had led me to believe he was living a charmed existence.
“Look, everybody loves you, man. I mean…you’re famous. You’re all over those TV commercials. Hell, after all this time you still look like Robert Plant.”
“And I bet you still look like, uh, that actor. Montgomery Clift.”
“You didn’t even know who he was until I told you.”
“Okay, but see? I remember those things.”
“Saw you just got married, too. It was all over the news. You had that shit-eating grin. I thought you looked happy.”
“Yeah, well that’s what everyone sees.”
There was a long pause, as if he was thinking something over. Then he said:
“Look, I’m still using, John. I have been all along. Only it’s gotten worse.”
Screaming Down the Highway
Music makes me see through walls. Gravity means nothing. I can lift up everyone around me. All things fall away, and a melody emerges.
Just minutes ago I was there, harvesting the moment; capping the creative spark. Now I’m back, piloting the van, playing it back in my mind as I drive. Gears grind up the ramp on this overcast afternoon. I’m suspended here, racing down the lane, with the ugly Boston sprawl far below. A gold Charger appears, trying to speed up and pass me, smug in its 84 horsepower buzz. It’s just like that Chuck Berry song, the one John Lennon borrowed for the beginning of “Come Together”, where flat top comes up behind, movin’ up slowly, so he puts his foot down and starts to roll, til he hears the cops coming, then he lets out his wings and becomes airborne. In Chuck Berry’s world he was always screaming down some highway, riding on a wild cloud of crazy electric energy. He discovered a strange life force off in another dimension and brought it back for all of us.
Sometimes, on a rare day, I’m allowed to have the tinniest echo of it for myself.
In 2007 this screenplay was optioned by the Lift Productions film company of Shreveport, Louisiana, who made "Factory Girl" and "Pride" but were subsequently raided by the FBI and shut down (although no wrongdoing was found). The screenplay is a thriller about a woman coming into contact with her filmmaker father who abandoned her as a child, and nobody turns out to be what they seem.
INT. CARLA AND MADELINE'S APARTMENT IN LOUISIANA - DAY
CARLA REDFERN, 28, blonde and attractive, wearing a
light sundress, sits at the kitchen table in front of a
large stack of mail. She begins to pick through it.
Piling up bills to one side, she comes to a handwritten
letter. Interested, she opens it and starts to read. Her
roomate MADELINE, 36, brunette with a few gray streaks,
New Orleans accent, strides in, wearing waitress
outfit,getting ready to leave.
Aren't you going to be just a
little bit late this morning,
(absorbed in letter)
Day off, remember?
I'm surprised you remember
anything after last night.
Pouring that director free
drinks like that. And did you
get an audition out of it?
Didn't think so.
Madeline notices that Carla isn't paying attention.
What's that, letter from home?
Carla is still engrossed in the letter.