“The Fire” by Timothy T. Murphy

“Come watch him work, Marissa.” Leanna smiled at me, gently tugging at my hands. Her smile was as infectious as ever, even with the black eye darkening one side of her face. There was fresh paint highlighting her hair, yellows and oranges running through the Irish ginger in wild streaks. I could only assume that he’d kissed her after punching her. I missed Jenna – the woman she had dated before Nicholas. Jenna was a photographer, and a really good one. She may have had a temper, but at least she was nice.

“Lea, Honey, I don’t even want you going back there,” I told her. She just sighed in that patient parent way, like I’m being the silly one. I wished for a moment that I still had that kind of naivety about love. “Look at you,” I said. “He hit you in the face last night, and you’re out buying him coffee and muffins.”

“He also apologized,” she said, “and then he ripped all my clothes off. Really slowly.” I smirked at that, and watched her smile. Empires have fallen for smiles like that.

“Come on, Marissa,” she said. “Just for a little while.” She bit her lip and her hazel eyes danced as she pulled gently on my hands. I sighed, sagging my shoulders in defeat.

“Okay,” I said.

“Yes! Thank you.” she said, bouncing on her toes, and she jumped up to hug me tight. Her chin nuzzled into my shoulder and her hair swept across my face, bringing with it the scents of paint thinner, herbal shampoo, and good old-fashioned sweat. I took a deep breath while she hugged me around the middle and held her close. Maybe if I was there watching, he’d be a little less volatile, I told myself.

She let go and backed out of the embrace, falling back into the blazing morning light streaming through the window and for a moment those freckles she hated so much – and that I envied over my own splotchy complexion – smoldered like embers on her face. She squeezed my hands one more time and turned, grabbing up the tray of coffees and muffins and bounded out of the shop, pushing the door open with her butt. I grabbed my jacket and my coffee and followed.

I hate being everybody’s big sister, sometimes.

***

Spring had arrived fashionably late that year, but it had finally come. Those were the weeks the poet inside me cherished. Never mind kicking up the leaves in autumn. All the ice sheets along the sidewalks were melting up from the bottom first, leaving them hollow inside. I hopped along, making them crunch and watching them crack.

“And you say you’re a pessimist,” Lea said, giggling as I rushed past her to crack one before she got to it.

I shrugged and said, “A girl’s got to have some kind of joy in her life.”

“You’re going to slip and fall,” she said.

“Yeah, well, a little danger is worth a lot of joy,” I told her with a smile.

“Ah-hah!” she cried, pointing at me with a smile.

I stopped, the smile dropping off my face, and reached out for her arm. “He hit you in the face, Lea.”

“And he’s sorry,” she told me, shrugging off my hand and walking past me.

She and Nick lived over a sports bar two blocks away from the Duck. Before Lea moved in, Nick had finished maybe half a dozen paintings and sold only one. He had a couple of pieces at a gallery show last year and the critics called him “promising but uninspired.”

Like me, Nick had been coming to the nightly meet-ups for years. Aspiring artists, all of us, the Duck sheltered and nourished us. An independent coffee shop right in the middle of all of us, local art for sale on the walls, curiously hip name, intelligent college students behind the counter: who could resist?

Nick had always been the shy one of the bunch, hanging in the back sketching while the rest of us flirted, and we could see he was lonely, but he never did anything about it. I tried to match him up with a couple of people, without success. Too insecure for his own good, we all thought.

And then Leanna breezed into our lives, all dreams and sundresses. Her girlfriend Jenna had just moved her photography studio into the neighborhood and while Leanna usually traveled all over the world with her, she still had plenty of nights in town with us. Jenna almost never came with her. Lea said she worked on photo processing and design sketches and the like whenever Lea wasn’t around, preferring to shoot while Lea watched. None of us minded much. We liked having her to ourselves. She was our secret guilty pleasure and we always felt like working while she was around. She could sit perfectly still as Danny sketched her eyes furiously in charcoal and still gab a mile-a-minute about the week she’d just spent in Aruba watching Jenna photograph swimsuit models.

After Jenna had her little ‘accident,’ Lea moved in with Nick overnight and we all thought, “Oh, poor guy! He’s going to get himself hurt being her rebound boy,” but that didn’t happen.

***

Lea turned the key and shouldered the door open quietly, slipping in. I followed, feeling tense in my belly, and glanced over the place. I hadn’t been there in months. It was a simple one-room loft apartment – a wooden floor, a bed tossed into one corner and a kitchenette off to the side, and the only door other than the outside led to the cramped little bathroom. In his days before Lea, the place had been immaculate and also pretty empty, with a little space in one corner given to a few sketchbooks and an easel.

I stood by the door, now, and trembled. Lea smiled at me, kicking off her boots, and padded across a floor marked in frantic doodles under piles of dirty clothes and take-out boxes. Half-finished murals ran amok across the walls, hidden behind dozens of finished canvases hung to dry and forgotten. The windows along the southern wall were covered in thinned-out paint smears, the kitchenette was buried under stacked crockery and half-eaten lunches, the bed was now just a mattress covered in sweaty twisted sheets, and the easel stood proudly across from the couch (the only clean thing in the place), surrounded by more than a dozen works-in-progress.

“Gods,” I whispered.

“Sorry for the mess,” Lea said. She padded back towards me now, wearing nothing more than a sports bra and panties. “We don’t have much time for cleaning, these days. He’s so busy.” She spun then, taking in the whole of the place in a sweep of her arms. I hadn’t seen her wearing so little since she’d abandoned her summer skirts, months ago, and I caught myself staring. So did she, and she wriggled her hips with a wicked grin.

I blushed, looking down at my boots. “Why is it so hot in here?” I asked her, clearing my throat.

She shrugged and said, “Because once winter hit, it got so cold in here that Nick started to shiver and it threw off his brush-strokes, so I chipped in for a little extra heat.”

It was a lot of extra heat, actually. I was about to say something about it, but she stretched tall, up on her toes, and for a moment I lost myself in the freckles of her belly.

I looked up as the bathroom door opened and Nick stepped out wearing nothing more than faded old gray briefs. Now I’ll admit, it had been wintery cold for months now, and Nick had always worn loose, baggy clothing, so maybe I could be excused for not noticing he’d lost a few pounds, but this was more than a few pounds. His ribs were all showing and his eyes were sunken. They had an animal hunger to them as they looked at me, and I felt a sudden, palpable urge to check the floor for needles.

Lea danced through the crap on the floor to throw herself into his arms. He wrapped a paint-splotched arm around her waist and stared over her shoulder at me. His eyes slid down my body and up again, and I flushed all over as my skin crawled. “What’s she doing here,” he growled into her ear.

She dropped out of the hug and swatted playfully at him, smiling. “Don’t be rude,” she said. “She’s going to watch you paint with me.”

He shuffled away from her and scanned the floor – hopefully for pants – and nodded towards me. “Hello, Marissa.”

I nodded politely, trying not to look at him. “Hey, Nick. Missed you down at the Duck, lately.”

He was dirty. He hadn’t showered in days. His hair was tousled and greasy and I could smell him from across the room. He was splotched in faded paint, and I could see his hip-bones shifting as he moved. “Been working,” he muttered, not looking at me as he pulled on a pair of sweat-pants.

Leanna skipped around the room and danced back to him, not a care for the world to see. “I got you some breakfast, Baby,” she told him, handing him a coffee and both of the muffins she’d bought.

He looked down at it all like it was a birthday present. “Aw, thanks, Baby,” he told her and wrapped her in another hug and kissed her. His eyes traveled to me again as he let go of her and attacked the muffins. I actually thought for a moment that he’d eaten the little papers around the bottoms.

I realized then that I still had my jacket on, so I took that awkward moment to turn and hang it on a hook by the door. When I turned back, Lea had skipped back to me and took me by the hands. “Come see,” she said, smiling. She led me on a tour around the place, pointing out different canvases and even some of the murals on the walls. I had to admit, whatever else was going on with him, his work had improved. A lot.

“This one already sold,” Lea said with a wide grin, pointing to a canvas. It was a painting of Lea’s hair, ginger curls tumbling down her naked back to the top of her butt. “He’s got a full gallery show in a week, and the gallery director wanted this one for himself. Five hundred and fifty dollars.” She beamed with pride, caressing the canvas with a fingertip, tracing one of the locks. I felt a pang of jealousy, not just for the admiration in Lea’s eyes, but for the sheer volume of completed work I found myself wading through.

She led me all around the place and I glanced around, expecting to find needles or roaches or something, but there weren’t any. The whole place had a musty smell hidden under paint-thinner and canvas, but there were no drugs, at least.

Finally, as Nick tossed aside the muffin papers and gulped down half his coffee, clearing his throat noisily, Lea led me to the couch. She sat me at one end and gave Nick one last hug, whispering something into his ear. She sprawled across the couch like a lioness, her head on the arm of the couch next to me, and pulled one of my arms around her tummy. Nick stood at the easel with his back to us, placed a newly primed canvas on the easel, and studied his paints for a moment. There was a hushed pause, and Nick painted.

***

He started slowly, the top half of the canvas given to a bruise-like purple, the lower part a ruddy earth-tone with a tilting sort of horizon. He set that one aside and picked up a work in progress – a red and orange riot of color.

“Isn’t he working in acrylic?” I asked Lea. “He wouldn’t need to let it dry.”

“Be quiet!” Nick shouted over his shoulder at me. I jumped, letting out a little squeal. He turned back, curling his fingers in a frustrated fist and then pinched the bridge of his nose in thought.

“It’s his Attention Deficit Disorder,” Lea whispered to me, without looking up from Nick. “He’s working with it instead of against it, jumping from one project to another instead of getting bored.”

We all fell silent again, and Nick started up again, blocking out squares in a tilted line with a palette. He put that one aside and picked up another.

Every time he shifted to a different canvas – eight in all – the pace increased, and his strokes became stronger. On the fifth canvas, I noticed an underlying rhythm to all his movements. I actually caught myself nodding my head a tiny bit in time to his strokes. By the eighth canvas, the pace was solid, and Lea put her hand on mine to stop me rocking my torso back and forth. I stopped, blinking, not realizing I had been doing it.

“Infectious, isn’t it?” she asked me in a whisper.

I shook my head to clear it and said, “Yeah, I suppose so.”

After the eighth canvas – a naked man floating on calm waters – he went back to the first. His pace slowed a bit. He started applying copious amounts of oranges at the horizon line, shaping out a large rounded pyramid shape, and then moved to the next, building the pace again. Canvas to canvas, his movements grew sharper and sharper. He moved through the full set of works four or five times, his pace and his breath quickening, a fine sheen of sweat glistening the skin of his back. Lea’s breath grew quicker too, and her skin warmer to the touch.

I looked down at her, but she held her gaze on Nick. Nick, meanwhile, was painting more oranges onto the floating man in the lake. Back to the first, and now he started to bounce up and down on his toes to his rhythm.

Faster and faster. The pace accelerated so much that switching out canvases was interrupting the rhythm noticeably. “Next!”

At his barked command, Lea jumped off the couch and ran to the canvases to switch them out while he mixed more color. I realized then that he was also mixing colors to the same driving beat, squeezing tubes and swirling the brush in time. Lea placed the next canvas with practiced ease and skipped back to the couch, flopping down next to me and tapping her feet to the rhythm. Her eyes were on Nick all through the process.

I was finding it hard to look away from Nick, myself. The beat was pulling me along, the first canvas becoming a bonfire, the second a burning warehouse. I couldn’t see how he was keeping the details straight on each canvas as he moved. I curled my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around my knees, fighting the urge to get up and dance or just wiggle my hips to burn out the rhythm.

Faster and faster. The floating man in the eighth canvas was burning alive, looking so peaceful. Back to the first. Naked figures appeared, dancing hand in hand around the bonfire. “Come on, come on!” Nick shouted as Lea missed a beat switching out the canvases. She hustled, shaking visibly, but kept her eyes on him as he worked, sweat dripping from every pore.

Two more canvases and I tapped my fingers in time on my knees. Three more and I started to whisper, “Pum pum pum pum,” in time. After the eighth, Lea dropped the next canvas, bouncing it off Nick’s toes.

They skipped only one beat. Nick watched the painting fall, stared for a moment, and in perfect rhythm he slapped Lea, grabbed her by the waist, pulled her in for a bestial kiss, spun her around, threw her against the wall, and ripped her clothes off. She flowed with it all, kissing him back and peeling off his pants in perfect rhythm to his movements.

They were two minutes into their loveplay before they broke rhythm and I snapped out of my reverie like I’d been slapped, myself. I looked down at them writhing in a heap on the floor and felt suddenly embarrassed. As quietly as I could, I climbed out of the couch, gathered my coat, and slipped out the door.

***

I sat at my usual table at the Duck, staring blindly at my coffee and feeling sick. I didn’t know which was worse: the shame I felt at not doing anything when Nick had slapped her, or the loneliness I felt remembering them moaning on the floor together.

Even worse was that seven hours had slipped by while I’d sat there watching Nick paint. Seven hours.

I was still sitting there, running through it all in my head, when Lea breezed in an hour later, smiling as bright as ever and glowing from head to toe. “You left,” she said when I looked up at her.

I shrugged and said, “You were busy.”

She sat down across from me, her freckles catching the sunlight, and said, “Intoxicating, isn’t it?” When I looked up at her blankly, she added, “The way he paints.”

“Right,” I said quickly, looking back down at my coffee.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing.” I said, but I couldn’t meet her eyes so I whispered, “I wish I could do that.”

She dropped her head, trying to meet my eyes, and said, “Well then, write.” She said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world, and to her credit it probably was. “You’re a really good poet, Mar. You deserve passion.”

I smiled a bit, and Lea’s smile lit up. I nearly fainted.

The others started to trickle in for the nightly meet-up. Danny sketched customers, Julia danced a few new steps, Lupe and Will made jokes about politics. The usual stuff, and I realized I never shared that much, anymore. Everyone told me I was a great poet and they always loved my stuff, so why didn’t I write more?

Lea and I talked the whole night, about creativity and passion and pizza and pens. She kept encouraging me to write things down, and when I said I didn’t have any paper handy, she stepped out to the pharmacy next door and bought me a notebook, plopping it in front of me with a self-satisfied grin.

I asked her why she never worked on her art and she shrugged, saying, “I don’t have one.” I cocked my head at her and she said, “I don’t. I’ve never found a single art form that I’m comfortable with. I just don’t feel right doing any of it. That’s why I hang out with you guys, you know? Contact high.”

We talked all night, and at some point she asked why I wasn’t seeing anyone, myself.

I shrugged, blushing, and told her, “Haven’t found anyone, lately.”

“You’re kidding me,” she said. “You’re surrounded by people. What about Will?”

“Will? I asked, looking over at him.

“Beautiful dark skin, nice and muscular, all those braids in his hair, he’s brilliant, and he’s close to your age…”

“And he smokes,” I cut in, avoiding the crack about my age.

“Oh,” she said. “Well what about Julia? Smart and funny, and she’s a dancer so she’s lithe and energetic…”

“And she’s strictly heterosexual.” I said.

“Aw, poor thing.”

“Tell me about it,” I smirked.

“Danny?”

“Don’t even get me started,” I told her, and the two of us giggled.

“There must be somebody you like,” she said.

I looked up into her eyes. I couldn’t help it. She actually blushed. “Besides me,” she said.

Nick burst in wearing nothing but the same pair of sweat-pants and a flannel shirt. “Lea!” he shouted, giving everyone a start. As they all turned to look at him, I glanced down. He’d just stomped through two blocks of snow and slush in his bare feet.

When he saw Lea he turned, grabbed her by the arm and said, “I need to paint. I need you to come and watch me paint. Now!”

She started to object, stuttering a response, but he yanked her out of the seat and started to drag her across the floor after him. I jumped out of my seat along with pretty much everybody else there. Danny and Will stood chest-to-chest with him and Will said, “Maybe you should get some sleep, instead.”

Nick leaned in and growled, “Get out of my face.”

“Guys,” Lea said, “It’s okay. He’s okay. Really. He just needs to burn off some energy and then he’ll be fine. Honest.” She shoved Nick towards the door and whispered to me, “Come with me.” I grabbed my jacket and my new notebook and followed after them.

***

The night started off with a lot of shouting. He didn’t want me there, and she didn’t want to be alone while he worked. He accused her of looking for someone else. She assured him gently she was not. He accused her of being afraid of him. She gently reminded him of her shiner and his voice got even louder, shouting that he’d apologized and that it shouldn’t ruin the trust between them. She cringed as he yelled, shifting her weight on her feet but standing defiantly. I stood by the door, trying not to watch them fight but not wanting to take my eyes off Lea. If he hit her this time, I was determined to bound across the room and beat his brains in with my three-subject spiral-bound notebook. I kept it clutched to my chest as I stood listening.

In the end, he relented. No violence, thank goodness. She wound up telling him that if I couldn’t be there to watch, then she was going back to the Duck with me. I wished she hadn’t done that. I felt even more awkward.

She pulled my jacket off me and set me on the couch while Nick fidgeted with his brushes and paints. She stripped down to just her panties and hugged Nick once more, whispering something soft into his ear before draping herself across me. She snuggled into me, hugging my arm to her belly, and I tried to not think of all the glorious freckles in my lap. I looked up at Nick’s back instead.

Like before, he started off really slowly, but I found the beat underlying his movements much sooner. Once he’d fallen into it, it was hard to miss. He was hesitant and faltering at first, but he slowly slid into strong confident movements that pulled me along and it was hard to look away. He was working on the seventh or eighth canvas when Lea squirmed under me. “Tickles,” she whispered, and I realized I’d been tapping a finger on her navel.

I pulled my hand away from her and opened my notebook. When I realized I had no place to set it, Lea – without looking away from Nick – rolled onto her back and offered her belly to me. I was distracted from Nick and the rhythm for a moment as I looked down at her, but lay the notebook over her navel, set pen to paper and looked back up, losing myself in the beat again.

I didn’t know what to write about at first, but once the pen started moving it didn’t stop, except when I flipped pages. I just wrote gibberish about passion and rhythm and freckles and warm tummies and cracks in ice. Garbage poured out of my brain and onto the paper and I just let it all go, scribbling faster and faster as Nick shifted from canvas to canvas. Lea barely moved the whole time. I think she was trying not to disturb me. She watched Nick with a gentle smile and her skin got warmer to the touch as her breath came faster. When Nick suddenly called, “Next!” she slid smoothly out from under me and ran off. I didn’t miss a beat, just kept on writing, barely knowing the words as they slid out. Flipping pages became a practiced skill, barely interrupting the pace.

I blinked, and suddenly Lea and Nick were on the bed, twisted together and moaning. I hadn’t even noticed Nick stopping. I blushed furiously and closed my notebook, slipping out the door with my jacket.

***

I passed out as soon as I got home. I woke with dreams of fire and freckles lingering behind my eyes. Nick had finished three of his works and started new ones. I remembered now that all three had involved fire and burning somehow. I grabbed some breakfast, shaky from hunger, and sat down to look over my notes from the night before.

In the hours that I’d sat there, I’d scribbled out more than twenty pages of rambling nonsense. As I read through it, though, I had ideas. Bits and pieces stood out here and there, and I started making new notes, connecting them in new ways. By lunchtime, I had first drafts of four new poems and five simple haiku.

I walked into the Duck feeling pretty happy with myself. It didn’t last long.

Nick was there with Lea. He’d showered for once, and had moderately clean clothes on. As I walked in, he was in the middle of a shouting match with Will. Everyone was shouting, really. Just about everyone was up in Nick’s face and Lea was shouting at all of them. I stepped into the middle of it and shouted for everyone to shut up. “What is going on?” I asked them all.

Will flashed me an indignant look, pointing at Lea, “He’s hit her again.”

I turned to Lea, who was shifting about nervously, and saw now that she had a split lip. She glanced around at everyone else, then back at me with a little shrug and said, “It was an accident.”

“An accident,” I said as a lot of the others scoffed. Lea dropped her eyes from mine and I looked down at Nick, who wasn’t making eye contact with anyone. “You split her lip by accident?”

“You don’t understand,” he muttered. “You’ve been there. You’ve seen it, and you still don’t understand.”

“What,” I asked, “did she drop another painting on your foot?”

When he didn’t answer, staring at his coffee, Lea answered, “I ruined three paintings.”

We all looked back up at her and she said, “Mister Halloway, the gallery owner, came to collect all of his finished paintings. I was helping to move things around and dropped a can of paint thinner. Sprayed a stack of them. Three really good paintings gone, just like that.”

I looked back down at Nick, who just sat there spinning his coffee cup in circles, and said in my most patient tone, “And for that, you hit her in the face.” When he still said nothing, I told him, “Every little slight, she forgives you…”

“Go to hell,” he growled, “you don’t understand. She…”

“We don’t need to understand anything.” Will told him. “Get out.”

There was a long moment of silence, punctuated by Lea casting pleading looks at everyone, and Nick got up and walked out.

“Guys, come on,” Lea pleaded.

“It really is best that he just go for now,” I told her, taking her in an embrace. “You know, give everyone a chance to cool off for a while.”

“Yeah,” Will said, “Like a year or so.”

Lea cast him an angry glance and he backed off, but not before muttering, “Doesn’t give him the right to hit you.”

“That’s for me to forgive, not you,” she told him.

“We’re all just a little worried about you,” Julia told her.

“Well, thank you,” she said, “but please, let me handle it. I bought him down here because he’s been working too hard. I thought seeing his friends might do him some good, all right? Fat lot of good you guys are.”

Everyone looked away, shuffling to their tables, and I said, “We’re sorry, Lea. We didn’t mean to make things worse.” She looked me in the eyes for a moment, nodded, then snuggled closer.

“Maybe we should change the subject,” I said. “Come on. I’ll read you some new poetry.”

She smiled up at me and sat down at my table. Everyone relaxed visibly, and the night went back to normal. They all loved my new drafts. Danny sketched a few drawings of Lea and me, Julia danced around the room a couple of times, and it turned out to be a decent night.

A little before midnight, Will – who had stepped out for a quick smoke – banged back in through the door and shouted, “Lea! I think your apartment is on fire!”

Everyone dashed out the door, Lea leading the way, and looked down the street. Great orange flames flickered in the darkness about two blocks away. Lea screamed in shock and ran. We all ran after her, praying we were wrong.

Smoke poured into the sky from her apartment. Lights and sirens could already be heard approaching as people from the bar downstairs stood and stared, some taking pictures with their phones. “Nick!” Lea screamed, crashing through the crowd and running for her stairwell. Danny and Will caught her and dragged her back just before the fire blew the door out, throwing it across the street as flames billowed out. “Nick!”

“Is he in there?” Lupe asked as they dragged her back, kicking and screaming.

“I don’t know,” I said. Two more windows blew out before the fire fighters arrived. They were just hooking up the hoses when out of the flames we all heard Nick’s strangled shrieks. Lea screamed in answer, falling limp in the boys’ arms.

***

We all stayed with her all through the night. The police interviewed her at length. The emergency techs checked her over, just in case. There were questions about her face, of course, which she blew off like it was nothing. She stood the rest of the night in my arms, wrapped in a firefighter’s blanket, crying quietly as the blaze was extinguished. The boys fought off the press. Lea didn’t want to talk to them and we couldn’t help but feel so much sympathy for her. Two lovers lost to suicide in less than a year.

She stood staring at the empty blackened husk of the building for a while after it was out until we finally pulled her away. She came home with me. She stood silent and still, her eyes on the floor as I peeled her clothes off her shivering body and pulled her into bed with me. We huddled close for warmth and I wrapped my arms around her, kissing her head as she sobbed herself quietly to sleep.

***

She hid in my bed for two days, not saying a word. I bought her coffee and muffins from the Duck. She drank the coffee but didn’t want to eat anything. I finally coaxed her out of bed by telling her the guys down at the Duck were asking about her and threatened to let them in the bedroom if she didn’t drag her ass down there. She smiled at my ham-fisted attempt at tough love, showered and shuffled down there with me. Everyone was so supportive. She was snuggled and kissed and fussed over and she actually did manage to smile a little, despite herself. People bought her coffee and food, but she still wouldn’t eat. There was actually a small discussion about what foods Lea liked, but no one could remember her ever eating anything in their presence. Lea just shrugged and said she didn’t feel like eating yet. We all let it go and just tried to be there.

Nick’s family handled the services. I loaned Lea some clothes since everything she owned was taken in the fire. They were really great to Lea, telling her Nick had said she was his big inspiration, the reason he’d evolved into such a great painter.

The day before the funeral, she came to me with her eyes down and asked me to write something for Nick. “Everyone expects me to say something tomorrow,” she said in a small whisper. “I’m no good with words. You are. Please, just write me something beautiful I can say for him. He deserves it, doesn’t he?”

I hugged her close and kissed her temple, telling her of course I would. I set out my notebook on the kitchen table and made some coffee. She hugged me tight, said thank you, and then whispered something in my ear. It was quiet and melodic but it was foreign, like Gaelic, so I didn’t understand a word, but it lifted my spirits. She curled herself on my couch, pulling a blanket over herself, and watched as I set pen to paper.

I didn’t know what to say, at first, but Lea’s eyes seemed to ignite a fire within me, so I just started to write anything that came to mind. I thought of Nick painting those last few days and reached inside for that same pulse that had pulled me along. In minutes, I was writing non-stop, lost in the rhythm. I wrote for five straight hours, gibberish pouring from my hand to the page, before Lea yawned and turned over, falling into a nap. I broke from my reverie to find I’d written fifteen pages. I flipped back through them and bits and pieces stood out like a secret code, bearing with them dozens of ideas. I started assembling them in earnest.

***

Ten months have passed and Lea still sleeps in my bed.

Everyone loved the poetry I wrote for her. She was happy to tell them all where she got it and after the services were over, she came home with me, hugging me close and thanking me over and over. We did nothing else but snuggle that day, but the next, she asked me to write. “Just write anything,” she said. “I just want to watch you work, you know? Contact high.” Then she hugged me close and whispered those sweet Gaelic words into my ear and I couldn’t say no to her. I sat and wrote for hours, the beat driving me along as her eyes burned into my back.

I’ve sold more than a dozen poems for publication since that day. The critics love me, and I can’t stop writing. My walls, my refrigerator, and my floors are all covered in gibberish that I wrote when I ran out of paper. I’ve lost twenty pounds because I keep forgetting to eat. I haven’t been to the Duck in weeks. Lea brings me snacks and coffee from down there, but she never eats anything, herself.

That’s the scary thing. She really doesn’t ever eat anything. I’ve been alone with her for days on end and she just doesn’t eat. I never noticed before, but coffee is the only thing she ever consumes.

But that’s not true. She watches me write, my hand cramping from hours of non-stop scribbling. Her eyes burn me, igniting everything inside me, and words billow off me like smoke until finally I drop my pen and throw her into bed. We make mad passionate love and she soaks up all that fire inside me. I fall into deep dreamless slumber, shivering cold and exhausted, and she goes out to the Duck, smiling.

I have a collection coming out, next month. The publisher is excited about it. The critics love it. Lea won’t let me stop. I ache when she’s not watching me. I edit poems and answer mail when she’s not with me, but I burn to write. I feel empty inside and need her sweet Gaelic words and her eyes on me so I can slip into that terrible enchanting rhythm and write for her. She tells me she loves me, she holds me close as I cry, but I know. Deep down inside, I know.

Oh God. I’m burning.


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About the Author

Lurking deep in the shadows of Omaha, Nebraska, Timothy T. Murphy believes in monsters. He’s seen too many of them. He rips and tears at them with big sharp teeth, chases them down with a shot of humor and spits them back out as science fiction and fantasy for all the world to see. His brand new blog “Murphy’s Laws of Writing” can be found at www.timothytmurphy.com.