I didn't realize how long I'd been sitting at my desk until the comfortable hum coming from my beady little earbuds turned to silence. I'd been casually bopping my head to the dull beats, staticky from the buds' years of use, and tapping my pen against the side of my desktop, when I'd blinked, frowning.
I peered down at my iPod, my desk chair creaking underneath me as I leaned forward. It was an old, crappy little thing, my iPod, but it worked, and I didn't particularly feel like getting a new one, spending that money, so.
Anyway, it looked like shuffle'd run through the hundred some-odd songs I had on there already. "Huh, alright," I thought, pulling the buds out and letting them clack onto the desk surface.
It was like I'd been released from some spell—noticing for the first time in... oh god, was it really seven already? I'd been sitting at this desk for six hours. I leaned back again, eyes wide in disbelief, chair groaning in protest. I dragged my hands down my face, caring little about my makeup, before peeking through my fingers at the window to my left.
Oh, goddamnit. Yep, that was a sunset, alright. Golden beams casting a coppery wash on the darkening clouds, turning the sky behind a faint teal, contrasting the periwinkle above the cloud line and effectively silhouetting the outside fencing in a most elegant way—ooh, yeah that was good, that was good.
I snapped forward, fingers planting on my keyboard and manically tapping out that sunset description. The piece I'd been working on since early afternoon was about some stupid kids on a vacation—it'd take too long explaining the whole plot, to be honest, and I have little patience—and chances are there'd be a sunset somewhere along the road, so I saved any splash of inspiration I could get.
I stared at the new lines of text, tilting my head to the side and pursing my lips. Wasn't spectacular, but it was progress, I suppose. A long sigh escaped my chest—I didn't realize I'd been holding it in—and I quickly tapped CTRL + S (Save your work, kids. Or, whoever is reading this. I dunno.) and minimized the window. I stretched my arms up, letting out an unattractive noise somewhere between a growl and a moose's mating call, before shoving away from the desk, rolling back and away. I hopped up just as I got to my office's door and slipped out, leaving the chair spinning behind me.
I let my fingers trail along the wall as I skipped down the hallway, humming the last tune I'd been listening to and trying to ignore the fact that I had a deadline coming up. I think I was allowed a little ignorant bliss after a six-hour binge that produced a half-assed stream of fluff dialogue and a moderately sub-par sunset description. I mean, come on. Little victories, am I right?
I nodded to myself, almost believing that I wasn't the worst procrastinator in the world, and spun, one hand gripping the doorjamb, into the kitchen. There was a click as I hit the light switch, blinking from the momentarily blinding brightness. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the fairy lights I'd somehow hooked up to the kitchen switch (electric work was never my forte, but damn if I wasn't going to try) flicker to life along the crown molding of the living room, a thin little galaxy of reds, greens, and blues in the dimming late summer dusk. In a well-rehearsed dance, I flitted about the kitchen, filling a tea kettle, grabbing a mug, tea bag, sugar, and cranking on one of the burners on the stove. The kettle made contact with an unsavory metal clang, and I winced.
Then, I waited, lips pressed together, brow knit, thoughts wandering now that my hands had nothing to do. My piece came to mind, and I flopped down at one of the stools along my kitchen's island, keeping an unfocused eye on the tea kettle.
The plot was... dismal, at best. Characters, flat... though I hoped to change that once more... stuff happened. I sighed. I just needed to find that stuff that I wanted to happen. It was just... the inspiration had petered out somewhere in the rising action—hell, maybe even as early as in the exposition, if I was being really critical. What happened? The character designs had gone well at the start, and my editor liked my synopsis... It was just... the details. I leaned on my hands, palming at my eyes and combing the tips of my fingers into my hairline. I was tired. So tired.
"Teens are dumb and hard to write well," I groaned, deciding that it would be best to once again fight against the wave of responsibilities that threatened to crash onto my peaceful little beach.
"Ooh, that's a good one," I muttered, making a mental note to write it down once I got back to—
"What's a good one?"
My hands left my eyes, banging down onto the island countertop. Spots filled my vision from the release of pressure, and once I blinked them away, I focused dimly on a robed figure in my living room—visible through the opening in the wall between the two rooms—peering at me and smiling. I vaguely registered that the figure—she?—had the end of the fairy lights in her hands, gently tugging them down. I stared at her—red bathrobe, fluffy slippers, black hair clipped short to just below her chin.
"What are you doing here?" I snapped half-heartedly, only a little phased by her appearance.
She didn't answer for a while—only the soft clatter of the fairy lights, the steady rattle of simmering water in the kettle, and the shuffle of her slippers on the hardwood floor could be heard. The lights began to pool at her feet.
"Are you going to answer my question?" I ask, feeling annoyed.
She turned, smiling so wide her eyes squinted nearly shut. "I think mine is more important. What's a good one?" she repeated, clapping dust off her hands.
I pouted. I couldn't see how that was a more important question, but I indulged her, reciting the metaphor I'd thought of.
Her face lit up, and she resumed tugging on the fairy lights with a chuckle. "You're right. That is a good one. You should put that in the vacation piece."
"Yeah, I know, I was—" I paused. "Wait, how do you know about that, I haven't told any—"
"Don't you think," she interrupted, "it's a bit late to still have these Christmas lights up?"
I snapped my dangling mouth shut and squinted, correcting her, "Fairy lights. I'm not big on holidays."
She clicked her tongue, shaking her head. "You used to be really into holidays."
"Yeah, well. I used to be a lot of things."
"Mhmm. Like an cat owner."
My head jerked back in surprise. I wasn't expecting that. "Well, yeah, I guess. I haven't had a cat since—"
I was cut off by a small mew from out on the floor by her feet. With a light gasp, she dropped the light strand in her hands and reached down to pet the cat that had just strode up to her. I blinked, staring.
"That's not my cat," I said dumbly as she crooned at the little creature. "I don't have a cat."
She flashed me that smile again, saying simply and sweetly, "Well it would appear that you do, now. Or, perhaps, maybe you should."
I shook my head. This was weird, right? Maybe I should? Should... have a cat? Wh... what?
"Um, I have questions," I said hesitantly, eyeing the woman now holding a feline in one arm and yanking at fairy lights with the other.
"Oh, dear, I'm sure you do. But not here. I think you need some fresh air from being cooped up in that room for so long."
I blinked a few times, finding that, somehow, that sounded a lot better than playing a rousing game of Twenty Questions. Before I knew it, I was rising form the stool, following her to the front door and traipsing out into the early twilit woods surrounding my house.
"So it's the inspiration that's holding you back, huh?"
I nodded, wrapping my arms around my bent knees, staring out at the picturesque landscape in front of me. It wasn't cold out, but the light breeze out on the craggy mountain perch was enough to send a slight shiver up my spine, ruffle my hair. "It doesn't come to me as easily as it used to."
She nodded this time, squinting at the early morning sun. Funny, it'd been early night when I'd left the house. I supposed we stayed out all night talking, though it hardly felt like any time had passed at all.
"It happens," she said, consoling. "Where are the characters right now, again?"
I cleared my throat and pinched at a fold in my sweatpants. "Main couple found a dead end where they could've sworn they saw a path that would've led back to their friends. So they're panicking and—"
"Ah, right right," she said. "You're stuck there, like they are."
I laughed at that. "Guess so."
She looked at me, smile softer than it usually was. "That's the dead end path we found around here when we were kids, isn't it?"
I felt a jolt, and warmth colored my cheeks. "Yeah..." I murmured, noticing her smirk. "Oh, shut up."
"I didn't say anything."
"I know that look. You were thinking something."
She barked a laugh. "I suppose you still know me rather well."
I didn't deign that with a reply. "So anyway," I said pointedly, hoping to get back on topic, "what do you think I should do? Scrap the whole dead end part, you know, considering it's...?"
Her smirk got wider. "A dead end?"
I rolled my eyes. She got me on that one. "Fine, yes. The dead end is a dead end. There's literally nowhere to go. Nothing to do. They're stuck with no way out, stuck forever in a looping conversation that will never seem to end no matter how hard I try to bring it to a close. No matter how much I just want it to end." My voice had started to strain, and I could feel a lump form in my throat. I found myself frowning, eyes stinging, and I pressed my face to my knees—maybe the pressure would keep the emotions from spilling out more. After a few minutes of prolonged silence, I glanced at her, and there was a softness in her expression as she stared out over the mountains, hair still despite the breeze. I didn't think much on it.
"I don't think you should give up," she said. "The story, I mean."
She nodded. "Just... think about when we found it back then. What did we do?"
I scoffed. "Hell if I remember."
She shot me an unimpressed look.
"What? I don't have as good a memory as you do."
"This is true. Which is why—"
"Oh God, I'm gonna regret asking you, aren't I?"
She shushed me, continuing, "Which is why you need to go there."
I shifted on my perch, becoming aware of a sharp rock under my butt. "Uh, what?"
"Go to the dead end, remember, get the inspiration. It'll be a lot better—and more productive—than listening to Foster the People on repeat for six hours, won't it?"
I took offense to that. "Excuse me, you uncultured swine. FtP is a treasure."
"Uh huh, only their Torches album. Not the point, though. You need to get out, see things—that's how you get your spark back. You probably think you've seen it all, don't you?"
"What, no I—"
"Don't lie. You used to travel so much—used to purposefully go out to get inspired. You studied your cat for three days once—"
"Where is that cat, by the way?" I murmured offhand, but she kept going as if she didn't hear me.
"So you just need to do that. It's that easy."
I squirmed under her suddenly enthusiastic stare. "Yeah, I don't think it's really that easy. I've... changed, been through things. I can't just hop back up and skip around like everything's all find and dandy when it's really, really not. No amount of pretending is going to help me with that, don't you get it?"
She blinked at me, waiting.
I faltered, expecting a retort and getting none. "It's... I don't know. Sometimes I just don't know what to do, and I try to think of what you would do, but... it's hard."
A vague smile spread across her face, slowly. "I do know it's hard. But... you really want to know what I would do?"
Brow knit, skeptical, I asked, "What?"
I nearly fell off the mountain when she screamed at me, "I would sprint to that dead end road and I wouldn't turn back until I found what I was looking for!"
I woke up at my kitchen island to the screaming of the tea kettle. I might've nearly gotten whiplash from how fast I snapped my head up at the sound, hair splayed out around my face, caught in my mouth and eye lashes.
Spluttering, I clambered up and over to the stove and turned off the heat under the kettle. I reached for it, but didn't particularly trust myself with a metal kettle of boiling hot water, so I retreated, backing up against the island again and trying to calm my racing heart.
"What the hell happened?" I rasped. I swiveled around, taking in my surroundings. It was pitch black outside now—and it felt surreal, like I'd lost track of time. My gaze whipped to the fairy lights, and they were still hanging around the crown molding, pinpricks of rainbow light in the now-darkened living room. On a nearby shelf, I noticed a picture frame had fallen over. I shuffled over, shivering at the sound of my slippers on the hardwood—at how similar it sounded to...
I flipped up the frame and nearly dropped it, seeing a woman with short-clipped dark hair and squinting, smiling eyes with an arm around my shoulder. I swallowed, but couldn't quite get rid of the lump in my throat. Tucked in the corner of the picture frame was...
I sighed, tugging out the little laminated mass card I'd gotten from Lea's funeral three years ago.
My eyes glazed over the prayer printed on the back, the picture of her, smiling professionally. She hated that picture. With a short laugh devoid of humor, I tucked the card back in the frame and set the picture on the shelf, backing away tentatively on the off-chance it'd pitch itself off its perch and shatter.
The thought chilled me to my bones, and I shuddered.
A little scratching noise brought me fully back to my senses, and I turned to the screened side door and stiffened.
"Mew," called the gray cat from the other side of the screen, pawing at it indignantly. I whirled around, looking for some sort of explanation in my otherwise empty house.
"Wh—what?! What is happening?!" I inquired to no one, shuffling over to the screen and hunching down to speak to the little intruder. "And what do you want, huh?"
The cat just looked at me, eyes oddly intelligent as it sat back and whined at me.
I pursed my lips, twitching a bit before resignedly unlocking and sliding open the screen door. The cat sauntered in like it owned the place, scampered through the kitchen and bolted down the hall.
"Hey!" I shouted, jogging after, watching its tail whip through the door to my office. "Where do you think you're going?!"
By the time I caught up, the rude little feline had just finished curling up on my computer keyboard, a purr rumbling in its chest.
I stared at it, slack-jawed, before noticing the chaos it had caused on its journey across my desk. A few folders had been kicked off, their contents spilled across the floor. I stooped down, grumbling, only to freeze when I came across a folder from... I checked the date and, yep, three years ago. A pang in my chest warned me to just shove the pictures that had fallen out back in, but just as I was about to, the cat let out a fierce, wailing meow. I flinched, and in my hesitation my gaze settled on the pictures I'd brought to the funeral home for Lea's memory board or whatever they'd called it at the wake. Flopping back into a sitting position, I picked a few up and sifted through them, smiling but still feeling that pang.
One of the last pictures in the pile was from well over fifteen years ago—Lea and me, arm in arm in the woods, behind us a bright yellow Dead End Road sign. I stared at the picture, expression blank. Even though knowing I'd probably think I was being an idiot later, I tried to recall what we'd done that day. Just... just for curiosity's sake. Nothing came to my mind.
"What the hell..." I murmured. "What did we do that day?" On impulse, I looked up at the cat, narrowing my eyes at it. It regarded me somberly, giving a sharp-toothed yawn. "You sly little..." I trailed off, shaking my head that I was about to curse off a cat. "I don't like you," I added maturely, haphazardly shoving the rest of the pictures back in the folder and snapping it shut, throwing it up on the desk with a fwap and making the cat blink from the wind.
Hopping to my feet, I held the Dead End picture in my hand and made a twisted expression, debating.
Should I...? Maybe it's... Did she really... visit me?
I shook my head vigorously, dispelling the thought. No. She... couldn't have. It was a dream, right?
"Of course it was a dream," I muttered, glaring at the cat again. "And you are a coincidence... aren't you?"
The cat regarded me again, blinking slowly. I could almost imagine it saying, "You're an idiot... aren't you?"
My glare swapped between the cat, the picture, and the desktop, where my half-assed draft awaited completion. A whine crept up my throat, becoming a groan.
"Ugh, fine! Okay, fine, alright?" I shouted at the cat. "I'll go to the Dead End tomorrow. Try for some inspiration. Will that appease you?"
After a few moments' pause, the cat stood, stretched, and hopped off the desk, disappearing out the office door, presumably to find a better sleeping spot. I stared after it in disbelief.
"It..." I said breathily, "it never ends..."
Realizing what I had just said, an uncharacteristically genuine grin broke out on my face, and I followed the cat to get ready for bed.
As I left the house the next morning, chasing the early sun that was only just splashing pink into the sky, notebook in hand, I eyed the fairy lights above the front door with a smirk. My gaze slid down to the cat impatiently nudging against my leg.
I snickered. "Sorry, Lea. The fairy lights are staying up."
With a woeful look up at me, the cat skulked off to a secluded corner of the living room, making a noise that could be compared to a human's grumbling.
Shaking my head, I headed out, letting the door swing shut behind me and not turning back.
I planned on doing a lot less of that, turning back, so I might as well start now, right?
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