Epiphany struck when Austin Jackson flushed the toilet.
The bathroom, with its shining white porcelain and glittering chrome, cleaned and polished by his very own hands, was one of the few bright spots in his life. Bemused, he wandered into the bedroom. Here all was dim, washed out. Janice lay on her back, fantastic plastic boobs in full view. She looked cheap. Funny, he’d never noticed that before. No wonder he couldn’t write. The instrument of darkness clinging limpet-like to his life was lying in his bed, snoring.
Not since his college days had he allowed outside forces to drive him willy-nilly to a decision. That time it was a false pregnancy. Delay would have saved him from four years in the Army and a tour of scenic Iraq. This time procrastination would be fatal. Even asleep, Janice had the power to cloud his mind, shatter his resolve. Riding a tide of discovery and decision, Austin opened the drapes and woke the witch.
Janice paused in the doorway, trying to work up a suitable parting phrase. Her imagination failed. Snarling, she turned away. The door closed with a sullen thud.
“The wicked witch is dead,” declared Austin. He headed for the kitchen, humming a half-remembered tune about the death of a wicked witch. “But is she really, truly dead?” A wave of cold terror broke over him. He was going to miss those boobs.
Breakfast done, dishes washed and put away, he retired to his office, opening curtains as he went. Janice was certain the light hurt her complexion. “Let there be light! Now I can write!”
With soft music playing and light filling the room, Austin prepared to create the Great American Novel or at least a witty bit of flash fiction. He fired up the computer, arranged a note pad to one side, adjusted his chair. He touched the keyboard. The words and phrases in his head vanished utterly. “Hah. I’ll have to take it a little at a time.”
Stereo off, curtains closed down to a crack of light, he returned to the computer. Still nothing. A check of his email found only an empty in-box. Despair crept into the room.
“I know. I’ll check my writer’s group for prompts.” He soon found several one-liners suitable for baiting the muse.
Dark winter clouds closed down over the mean streets.
“Whoa. What am I doing? Better try something lighter.”
Evening sunlight drew soft red highlights across the sky.
“That’s better.” He stared at the phrase for a long time, hands poised.
Sighing with frustration, he shied away from the blinking cursor. “Haven’t I been in a war? Haven’t I been a short order cook, a copy editor for a skin magazine, and a bouncer at a whorehouse? If all those weird jobs don’t make me a writer, what does?”
“None of those made you a writer,” said a voice behind him.
Austin let out a whoop and spun around, knocking over a lamp in the process. An ugly little man in a cheap black suit stood beside the bookcase. With his narrow face, long nose, and slicked down black hair, the runt resembled a starving crow.
“Who? What… ?” Austin picked up the lamp and put it back on the side table. “How did you get in here?”
The man smiled, exposing a gnarled tangle of bad teeth. “Doesn’t matter.”
A dozen questions vied for Austin’s attention, each more hackneyed than the last. One finally forced its way out. “What do you want?”
The runt ignored his question. “You took positive steps to improve your life today. For a long time it appeared that your Earthly term would consist of a string of bad women and worse decisions in regard to developing your inborn skills.”
Austin laughed. It was too much. Not only was he a complete flop as a writer, now he was imagining a starving muse. He said as much.
“I’m not your muse. Call me Cass. My task is to provide warning. This is your last chance.”
“To warn me?” Austin frowned. “Cass? A male Cassandra? She met a bad end.”
“So did I. Your knowledge of the classics is commendable.”
“The curse of a Liberal Arts education.”
Cass sighed and shook his head. “The only curse you suffer from is self-inflicted.”
“Strong drink, pliant females. Samson’s curse.”
The ugly messenger drew a rolled scroll from his coat. Austin thought he detected the faint smell of sulfur. Cass coughed and began to read: “WHEREAS Austin Jackson purports to be an Author; and WHEREAS he has the experience and ability to write successful fiction; and WHEREAS Austin Jackson has frittered away his talents on alcoholic beverages and women of ill repute, far above the usual requirements of the Writer’s trade; THEREFORE, Austin Jackson is given this Last and Final Warning, TO WIT: He must shape up and write or his assigned Muse will be withdrawn and his final days will be a spiral of dead-end jobs, immoral activities; and, FINALLY, he will end his life stinking of corruption, clutching an empty wine bottle in a nameless alley.”
“Wow!” Austin sank back in his chair. “As final warnings go, that’s not bad.”
Cass re-rolled the scroll. “I wrote it myself.”
“I’m outta here. Now it’s up to you.” Cass made a half turn and vanished.
“That’s the last I saw of him,” mumbled Austin. The blanket-wrapped derelict huddling between two trash bins didn’t reply. Austin hoped the man was asleep. To have his audience die while he told his tale of woe was too much like the Fates practicing willful interference — again. Such malign influences were a regular part of his life. He sniffed. “I never had a chance.”
Austin cradled a sloshing wine bottle and wormed deeper into his cardboard box. Wind-blown snow danced across frozen puddles. He drifted into a dream of missed deadlines, blank pages, and breast implants.
JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.