Home > The Ghostwriter

The Ghostwriter
Author: Alessandra Torre

A gentle pull on my hand. I resist, turning away, and smile when I feel the tiny fingers pushing aside my bangs, the soft weight of a body against mine.

“Mommy.” A huff of breath against my cheek. “Mommmmmy.”

“Mommy’s asleep,” Simon whispers. “If we don’t wake her up, we can eat all of the delicious chocolate chip pancakes ourselves.”

I growl, and clamp a hand over his, which is sneaking under the edge of my sleepshirt. I open my eyes and look up into his face, those handsome features dusted by flour and a smear of chocolate. “Easy,” I warn him, pulling on his wrist and dragging him onto the mattress, my movements quick as I wiggle out of the covers and atop his waist. “You know the monster is grouchy when she is awoken.”

“Let me, let me!” Bethany scrambles before me, straddling his chest and gripping the front of his shirt, looking back at me with a smile.

“Ah…” I crow. “My monster keeper and I have got you captured, Mr. Pancake Man!” I shift atop him and he gives me a look, the sort of look that—years ago—led to naked events that create babies. I smile at him and wrap my arms around my child. “What should we make Mr. Pancake Man do, Princess Bethany?”

“He should feed the monster!” She announces, and raises both hands in the air to exclamation point the phrase.

“AND… do the dishes!” I raise my own hands in the air and Simon groans in protest. Bucking up his hips, he deposits us both onto the mattress, giving Bethany a quick tickle, and me a deep kiss.

“Come, Monster,” he commands. “Come and let me fill that big belly.”

I come, I eat, and afterward, while Bethany draws and I settle into the recliner to write, he does the dishes.

A perfect morning. A perfect husband. A perfect daughter. A perfect lie.

I’m dying. It’s a grim start to any story, but I think the news should be delivered in the same manner as a ripped band-aid. Short and blunt, a stab that burns for a moment, then is gone, the moment over. My doctor tip-toed around the news, showing me test results and citing blood cell counts, CEA numbers, and an MRI that showed a tumor the size of a small lemon. He drew out what could have been accomplished in two short sentences. You’re terminal. You have three months left.

I should be sad. I should be emotional, my fingers shaking as they press cell phone buttons and make depressingly bleak phone calls to all of my friends and family. Only, I don’t have friends. And my family… I have no family. I have only this countdown, a dark ominous chant of days, sunrises and sunsets before my body gives up and my mind shuts down.

It’s not really a terrible diagnosis—not for me. I’ve been waiting four years for something like this to happen, a guillotine to fall, an escape door to appear. I’d be almost cheerful about it, if it weren’t for the book. The story. The truth, which I’ve avoided for the last four years.

I step into my office and flip on the light. Moving forward, I reach out, my hand trailing over the corkboard wall, hovering over the tacked up photos, the pages of abandoned ideas, jotted notes of a hundred sleepless nights, sparks of inspiration—some that led nowhere, some that now sit on bookshelves all over the world.

My husband made me this board. His hands held the wood frame in place, cut the cork, and nailed the pieces into place. He kept me out of the office all day to do it, my insistence at entering thwarted by the lock, my knocks on the door ignored. I remember sitting back in this same chair, my hands on my belly, and seeing the final product. I had stared up at the blank board and thought of all the stories I would build on it, the words already itching for their place. It had become everything I thought it would.

I stop at the page I’ve read countless times, its paper worn more than the others, the edges not obscured with clippings or neighboring photos. It’s the synopsis for a novel. Right now, it’s just one paragraph in length, the type of copy that might one day be embossed on the back cover of the book. I’ve written fifteen novels, but this one terrifies me. I fear that I won’t have the right words, the right arc, that I will aim too high, hit too hard, and still not properly affect the reader. I fear that I’ll tell everything, and still no one will understand.

It’s a book I had planned to write decades from now, once my skills had grown, my writing sharpened, talents perfected. It is a book I planned to spend years on, everything else pushed aside, my world closing in on the one thing that mattered, nothing else moving until it was finished, until it was perfect.

Now, I don’t have decades.

I don’t have years.

I don’t have the level of skill.

I don’t have anything.

It doesn’t matter. I pull at the tack that holds it in place, and set the page carefully on the center of my clean desk.

Three months. The deadline is the tightest I’ve ever faced. There will be no frantic calls to my agent, no negotiation for more time.

Three months to write a story that deserves years.

Is it even possible?

When I meet him, the night is singed with the smell of funnel cakes and cigarette smoke. He smiles and something inside of me shifts, a crack in between the vertebrae, my heart beating a little bit harder than it ever has.

Boys like him don’t go for girls like me, they don’t follow me with their eyes, or listen when I speak. They don’t lean closer or want more.

He is different than all the others. He doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t step away. Our eyes meet, his mouth curves, and my world changes.

Writing the first chapter burns. Maybe it’s the new drugs, maybe it’s the memories, but I feel hot with the effort, my shirt damp against the small of my back, my chest tight and achy by the time I finish the story of our meeting and our first date. It was a night where he won my mother over with one easy smile, and won me over with tacos and Mexican beer, his fingers looping through mine as we walked out to the car. He had kissed me against that car, my mouth hesitant, his strong and sure, my nerves dissolving in the first confident dive of his tongue.

I had been such a young twenty-year-old—one that had never been on a date, never been pursued, never cared about boys and romance, outside of the pages of my novels.

But everything had been different after that night. Simon swept into my life and turned it into something fiery and wild, my days beginning with an excited fervor, my nights ending with thoughts of love and of a future—one of travel and passion, of his eyes and his touch, of being desired for something other than my words.

It had been love. From the very beginning. Wild. Crazy. Senseless. Love.

I save my work and close the laptop, feeling nauseous.

At precisely 2:24 on Wednesday afternoon, I stop typing. Moving the laptop aside, I clear off the top of my desk, moving my phone into the center of the space, a fresh notepad pulled from the drawer, a pen uncapped and placed on its white lined surface.

In the next two minutes, I settle back against the chair and extend my arms over my head, closing my eyes and stretching my chest.

At precisely 2:30, the phone rings. I sit up, grabbing the phone and lifting it to my ear. “Hey Kate.”

“Good afternoon, Helena.” There is a hitch in her voice, as if she’s run to the phone, as if she hasn’t had all week to prepare for this call and set aside this time. Irritation blooms in my chest, a common occurrence on these calls. “I have four things to discuss.”

It took years for me to properly train Kate, to curb the agent’s tendencies for mindless chit-chat and pleasantries. In the beginning, she was more resistant to my expectations, but the first advance, the first bestseller, the first commission—that made her more pliable. It’s amazing what money will do to a person, the level of control it can establish. It’s made Kate my monkey. It made Simon my pet—the sort who doesn’t clean up his messes, the sort who marks his territory, the sort who bares his teeth and will attack your child if you don’t keep him on a tight enough leash.

Kate brings up a foreign offer first, my pen scratching out the terms under a neat heading with today’s date. I accept the terms, and we move on to the second item—a third reprinting of Hope’s Ferry. Wahoo. I sigh, and manage to make it through the third and fourth topic. She falls silent and I consider my next words, choosing ones designed to cause as little a reaction as possible.

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