Chapter 3 of Bag of Bones

My publisher didn't know, my editor Debra Weinstock didn't know, my agent Harold Oblowski didn't know. Frank Arlen didn't know, either, although on more than one occasion I had been tempted to tell him. Let me be your brother. For Jo's sake if not your own, he told me on the day he went back to his printing business and mostly solitary life in the southern Maine town of Sanford. I had never expected to take him up on that, and didn't ¡ª not in the elemental cry-for-help way he might have been thinking about ¡ª but I phoned him every couple of weeks or so. Guy-talk, you know ¡ª How's it going, Not too bad, cold as a witch's tit, Yeah, here, too, You want to go down to Boston if I can get Bruins tickets, Maybe next year, pretty busy right now, Yeah, I know how that is, seeya, Mikey, Okay, Frank, keep your wee-wee in the teepee. Guy-talk.

I'm pretty sure that once or twice he asked me if I was working on a new book, and I think I said ¡ª

Oh, fuck it ¡ª that's a lie, okay? One so ingrown that now I'm even telling it to myself. He asked, all right, and I always said yeah, I was working on a new book, it was going good, real good. I was tempted more than once to tell him I can't write two paragraphs without going into total mental and physical doglock ¡ª my heartbeat doubles, then triples, I get short of breath and then start to pant, my eyes feel like they're going to pop out of my head and hang there on my cheeks. I'm like a claustrophobe in a sinking submarine. That's how it's going, thanks for asking, but I never did. I don't call for help. I can't call for help. I think I told you that.

From my admittedly prejudiced standpoint, successful novelists ¡ª even modestly successful novelists ¡ª have got the best gig in the creative arts. It's true that people buy more CDS than books, go to more movies, and watch a lot more TV. But the arc of productivity is longer for novelists, perhaps because readers are a little brighter than fans of the non-written arts, and thus have marginally longer memories. David Soul of Starsky and Hutch is God knows where, same with that peculiar white rapper Vanilla Ice, but in 1994, Herman Wouk, James Michener, and Norman Mailer were all still around; talk about when dinosaurs walked the earth.

Arthur Hailey was writing a new book (that was the rumor, anyway, and it turned out to be true), Thomas Harris could take seven years between Lecters and still produce bestsellers, and although not heard from in almost forty years, J. D. Salinger was still a hot topic in English classes and informal coffee-house literary groups. Readers have a loyalty that cannot be matched anywhere else in the creative arts, which explains why so many writers who have run out of gas can keep coasting anyway, propelled onto the bestseller lists by the magic words AUTHOR OF on the covers of their books.

What the publisher wants in return, especially from an author who can be counted on to sell 500,000 or so copies of each novel in hardcover and a million more in paperback, is perfectly simple: a book a year. That, the wallahs in New York have determined, is the optimum. Three hundred and eighty pages bound by string or glue every twelve months, a beginning, a middle, and an end, continuing main character like Kinsey Millhone or Kay Scarpetta optional but very much preferred. Readers love continuing characters; it's like coming back to family.

Less than a book a year and you're screwing up the publisher's investment in you, hampering your business manager's ability to continue floating all of your credit cards, and jeopardizing your agent's ability to pay his shrink on time. Also, there's always some fan attrition when you take too long. Can't be helped. Just as, if you publish too much, there are readers who'll say, 'Phew, I've had enough of this guy for awhile, it's all starting to taste like beans.'

I tell you all this so you'll understand how I could spend four years using my computer as the world's most expensive Scrabble board, and no one ever suspected. Writer's block? What writer's block? We don't got no steenkin writer's block. How could anyone think such a thing when there was a new Michael Noonan suspense novel appearing each fall just like clockwork, perfect for your late-summer pleasure reading, folks, and by the way, don't forget that the holidays are coming and that all your relatives would also probably enjoy the new Noonan, which can he had at Borders at a thirty percent discount, oy vay, such a deal.

The secret is simple, and I am not the only popular novelist in America who knows it ¡ª if the rumors are correct, Danielle Steel (to name just one) has been using the Noonan Formula for decades. You see, although I have published a book a year starting with Being Two in 1984, I wrote two books in four of those ten years, publishing one and ratholing the other.

I don't remember ever talking about this with Jo, and since she never asked, I always assumed she understood what I was doing: saving up nuts. It wasn't writer's block I was thinking of, though. Shit, I was just having fun.

By February of 1995, after crashing and burning with at least two good ideas (that particular function ¡ª the Eureka! thing ¡ª has never stopped, which creates its own special version of hell), I could no longer deny the obvious: I was in the worst sort of trouble a writer can get into, barring Alzheimer's or a cataclysmic stroke. Still, I had four cardboard manuscript boxes in the big safe-deposit box I keep up at Fidelity Union. They were marked Promise, Threat, Darcy, and Top. Around Valentine's Day, my agent called, moderately nervous ¡ª I usually delivered my latest masterpiece to him by January, and here it was already half-past February. They would have to crash production to get this year's Mike Noonan out in time for the annual Christmas buying orgy. Was everything all right?

This was my first chance to say things were a country mile from all but Mr. Harold Oblowski of 225 Park Avenue wasn't the sort of man you said such things to. He was a fine agent, both liked and loathed in publishing circles (sometimes by the same people at the same time), but he didn't adapt well to bad news from the dark and oil.treaked levels where the goods were actually produced. He would have freaked and been on the next plane to Derry, ready to give me creative mouth-to-mouth, adamant in his resolve not to leave until he had yanked me out of my fugue. No, I liked Harold right where he was, in his thirty-eighth-floor office with its kickass view of the East Side.

I told him what a coincidence, Harold, you calling on the very day I finished the new one, gosharooty, how 'bout that, I'll send it out FedEx, you'll have it tomorrow. Harold assured me solemnly that there was no coincidence about it, that where his writers were concerned, he was telepathic. Then he congratulated me and hung up. Two hours later I received his bouquet-every bit as fulsome and silky as one of his Jimmy Hollywood ascots.

After putting the flowers in the dining room, where I rarely went since Jo died, I went down to Fidelity Union. I used my key, the bank manager used his, and soon enough I was on my way to FedEx with the manuscript of All the Way from the Top. I took the most recent book because it was the one closest to the front of the box, that's all. In November it was published just in time for the Christmas rush. I dedicated it to the memory of my late, beloved wife, Johanna. It went to number eleven on the Times bestseller list, and everyone went home happy. Even me. Because things would get better, wouldn't they? No one had terminal writer's block, did they (well, with the possible exception of Harper Lee)? All I had to do was relax, as the chorus girl said to the archbishop. And thank God I'd been a good squirrel and saved up my nuts.

I was still optimistic the following year when I drove down to the Federal Express office with Threatening Behavior. That one was written in the fall of 1991, and had been one of Jo's favorites. Optimism had faded quite a little bit by March of 1997, when I drove through a wet snowstorm with Darcy's Admirer, although when people asked me how it was going ('Writing any good books lately?' is the existential way most seem to phrase the question), I still answered good, fine, yeah, writing lots of good books lately, they're pouring out of me like shit out of a cow's ass.

After Harold had read Darcy and pronounced it my best ever, a best-seller which was also serious, I hesitantly broached the idea of taking a year off. He responded immediately with the question I detest above all others: was I all right? Sure, I told him, fine as freckles, just thinking about easing off a little.

There followed one of those patented Harold Oblowski silences, which were meant to convey that you were being a terrific asshole, but because Harold liked you so much, he was trying to think of the gentlest possible way of telling you so. This is a wonderful trick, but one I saw through about six years ago. Actually, it was Jo who saw through it. 'He's only pretending compassion,' she said. 'Actually, he's like a cop in one of those old film noir movies, keeping his mouth shut so you'll blunder ahead and end up confessing to everything.'

This time I kept my mouth shut ¡ª just switched the phone from my right ear to my left, and rocked back a little further in my office chair. When I did, my eye fell on the framed photograph over my computer ¡ª Sara Laughs, our place on Dark Score Lake. I hadn't been there in eons, and for a moment I consciously wondered why.

Then Harold's voice ¡ª cautious, comforting, the voice of a sane man trying to talk a lunatic out of what he hopes will be no more than a passing delusion ¡ª was back in my ear. 'That might not be a good idea, Mike ¡ª not at this stage of your career.'

'This isn't a stage,' I said. 'I peaked in 1991 ¡ª since then, my sales haven't really gone up or down. This is a plateau, Harold.'

'Yes,' he said, 'and writers who've reached that steady state really only have two choices in terms of sales ¡ª they can continue as they are, or they can go down.'

So I go down, I thought of saying . . . but didn't. I didn't want Harold to know exactly how deep this went, or how shaky the ground under me was. I didn't want him to know that I was now having heart palpitations-yes, I mean this literally ¡ª almost every time I opened the Word Six program on my computer and looked at the blank screen and flashing cursor.

'Yeah,' I said. 'Okay. Message received.'

'You're sure you're all right?'

'Does the book read like I'm wrong, Harold?'

'Hell, no ¡ª it's a helluva yarn. Your personal best, I told you. A great read but also fucking serious shit. If Saul Bellow wrote romantic suspense fiction, this is what he'd write. But . . .  you're not having any trouble with :the next one, are you? I know you're still missing Jo, hell, we all are ¡ª '

'No,' I said. 'No trouble at all.' Another of those long silences ensued. I endured it. At last Harold said, 'Grisham could afford to take a year off. Clancy could. Thomas Harris, the long silences are a part of his mystique. But where you are, life is even tougher than at the very top, Mike. There are five writers for every one of those spots down on the list, and you know who they are ¡ª hell, they're your neighbors three months a year. Some are going up, the way Patricia Cornwell went up with her last two books, some are going down, and some are staying steady, like you. If Tom Clancy were to go on hiatus for five years and then bring Jack Ryan back, he'd come back strong, no argument. If you go on hiatus for five years, maybe you don't come back at all. My advice is ¡ª '

'Make hay while the sun shines.'

'Took the words right out of my mouth.'

We talked a little more, then said our goodbyes. I leaned back further in my office chair ¡ª not all the way to the tip over point but close ¡ª and looked at the photo of our western Maine retreat. Sara Laughs, sort of like the title of that hoary old Hall and Oates ballad. Jo had loved it more, true enough, but only by a little, so why had I been staying away? Bill Dean, the caretaker, took down the storm shutters every spring and put them back up every fall, drained the pipes in the fall and made sure the pump was running in the spring, checked the generator and took care to see that all the maintenance tags were current, anchored the swimming float fifty yards or so off our little lick of beach after each Memorial Day.

Bill had the chimney cleaned in the early summer of '96, although there hadn't been a fire in the fireplace for two years or more. I paid him quarterly, as is the custom with caretakers in that part of the world; Bill Dean, old Yankee from a long line of them, cashed my checks and didn't ask why I never used my place anymore. I'd only been down two or three times since Jo died, and not a single overnight. Good thing Bill didn't ask, because I don't know what answer I would have given him. I hadn't even really thought about Sara Laughs until my conversation with Harold.

Thinking of Harold, I looked away from the photo and back at the phone. Imagined saying to him, So I go down, so what? The world comes to an end? Please. It isn't as if I had a wife and family to support ¡ª the wife died in a drugstore parking lot, if you please (or even if you don't please), and the kid we wanted so badly and tried for so long went with her, I don't crave the fame, either ¡ª if writers who fill the lower slots on the Times bestseller list can be said to be famous ¡ª and I don't fall asleep dreaming of book club sales. So why? Why does it even bother me?

But that last one I could answer. Because it felt like giving up. Because without my wife and my work, I was a superfluous man living alone in a big house that was all paid for, doing nothing but the newspaper crossword over lunch.

I pushed on with what passed for my life. I forgot about Sara Laughs (or some part of me that didn't want to go there buried the idea) and spent another sweltering, miserable summer in Derry. I put a cruciverbalist program on my Powerbook and began making my own crossword puzzles. I took an interim appointment on the local YMCA's board of directors and judged the Summer Arts Competition in Waterville. I did a series of TV ads for the local homeless shelter, which was staggering toward bankruptcy, then served on that board for awhile. (At one public meeting of this latter board a woman called me a friend of degenerates, to which I replied, 'Thanks! I needed that.' This resulted in a loud outburst of applause which I still don't understand.) I tried some one-on-one counselling and gave it up after five appointments, deciding that the counsellor's problems were far worse than mine. I sponsored an Asian child and bowled with a league.

Sometimes I tried to write, and every time I did, I locked up. Once, when I tried to force a sentence or two (any sentence or two, just as long as they came fresh-baked out of my own head), I had to grab the wastebasket and vomit into it. I vomited until I thought it was going to kill me . . . and I did have to literally crawl away from the desk and the computer, pulling myself across the deep-pile rug on my hands and knees. By the time I got to the other side of the room, it was better. I could even look back over my shoulder at the VDT screen. I just couldn't get near it. Later that day, I approached it with my eyes shut and turned it off.

More and more often during those late-summer days I thought of Dennison Carville, the creative-writing teacher who'd helped me connect with Harold and who had damned Being Two with such faint praise. Camille once said something I never forgot, attributing it to Thomas Hardy, the Victorian novelist and poet. Perhaps Hardy did say it, but I've never found it repeated, not in Bartlett's, not in the Hardy biography I read between the publications of All the Way from the Top and Threatening Behavior. I have an idea Carville may have made it up himself and then attributed it to Hardy in order to give it more weight. It's a ploy I have used myself from time to time, I'm ashamed to say.

In any case, I thought about this quote more and more as I struggled with the panic in my body and the frozen feeling in my head, that awful locked-up feeling. It seemed to sum up my despair and my growing certainty that I would never be able to write again (what a tragedy, V. C. Andrews with a prick felled by writer's block). It was this quote that suggested any effort I made to better my situation might be meaningless even if it succeeded.

According to gloomy old Dennison Carville, the aspiring novelist should understand from the outset that fiction's goals were forever beyond his reach, that the job was an exercise in futility. 'Compared to the dullest human being actually walking about on the face of the earth and casting his shadow there,' Hardy supposedly said, 'the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones.' I understood because that was what I felt like in those interminable, dissembling days: a bag of bones.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

If there is any more beautiful and haunting first line in English fiction, I've never read it. And it was a line I had cause to think of a lot during the fall of 1997 and the winter of 1998. I didn't dream of Manderley, of course, but of Sara Laughs, which Jo sometimes called 'the hideout.' A fair enough description, I guess, for a place so far up in the western Maine woods that it's not really even in a town at all, but in an unincorporated area designated on state maps as RR-90.

The last of these dreams was a nightmare, but until that one they had a kind of surreal simplicity. They were dreams I'd awake from wanting to turn on the bedroom light so I could reconfirm my place in reality before going back to sleep. You know how the air feels before a thunderstorm, how everything gets still and colors seem to stand out with the brilliance of things seen during a high fever? My winter dreams of Sara Laughs were like that, each leaving me with a feeling that was not quite sickness. I've dreamt again of Manderley, I would think sometimes, and sometimes I would lie in bed with the light on, listening to the wind outside, looking into the bedroom's shadowy corners, and thinking that Rebecca de Winter hadn't drowned in a bay but in Dark Score Lake. That she had gone down, gurgling and flailing, her strange black eyes full of water, while the loons cried out indifferently in the twilight. Sometimes I would get up and drink a glass of water. Sometimes I just turned off the light after I was once more sure of where I was, rolled over on my side again, and went back to sleep.

In the daytime I rarely thought of Sara Laughs at all, and it was only much later that I realized something is badly out of whack when there is such a dichotomy between a person's waking and sleeping lives. I think that Harold Oblowski's call in October of 1997 was what kicked off the dreams. Harold's ostensible reason for calling was to congratulate me on the impending release of Darcy's Admirer, which was entertaining as hell and which also contained some extremely thought-provoking shit. I suspected he had at least one other item on his agenda ¡ª Harold usually does ¡ª and I was right. He'd had lunch with Debra Weinstock, my editor, the day before, and they had gotten talking about the fall of 1998.

'Looks crowded,' he said, meaning the fall lists, meaning specifically the fiction half of the fall lists. 'And there are some surprise additions. Dean Koontz ¡ª '

'I thought he usually published in January,' I said.

'He does, but Debra hears this one may be delayed. He wants to add a section, or something. Also there's a Harold Robbins, The Predators ¡ª '

'Big deal.'

'Robbins still has his fans, Mike, still has his fans. As you yourself have pointed out on more than one occasion, fiction writers have a long arc.'

'Uh-huh.' I switched the telephone to the other ear and leaned back in my chair. I caught a glimpse of the framed Sara Laughs photo over my desk when I did. I would be visiting it at greater length and proximity that night in my dreams, although I didn't know that then; all I knew then was that I wished like almighty fuck that Harold Oblowski would hurry up and get to the point.

'I sense impatience, Michael my boy,' Harold said. 'Did I catch you at your desk? Are you writing?'



'Just finished for the day,' I said. 'I am thinking about lunch, however.'

'I'll be quick,' he promised, 'but hang with me, this is important. There may be as many as five other writers that we didn't expect publishing next fall: Ken Follett . . .  it's supposed to be his best since Eye of the Needle . . .  Belva Plain . . .  John Jakes . . . '

'None of those guys plays tennis on my court,' I said, although I knew that was not exactly Harold's point; Harold's point was that there are only fifteen slots on the Times list.

'How about Jean Auel, finally publishing the next of her sex-among-the-cave-people epics?' I sat up.

'Jean Auel? Really?'

'Well . . .  not a hundred percent, but it looks good. Last but not least is a new Mary Higgins Clark. I know what tennis court she plays on, and so do you.' If I'd gotten that sort of news six or seven years earlier, when I'd felt I had a great deal more to protect, I would have been frothing; Mary Higgins Clark did play on the same court, shared exactly the same audience, and so far our publishing schedules had been arranged to keep us out of each other's way . . . which was to my benefit rather than hers, let me assure you. Going nose to nose, she would cream me. As the late Jim Croce so wisely observed, you don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind, you don't pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger, and you don't mess around with Mary Higgins Clark. Not if you're Michael Noonan, anyway.

'How did this happen?' I asked. I don't think my tone was particularly ominous, but Harold replied in the nervous, stumbling-all-over-his-own-words fashion of a man who suspects he may be fired or even beheaded for bearing evil tidings.

'I don't know. She just happened to get an extra idea this year, I guess. That does happen, I've been told.'

As a fellow who had taken his share of double-dips I knew it did, so I simply asked Harold what he wanted. It seemed the quickest and easiest way to get him to relinquish the phone. The answer was no surprise; what he and Debra both wanted ¡ª not to mention all the rest of my Putnam pals ¡ª was a book they could publish in late summer of '98, thus getting in front of Ms. Clark and the rest of the competition by a couple of months. Then, in November, the Putnam sales reps would give the novel a healthy second push, with the Christmas season in mind.

'So they say,' I replied. Like most novelists (and in this regard the successful are no different from the unsuccessful, indicating there might be some merit to the idea as well as the usual free-floating paranoia), I never trusted publishers' promises.

'I think you can believe them on this, Mike ¡ª Darcy's Admirer was the last book of your old contract, remember.' Harold sounded almost sprightly at the thought of forthcoming contract negotiations with Debra Weinstock and Phyllis Grann at Putnam. 'The big thing is they still like you. They'd like you even more, I think, if they saw pages with your name on them before Thanksgiving.'

'They want me to give them the next book in November? Next month?' I injected what I hoped was the right note of incredulity into my voice, just as if I hadn't had Helen's Promise in a safe-deposit box for almost eleven years. It had been the first nut I had stored; it was now the only nut I had left.

'No, no, you could have until January fifteenth, at least,' he said, trying to sound magnanimous. I found myself wondering where he and Debra had gotten their lunch. Some fly place, I would have bet my life on that. Maybe Four Seasons. Johanna always used to call that place Valli and the Four Seasons. 'It means they'd have to crash production, seriously crash it, but they're willing to do that. The real question is whether or not you could crash production.'

'I think I could, but it'll cost em,' I said. 'Tell them to think of it as being like same-day service on your dry-cleaning.'

'Oh what a rotten shame for them!' Harold sounded as if he were maybe jacking off and had reached the point where Old Faithful splurts and everybody snaps their Instamatics.

'How much do you think ¡ª '

'A surcharge tacked on to the advance is probably the way to go,' he said. 'They'll get pouty of course, claim that the move is in your interest, too. Primarily in your interest, even. But based on the extra-work argument . . . the midnight oil you'll have to burn . . . '

'The mental agony of creation . . . the pangs of premature birth . . . '

'Right . . . right . . . I think a ten percent surcharge sounds about right.' He spoke judiciously, like a man trying to be just as damned fair as he possibly could. Myself, I was wondering how many women would induce birth a month or so early if they got paid two or three hundred grand extra for doing so. Probably some questions are best left unanswered.

And in my case, what difference did it make? The goddam thing was written, wasn't it?

'Well, see if you can make the deal,' I said. 'Yes, but I don't think we want to be talking about just a single book here, okay? I think ¡ª '

'Harold, what I want right now is to eat some lunch.'

'You sound a little tense, Michael. Is everything ¡ª '

'Everything is fine. Talk to them about just one book, with a sweetener for speeding up production at my end. Okay?'

'Okay,' he said after one of his most significant pauses. 'But I hope this doesn't mean that you won't entertain a three- or four-book contract later on. Make hay while the sun shines, remember. It's the motto Of champions.'

'Cross each bridge when you come to it is the motto of champions,' I said, and that night I dreamt I went to Sara Laughs again.

In that dream ¡ª in all the dreams I had that fall and winter ¡ª I am walking up the lane to the lodge. The lane is a two-mile loop through the woods with ends opening onto Route 68. It has a number at either end (Lane Forty-two, if it matters) in case you have to call in a fire, but no name. Nor did Jo and I ever give it one, not even between ourselves. It is narrow, really just a double rut with timothy and witchgrass growing on the crown. When you drive in, you can hear that grass whispering like low voices against the undercarriage of your car or truck.

I don't drive in the dream, though. I never drive. In these dreams I walk.

The trees huddle in close on either side of the lane. The darkening sky overhead is little more than a slot. Soon I will be able to see the first peeping stars. Sunset is past. Crickets chirr. Loons cry on the lake. Small things ¡ª chipmunks, probably, or the occasional squirrel ¡ª rustle in the woods.

Now I come to a dirt driveway sloping down the hill on my right. It is our driveway, marked with a little wooden sign which reads SARA LAUGHS. I stand at the head of it, but I don't go down. Below is the lodge. It's all logs and added-on wings, with a deck jutting out behind. Fourteen rooms in all, a ridiculous number of rooms. It should look ugly and awkward, but somehow it does not. There is a brave-dowager quality to Sara, the look of a lady pressing resolutely on toward her hundredth year, still taking pretty good strides in spite of her arthritic hips and gimpy old knees.

The central section is the oldest, dating back to 1900 or so. Other sections were added in the thirties, forties, and sixties. Once it was a hunting lodge; for a brief period in the early seventies it was home to a small commune of transcendental hippies. These were lease or rental deals; the owners from the late forties until 1984 were the Hingermans, Darren and Marie . . .  then Marie alone when Darren died in 1971. The only visible addition from our period of ownership is the tiny DSS dish mounted on the central roofpeak. That was Johanna's idea, and she never really got a chance to enjoy it.

Beyond the house, the lake glimmers in the afterglow of sunset. The driveway, I see, is carpeted with brown pine needles and littered with fallen branches. The bushes which grow on either side of it have run wild, reaching out to one another like lovers across the narrowed gap which separates them. If you brought a car down here, the branches would scrape and unpleasantly against its sides. Below, I see, there's moss growing logs of the main house, and three large sunflowers with faces like have grown up through the boards of the little driveway-side. The overall feeling is not neglect, exactly, but forgottenness.

There is a breath of breeze, and its coldness on my skin makes me that I have been sweating. I can smell pine ¡ª a smell which is sour and clean at the same time ¡ª and the faint but somehow smell of the lake. Dark Score is one of the cleanest, deepest in Maine. It was bigger until the late thirties, Marie Hingerman us; that was when Western Maine Electric, working hand in hand the mills and paper operations around Rumford, had gotten state to dam the Gessa River. Marie also showed us some charming photographs of white-frocked ladies and vested gentlemen in canoes ¡ª snaps were from the time of the First World War, she said, and to one of the young women, frozen forever on the rim of the with a dripping paddle upraised. 'That's my mother,' she said, the man she's threatening with the paddle is my father.'

Loons crying, their voices like loss. Now I can see Venus in the dark-sky. Star light, star bright, wish I may, wish I might . . . in these I always wish for Johanna.

With my wish made, I try to walk down the driveway. Of course I do. It¡¯s my house, isn't it? Where else would I go but my house, now that dark and now that the stealthy rustling in the woods seems closer and somehow more purposeful? Where else can I go? It's dark, and it will be frightening to go into that dark place alone (suppose been left so long alone? suppose she's angry?), but I must. If the electricity's off, I'll light one of the hurricane lamps we keep in a kitchen cabinet.

I can't go down. My legs won't move. It's as if my body knows something about the house down there that my brain does not. The breeze rises again, chilling gooseflesh out onto my skin, and I wonder what I have done to get myself all sweaty like this. Have I been running? And if so, what have I been running toward? Or from?

My hair is sweaty, too; it lies on my brow in an unpleasantly heavy clump. I raise my hand to brush it away and see there is a shallow cut, fairly recent, running across the back, just beyond the knuckles. Sometimes this cut is on my right hand, sometimes it's on the left. I think, If this is a dream, the details are good. Always that same thought: If this is a dream, the details are good. It's the absolute truth. They are a novelist's details . . . but in dreams, perhaps everyone is a novelist. How is one to know?

Now Sara Laughs is only a dark hulk down below, and I realize I don't want to go down there, anyway. I am a man who has trained his mind to misbehave, and I can imagine too many things waiting for me inside. A rabid raccoon crouched in a corner of the kitchen. Bats in the bath-room ¡ª if disturbed they'll crowd the air around my cringing face, squeaking and fluttering against my cheeks with their dusty wings. Even one of William Denbrough's famous Creatures from Beyond the Universe, now hiding under the porch and watching me approach with glittering, pus-rimmed eyes.

'Well, I can't stay up here,' I say, but my legs won't move, and it seems I will be staying up here, where the driveway meets the lane; that I will be staying up here, like it or not. Now the rustling in the woods behind me sounds not like small animals (most of them would by then be nested or burrowed for the night, anyway) but approaching footsteps. I try to turn and see, but I can't even do that . . .

. . . and that was where I usually woke up. The first thing I always did was to turn over, establishing my return to reality by demonstrating to myself that my body would once more obey my mind. Sometimes ¡ª most times, actually ¡ª I would find myself thinking Manderley, I have dreamt again of Manderley. There was something creepy about this (there's something creepy about any repeating dream, I think, about knowing your subconscious is digging obsessively at some object that won't be dislodged), but I would be lying if I didn't add that some part of me enjoyed the breathless summer calm in which the dream always wrapped me, and that part also enjoyed the sadness and foreboding I felt when I awoke. There was an exotic strangeness to the dream that was missing from my waking life, now that the road leading out of my imagination was so effectively blocked.

The only time I remember being really frightened (and I must tell I don't completely trust any of these memories, because for so long they didn't seem to exist at all) was when I awoke one night speaking clearly into the dark of my bedroom: 'Something's behind me, don't let it get me, something in the woods, please don't let it get me.' wasn't the words themselves that frightened me so much as the tone in which they were spoken. It was the voice of a man on the raw edge of panic, and hardly seemed like my own voice at all.

Two days before Christmas of 1997, I once more drove down to Fidelity where once more the bank manager escorted me to my safe-box in the fluorescent-lit catacombs. As we walked down the stairs he assured me (for the dozenth time, at least) that his wife was a huge fan of my work, she'd read all my books, couldn't get enough. For the dozenth time (at least) I replied that now I must get him in my clutches. He responded with his usual chuckle. I thought of this oft-repeated exchange as Banker's Communion.

Mr. Quinlan inserted his key in Slot A and turned it. Then, as discreetly as a pimp who has conveyed a customer to a whore's crib, he left. I inserted my own key in Slot B, turned it, and opened the drawer. It very vast now. The one remaining manuscript box seemed almost to quail in the far corner, like an abandoned puppy who somehow knows his sibs have been taken off and gassed. Promise was scrawled across the top in fat black letters. I could barely remember what the goddam story was about.

I snatched that time-traveller from the eighties and slammed the box shut. Nothing left in there now but dust. Give me that, Jo had hissed in my dream ¡ª it was the first time I'd thought of that one in years. Give me that, it's my dust-catcher.

Mr Quinlan, I'm finished,' I called. My voice sounded rough and unsteady to my own ears, but Quinlan seemed to sense nothing wrong . . . or perhaps he was just being discreet. I can't have been the only customer after all, who found his or her visits to this financial version of Forest Lawn emotionally distressful.

'I'm really going to read one of your books,' he said, dropping an involuntary little glance at the box I was holding (I suppose I could have brought a briefcase to put it in, but on those expeditions I never did). 'In fact, I think I'll put it on my list of New Year's resolutions.'

'You do that,' I said. 'You just do that, Mr. Quinlan.'

'Mark,' he said. 'Please.' He'd said this before, too.

I had composed two letters, which I slipped into the manuscript box before setting out for Federal Express. Both had been written on my computer, which my body would let me use as long as I chose the Note Pad function. It was only opening Word Six that caused the storms to start. I never tried to compose a novel using the Note Pad function, understanding that if I did, I'd likely lose that option, too . . . not to mention my ability to play Scrabble and do crosswords on the machine. I had tried a couple of times to compose longhand, with spectacular lack of success. The problem wasn't what I had once heard described as 'screen shyness'; I had proved that to myself.

One of the notes was to Harold, the other to Debra Weinstock, and both said pretty much the same thing: here's the new book, Helen's Promise, hope you like it as much as I do, if it seems a little rough it's because I had to work a lot of extra hours to finish it this soon, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Erin Go Bragh, trick or treat, hope someone gives you a fucking pony.

I stood for almost an hour in a line of shuffling, bitter-eyed late mailers (Christmas is such a carefree, low-pressure time ¡ª that's one of the things I love about it), with Helen's Promise under my left arm and a paperback copy of Nelson DeMille's The Charm School in my right hand.

I read almost fifty pages before entrusting my final unpublished novel to a harried-looking clerk. When I wished her a Merry Christmas she shuddered and said nothing.

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