The Empty Page
Here are the first few pages from a short story I finished recently, but have not yet even tried to sell. I hope you enjoy this teaser. :]
THE EMPTY PAGE
By Mark J Ferrari
There are countless destinies out there, and as many kinds of people to fulfill them: winners, whiners, shakers and movers, slackers and moochers, skaters, haters, rockers, tweakers, hipsters, boomers, cougars, codgers, pushers, bouncers, runners, and losers of all stripes. The list goes on, and every one of them is in it for something whether they know it or not. Creighton Kolker was a player and a charmer, in it entirely for the moment, or so he would have claimed, had anybody asked.
‘Crate,’ to his revolving flood of friends, was charming his way through a perfunctory A.A. in Business at Chamforde Community College, with a far more passionate minor in after-hours clubbing funded by a storied career waiting tables at The Diamond Den—a trendy, high-end, glass and granite establishment on the shore of Lake Benning. Crate had worked there since high school and was very, very good by now, though he’d have done as well in tips regardless—so long as men were flattered by compliments from those they envied, and women had eyes.
Crate was six foot four inches tall with the face and body of an underwear model, tousled raven hair, liquid, light brown eyes flecked with gold, the wistful gaze and winsome smile of a man who communes with trees, the voice from a luxury car commercial, and a pheromone output that drew girls from adjacent counties—by the shortest route.
Girls were Crate’s one real hobby, and ‘fun’ his one true genius. No one was better at having or being fun than Crate was. In grocery checkout lines, he’d strike up such entertaining conversations that idle clerks soon had to wave and whistle to retrieve anyone’s attention. When it rained, Crate stomped in puddles like a little boy. The grimmer the winter, he figured, the better the skiing. And his favorite time to visit the city zoo was 2AM. No crowds, the rides were free once you learned how to turn them on, and, yes, it was he who set those camels loose late one night last June, just because he couldn’t stand to see them looking so penned up.
Not surprisingly then, Creighton’s destiny found him one evening while he was just out having fun. She was four inches shorter than he was, and as perfectly shaped in her forget-me-not silk dress as Joshua Bell’s violin. Her platinum hair was spun from molten chandeliers, and her green eyes were polished chips of spring itself. She moved through the club with an animal grace that might have inspired any supermodel to join the Peace Corps—permanently.
“Hel-lo, angel,” he whispered in awe as she brushed past him at the bar.
She turned, softly startled. Then she smiled. “Hello, cowboy. What’s your name?”
“Crate,” he said, uncharacteristically self-conscious. “What’s yours?”
“Well—it’s Angel, actually.”
“Oh,” he said, abashed. He’d never been abashed before. “I … had no… I just…”
“It happens,” she assured him. “You’re not here alone, surely.”
“In fact, I am,” he said, not daring to hope that she was too. “You’d be waiting for …?”
“I’m new here,” she said just shyly enough to make Crate’s heart race. “In town, I mean. I don’t know anyone at all, so…” She shrugged. “Gotta start somewhere, right?”
“Well, I know half of everybody here,” he volunteered, swimming in hopeful disbelief. “I could introduce you to the ones worth meeting.”
“That would be wonderful,” she said. “Shall we find a table?”
‘Half of everybody’ found their table, as Crate had known they would, drifting like a stream of pilgrims from the darkness into Angel’s light. As promised, Crate introduced her to each one, inviting them to sit and chat. Happily, few stayed long, perhaps feeling themselves outclassed, so he and Angel had ample time to talk.
She wanted to know everything about him; the happiest memories and worst traumas of his childhood, what pleased him, what frightened him, what aroused his admiration, or his sorrow, his anger, or his hope.
Crate crafted answers with his usual glib wit. Not even a woman of Angel’s beauty and self-possession could disarm Crate’s well-honed skill at conversation for long. But as their rapport intensified, he had to struggle harder for answers that felt adequate.
“So, Crate,” she asked at last, “what’s your wildest, most unlikely ambition?”
“Well … I’m happy like I am, I guess,” he said. “I see all kinds of people working awful hard to have a lot less fun than I do all the time.”
She nodded, seeming charmed. “But life won’t be like this forever. Sooner or later, some challenge will arrive that fun alone just can’t address. What will you do then?”
Crate had never been asked such a thing. “Why fill tonight with borrowed trouble?” he murmured, as much to himself as to her. “There’ll be time to deal with all that when it comes.”
“Will there?” she asked quietly. “You’re such a marvelous man. So undamaged by the world. … Miraculously undamaged. Do you realize how rare that is, Creighton?”
It was the first time she had used his real name. He could not remember using it himself. Had one of their visitors called him that? … One must have, he supposed.
“I hate to think of what might happen,” she went on, “if someone so innocent got around to thinking all that through too late.”
Innocent? Crate thought, amused.
“You’re right, of course,” she said. “Too many people fill the present with trouble that’s long over or still just imagined. But you might want to find a real passion, lovely boy. Something deep and strong enough to outlast this sunny day you’ve been enjoying for so long.”
“A passion, huh?” Crate asked, grinning. “I’m open to suggestions.”
She smiled, but didn’t answer.
“Well, then,” he said, gazing at the ceiling, his face scrunched in comic parody of concentrated thought. “Where do you think I should start looking for this passion?” he asked with all the ‘innocence’ he could manufacture, “your place or mine?”
She stood up, still smiling.
He stood as well.
She leaned in to kiss him on the cheek, and whispered, “You’re a woman’s dream, Crate. But dreams, like fun, last just so long, then fade. Don’t ever change—but do grow up—while there’s still time.” She gave him a smile that said she was charmed by his pass, but leaving nonetheless—alone. He tried not to let her see him wilt as she squeezed his hand. “There is still time, Crate, if you pay attention.” Then she walked away.
You’ve just ruined every other woman in the world for me, Crate thought as he watched her vanish through the thinning crowd. He reached up to touch his cheek. The skin where she had kissed him seemed to burn.
He got home at 3AM, and, in the bathroom mirror, found a red patch—very like a mild burn—right where her lips had left it. What the hell kind of lipstick was she wearing? he wondered, shambling toward his room to fall into his bed alone.
The red mark had faded by morning, but it took weeks to pry Angel from his memory. Women had left him lots of times—when he hadn’t left them first. That had just been part of the cycle, the inevitable passage of seasons. Until now.
He didn’t see her at the club again, and in time quit berating himself for pushing her too hard, too soon. He’d known minutes into their conversation that she had not been there for any one-night stand. He kept clubbing on his nights off, partying with friends and hitting on pretty girls. He still stomped in puddles, and charmed strangers to distraction in checkout lines. But, as if her kiss had poisoned him, his world began to gray and recede—a subtle distance ever widening between himself and all the ‘fun’ he’d once embraced with such effortless abandon.
Then, one night, he was sitting in a cocktail booth with a cute, intelligent brunette he’d lured as effortlessly as ever from the unwanted attentions of some twerp across the room. She and Crate were doing all the usual people-watching and drink-preferences chat—while he made interested eye contact, and she gave him glittery smiles—when, suddenly, a different message began peeking from between her lines in fleeting sad expressions, glances at other couples, and in her tone while mentioning a newly engaged friend. More and more clearly, Crate heard, ‘I’m a wonderful girl with lots to give. Will no one serious ever find me?’
If any of Crate’s previous babes du jour had ever broadcast such a message, he had never noticed, much less taken it to heart. Now he found himself surprisingly unable not to care. Knowing he was not the ‘serious’ man she sought, he began to feel fraudulent, and soon left her with a charming bouquet of ambiguous excuses.
Ten minutes later, sipping a Mojito at the bar, he fell into conversation with another young troller currently between hits—only to have the same thing happen. On the surface, their banter was as hip and superficial as it should have been, but soon, shouting through the gaps, Crate heard, ‘This is all so empty. If I knew where to find someone who really had a life to share, I’d go there in a heartbeat. But where? Online? … Not likely.’
Appalled to find himself assaulted twice by this weird ‘subtext sensitivity,’ Creighton was about to walk away again when he was seized instead by an utterly unfamiliar but fiercely compelling impulse to do something. He knew right where the answer to this guy’s prayer was sitting, and suddenly a movie started playing in his head with precise subtitles, which Crate was amazed to find himself drawn irresistibly to read aloud.
“Hey, this may sound a little weird,” he said, “but could I ask a favor?”
“What?” the guy asked uncertainly.
“See the girl by that booth across the room?” He pointed at the brunette he’d just abandoned, already being harassed again by the dorky frat boy she had fled before.
“The redhead in the purple tube top?”
“No, the dark-haired hottie behind her. I’ve been wanting to meet her all night, but … If I buy her a drink, could you take it over there and tell her it’s from … the man of her dreams, I guess?”
“You want me to take her a drink for you?” the guy asked, skeptically.
“Yeah. Well, sometimes I need a shove into the water.”
“Okay,” the guy replied. “Why not?”
“Thanks. I’m really grateful, dude.”
“No problem. I get a finder’s fee if this works out, right?”
“Already in the mail,” Crate parried amicably.
Now all he had to do was buy the drink. She’d had a Banana Banshee.
As Crate passed the frothy, pastel drink to his secret agent and launched him at the target, one last line reverberated through his head: Fade to black, and exit.
With an almost giddy sense of satisfaction, Crate stood, watched just long enough to be sure his unwitting beneficiary was on course, then left.
Outside, Crate was filled with an elated certainty. His mind’s eye ‘watched’ the young man hand her the drink, say the line, and point back at the now empty bar stool. He imagined the guy’s confused, embarrassed smile as vividly as he saw her charmed blush at this sweet if clumsy ploy. “You’re ‘the man of my dreams,’ then?” Crate could almost hear her ask the baffled fellow. “Could be,” he ‘heard’ him reply, caught so off guard that, for a moment, the young man’s every gesture would be more genuine than any she had ever seen at a club. Crate ‘watched’ her invite him to sit down, ‘saw’ the startled smile on the guy’s face as he accepted – and knew deep in his bones that neither of them would be clubbing for much longer.
“How weird was that?” he murmured, climbing up into his truck with a bemused smile and a pleasant, if puzzling, buzz.
Later, finding no way to make sense of that evening, Creighton did what he had always done so well: shook his head and put it all behind him.
But it kept happening.
Vivid hunches kept enabling him to avert trouble between coworkers at The Diamond Den before anyone else seemed conscious it was even brewing. He met complete strangers—at a burger joint, an auto shop, a drug store parking lot, the campus cafeteria—whose unspoken anxieties or desires suddenly expressed themselves in subtle but weirdly articulate gestures, pauses, choices, glances, tones, and phrases that left him both wanting and able to arrange just the ‘accidental’ interlude or passing observation needed to redirect their attention to some available solution. The part he was to play—down to specific lines, sometimes even zany accents or personas—would present itself to his imagination with diagrammatic clarity, inevitably culminating with the mental phrase, ‘Fade to black, and exit.’ He left each such encounter filled with a euphoric sense of certainty and satisfaction.
For weeks, he told himself it was mere coincidence and lucky guesses. He certainly couldn’t make it happen. The few times he’d been foolish enough to try, he’d just drawn blanks—some of them embarrassing. But each time his hunches bore fruit, he felt more unsettled—and more seduced—until every day seemed filled with half-fearful, half-hopeful expectation about when the next of these small miracles might possess him.
He mentioned none of this to anyone, of course. What could he have said that didn’t sound crazy or embarrassingly self-important? When not blissfully in thrall to these compulsions or the strange, warm conviction that followed them, he felt, at best, uncomfortable about meddling. … Not that he could stop—or really wanted to, deep down …
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