Ghostwriter, Chapter One
By Lissa Bryan
Published by The Writer's Coffee Shop
It wasn’t getting any easier.
Sara sat transfixed, staring at the white screen before her with the flashing cursor over on the left margin of the blank page.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
She shoved her hands into her hair and gave a groan of frustration. Writing a biography shouldn’t be so hard, damn it!
Sara pushed her chair back, went into the kitchen, and found herself doing the same sort of staring at the paltry contents of the refrigerator. She noted her problem was similar: Just like she couldn’t make a meal out of scraps, neither could she make a glowing biography out of the sparse details she’d been given.
Sara was about to give up all hope when she noticed there was a jar of pickles in the back. She opened it and fished out the contents: two limp dill pickle spears of indeterminate age. They could have dated from the time Richard still lived here, though she didn’t remember buying them. Sara wasn’t particularly fond of pickles, but they were just about the last edible thing she had. The rest of the refrigerator’s contents were mainly comprised of desiccated takeout leftovers waiting for trash disposal day, and a permanent colony of rarely used condiments in the refrigerator door.
Sara checked her wallet again, as though the Money Fairy might have made a deposit overnight, or she might have somehow overlooked a wad of cash in the corner. She found only the eleven cents it had contained yesterday. She wouldn’t be able to make it to the end of the month with only ketchup in the refrigerator, but she couldn’t keep breaking into her emergency fund. Sara had carefully calculated each month’s expenses, down to the last dime, yet she was always running short by the third week of the month. She sometimes felt like she was living in a sitcom because every week a new crisis popped up, and it would end up sapping her dwindling savings.
She had a small advance from the publisher, though her rent would quickly eat through it. Her apartment had been affordable when Richard had paid half the expenses, but Sara simply couldn’t handle it alone now. Tomorrow, she was going apartment hunting again. It was her new weekend occupation. Every place she had found thus far was either too expensive, or was in a questionable location. It felt like an exercise as futile as staring at the blank, white screen.
But Sara didn’t have to go hungry. She could turn to her mother and ask for help. The only drawback was the grocery money would be served with a large helping of humble pie. She could see her mother’s smirk already. She’d told Sara she was going to fail and she was right.
Sara decided on the limp pickle spears.
She put her meager dinner onto a paper towel and went back into the living room. Her computer stood on the card table, the white word processor screen’s glare seeming almost accusatory. For two weeks now, she’d been doing the same thing. In the morning, she would wake energized and determined to pound out a chapter or two, and by midday she’d erase it all. She was the literary version of Sisyphus.
It was ridiculous. In her short and uncelebrated career as a journalist, she’d had many assignments she disliked, yet she’d managed to sit down and grind out the necessary word count, even if she did so while gritting her teeth or rolling her eyes.
She’d been fortunate enough to get a job right out of college as a reporter for the Danvers Times-Recorder, a small newspaper which would never launch her into her dream job at U.S. News and World Report, but it was a paycheck. Many of her fellow students didn’t have one. Newspapers all over the country were shrinking, dying, as news media transformed in the digital age.
And then senator Lucy Bridges came to town in a campaign stop. The story should have been covered by their senior reporter, but he had been in the hospital having a bypass operation and the next in line had been out of town at a wedding. It came down to Sara, the only one available, and though it probably made her boss gnash his teeth, she was the one who went.
She dutifully reported on the rally and Lucy’s speech, then on Lucy’s visit to a local diner where she shook hands and nodded sympathetically to the people who expressed the same concerns she probably heard everywhere she went. The plant had closed and there were no jobs, illness without insurance, fuel prices, foreclosure, and adult children moving back in with their parents—the issues which afflicted average Americans, whom Lucy said were her primary concern. Sara had been granted a twenty minute interview with Lucy herself, though it had been a challenge to come up with interesting questions which weren’t on the extensive list of forbidden topics.
Something about the resultant articles must have impressed either Lucy or her handlers, because the same day Pete Johnson had regretfully informed her they had to “let her go” due to budget cutbacks, she’d gotten a call from Lucy’s media consultant who asked her if she’d like to be the ghostwriter for Lucy’s autobiography. Lucy had grander political aspirations than the incumbent senate seat for which she was now campaigning, and a well-written and laudatory biography would further those ambitions.
Looking down a long and scary vista of unemployment lines and reams of resumes mailed all over the country, Sara had immediately accepted. She could knock it out quickly, she thought, and the money would be enough to tide her over until she found something else. Just what that something else would be, she was not sure, because she had yet to even get a courtesy call of rejection from any of the papers to which she’d sent her resume.
Sara had a foot-thick pile of material given to her by Lucy’s publicity team, which contained about half a page’s worth of biographical information. Lucy was born. Lucy grew up in a perfectly average middle-class family. Lucy went to college and got a degree in business administration. Lucy got married and had two well-behaved and immaculately groomed children. And that was about the sum of it.
There was nothing about how Lucy had developed her political views, no mistakes she’d made, or lessons learned from them. When Sara had called to ask, Lucy had seemed offended by the implication she could make a mistake. Judging by what she’d been given, Lucy had burst into the world full-fledged, like Athena, from the forehead of some political deity, equipped with an endless stream of quips and slogans devoid of any real value other than to ensure her presence on the ten o’clock news.
Sara had to do this. Somehow she had to make an autobiography out of a pile of catchphrases and a thimbleful of vague antecedents, but it was like trying to piece together a cogent policy analysis from campaign commercials. She tried to cheer herself with the thought that if she could create a book from this, it would be proof she could write anything, and it might broaden her career prospects.
She assured herself there had to be a bright side.
Sara woke feeling groggy and grouchy the following morning. She trudged into the bathroom and fumbled in the medicine cabinet for some pain killers. Her head thumped dully, and she told herself she had to give in and buy a new pair of eyeglasses. Her last pair had been broken in the car accident three months ago, and she hadn’t replaced them. Now, she really wished she’d taken the time to get them replaced while she still had health insurance. At the time, she’d been dealing with the recent break up with Richard and was thrust into the role of unwilling moderator in the bickering between her health insurance company and the auto insurance company as to whom should pay what. Getting the glasses replaced had seemed like more trouble than they were worth.
Sara felt marginally better after a hot shower, but after wiping the mirror free of steam, she cringed at her reflection. She was too pale, and with her platinum blonde hair and light blue eyes, she was almost colorless. The dark circles beneath her eyes accentuated her pallor and made her look like she was at death’s door. She had tried covering them with concealer, but she had never been able to find makeup that actually matched her skin tone. It looked fine in the bottle and it might even look okay in the store if she smeared a dab on the inside of her wrist, yet as soon as it was on her face, it turned a horrible orange-beige. Ditto with lipstick. Anything other than the lightest shades looked like clown makeup on her.
She ran a brush through her hair and tied it back into a ponytail. Her hair was baby-fine and had no volume whatsoever. Curling irons could not persuade it, and blow-driers simply insulted it into an indignant frizz. She had the choice between a ponytail or a headband. Anything else incited rebellion.
After she pulled on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, Sara slid her laptop into her canvas tote and then walked down to the apartment complex’s parking lot. She put on her sunglasses before stepping from the building’s shelter. She already had a headache and knew from experience the bright light would make it worse, which is why all of her apartment windows were covered with thick curtains.
Sara’s trusty little Geo Metro waited for her in its assigned parking spot. Richard’s spot sat empty as it had for three months now, except for the occasional bold foray of a space-stealer. The Geo’s air conditioner was broken and it was old enough to feature a tape deck in the stereo, but its gas mileage was incredible and got her around with reasonable reliability. She considered herself fortunate to have gotten such a good car with the little she’d been able to afford after the accident. She’d had the misfortune of being the driver of a new car struck by someone who had state minimum coverage which barely covered the cost of paying off her totaled car, let alone the medical bills from all the tests at the emergency room.
She supposed, in retrospect, she was better off not having the new car any longer. She wouldn’t have been able to afford the payments now, but it had been her first new car and she mourned for it. The way things were going, it would probably be the only new car she ever owned.
Sara slid into the driver’s seat and rolled down the windows to let out the baking heat which had gathered from the morning sun. She propped the newspaper classified section against the steering wheel and read the address from the first circled ad. She’d mapped out the route of her loop around the city this morning, to make it as efficient as possible. Every penny counted.
The first place was a bust. Sara knew it as soon as she drove into the neighborhood. If there was graffiti on the apartment building’s door and trash scattered in the vestibule, it was best to move on. Her second stop of the day was at a real estate agent’s office which was handling the applications and showings for cost-efficient apartments.
When she pulled up in front of the building, Sara checked the paper again to make sure she had the right place. It was a sleek, ultra-modern structure of chrome and glass and the lobby looked like a movie set, with leather furniture and glass tables without a speck of dust in sight.
An unoccupied wide, semi-circular reception desk with a burnished metal front stood sentinel in front of a dark wood wall with silver letters, which spelled out the words Fortner and Associates Realty. The name would be easy to remember, as it was the same as Sara’s favorite author. The wall was flanked on either side by doorways, but going around the desk to peek into the back offices seemed rude.
Sara waited for a few minutes and then took a seat in one of the leather chairs lining the wall. There was a small glass table between them with a real estate magazine on top. She entertained herself by looking at the houses she’d never be able to afford. The Fortner logo was under several of the listings for multi-million dollar properties. She was really surprised a place like this would be managing efficiency apartments.
“May I help you?”
Sara looked up at the woman who stood in one of the doorways. She was in her late twenties, maybe early thirties. She wore a sharp gray suit and her dark hair was swept up into a French twist, not a strand out of place. Sara was suddenly very self-conscious about her jeans and T-shirt. She fumbled with the newspaper. “I’m here to see . . . um . . . Valarie.”
“Valarie isn’t here today.” The woman was eyeing her with an odd, appraising look that made Sara squirm in her seat. Her eyes were dark brown, like her neatly coifed hair, and they seemed to bore into Sara, seeing more than the surface.
“Okay. I’ll come back.” Sara stood and retrieved her canvas tote bag from under the chair where she’d stashed it.
“Maybe I can help you.” The woman transferred her files to her other arm and held out her hand. Her smile was warm and friendly.
Sara wondered if she’d misinterpreted her look of appraisal. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d misread expressions and drawn erroneous conclusions.
“I’m Virginia Fortner. Call me Ginny.”
“Nice to meet you, Sara. Did you have an appointment with Valarie?”
“No, I saw her listing for the apartment on Saint Charles Avenue and I was hoping to see it.”
“I’ll be happy to take you over there,” Ginny offered.
The owner of the company taking me to look over a studio apartment? “Oh, no. It’s okay. I can come back.”
“Nonsense. I’m not busy. Let’s go. Do you want to take my car?”
She should probably volunteer to drive, but Sara inwardly cringed at the thought of Ginny climbing into her crummy little Geo in her elegant gray suit and black stilettos. Her outfit probably cost more than Sara had paid for the car. “Sure,” she said.
Ginny drove a sleek, black Lexus, and Sara tried not to stare. She slid into the passenger seat after Ginny unlocked it. It smelled like new car and leather; it smelled like money.
“So, are you in college?” Ginny asked, backing out of her parking space.
It was an easy assumption to make, given her canvas tote bag and casual attire. “No, two years out, actually.”
“Oh? What do you do?”
“I’m a journalist.”
“Ooh, that sounds like a fun job.”
“Yeah, I thought so, too,” Sara said, her tone wry.
Ginny laughed. “Where do you work?”
“I’m sort of . . . working on freelance projects right now.” Sara felt heat suffuse her cheeks. She decided to be honest. “I’m looking to downsize, actually. I can’t afford where I’m living anymore.” Though the deposits she would have to pay on a new apartment would eat a large hole in her savings, it would be better in the long run.
“It’s rough out there,” Ginny said sympathetically. “Are you from around here?”
“No, I grew up in New Jersey and went to college in Ohio. They have an excellent journalism program.” Fat lot of good it had done her. She might as well have stayed home and attended community college. No one seemed to care her degree came from one of the best journalism schools in the United States.
“And now you’re in North Carolina. You must miss your family.”
“It’s just my mom, actually. I don’t have any other family.” Her mother came from a long line of single children and her father’s family had never been in the picture.
“Wow, that must have sucked at Christmas time when you were a kid.”
“Yeah, kind of.” When she was younger, there had been a time when she’d dreamed about having a large, loving, noisy, eccentric family like those she saw on television during the holidays. But honestly, she probably liked the idea of it more than she would have liked the reality.
Ginny pulled up in front of a beige, nondescript brick building. “Here we are,” she said cheerfully.
A sign located in the tiny lobby regretted to inform them the elevator was out of order, a situation which appeared to have persisted for some time if the weather-beaten look of the sign was any indication. Ginny took the stairs energetically. Sara trudged up them slowly behind her. A strange dreamlike feeling descended over her and she had to pause on the landing to fight off a wave of dizziness.
“Sara! Are you okay?” Ginny hurried back down the stairs and gripped Sara’s arm to keep her from tumbling backward.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You’re as white as a sheet! Did you skip breakfast?”
“Yeah.” She hadn’t had anything since the pickle spears the previous night.
“Here, sit down and rest for a minute.” Ginny carefully held onto Sara until she was safely seated on one of the treads.
“Don’t be. Listen, why don’t we go get some lunch after this?”
“I can’t.” Sara couldn’t afford it. Her ashen cheeks bloomed with blotchy red patches.
“Why not? Come on, my treat.”
Sara hesitated, but only for a moment. “All right.” It could be fun. She had never spent any time around someone sophisticated and wealthy like Ginny. As embarrassing as it was to admit, she had assumed Ginny would fit the stereotype of snobby, wealthy, fashionable women who judged others by their shoe brands. Taking several deep breaths, Sara’s head cleared and she pushed herself to her feet. “I’m better now.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Let’s go look at the apartment.”
Ginny led her up the last few stairs and unlocked the door. Sara stepped inside and peered around.
The apartment was so tiny it could have fit into Sara’s current living room, but she didn’t need much space, she reasoned. Just enough room for her bed and computer. It smelled of fresh paint and carpet shampoo.
“It’s a pretty quiet neighborhood,” Ginny said. “Good amount of closet space for such a small apartment. What do you think?”
Sara felt relieved to have found something suitable at last. “I’ll take it.”
“We’ll fill out the papers once we get back to the office, okay? Now, let’s go get something to eat. I’m starving.”
Through the quiet drive, Sara had been worried Ginny might take her someplace upscale where she’d feel even more uncomfortable in her casual clothes, but Ginny suggested a quaint little diner down at the beach. Sara could see the ocean through the window beside their booth. She gazed at it for a few moments while Ginny debated between her favorites.
Sara had always found something soothing about the ocean. Her childhood home in New Jersey had been only about half a mile from the shore. She used to take the bus there and sit atop the dunes, staring out at the sea. At the time, she’d lacked the vocabulary to articulate how its eternal nature comforted her so. Storms would come and go, kingdoms would rise and fall, and the monuments of man would crumble to dust, but the tides would always continue their precise rhythm. The waves would still lap the shore, no matter what shape it took.
Across the road from the diner, a mesmerizing scene of sand dunes covered in long seagrass dancing in the breeze caught Sara’s attention. Reluctantly, she pulled her attention back to her companion when she heard her name.
Ginny’s appraising look was back. “Do you have your heart set on living inside the city?”
“Not really.” It wasn’t as though she had to commute.
“My family has a place they’ve been trying to rent for a while, but it’s in a remote location. It’s on its own little island along the Outer Banks.”
“Really? Those places cost a fortune!”
“Not this one,” Ginny said. “Too far out. We don’t even get many vacationers because it’s only reachable by boat, not exactly convenient for shopping or nightclubbing.”
It sounded wonderful to Sara. Privacy. Silence. Though she doubted it would be in her price range. Ginny’s idea of “expensive” probably varied greatly from Sara’s. “How much?”
Ginny named a figure so low, Sara’s eyes bulged. It was even less than the little studio apartment.
“As I said, most people aren’t interested because it’s so remote. No telephone, Internet, or cable. It’s solar powered, but if there are a few cloudy days in a row, you might have to fire up the generator.”
That wouldn’t bother Sara. Since Richard had moved out, she hadn’t been able to afford cable or Internet, and had learned to live without them.
“Would you be interested in looking at it?” Ginny asked.
“Sure!” Sara could survive even longer on her savings with the price Ginny had quoted. And the idea of her own little island was appealing.
The waitress brought them their requested drinks and Ginny thanked her with a smile. Another point in her favor. Sara hated when people treated servers with indifference, or worse, imperiously. Her mother, for instance, never deigned to thank a server for bringing her something, and never spoke to them unless to issue another demand—never a request—or to complain when something was not up to her standards of culinary perfection. It had always embarrassed Sara, who often slipped back to the table and tipped extra, trying to make up for it.
“So, how long have you been here in Danvers?” Ginny asked.
“Two years,” Sara replied, tearing the paper from her straw.
“Since right out of college, then?”
Sara was surprised Ginny remembered. “Yeah. It was my first job after graduation.” She gave a small grimace. “I probably won’t be able to stay here though, because it’s highly likely I’ll have to move to get a new job.”
“It must be hard, having to make friends all over again every time you move,” Ginny said sympathetically.
“Well, I . . . um . . .” Sara mumbled. “I’m sort of a loner.”
Ginny seemed pleased by her response. Sara supposed she must be worried about her family’s house getting torn up by numerous guests, wild parties, and the like. Sara could certainly put her mind at ease in that respect. “I don’t expect to have a lot of visitors. Maybe my mom. But that’s about it.”
“You don’t have a boyfriend?” Ginny asked, as if it were the oddest thing she’d ever heard.
“I did, until a couple of months ago.” Sara poked her straw around in the ice floating at the top of her Coke.
Ginny’s expression turned to one of sympathy. “What happened?”
“He said we needed to spend some time apart to evaluate where we wanted to go with our relationship.”
“Last I heard, they were engaged.”
Ginny winced. “Ouch. That was fast.”
The waitress came to take their orders. Still stuck on the “rich girl” stereotype, Sara was surprised when Ginny ordered a cheeseburger and fries. She would have expected Ginny to order a salad or something. Sara asked for the same.
“You won’t be sorry,” Ginny told her. “Their burgers are awesome. But they’re also enormous.”
“You’ve kept the conversation on me,” Sara said. “What about you? How did you get into real estate?”
“Family business,” Ginny shrugged. “My cousin owns the apartment building you were interested in.”
“Oh, I see.” Things started to make sense. That certainly explained why Ginny’s well-heeled agency would be dealing with apartment rentals. “If you don’t mind me saying so, it seems like it’s been rather . . . lucrative.”
Now, it was Ginny’s turn to poke her straw around in her drink. “My family has money.” She didn’t seem particularly happy about that fact, and her next words confirmed it. “It’s a curse.”
Sara, who had grown up in a one-income household where every penny counted, had often fantasized about being rich, as many people do. She honestly didn’t understand how being well-off could be a burden to the point of calling it a curse. The writer in her was immediately curious, and in the back of her mind, she began to weave a story about a cursed fortune—maybe a pirate’s treasure or blood diamonds—but the compassionate side of her decided not to pry. It looked like it was an unpleasant topic of conversation for Ginny.
The waitress returned to their table with oval-shaped plates bearing giant hamburgers and a pile of fries roughly the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. Sara’s eyes widened.
“Yeah, they load you up,” Ginny chuckled. “I always end up with a doggie bag.”
Sara decided to eat the fries and save the burger. The latter could be warmed up again, and it looked like it might make two, or even three meals. There were more than enough fries to stuff her stomach to the point where she wouldn’t be hungry for supper tonight. She began munching contentedly. She had something to eat for the rest of the weekend, thanks to the leftovers, and the prospect of an inexpensive house on her very own island. Things were finally starting to look up.