It was the end of the world.
Or at least one would have thought so, judging by the absurd number of missed messages I had from my boss when I walked in my apartment door. Setting my keys down on the counter, I scrolled through the myriad texts. The more recent ones had a definite sense of urgency and even panic. Another notification popped up letting me know I had several voicemails. I checked my missed calls and, naturally, they were all from Eugene, as well. It figured, the one time I forgot my phone at home while running errands was the one night all hell broke loose at work.
I sat down on my couch with a weary sigh. I briefly wrestled with calling the boss back, but decided to wait. It was probably nothing. After all, Eugene cried wolf several times a month whenever deadlines were due, as if I had ever failed to get an article in on time. But since the project was due tomorrow, I supposed it was time to get started on it. Like a champ.
The phone began to buzz. I answered, not bothering to even look at the caller ID. I had a pretty good guess as to who was calling. “Hello, Eugene.”
“Johnny, thank goodness. Where the ‘H’ have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you for hours! Didn’t you get any of my messages?”
“Nope, not a one. I’ve been having issues with my phone lately.” That’s it, Johnny. Plausible deniability by way of unreliable technology. I had learned the hard way that it was easier to blame my phone or computer or internet for not being able to be reached than it was to waste time assuaging Eugene’s anxieties for the umpteenth time. That latter option ended up turning five minute work updates into hour long therapy sessions, and I wasn’t being paid to be my boss’s budget psychiatrist.
“Cheese and crackers, Johnny, with the way your phone has been acting lately maybe you should get a new one?”
I considered a few smartass responses to this, but something in his voice told me this may not be the best option. It was more cracked and higher pitched than it normally was. “Maybe I should. What’s going on, Eugene? I can practically feel you sweating through the phone.”
“Oh, Johnny, you know how it is.” There was a loud electronic hiss, the sound of a heavy huff of breath from the other end. “The separation isn’t going well, and Gregory is trying to bully me into giving him part of the website again.”
I, in fact, didn’t know how it was. I had never been married, therefore had no idea how separations were supposed to go. And as far as Gregory goes, I assumed this was Eugene’s husband from the context, but I couldn’t recall much about him from previous conversations. The details of who ran the website didn’t bother me, as long as I still got paid. But I had to move the conversation along now or he’d talk himself into a circle and we’d be here for ages. “Ah dang, I’m sorry to hear it, boss. I assume you’re calling me specifically because tomorrow is…” I purposely trailed off, hoping the prompt would force Eugene’s mindset back to business.
“The due date. Yes, yes. Please tell me you have the article finished and ready to go.”
I thought of the empty document page I would be staring at whenever I got around to booting up my computer as I answered, “You betcha.”
“Oh, that’s great! Can you send it now?” There was no mistaking the relief in his voice.
“Well, Eugene, you know I take pride in my work.”
A pause. “Yeah?”
“And we go through this with every deadline.”
A sigh. “Yeah…”
“I always turn it in the morning of, so I can spend a final evening going over it for grammar and spelling mistakes, factual errors, the whole gamut. And have I ever let you down?”
“No, of course not.”
“Exactly.” This was getting old. I wondered briefly if Gregory would be this overbearing as a boss. “So, if it’s okay, I’d like to jump off here and do some proofreading, alright?”
“Yes, please do. And if you can get it to me tonight, that would be a load off my mind, Johnny.”
That definitely wouldn’t be happening. “I’ll see what I can do. You’ve got to stop worrying so much about this stuff. You’re gonna kill yourself.”
There was a nervous laugh from the other end. “You’re right. It’s just that Gregory is just waiting for me to make a mistake, and—“
Here we go again. “Alrighty. Goodbye, Eugene.” I hit the disconnect button, knowing the delay would awkwardly cut the boss off in the middle of his sentence.
“–none of the other staff have submitted—“
I tossed the phone onto the cushion and made my way over my work desk to ponder over what my latest piece of nonsense would be. I flipped open my notebook and thumbed through page after page of indecipherable hieroglyphics I called handwriting, attempting to find an idea that I hadn’t yet written about. It wasn’t like I could go out and scoop breaking news, interview a celebrity, review a new car, or critique a new film. I had to write about hauntings, demonic possessions, poltergeistic occurrences, and other things that went bump in the night. The problem was, all of that had already been written about. It was a frustrating and unique problem in my line of work. I mean sure, there were always new stories of people coming forward with new spooky sightings, but it always ended up being the same story. Same creaking footsteps upstairs. Same doors slamming shut. Same stigmata on hands and feet. Whether these people were lying, delusional, or actual victims of supernatural zaniness, there was simply no imagination to it anymore.
I shut the notebook and stared at the blank white screen, waiting for inspiration. The living room clock tick-tocked monotonously. I cracked my knuckles and primed my fingers above the keyboard. Tick-tock. A cricket chirped outside my window. My eyes were riveted to the screen as I worked. Tick-tock. Some passerby in the hallway outside my door cleared their throat loudly. I felt like I had been at this for hours. Tick-tock. The sun rose in the sky, then began to set. Tick-tock. I stood up, walked calmly over to the clock, and firmly removed its batteries. No more tick-tock. I had had enough tick-tock.
“You seem bored, Johnny,” an oily little voice drawled from beside my ear.
“I am,” I said, noticing the tiny version of me dressed up like the devil and lounging on my shoulder. “What’s it to ya?”
“Oh, nothing. You’re not getting much work done, are you?”
“What are you talking about? I spent all day—“ My eyes caught sight of blank document on the computer screen. I had apparently wasted a whole day brainstorming. “Huh.”
“You’ve still got time to finish, you know.”
“Of course, I do.”
“But you can’t force inspiration.”
He had a point but I could tell when I was being led. Curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to see where I was being led to. “I’m listening.”
“Look,” he waved a hand, “just go out and get a burger. Call up a friend, whatever. Just take a break.”
I did need a break. But I knew me pretty well, and if I kept putting off the article there was a fair chance that it wouldn’t be done. Or even started. Truth be told, I struggled a bit with procrastination, but I also did my best work under looming deadlines.
“If you wait a bit more to write, you know it’ll be better.” It was like he could read my mind.
“Just here me out—“ The little devil-me broke off as he realized what I had said. “What, just like that?”
“I gotta admit, Johnny, I wasn’t expecting this to be so easy.” He frowned. “I had a whole manipulative spiel thought up and everything. Set aside the whole evening, ya know. Just in case.”
I spread my hands. “I don’t know what to tell you.” If I hadn’t had the inclination to coddle Eugene earlier, I certainly didn’t have it now to buck up a crestfallen figment of my imagination. I picked up the devil-me and traded him for the keys on my counter.
Devil-Me squared his shoulders and rallied magnificently. “Good. Great, even.” He clapped his hands together. “Okay! We’ll have a night on the town. You’ll be there. I’ll be there. And lordy knows what sorts of mischief we’ll get into.”
I headed for the door. “Right, well if you’re coming along then do what you gotta do.”
“Ah, of course!”
I glanced back at the now empty counter, and wondered if the pressure was getting to me. Maybe I really did need a night out to blow off some steam. The article could wait.