Jeff stood over the grill, basting sauce on skewers of chicken. Stuart exited the house, groaning as he stretched.
“Smells good,” he said.
“Thanks,” Jeff replied, and he heard Stuart grunt behind him. When he turned, the writer was laid out on the table, eyes closed, sun on his face.
“Is it must me, or is it getting hotter in there?” Stuart asked him, lips barely moving.
“Yeah, we're not getting much wind anymore.” The grill hissed and spat like a feral cat as the sauce dripped onto the heating element.
“I think we got a fan around here somewhere. Remind me to look for it after we eat, yeah?”
“Sure.” Jeff killed the burners on the grill and rotated the skewers. “I'll be right back,” he said. He went to the kitchen, grabbed two plates and dished out some of the pilaf that had been warming on the stove. He poured two glasses of lemonade, put napkins and forks in his pocket, and managed to get the whole mess outside.
“Here we go,” he said, as he came back out onto the porch. Stuart took this as his cue to get off the table, so he rolled onto a bench.
“Feed me!” he cried.
Jeff placed the plates and then served the chicken. Stuart burned his fingers in his hurry to sample the grilled meat. Jeff just shook his head. They had managed to return to June's equilibrium, making time for writing and for not writing.
“I'm finally caught up after the time I took off from editing over the holiday,” Stuart said, around a mouth full of food. When he looked up, he saw the expectant expression on Jeff's face. He swallowed. “Ah, shit,” he said. “What's tonight's question, quizmaster?”
“Who is the favorite character you created?”
Stuart made a couple of faces and drank some lemonade. “Jesus. Well, this may not be the answer you're after, but character that makes me the happiest is Rast Harker.”
Stuart nodded. “Are you still ripping through all my books?”
“Which one are you on now?”
“Well, Harker is in Victim. I'm sure you'll remember him when you get there. He's a lawyer who serves Wilcox with a lawsuit and—“
“Oh, that guy!”
“That guy. Everyone remembers him, even though no one remember his fuckin' name. I created him on a whim, he's just an excuse to move the story forward, to be honest, but I figured if I was going to be so cheap as to create a human plot device, then I should make him interesting. He's in the book just enough to raise about a hundred more questions than he answers, and I implied that he knows stuff about Wilcox and his history. It was a lot of fun. I get people asking me about him all the time, who he is, what he meant, all that. Truth is, what you see is all there was, I just dropped a bunch of hints for things I never intended to explore.” He gave his fierce grin. “I love being a bastard sometimes.”
“Now that you've got me thinking about it, I really liked Eria, too.”
“The voodoo priestess?”
“Mmm-hmm. I don't create a lot of love interests for Wilcox. One, 'cause he's just not that kinda guy, but two, because I hate reading novels, especially mystery novels, where the hero,” he snorted, “Okay, bad term, protagonist, main character, whatever the hell, I don't like reading books where the main character is a cocksman. It bugs me. So Wilcox usually runs solo.
“But with Eria, I did something very intentional. I created her to kill her off. Often I kill characters off because when I get to the moment it seems like the right thing to do for the story, or the right thing for the character. Sometimes it just happens. With her, I built her from the ground up just to bump her off. It was really satisfying. I created this person and this relationship that really worked, one of the most genuinely interpersonal relationships this guy has ever had, and then she dies. It must be like being a set designer for plays or movies, everything you create is temporary, you put all this work into something knowing that when it's finished, you're just going to take it apart again.”
“Yeah, that was brutal.”
“Cause...shit, I guess because the poor bastard was happy for a few chapters. You really are a son of a bitch, aren't you?”
“Guilty. And the worst part was, since I knew that's what was going to happen, I built her to be someone that my readers would really like and identify with.”
“Just so you could killer her.”
“In the most brutal way I could think of, too, of course.”
“And it worked.”
“Goddamn right. I get people coming up to me all the time telling me how much they liked her and how painful it was when she died. And I deserve it, for sure, but it was worth it. I don't usually get the chance to get under people's skin like that. Well, I get under their skin all the time, I suppose, just, you know, not emotionally.”
“You did that in your first book, too.”
“You think? I suppose. It seems like less of a victory to create a character that people care about when he's dying of cancer instead of someone who practices human sacrifice.”
“Good point. God, I hope I can do that some day.”
“What, break people's hearts?”
“Create someone or something that makes people respond that strongly.”
“Even if it makes them hate you?”
“Better than nothing, right?
“And don't you forget it. It's better to be loathed than forgotten, despised than neglected. Ask Roman Polanski.”
Jeff narrowed his eyes. “Ouch.”
“I'm just saying.”
“Why are artists so fucked up?,” Jeff asked.
“Aren't you an artist?”
Jeff shrugged. “I guess.”
“Then you fucking tell me!”
“Yeah, well, lots of people will give you excuses, but I don't know either. We're different, so no one understands us. Shit, most of us don't even understand ourselves. Maybe we produce art because we're skewed, because we can't see things the way everyone else does, which means that we're broken, that, by a conventional definition of normal, that there is something wrong with us.
“And then maybe you add fame or fortune or reward to the fact that we're broken, that on a basic level we're effectively being supported for being fucked up, and then the public is surprised to find out that we kill puppies, or eat people, or collect kiddie porn, or beat our wives. Of course we do. There's something inherently fucking wrong with us!”
“What's inherently wrong with you?”
“What's inherently wrong with you?”
Jeff opened his mouth to say 'Nothing,' and then paused.
“Gotta be something, kid.”
“I think too much.”
“That'll do it.”
“Like, the other day I...” Jeff stopped himself.
“There's this homeless guy in Danny's Dime. I wanted to make him pathetic, but have you sympathize with him and I decided he's one of those people who is homeless because he was released from a mental hospital. And he was being treated because he's a pedophile. And I started to think about...”
“What that must be like.”
“What did you come up with?”
“Well, I realized that a guy like that, unless he's a sociopath, would be completely conflicted. He's attracted, just like I am to, say, a supermodel, to little kids. I didn't wanna get into a psychological thing, so I just said he couldn't help it. That's who he is, the way he is.”
“And then...I tried to think like he would. Like, how would I flirt with kids? How I would get their attention, gain their trust. And I thought about what I would find attractive about them.”
“Sounds like it scared you.”
“It fucked me up.”
“Good. Just because you can do it, doesn't mean it should be easy for you. Or easy on you. Psychologists do it, too. You can even enjoy it, you know, checking out the other side of things. Christ only knows what I'd have gotten into if I didn't have my writing for exorcising that shit. That's exorcising with an O, mind you.”
“Yeah, I caught that.”
Stuart burped. “Good chicken, kid. The book is calling.”
“Hey, wait. What about you?”
“What about me?” Stuart was standing now, looking down at him.
“What's wrong with you?”
“Kid you've been living here for more than a month. If there's an answer to that, you know it as well as I do.”