“You are a man of exceptional talents,” the woman said as she sat across from me at the small round table by the window. I had just started on Ray Nelson’s Eight O’clock in the Morning with a hot cup of coffee in hand when she pulled up the chair and started to speak. She was cute in a strange sort of way that wouldn’t normally have drawn my attention. She was slender and pale with long red hair and an almost uniform pattern of freckles that climbed from her fingertips up her arms and along her delicate neck. Her face was long and elegant, curved and angled in a way that hid her age flawlessly. She might have been seventeen. She might have been pushing forty. There was no way to tell looking at her head long. Her cheeks were high, lips ruby and her eyes were the most hypnotic blue I’d ever seen hidden behind strawberry blonde bangs. I lay my tablet on the table beside my coffee and stared curiously at her.
“Do we know each other,” I asked.
“Well, I certainly know you,” she said in a girlish, lilting tone as she crossed one slim leg over the other. Her skirt was black, pencil cut and tight on her hips. Her blouse was red, equally tight though far more distracting. “After today I’m certain you’ll know me just as well.”
I looked around the coffee shop. Was I on some hidden camera show? Was this some sort of undercover barista prostitution sting? Maybe she genuinely had me confused for someone else?
“Sorry. I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”
“You have an exceptional talent, David,” she continued. “Few share your gift for the written word. I’ve read all your plays and I think they’re really quite good.”
Now she had my undivided attention.
“That’s impressive since I’ve never published any of my plays,” I said, skeptically. “All that’s out there are a few shorts on some websites and ‘zines. How could you have read any of my plays?”
“My name is Mara,” she said in her most dulcet, sweetest voice.”And so we’re clear, I know everything about you. I know where you grew up and the name of that golden retriever puppy that died on you when you were nine. I know about the fantasies you had about your eighth grade teacher Miss Lassiter and that you lost your virginity in the back of a ’93 Camry with Charlotte Sanders. I know your hopes and fears, your dreams and aspirations and all those things you ponder alone at night in the single bed in your loft apartment where you thought you’d be a happy artist working at his trade. When I find someone as exceptionally talented as you, I make it a point to learn everything I can about them.”
“You keep using that word, ‘exceptional’ but you claim to be reading my work? Skipping past all the creepy stalker stuff you just spouted out, I’m still a bit concerned you’ve got the wrong guy. I mean, who are you? Am I in trouble for something?”
She laughed. It was the demure chuckle of a Southern Belle that put my nerves suddenly at ease.
“I’m a friend come to help you in your craft,” she said. “Consider me a muse, a guide post on your journey to literary greatness. You have the potential to sway millions with your words. I’m just here to make sure they’re swayed in the proper direction.
She reached across the table and slid her hand in mine. Her skin was cold and clammy, the touch of a corpse. I was paralyzed by the motion.
“I don’t understand,” I said. Or maybe I thought it? I couldn’t move my lips any more.
“Of course you don’t. Let me try to explain. My associates and I have been here quite a long time living among the bohemians and the scholars and anyone who has the potential to influence minds. You people are incredibly gifted with these resilient minds full of creativity and imagination and independence. You seem driven by some unknown force to make this art that changes lives and transforms your world again and again. Frankly, you’re a dangerous breed and could plunge the entire universe into chaos if not regulated and controlled properly. That’s where I come in. Generals and politicians can only do so much damage but poets and musicians… oh, you’re the most dangerous of all. One song can unify a faction. A story can become a dogmatic tool to steer an entire race. Such power has to be harnessed for the right cause.”
“And what would that cause be?”
My body was freezing now. It felt like I was standing naked in a blizzard. My teeth were chattering as my fingers slowly turned blue.
“Control, silly boy,” she answered sweetly. “It’s all about control. Mankind has to remain docile, blissfully unaware of the race’s true potential. You remain content on this tiny little globe, squabbling over land and resources and petty tribal gods. Your leaders and governments and religions all remain confident that their rule is absolute and their will is done. And, as reward for your continued docility we permit you to dream and play at your imaginative endeavors until the time comes that you’re ready to join the larger community.”
“And the ones that employ you,” I asked, shivering. “What do they give you in return?”
“Aside from peace on a galactic scale,” she asked, seemingly amused by the exchange. “We stay well fed. We aren’t like you. We thrive on psychic energies, the sort your race emits from its passions and fears. Your constant struggle for supremacy over one ideology or another creates a smorgasbord for my kind and you, David, will be an artisan chef with the right instruction.”
“And if I refuse?”
“To what end? You’ll continue to exist as an impoverished playwright bouncing from one dead end job to another until you die in anonymity. Hardly a fitting life for someone so exceptionally gifted. Do what I say and your work will echo through the ages. The stage will forever remember your name.”
“I could tell the world about you. I could expose you for what you are.”
Her eyes were suddenly white, that milky shade of a dead man’s stare looking up from his deathbed. Pins and needles pricked and tingled inside my brain. Slowly, the inside of my skull was baking even as the rest of my body began to freeze.
“It would be a waste,” she said. Something was different about her voice now. It was warbling, echoing unnaturally inside my body and through my every nerve and sinew; a thunderclap that rattled my bones with every syllable. “But there are others to take your place. Your heart would stop. Your brain would hemorrhage. The coroner will rule the death as natural, the result of an aneurysm. He’ll reassure your next of kin that you died immediately, painlessly, but we’ll know the difference. Time will all but stop and seconds will become centuries as you feel your brain cells ripped apart. Do we have an understanding here, David?”
I nodded, trembling.
“Babe, are you okay,” Mara asked, squeezing my hand in hers. I slouched over in my seat then snapped up. My head was throbbing, eyes burning as I looked at the beautiful girl sitting across from me in the coffee shop. “You’ve been working too hard. We should get you home before you catch something.”
“Did I fall asleep,” I asked groggily. “I feel like I had the weirdest dream.”
“You nodded off,” she said, placing a cold hand on my forehead. “And running a fever too. You’ll never shake this cold if you don’t get some sleep.”
She took my hands in hers and helped me from the table and out the front door.
“Your hands are like ice,” she said, blowing warmly on my fingertips. “You’ll never share your gift with cold hands, my exceptional boy.”