Madolyn Salter was immersed deep within the alternate reality of her imagination. She knew every inch of Bryard Manor. She'd accompanied Sir Francis Bryard into his bedchamber where she witnessed his many conquests. Now she was in the dungeon. She could feel herself chained to that cold stone wall as she experienced the calculated degradation of her protagonist, Cheryse LaMar.
"Yes, I felt the sharpness of the lash against my skin, yet could not help but smile. In his passion, Sir Francis was already becoming careless. He was far too comfortable with his back turned to me. Another moment and I would be able to unleash my fury. Revenge would be complete."
This flow of blood-tinged words was interrupted by the shrill buzz of the oven timer.
"Damn it!" Madolyn shouted, quite audibly, in the empty house. Her vision of Restoration England dissipated. She stood up and straightened the oversized charcoal-gray sweatshirt -- all she was wearing -- so that it reached to mid-thigh. She wondered how she would be able to finish the story by midnight when there were six pizzas to bake for tomorrow's company picnic.
She walked from her office, through the entry hall, and down a short corridor into the kitchen. Donning oven mitts, she carefully removed two fully baked pies. Two down, four to go, she thought. The oven clock showed 11:14. Forty-six minutes and 582 words to go.
Karl Schwartenreiter, publisher of Unholy Moonlight Magazine Online was a well known horror writer. His first published novel, The Soul's Own Poison, was now a movie, and was doing very well as a DVD rental. He was also known as a bit of a crank.
"All manuscripts must be submitted as an attachment in .huh format, using 12pt. Courier New, at precisely twelve midnight, your local time on the deadline date. Please include your name, address, telephone number, social security number, and date and time of birth."
Those were from the submission guidelines, and Madolyn thought she was prepared. She even downloaded the obscure freeware word processor that saved documents in that equally obscure file type. She might have disliked having to give out so much personal information, but UMMO's was a prestigious and paying market. Her query being accepted was an accomplishment.
Yet real life has a way of disrupting the best of plans. It was just a careless slip of the tongue at lunch. "I can make pizzas a lot better than this," Madolyn boasted that afternoon. Within an hour, she was ordered to have six pizzas ready for the next day's festivities.
Had it not been for the shopping and preparations, the story would have been finished with several hours to relax. Yet, ever the perfectionist, she had waded through the supermarket, past aisles of unnecessary temptations, carefully selecting only the freshest-looking peppers and onions, fresh rather than canned mushrooms, and cheeses she'd grate at home, rather than those in dispenser cans.
She walked back to her office, contemplating the right words to get Cheryse out of her predicament. Her concentration was broken by sounds coming from outside.
Her house was large, but on a very tiny property. A nine-acre cemetery occupied the land in back and on both sides. Originally this was the caretaker's residence. Madolyn bought the house after the cemetery was sold to a local chain -- who had their own work crews.
Most of the time, she now was free to spend long evenings focused solely on writing. And looking out at the cemetery on a moonlit night helped her writing. She could imagine legions of the damned dead rising from their graves and establishing their own world order over humanity.
The realities were more mundane. There were the occasional headstone tippings, which the local media always overplayed as something far nastier than a few drunken adolescents being stupid. Still, when viewed logically, graves were very dull things -- in all the time she'd lived there, Madolyn never saw anyone go into or come out of one.
Madolyn looked through an uneven gap in the blinds. In the dim light, she saw what looked like couple goth kids -- in such poor lighting, most teenagers looked goth to her. A boy and a girl were together, apparently using charcoal crayons and paper to take rubbings from the tombstones. After a few moments she was amused to see clothing removed and the rubbing becoming much more personal.
Ah, she thought, what is that delicious French word? Oh yes, frottage.
Suddenly she remembered Cheryse hanging there naked, waiting to get her revenge on this rakish necromancer. She sat down, but what appeared next on the screen was muddled garbage; Madolyn forgot to take off her oven mitts. She growled as she pulled them off, setting them on her desk. After a little backspacing, she was back in form.
"I could have been an escape artist; how easily I was able to slip free of my bonds. Sir Francis did not notice me wrap the silk veil around my hand. Nor did the fool notice that protected hand take the poker sitting by the fireplace -- the same instrument he had threatened to use to disfigure me. My only regret is that I could not see the look on his face when that red-hot wand pierced his lower abdomen and came out the other side."
Madolyn continued writing, telling of her heroine's bittersweet triumph. How she survived her cruel captor, yet how her innocence and trust in humanity were gone forever. She was trying to figure the right words for the last sentence when the oven buzzed again.
She muttered some vulgarity to herself while slipping the oven mitts back onto her hands. Then she trudged out to the kitchen as if each of the twenty-three steps it took to get from her desk to the oven was a mile. She put the final two pizzas in the oven when the phone rang.
"Maddy," the voice said, on the answering machine, "it's your mother, please pick up. It's an emergency."
"Mom, what's wrong?"she asked, picking up the phone.
"You remember your Aunt Ruthie? Of course you do, she was the one who baked the cake for your sixth birthday party. Remember the balloons and the pony?"
Madolyn was quite sure a pony was never at any of her birthday parties, and wondered if her mother hadn't inhaled a bit too much helium that day.
"Okay," Madolyn replied, not making any commitment to remembering this relative.
"She just called. Little Joey's father-in-law just passed away."
"Aunt Ruthie's son," her mother said, angry that Madolyn would dare ask. "The one we all thought was a bit queer until he got that waitress pregnant."
"Mom, I don't ... " Madolyn knew the deadline was nearing, but felt cornered by her mother's dramatic tendencies.
"I remember poor Roger, or was it Robert, like it was yesterday. Rupert? He was so young too. You know what they say."
"Mom, I don't have time," Madolyn complained.
"Please show some respect for the dead, young lady," her mother snapped. "A man dies and you're too busy to care. That's what's wrong with people today."
The clock's green LED flickered. Suddenly it read 11:58. "Shit!" Madolyn shouted, so startled that she dropped the telephone receiver. As she swung her arm around to try to grab it, the cord became tangled. In panic, and perhaps thinking of her heroine's adventures, she slipped out of the sweatshirt. "Bye, Mom," she said, hanging up the telephone/sweatshirt combination, and ran naked to her office.
She slid into her desk chair. "Yes, as I watched the manor house burn to the ground," she typed, "I knew I was free. Yet already I could feel the intense loneliness that would forever be part of that freedom."
"That's it!" she said, as she selected Save. She opened her email client, and in a few seconds the story was sent -- exactly at twelve, midnight.
She let out a low, relieved moan as she sat back in her chair. "I did it," she said in half-whisper. The thought of a blessed, peaceful morning; sleeping until almost noon, made her smile. Then she remembered the grim reality of the company picnic. "Fine," she said, resigning herself to that unpleasantness. She would also have to apologize to her mother for the abrupt goodbye.
But all that could wait. For now, she wanted to savor her success. She thought about the goth kids outside and wondered if they had fun. Then she turned on a chat client and IMed her online boyfriend. "Guess what I'm wearing?" she asked.