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Every writer writes for someone. A wife or husband, an online critique partner—maybe just a little head looming over your shoulder, groaning at each cliché or applauding a burst of wit. I think we need that someone, to test drive that first vehicle, work out the kinks so that we can come back and polish it to a shine.
My personal thorn thruster wasn’t a well-known critic. He wasn’t an author, or columnist or journalist. He had a blog, with a few misguided followers, and most of his rants were buried in the jungle that is Google’s search engine. As far as I could tell, Skip McGriff was a male of the human species, but to me he was more like that grime you find between your toes after a wearing sneakers without socks on a long hot summer day. And still, he was my someone.
Each morning, coffee in hand, I sat down at my computer to check his comments. Sure, it was an unhealthy habit, but like a needle in the arm, it was my own private ritual. With seven novels under my belt, I’d long ago accepted couldn’t make everyone happy, who could? It took thirty years before The Great Gatsby was well received, so who am I to think that I will avoid the unavoidable?
The good folks at Amazon must have dedicated a separate server to house the gigabytes of condescending ridicule and ranting by that lowly mouth breather. Yet, for all his faults, the reviews were well researched and detailed. The guy missed nothing. He roasted the well-known and the self-published alike. I would never admit that I’d read over two hundred of his condemnations, and I certainly would have never utter the following words out loud: He was damn good at what he did.
But I was too. I’d won a handful of awards and secured a six figure advance, so I couldn’t very well publically acknowledge his reviews or even his existence. And after interviews with Writer’s Digest, Publisher’s Weekly, and even had a blurb in Time Magazine, I wasn’t about to jump down the slimy slopes of review hell with Skip McGriff. I’d leave that to Gina.
Gina was a like a gleaming blade in the night. Rolling up her sleeves, she’d gnash her teeth and beat the shit out of people with her remarkable acumen for belittlement. She could dish it out however needed, she could be vulgar and filthy or sharp and exacting. Sure, she could play by the rules, but usually her punches were meant for the crotch.
She and Skip had faced off in various online forums and comment sections, hell, even the yahoo comment section has been a squaring off place for the two of them. Gina had the gracious freedom to be reckless and cynical, with nothing to lose she slung the bricks and stirred the fire. I loved her, but how could I not?
I created her.
Gina came forth one night just after the release of my fifth novel, A day in the sun. I’d pocketed decent check for the book and had just returned home from a promotional tour with three colleagues. There was already a nice little buzz circulating when The New York Times called for an interview, and the word best-seller was whispering in my head.
Twitter and facebook were positive. Fans gobbled up A Day and there was talk of a sequel—one that was already three fourths complete. A few nights, after the words failed to gather, I cracked an amber ale and logged into Amazon to skim the reviews, giggling like a schoolgirl as I flirted with my own ego.
And then I saw it.
Cliched and tired, A Day in The Sun left me sunburned. Not sure what all the hype is about, this is the worst writing I’ve seen in a long time…Has Wally Flemming just given up?....
Given up? I’d just put out a book that privately I thought was the best I could do. In fact, I’d worried that I’d never be able to top it. I scanned his review again, flinching at the searing condescending nature of his tone.
Soon I’d switched to bourbon. Slogging down a Maker’s Mark without ice and heading for a refill. By the time I finished the bottle, Gina had crawled out of the prickly thicket of my irritable bowels and set off on a reign of terror.
Whatever hatred and darkness I had pent up came crashing down like a guillotine. Gina tore into him like the teeth of a band saw. She belittled his manliness, his intelligence, even his sexuality—questioning if he’d ever had sex at all. He’d never had a woman, Gina concluded, and went to doubt his ability to hook a man as well.
It was the start of several epic clashes between them. Skip accused Gina of being my sister or cousin. Gina accused him of trying to breed with his siblings. As they went back and forth, I sat back and giggled from my front row seat.
For two years, Gina wouldn’t let Skip so much as sneeze online without castigating him. And things were fine until I got the call from Julia, my agent of nearly fifteen years. She said we had two different visions. That my writing had changed. She called my characters cold and heartless, my villains despicable. Gina lashed out at her and I envisioned a catfight. After several unproductive talks, she walked. Meanwhile, sales continued to plunder.
Julie’s departure didn’t go unnoticed by old Skip, but Gina righted the ship. Everything became about her. And when I wasn’t paying attention, she became my someone. By day we’d write and plot and by night we’d hunt down Skip. I laughed, rubbing the stubble on my face as Gina blazed into his posts and we delved into his archives. Gina was a force, and many of her diatribes were longer than Skip’s original posts. Good times.
His blog went dark, there was nothing new on Amazon. We Googled my name and his name and every sort of combination of my book titles and Skip McGriff. Still, nothing.
Weeks passed with torturous silence. The house turned cold with the change of seasons. Rain, then snow, then day and darkness roamed around the clock without notice. I tried to work on my novel but Gina ridiculed my characters. She was only content when we did nothing. She fed on attention and when I was writing, Gina was starved.
Without Skip, we turned on each other. I had, after all, created her with the intent to attack, and so she ripped into me with the ferocity that fueled her existence. It was then that I realized whatever she was—that we were—was an abyss. I quit. I quit writing. I quit taking calls, I quit getting out of bed.
Sleep and life blurred. Gina haunted my dreams. I wanted out, and one morning I made up my mind. Behind the mirror I searched the old prescription bottles, finding the one I hadn’t taken in years. When I closed the mirror that I saw her reflection.
“I killed him you know.”
The rasp in her voice cut through the cold tiles of the bathroom, breaking the weeks of stagnant silence in the house. I swallowed hard, feeling her breaths behind me, smelling the smoke from her cigarette. She was as real as the bottle in my fist, holding the rattling pills that shook in my hand. I closed my eyes.
“Go away, Gina.” My voice faltered, giving her what she needed. Her dark lips cracked, smiling at my weakness.
“We both know that I’m not going anywhere.”
Gripping the sink for support, I watched her pour the pills into the sink. I turned the water on and then looked to her reflection in defeat. “I didn’t want him dead.”
She was unmoved. “Then why am I here?”
When I looked up I saw only my gruesome face in the mirror. I didn’t know if I was talking or thinking. My temples pounded for a drink. But Gina wasn’t finished with me. I found her waiting for me in the den, where she turned up the bottle, taking two full swallows and then glaring at me in disgust.
My eyes fell to the scar on her wrist, then the one on her neck. I’d placed them on her like patches of personality “You need me, Wally," she whispered. Her calmness unnerved me, and for the first time in weeks I felt blood flushing through my veins.
“I don’t need you or Skip or anyone else. "Did you forget? That I created you?” She flicked back her jagged hair with a toss of hand.
“You know, Skip was right. You are washed up. Just a drunk old man.”
The lamp left my hands with a surge of anger, crashing into the wall above her head as she brayed with laughter. I stumbled over an end table, falling to the floor, a drunken old man, the years of my relentless labor reduced to a footnote. A wife who left me, a son who never made it out of the womb. No one could possibly know what I’ve sacrificed, not Julie, or Skip, not even Gina.
She swung the door open, the hinges whined with the sudden use. I was blinded by the glare of daylight, but still,I followed after her, dizzy with anger, the cold air shredding my lungs as I coughed and wheezed my way outside. She broke across the yard, leaving far flung tracks in the unblemished snow. I chased her...
On my back, I lay arms outstretched, my face wet and my body numb, fighting for breaths. The climbing sun flittered through the drooping, snow-topped limbs. The sharp pains of betrayal faded and I thought back to my first manuscript, the one I wrote when I was a kid, before the callousness of life ground my soul into crumbs of apathy. When it was for me, with nobody judging or looking over my shoulder. I thought back to those pages as I took one last tangled breath of the world with me, closing my eyes.
Skip would have liked that one, I think.