By Sonya Chaplin
I should have known something was wrong when that lunatic said he was my biggest fan. I didn’t have fans. Maybe a half dozen birds bought the quaint cover of their familiar Red Ribbon magazine, but it wasn’t for my pulp science-fiction dribbles that were crammed in between a General Mills 35 cents-off coupon and a “Green Thumb Tip” article by famed Rosey Daisy. I didn’t have fans. And now, sitting here with a bleeding head wound, imprisoned, I have reconsidered what gaining a fan really means.
I had first met Ray Sunshine when he had stumbled upon me at my “Meet the Author” table in Henry’s Supermarket. A stack of crisp, freshly printed magazines, sat at my elbow, my missing side tooth grin plastered on my face. The very thought of signing my name in big black letters on the cover of my book was something that kept me smiling all day.
Well, it wasn’t a book. It was the Red Ribbon Magazine, but it was the principle of the matter, Goddammit. I was still excited.
But my excitement was moot. Person after person walked by me without a glance. My agent tried to warn me. Told me that I was no William Faulker. They were right. I’ve never felt lonelier in my life than I did in that busy supermarket.
Then Ray came in. His shiny oxfords rapping against the market’s cheap linoleum floors as he hurried toward me. I didn’t even notice him. I was so focused on an open barrel of peanuts across from me, trying to push down my growing disappointment.
He had to clear his throat to get my attention. When I finally looked up, he instantly became my new favorite person because not only did he want a signed new copy of the Red Ribbon I was hawking but he had a few earlier editions with him too.
“I can’t believe it,” he said, “You’re actually here. You’re him! Are you the Nicholas Stars?”
I opened my mouth, but no words came out. Everything about him caught me off guard. Especially because nobody had called me by my Christian name in decades.
“Oh. OH! Oh yes! Me! That’s me. Well, it’s actually just Nic-”
“I’m a big fan, Mr. Stars. No, an enormous one! It would just mean the world to me if you would sign these?” He started to pull free his bounty of older magazines from under his arm, “These are some of my favorites. But I have all of your works, actually. I’ll buy as many current editions as needed to make up the price difference if it’s a problem. No price is too high.”
“Who should I make these out to?!” I yelled so enthusiastically someone might have thought I had the winning lottery ticket.
“Ray. Ray Sunshine.”
I wrote with the flourish of a Hollywood starlet, less dignified than I imagined, maybe, but Ray looked just as radiant as I felt, watching my hand dance across the covers.
That was when my grip on my pen slipped when I realized who’s name I had just written out. He must have seen my shocked expression on my face on other hundred schmucks before.
“Ha. Uh, did you say, Ray Sunshine? You’re not THAT Ray Sunshine, are you?” The top hat he wore and his signature thick golden hair should have been my first clue.
“One and the same and if there’s another one running around, you let me know.” He tipped the brim of his top hat, “I might have to do away with him.” He winked.
Ray Sunshine, the multi-millionaire coffee mogul, Hollywood personality and TV spokesman had just asked me to sign my name for him.
This was the same Ray Sunshine that greeted me (as well as millions of other Americans) every day on the TV with those Sunshine Coffee commercials. Those were the same pearly whites that would implore everyone to start the day off right, “with a cup of Sunshine.”
It was a thrill to sign all his copies with my stories in them, hand to God, but the exchange should have ended there. We should have parted ways. So why did he invite me to lunch? Why did I agree to meet him the following week after that as well? Because after he had cradled my stories so close to his chest, admiring the freshly ink-marked signature like it was art, how could I say no?
Maybe because I also wanted to stare into those sky-colored eyes forever while he praised my writing some more.
Nobody knew my name. Nobody knew my stories. And for some stupid reason, I didn’t think that was fair. Why were crappy writers getting invited onto the Ed Sullivan Show while some of us sat, invisible, at a grocery store book signing?
At our lunches, we shared our personal treasure finds from my stories. I said mine was “The Diamond Gauntlet from the Sun Planet” in issue #31. His was “The Gold Dragon Chimp Statue” in issue #14. He even knew how many emeralds lined the base of that alien artifact I crafted up.
Maybe I shouldn’t have foamed at the mouth like I did when Ray invited me to his estate for the “Writer’s Guild Meetup” he was hosting with a handful of other famed authors. He wouldn’t accept a declined invitation, he said. As if I dared to say ‘no’.
While I packed for my three-day writer’s guild getaway, Sarah, my little sister, met with me the day prior. Our lunch was a sour one because with all her sophisticated moxie, she warned me and spoiled my good news about Ray and this whole retreat thing. I rolled my eyes. Sarah warned me and now, half drugged and bleeding, alone in Ray’s mansion, I wonder if I’ll ever see her again.
“What if he’s a serial killer?” she had pleaded.
“You know you should really try reading some of my things. They’re way more cheerful than all those murder mysteries you read.” Sarah couldn’t be bothered. She didn’t even remember the name of my characters. All one of him and I used him over and over: Captain Gazer.
“And what’s that even supposed to mean anyway?” I said, “I can’t have a normal person like my stories? They gotta be some murderer on the loose?”
“I MEAN,” she said, her turn to roll her eyes, “if some handsome millionaire Hollywood hot-shot wanted to whisk me off to his estate after knowing me all of 5 minutes so we can ‘discuss’ my ‘sophisticated writing’, well Nick, I may wonder if he’s a wacko.”
“My writing may not be for the eggheads up at Harvard, but my writing has merit if I do-so-say-myself-thank-you-very-much.”
“Nick, you write about silly treasure-hunting spacemen.”
I hated that word. Silly. My work wasn’t silly just because it wasn’t to her tastes.
Plato wrote about the plight of man; Shakespeare wrote about life and love. I write about the grand space adventures of Captain Gazer.
Ray Sunshine had ALL 134 copies of every Red Ribbon that had one of my “silly” adventures in them.
“So what?” I spat back.
“Just–” she sighed, “Be careful with this guy okay? Rich heir to a coffee company or not doesn’t mean he’s not no creep.”
Why didn’t I listen to her?
I knew why. Because you assume the stars will never align for you, and when they do, you just want it to be real. Ray was real and I wasn’t going to let her ruin this for me. I glared down at my lunch.
Sarah sighed and changed her tune when she saw my bitter mood shift. She reached a hand over to pat my leg, “Just don’t use too big of words around those other writers, Nick. You don’t want to be that know-it-all-wise-ass.”
Those were her last words to me.
When I finished packing, Ray’s white long car picked me up. Or rather his driver picked me up. The two of us sat in the huge seat in the back and shared rich glasses of bourbon in heavy crystal tumblers. I should have thought it odd that after my third drink, Ray offered me a fourth. I was well passed dopy at that point. How the hell did I have three of these things already?
The movies make it look like it takes hours to enjoy a classy drink, but I was slinging them down like they were bottles of Pepsi and it was a hundred degrees outside. I never noticed that Ray, while taking elegant sips now and again, never actually finished his first glass. As we were pulling up to his manor, somewhere between Haunted Woods Drive and Middle of Nowhere Boulevard, I could feel myself starting to nod off. Only then, did I think I was more than just drunk. I’ve been drunk before. This felt different. The car ride was long, yes, but should my legs have been falling asleep like that?
I owlishly blinked at Ray who looked content, his fingers gripping the still full glass of bourbon. “Are the other’s–” I stopped talking as well as the car as it pulled into a vacant garage. I slapped my cheek a little. I don’t know how long it took me to form words again. My face felt fuzzy. There were no other cars. “–inside?”
My glass slipped from my hand with a thud onto the floor of the fancy car. I was more horrified about staining the upholstery than the tingling in my fingers or the realization that I couldn’t bend them anymore.
Ray leaned over me cupping my cheek. His cool, gloved thumb gliding across my heated skin. “It’s alright. The others won’t mind if you take a little nap now,” he cooed, his warm words beginning to drown me.
The space between us was nil in the car’s back seat. The lights low, the windows tinted. I drank too much. He didn’t drink enough. There were never going to be any ‘others’.
Sarah’s words rang in my ears making my tainted brandy-soaked brain conjure up gruesome images. I thought I had lost control of my body but then I sprung up faster than a freed jack-in-the-box as I began
to panic in a blind void.
I bulked so fast away from his touch that I had completely forgotten I was in an enclosed box with him. For my lightning bolt effort, all I managed to do was ram my head right into the passenger window. The impact made the ugliest sound of bone and glass colliding I could have imagined.
I’ve never hit my head so hard. I thought I would die right there. Maybe I just saved Ray a heap of trouble and effort of murdering me. At least like this I may have stolen any joy he was planning to get out of the task.
I heard Ray’s frantic voice as my eyes started to roll into the back of my head like two oiled up olives sliding around in a china bowl. I must have spooked him. He most certainly wasn’t anticipating his nice car window spidering so violently under my noggin like that.
Everything faded from view and I finally passed out right into the lap of luxury.
I came to, drugged and bleeding, in a dimly lit parlor.
Once I realized I wasn’t dead or chained down, I bolted up. I shouldn’t have moved as quickly as I did. The sledgehammer headache between my eyes was indescribable.
“Care for a glass of water, Nicholas?” I flinched at the sound of his voice. Sitting adjacent from me, on a separate couch across the oak lacquered ocean coffee table set between us was the coffee mogul himself.
He was watching me. Just like in the car…. The car! The drinks! Poisoned!
I shot to my feet – Ow! I fell back down, lopsided. Ray Sunshine, my one ardent fan, sat unphased at my state.
My mouth was dry. His eyes were roaming over me. The silence between us grew thick. I didn’t even know what to say in fear that starting conversation will lead to him bringing out an ice pick from his breast pocket.
Ray stood to his full height then and stepped around the coffee table towards me. I braced, trying to curl into myself. I brought a shaky hand up and gritted my teeth, I just had this guy feeling he was going to beat the living daylights outta me. But instead of the zinger I was anticipating, I felt a soft cotton handkerchief being pressed to my head gash.
Ray grabbed my wrist and guided my hand to take hold of the cloth. He stepped out of view then, not venturing far. I heard glass tink against glass, a tight squeak, and then the low hollow popping of a freed cork from a bottle.
That same waft of brandy from the car filled my nose. My stomach churned.
He didn’t offer me anything. He came back, this time sitting next to me, a glass three fingers full for himself. He crossed one ankle over his knee and left me be with the side of my face starting to feel damp from the blood-soaked handkerchief. I scooted as much as I could away from him.
“How’s your head, Nicholas? I hope it’s not as bad as it looks. And trust me, it looks frightening.” He took a sip, “I don’t have a resident doctor on the premises, so you’ll have to wait until one comes up from the city. I do believe you’re going to need stitches,” he pointed at my self-inflicted wound between his sips.
Everything he said made sense but none of it was adding up in my throbbing head. I told him as much when the room started to tilt. “My head hurts.”
“Of course, it does. You broke my car window with it.”
“You drugged me!” I shot back, wincing as my own volume.
“Drugged? That is such an ugly word. Merely doused you a little. With your stature, I had thought you would make you slip under without ruckus. Color me surprised when you turned into a spooked racehorse,” another sip and soft chuckle, “I would have taken the Ford, had I known.”
When he saw I wasn’t as assumed, he held up his hands in mock surrender, “I’m only kidding!”
“Are you–,” I pressed the cloth harder against the throbbing echo of my voice, “Oh my God, did you kidnap me?”
“Kidnapping is an even uglier word,” he said and for the first time, I saw Ray Sunshine’s face darken. His blue eyes narrowed.
“Think of this as, Hm… let’s caaall it,” he drawled out, “Oh! Let’s call it a contract! An extended freelance opportunity! Fun buzzwords you writers like, right? All paid expenses? Unlimited budget? et Cetera, et Cetera.”
“Contract?” I slurred out.
“For your writing!”
“You want to…hire me? To write for you? Jesus, Ray. You could have just bought out my contract with Red Ribbon. Wha-what do you want? More Captain Gazer? For God’s sake, you didn’t have to go through all- all,” the thundering in my head became louder, “All of THIS.”
“Don’t play dumb, Nicholas. You’re too smart for that.”
I didn’t like the way he called me Nicholas. Over the book signing and coffee rendezvous, I insisted that he called me Nick. Nobody called me Nicholas. My sister called me Nick. My old man, he called me Nicky-Boy. And my ma called me her Starlight.
Ha. Maybe that’s why I started writing this science fiction junk in the first place. I didn’t just have my head in the clouds, I went far beyond that. I went beyond the blackness of promised empty eternity and instead found the light of the stars that dotted the universe. I declared to the world that I had one story for every star in the sky and I would write them all down.
A lot of good that did me.
“There’s no one else coming, is there?”, I asked against all hope.
“Afraid not. Though I did consider this other elaborate scheme to get you here. This was just more straightforward,” he said.
I squinted at him, like the namesake that he was.
“You’ve never actually read any of my stories, have you? I’m just some random stranger from a crowd you picked to bring to your basement in the woods and-,” I stopped myself. I gulped down my fear. “Are you going to kill me, Ray?”
He placed his glass down with a clack on the table and without warning, grabbed me. He lifted me up by the shoulders, forcing me to stand. He maneuvered around me the best he could without getting my blood on his nice suit, put one arm around my ribs and pulled me along down a shadowed hallway.
I struggled to keep up, dizzy and stumbling as he pulled me down the seemingly unending corridor. I felt I would vomit at any moment from the rough handling and loss of blood. We came to the door at the end of the hallway, I panicked when he flung it open.
I was expecting a torture room when my eyes adjusted to the single light in front of me. Maybe something out of Frankenstein, with a blood-stained slab in the center of the room, complete with a grated drain in the floor. For easy clean up.
But then Ray yelled “TADA!” and released his hold on me. He gestured with a long sweep of his arm, like he was the ringmaster at a circus to the single item under that one light. There, to the side of a pitch-black room was a simple glass case.
He pushed me closer to the glass box. I peered inside cautiously. Inside the thin glass prison was something bulky and yellow.
“Do you like it?” His tone longing for my affirmation as he swung his head back and forth from the item to me and back again. He was waiting for me to notice something.
It was a statue. A grotesque one at that. A human-like figure carved from gold with an inhuman head, stared up at us. It shimmered with various jewels, each the size of my Adam’s apple. My vision blurred and refocused again. I concentrated on it as much as I could.
“What is it?”
“Look here.” He gestured to the little podium beside the case. On it, to my sickening surprise, was a copy of a Red Ribbon. Ray’s favorite issue to be exact: #14. My freshly made signature sprawled over the cover in thick black looping lettering-
To Ray, my fan! No! My ENORMOUS fan! Keep shining on! -Nick Stars.
I looked at the cover. I looked at the statue. I began to imitate Ray as my eyes bounced back and forth between the two. The status was…no. No, it couldn’t be.
The gold figure in the center of the statue, in the middle of a jeweled carved lotus flower, was an alien half human half dragon creature. One I knew the carving of well. Too well. Because I had made it up for Captain Gazer’s adventure in issue #14.
I leaned forward, almost knocking my nose into the clear glass. My mouth had dropped open without my permission, making Ray giddy with delight. He was waiting for that twinkle of recognition in my eye. Boy did he get it.
“Is that-Did you make a model replica of the Gold Dragon Chimp Statue?”
Ray let out a rifle-crack laugh. “Make?! Nicholas! Come now! That’s the genuine thing. I found it.”
“You-,” disbelief dripped off my dry tongue, “-found it?” The word it stuck to the roof of my mouth “How? Where?”
“How? Awww, now that’s the right question. You see, coffee is a fantastic empire to build a fortune on. But treasure hunting? Honest to God real treasure hunting? Mm, well that’s where true fortunes lie, my boy. My original fortune is all thanks to me, true, yes,” he laughed, “I am not modest about that; It was no easy feat to get my little cartoony face in every grocery store and in every blue-blooded American’s kitchen from San Francisco to New York City, but all the real treasures? Well, that’s thanks to you. Thanks to you and your Captain Gazer.”
“What do my stories have to do with this?”
“I told you Nicholas, don’t play dumb. It doesn’t suit you.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off the dragon creature feature as Ray spat out his insane claims.
“I couldn’t believe it either. Call it fate. Call it Divine Intervention. Whatever you want to call it, Nicholas Stars, the way you described the temple in issue #14 led me to my very first treasure find! It was meant to be. It WAS. The river between the shrines? The latch at the top of the jade stairs? I’ve been to Nepal before, great coffee beans, but, you see, when I read your story something about that deselent planet you described seemed so magical yes so familiar to me…Plus I was on the cover! I think our fates were meant to collide, don’t you?”
My eyes shot to the cover again, and there, just under my signature, was something else I failed to notice at first. Mr. Sunshine’s cartoon face staring back at me under the long-curved tail of the S, my attempt at a flying comet flair.
“Your secret words called to me like destiny! At first it was just a rich man’s bored whim. You wrote, “The bank was so low, only by the North star of Orion’s belt could Captain Gazer see into the dark waters and find the latch to the hidden drawbridge.” Remember? That triggered a map I once saw in an actual history book of Nepal. I had the time to hop on a plan and take a quick look. Just for laughs. And then? Well, low and behold, there it was. “A river so low in the canyon, it wasn’t even on the maps”. Remember that! And,” his gloved hand shot out and smacked the top of the presented Red Ribbon at my hip. “With this issue of the Red Ribbon as my guide, I found it. I found your temple under the river in the outskirts of Nepal, Nicholas.”
The space station on Orbulus Nine.
“I solved the puzzle on the temple walls.”
The manufactured riddles Captain Gazer pieced together.
“And there it was. Upon the dais in a prayer room.”
The Dragon Chimp Statue.
“You’re mad.” I took a step back and tossed the bloody handkerchief at the golden statue. It hit the glass case with a satisfying wet slap. “I don’t know how else to tell ya this buddy, but you’re utterly insane. That sounds like a real great novel idea, though. You should write it. Sell it. Hell, I’ll write it for you. Then you can have another richer, kookier fan come kidnap you for your alien illuminati jive so he can tell you
how he can speak to God through the TV. Because, Boy! Do I have news for you. You listening? Good, I see you are, because this is the news flash of the century- ” I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled, “I. MADE. IT. ALL. UP!” I snapped a finger at the statue, “Wherever the Hell you found this ugly thing has got nothing to do with me. It’s just a dippy, squirrelly coincidence! And if you believe otherwise then-”
A twisting smile split Ray’s face in two; I shut up. His long arm reached out to the side, a light switch at his fingertips. When he flipped it, the rest of the room’s light came on. Shrouded within the darkness, came to light the rest the glass cases and much larger pieces scattered about, hanging from the walls and ceilings.
I was standing in some sort of museum. I didn’t know what to take in first. The array would put the Smithsonian to shame, and the Smithsonian had a fancy Egyptian coffin I read about in the Chronicle.
The Dragon Chimp paled in comparison to the rest of the wonders of the room. A shiver tiptoed up my spine; It was all so hauntingly familiar. I couldn’t hold back my gasp of shock and awe.
There must have been a hundred of these glass cases in neat rows down the room. Nearly all of them had something in them.
And next to each fantastical piece? A Red Ribbon magazine.
“It can’t be,” I breathed out.
“And why not! You know better than anyone, truth is stranger than fiction. And here it is! Isn’t it grand!”
My head swayed in denial of what my eyes were seeing. No matter how hard I wished the items to vanish like a mirage, a result of my head injury, they remained. “You win,” I declared and faced Ray, “So, what happens now? You showed me your little trophy room. Congratulations. I crown you my biggest fan.” I scoffed, “Bravo. What are you gonna do with me now? Add me to it? Cut off my head and stuff it in a box? Call your other sick-o rich buddies and show me off? I’ll be the crème de la crème of the collection, is that right?”
“You and your vivid imagination, Nicholas. Honestly. What am I going to ‘do with you’? I’m not going to do anything with you. You’re going to write, same as always and I, in return, will show you the world! We’ll be the perfect duo! The map maker and treasure hunter! All in first class of course.”
The perfect duo. Sunshine and Stars.
“Then why?” God, I hope I wasn’t crying. It sounded like my voice cracked. Maybe I was just tired of all this fantastic madness. “Why did you have to do all of THIS?” I gestured to my head. “Why the FUCK didn’t you just leave me BE? I would have continued writing my stories for the Red Ribbon anyway!!”
“The others were getting wise.”
“The others, yes. My social club. My ‘sick-o rich buddies’. Other treasure enthusiasts, like myself.”
I stared at him in horror.
“Competition is overrated. Sooner or later one of them would have picked up a copy of Red Ribbon and
connected my love of your tales to my luck. And, really, you should be thanking me that I got you before one of the others could have. Not a pleasant bunch in the slightest.”
“Thank you?!” I shrieked.
“You say it like it’s so awful. But look where you stand! Safe from all the dangers of the world and free to write anything you like. Your every need met and the opportunity to travel and see the world!”
“So, I’m, what? I’m to be your– your– your personal trained seal? A pampered pet that’s to follow you around the world like a frou frou poodle with pen and paper? Ray, please,” I begged now, hearing the permanency in his plans.
Clasping his hands behind his back, he slowly paced the room, admiring the glittering fortunes around him, “Hmm.” The enthusiasm floated out with his words, “You make it sound so dreary. How’s about we refer to it as -” his pacing stopped, “Oh! I know! We’ll call it “A Cure for Writer’s Block!” he clapped his hands together, satisfied with his amazing suggestion.
My confusion scrawled across my face as Ray began to make his way back to me. He took long, slow sweeps down the rows, and like a viper reeling up, slithering toward its prey, he was upon me.
I was warned.
Then I felt him. Right next to me. I felt his lips, cool and delicate press themselves at my temple. A kiss? I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had one.
“Hmm, yes. A cure for writer’s block,” he said. He placed his hands on my chest, slithering them upward, as smoothly as oil rolling off silk. His thin fingers coiling around my neck. His greater height forced my face back, our eyes meeting.
“Because if you stop writing for me,” his grip tightened as I started to gurgle, each breath more strained than the one before. His voice twisted as he pressed his cheek to mine, “I’ll erase you from this world,” he hissed. His hands slipped away too quickly, pushing me away as if I were an advancing charlatan.
Had he pushed me away that hard? Because I was falling backwards now. Oh, That’s right. My head. I must have lost too much blood. I couldn’t feel my heartbeat, but I could certainly hear it as it thundered in my ears.
My knees buckled. The black faded over me like a soft coaxing that perhaps I’ve been standing too long. Perhaps lying down would be better. I took a sharp intake of breath, alarm jutting up my neck. I was about to slam my wounded head onto the marble floor, the most unforgiving of floors once the rest of me went lax. I closed my eyes, unable to stop it…
But my head hit Ray’s chest instead, soft and firm. A small relief. The bastard decided I was worth catching, it seemed. But that didn’t stop the whispers of oblivion from taking me.
Something was thumping in my ear. Ray’s heartbeat. Calm. Steady. His tender words mixing in my ear, “I can’t wait for all the new adventures you’ll write for us.” I floated on his words until the next thing I knew, I was among the stars.