Harper squinted at the computer screen. He didn’t usually see it from this angle, above his face and perpendicular to his nose.
his computer repeated, impatiently adding ADFJKLDKJ;?
for good measure.
Harper lifted his head from his ergonomic, coffee-stained keyboard, staring blearily at the garbled text on his monitor through the slim, silver-rimmed glasses perched askew on his nose. Text that had
been an all-nighter’s worth of work due to production by no later than noon today or his ass would be chopped finer than grass.
Harper’s computer mocked him.
Dragging the hem of his sleeve across his mouth to get rid of the dried-on drool, Harper brushed twists of his overgrown copper-colored hair out of his eyes, set his glasses straight on his nose, fumbled for the mouse, and hammered the keys for the Undo command. Repeatedly. To no avail. “No, you don’t,” he ordered through gritted teeth. “No, no, no, no you don’t --”
Harper’s computer flipped him the blue screen of death, emitted a small shower of sparks from somewhere in the fan region, and ground to a halt. Gentle wisps of smoke curled away from the wreckage, helpfully illuminating the open USB port where Harper had forgotten to insert a flash drive for backups.
“Good morning to you too.” Harper slumped in his chair and gently lowered his head back down to rest on the keyboard, the imprints of keys on his cheek slotting perfectly back into place.
Scrunching his hand in front of his face, he groaned. “I am so screwed.”
He took a deep breath and tried to find his focus, the wellspring of creative energy that’d always come through for him on other jobs, and prayed he could babble his way through a decent plot twist. Something. Anything
to avoid getting canned.
“Okay, where was I last night…right.” As he kicked up the edge of the rumpled quilt hanging off the edge of his un-slept-in bed searching for his shoes, Harper let himself babble into the recorder, struggling for inspiration and coming up with…not much.
. Drama, back to square boned, day one. Notes from memory. In Outré
. Characters: Salomei and Osborne. Note to self: Salomei is the tarot reader on Fourteenth Street. Memo: Come up with something that’s got more personality to it than ‘Fourteenth Street.’ Americana’s great, but genericism isn’t. Memo: Is genericism a word? If not, it should be. Oh! Note: Osborne likes words. We can set that up with his penchant for the daily crosswords. Does he go in for sudoku as well? I could do a scene where they’re arguing over the applicability of the Oxford English Dictionary to the real world. Good.”
Harper paused. “Where was I?” He shook his head as he stumbled out of his bedroom and let his feet guide him. “Not a bad start. Um…um…oh hell… what kind of deck does Salomei use? Note: Look up the Kabbalah. Note: How do you spell
Kabbalah? I know I’ve seen at least three variations before. The word processing program’s going to hate that one.”
out a breath as he entered the kitchen, rumpling his hair with his free hand. “Whoa, hey, watch it, Artemas! How’d you get out?”
Harper’s pet turtle blinked sluggishly at Harper from six feet down. Small enough to hold in one palm and pugnacious enough to frighten pit bulls, Artemas managed to convey, without saying a word, that Harper
was the one who should watch where he was walking and do it soon, or he’d find a sharp turtle beak gnawing off his little toe the next time he actually had a chance to sleep in his bed.
“Salomei…” Harper tried to continue. He stopped, eyes losing focus. Damn it, he’d lost his train of thought.
“Salomei? Sounds sexy. Exotic. I like the name. Anyway, she’s what, a psychic? If she’s the individual type, she probably doesn’t use the standard Rider-Waite,” the naked guy sitting on the countertop said as Harper walked by him.
The naked man kicked his bare feet and plunked a slice of bread into the toaster as he addressed Harper, his head tilted to one side in thought. “Dunno about copyright issues these days, but you could either make something up, maybe something unique to Salomei herself. Special to the scenes you’re using them for. Draw on that later as a plot point or maybe make how she got the deck a key part of her backstory. Want some toast?”
“Good idea!” Harper quickly repeated the naked man’s spiel into his recorder. “Appreciate it. And no thanks on the toast.” Harper reached for the empty coffee decanter, head full of cards and Salomei, who he still thought central casting had botched with the actress they’d selected, and --
And came to a grinding halt.
Wait a second. I live alone.
“Um,” Harper said, carefully not looking back at the naked man he’d never seen before, yet who was still very much present on his counter.
“Coffee first,” Naked Guy chided. “I’ve worked with guys like you before. Your brain doesn’t function before two or three cups. Here, I’ll help. There’s an open can of dark roast coffee grounds one foot to your left.”
Naked Guy huffed impatiently and tilted his head, rough-cut hair the shade of tarnished silver, ash-black that shone nearly white, the shagginess of the cut the only thing keeping his pointed face handsome instead of beautiful. “Okay, so you’re one of the extra-special kid gloves types. Tell you what. You go shower -- please, God, would you go shower -- and I’ll start a pot of java going. Strong enough to melt the spoon is the way I like it. That sound good to you?”
Harper opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, shook his head, and cautiously turned around to walk away without looking behind himself, making no sudden movements until he reached the blind corner of the hallway where he thought he could get away with peeking unobserved.
His kitchen lay empty. At first look, it appeared to have been untouched since Harper had left around two a.m., his reheated leftovers half-eaten and discarded when a few lines of decent-sounding dialogue had crossed his mind between one bite and the next.
At second look, Harper could see that his plate of pallid, thrice-rewarmed chicken asiago flatbread, carried home in a doggie bag from a network lunch the week before, had been tidied away. Coffee burbled merrily through his decanter, which sparkled as if brand new, clean and bright as a summer’s morning.
A half-empty loaf of bread, its plastic wrapper folded neatly over, sat next to the toaster, which popped up two fresh golden rounds as Harper watched, the sudden noise making Harper flinch.
There was not, to the best of Harper’s ability to tell, a naked man anywhere in sight.
Artemas dawdled past, avoiding Harper’s bare foot with an obvious, irritated effort.
“I imagined all of that, right?” Harper asked his turtle. “I hope so. That’d mean there’s some hope for my sanity. Admitting you have a problem is the first step, right?”
Artemas failed to move or react.
Harper’s heart took a sickening lurch. “If I’m not hallucinating, then I’ve just spilled plot secrets to a random stranger. Artemas. Please tell me I was
Artemas favored Harper with a flat black reptilian gaze and snapped his jaws.
Harper took a third peek into the kitchen. Empty of life-forms, unless you counted his kitchen trash can.
He scrubbed his hand over his chin, short stubble bristling against his palm, and ran over all his options. Maybe his best bet would be to take that shower. Maybe he could wash off the layer of crazy he appeared to have acquired while he slept with his face mashed to the keyboard.
* * * * *
Harper had always found showers to be a relaxing oasis in his increasingly insane life. If he’d reached the point of hallucinating naked men who made coffee, it was clearly time to break out the hardcore exfoliating oatmeal soap and his shamefacedly purchased, well-hidden loofah.
“God, this is unmanning,” Harper grumbled as he scrubbed. He comforted himself with the reassurance that at least he hadn’t quite yet reached the point where he was willing to buy stock in Calgon and bath bubble bombs and candles and Indigo Girls CDs, but he had an uneasy suspicion he’d get there soon.
He’d have to lop off his balls the day he walked into a Body Shop store, of course, but it wasn’t like they’d gotten much recent use anyway. Too tired to jerk the gherkin was way too damn tired to care about man-hunting.
Harper gazed down at his cock, which refused to rise and meet him with its one-eyed stare. As with Artemas -- for Pete’s sake, now I’m comparing my penis to a turtle
? -- he got the feeling that his manhood had started its own personal countdown to abandoning him for greener pastures.
Harper groped his balls in an attempt to soothe and stimulate them. “I haven’t forgotten about you, I swear. Tell you what. As soon as I’m either fired or saved, we’ll go on the prowl.” He petted his cock so it wouldn’t feel left out. “Just the four of us.”
“Are you talking to your dick
?” Naked Guy demanded, his nose pressed to the opaque shower glass. “Wait, did you just say you have four balls? Can I see?”
Harper jumped to the back to the shower, hair plastered over his eyes. “What the hell? No!”
“Are you in the mood to listen to a fairly lengthy explanation? Speaking of length, how are you in the size department?” Naked Guy craned his neck in an attempt to get a better view.
Harper tried and failed to cover his crotch with soapy hands, too occupied with trying to keep his balance on the slippery blue-and-green shower tiles. “Get out of here!”
“Shorted out in the genetic lottery, huh?” Naked Guy tapped the glass thoughtfully. “Dunno. Not that I can see all that great from where I’m standing, but you don’t look too badly off to me.”
Harper picked up the shampoo bottle and aimed it as threateningly as a man could aim VO5. “Whoever you are, get out of my apartment!”
“Sorry, can’t exactly leave on my own. I’ll explain later. If you want some privacy --”
Harper couldn’t see Naked Guy’s face, but he didn’t need to his eyes to see
his leer, suggestive of all the activities a guy could enjoy alone in a shower that didn’t involve washing his feet.
“-- I’ll let you suds up in peace. Don’t forget to wash behind your ears. Coffee’s almost done, by the way, and it sucks once it’s burned, so hurry up.” Naked Guy rapped his knuckles sharply on the glass…and disappeared.
Poof. Pop. Naked Guy was gone from the bathroom as if he’d never been there at all.
The shampoo bottle slipped from Harper’s nerveless fingers and bounced off his big toe, and then off the tile, spewing fresh spring rain soap down the drain as a grace note.
Harper wondered if the mushrooms on his chicken asiago had been the recreational type. Or had he just fallen down the rabbit hole while he slept on his keyboard?