Laurel was a member of a writing circle that met late every Thursday afternoon at the public library. In the winter months, that meant arriving when it was almost dark and leaving the meeting when it was pitch black. Evening comes so early in Maine, no matter what season it is, but in winter it seems as if the sun comes up and goes down in the space of an hour. No matter what the season, though, the members of the circle were very committed to their writing and so always brought stories or a chapter from a novel to read aloud. They had been doing this for at least a couple years and had begun to feel a sense of familiarity with the narrative styles and plot preferences of the others in the group. It was rather intimate, as if they could read each other’s minds. Intimate and slightly scary.
Sometimes the members worked with prompts, but other times their selection of topic or characters was not dictated beforehand. Ironically, it was on those occasions that the things they wrote seemed choreographed, at least by some members, because it was those times that had the most plots coincide. Tonight was one of those occasions.
Everybody sat around the rectangular table with its cool gray surface. It looked like many other tables, but in this case, the sheets of paper that were placed on it were full of hopes for literary careers, based on romance, mayhem, and even murder. This week they had been given a prompt to write about a life-changing event, something that had happened to them or to somebody else. Laurel had struggled with it, because the prompt was so broad and life-changing was a bit over-used. Still, she had managed to come up with nearly three thousand words about the time somebody had given her a book of poetry. She had been a young girl and the gift had taught her to love poems, to continue reading them her whole life.
That part, the gift, had been true. Laurel often used a real-life experience as a point of departure, then gave it a big twist at the end. Her writing made people think, because she chose serious topics, but she was skilled at using irony to make them do a double-take. This time was no different. At the same time, some old book of verse wasn’t going to impress a lot of people. It just happened that Laurel was a bit ‘different’ - she found things in words that a lot of people missed.
Now it was time to read. The pot of hot water for tea was on, as well as the pot of coffee. Somebody had stopped by the store for cookies. There were six people in the group this time. Two had been unable to make it. Andy started, according to the straw he’d drawn, which was the shortest. His story was titled, ‘“Only this and nothing more.” The plot could be boiled down to a brother and sister playing, then the sister slips and falls to her death. People listened carefully, but although Laurel remained expressionless, it didn’t seem so much life-changing as life-ending. The brother, who must have been around five when the tragedy happened, was never the same after that.
After Andy, it was Karl’s turn to read. He’d written a story about a car crash. Everybody knows how car accidents can definitely leave their mark on people. It was like he’d really been present at the accident, even in the car. Apparently the driver had been distracted and gone off the road at high speed. Those things happen, as everyone knows. The title of the story was “Ice.”
When it was Phyl’s turn, she seemed a bit reluctant to read but was finally coaxed into sharing her tale, which she had titled, “Right Between the Eyes.” Laurel was aghast at the way an eight year old girl had pulled a gun out of a drawer where it never should have been, pointed it at her uncle, which she never should have done, a pulled the trigger. Needless to say, the gun ought not to have been loaded. A tear trickled from Phyl’s eye as she put down the pages. Her voice was quaking. The others rushed to congratulate her, hoping to stem the emotion she obviously felt.
In all, four members of the group had written about fatal accidents as life-changing moments. Laurel only had her simple book of poetry to offer. Nobody dies in her story. She even had brought the book with her to show how much it still meant to her, but she knew her writing that week couldn’t hold a candle to the others’ stories.
The meeting was over, and all agreed to write without a prompt for the next week, which was normal. They liked to alternate. Laurel preferred that, writing without a prompt, and over the next seven days, worked hard on a story about an odd girl from her high school named Sharon Kahn. Sharon had flappy arms and twisty lips, an unflattering nose and too many freckles. At twelve or thirteen she dressed like a woman in her fifties. She was gangly and her shoes clomped. Laurel chose to write about Sharon because, even years later, she remembered the cackling, ungainly girl and wanted to imagine a future for her. She titled her story “Not an Ugly Duckling,” but it wasn’t a good title, so she planned to change it.
Once again, late on a Thursday afternoon, the writing circle members gathered for their session. Everybody in the group liked Laurel. They thought she was nice, whatever that meant. Maybe it meant she wasn’t an edgy writer and so would never show them up. Maybe nice really meant naïve. Suffice it to say they weren’t afraid of her as she sometimes was afraid of them.
Everybody figured that Laurel wrote purely fictional pieces, even when she did the story on the poetry book. Nobody’s life is that affected by some old nursery rhymes. (But they weren’t nursery rhymes. The book had Masefield’s “Sea Fever” and Longfellow’s “The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls” and Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven.”)
The circle supposedly allowed its members to read their work without fear of harsh criticism or the need to be perfect in style and structure. It was to build up confidence in telling tales. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a secondary plot starting to emerge, and that made Laurel nervous.
The sense of another purpose on the part of the group began when three members wrote murder mysteries. The stories by Andy, Karl, and Phyl had been sheer coincidence. That was, until Laurel figured out that the writing was not fiction (but it’s a fiction writers group…). She had understood that because of the way the trio looked at each other kind of sideways-like and even curling a lip once or twice.
Maybe it would be good to try her own murder mystery. Off she went to reread all of Poe’s short stories, a few of Lovecraft’s, and even several by Stephen King. She created a character who was an evil neighbor who trapped little children who lived in the area and starved them to death. (Sounds kind of like Hansel and Gretel, she thought.) That was exactly what everybody else thought at the next gathering of the writing circle. Poor Laurel. She had good intentions, but she didn’t have what it took to create a gory murder scene with cruel characters and painful, agonizing death.
The others in the group were good at that, though.
The same week as Laurel’s evil neighbor story, Andy, Karl, and Phyl came in with impressive fiction about murders committed by psychopaths. Laurel wasn’t sure she understood how a psychopath thought, so she listened carefully. It was as if the child characters in their previous stories had grown up and continued to be present when a death occurred. Again, there was an excess of coincidence, and Laurel briefly considered leaving the group because of the odd feelings she was getting about it. It must be the fact that they’re such good writers, she told herself. I should stay. Might learn something.
And so another week went by, with the faithful group members arriving excitedly. They glanced at one another. This time Andy, Karl, and Phyl were joined in their choice of plot by Ellen. In fact, eager to read because she’d been absent for two weeks, Ellen started things off. Her story was titled, “Dropping Down the Well.” Laurel thought the title reminded her of a phrase often used by Julia Cameron for writing morning pages, describing how the writer just drops into a deep space of concentration and comes up for air when the writing is done. She immediately realized that was the wrong take. Ellen had laid out, in fine detail, how to murder someone by trapping the person at the bottom of a deep well. The details, moreover, were uncannily constructed. Everyone shuddered, then smiled. Everyone but Laurel, that was.
There were three more stories about the perfect murder - one about a car accident that revealed brake lines had been cut, one using the old ground glass method of disposing of a spouse or lover, and one that made use of poison from some weed that’s easy to forage in Maine. Or maybe it was a mushroom. Laurel wasn’t able to concentrate, because each one of the tales had a backstory, circumstances that were not fictional, and too obviously something in the personal experience of the writers.
Laurel read her story, which had something to do with time travel, and it was received politely. No blood and guts, nobody knocked off by a crafty killer, no violence whatsoever. What she noticed as she was reading, however, was the way the four authors of the murder mysteries shot glances at each other again. They weren’t smirking at her, but the knowing expressions on the four faces were unnerving.
The following week everybody had followed a prompt again. This time the main character had to be a sociopath (just a step up from a psychopath, thought Laurel) who lives a normal life until something triggers him or her into action. This was beginning to be too much of an effort for the one member of the circle who wasn’t entertained by gore and violence like the others were. Another member who’d been away for a few weeks showed up this time. Laurel had been unable to write anything, so she just wanted to listen. At least that’s what she told the group.
That was a lie, but it allowed Laurel to study the readers more carefully. As they read, their faces showed the sheer enjoyment at having bodies be mangled and thrown out of a window or weighted down and submerged in a pond. They also seemed to know the stories being read, as if they’d let others see what they’d written prior to the group meeting, or… as if they had been there when the things in the stories had happened. Except, of course, that everything was all just fiction.
Laurel continued her modest attempts at writing, but she knew there was more going on than met the eye. Her eye, anyway. She decided she needed to do some research if she wanted to achieve the same level as her writing companions. She changed her attitude, the way she approached her own stories, the narrative tension, everything. She worked hard. She waited. She hoped her effort would pay off. She didn’t want to dawdle too much, though, because she was wasting time.
Finally the story emerged from her imagination. It had taken a few weeks, a few complete failures, and maybe a glass of wine or two, but Laurel was ready. Just in time, because that session, two of the group had included a character with her name in their stories, and that character had perished very painfully. The authors sat up straighter after they finished, then looked at her, almost gleefully. Funny how the object of their stares didn’t feel the same glee. The fictional Laurel, in both of the tales, had been killed because (1) she knew too much; (2) she didn’t want to cooperate with the sinister maneuvers in the narratives; and (3) she hadn’t shown enough appreciation of the literary talents of those around her.
Laurel slipped her story out of the folder she always brought to the meetings. It was where she stored everything she wrote, and the folder was getting quite thick. Soon it would be time to start filling another one. She hoped. It would all depend on the success of this story, if the other writers understood her intentions, if they were able to unravel the plot. She took a deep breath, sipped a little tea from the paper cup, and started:
There once was a writing group. The members were very good at what they did, and, judging from the weekly results, they put a lot of effort into their stories every week. The topics were predominantly ways to commit murder and get away with it. They had an amazing ability to get inside the heads of assassins and create a scenario where all the details fell into place nicely. They had a good knowledge of what weapons were the most effective and how to make even the motives of a mad person sound logical. They were clever, clever enough to get away with the crimes they committed, clever enough to escape before the police could catch them. They were so incredibly clever that they were almost acting in broad daylight and yet nobody ever suspected them.
As Laurel was reading, at least four of the persons in the group looked around, nodding appreciatively and with gazes that encouraged her to keep going. They had never seemed to enjoy her work this much before, but a couple were even rather puffed up now, as if they were in her story.
The story went on to detail accidents very similar to the ones written about by Andy and Karl and Phyl, down to the years and settings. It felt like Laurel was plagiarizing them, didn’t it? That wasn’t ethical, especially since the creators of those stories were sitting right there. Then there was the well, which was identified as located near Bath, on the coast and just five miles away. There was also the pond, which turned out to be Run-Around Pond, somewhere in the direction of Durham or New Gloucester.
The names of the victims were also identified by Laurel in her story, unlike the victims in her writing companions’ works. In those, the victims had remained anonymous, although they hadn’t been randomly selected. No, there had been, as noted, very good motives for the protagonist’s decision to deceive, mutilate, dispose of the bothersome individual. It didn’t matter if the victim had been a friend, relative, lover, business partner or someone else. They had all been sentenced to death by the writers and the well-deserved sentences had been carried out.
“How did you ever come up with that original idea?”
Everybody was clamoring to know where Laurel had gotten the inspiration for her story. They really wanted to know. Usually her writing was on the innocent or childish side. Her stories weren’t as well developed as theirs, not as well-written and verisimile as theirs. It was almost as if she had written it from real life.
Finally she had done it. She had a story that was believable and worthy of the others’ admiration. She could invent and kill as well as they could. Well, maybe not, because Laurel’s story didn’t include any dead bodies, not directly. It merely referred to the ones in the other stories from the group.
The session was over, the tea, coffee, and cookies were cleared away, and everybody except for one person was getting ready to leave. Laurel didn’t budge from her seat, however. She was humming a children’s tune as her gaze turned toward the exit of the second floor seminar room. Ashes, ashes, all fall down. The doorway was filled with dark uniforms and badges, waiting to escort the writers, psychopaths, sociopaths or whatever they were, to the police station.
Shipping powders back and forth
Singing black goes south and white comes north
And the whole world full of petty wars
Singing I got mine and you got yours
While the current fashions set the pace
Lose your step, fall out of grace
Ashes, ashes, all fall down
(Ashes, ashes, all fall down)
Ashes, ashes, all fall down
(Ashes, ashes, all fall down)
~ The Grateful Dead, “Throwing Stones.”