Paddling Upstream Ch. 07bystrickland83©
With school back in full swing, Lindsey reminded me of my promise to speak to her class. Once I was fully committed, she confessed that the "class" had grown to be the entire student body. I protested half-heartedly but she convinced me that having a professional writer speak to the students about writing was a rare opportunity and the school wanted to make the most of it. I had hoped to have more interaction with the students than something resembling a press conference would allow. She assured me that there would be opportunities to do workshops later, and she grinned at that. I realized that I had been roped into this. Had it been by anyone else, I would have backed out. I couldn't refuse Lindsey anything, though. She held my heartstrings.
The day for my talk arrived and I went to the school. Nervously, I let myself be ushered to the stage in the cafeteria. It was a typical public elementary school. After lunch, the tables had been moved aside and the chairs rearranged into auditorium configuration. Lindsey introduced me, explaining that I was a famous author. I cringed at that. I still hadn't told anyone else in town who I really was.
"Hi," I started. Realizing how lame that sounded, I tried again. "My name is Michael and I want to talk to you about writing. Does anyone like to write for fun?"
A few hands went up. The sea of faces was mostly indifferent.
"I like to write. When I was in school I liked to write for fun. Now it's my job but it's still just as much fun."
A hand went up—a question.
"Do you really get paid for writing?" a shy girl asked.
"Yes, I do. That's how I earn my living. When people buy my books in stores, I get a little bit of the money they pay."
"What kinds of books do you write?"
I drew in a deep breath.
"I write romance books—stories about people in love."
"Are you and Miss MacAllister really going to get married?" came another question.
"Yes, we are," I answered nervously. Somehow I didn't feel as much in control as I expected I would be.
"Is she still going to be our teacher?"
Lindsey saved me by stepping to the microphone.
"Mr. Newcombe has taken time from his very busy schedule to be here today to talk about writing. Let's let him stick to that topic, please."
She had used that teacher voice, the one that let you know you had better do what she said. I fought to keep a straight face. The next question was back on topic.
"Where do you get the ideas for your books?"
"That is a good question. I take inspiration from the things around me. Things I see, things I hear, people I meet," I said, giving Lindsey a quick glance.
"So I could go to the library and look you up?"
I felt nervous again.
"I don't write my books under my real name. I use a pen name," I explained, feeling the tension rise.
"Why do you to that? Are you ashamed of what you write about?"
I was starting to sweat.
"No, not at all. Many writers do this."
The question I knew was coming was next. I had hoped to avoid it.
"What is your pen name, Mr. Newcombe?"
When the child asked that, I could sense the few adults in the audience leaning forward in their seats. Everybody was curious about who I was. I looked over to Lindsey but she just returned a neutral expression. Was it time to come out from hiding? I licked my lips, my mouth suddenly dry. I cleared my throat.
"I write under the name of Ken Stryker," I said.
Immediately, there were whispered comments throughout the room.
"Hey, my Mom reads him!"
"I read him," said one of the older girls.
"I can't believe Ken Stryker came to our school."
"Who is Ken Stryker?"
That last comment was from one of the older boys.
There. I had done it. I had shed my last layer of protection. Lindsey looked shocked, but perhaps a little pleased. She knew I had just taken a big step.
After that, there were questions about my books and about what it was like to be a professional writer. I told them about how I write, what working with an editor is like, and what it feels like to go into a bookstore and see my books on the shelves. It was actually much easier to talk about writing after I had stepped out of the shadows. Before I knew it, my time was up. Lindsey stepped up and took the microphone from me to ask the students to thank me for visiting. When I could spare a glimpse at my watch, I saw that I had talked half an hour beyond my originally scheduled time.
The children were dismissed and herded back to their classrooms. Lindsey stayed behind to talk to me.
"I can't believe you told them who you are. You do realize that news will be all over town in a few hours, right?"
"All over town?" I asked, surprised and now nervous again.
"Well, let's see. School gets out at 2:30. By 3:00, the mothers will hear it from their children."
"It's a small town," I chimed in, echoing what Maria always told me.
"Right. I suspect the last people in town will hear by, oh, dinnertime."
"What have I done?" I asked the air.
"What you should have done a long time ago. I'm so very proud of you, Michael. You took a big step today," Lindsey answered.
"I hope it was the right one," I said.
"It was," she reassured me.
She had to return to her classroom after that. The principal thanked me for coming, seeming a little more awed in my presence. That is not what I was hoping for. I didn't want people to treat me differently now. I hoped Lindsey was right.
By 4:00, one of my neighbors rang my doorbell. She was holding one of my books and she asked me to autograph it. I laughed and did it, inviting her in while I found a pen. The doorbell rang six more times before Lindsey showed up.
"I'm not so sure this was a good idea," I told Lindsey.
"You were famous before. Now you're just not hiding it," she explained.
"I think I liked hiding it."
"It's too late now to put the genie back in the bottle," she said.
After that, people in town did treat me differently. The newspaper wanted to interview me. People stopped me on the street to talk to me, or ask me to autograph a book, or ask me what my next book was going to be about. Even the radio station asked me to do an interview.
Within two days my agent, George, called.
"Michael, my friend, what have you done?" he asked.
"What do you mean, George?"
"My boy, I have been getting calls from the press, radio and television. They say you have been granting interviews and they all want to be next. What is going on down there?"
"Oh, that. Well, I kind of came out of hiding."
"You did? Good for you! That's great!" Excited, George spoke rapidly. "Now we can use this to our advantage. I want to book you on some network shows. How soon can you get free? We can get the radio and television appearances done at the same time. The print work can be done down there if you prefer."
"Hold on. George. I only told a few people who I was. What're you talking about?"
"I'm talking about you, Michael. Ken Stryker. He's the hottest thing on the street today. We have to capitalize on this. I wish you had told me you were going to do this before I shopped publishers. I could have gotten a little more for your book."
"The rest of the country has heard about this?" I asked, astounded.
"Yes, we have. I have been telling you for years that your fans want to meet you. That little lady must've really done a number on you to get you to do it. Remind me to thank her when I meet her. Can she come with you?"
"Hold everything, George. All I did was tell some school kids who I was and word got around town. How can that be all over the country?"
"Simple, Michael. That local paper did a story on you and the story got picked up by the news wires, the big boys. When can I start booking you on talk shows?"
"George, I didn't do this for publicity. I'm not ready to go public with—"
"It's a little late to put that genie back in the bottle," he told me.
"Yeah, that is exactly what Lindsey told me, too," I lamented.
"She must be some piece of work. Talk to her about coming with you."
"George, I'm not sure I'm going yet, and I won't expose Lindsey to all that."
"Why not let her make that decision for herself?" He paused, then continued sounding more serious. "Michael, your job is to write books. Great books. My job is to sell those books, to sell you. Now is the time to get you out in front of your book-buying public. Exposure sells books."
He sighed heavily, and I could even hear his chair creak as he must have been leaning back.
"Don't give me an answer right away. Think about it. Just don't take too long. We have to take advantage of all the free publicity before it gets cold. I'll call you tomorrow morning to talk about this again."
"Okay, George. I'll think about it, but no guarantees."
"Thank you, Michael. Talk to Lindsey, too. I'm sure she'd want you to do this."
That idea scared me.
I was having dinner at Lindsey's house that night. After we had eaten and were sitting on the sofa, I told her about the phone call from George.
"How long will you be gone?" she asked in a small voice, a sound that told me she wasn't looking forward to me being away.
"I haven't said I'd do it, yet," I told her.
I reached over and rubbed Brisco's head.
"It's a lot easier being a cat, Brisco. Don't let anyone tell you anything different, okay, fella?"
Lindsey cuddled up against me, not saying anything. I reveled in the feeling of her soft body against me, the warmth, her scent, the brush of her hair.
"I don't really want to do this. George tells me I need to do it to sell books."
Lindsey didn't say anything. She was just letting me talk.
"Maybe I should retire."
She still didn't say anything. I felt it against my side when she chuckled, but she remained silent.
"This is really scary," I said, looking down again at Brisco and envying him. All people expected from him was to eat, sleep and use the litter box. Oh, and a little love and affection from time to time.
At last Lindsey spoke.
"I think we both know you can't just walk away. You love writing too much."
As she said that, she looked up into my eyes for confirmation. She smiled gently when she saw it.
"This isn't really about selling books, either. You're not in it for the money. I mean just for the money. You write because you love to write. You can't help but write."
This woman had come to know me so well. I had an arm around her as we sat on the sofa and I squeezed her shoulder a little at those words. I heard her draw in a deep breath before she continued.
"Remember how you told me you go into libraries and bookstores just to see your books on the shelf? That's what it's all about. Telling stories and seeing that people enjoy reading them. That is the fulfillment you get out of this."
She paused to think for a moment. Brisco took the opportunity to rub his head against my hand, demanding a cheek scratch. I obliged him.
"The more you write, the more you have to write. Maslow was right, you know. You have attained success but you're still climbing the pyramid. You won't ever be satisfied with what you've accomplished. You're still seeking self-actualization.
"Your fans are so interested in you because they want to know more about the man behind the books. You've been keeping that from them. They love the books and now they want the chance to love the man who wrote them. They want to know you. You have to give them that chance."
"I'm afraid. What if they don't like the man behind the books?"
"You do not have to worry about that."
"You just say that because you love me," I said as I kissed the finger wearing the engagement ring.
"You have been anonymously famous for so long. Now you took a step out of the shadows. You can't retreat. It is far too late for that."
"What if they want to know about my personal life?"
"Do you mean me? I don't mind. Tell them about me if you want to. Or don't. I have you. That's what matters to me."
"What if they ask about Theresa?" I asked, feeling the fear and pain grip me.
"So tell them about Theresa. Tell them about the love you two shared. Nothing can change that. It's a big part of your life. It is what shaped who you are. Don't be ashamed of it. Tell them about her. Let her live in their minds, too."
"How did you get so damned smart?"
"Teachers have to study psychology, you know."
"I didn't know that. It makes sense, though."
"So how long will you be gone?"
"I don't know. I hadn't told George I would do it. I guess I am. Now."
She just smiled.
"He asked if you would come with me."
"Michael, I'm a teacher. I can't just take time off for a trip. Not during school."
"What about the holidays? You get Thanksgiving and Christmas off, right?"
"There. How about a trip to New York for the holidays?"
"Are you serious?" Her change in tone betrayed her excitement at the prospect.
"Of course I am. We can go to New York for Thanksgiving. Or Christmas. Or both."
"I don't know…"
"Why not? You want me to do this. I want you at my side when I do it."
"It's the first holiday without Grandpa."
"I know. It'll be the first for me without Theresa. We can be there for each other."
"If I go—" she started to say but stopped when she saw my expression. "I am not saying that I will, but if, how much work will you have to do? Will we really have time to spend together?"
"Of course. We'll have lots of time to be together. George talked about a few interviews and maybe a book signing. I've never done those before, but from what I hear we can do them together."
She was quiet for a few minutes.
"New York might be nice at Thanksgiving. I have all week off. And it would give me a chance to shop for your Christmas present."
"So you'll do it?"
She leaned over my lap.
"What do you think, Brisco? Should I go to New York with him?"
"Say yes, Brisco," I prompted.
"He's the one who told me I should take you back," she said as we both looked expectantly at him.
Brisco yawned. It was a big cat yawn that showed his teeth in detail, along with the ridges on the inside of his throat. When he finished, he crawled across both of our laps and lay down. Then he started to purr.
"I think he approves," Lindsey said.
"Good boy, Brisco," I told him, and gave him a scratch behind his ears.
George was delighted when I gave him the news the next day. When I told him Lindsey was going to come with me, he was even happier. He thought our love story would mesh perfectly with my coming out as a romance writer.
"What do we do now?" I asked him.
"Let me make a few calls. I think we can assume a few talk show appearances, probably radio and some book signings."
"We want some time to ourselves, too," I told him.
"You'll have plenty of time for that. Maybe two or three days are all I need. You can fly up on Saturday morning and I can have you home by Wednesday night. Or you can stay and have Thanksgiving in the city."
"I can't believe I am really doing this, George."
"You should have done it a long time ago."
"I know. I wish I could have given this to Theresa."
"You know she will be there, at your side." George paused. Then, in a weaker voice, "You know they might ask about her."
"I know. Lindsey and I talked about that. If it comes up, I'll talk about her."
George cleared his throat before saying, "I'm proud of you, Michael. For a while there, I thought you'd never write again."
"It is time to move on," I told him.
Within days, George had me booked for a few television appearances, my first official book signings, and meetings with the publisher of my upcoming book. We planned to leave on the Saturday morning before Thanksgiving. Lindsey would be out of school for the entire week. The weeks leading up to the trip were happy times, full of anticipation over traveling together. I spent most of the time writing, wanting to get a lot more of the book out of the way before I left. Lindsey kept very busy dealing with school and getting ready for the trip. The right clothes were essential, she kept insisting, and she didn't mean only her. She insisted that I get a few new suits for my public appearances. I let her take control and was led along as she outfitted me. I enjoyed watching how much she was enjoying herself doing this for me.
The Saturday finally arrived cool and clear. We left my house before sunrise because we had a long drive to the airport. Since Fournton was not near any major hubs, and because we were traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday, we couldn't get a direct flight. In fact, the trip would involve three flights. The first was really a commuter hop to Dallas. George had us booked in first class, but that didn't mean much on the small plane. We were in the front, but the seating wasn't really better.
Lindsey was visibly excited. She had never been to New York. I arranged for us to stay at a low-key hotel I had used before, in case the publicity became an issue. I wanted to shield us from that, but I doubted it would be necessary.
The first flight was uneventful. While waiting for the next leg in Dallas, I noticed on the television that the weather in the northeast was getting worse. It looked like we would be having a bumpy flight. Sure enough, the flight to Atlanta was rough. Lindsey had flown before so she wasn't nervous, but it was obvious she wasn't comfortable.
Our takeoff from Atlanta was delayed due to the weather. Again we were stuck on a tiny plane. This time it was a tiny commuter jet, so small that there was only one flight attendant and no first class. We sat on the crowded plane for an hour before we took off, after a three hour layover. Once in the air, the pilot announced that he was going to leave the seatbelt sign on because we were expecting "bumpy air." We tried to settle in for what promised to be an uncomfortable two hour flight.
Less than an hour into the flight, there was a rapid series of bangs and the plane suddenly yawed hard one way, then the other. A scream erupted from behind us. I looked down the aisle but couldn't see anything. People were screaming, panicking. There was another bang and I felt a painful pressure in my eardrums as they blocked. Equally as sudden, a mist formed throughout the cabin and flowed toward the back of the plane. The oxygen masks fell down from the ceiling, like oranges suddenly sprouting on a tree. Screams and flying paper filled the air as the cabin got really cold. I knew something was very wrong but I wasn't sure what. The nose dropped rapidly—we were going down. The plane began to shudder. I could hear the engine on the left side screaming now, like we were taking off.
Lindsey was in the window seat and when the plane had yawed we were both thrown against the window, with her head caught between mine and the window.
"Sweetheart, are you alright?" I yelled at her over the noise and chaos, with fear tingeing my words.
I checked her for bleeding. She was okay but she would have a nasty bruise. I looked up to get the attendant's attention for some ice.
Wearing one of the yellow oxygen masks, the flight attendant picked up a microphone and told us how to put on our masks, repeating the safety briefing I had long ago learned to ignore. The flight attendant got up from her seat, carrying an oxygen bottle. Supporting herself on the seat backs against the steep forward angle of the plane, she had just started down the aisle to check on us when, behind her, the telephone dinged rapidly several times. The ring was distant, quieter than it should be. She turned around at the sound and returned to the front, picking up the phone. As she turned back towards us, her eyes grew wide. She nodded a few times, and then hung up the phone.