Day One Hundred and Fifty-six: Character Work
Sean slammed the door and started piling furniture in front of it. The pumping station was quiet, except for his breathing and the scraping of steel desks against the concrete floor. He had blocked the main entrance, but the zombies would get through that pretty quickly. All he had to do was keep them out, and he’d stay alive.
But for how long? With the door blocked, he lit a flare and propped it in the corner, filling the station with red, flickering light. The great machines cast terrible shadows against the high ceiling, and those shadows made him nervous. Too many places to hide. He wanted to check his watch, but there was no point to that anymore. He’d locked them out, yes, but unless they decided to go off and hunt someone else, he’d also locked himself in.
He took a deep breath and reviewed what he had. A handgun, with no ammunition. A shotgun. Also, with nothing to fire. No more grenades, only a couple more flares. He still had his knife, though. The one he’d gotten when he finished SEAL training. It had never left his side, and he hoped that he’d be brave enough to use it on himself if the zombies did manage to break through. No food. No water. Soon, he’d be able to hear the ungodly gurgle and howl of the zombies outside the door.
Sean gripped his knife and took a few deep breaths. One way or another, he was dying in this room tonight.
Wes practically slammed the enter key when he finished that line and fell back in his chair. He took a deep breath and let it out, and then rubbed his eyes for a few moments before saving the document. He had been writing that sequence for days, and when he finally got his teeth in it, he blasted the whole thing out in a couple of hours. He did a quick check of the word count – a hair under seven thousand, which wasn’t bad at all. Great, actually, considering the story had been coming in drips and drabs for the last few weeks, barely shuffling along any faster than the zombies that were supposed to be the driving force.
“Why did I choose zombies?” he asked himself as he saved the file again and set it to print. This book had been sitting on his hard drive for ages, taunting him. He’d have an inspiration, spend a weekend pounding out the pages, and then it would all go away again, and he had no idea why. He liked his characters – even the ones he’d killed in gruesome ways. And Sean Danfield was a good character. You can’t go wrong with a Navy SEAL in this kind of story, and what with the abandonment by his father when he was a kid, Wes figured he could have the poor guy searching for some kind of psychological closure all the way up to the end of act three.
It was just getting him to act three that was the problem. “How the hell am I going to get you out of there?” he muttered.
“Wait just one goddamn minute,” a voice said. A man stepped out of his hallway, bloody and exhausted. He probably would have been handsome in a normal setting, if he wasn’t covered in gore and looking like he was about to snap and kill someone. And holding a giant knife. He had glossy black hair and deep brown eyes that Wes knew drove the women nuts. Or at least, they had done in the first chapter, before the zombies showed up. He strode towards the desk, the knife clutched in his hand. “What the hell do you mean you don’t know how to get me out of there?”
“Now isn’t a good time, Sean,” Wes said.
“The hell it isn’t!” He slammed the knife, point-first, into Wes’ desk and the wood nearly split.
Wes looked up at him. “Please, Sean. This is IKEA. It can barely withstand the tremendous pressure of just being a desk.” He put on what he thought was a kindly smile. “Don’t worry, Sean. I’ll find a way out of there for you.”
The big man was trembling as he stood there, and then he walked to Wes’ big overstuffed chair and slumped into it, his head in his hands. He didn’t cry – Wes was absolutely sure that Sean Danfield didn’t cry – but he was as close as he’d get to it. His voice was thick and quiet. “When?” he asked. “When are you getting me out of there?”
Wes levered himself up. “I don’t know, Sean. Eventually.”
“Eventually?” Sean looked up and his eyes were rimmed with red. “No no no no.” He stood up and rand his fingers through his short-cropped hair. “I can’t do eventually. Not like the time you left me in that police station for – what was it, six months?”
“A year,” Wes said. He almost felt ashamed.
“A year,” Sean whispered. “Jesus.”
Wes watched him for a moment, and then went into the kitchen to make coffee. It usually did a good job of calming Sean down. The first time Sean had shown up in his living room, Wes was terrified. That would, of course, be the only rational reaction to having a complete stranger, armed to the teeth and scared out of his wits, show up out of nowhere in your apartment in the middle of the afternoon. But once it became apparent what was going on, the relationship between the two men turned… different. Sean was well aware of the fact that Wes technically controlled his destiny, but Wes was equally aware of the fact that he needed Sean if he was going to finish the book. And so an uneasy detente was formed. Sean agreed to spend as much time as possible in the story, or wherever it was that he spent his time, and Wes agreed to write the story to the best of his ability.
Would that it were that easy. Wes’ poor habits made it hard to keep Sean’s story moving, or even necessarily making sense. More than once he’d had to backtrack and start a section again, just so he could get Sean out of a bind that had no exit. And it looked like he might have to do that again now. The problem was that they further he got in the book, the harder it would be to unmake the plot without starting over.
He carried two cups of coffee out to the living room and set the black in front of Sean. The man had his head back, and was staring at the ceiling. Wes sat across from him and sipped in the silence.
“Did you know that Leah was going to die?” Sean asked. He bent forward and cradled the mug in his hands.
The silence lingered for a minute. “No,” Wes replied quietly. “Not until it happened.”
Sean put the mug down. “How could you not know?” He put his head in his hands. “How could you not know something like that?”
All Wes could do was shrug. “Sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes the story surprises you. The characters surprise you.” He picked up his own cup. “I mean, it was something she would do, of course. Saving your life like that.”
“I didn’t want her to save my life,” Sean said. “Not if it meant losing her.”
There was really nothing to say to that, so Wes didn’t say anything. He just let his coffee cool on the table for a while. Sean sat, immobile, staring at the floor.
Finally, Wes stood up. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get to work.” He held out a hand and waited for Sean to take it.
The other man didn’t move. Wes offered it again, but still Sean sat still. Finally the man said, “What if I don’t want to?”
Wes’ hand fell. “What?”
Sean took a deep breath. “What if I don’t want to go on like this?” He looked up, and his eyes were full of despair. “I can’t do this anymore, Wes,” he said. “Losing my friends? Running just a half-step ahead of certain death all the time? Watching the world I knew just…” He spread his fingers and stared at his empty hands. “Just fall apart?”
He shook his head. “I can’t do this anymore, Wes. Let them in.” He stood up and walked slowly over to the computer, caressing the screen. “Let them break down the door. The blockade I made isn’t that great, after all. They’ll get in eventually.” He tugged the knife from the desk. “Give me a moment to use this, and it’ll all be over. For both of us.”
He stared at the knife, turning it to catch the light, and Wes felt for the first time like he was in some real trouble. “Sean,” he said, carefully putting an arm around the man’s shoulders. “You know I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” Sean whispered.
That was a tough question. Wes had an answer for it, of course, and any good writer would have had the same answer. He just didn’t think that Sean would believe him. He took a deep breath and let Sean go. “Because that’s not the kind of character you are, Sean Danfield. And you know it.”
Sean crumpled to his knees and – to Wes’ shock – started to weep quietly. The moment was terrible, but there was a part of his writer’s mind that was absorbing the whole thing, thrilled by the revelation that there was a place Sean could go that he hadn’t forced him to yet. That there was still another layer that could be stripped away. Wes could use that, and he felt like a monster even to acknowledge it. He got down beside his character and helped him stand up. “Come on,” Wes said. “Let’s get you out of there.”
He pulled over another chair, sat Sean down in it, and then settled down in front of the computer. He jiggled the mouse to turn off the screen saver and went back to where he had left off. “Okay,” he said. “You’re in the pumping station, the zombies are right outside. What do you do?” He looked over at Sean, who was still staring at the floor. “Come on,” he said. “Is this what they taught you in SEAL training? To give up?”
That got his attention. Sean looked up, and his face finally had some life in it. “No,” he said.
“Okay then!” Wes cracked his knuckles and waggled his fingers over the keyboard. “So. What do you do?”
Sean stood up and retrieved his coffee before answering. “It’s a pumping station, right?” He nodded. “Okay. So there’s probably, what… Maintenance tunnels or something?”
Wes grinned. “There are now,” he said, and started typing furiously. Sean sat down next to him and watched the words pour onto the page and offered ideas where he could. They worked that way long into the night.
When the chapter was finished, and Sean was safe – for the moment – Wes sat back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. When he opened them, the chair next to him was empty. The other coffee cup was cold. He stretched, saved the chapter and then shut down the computer. Four in the morning, another five thousand words.
“Nice work,” he said. “Thanks for your help.” His jaw cracked in a yawn and he plodded off to bed for a long sleep.
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