A/N: My first ever short story! I wrote this for a competition. Short stories have never been my genre, but I don't think this one's too bad.
The place was a dump, Justin thought, looking around the room. It had been decorated in that era when brown curtains and embossed wallpaper were the height of fashion, and the carpet was an ugly orange-brown stained with thirty years of spilled drinks and God-only-knew-what-else. The air conditioner was broken, of course. Cynically, he doubted it had ever worked. It had, no doubt, been put there by a forward-thinking designer who, imagining the room's future squalor, decided that the broken air conditioning unit would complement it nicely. Justin imagined that it had been the same person who had stuck the windows shut. He had to admire their thoroughness, if nothing else. He loosened his top button, wishing again that he weren't so overdressed. Outside, the city basked in the comparative pleasantness of a heat wave. In there it was a furnace.
The dumpy woman in the cat t-shirt smiled at him. He smiled back as briefly as he could without being overtly rude, then looked away. What was he doing here? He had better things to do than spend an hour of his life with a roomful of crazy cat ladies. Yet here he was. When the local writing group had asked him to give a talk he hadn't thought he'd be subjecting himself to this. He knew it would be bad, but this was just pushing it. If he'd pictured this moment a year ago, he would never have written the damn book in the first place.
He took a seat, feigning an intense interest in his Blackberry so he wouldn't be forced into conversation. He was relieved when a woman (he assumed her to be the clan leader) stood up to address the small group. She had one of those irritating, nasal voices Justin hated so much, but he was polite enough not to look pained. Well, too pained.
'We're lucky enough to have with us today Mr Justin Clements, the author of Bloodstains,' she said, smiling so brightly it almost made Justin nervous, 'who is going to be speaking to us about writing.' She paused to let the rest of the group (Crazy Cat Lady, Treehugger, Angry Black Woman and Supergay Man, Justin named them silently as he looked around) clap politely and he forced a smile, nodding to acknowledge their applause. People like that shouldn't be allowed to speak, he thought, hoping Nasal Woman wasn't about to start talking again. It's noise pollution. He didn't like the way she said 'writing'. She made it sound like a religion. Or a cult.
He realised that they were looking at him expectantly, and he got to his feet. He cleared his throat impressively.
'To be a writer, you need to write,' he said. It was the most obvious thing in the world; the same old crap he spouted everywhere he went, but somehow people always been surprised to hear it. Sure enough, Crazy Cat Lady had started taking notes. He sighed inwardly. People were so painfully predictable. He carried on, saying whatever came into his head first. He hadn't bothered to prepare a talk. He knew they would lap up anything he said, and then carry on writing the same drivel regardless. Nasal Lady would write about nice young girls marrying nice young men; Crazy Cat Lady would come up with god-awful stories about anthropomorphised kittens; Treehugger would write some feminist shit about her vagina being Mother Earth, or something; Angry Black Woman would lament racial injustice and Supergay Man would write angsty pieces about being rejected by his parents. It was pitiful really. Justin knew them as well as if they were characters he himself had created. It depressed him to think that such clichés could be walking around in the real world. He finished his talk and sat down, privately congratulating himself for getting through another talk and managing to sound like he knew what the hell he was talking about.
'Thank you, Mr Clements,' cooed Nasal Lady. 'A veritable Dickens of our time.' She beamed at him. Justin tried to look modest rather than nauseous. These people were ridiculous. 'And now,' she continued, 'let's hear what Katrina's been working on.'
Justin caught the look she gave Katrina – no, Treehugger, he preferred Treehugger – and thought for a moment that there was something odd in it. He dismissed it. What was creepy in the real world was probably run-of-the-mill here. He turned his attention to Treehugger. Her name had jogged something in his memory. He wondered whether he hadn't met her somewhere before. In fact, he thought, looking around the room, he could say the same of any of the others in the group. Had he been here before? He had no recollection of it, and he was almost certain that all the times he had been on hard drugs had been spent in exotic locations (well, seedy bars, at least), not at a writers' group in the local community centre.
Treehugger began: 'Our tale begins with an empty swing. On that swing had sat a child, but that child had long since grown up and disappeared. He – ' she stopped, looking at Justin. 'Is anything wrong, Mr Clements?' she asked, concerned. 'You look rather pale.'
'No,' he said, but it sounded unconvincing even to him. He cleared his throat and continued: 'I'm fine. Please, carry on.'
Katrina nodded. 'He lived in a town unremarkable in many ways. The only thing remarkable about the town was the people who lived there – '
Justin got up, almost knocking his chair over in the process. He didn't want her to carry on because he knew exactly what she was going to say. She persisted, no longer reading off the page, but looking him in the eye as she spoke. 'Marly, with the houseful of cats, Ewan, the baker's gay son who no one spoke about, Mercy, the only black woman in the town, Sonja, who ran the PTA, and Katrina, the hippy who planted flowers in the gutters.'
They were all looking at him now, and there was something menacing in their gaze. Justin remembered them now. 'This is ridiculous,' he said, taking a step backwards. 'How did you find…? I never finished…'
'We know you never finished,' said Mercy. 'Two chapters. That was all. Seven… No, eight years ago now. And then you got bored and never touched it again. We know, Because we've spent the past eight years waiting.'
'Ridiculous!' Justin repeated. 'I mean, I've had fans going through my stuff before, but this – ' Their expressions made him falter. These were no fans. He didn't want to think about the alternative. Suddenly frightened, he turned, heading for the door.
'The door is locked,' Sonja said calmly. 'We thought we'd keep you here a while. Let you know what it's like to be suspended, unable to move on with your life. Just like you did to us. Because you got bored.'
'We want lives, Mr Clements,' said Marly, who suddenly seemed a lot less harmless and cheerful.
'And for that,' Ewan picked up the thread, 'we need your life.'
'No you don't!' said Justin, desperate now, feeling the force in those hostile eyes. 'I – I'll write more! You'll all have happy endings!'
His back was against the wall now. They were advancing on him.
Sonja shook her head. 'I'm afraid it's too late for that,' she said. 'You gave up on us because we were – what did you call us again? – oh yes, "clichéd". Our story didn't matter to you. So you left us hanging.'
'We can't wait any more,' Katrina said.
They were very close now. Justin sank to the floor, looking up at them. We wondered whether someone had spiked his morning coffee. God, he hoped someone had spiked his morning coffee. There was just no way this could actually be happening.
'Since you're so very fond of clichés, we've got one last one for you,' Sonja carried on. 'You know how they say the pen is mightier than the sword? Well, we've no swords, so we have no real standard of comparison, but…' She was turning a fountain pen over in her hands. Justin eyed it nervously. 'We thought you'd appreciate the reference nonetheless.'
Justin barely had time to panic as she seized him by the hair and yanked his head sideways with surprising strength before stabbing the pen into his jugular vein. Through the pain, Justin was dimly aware of voices.
'That'll teach him to finish what he starts.'
'And it's "about whom no one spoke". Idiot.'
Then they were gone.
Justin was left alone, slumped against the wall, as the blood mingled with the ink to make new and intriguing stains on the filthy carpet. 'So this is it,' he thought. 'This is…'