PLEASE READ Chapter 2 instead of Chapter 1. Chapter 2 is a revised version of Chapter One, amended for clarity.
The Corner Building On Electric Avenue
The drippy ink on his ancient quill pen fell in globs onto an empty piece of parchment. The plop plop plop set his face off in a grimace, mouth contouring as his fingers began to crush down on the edge of the paper. Just an instant before he'd converted it into a crumpled ruin he hesitated, hand withdrawing while he stared at the pure white facade now stained, bleeding black to its edges.
With a sigh he withdrew, the chair beneath him grinding on the wooden floor as he pushed way, a sigh escaping his throat as he turned away. His etched hands passed through his thick strands of hair, pulling the increasingly long strands back, out of his eyes and restoring his vision. He tramped about the room a bit, pacing as his hands ran over each other in repeating strokes. Finally, heaving out a final brath, he went to the window. Drawing apart the curtains, he looked out onto the street beyond. It was dark, but the lone lampost on the corner cast a shining blue glow in the dark.
He watched it for a second. Its craftsmanship was superior, its body inlaid with ornate strokes that trailed all the way upward to its head. There the bright light filled the street, illuminating the road beyond. Dull blue trails shimmered at the edges, where the road met the sidewalk. Incredibly rarely a car would hum by, the green bed beneath it alive with energy as it passed along, moving to parts unknown. His own vehicle sat out there, near the corner of the intersection. He imagined he could see the dust collecting on its roof, and he chuckled.
Pushing off, he went to the opposite wall. Tapping at the steel monitor framed by oak wood paneling, it burst to life with humming streams of light that coalesced into a calendar. Vibrant letters blazed across the top with the word APRIL. Tapping at the number 20, it filled with a crimson digital "X". It was a depressing sight. The entire calendar to date was filled. He bit the top of his lip, eyes moving back to his desk. The floor was strewn with crumpled pieces of paper, the waste basket overflowing past the brim. Indeed, it felt at times he was nearly ankle high when he went back to his chair.
His brow tightened as he stared at the sight. His eyes lingered a moment before he was able to tear himself away, moving toward the door to his room. The golden knob, ornamental, turned at his approach, the door opening of its own accord as he stepped into the hallway. Five or six other such doors filled his sight, framing the carpeted pathway like a parade of soldiers honoring their king. Tucking his hands into his pockets he shambled along, head hanging as he moved along. The steps creaked as he took his first steps, the speakers alongside the railing producing the noise. It was necessary to fulfill the illusion of being in an old home.
His downward twisted lips twitched for a moment as he glanced to his left, down the hallway to the lobby and the bar beyond. Framed in the hallway exit was a young woman. Her burning red hair framed a thin, pale face, ocean blue eyes sparkling in the dim light. Her black maid's dress came down to her knees but clung just enough to her body that he could make out the curves of her hips, his breath catching in his throat as he stared for a moment. As his eyes climbed their way up to her eyes, he realized she was staring at him, and he stumbled back in surprise.
She smiled, like a beam of sunlight erupting out of the darkness of the night. "Mr. Rossen. Would you like me to clean your room yet, or do you keep insisting that you leave it a mess?"
"What? Oh, the room. Right," he replied, forcing a nervous smile that only barely managed to crawl across his features. "No, I uh, I just think that leaving it that way is… motivation."
"Motivation? So, you made progress today?"
"Oh." She looked slightly disappointed. "I'd hoped the famous Arthur Rossen would have at least been able to show me a page or two by now."
"I wouldn't call myself famous. Well known, perhaps. Famous is overstating the case just a tad."
"Don't be so modest!" she encouraged him, stepping forward, her hand resting lightly on her hip as her legs crossed one another just so slightly. "You've sold, what? One million copies? Two?"
He held four fingers. "Four million. Though I could always do to sell more, I suppose."
"Maybe that's what your next book will sell."
"If I ever get through with it."
Her footsteps clicked upon the hard 'wood' floor, every inch of distance crossed increasing the pace of his breath in tandem. "You're brilliant, Mr. Rossen. Everyone knows how absolutely amazing The Noir Future is. Didn't you say they were thinking of making a movie about it?"
"Yes. Well, maybe. I don't know, it all depends really. You can never tell what producers and directors are going to do. My agent is saying we have a good chance, though."
"You'd better start getting to work on that sequel then. You've almost been here a month and you still don't have anything new to show. I've been hoping to read some of your new work before it was uploaded to the stores."
He chuckled, eyes going to the roof above. "Writer's block isn't the most easily cured of diseases. Although, maybe I'd feel a bit more inspired if you came by to keep me company some day."
She leaned away, her smiling becoming mischievous. "Mr. Rossen. You know I can't do that. Do you know what my employer would do to me?"
"I guess you're right. Not supposed to be alone with clients in their room, right?"
"Those are the rules of the house."
He shook his head, burying his hands further into his pockets. "Of course. Well, it was worth asking, I suppose. If you don't mind, though, I was thinking of getting myself a drink."
"Oh, of course! Please don't let me keep you. You'll keep me updated on the book though, right?"
"Absolutely. I'd never dream of withholding it from you."
Defying all belief, her smile grew even wider and brighter. "That would make my day."
"Great. Well uh, see you soon?"
"You couldn't miss me. My routine's the same every day."
He gave her a final hesitating smile as he ducked his head, scooting past her and toward the lobby. The overhead chandelier cast a blaring yellow light around the room, its electric candles burning through their glass bulbs. The electric sign on the wall burned with a light of its own, gigantic letters that screamed MELIES INN roaring along at speeds nearly too fast to read. As he walked along he glanced uncomfortably at a cabinet so large it was elephantine. It would easily require the strength of nine or ten burly men to lift and leaned just so slightly forward. Arthur was incredibly observant and the sight of such a thing even leaning even just a few degrees forward made him shiver. He was an anxious person all around though, and shook off the feeling. Instead he focused on the entry to the bar room. He passed through and underneath the arch leading to a drastically different area. He departed from light into dark, a room filled with small circles of light cast along the walls by the overhead globe. Low burning lights sat upon a multitude of tables filling the vast room, while a bar lined with neon blue lights filled up the far right world. Without hesitation he moved to it, hands sliding along the bar as he greeted the man beyond with a nod.
Rossen raised a hand. "Good to see you again, Jack."
The man nodded in return, his globular face lined with a brush-like moustache that painted his lips. "Ello Arthur. Good as always."
"Right, right. "
"Same as usual?"
"Vodka soda, a little heavier on the vodka than usual."
Jack's lips curled slightly. "Rough day?"
"More than rough. I'm barely making any progress on this book. Hell, I'm not making any progress on it. Just… All I do is stare at the damned paper until I yank myself away a few hours later. My room looks like a garbage site."
"Well ya' know, Juliet's been asking about that," he replied. "Says she's offered to clean it more than a few times. Is what she's supposed to do, Arthur. It's her job."
"Yeah, I know, Jack. I've just always believed that if I leave a mess around like that, I'll eventually be motivated to do more."
"Is it working this time?"
Arthur's head dangled. "No."
"Might want to change that routine up a bit then, Jack. Ya've only got a week left on your room. Not that a man like ya couldn't pay for more time, but we've got the whole place booked up the day ya' due to leave." He poured two separate bottles into a tall glass, then slid the mixture across the bar. "Got to make some kind of progress by then, y'know."
"I know, I know. I'm just so… stuck. I couldn't tell you why. Some part of me thinks it's the stress of finally having become successful. I don't know how to follow up. The first time I wrote a book, I was just so… high, I guess. High on my own emotions. I had so many things to get out. Now I feel like I'm just empty."
"Is not a good thing, m'boy. But I can't say I completely believe ya'. Humans just don't go empty. Maybe ya' just not facing up to what ya' feel. Can be a hard thing. Take it from an old man."
Arthur's brow crinkled as he brought the glass to his lips, taking a satisfying drink. "Well if you're saying I'm running away from my feelings, that's what I've been saying. I'm scared of my success."
"I just don't know if that's all. Sounds to me like ya've got some soul searching to do." He paused. "When's the last time ya' knew what ya' wanted to write about?"
"Well, right before I got here, actually. Then… things just went black. The whole reason I came here was to be alone to work on new material. Now I don't have anything. What am I supposed to tell my agent when I get back home? That I pranced about for a whole month doing nothing?"
"No. But I think ya' might want to consider what got ya' mind off track."
The distressed writer leaned forward, his head lightly tapping the bar for a moment. "Nothing. Nothing I could think off, anyway. I can't think of anything really. That's the problem. How can I write if I've got no thoughts in this cranium of mine?"
"Ya' have to be thinkin' of somethin' when you look at that paper of yours."
For a moment Arthur glanced up, his eyes then drifting back to the archway leading back into the lobby. "Well, yes. I suppose there is, but…" He shook his head. "But it's impossible."
Jack arched an eyebrow. "Don't tell me it's Juliet?"
"I know, I know Jack. It's impossible."
"Ya' know the rules, Arthur. Ya' know what trouble she'll get into if she were alone with ya'."
"Ya', Jack, I know," he said, raising his hands. "Like I said. I know it's impossible."
"Damn right it is," he said, reaching across the bar and slapping the man over the head. "Get ya' head into the game Arthur." With that the bartender stepped away to set his bottles back onto their appropriate places on the shelf. Arthur huffed, lips flapping as he glanced around, eyes jumping from one couple to the other. Around him the dull light fluctuated as the circles of light drifted over his body, a mournful tune composed of electronic notes playing softly in the background.
Arthur drearily tapped the calendar on his room, the number 23 filling with a great red "X". His frown was etched deeply into his face, his face starting to pepper deeply with black strands as his beard grew out, while cords of twisted black hair fell in front of his eyes. He swiped the threads of his hair back, adjusting his sweater as he emerged from his room. Outside, the dull hum of a car caught his attention for just a moment, his eyes running up the hall and to the window facing the street. He hesitated a moment then, licking his lips, he rolled his shoulders and walked away. His feet quickly went down the stairs, his eyes catching sight of the clock on the wall.
"My God. 1:00 A.M.," he whispered, smiling slightly and shaking his head. He'd been up even later than normal, staring at an unforgiving piece of paper that refused to yield its secrets to him. As he turned the corner of the gigantic cabinet that tilted slightly on the uneven floor, his shoulder catching on it as he pushed past it, he could have sworn it seemed an inch or two more forward than normal. He paid it little attention as he entered the dark room. At this hour most of the patrons were gone, though a few still lingered, mostly lonely men or women like himself. Just one or two couples remained to torture his mind. Unfortunately, at this hour, Jack was gone. Resigning himself to this, Arthur quickly ordered a drink from the bartender, taking his usual and quickly finding a table in the corner. Obscured by the dark, he was like a pathetic wraith, obsessed with his own miseries.
The music around him seemed to drape him in some form of perpetual cloak, its sad, slow tune covering him. Heaving out, his hands stretched forward over the table, he leaned over and put his head to the table. He lifted it up and down a few times, tapping the surface with his forehead a few times as his hands drummed along on the edges.
A voice interrupted. "Are you okay?"
Arthur shot straight up, his eyes bursting to life as the voice rallied him from his depression. "What? Who is… oh!." He hesitated, looking at the image in front of him. She'd abandoned her maid's outfit and stood in a shimmering black top that matched her modest skirt. "Juliet. Oh, my God, Juliet. So sorry, I must look quite the mess."
"No, no, you're alright Arthur!" she said with a laugh, taking a seat at the table. "I hope you don't mind."
"What's that? Oh, of course not. No, I mean, you're more than welcome. It's just that I thought you couldn't be alone with me."
She gestured around the room. "I don't believe we're alone. Unless you have a different definition than I do."
"I think we're both working from the same dictionary." He gulped and then exhaled a heavy breath. "Soooo. What can I do for you?"
"Don't act like that Arthur. I want you to be happy. And you don't seem happy."
"I suppose not. Things have been a bit… rough, shall we say."
Her head tilted slightly as she eyed him. "It would be a shame for you to spend a month here only to leave sad. I know that's not why you came. This is… what? At least your third time here in the last year. You've never come for this long, and you've never looked so alone."
"Yes. I agree I haven't been my usual self. Although, we never really talked the last few times I visited. I guess we slowly got to talking after a few times but we've never really sat down like…" He motioned around the table. "Like this."
"You've never seemed so unhappy with your stay. I had to come by and talk about it."
"I appreciate that. I think. What about you, though? How are you? I can't imagine what life in a place like this is like."
"I can't complain. I am completely employed and they give me all the housing I'll ever need. Aren't there a lot of people that would wish for that?"
"You think so? I don't know. One of the reasons I come here is because I need a break from the monotony. Normally a stay here gets my creative juices flowing but this time though, I don't know. I couldn't tell you what is wrong." He chuckled. "Really, I couldn't tell you. I just find it amazing you're happy spending so much time here."
"Well I get to make people happy Arthur. That satisfies me. That's why it's so unsatisfying seeing you over here by yourself. I have to admit, I have a special… attachment to you. I guess that's not strange since you come by so often."
"Hopefully that's not creepy."
"I don't think so," she said with a smile.
"So if someone just took you away from all this. Took you to… I don't know. Neo Tokyo. Second London. You're telling me you don't think about that?"
"Not really. Is that strange?"
"For someone like you? I suppose not."
"I've never really thought much life outside what I have. Maybe that's a fault of mine. I'm not really designed to be ambitious, I guess."
"Oh Juliet. I just wish you could see what the world looks like from the top of the world. It really is… beautiful. Something to behold. Something inspiring."
"Then why are you here?"
He smiled, a sigh escaping his lips. "I don't think I can say."
For the first time in his life, he saw her frown. "That's… very sad."
Arthur sighed as he tapped the calendar of his room. "Day 26. One more day, Arthur," he told himself. Instead of heading to the doorway, he veered to his right, entering the bathroom. His hair was now well over his eyes and his beard a thick, shrubbish thing. With a pair of scissors he quickly cut the longest offenders from his bangs before grabbing a razor. With speed he shaved the stubble away, the lightness of his own skin quickly becoming apparent once again. He whipped a towel from its place on the shelf and ran it over his face, clearing away any clean strands. "Time to face up to what you feel, Arthur," he told himself, echoing Jack's words from a few days before. His hand wiped over his face as he inspected himself, tugging at the bags around his eyes and clearing any last strands of hair that stained his cheeks. With a heave he stepped back from the mirror, just in time to hear the door ring. His eyes flew to the clock. "Two thirty already?" he asked himself as he stepped back into his room, eyes flying around. Yes, it was still a tremendous mess, just as he'd intended.
He moved to the door and it opened in response, just as always. There, standing there, was a beaming Juliet. Her maid's dress decorated her body, her hands clutching a few tools. "Arthur!" she exclaimed at the sight of him. "What a strange time to want your room cleaned."
"Yes well, I'm a writer, I keep strange hours," he said with a grin, his hands running down the sides of his pants as he nervously wiped away sweat. "Anyway, I suppose I should let you…?"
"Right, I need you to step out for a bit," she said with a wink, her head tilting toward the hall. "Maybe head down to the lobby? The bar's closed for the night but we have plenty of reading material."
"Of course, of course," he said as he scooted by her. "I'll see you shortly?"
"Half an hour and I'll be done!" she said with a perfect cheer.
Always beautiful. Always happy. Always perfect. He couldn't stand being away from her and, just as the door began to close, he leaped forward. She gasped as he flew into the room, her mouth contorting as her features took on fear for the first time since he'd met her. "Arthur! What are you-?"
"I know, I know Juliet, I'm sorry. I know you'll get in trouble, I just couldn't stand to go without saying this to you. I needed to. I needed to tell you. The whole reason I keep coming back, the reason I haven't been able to get my mind on my work, the reason I keep sitting alone in that bar… is because of you! I just… I can't breath without thinking about you, can't sleep without thinking about you. I look at the pieces of paper on my desk and all I see is the color of your skin."
She shook her head, trying to push past him. He headed her off, grabbing at her arm, but she pulled away with enough force to whip him off. "Arthur! You know… you know this is wrong. I can't be in here. And what you feel for me…" She shook her head, moving to the door. It swung open as she rushed into the hall, his feet quickly taking her to the stairs. Arthur's footsteps pounded the floor in quick pursuit as she escaped to the lobby. He could feel a knot in his stomach and a tight ball in his throat as she came to a stop at the front door, turning to face him.
"Arthur. Arthur! Stop it. Stop. I'm already in trouble because of what happened. And now… what? What will you tell me next? What will you do next?"
"I love you Juliet. I want to take you away with me. I want you in my arms. Is that so wrong? Is that so impossible? You're just… perfect. Everything I've always wanted." He stepped just in front of the cabinet, the floor underneath him giving slightly as he did so. "Why can't I have you? What in the world could I do to make you mine?"
"Arthur… it doesn't work like that."
"But…" His words were cut off as a groaning filled the room. This one was made by no speaker, but came from the very real sound of the mammoth cabinet as it tilted over, its heavy oaken frame speeding toward Arthur. He fell to the floor, hands desperately flying up to protect his body. He screamed in fear as his eyes shut, his body bracing. Then the sound of slamming and wood snapping filled the air. Quickly his eyelids flew open to see Juliet standing there, back braced against the massive piece of furniture. She stared into his eyes sadly as she alone carried so much weight on her back.
Jack wiped down a glass. "Funny. We want most what we can't have. Like we're geared to want the impossible. Is like ya' can't just be happy."
Arthur nodded, heaving. In his hand he carried a single piece of paper, the long tears of ink now dry. "What's wrong with me Jack?"
"Nothing. You're human, Arthur. Problem was, she's not."
He nodded. "Yeah."
"You going to be back to this place?"
"You know, Jack. I don't think so."
"Might not be be such a bad thing."
Arthur gave a half smile, the drifting electronic music filling the air as it had from the day he'd arrived. Extending a hand, he clasped Jack's firmly. "Thanks for putting up with me."
"Was nothing to put up with Arthur. Pleasure knowing ya'."
"Likewise, Jack." With that he saluted the man with two fingers. Spinning on his heels he walked out toward lobby. His face pinned downward, he almost didn't notice the figure in front of him before he'd bumped into her. Suddenly his face flew up as he swerved to avoid her. "Juliet!"
She smiled, nodding. "I'm glad to see you're okay today. I was… concerned after yesterday."
"Yes well, you know, we move on." He slid away, the door to the inn opening as he came near. For a moment he stood in the archway before he slid to the frame, eyes staring at her. "Juliet."
She took a few steps closer, standing opposite of him. "Yes Arthur?"
"About yesterday… I'm so sorry."
"Don't worry, Arthur. Things… happen."
"Juliet… I meant what I said. I meant every word, and if there's any chance… I mean, ever, anytime…"
She frowned. All the times he'd seen her frown had been on this trip. "I'm not designed to feel that way, Arthur. I'm concerned for you. I want you to be happy. But I don't love you. I don't know if I can love you." Juliet shrugged, but saw as his eyes fell, his two pupils carving up the pavement beneath. "But who knows? Maybe one day I will. Maybe if we keep knowing each other... Maybe my program will evolve. Or maybe they'll make a new program that lets me love someone. You don't know. Maybe one day I could love you."
"Right. Maybe, one day," he said with a forced smile, looking up at her. "Well, I suppose I should be off."
He took a step beyond and onto the pavement leading away, but turned a last time to wave at her. "Goodbye Juliet."
"Thank you for staying at Melies Inn! Please return and visit us soon!"
Arthur paused there for a moment, smiling, half in horror, half in amusement. "Right," he said as he walked away. Pushing a thumb to the pressure plate on the driver's side, he unlocked the door. Sliding within, he glanced a final time at the figure of Juliet as she vanished back into the hotel. For a moment he sat silently in his car, his chin tilted upward as he examined the ceiling. It took a moment of heavy breathing to calm himself until, finally, he set the piece of paper onto the passenger's seat. He glanced at it a moment, chuckling, as he activated the vehicle. It hummed to life, its entire body elevating off the pavement of the street. Then, putting a hand to the wheel, the car began to accelerate away. As it did, he fumbled into his pocket a moment. It took only a few seconds of searching before he found the small device, which he brought close to his lips. Eye on the neon blue road that stretched into the unending distance, he began to speak into the recorder. "Chapter One. The Unending Pursuit. She didn't love me. Could never love me. But I loved her all the same…"