"Please leave a message after the tone." Beeep.

Tom had left the telephone ringing for the answering machine to pick up. He sank into his couch and was fishing around the back for the remote when the furious voice of his agent filled the room.

"This just can't go on Tom... I've left six messages already these past three months! You haven't given me anything for over a year..."

I'm aware of that, Tom muttered under his breath. He found the remote, turned on the t.v., held down the "channel+" button and let the flickering images wash over him.

"...Look - I can't work with you like this. You have two weeks. Fourteen days. Get back to me." Beeep. "Message left at. Ten. Forty-t..."

Tom threw the remote at the answering machine - it missed by inches, hit the wall and broke into pieces, somehow turning the t.v. volume up to maximum at the same time.

"Shit," he leapt up to the t.v. and switched it off in complete frustration, cursing at nothing and everything.


***


Every writer fears writer's block. Tom had had it for a year - and a year was a long time for a short story writer with barely any savings and no other source of income.

It was one in the morning, and he was on the brink of collapse. The pad of paper in front of him remained blank, an untainted white staring defiantly back at him. He had not slept for a week.

A childhood of gorging himself on horror films and books and an overactive imagination had convinced him that he wanted to be a horror writer. He had written a few short stories, found an agent and got quite a bit of money for his writing - and buoyed by this success he had given up his day job to devote himself to doing what he loved. At the time he could not believe his luck. Now he was not so sure.

His financial situation was dire. Overdraft used up. Credit card maxed out. Bills. Rent. More bills. His agent had been on his back for months, and was now threatening to drop him. Stress, no sleep. No sleep, brain can't function, more stress. Vicious cycle. He felt like a zombie teetering on the edge of sanity.

He needed inspiration, and he needed it desperately like never before.

He made himself some coffee, the aroma clearing his foggy mind a little and somehow injecting him with a renewed determination. He was not going to sleep anyway, might as well work through the night/early morning. He hoped the caffeine would help.

He had read somewhere before that often the subconscious works, processes and links information when we are not aware. Well it seems to have been on extended leave recently, Tom bitterly thought to himself.

He needed stimuli. Something to give his stagnant jelly of a brain the jolt it needed. But what? He looked around his wasteland of a flat, his desperate eyes searching through the rubbish and the crumpled-up paper of dead-end ideas littered around his flat. They settled on his old horror videos.

Of course, he thought to himself, I need to get back to basics. These videos were his roots, the roots from which his love for horror grew. What he needed was to surround himself with this horror, shutting out everything else so his subconscious could have no distractions from working on the problem at hand.

He closed the curtains, put Texas Chainsaw Massacre into the VCR and turned off the lights. Nothing like a classic to jolt the senses.

After that he followed it with A Nightmare On Elm Street. When he thought he had really had enough for one night, he retired to his bedroom, put Nick Cave's Murder Ballads on the cd player on repeat, put on the headphones and let hell engulf him, his tired insomniac eyes in the dark staring at the ceiling wide awake.


***


Tom woke with a start, covered in cold sweat. He realised he had had a nightmare - and it surprised him that he actually fell asleep after all. His headphones had fallen off his head and off the bed, but he could still hear strains of "O'Malley's Bar" from the headphones on the floor. The images of his nightmare were still swirling around in his mind.

His memory of the nightmare was blurred as he cast his mind back to it - he could only recall bits and pieces. He remembered he was watching a psychopath through the psychopath's eyes in first person as the psychopath brutally slaughtered a man in an office block - Tom didn't remember much else about it, but the image that would not let go in his mind was the way the man was killed - the psychopath tied this man's necktie around an overhead electric fan in the office, then switched it on and watched as the man was pulled slowly by his tie towards the fan, as the man screamed and screamed.

Tom was sitting on the bed, still a bit shaken by the brutal and bloody dream, when suddenly his writer's mind woke up to the fact that inspiration had finally paid him a visit - that here was something he could use. After all, as a horror writer, he dealt in nightmares. And writers are cannibals, devouring everything in their lives to be regurgitated at a later date when needed. Well Tom needed them now. He jumped out of bed and rushed to find pen and paper to write down what he could remember, before it all faded back into the dark recesses of his mind.


***


After not writing anything for so long, he found his imagination hungry and eager. His pen flowed. He laboured over the story all day, filling in the gaps, the context and the characters, and by late afternoon he was finished. It was not quite enough for a story, but it was a start, Tom thought to himself, feeling elation like he was floating on air. He was completely exhausted - the nightmare had drained a lot out of him - but there is not a high like inspiration for a writer, and Tom was riding on the crest of a wave and thoroughly enjoying himself like he had not been for quite some time. This was, he remembered, why he wanted to be a writer in the first place.


***


That night Tom repeated the process. He was scared to change any of the environment or his routine in case inspiration desert him once more, so he stayed in the flat and kept the curtains closed. When night came he watched some more horror videos - this time it was Halloween and Friday the 13th, and then again, murder ballads on repeat as he drifted off to sleep, which he did much quicker this time, as if his mind was eager to go on another dark adventure.

And sure enough, he woke up in the morning to find his imaginative and hyperactive subconscious had once again done its job. This time he had pen and paper ready on the bedside table, and he recorded his nightmare, clearer and more vivid this time, once again looking through the eyes of the killer, another almost amusingly inventive and brutal method of slaughter. Things were finally starting to look up for him, and filled with excitement, he spent the rest of the day fleshing out that part of the story.

The next few days were the same - he remained loyal to his routine, and his subconscious was reliably weaving its dark magic around his dreams, which were if anything growing ever more vivid and imaginative. Every morning he woke up exhausted, but the joy of inspiration and creativity sustained him, kept him going. Police sirens wailed outside - it was always a rough neighbourhood and Tom thought it a rather apt touch to the horror-themed surroundings in which he was trying to envelop himself.

By the sixth day he had finished his story, and ecstatic, he faxed a copy to his agent - he was simply too exhausted to leave the flat. Then he slept like an innocent baby with a clear conscience.


***


Feedback from the agent was great - several magazines offered big money to serialise the story and his agent had taken the highest offer, and after taking off his own fee put the rest into Tom's account. The agent was happy, and so was Tom. After paying off his rent and a small portion of his other debts over the internet, he found there was little money left, but he did not allow that to dampen his spirits. He had found his source of inspiration and this should keep him going for a while. Money was finally starting to come in again, and fame, judging by the interest his stories had attracted already, should follow not too far behind.

Writing was a lonely life, and with what little money he had left he thought he'd go out and have a good night, get completely drunk, maybe find himself a woman. He hadn't had human contact for so long and it was probably not very healthy. Yes, he would go out tonight. He was feeling good about himself.

He was just about to go look through his wardrobe to find something decent to wear when there was a knock on the door.


***


He opened the door and was slightly disturbed to find two policemen.

"Sorry to bother you sir, but there's been, as you're probably aware, several murders in the neighbourhood in the past few days. Can we come in to ask you a few questions?"

"Er, sure, come in..." The two cops looked around at the mess in his flat with barely disguised disapproval on their faces, but Tom couldn't care less what they thought. "Actually fellas I haven't been out this week, so didn't actually know there were murders in the neighbourhood...

"I'm a writer, you see," he felt compelled to explain. The cops nodded politely.

"Well sir there's been a spate of them in the past week, so we're going around knocking on doors for information..."

"What kind of murders?" Tom asked, ever the consummate writer on the lookout for research opportunities and potential writing material.

"I tell you sir this is some sick psychopath we're dealing with." His colleague grunted to indicate his agreement. "Necktie round electric fans, power drills, hooks, dismembered body parts fed to pets..."

And he continued with more of the gory details, glad to have someone with whom he could share the horror he had seen, until he noticed Tom's face going deathly pale. "Are you alright sir?" Tom at this point looked like he was about to pass out, so the two officers helped him to a seat on the sofa. "I'm sorry, I probably shouldn't have told you all that...," the officer said apologetically, "but it's like some horror movie nightmare, I tell ya."


***


Tom desperately tried to process what he had just heard. It had to be some sort of coincidence. How could he have seen all that in his dreams? He couldn't have been psychic or something - that would be crazy. Yes, it must've been some sort of mad coincidence.

"I'm sorry officers," he rose uneasily from his seat, "I don't have any information to give you, I don't know anything as I haven't been out. In fact before you knocked on the door I was just about to get dressed and go out, so officers," he said as he walked towards his bedroom, to find some clothes and also to get some thinking space away from the cops, "if you'd excuse me." I need to go out, his mind was screaming, I need to get out of here.

He left the cops in the living room, walked into his bedroom and opened his wardrobe, trying to think clearly about the situation. What he saw next made his legs buckle from under him, and it was all he could do not to cry out.

In his wardrobe was a pile of his outdoor clothes. They were all soaked and caked in congealed blood.


***


Closing the wardrobe in a panic he leaned his back against it, desperately trying to breathe and stop his whole body from shaking, as realisation slowly dawned on him. He did not hear the phone ring.

"Sir, are you alright?" The officers appeared at the doorway to the living room with worried looks on their faces, "Your phone is ringing sir."

"LEAVE IT," Tom heard himself say, slightly too loudly. "Leave it. Whoever's calling can leave a message." He was glad the phone was ringing, otherwise he thought the cops might hear the wild and guilty beating of his heart. He ushered the officers out of the room as the answering machine took over from the ringing.

"Please leave a message after the tone." Beeep.

"Hello Tom," it was Tom's agent, much friendlier this time. "I got you more work, if you can give me more of your k-r-azy stories." Tom's agent chuckled, amused by himself. "I know you could do with the money Tom." His gleeful tone was like some sharp instrument scratching against the back of Tom's mind. "Your deadline's in two weeks. Have fun writing!" Beeep. "Message left at. Ten. Thirty-one..."

Tom stood there with the cops in his living room as his mind put the pieces together like a plot in his own stories. "You really don't look too well, sir, perhaps you better sit down for a bit..."

He let the cops help him sit down once more. Suddenly remembering his about-to-be-published stories he had a moment of panic, but he recalled that he had also changed much of the details and context, enough so no one would make the connection, and he calmed a little. He should be safe there.

He thought of his debts. He thought of his past year spent completely bereft of inspiration. He thought of the blood, and how he could not turn back time. He thought of the money. He composed himself.


***


"Well," Tom said in a steady voice as he stood up to open the door for the cops, "looks like I'm not going out today. And sorry I couldn't help you with your investigation.

"Now if you'd excuse me fellas, I've got some laundry to do," he walked the cops to the door, "then I've got another deadline to meet."




inspired by the deadline to The Blood is the Life: A Frightful Halloween Quest

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
-- Douglas Adams

"C'mon, pencil! Make words!" 
-- SpongeBob SquarePants

Many of us, when faced with a deadline, tend to push it. For some writers, there's a certain creativity-enhancing rush to be found in putting a story off until the very last minute. College tends to foster this kind of work habit, and after a couple of semesters you may find yourself regularly vanquishing deadlines with the help of the 24-hour pizza delivery joint and Mountain Dew. Other authors may fully intend to work on deadlines at a steady, civilized pace, but they've got families and day jobs and emergencies that blast their high-flown intentions to dust like clay pigeons.

I used to feel bad about pushing deadlines, but I decided that's a waste of emotional energy. I do have a day job that makes it hard to stick to a steady writing schedule, but when you come right down to it, I know I'm a binge writer at heart.

Still, when people hear you're a last-minute writer, they tend to think you're either hopelessly disorganized or a fear junkie. A friend once said to me, "Oh, you have to scare yourself by waiting until the last minute to get your adrenaline going, right?"

Well, not exactly. My first story deadline, yes, that gave me a cold sweat, because I didn't know for sure that I could actually get the work done. But that first story was a long time ago; I know I can do it now. So deadlines aren't usually that scary any more.

So why do I, more often than not, find myself tossing down a few cups of coffee and tapping away at 3 am? It's because I have a noisy mind: thoughts and memories barge in like obnoxious in-laws, my Inner Child whines for ice cream, and worst of all, my Inner Editor glares over my shoulder, critiquing the placement of every comma and clause. Yes, you know the Inner Editor, don't you? Some famously alcoholic authors started hitting the sauce in an effort to get theirs to just shut the hell up already.

When I've had just enough coffee, and am just a bit sleepy, all the cross-talk in my head fades, and I can settle down and get work done. When things are going extremely well, I'm probably inducing a kind of trance state, and I can be extremely productive. (For me, anyway; my best run to date has been 10,000 words over two and a half days, which pales in comparison to Gary Braunbeck's writing 40,000 words of Mr. Hands over the course of seven days; his Herculean writing binge happened after a series of unfortunate events and a surprise move-of-deadline. But it helps to know that it can in fact be done.)

So, my biggest fear is that I'll develop some kind of condition that prevents me from drinking coffee. Tea, much as I love it, just doesn't cut it, nor do most fancy energy drinks. Besides, coffee has been found to cut the risk of Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's disease, and those are far worse than any missed deadline.

Respect the deadline, and respect the bean. I'll have mine hot with one sugar and one cream.

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