I was watching Creepshow 2 recently (my pandemic project is watching Stephen King media, adaptations and original film and TV stuff, it's fun), and enjoyed the segment "The Hitchhiker," a classic "vengeful ghost" story. But while I was watching it, I thought, "What does the ghost think about all this crazy shit?" Here's the story that came out of that thought.

This month's bonus for $5+ patrons is another trunk story, a cheerful holiday tale from 1999 called "Stabbing Santa." 



by Tim Pratt

The day after the worst night of my life, I saw the man I’d killed sitting in the reception area at my office, leafing through an old issue of the New Yorker. Half his face was patchily bearded, and the other half was gouged and torn by road gravel. He wore a bloody black hoodie and shredded jeans. His legs were twisted, one foot turned almost entirely backward, and his left elbow bent the wrong way, which didn’t seem to impact his ability to turn the pages. He stank of body odor, blood, and gasoline.

My secretary and woman-of-all-work Lois didn’t seem to notice him, though he was sitting just a few feet from her desk. She glanced up at me when I emerged from the inner office and said, “Mrs. Fletcher called about getting another extension on her income tax filing. Oh, and those missing invoices from Beecraft Brewing arrived.” She held out a folder. I glanced at it, then back at the dead man. “Mr. Ramsey?” she said. “Ethan? Are you okay?”

“Ah—I—” The man I’d run down (by accident, and he was definitely dead, I checked, and I wasn’t drunk when I hit him, but I’d been drinking, and the cops would have made a big thing out of that, and me going to jail wouldn’t bring him back to life anyway, and he since he was clearly a vagrant living beneath that overpass, probably no one would even miss him, and why should I ruin my life because of one mistake) stood up. He dragged one leg after him, his ragged boot scraping against the carpet, leaving a line of mud and blood. He leaned over Lois’s desk and spun around my appointment book (it’s paper; I’m old fashioned, and it’s how my first boss taught me). He picked up a pen, and scribbled a word I couldn’t make out on the line for 10 p.m. that night. Did it say... Penance? Revenge? Then he put the (now bloody) pen down and slid the appointment book back into place. Lois reacted to none of this, just looked at me with concern.

I took the folder from her hand and steadfastly looked away from the dead man. Clearly he was a hallucination brought on by a guilty conscience. Until the night before, I’d never done anything worse in my life than kissing one girl at a party while dating another in college, so naturally, my mind was—having a hard time processing the aftermath of the terrible accident. He wasn’t real. This wasn’t real.

“Ethan.” The dead man’s voice was somehow scratchy and slushy at the same time. I looked over, and he smiled at me with his half a face. Many of his teeth were broken or missing on the gouged-up side. I hadn’t noticed that, when I’d looked at his dead body. My mind was inventing that detail. I distantly found it fascinating.

I looked at my assistant and nothing else. “Do I have any more appointments today, Lois?”

We have an appointment, Ethan.” Blood drooled out of his mouth and spattered on the desk.

“Just one, at four,” Lois said.

“Could you call and reschedule? I’m... feeling under the weather.”

“You have looked pale all day.” Lois is in her forties, completely no-nonsense, and not at all motherly, so the concern in her face concerned me. I must have looked really terrible. “You go on home, and get some rest.”

“Rest?” the dead man slurred. “No rest.

I nodded to Lois and hurried out, not even bothering to get my briefcase or coat from my office. I stepped out into a brisk autumn wind, swirling dead leaves across the sidewalk. Some leaves had blown across the dead man’s body last night, one setting on his bearded cheek. That had horrified me almost as badly as his twisted body, and I’d rushed to my car and driven home, sweating and shaking.

I went to my car now, shaking again, and started it up. I looked over at my office door—an unassuming suite in an ordinary office block on a street full of those, in a part of town that was neither particularly good nor particularly bad. Just a small tax and accounting office in a small city, one of dozens, but this one had the hallucination of a dead man inside it.

As I drove, the car radio turned itself on, and a newscaster said, “Now for the ten o’clock news. Trade talks have broken down in—”

I twisted the knob and turned off the radio, whimpering. It wasn’t ten o’clock. That newscast wasn’t from today—it was from last night. I’d heard those words on the radio just before my phone buzzed and I looked down to see a text from my cable company telling me I’d used 75% of my monthly data allowance and then there was a jarring impact and a loud thump. I touched my chest, still aching and bruised from where I’d slammed into the steering wheel.

The radio came back on, and a new voice said “—in an apparent hit-and-run. The victim has been identified as Samuel Ray Simmons, a twenty-six-year old homeless man with a history of drug—”

I turned the radio off again. I glanced in the rearview mirror and screamed, because the dead man—Samuel Ray Simmons—was sitting in the back seat, arms stretched out like he was lounging in a limousine, elbow pointed the wrong way, face a grinning ruin. “See you at ten,” he slurred, and then opened the car door and dove out.

I swerved wildly, bringing a chorus of honks from the cars around me, but at least the violent motion made the rear door swing and latch shut again. I gripped the wheel with both hands and stared forward, heart thundering, driving exactly the speed limit, signaling with care, coming to a full stop at every marked crossing. The drive home normally took ten minutes, but this time, it took almost twenty.

I pulled into the driveway of my neat little bungalow, a starter home I’d purchased ten years ago and stayed in; I hadn’t married or had children, so there was no pressing reason to move. I was a decade older than Samuel Ray Simmons would ever be. He was just a homeless drug addict, that cowardly part of my mind whispered. Nobody would even miss him, he can’t be haunting you, that doesn’t really happen.

I got out of the car and walked to my front steps. A bloody handprint marked the white railing beside the steps, and the doorknob was covered in red and brown smears, but the door was locked. I let myself in and locked it again behind me.

I checked every room of the house. I found a single dirty footprint in the center of my bedspread, and a bloody chunk of hair in my shower drain, and all the food in my refrigerator was rotten and stinking, like it had been in the sun for days. If I hadn’t seen the dead man twice I would have believed I was the victim of a cruel prank—that one of the dead man’s friends had seen my crime and decided to drive me mad in retribution. But... maybe I was just already mad instead.

I took a kitchen knife, locked myself in the bathroom, and sat in the tub with the curtain pulled. I waited. Once ten o’clock came and went, this delusion would be defeated, robbed of its power. I set an alarm.

My phone alarm went off at 9:55, and I screamed, because I’d half-dozed in the tub. My body was cramped and twisted. I held up the knife in trembling hands and waited.

Five minutes is a long time to hold up a knife. My strength sagged and the weapon’s point dipped as I stared fixedly at the locked door.


I screamed again and dropped the knife. The voice was right in my ear, and I twisted and jerked violently away. The dead man crouched by the tub. I could suddenly smell his reek again. He reached in, picked up the knife, said, “Really?” and tossed it into the corner with a clatter. His voice was less slurred and broken than before.

He spat out a few broken teeth on the floor and cleared his throat. “I really want to kill you, Ethan. I have this strength in me, a strength I never had when I was alive, and I think I could twist your head all the way around and pop it off, so fast you’d still be conscious and aware and able to watch me drop your head facedown in the toilet bowl. I could paint these walls with your blood. That’s what I want to do, it’s a need as strong as—maybe you never did heroin, but I want to kill you as much as I ever wanted to do heroin. It’s more than a need. It’s a drive.”

He sighed and sat down, cross-legged, on the tile floor. The dead man’s face was a horrorshow of abused meat, but his expression underneath it all was pensive and thoughtful. “The thing is, Ethan... I have some moral and ethical qualms about all this vengeful spirit shit.”

He was looking at me expectantly, and he wasn’t trying to kill me, so I said, “What—how do you mean?”

“This whole situation is fucked up! I’m a revenant. Apparently. Returned from the dead to get revenge on my killer. And you are a low piece of shit, Ethan. A hit-and-run, for real? You think I’m a piece of trash because I had some problems? My life is worth nothing because I don’t have a fuckin’ house and a Prius and shit like you?”

“No, of course not, I don’t think that, I’m so sorry—”

“Save it. I know. I know a lot about you. You feel bad now, but only because there’s a genuine monster like from a story or a movie in your house. I admit, I got into the monster thing today. I liked being in your office, messing with your radio, being in your back seat, fucking with stuff in your house. I can be invisible, I can be intangible, I can do stuff to time and space and perception, but I can mess with real things, too, I could open your car door, I could punch your teeth out, I can do a lot. But... why am I here, Ethan?”

To kill me? That wasn’t something I wanted to say. “I don’t know.”

“Right?” He shook his head. “I know people who got killed in worse ways by worse people for worse reasons, and they didn’t come back to get revenge. I got no reason to think I’m especially special, or that you are either. So, why me, why you, why us? Is it just a case of the wrong cosmic place at the wrong cosmic time? The moon and stars were right? Some bad fairy or fairy godmother saw what you did and thought she’d mess with you by giving me this gross half-life? But this thing is messing with me too. I don’t want to be like this. I should be nowhere, in nothingness, which wouldn’t hurt, and wouldn’t be full of need.”

He spat out another tooth. “Plus, look, you killed me, but it was an accident. I know that. But now I’m supposed to kill you? On purpose? I was never a killer, man, not even a fighter. I didn’t even steal from people, just places, maybe at worst I’d snatch somebody’s phone or a laptop off a table at a sidewalk café. I’m supposed to be a murderer now? If this happened to you after you killed me on accident, what’s going to happen to me if I kill you on purpose? Will you start haunting me? Or maybe I will walk into the light, only it’s a red light made by the lake of fire my murderous ass is about to get drowned in forever. This whole deal has rocked my faith in atheism, Ethan.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said again.

“Prove it,” he said. “If I let you live, what are you going to do?”

I closed my eyes. “Turn myself in? I’ll go to the cops. I’ll confess.”

“I thought about that,” he said. “It’s a good impulse. But the thing is... I seem to be stuck to you. If I go more than about a hundred yards away, everything gets misty and vague, until I can’t see or touch anything but fog—except there’s a light, and that’s you, and if I come back, reality gets real again. You’re a white guy, and you got money, so you’d probably only do a couple years, but I don’t want to spend even that long in prison, man. I’ve spent a little time in jail and that was bad enough. No, there are other things you can do, ways you can try to appease my angry ghost ass, and you’re going to do them, Ethan.”

“Anything.” I hadn’t been ready to die, but I’d expected to die, and the giddy realization that this monster didn’t plan to kill me made everything seem possible again.

“This isn’t squaring shit between us, and you aren’t making things up to me, because you can’t. You get to live, and as long as you’re alive, you’re my bitch.” He thumped me hard on the bridge of the nose, making my eyes water. “Forget, whatever, kissing your girlfriend, getting married, going on vacations, I don’t give a fuck about what you had planned. That’s all done. You live for me now.”

Alive, alive, alive. “What can I do?”

“For starters,” he said, “you can get me some fuckin’ heroin, because this whole thing that I am right now hurts.”


The kind of bars I frequented had extensive whiskey lists and cute bartenders and leather upholstery. The bar Samuel Ray Simmons—“fuck, Ethan, call me Sammy”—had me visit was a different order of establishment. I opened a squealing graffiti-covered metal door in a cinderblock wall, and entered a dim space that reeked of old beer and a faint undercurrent of urine. The bar was long and dirty, the stools sagging, the tables rickety, the booths along one wall cramped and filthy.

“I don’t know how to buy heroin,” I’d protested, and Ethan had just laughed.

“It’s easy, man. It’s so easy fuckin’ junkies can do it.”

He told me where to go, and who to find. “Tell him Sammy Scribbles sent you.”

“Scribbles? I thought your last name was—”

He’d rolled his eyes. One of them was bright green, but the other had no white or iris anymore, just a wash of black blood. “It’s just what people call me, because I like to write sometimes, poetry and lyrics and stories and shit. Somebody probably stole my notebooks and used them for toilet paper by now, and thanks for that.”

I walked down to the last booth, where a doughy man in a leather jacket sat scrolling through his phone with half a beer at his elbow. I slid in across from him and said, “Ah, hello. My friend said you might be able to help me.”

“Who’s your friend?” The dealer didn’t look at me... or notice Sammy, sitting in the booth beside me, drumming his fingers on the tabletop, leaving bloody smudges as he did so.

“Sammy Scribbles.”

He snorted. “How the fuck does someone like you know someone like Sammy?”

I’d been prepared with an answer for that, too: “You teach that introduction to personal finance class at the community college sometimes, right?” Sammy had said.

I stared. “How do you know that?”

“I know all kinds of things about you, but I don’t know how I know it. It’s just revenant shit. Tell my guy you and me met when I was going to school there.”

“I teach at the community college,” I began, and the dealer laughed and slapped the table.

“Oh, right, Sammy the college boy, he goes on and on about his two years like he was a goddamn Rhodes Scholar. ‘I was gonna transfer to Berkeley, but then I became a fuckin’ junkie instead,’ all that.” The dealer finally looked at me. I was waiting for him to say “Sammy’s dead,” but instead he said, “You seen him lately?”

“Not in a while. I ran into him last week, and thought he might be able to help me out... I hurt my back a while ago, and I was on oxy, but—”

“I don’t need to know your medical history. You got money?”

“I do.”

“You pay me, then you go around back to the alley, and somebody will hand you the stuff.”

“Tell him you need a set of works too,” Sammy said.

“Could I get, ah... a set of works too?”

Another snort. “Sure, professor. I’ll throw it in for free.”

He named his price, and I handed over cash, and then left. I went down the alley to the back of the bar. It stank, but not as badly as my ghost. Another unmarked door opened, and a hand shot out, holding a plastic bag twisted shut. I took it, and before the door had even fully closed, Sammy snatched the sack from me. He squatted in the alley, pulling out a little bag of powder, and a few other things I recognized from movies—a spoon, a lighter, a syringe.

“Don’t watch me,” the dead man said. “Face the goddamn wall, all right? This isn’t a reality show.”

I did as he said. I waited a few minutes, gazing at the bricks and the various messages scribbled there—I didn’t know who Reggie was, but apparently he sucked dick and was, also, a bitch—until Sammy said, “Fuck. Fuck!” The spoon bounced off the wall next to my head.

“Can I turn around?” There was no reply. I turned, and Sammy was gone, his drugs and paraphernalia on the ground in the alley. “Sammy?”

No answer, and no sign of him. I drove home, expecting him to appear in my back seat, but he didn’t. He must have been there, or close by, invisible, but he wasn’t showing it.

When I went into my bedroom, he was in my bed, getting blood and dirt all over the quilt. “Are you all right?” I said.

“I’m dead, and apparently I can’t even get high anymore, so no.” He stared at the ceiling. “I don’t have the itch, I guess you cured that when you ran me over, but still. I just wanted to feel good, get a distraction, you know. Damn it.”

I yawned. “Sammy, maybe we could—”

He sat up. “You gotta drive me somewhere. I’m gonna do something good.”

“It’s getting late—”

“I could still kill you, Ethan. That urge didn’t go away like the urge to get high did.”

“Okay.” I held up my hands. “Anywhere you want.”

“Just drive more carefully tonight than you did last night.”


He directed me down a minor freeway, off onto a nondescript exit, and along country roads a further forty minutes into the sticks. I didn’t know much about this part of the state, except its general reputation for guns, poverty, and meth. Sammy brooded in the passenger seat, except when he flitted to the back seat, or vanished entirely for a few minutes.

“Where are we going?” I asked, not for the first time, but this time he sat up and peered through the windshield.

“Kill the lights.”

The road was straight and empty, so I complied. We were pitched into total darkness, since the moon and stars were cloud-hidden. The darkness on one side was fields, and on the other side, scrubby forest. I slowed to a crawl and tried to stay on the road.

“Park here.”

I pulled over to the shoulder, hoping there wasn’t a ditch I couldn’t see.

“Does that look like less than a hundred yards away to you?” Sammy said.

I gazed out the passenger window, at the only visible thing for miles: a yellowish light on the porch of a small house at the end of a dirt driveway. Unidentifiable shapes crowded the yard, probably dead cars and old appliances. “The house? It’s closer than that, maybe... seventy, eighty?”

“Good enough. Wait here.” He flickered and vanished.

I had no idea what was going on. I got out of the car, shutting the door hurriedly to cut off the interior light. I walked a few steps to the end of the driveway. There was a mailbox there, something written in uneven white letters on the side. I turned on my phone—not the flashlight, just the light from the screen—and held it up to illuminate the mailbox. Simmons.

Someone screamed, and I darted back to my car, opening the door, cursing when the interior light came on again, shutting it hurriedly. Someone came running out of the house, trying to pull his pants up with one hand while the other waved frantically around his head, as if beset by biting flies. He swiftly passed from the puddle of illumination provided by the porch light, and a moment later a pickup truck started up in the driveway, headlights flooding my vision. He’ll see me, I thought, but he had other things on his mind. The truck pulled out, and I saw a crooked figure standing in the bed, pounding on the roof of the cab, then punching at the glass in the back. The pickup swerved wildly, then picked up speed and soon vanished from sight.

Sammy reappeared in the seat beside me. He was smiling, and somehow it was less horrible than before, though his face was no better. “That’s all. You can go home now.”

“Was that, ah, your father?” I asked.

“Hardly. That’s the man who moved into my house after my dad died. Worst thing that ever happened to my mom and sister. I scared him off good. He won’t be back, I don’t think, but we might have to drive by in a few days, in case he’s stupid enough to need another dose. Or you can just call the house and ask for him, say he won some money in a class action suit or something, see if he’s there. That might be better. I’d be too tempted to see mom and Alex if I came back. I’m gonna need you to send them some money, Ethan. That asshole drank up almost all the money he brought in, but only almost. What he provided, it’s gotta be made up. Can you work out some kind of way to get them money without them knowing where it’s from?”

“I’m an accountant, Sammy. Of course I can.”

He looked at me. “I ain’t never gonna thank you, Ethan, for what you did... but one good thing came out of it. Hurting him didn’t get rid of the urge I have to hurt you, but it felt real good all the same. I’m gonna let you go home and sleep. How about that?”

“I appreciate it.”

He vanished.

I was exhausted, and ashamed, and freaked out, and a bunch of other emotions I couldn’t untangle well enough to name... but there was something like satisfaction in the mix, too. Maybe if I helped Sammy right some wrongs from his life, help his people, he’d move on... without having to kill me first.


Sammy didn’t move on. He fucked with me instead. He liked to leave bloody palm prints all over my office, knowing no one else could see them. Bits of rotten flesh and hair appeared in cabinets, in my microwave, in my French press, in my sinks, and no matter how much I cleaned them up, there were always more. I found gobbets of his rotten flesh in my refrigerator, and my half-and-half was always spoiled. Sometimes he wouldn’t let me use the furniture—if I tried to sit in a chair, he’d appear in it, and if I moved to the couch, he’d appear there, and of course he was always in my bed. (I did so much laundry. No one else could see the blood, I knew, but I could.) I slept most nights on the floor, and sometimes he wouldn’t let me sleep; he’d open his mouth, and the sounds of the radio announcer from the night of his death would come blaring out in a high-decibel loop.

One morning I got to the bottom of my coffee cup and found a tooth, the roots tinged with blood. I vomited into the sink while Sammy watched and chuckled. “The funniest thing,” he said, “is that there were two teeth in that cup when you started drinking it.”

I lifted my gaze to him. “Please, Sammy. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. You won’t let me confess. I bought you drugs. I helped with that man in your mother’s house. What can I do to help you move on?”

“Would you rather I killed you?” he said. “That’s how I move on, Ethan.” Then he dragged his hand down the front of my shirt, leaving a bloody smear. “Is that what you want?”

Alive, alive, alive. Where there’s life, there’s hope, and this situation wasn’t quite unendurable... yet. “No, Sammy.”

After a couple of weeks, I woke up one morning and there were no pranks, no grotesque cruelties, no fresh horrors. Sammy was in my small home office, sitting at my desk, looking at my computer. “Hey,” he said. “You mind if I use this?”

He’d availed himself of everything else in my house without bothering to ask for permission, so I was suspicious, confused, and hopeful all at once. “What for?”

“I was gonna... do some writing. I never really had enough time to do that before, not how I wanted, because I was always hustling, you know. I tried to write with a pen on paper, but I bleed too much. Maybe a computer will be better. I never had a nice one like this.”

The computer wasn’t that nice, even. Just an old desktop. “Of course you can. But you have to go the office with me, since we can’t be too far apart... how about I get you a laptop so you can work there too?” An Ethan who was writing was an Ethan who wasn’t leaving teeth in my food.

He brightened. “Yeah? Yeah. You’re all right for a murdering coward, Ethan.”

“I do what I can.”

I got him a very nice MacBook Air laptop, and it lasted about a week before the keys were so encrusted with blood that they wouldn’t work anymore, and he smashed the computer against the wall in frustration. I don’t know why technically spectral blood damaged an actual computer—maybe his constant interaction with the computer dragged it into his liminal realm? Or maybe the temporary physicality that allowed him to interact with the keyboard made the blood more real? I don’t know. I’m an accountant, not a necromancer.

I got him leather gloves and a ruggedized laptop, the kind military contractors use in the field, able to survive anything up to—well, being run over. That worked better. He would sit in the corner on the floor of my office and write almost constantly. The tap of the keyboard became the constant background sound of my life, at home and the office. Lois couldn’t hear it, and neither could any of the clients, and I gradually got used to the sound, though I was still startled when he’d occasionally laugh aloud at one of his own jokes or curse in frustration over some literary problem.

Six weeks after he started work, he dropped the laptop in front of me one night as I sat reading in bed. He wiped the computer off regularly, but it was still smeared with gore. “Read it.”

I looked at the laptop the way anyone would look at a bloody object on their lap. “Do you mind if I email the file to myself?”

I read his book. I’ve never been an especially avid reader of fiction, but I pick up thrillers in the airport like anyone, and Sammy’s novel was as compelling as any of those. It was called Revenance, and was about the vengeful ghost of an innocent man murdered by a corrupt cop to cover up a crime. The ghost comes back from the dead to get revenge on the cop, stalking and terrorizing her with supernatural powers... but then the ghost realizes he could use those powers to avenge a host of other wrongs, too. Rather than kill the cop and “go into the light,” leaving the mortal world behind, the ghost forces the cop to help him track down the perpetrators of other crimes, and he uses his ghostly powers to punish those evildoers. The cop and the ghost even develop a sort of rapport, if not exactly a friendship, and there’s a buddy-movie dynamic that helps lighten the heaviness of the narrative. I laughed in parts, and I was scared in other parts, and though I didn’t cry, I could see where some people might.

“Sammy,” I said. “This should be a movie. This should be a whole series of movies.”

“Ethan, you’re such... I can see how you think that’s a compliment. I need you to get my book published. We’ll come up with a pen name. I’m thinking Alex Wakeman—Alex is my little sister’s name, and Wakeman was my mom’s maiden name.”

“I think it’s pretty easy to get books published online these days—”

He grabbed my throat in one bloody hand and pressed his reeking face into mine. “I want it published by a big deal publisher, Ethan. I want it in stores, I want ads on the sides of buses, you hear me?”

I gurgled, and he let go, stepping back. I massaged my throat and croaked out, “I don’t know much about the publishing business.”

“Learn. Tell people I’m seriously reclusive. You’re my business manager and you’re handling all my affairs, nobody talks to me directly, okay? Make me a corporation or whatever, I don’t give a fuck. Do what you gotta do to make that work.”

I did what I had to do to make that work, and meanwhile, Sammy started typing again.

I ended up calling my old boss, the man who taught me everything I know, George Kosko. “Do you still do the books for that writer?” He probably had more than one writer as a client, but he knew the one I meant—the big-deal writer, the one who owned a local radio station and had personally funded the high school baseball team’s new uniforms and bought them a bus for away games. “I’ve got this friend who wrote a book, and he wants to get it published, but I don’t even know where to start.”

“Is it a good book?” George asked me.

“I’m no expert, but... I read it straight through in one sitting, and I couldn’t put it down. I think it’s good enough for someone who is an expert to take a look, anyway.”

A couple of days later I got an email, not from the big-deal writer’s agent, but from her assistant, who was building her own list of clients. She agreed to take a look at the first fifty pages “as a courtesy,” which didn’t fill me with hope. I didn’t even tell Sammy about the contact. Fortunately, he was deep in his next book, and wasn’t paying me any attention.

I got an email the next day asking for the full manuscript, and I dutifully emailed it.

The day after that, I got a call. “This is Annie Wright, from the Savini Agency. I’d like to represent Mr. Wakeman. How can I get in touch with him?”

“You don’t,” I said. “I’m sorry, but he’s extremely private, and has asked me to handle all his affairs. He just wants to do the writing part.”

She was silent for a moment, then said, “Okay. I can work with that.”

We talked more, and hung up. I swiveled around in my chair. “Ethan. You’ve got an agent.”

He grunted without looking up from the laptop. “Good.” That was it.

Annie suggested a few changes to the book, mostly just tweaks to a few lines here and there for clarity, and I asked Ethan if they were okay. He glanced through the suggestions and told me not to bother him unless they wanted to change “something that matters.” I made her corrections, and she told me about her plan for a first round of submissions. Even I’d heard of some of the publishers she mentioned.

A couple of weeks later, she told me there was going to be an auction the next day. I didn’t know what that meant. “It means several publishers are competing for the right to publish the book,” she said. “Our film department says there’s a lot of interest from Hollywood too.”

“Does that mean S—Alex is getting published?”

She laughed out loud. “Mr. Ramsay, that means Alex is getting rich. Are you sure I can’t talk to him directly?”

“I’ll ask, but he’ll say no.” I glanced at Sammy in the corner, still hammering away on book two, oblivious to my conversation.

Annie called with the good news. The same publisher who had made the big-deal writer such a success had won the auction to publish Sammy’s debut. The amount of money was more than I knew anyone got paid for books, and Hollywood was likely to make it even bigger. I didn’t say anything until we got home that night, and then I opened a bottle of champagne. “Sammy?” I said. “I’ve got news.”

He appeared, and I put a glass in his hand. “I can’t get drunk, Ethan. Believe me, I tried.”

“So? It’s a celebration. Your book sold. For a lot.”

He nodded like he’d expected that. He upended the champagne glass and poured it out onto the floor. “You think your ship came in, huh, Ethan? You kill me and as a little murder bonus you get rich off my work, right?”

I put down the champagne glass carefully. I opened up my laptop, and said, “Look at this.”

I showed him the trust accounts I’d set up for his sister and mother. “As soon as I realized there’d be money involved, real money, I started working on this. I’ll help them out with investing and taxes and everything too. None of this is for me, Sammy, not even a fee for the work. I took enough from you. I wouldn’t think of taking anything else.”

He stared at me, his face a ruin, his eyes blank and dead.

“It’s a two-book deal,” I said. “I hope that’s okay. I could tell you were working on something else. A sequel? They were hoping for that, but it doesn’t have to be.”

“Yeah.” He spoke slowly. “Another book about the same guys. I think I could write a lot of stuff about them. Working... it feels good. Different from drugs, but it takes me away from where I am, in sorta the same way.”

“I’m glad, Sammy. I really am.”

“Mom and Alex, they’re really gonna be okay?”

“Way better than okay. We can drive by their place anytime you want. But I’m guessing they’ll move to a nicer place soon.”

He flickered from view. When he reappeared, he was on his hands and knees with a rag, blotting up the champagne he’d spilled. “That’s good,” he murmured. “That’s real good.”

When I went into my bedroom, the bloody smears on the walls and all over the bed were gone, and the bathroom was pristine, too. I came out after getting ready for bed, and Ethan was leaning against the wall in our living room. He was wearing my white robe instead of his filthy blood-encrusted clothes, and overall he looked better—still broken, but no longer bloody, as if he’d taken a bath.

“You need to start working from home a lot more,” he said. “Can you do that?”

“I... sure. I’ll have to go in to meets clients sometimes, but yes, I can work from home more. Lois can handle a lot of the day-to-day.”

“Okay. What you’re gonna do is, you’re gonna build a little cottage in the back of your property. Like an in-law unit. There’s gonna be a TV with a whole sports package, and you’ll get me all the books I want, and it needs to have a nice desk, and a chair. There needs to be a window. I want to see flowers when I look out the window. It doesn’t need a kitchen or a bathroom or any of that, you know, but a bed is good. I like to lay down and think sometimes.”

“I can do that.”

“I’m gonna stay back there, mostly, and do my work.” He walked toward me, and put a hand on my shoulder. It was the first time he’d touched me without threat or violence. “And you, you are gonna live, up here. You’ll have to help me with stuff sometimes, you know, and we’ll have to go to Hollywood for the premieres and shit, but mostly... you can do your thing. You can even have people over sometimes. We can talk about you going out, dates and restaurants and shit, maybe, if you don’t bother me too much about it. I’m thinking I might not have such a strong urge to twist your head off your neck if I don’t see you all the time. Okay?”

Alive, alive, alive. “Okay,” I said. “Would you mind, sometimes... if I came back there? Just to talk? See how you’re doing?”

Sammy stared at me. His bloody eye seemed lighter, white and iris showing through, but maybe it was just a trick of the light. “Fine,” he said. “How about you put in two chairs.”

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