by Jill Hand
Outside the clouds hung oppressively low, spitting cold rain that turned to hail. The frozen pellets clicked against the windowpanes, sounding like skeleton fingers tap-tap-tapping, demanding to be let in. The roads were going to be bad if it kept up. I was seated at my desk, eating chicken salad on an onion bagel, when Sanjay phoned.
“I think we may have found him,” he said.
“Alexandria, Virginia. He was born in Boston. Boston! Can you believe it?” He sounded giddy. I pictured him pacing back and forth, as revved-up as a new father by the birth of a son.
“The mom was an actress. Cammie Hodges. Cute, not a lot of talent, but petite and bubbly. She was on that reality show, Summer Interns. Remember it?”
I did, vaguely. Rowdy college kids working at summer jobs with the predictable hijinks ensuing. There was a girl named Vella or Venna who dressed like a tart and fought with everybody but I didn’t remember Cammie.
“Oh, yeah. Killed in a car accident on the Beltway, coming back to collect the kid after doing a dinner theater performance of A Streetcar Named Desire somewhere in Maryland. She played Stella Kowalski.”
“And the father, where’s he?”
“He’s out of the picture. He’s an actor, lives in L.A. Does mostly voice-overs. The relationship was on the rocks even before she got pregnant. He took off around the time the kid was born. He doesn’t see him. Sends the occasional check, that’s all.”
I took a bite of bagel and thought about it. So far, things were lining up. It wouldn’t be a perfect match, but it was close. Both parents were actors. Mom dead. Dad not dead, but he might as well be for all the contact he has with his son. Yes, it was close, maybe even close enough to work.
“Where’s the boy now?” I asked. “You said Alexandria?”
“Yeah, staying with these rich WASPs, Mitch and Suzanne DeGraw. Suzanne’s sort of like his aunt, I guess you’d say. She and the boy’s father had the same stepfather. Their moms were married to him at different times. It gets a little confusing. Anyway, the DeGraws have no kids of their own. Suzanne is fond of little Eddie. She used to take care of him sometimes when his mom was working, so now she’s got him full-time.”
I sat up straight in my chair. I didn’t believe in omens, but the boy’s name gave me pause. “His name’s Edgar?”
“Naw, that would be a little too freaky, wouldn’t it? Who names their kids Edgar anymore?” Sanjay chuckled. “He’s Edward, like the vampire in those Twilight books. His mom thought he was so dreamy that she named the kid after him, if what my sources tell me is correct, which it is.” He sounded smug and I didn’t blame him. This was quite a coup. Our employer would be very interested in this little semi-orphan, the boy named after a brooding vampire.
Sanjay sent me pictures of the DeGraws, and of little Eddie. I started a file, as I did for all our projects. It grew substantially over the years. In the first photo, Eddie was three. His big dark eyes looked sad. No wonder. Suzanne and Mitch weren’t exactly the most cuddly pair to raise a child. She was blonde, tanned, and Botoxed to within an inch of her life. He was dark and intense, giving off an air of irritability, even when he smiled. They led a busy social life and gave generously to museums, symphony orchestras, and charitable foundations. Here they were photographed wearing white linen in the pages of Luxury Yacht. Here was another of them in formal wear in Town & Country. Here they were again, in riding habits, looking at a brown horse in front of a barn in Southern Living. These and other pictures all made it into the file, as well as a number of other documents pertaining to Eddie.
He was just past his fourth birthday when the DeGraws started him at Rolling Hills Country Day School, annual tuition twenty-five thousand dollars. I added a picture of him from the school yearbook to the file. He was wearing little khaki trousers and the requisite navy blue polo shirt with the school crest embroidered in gold on the breast pocket. The picture was taken with him facing front and center, like a mugshot. He stared blankly out at the viewer, his expression one of abject misery.
So far, so good.
Mitch DeGraw was in commercial real estate. He loved commercial real estate. He used to take Eddie around with him to building sites, hoping to instill a love of commercial real estate in him. There’s a photo in the file of them standing side by side next to an excavation where an office building would eventually be, both of them wearing hard hats. In this one, Eddie is seven. His expression says I am not enjoying myself. Not one bit.
He enjoyed himself even less at Granite Mountain Military Academy in Pennsylvania, where he was sent when he was twelve. Mitch thought the boy needed discipline. A picture of Eddie wearing a grey uniform was added to the growing file. In it, he’s standing at attention on the parade ground with a drum strapped to his chest. His jaw is clenched and his eyes hold a hopeless expression. He resembles a Confederate drummer boy, one who is fairly certain that he is doomed.
His father had disappeared by then, having seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth, escaping his many creditors. You can still do that, you know, even in the twenty-first century. All it takes is enough money and the desire not to be found. The money was supplied by an anonymous benefactor: my employer, mine and Sanjay’s and dozens of other people who were mainly academics and researchers and literary critics.
I won’t tell you our employer’s name. I signed a confidentiality agreement when I started working for him. It’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of him, although you probably have at least one of the devices he invented somewhere around your house. All I’ll say is that he’s very rich and very determined, one could almost say obsessive. I’ve met him twice. He’s a delightful conversationalist. He especially enjoys talking about literature. His checks make it easier for me to live on an adjunct professor’s salary.
What were our employer’s intentions for the little boy with the dead mother and the vanished father? It should be apparent to you by now, those of you who are familiar with the life of Edgar Allan Poe. He was attempting to create another Poe, one whom he hoped someday would write something as good as “The Raven”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Cask of Amontillado” and all the others. We called what we were doing Project Eddie 2.0.
You don’t think it’s possible? It probably wouldn’t be if our goal was to produce another Charlemagne or Cleopatra, but we weren’t trying to design rulers; we were trying to design authors. We’d already had success with the Bickford sisters, Stephanie, Amy, and Elise. They were the daughters of a widowed Presbyterian minister who grew up in a cold and drafty farmhouse in Aroostook County, Maine, with lots of books to read and no other children for company. With assistance from our employer, Stephanie, Amy, and Elise – the Brontë sisters 2.0 – had already published several best-selling novels. If it worked with them, we thought it might work with Eddie.
One of the teachers at Granite Mountain was a former Army officer who taught language arts. He was happy to be paid a little something extra under the table to encourage the boy to write. But could he write? That was the question. We waited anxiously for the answer, which to our delight turned out to be could he ever! For a twelve-year-old he was quite good. I have a copy of one of the first stories he turned in to his helpful tutor. It involved the premature burial of a pet dog, mistaken for dead after being struck by a car. The dog manages to dig his way out of the grave and comes bounding home to his young master, scaring the daylights out of him and everyone else in the house when he turns up scratching at the back door in the middle of the night, tongue lolling, covered in mud and blood.
“This is good,” I said to Sanjay, who leaned against my desk, arms folded. “Really good. Mature use of language for a child that age and excellent pacing. I like it.”
“Do you?” he said. “I dunno. It’s not exactly what we were hoping for, is it?”
“Why? What’s wrong with it?”
He regarded me bleakly. “It’s funny.”
It was. I laughed out loud while reading it. Darkly funny, but was that such a bad thing? True, Poe didn’t write humor. A piece he did for the New York Sun, the hoax story about a hot air balloon crossing of the Atlantic was probably as close as he ever came to writing anything that was funny. The old-time typeface, heralding the amazing feat by eight gentlemen riding in something called Mr. Monck Mason’s FLYING MACHINE!!! looks amusing to twenty-first century eyes, but the story wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. Poe’s other fiction writing was uniformly grim. No yuks there at all. Lots of shivers, but no yuks.
“Give him time,” I said. “He’s going through puberty. What do you want to bet he falls in love with a girl and she rejects him? A little teenage angst will get him going in the right direction.”
“Maybe,” he said. “I sure hope so.”
Enter Sophie Ludlow. She attended a nearby girls’ boarding school. They met at a dance and Eddie was smitten. By then he was fifteen and in hot water for writing an article for the student newspaper at Granite Mountain, The Salvo, about the Battle of Gettysburg. It read like a straightforward account of the battle, with loads of facts and interesting little details, until someone happened to notice that the first word of each sentence spelled out an account of a passionate clandestine love affair between the headmaster and the school’s mascot, a ram named General Patton.
“He’s a little scamp, isn’t he?” I said to Sanjay when I telephoned him in Prague to tell him the news. He was over there scouting out a young lady whom our employer hoped might become another Jane Austen.
“I’ll say,” he replied. “Did they expel him?”
The headmaster had wanted to, but Eddie’s foster parents offered to donate money toward the construction of a new gymnasium, and all that happened was that he was confined to barracks for a month.
The DeGraws had never formally adopted him. We weren’t sure how Eddie felt about that. There was a lot we didn’t know about him, although apparently he didn’t mind too much about being confined to barracks. (The barracks in question were more like dormitories at a good college than Army barracks.) Eddie spent the time writing, mostly poems and love letters to Sophie, but short stories too, all of which he mailed to her. One of them was called “The Prisoner of Granite Mountain”. It was high gothic (Barred windows! Lightning flashes illuminating the wretched prisoner dressed in rags, huddled in one corner of a horrible rat-filled dungeon!) But it also contained goofy humor (the wretched prisoner bewails the fact that the internet connection down in the dungeon is no good, and that he can’t get the local pizzeria to deliver.) It was nicely done, especially for a kid his age, but it wasn’t what Poe would have written.
And the love poems were awful. Real sappy stuff, the kind any fifteen-year-old might write. Poetry just wasn’t Eddie’s thing. No doubt he really loved Sophie, he may even have loved her with a ‘love that was more than love’, but he couldn’t express it through poetry other than the most banal moon-spoon-June variety. Most people can’t. We would have liked another “Annabel Lee”, but it looked like we wouldn’t be getting it from Eddie.
How did we get our hands on his correspondence to Sophie? We didn’t send someone to climb through her dorm room window in the dead of night and steal it if that’s what you’re thinking. Sophie didn’t save her boyfriend’s poems and letters in a pretty keepsake box, tied up with a pink satin ribbon. No, she casually read them and tossed them in the trash. We paid her roommate to fish them out and send them to us. Like I said, our employer is very rich. If Sophie wondered where her roommate got the money for her new iPhone and those designer handbags, she didn’t ask.
Eddie was eighteen when Sophie dumped him for the young scion of a family who made their fortune manufacturing paint and solvents. He didn’t see it coming, although he probably should have; three years is a long time for a teenage romance to last, especially when one of the persons involved will be going to Wellesley in September and the other will be going to Virginia State.
The DeGraws had gotten divorced by that time and Mitch stopped paying Eddie an allowance, being fed up with him for a number of reasons, the most significant of which was his failure to take an interest in the commercial real estate business. Suzanne had a little money of her own and she agreed to pay his tuition at Virginia State, but he had to come up with his own money for room and board and books and any extras.
Sanjay and I held our breaths and waited to see what would happen next.
He started firing off a series of despairing emails to a friend in Chicago. He wanted to die! He couldn’t believe Sophie would do this to him! Didn’t she realize how much he loved her? Oh god, it wasn’t fair! Why was this happening to him? It wasn’t fair! If he died, then she’d be sorry! It wasn’t fair! And so on and so forth.
I have a copy of the emails. They were sent to me by Eddie’s friend in Chicago, who bought himself a new laptop computer and a set of new tires for his car, courtesy of my employer. (In case you’re wondering, no one we approached with an offer of cash in exchange for assisting us in our endeavors ever turned us down.) One email in particular stands out. Eddie wrote, sourly: ‘It seems I’m not rich enough for her. When I told her I’d be going to a state school she was horrified, as if I said I’d be going to prison for knifing a convenience store clerk. Now she’s seeing Nash Kincaid, who looks like a brain-damaged horse.’
Even though his hurt and wounded pride came through loud and clear, I chuckled. Eddie had a way with words.
What he did next was surprising. Sanjay was in Seoul, checking up on a girl who showed promise of becoming the next Emily Dickinson. I called him to tell him the news.
“You won’t believe what Eddie is doing,” I said.
“What? Is he drinking? Gambling? What’s he doing?”
If he expected him to follow in Poe’s footsteps that way, he was going to be disappointed.
“Neither one,” I said.
“Is it drugs?” Sanjay asked. “It’s drugs, isn’t it?” Did I detect a trace of eagerness in his voice? I thought I did.
“Not drugs. He’s doing stand-up comedy.”
Sanjay’s reply was unprintable. He ranted about how we’d had such high hopes for him and now everything was ruined and he didn’t know what our employer was going to say and what the hell was wrong with the kid anyway? Why wasn’t he sinking into a black depression and writing some really top-notch stuff about grave robbery or some kind of hideous curse?
“Dammit! It’s all over. All the trouble we went to and for what? So he can get up on stage and tell jokes? He probably sucks, doesn’t he?”
On the contrary. I’d caught his act and it was good. In fact, it was better than good. The audience was mixed, mostly college kids, but some older people, and he made us laugh until it hurt. Eddie told stories about his summer job, which had entailed cleaning people’s basements and garages, working for a company that does that kind of thing. He talked about the items that he found, some of which were very strange indeed. At one point, he picked up a guitar and sang a song about discovering a freezer full of dead cats, all of them dressed in doll’s clothes. The audience joined him in the chorus. It was hilarious, as was his rendition of “Eyeball on the Ceiling”, a song he wrote about an incident at another of his jobs, working for a company that cleaned up crime scenes after the police were through with them.
“That’s grotesque,” Sanjay said.
Grotesque and Arabesque, I thought, recalling the name of a collection of Poe’s short stories, for which he received not a cent, just twenty free copies. Despite his prodigious talent, Poe remained broke pretty much his entire adult life. “You should have been there; it was great,” I said.
Then I told him the best part: Eddie was still writing fiction. He was one of those people who can’t seem to stop writing, come hell or high water. He wrote stories that were gruesome and funny at the same time. That’s not easy to pull off and get it right, but Eddie got it right. He’d written a novel about a priest who runs a business on the side disposing of the bodies of dead hookers. Our employer had found him an agent and a couple of publishers had expressed interest in it.
“But he’s not writing like Poe,” Sanjay said dejectedly.
“Maybe not,” I said. “But he’s not going to marry his fourteen-year-old cousin either – not that he has a fourteen-year-old cousin – but still, the people he cares about aren’t going to waste away and die of tuberculosis. That’s better than being another Poe.”
Sanjay harrumphed. He clearly didn’t agree.
“And listen,” I said. “He’s young. He’s already writing great stuff. He’s got years and years to improve and who knows? Maybe someday he’ll write something that will live on long after he’s gone, just like Poe did.” I’d read Father Mulcahy’s Sideline, Eddie’s book about the dead-hooker-disposing priest. There were passages where I’d caught an echo of Edgar Allan Poe. Lots of authors have imitated Poe, to greater or lesser success, but Eddie wasn’t imitating. He had his own voice. His writing style was leaner than Poe’s, without the nineteenth-century flourishes and furbelows, but the echo was there. It rang through his work like the tolling of an iron bell. It gave me the shivers.
“He seems to be happy, now that he got away from Mitch DeGraw and Granite Mountain. He’s doing what he loves and he probably won’t die broke and miserable. Isn’t that better than being a tormented genius who got paid next to nothing for his work when he was alive?”
Sanjay didn’t answer. Finally he said, “Well, if our employer’s satisfied then I guess I am.” He didn’t sound particularly satisfied. Then he brightened. “Did I tell you? I’m off to Australia. There’s a kid there our employer wants me to check out. His parents are these improvident actors, really bad with money. Loads of debt and they’ve got like, five kids, and this kid had to drop out of school and go work in a warehouse to help support the family. He’s also stringing for a newspaper, covering the local courts.”
He paused to allow me to make the connection. It didn’t take me long. “Dickens? You’re hoping he’s going to be another Charles Dickens!”
“Correct,” he said, sounding happier than when I delivered the news about Eddie. “Better start another file. We can call it Project Charlie 2.0.”
Jill Hand is the author of The Blue Horse, a science fiction/fantasy novella from Kellan Publishing based on a true story. It contains no zombies, moody teenage vampires, or young people forced to fight to the death in a post apocalyptic future. It does, however, contain humor and some lively historical facts.