The First Rule of Writers

Luther stands in the tiny entryway of his apartment and pats down his pockets to make sure he has his keys. Behind him, the last rosy glow of sunset slips off his window ledge. He’s going to be late. He snatches up the bulky portfolio that holds his life’s work— all the scribbles and scratches, all the ideas and frustrations.

Luther hates to take it out like this (he only has the one copy), but his long time friend and First Reader is waiting at their favorite cafe for a gander at the mostly finished manuscript.

Luther fast-steps it down the front stairs of his building and races the few blocks to the subway. Neil, his First Reader, always yells at him for not making another copy.

“Isn’t that like the first rule of writers? Save. Save. Save.”

“I think the first rule is to write, actually,” Luther had said with an owlish blink.

In the subway, Luther binds the portfolio up in his arms and casts withering glances at anyone who comes near. The visual comparison to him and a grumpy, frowsy old maid is lost on no one in the car. He departs at his stop with his nose in the air and emerges in the street to find a bitter, winter wind blowing. The shadows of the streetlights shake from the cold. He wishes (not for the first time) that their favorite cafe wasn’t so far away.

Two intersections down from the cafe, Luther enters a block boasting boarded up windows and scaffolding above the sidewalk. These portions are normally lit, but tonight the lights beneath the scaffolding have gone out and the sidewalk disappears into a black maw. Luther pauses, clutching the portfolio to his chest, and considers walking in the street where traffic whooshes by quietly and the light stands in pools atop golden puddles.

A bus trundles down the street toward him, and that decides it. He steps beneath the scaffold.

At the halfway point, Luther hears a scuff behind him, and his heart jumps into his throat, but he doesn’t look back. Something cold— a small round coldness— touches his neck, and he freezes. A wheezing, asthmatic breath comes out of the darkness behind.

“Now listen to me,” says a voice that sounds like pebbles ground together in a mortar, “just give me everything you got and keep walkin. Nobody gets hurt.”

Luther’s heart thuds against the folio he holds. His fingers slip with sweat.

“Everything?”

“Shut up. Drop it, and keep walking. Any rings, too.”

Luther feels the weightless, dizzy wave of panic spiral up through him. He wants to argue, but words could mean death. What could he say anyways? This is priceless only to me? His fingers have become arthritic.

The cold circle of metal sears hard into Luther’s skin. “Hurry up!”

Luther drops the portfolio with a thud and flutter of pages. 

“Wallet. Rings. Gold. Come on, man.”

Luther lets each fall with a thump onto the leather cover of his portfolio: wallet, watch, signet ring. He feels a hand snake from the darkness to rudely inspect his private places.

“Walk,” the pebbles hiss in his ear. “You look back, I’ll shoot you.”

Luther steps forward reluctantly, as if in a dream. Waves of lightheadedness and fright wash over him, paroxysms of disbelief and then indignation. The glare of the streetlights hit him, and the clarity of it fills him with rage. His book! Yet on the heels of rage follows a crippling sense of fragility. The spot on his neck where the cold muzzle had touched tingles with sensation as if the bead is still drawn, the crosshairs aligned.

Tears slip down his face, but he doesn’t dare look back. He doesn’t dare try to save the work of his heart.

Luther continues to walk up the sidewalk through the alternating shadows, shaking from something worse than cold. He arrives at the cafe empty handed.


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