Man cannot live by science fiction and fantasy alone. Sometimes man lives by chicken wings. Also, sometimes man wants to express a view ideas he's read and heard and thought about over the years. That's what man was doing with this particular short story. Man.

Since deciding to write a short story every day, I've kind of decided to also experiment from time to time. So this story may or may not fit the kind of tale you've come to expect from me, but I hope you'll like it anyway. And I swear, lots of weird and other-worldly stuff is still in my brain. Though you'll never prove that in a court of law. 

This short story is a bit of inspiration, and part of that whole "hopeful fiction" thing I've always been partial to. So read. Enjoy .Comment below! And tell a friend. I'm trying to build an audience here! 


MUSE

by Kevin Tumlinson

The parking lot wasn't exactly deserted, but Megan didn't feel all that comfortable there anyway. She hurried from one pool of light to another until she got to her car, and didn't quite breathe easy until she was inside, with the doors locked. 

This was becoming a problem.

Mike, her boss, was insisting that she stick around later and later each evening, claiming that he "preferred" if she was there until the designers left, just in case they needed someone to do some quick checks on copy, to adjust the text to fit the design if it needed it.

Megan had argued several times that the copy was what it was—that the client had approved it, and the designer should work his design around the text rather than the other way around. But Mike had designer roots—and apparently a grudge against all the copywriters who "got to leave early" when he was working his way up in the ranks. Now that he was a Creative Director, he intended to exact some revenge.

Apparently. 

The truth was, Mike was an ok guy, he was just a workaholic who thought that was the way everyone should work. Workaholics tended to be that way, Megan knew. They got promotions because they were always working. The big bosses tended to think that was the only true mark of a leader. And guys like Mark—once they were in power—wanted everyone to give up their lives for the work. Even the meaningless work.

And meaningless was exactly how Megan saw the work she was doing now.

When she'd gotten into this industry, writing was her dream. All she ever wanted was to write clever and creative things, and to get paid for it. She wanted to be in a creative environment, full of people who loved making art and doing things that could put more color and more variety and more beauty in the world. She liked the idea of being a part of that. And her talent was with words, not design. So becoming a copywriter had been a natural fit for her.

These days, though, it felt more like something wrapped around her neck, slowly choking the life out of her.

The drive home was quiet. After spending all evening with Orlando, the designer she was currently partnered with, and having to listen to his overly loud heavy metal music, and smell the over abundance of pot billowing off of him, and basically having to answer to his every whim to "trim the copy a bit here, love" or "honey, this sentence doesn't break well no matter how well I lay it out"—all she wanted was silence. Or to scream. Maybe both.

The worst part was that she could have done every bit of this from home, via email. Actually, everyone in the office was required to have a chat app on their phone so they could communicate from wherever they were, but Megan saw this as pointless too. Mark insisted that telecommuting was the devil's work, and that the only true way to collaborate was butt-in-seat.

So Megan often had to sit for several hours each evening, bored and listless, watching Orlando bob his head to the music as he designed in pure glee. He was a night person, and came alive when the sun when down. Megan was a morning person, and slowly died inside as darkness claimed the Earth.

This was a horrible fit. It was always a horrible fit. But when she had gone to Mark about it, hoping to convince him that her creative workflow was put to better use in the mornings, after a good night's rest, he had lectured her about work ethic.

She could either adapt or be overcome. 

In the morning, Megan would wake up and drag herself back to the office she'd only left maybe five hours earlier. Orlando would drag himself in too, but rather than sit down at a keyboard and start catching up on the day's projects, he would slump in front of his computer, cup of coffee between his fingers, and "meditate" to get his muse for the day. Mark loved that about Orlando—the whole "artist at work" thing—even though it was obvious Orlando was catching a nap for the first two hours of the day. 

Megan tried "meditating" herself a couple of times. but was chastised and put on warning for sleeping on the job. Mark lectured her on his philosophy that all writers were left-brained thinkers who needed self discipline to do their best work, while real artists, such as Orlando, we right-brained creatives who needed to work completely untethered. That was the natural order of things, in Mark's world. That was the job she'd signed up for, and if she didn't like it ...

"You should just quit," a voice said.

Megan was startled, and swerved on the road, squealing to a stop in front of an all-night pharmacy.

Her heart was pounding as she forced herself to look in the rearview mirror. She cursed herself for being an idiot—why hadn't she checked the back seat? You're always supposed to check! Especially at night, when the parking lot is all but empty and it's dark in the spot where you're forced to park. 

But she'd been so tired. All she wanted was to get home, and she had rushed to her car because it was so dark outside, and so scary. She had just wanted to get moving. And now ... 

But there was no one in the rearview mirror.

Megan quickly glanced over the seat to see if anyone was laying in the floorboard behind her, but there was no one there, either. 

She turned and gripped the steering wheel, breathing heavily but starting to get it under control.

She was tired. Really tired. Mark had them all coming in seven days a week right now, and all vacations had been cancelled until "the workload is under control," he had said.

The workload—the growing pile of client requests and internal demands and spec projects—that was never going to be under control in Mark's eyes. Megan knew that. It was just his own perverted sense of work ethic driving everyone else to the breaking point, and now Megan was hallucinating.

"Seriously," the voice said. "You should just quit. That job isn't worth what it's doing to you."

Megan felt like throwing up. If this wasn't someone in her car, then maybe it was something worse. A brain tumor? Those could cause audible hallucinations, she'd read. 

"Not a brain tumor either," the voice said. 

With a shock, Megan realized that it was a female voice. It seemed like it had been male before. Or ... was it? Had she just assumed it was male? She couldn't remember. It was odd, as if she could remember the words that were said but not the voice that had said them. And now the voice was definitely female, but Megan couldn't figure out if it had been all along or not. 

"Doesn't matter," the voice said. "Let's stay on point here. You hate your job. It's kind of killing you. And you keep going back every day like you're obligated to or something."

"Well I am obligated," Megan said, annoyed. Maybe she was hallucinating, but the voice was kind of annoying her. "I have to pay rent. Buy food. Pay for electricity. You know, things you need to live?"

"Are you living?" the voice asked. 

Megan opened her mouth to reply, paused, then said, "Well, yeah, I'm living. What does that mean?"

"I don't see what you're doing as living, really," the voice said. "You seem more like you're kind of just getting by."

Megan shook her head. Was she actually hallucinating a self-help book? She looked around and saw that the street was more or less empty at this time of night. The light from the pharmacy parking lot was casting shadows of her car onto the street, and Megan could see the silhouette of her head through the shadow-car's window. She sighed, put the car in park, and leaned forward to rest against the steering wheel. She watched her shadow counterpart do the same. 

At that moment, all she wanted in the world was to just be home, asleep in her bed, with no alarm clock to wake up to in the morning.

"Do that," the voice said. "Go home. Go to sleep. And don't bother with the alarm clock. Turn off your phone, too, while you're at it. Delete that stupid app. They don't need 24/7 access to you."

Megan sat up again, looked around the car again. This was a persistent hallucination. She hadn't experienced anything like this before. It was ... well, it was weird, and a little scary. But also ... what was it? Also ...

Exciting

Because the voice was telling her something she kind of wanted to hear. It was almost like getting permission, wasn't it? She knew that no one would ever accept "a voice told me to sleep in" as an excuse for anything. But still ... wasn't it nice to have someone tell you it was ok?

Except it wasn't someone, was it? It was a brain tumor. Or a psychotic break. Or too much coffee mixed with too little sleep.

There was the sound of laughter. "I'm not any of those things. Come on, you're a creative writer. You can't think of something better?"

"What are you?" Megan asked. 

"You have to resort to asking?" the voice said, and there was the tone of a smile. The voice was teasing her.

Megan started crying. She sobbed at first, and leaned forward against the steering wheel, letting the tears flow and drop from her eyes and onto her knees. They made little dark circles on her jeans. She sobbed some more, and hiccuped, which made her mad. She breathed through this, because being mad helped her get away from the overwhelming sadness she'd been feeling, and eventually she calmed down enough to stop crying, to sit up, and to wipe her eyes on her sleeve. 

"Feel better?" the voice asked. 

"Yes," Megan replied. And this time there was nothing self conscious or strange about it. Whoever this voice was—whatever it was, she corrected—it was at least listening to her. And that was something she hadn't had a lot of lately.

"You totally should quit that job."

"And what about paying bills? Rent? Food? Meds," she said, nodding to the pharmacy. "I have like five prescriptions. What about all of that?"

"Most of those prescriptions are for things that just help you get through the day, right? Anti-anxiety. Anti-depression. A little something to help you sleep, and a little something to help you wake up. You're like a writing machine primed by chemicals. Leave the job, and most of those will go away. And I didn't say you should be homeless or starve. You can find another job. But quit this one."

"I can't!" Megan said. "I just ... I can't. How could I? I would need another job first." She hesitated. "Wouldn't I?"

"How do you find another job?" the voice asked.

"I ... well, I go online. I look at job boards, I guess. I start looking at the want ads, maybe."

"Want ads?" the voice laughed. "What is this, the 80s? How did you get this job?"

"I ... " Megan thought about it. And she realized she couldn't quite remember. It had just sort of happened. It wasn't really something she'd been looking for. Someone called her one day, while she was working somewhere else, and asked her if she was interested in applying. And she'd said yes. "I guess it just sort of came to me."

"Isn't that funny?" the voice asked. "Isn't that just the way? Opportunities come. And if you're paying attention, you can take them. The problem is, you got into this head space where you think you have to keep holding on to the last opportunity you found. Like it's the only one you'll ever get. Why is that?"

Megan shook her head. She was tired, and this conversation wasn't helping. It was just making her want to crawl into a ball. And, well, maybe give up a little. Or a lot.

"Not give up," the voice said. "Do something different."

"Who are you!" Megan shouted.

The voice sounded like it was smiling when it answered. "Maybe I'm your Muse."

"Muse?" Megan asked. "What ... what does that even mean?"

"See! That, right there, is why I had to even make a personal appearance. I mean, usually all I have to do is whisper. I can leave little hints. I can nudge you at just the right time so you read the right book or hear the right song or see the right photo. Usually that's all it takes, is that little nudge. But lately, Megan." The voice tsked. "Lately, you haven't been listening to me. And it's not entirely your fault, I know. That's why I'm here, right now. See, normally when people stop listening to me I just leave. I know when I'm not wanted. But you've always been sort of special to me, honestly."

Megan felt the emotions rising again, and she took a deep breath and let it out slowly before answering. "Special?"

"Oh yeah," the voice said. "I mean, a lot of people are special to me, Megan. And the special ones—I pay close attention to those. I talk to them more often. I whisper to them all day long, and sometimes all night, too. I don't like to lose them. So sometimes I have to just be a little more direct."

"So you're my ... you're my muse?"

"Sure," the voice said.

"And you're telling me to quit my job?"

"Yeah," the voice said.

Megan stared now at the sign on the top of the pharmacy. The large red letters glowed bright against the background of black night, and somehow that seemed hopeful to Megan. Any sign in the darkness, she guessed.

She looked around in the car again, as if she might finally see her Muse. 

"What do you say?" the Muse asked.

Megan shook her head, took another deep breath, let it out, and said, "Ok."

"Good girl!" her Muse said, and she sounded genuinely pleased. "Now, drive home, get some sleep, and when you wake up tomorrow morning we'll chat some more."

"You swear?" Megan asked. "Because ... I mean, I'm about to quit my job because a voice told me to. And I don't have any other plan. So I kind of want to know for sure that you're going to be there."

Again the voice sounded as if it was smiling when it responded. "Megan, sweetie, I'm your Muse. If you want to find me, all you ever have to do is look for me."

###

It was nearly 11 AM when Megan finally woke up, stretched, and got out of bed. She had to rush to the bathroom—her bladder was telling her that all the coffee from the night before was ready to part ways. 

When she was done she ambled back into her bedroom and almost—almost—picked up her phone from the night stand. It was in airplane mode, at the request of her Muse. And it was face down. She had this urge to pick it up, to turn it on and check email and texts and phone messages.

But she didn't. 

 Instead she went into her kitchen and had a big bowl of cereal. She sat at the little kitchen table by the window and stared out at the small park across the street from her apartment as she ate. She had picked this apartment because of that view. And as she sat there, she realized she'd only been in that park once or twice in almost two years of living here.

That wouldn't do.

She finished her breakfast, pulled on some comfortable and casual clothes, and went down to the park. She walked the short walking trail once, circling the tiny playground and the small dog park and the little clump of trees and the small soccer field. She came back to a bench, then, and sat. She felt the sun warming her, and cool breezes brushing her cheek.

"Are you here?" she asked.

"Oh yeah," the Muse said. "I'm here. You're looking better already."

Megan smiled. "I feel better. Of course, I haven't told them I quit yet. And I have no idea what to do now. But I feel so ... I don't know. Free, I guess? Or ... I feel kind of like I have all these possibilities, you know? Like I could just start doing something right now. Anything. Maybe I could be a barista. Or I could work at a zoo! Or maybe I could go back to college, and get a degree in archeology or something. Or all of that! Can I do all of that?"

"Mostly," the Muse said, but Megan could tell she was smiling. "You kind of have to pick a path. Eventually, anyway. But you can explore all of that. There's nothing that says you can't try some of that out. And more. It's not all easy, but you can go have fun trying. That's kind of the point of living, really."

Megan nodded. "What should I do, though?"

"Well, why not writing?"

Megan felt her guts clench. "I don't know. Writing is a tough career. It's hard to find a job doing it, you know? It's hard to find a way to make a living as a writer, without ending up in the same situation I was in."

"Who said anything about making a living at it?" the Muse said.

Megan blinked. "But ... I mean, I need a job, right? I need money."

"You just said you could be a barista or work in a zoo or go study to be an archeologist. You're interested in those things, right? Those are things you could do that could pay your bills?"

"Yes," Megan said skeptically. It was strange, but those things had seemed like exciting possibilities just a few seconds ago, and now they felt like childish fantasies. She was a writer. That's what she had studied to be, and what she'd done most of her career. That was her background. It's what she'd always wanted to be.

"Sweetie," her Muse said, "Don't you think you're putting a lot of pressure on your dreams and your passions? I mean, writing is something you always loved doing, isn't it?"

"Yes," Megan said. 

"But not lately?"

Megan thought about this. "No," she said. "Not lately. Lately I've kind of dreaded it. I'm kind of over it."

"Not over it," the Muse said. "Just exhausted from it. And it's exhausted from you, too. That's why it's come so slowly to you lately. That's why it's been dragging its heels. You're working it to death. You're demanding that it pay all your bills. But what are you doing to feed it? What are you doing to help it keep in good shape? To grow?"

"I don't even know what you mean by all of this," Megan said. 

"I mean, why do you think that writing is the only work you can do? It's your work—no doubt about that. And you're good at it, Megan. But whoever said that just because you're passionate about something and just because you're good at it, that it has to be the only job you can do? Why can't you do one thing for a living, and write just to write?"

Megan was shocked by the whole idea of this. Because, she had to admit, she really did think this way. She was a writer. She loved writing, and crafting a story with words. And she really was good at it. But following it as a career had just made her miserable. It made her start to dread and hate the thing she had always loved.

So maybe her Muse was right.

"What do I do?" Megan asked, feeling the tears starting again.

"Go explore other things, Megan," the Muse said. "Keep writing. Never stop that. It's ok. You can do that no matter what else you do. But feel around a little. See what's out there. Talk to friends and family, ask them about what they do. See if you can find something that lets you pay for you life without costing you more than you bring in. And I mean that metaphorically, mostly, in case it slipped by. You can go add value to something without it costing you everything you are."

Megan nodded. "Ok," she said. "I think I see this. Sort of. I don't really know what to go for. And ... well, I have to admit that part of me doesn't want to walk away from being a writer."

The voice laughed. "OK, look ... you're not walking away from being a writer. You're walking away from a lousy writing job. You could find another writing job that is more fulfilling. But even if you take a job waiting tables, as long as you keep writing on the side you're still a writer. The artist doesn't stop being an artist just because no one is paying her for her art. Be a creator, no matter what job you have. And maybe someone will pay for your creations. And that's kind of beautiful, isn't it? If someone is paying for work you did on your own terms, that's so much better than having to bend yourself into someone else's definition of who you should be, just for the sake of a steady paycheck. You and your art deserve better than that."

Megan's head was spinning. This really was the opportunity for her to start crafting words the way she had always wanted, instead of having to trim to fit, or continuously go back to her work to mutilate it for the sake of someone else's art. It was a chance for her to create her work as art, rather than as a product on demand. 

"By the way, lots of businesses need someone who can write well. Go look for something that excites you and inspires you, and give it all your passion and energy. You'll probably end up finding a way to contribute your art to it, too. That's how this works. You make yourself really valuable by offering all you have, you continue to grow, and all of that comes back to you. Don't be afraid to grow. And don't underestimate how much you have to offer."

Megan nodded. "Will you be here?" she asked. 

"Of course," the Muse responded—softer, lovingly. "I'm always here. I whisper a lot. I nudge. I sometimes keep to myself, if it looks like you have your own flow going. But if you go looking for me, you'll find me every time."

Megan smiled again, then stood and walked back to her apartment. When she was upstairs, she opened her laptop and got online. She sent her first email to Mark, to tell him that his services were no longer required. She'd be dictating her own work ethic from this point forward.

And then she started emailing her friends and family. She started asking about their lives and about their work, about what they loved most about both. She started asking if people knew anyone in fields that Megan herself was interested in. She started asking for introductions and making connections.

It took time. A little over a month, actually. But during that month she went on dozens of interviews with prospects she liked. She had hundreds of conversations with new and interesting people. She talked to anyone she could about what they were interested in and passionate about, and she let her self feel passionate about it, too. 

She was excited about it all. For the first time in her life, she was choosing, instead of just letting things happen to her. And that made her feel empowered, and strong, and good about her life. 

Oddly enough, the job she finally took was writing position after all. She found it through a friend, who worked for a local antiques dealer who was also active with the historic preservation society. They needed someone who could write about the buildings they were trying to preserve, and about the history of the area. They wanted someone to do a bit of research and create something elegant and moving.

They needed someone who was good at stirring the soul, and after reading some of the articles and short stories and blog posts that Megan was crafting each day, they felt she was perfect for the job.

She didn't hear her Muse speak outloud these days, but she was getting pretty good at sensing when she was near. At any rate, she always found her, any time she looked.


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Kevin Tumlinson is the author of numerous novels, novellas, and non-fiction books, and the host of the Wordslinger Podcast. Try three of his best books for free when you download his starter library at kevintumlinson.com/starterlibrary.
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