Havilah Goldberg’s heart pounded with anxiety as she arrived at Ayem’s large mountain home. Almost an hour into the rocky foothills above the four-building town of Isoquester, the drive from her home in the city, almost two hours away, up the gorge to his home was gorgeous but she was too stressed to enjoy it.
As it always did, the roar of the waterfall filled the small valley and she never appreciated the water fall mist that often washed over his whole property just as it was now. Great, just great, she thought as she stepped out onto the crunchy gravel driveway. His plants loved it but that heavy mist would quickly soak her hair and clothes by the time she got to the door unless she grabbed a raincoat.
The first time she met Ayem here, it was warm in the city and she’d never been to Isoquester or any of the private estates hidden in the foothills. She was completely unprepared for the waterfall mist in her white cotton blouse and knee length, light weight, gray skirt and no coat. The walk from his driveway to the porch exposed her to waves of thick mist. When Ayem opened the door, she was dripping wet and mortified as she realized how her blouse was clinging transparently to her body.
Ayem immediately recognized the problem. “Oh no! Ms. Goldberg! Please come right in! I’m so sorry about this. I should have warned you. I wear a full rain coat . . . , but . . . . Never mind. This is completely my fault.”
At the time, she really needed his job as a personal editor and cringed to recall how, incredibly unprofessional I looked but, with his eyes averted, Ayem had been a complete gentleman and showed me straight to his small library and provided a towel and a cotton sweat suit to change into and offered the use of his dryer for my clothes.
Then he closed the door and left her to recollect herself. He had a hot coffee laid out when I was ready and never mentioned it again. She smiled recalling how thankful she was to let this less-than-glamorous incident fade into forgotten history.
When she emerged, uncomfortable about wearing his too-large sweat clothes, she laughed to see that he had changed into an older pair of sweats so she would not feel inappropriately dressed for their interview.
She presented her credentials. He was detailed about what he was looking for and explicitly pointed out that he was not looking for any romantic or sexual involvement. She grinned to herself to recall, like I would be interested in a man at least 20 years older.
They found common ground, plenty of things to laugh about and she left with the job and the manuscript for his fourth novel. Her first paycheck arrived in time for her to pay the rent.
He saved my financial bacon that day.
By their next meeting she was paring his prose, pruning his passive voice, pacing his paragraphs and polishing his creative punctuation. They were comfortable with each other and she quickly found herself thoroughly engaged in what was already a great story.
Today, she was prepared for the waterfall and grabbed her hooded trench coat from the back seat and immediately wrapped it around her body and head.
She let herself in with the hidden key he’d shown her six years ago. Thanks to the sound insulation of the his home, the roar of the waterfall fell almost silent as the front door closed. She deactivated the security system and paused to let the silence settle her mind; have I ever been here without him?
Ayem was in the hospital recovering, hopefully, from a nasty car accident. He’s going to be okay, she told herself. He has to be okay!
After eight years as his editor she was confident that she knew this reclusive man but it surprised her when he hospital had called her. She knew that she was his emergency contact. He had asked her last year about doing this and she was surprised that he had no family to name instead.
She smirked to herself as she recalled the non-disclosure agreement she had signed and how it compelled her to protect his privacy. She gathered her fortitude and determined to take care of things while he recovered from the accident.
She had the simple to-do list memorized: some fresh clothes for him, collect postal correspondence, refill the living room fish tank feeder and return any business call messages. She also needed to adjust his calendar for the next 2 weeks and let several people know of his accident.
She loaded a duffel for him and took care of everything she could before heading to his office upstairs.
Ayem had his builder carefully insulate the home with soundproofed, extra thick walls and windows so inside was mostly quiet, but his office was a single room on the 3rd story with a small deck surrounding it. He called it his tower room.
It’s like a one room tower high above the rest of the building, she thought. The windows on each wall overlooked the full valley, but all without any sound insulation; it’s almost as loud inside as outside. I don’t know how he works up here. I couldn’t concentrate. I’ll just grab his calendar and go back to the dining room table.
“The sound of the waterfall helps me concentrate,” Ayem had told her. “It keeps me focused on the story and drowns out distracting thoughts.”
When everything was done, Havilah paused in the middle of the large area between the fireplace sitting area, the dining room and small library to catch her breath. The nurse had asked her to return during visiting hours which didn’t start for another four and half hours. She reviewed the timing in her head; it will take almost two hours to get there if I stop for a burger in Isoquester, so I need to leave in two, so I have two and a half to kill. I could read in the hospital parking lot or I relax here.
I doubt I could read anyway. I’m so worried about Ayem. Then she remembered the deadline for his galley markup. Ugh, what am I going to do with Markus?
Markus was the cover artist. He was supposed to have sent it yesterday and . . . BING-BING–BONG! Her phone chirped an alert. She checked her inbox and, Yes! There it was. She clicked to reply; ‘Thanks Marcus–it looks great. HG’.
Okay then. I guess I’ll find something to read. She turned and walked into his library. The large window gave a wide view of the river basin below the falls. Ayem had set a comfy couch facing out. His current reading pile was on a small table nearby. One wall was end-to-end bookcases. She walked over to peruse but quickly noticed that he had a small collection of his own nine novels. She moved her fingers across the spline of each one. She loved them all and cherished the memories of working with Ayem on the last six.
She recalled his common theme, the forgiveness and redemption of seriously troubled souls–powerful, touching and compelling. Where does such insight come from?
Novel four was the first she helped edit. It about a young teenaged boy with terrible parents. Their neglect and abuse, drove him to friendships that took him to petty crime that grew to be more serious as a young adult. His protagonist was conflicted and struggled to just find a life he could survive, but everyone was an enemy or a victim of opportunity. Havilah had no experience with the scenes Ayem had written and they spent long afternoons talking them through. She helped him tone down his most graphic scenes without reducing their impact. She was enthralled by how his protagonist found his way out of that life with the help of a woman who realized what kind of man he was but also saw what he could be.
In novel five Ayem explored the life on a young woman caught up in the sex industry. Havilah had no direct experience with it, but he shared his research and as scary as it all was, Ayem had struck a note of hope from the beginning as his protagonist learned ways to protect herself and begin building a way out. In this case, Ayem chose a woman character from an escape ministry to lead his protagonist to a path that led out. His scenes troubled her, but when help arrived it was inspiring and both characters were vivid and alive as Ayem detailed the path of escape. The ending left her wanting to applaud. Sales surged and his publisher did applaud.
Each story depicted vivid dramas of the dirty underbelly of different crimes and moral failures, but each ended with forgiveness and redemption.
– – = = ( o ) = = – –
Ayem’s most recent novel ten had been the hardest for her. It was a rape event. He built the tension as his characters moved through work in an office setting. The details were shocking and Havilah struggled to stay professional. She began reflecting painful emotion reactions rather than editorial feedback.
Ayem finally paused their discussion to ask, “Havilah, why are you so stressed over this story? You know how it turns out. What’s different about this story?”
She closed her eyes and struggled to wrangle her thoughts. “This is such a horrific event. You told it so accurately. The self-doubt and self-blame and outrage. . . You really take the reader to a painful spot. Do your readers want or deserve such a painful images.”
“But, all my novels put the protagonist in horrific situations.”
“I don’t know Ayem, this scene in chapter eight, is over the top. How important are these details? Does the reader need to see this?”
“I think it progresses the rapist’s story. It makes the final forgiveness from guilt so much more meaningful.” But something about this bugs you, he thought.
They went back and forth for as Ayem began to suspect that Havilah might have some a topical bias because she was not expressing normal editorial concerns. She was way past that. He stood up from the dining room table where they always worked, and walked back to the kitchen counter to pick up the coffee pot. Good, still hot, he thought, and brought it out to refill their mugs. She was still breathing hard from pressing her last point when he sat down again. “Havilah. I think something else is on your mind regarding this scene. Do you have some experience with rape?”
Havilah’s eyes got big and she almost doubled over as the question hit her. “Why, would you . . . ? I’m not . . .”
“You don’t have to answer. It just seems like this story has struck you somehow differently; almost as if. . . ” And it struck him, she certainly has experience and I need to back off–now.! “Actually, I withdraw the question. I think you do have some experience and I have no business knowing the details. Let’s take a break. You can catch your breath. I’ve got some roast beef and Havarti cheese Can I make you a sand. . .?”
“No,” she interrupted. It was too late to back out. Havilah was consumed with a painful memory. When he reached out across the table and took her hand, something deep inside her silently screamed.
“Whatever it is, you don’t need to tell me, but you’re safe here.” But her eyes gave away her near panic reaction and he realized that touching her only made it worse so he quickly let go and backed away from the table.
Determined not to cry, Havilah again closed her eyes and swallowed her irrational fear. She saw only one way to regain control. “Okay! Okay… I was raped. I was nineteen and an office file clerk. He was the owner’s son. It exploded my world. ”
Ayem apologized, did not press for details and offered her the rest of the day off. “No. Thank you–but I’ll be okay.” After lunch, they went back to work and she recovered her editorial perspective.”
– – = = ( o ) = = – –
The painful memory snapped her back to the library with her heart pounding. She shook off the memory and stepped away from the shelves to move toward the window. “Hello, what’s this?” On the small table next to the couch she noticed an envelope with her name on it.
She circled the loveseat to pick it up. As she did, it uncovered a much larger envelope beneath, stamped, addressed and mailed to her at this address. It carried one of Ayem’s return address labels. Why did he send something to me here? She then noticed the cancellation date on the stamp. It was 2 days after her first visit so long ago. Huh? This makes no sense.
She opened the smaller envelope first and and was shocked to read his apology for committing suicide (What?!) because he couldn’t bear his life any longer. He directed her to open the larger envelope and then apologized again. She did so and she found photos that she immediately recognized and could not believe her eyes. Ayem had printed images of her from his security cameras of their first meeting: her transparent blouse from the porch and the library where she had changed clothes–in this very room. Her breath froze.
She stood up and dropped the photos like they were poison. Her mind raced. What does this mean? He saved photos, but sent them here 6 years ago–why? All this time, I’ve completely misread him. Embarrassed and violated, she looked at the pile of photos. “This makes no sense!” she said out loud.
Ah– he was counting on being dead before I found these. This must be a pathetic attempt to confess on his way out, except he survived. Now, what do I do? First things first. He failed to commit suicide. I need to prevent him from trying again. She called the hospital and asked for the head nurse for his floor. She quickly explained the suicide note adding, “please put some kind of watch on him.”
“Thanks for calling Ms. Goldberg. We have a protocol for this. He’ll be watched, but please get here soon as we’ll need someone he cares about to discourage him from trying again.
She grabbed the duffel and quickly left for the hospital, thankful that she had two hours to sort out the rest.
– – = = ( o ) = = – –
After skipping lunch to arrive sooner, Havilah crashed through the silence of his room and dove straight into work. “Okay, Ayem; first the cover for number 10 is back from Marcus. It’s perfect, so it’s is ready to publish. I also have your clothes, mail and calendar.”
“Havilah,” He said as he struggled to sit upright. “Did you see my note?”
She starred at him with barely concealed disdain but was determined to execute her plan. “Yes Ayem! You left a suicide note but you obviously survived. I broke several speed laws, to get here before you could try again. I just verified that someone is watching you on a security camera. Why do you ask?”
His eyes rolled. “I deserve that I guess.”
“Since you asked, I am ripping angry right now. Ayem, you are much more than my employer. You’re my friend, at least I thought you were. Why didn’t you say something?”
He paused, struggling with how to answer. “Two reasons; I’ve been living with a crippling secret for over two decades and last night I was depressed about running out of stories to write.”
“Secret? What secret?” she asked, thinking he was about to fess up the photographs.
“I’m exhausted with my ongoing failure to become the man I want to be. If anyone knew my full story — I’d be rejected as an author, as a civilized person and even. . . ” He paused to shake his head, unable to meet her eyes. “I would be a public pariah, unworthy of readers or friendship.
“It’s the main reason I live in Isoquester but the secret is too heavy to keep so I’ve been leaking it out.”
She starred at him, confused. “And Havilah, because of you, millions of people now know my story without knowing it.”
“Wait! What does that meant? How have you leaked it?”
“My novels. It’s laid out in my novels. You’ve read them. You know how painful those events would be. Havilah, for me, they are not just a story. They are my story.”
“Your novels are–autobiographical?! You never said anything about this.”
“I changed the names, places and even some character genders to hide my confessions in plain sight.”
“Wait — just wait!” She stepped away from his bed, thinking. “This changes so much. Now, I don’t know where to begin. I had this all plotted out. Ayem, it was a long drive to get here and I thought this all through. I knew what I wanted to say. I wanted you to know how angry I am at you. Do you even recall how you staged your envelops for me to find? ”
“I… I was drinking and–damn! Of course you found the photos.” Tears appeared in his eyes. “This would have been so much easier if I’d just died. . . My plan would have worked if I’d remembered those damned airbags.”
She blinked her eyes incredulously. “You forgot . . about the airbags!? Seriously?”
“I’m an alcoholic. I was drunk and depressed. I just planned to drive towards the city and hit that retaining wall.”
“Okay. Fine! I accept this part, but Ayem–you also produced and kept photos of me from the day we first met.” Unwilling to let her anger go, she began to pace around the cramped room. “You printed them and, what, studied or enjoyed the look of my wet blouse and me changing?! Do you realize how sleazy and perverted that is? Can you understand how violated I feel? And that stunt of mailing them to me at your address; was that supposed to prove something? You easily could have made and shared copies. You also acted the part of such a gentleman about helping me freshen up and then we had our meeting and all along I thought that you were impressed with my credentials but now should I suspect you only wanted me around for a possible repeat of the wet tee-shirt event. I’m worried that those pictures are out in the internet.”
Ayem had quickly dropped his eyes again. “Havilah, I’m so sorry. I could have made copies, but I didn’t. I could have shared them, but I didn’t. They aren’t out on the internet. No one else knows that it ever happened, but it did happen. I realized the next morning that security cams must have caught your images. It was like someone from my distant past watching and printing them. Once they were in my hand. I wanted to destroy them, but that would only hide the evidence of what I’d done and I could not bring myself to hide the truth again; not from you. But I never found the courage to tell you”
She watched him for a moment, glad that he was suffering, but then her own agenda reasserted itself. She took a deep breath to control her feelings, before continuing.” Like I said, it was a long drive and I’ve decided what I’m going to do.”
“Of course you want to terminate your employment. I compl. . .”
“No! I don’t. Ayem, I’ve read all your novels. Each of your stories paints an image of a broken person, crippled by their own decisions but you always had a forgiving character to break through your protagonist’s darkness, someone who shook him and brought him to redemption.
“But Ayem, it never occurred to me that you were all of your protagonists. On the drive here, I decided to treat you the way your story redeemers treated your protagonists. I did not want to forgive you, but the principal in your stories overruled my hurt feelings.
“Did you really commit an extortion, robbery, and all that other stuff. Were you also that drug dealer and grifter?”
Ayem appeared to be taking hits from invisible fists at the mention of each charge. “Yes, yes; I was each of those characters.”
“And you really had a redeemer each time?”
He looked up with red, moist eyes, “Yes, each time, someone to pull me to safety.”
“Even novel number 7, ‘Uncle Henry’s Favorite Niece’ “?
“Please Havilah – you’re killing me here. Yes, yes! They are all true but obfuscated.”
“Wow! Didn’t see this coming. Let me think. Okay, this is huge, but . . .”
Ayem knew Havilah enough to recognize when she dropped into her thinking out loud mode. She verbalized her questions and posited possible answers, pushes and pulls, pros and cons. She talked to herself as she paced around his bed, homing in on a point of view she could defend.
He knew better than to interrupt and remained silent.
“Okay. this doesn’t change my final point.” She paused to take a deep breath. “Ayem, I still want to be your editor, your friend but I also forgive you and want to be your redeemer for those photos.
“There . . . I said it.”
Ayem, raised his eyes to her; exhausted with emotion.
Then Havilah smirked. “By the way, how is it that you’re not in jail?”
He smiled and shook his head as the room tension unwound. “Some of my redeemers were attorneys. With the extortion, I knew the others who were involved and the DA made me an deal to testify in exchange for going into witness protection. It was my chance to start over. I only asked for my Isoquester home and to choose my new name”.
“Well, I am forgiving you because I think I know your heart even though I clearly did not know your history.”
“You understand that whatever we decide, you are still bound by that non-disclosure agreement. The feds are going to be furious that you know this much.”
“Understood.” She plopped into the chair near his bed. So, what’s your original name?”
“It’s classified but you can know the story behind it. It’s a reminder to me of my past and goal.”
“My new name separates me from my past, except that I’m not perfect about carrying it out. Every time I hear it spoken or sign it, it reminds me that I’m not that twisted man anymore.”
“I don’t understand. How does your name do all that? I always assumed it was foreign. Does it mean something in another language?”
“Pretend it’s not a name and say it slowly, out loud while looking for words to break up.”
“Ayem Nott-hymn?” She made a face, not yet seeing it. “Aye-em Not-hym?” She abruptly rose from her chair and put a palm to her forehead. “Oh good grief! How could I’ve missed this all these years, I’m not him, as in you’re not the man from your past. Ayem; this, is, brilliant!
“Has anyone ever figured this out?”
“No, I doubt anyone even questioned it. Why would they?”
“Right.” She crossed her arms and turned to take a few steps around the room. “So, have you started novel 11 and what’s it going to be about?”
“No. I’ve not started it yet because I told all my stories in 10 novels and didn’t have an eleventh. But now, it depends. How soon can you get me back to my Isoquester tower room and what gender would you like to be?”
Havilah smiled smartly, knowing that Ayem was now safe with a fresh story to tell and once again, she would be part of getting it published.
“Oh! And Ayem; I want a raise; and a sandwich. And a nap. I’m exhausted.”