She turned her head away from the computer screen and half closed her eyes. Dammit, the man had done it again.
She had read the story three times, and every time she felt that tingling sense of awareness that told her she was reading quality. Ray, damn him, didn’t even seem to try yet turned out the most fantastic stories.
This had been a simple assignment, a story idea popped off the top of her head and circulated to members of the writing group. “Write a story that includes the word habitat, in the first sentence.”
Which was exactly what Ray had done, just like the other seven members of the group. Their work had been good but nothing special, as usual. But his … his story was in a class of his own. Like all his work, it shone word by word. It left her blood tingling, her mind reeling. Every molecule of her being wished she had written that story. The man was good. Very good. Too good. And apparently he had no idea whatsoever just how good that was. Infuriating.
She turned away from the screen and stared out of the window feeling the cold dread of failure seeping through her bones. She was running this group, had run it for years, had seen any amount of hopefuls come in and write and have their minor successes, or not, and then go away again. She had kept them inspired by her stories of her own successes, the editors who had wooed her, published her stories, paid her, made her famous. The agent who was always chasing her for more. None of them had questioned her truthfulness. Not that she was telling lies, of course not. Once she had been good. Effortlessly successful. And then, it had started to become less effortless. Until recently, over the last couple of years or so, she had begun to realise she had lost it.
Damn the man. His stories showed her what she had lost, and what she would probably never regain. He had written Habitat in an evening,
joking about how little effort he had put into it and how she always knew and he would be glad as ever of her incisive and experienced comments.
He trusted her.Just like he had trusted her critiques of his other stories in the past. The Gillemot. Target Practice. Home on the Range. All fantastically good, ripe for publication, any one of which would have won a competition, made his name. God, it had hurt to see how effortless it was for him, and how totally clueless he was about his own merit. But she had turned that to her advantage, and slated each and every one of them. Nicely, of course. The first time with guilt and regret, but after that it had become easier. Ray, being Ray, had accepted her incisive and experienced comments with abject gratitude, never suspecting she had a hidden motive, never aware that the stories she so politely pulled to pieces were deserving of so much more. And in fact, did achieve much more, but not under his name, but hers. He had thanked her quietly and abandoned the stories convinced he was near to a failure. Whilst she reaped the success that should have rightfully been his. She had soon learned to justify what she had done because the man was just so totally unaware of his worth.
It had got to be too easy. He accepted everything she said; and it never occurred to him to get a second o pinion, or even to show his stories to other members of the group. He could have looked at different markets, found the same on online competitions where she had submitted them, under one of her pen names. It didn’t occur to him that it was his stories his “ failures“, that she was getting published.
But recently her agent had begun asking her for more. The novel she had never written; more stories for more up market publications. She had nothing ready under her own name. As it had been for the past two years, her mind was a blank. Her agent was now pushing her to speak at a prestigious literary conference, presenting a new story. But she had nothing to offer until The Habitat popped into her email.
She had begun to think she would have to stop using other people‘s stories; Ray’s stories hadn’t been the first she appropriated, but they had certainly been the most successful. She had known she couldn’t just carry on like this and not be found out. But no one had ever questioned her pen names. And Ray had never questioned her critiques. The rest of the group: well, she had been able to use one or two of their stories, with varied success but it was dodgy because they were always sharing their stories with each other and submitting to on line competitions so using their work was a bit risky. Ray of course made it easy for her.. She was safe, of course she was.
And the Habitat had come just in the nick of time. She had been planning, in some desperation to tell her agent she was retiring, but now she could see herself publishing Ray’s story, talking about it at the Literary Conference. Of course, he would never know. Trusting fool.
The story was good. Very good. She couldn’t let it go. She felt almost light headed with optimism; it was so easy.
She turned back to the computer and began to rewrite Ray‘s work. New names, places and dates. A different opening paragraph; a few subtle changes in the wording and layout. It didn’t need much. Then, with her nerves tingling, she emailed it immediately to her agent.
“I have been working on this one and off, , but think it will do as a basis for the conference. I have some plans for that and will get back to you soon.”
Then she turned back to Ray’s email. This was the easy bit, he was so trusting.
“Ray, thank you for sending me the Habitat. As always it is so well thought out. But … oh I am so sorry, there is always a but .. It just doesn’t hang together somehow. Sorry to say this.. But it would benefit from a rethink .. Put it to one side and take it out some time in the future and you will see what I mean.”
She pressed SEND and without giving another moment’s thought she sat back and smiled. It was so easy.