The Rumor(9)

by Elin Hilderbrand

Rachel had apologized about the box with the bird eggs and had offered to dispose of it, but Madeline wanted to keep it.

There was a small galley kitchen with particleboard cabinets, a tiny bathroom with a fiberglass stall shower, and a bedroom containing nothing but a full-size box spring and mattress, bare of linens.

The apartment wasn’t remarkable in any aspect—except that it was hers.

So here was something she’d missed out on all her life: a place of her own. Madeline wanted to walk down the street to Flowers on Chestnut and buy a fresh bouquet, she wanted a selection of herbal teas, she wanted colorful throw pillows and a soft chenille blanket, she wanted beeswax taper candles that she would light when the sun started to go down, she wanted a wireless speaker so she could listen to Mozart and Brahms.

No time to dream about that now. Madeline needed to write! She turned her cell phone off. Nothing was a natural predator of productive fiction writing like the cell phone. Ditto the laptop. As she had well learned, the laptop could destroy a day.

Madeline took her legal pads, her pens, and the Laurie Colwin book out of her backpack and set up a “desk” at the round dining table.

Candles would be nice.

And Mozart.

But for now, she would have to go without.

Madeline had wanted to be a writer since she was old enough to hold a pencil. The desire was coded in her genes, but it was also a result of how she had been raised, or not raised. She had grown up in the help quarters of the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego, where her mother worked as a banquet waitress. In the long nights of her mother’s absence—every night potentially terrifying, as the Hotel del was known to be haunted by the ghost of Kate Morgan—Madeline would keep her imagination occupied by writing stories about a girl hero named Gretchen Green. Gretchen Green was the oldest of seven sisters, she had two glamorous parents, she lived in a beach mansion in La Jolla, and she was followed everywhere by her dachshund, Walter Mondale. Madeline had lost all of her Gretchen Green stories, but if she were to come across them now, she knew she would find blatant documentation of every single element that had been missing from her own childhood. Sisters. Parents. A home. A pet. A sense that she, Madeline, was special.

The passion for writing lasted into college. Madeline attended San Diego State, where she studied with a female writer who was so fabulous and inspiring that Madeline was terrified to disappoint her and therefore had handed in only incomplete stories. It’s not quite finished had been Madeline’s standard excuse. Since none of her pieces was ever truly done, they could not be criticized for imperfections.

The writing professor was encouraging, nonetheless. “You have a way with language,” she told Madeline. “Your pieces have a lot of surface energy. I would be interested in seeing you delve deeper. You should try and finish at least one of these stories. You seem to have an issue with resolution.”

In her senior year, Madeline applied to four MFA programs, but she was accepted at only one, her last choice, Bellini University in Florida—otherwise known as Bikini University.

Depression ensued. Madeline had had her heart set on the University of Iowa. When the rejection letter came, she burst into tears. If it wasn’t going to be Iowa, then she wanted Columbia, but that didn’t happen either (the applicant pool, the letter said, was especially strong that year); nor did she get into the University of Michigan. It looked like it would be Bellini or nothing.

At that time, Madeline was dating a former USC football player named Geoffrey, who worked as a bouncer at the Coaster Saloon, on Mission Beach. She knew Geoffrey had strong feelings for her, but he was a loser. Mission Beach was seedy, and Geoffrey sold drugs on the side. When Madeline told Geoffrey that she was applying to graduate school, he panicked about her moving away and said he would go with her. When Madeline expressed skepticism about this plan, he got a tattoo of her name on the soft underside of his forearm. MAD, the tattoo said, because this was what he called her.

Geoffrey was excited to move to Florida and get something going there, which meant getting a job at a bar and finding people to sell drugs to.

No, Madeline decided. She wasn’t going to Florida. She would not settle for Bikini University, and she would not settle for Geoffrey. Late one night, after his shift, she broke up with him.

What transpired next was the worst thing that had ever happened to Madeline. On a night shortly after the breakup, Geoffrey went on a bender of tequila and cocaine, and he showed up at Madeline’s dorm room at three o’clock in the morning, when both Madeline and her roommate were fast asleep, and he carried Madeline out of the building. He loaded her into the back of a panel van he had stolen from the parking lot of the Coaster Saloon and bound her wrists and ankles with plastic zip ties. He gagged her with a bandanna and took her to a motel in Encanto, where he kept her for fifty-two hours, until he finally ran out of cocaine and passed out cold. Madeline was able to make enough noise banging her elbows against the flimsy hotel wall that a Hispanic cleaning lady heard her, opened the door, and called the police.

After Madeline testified and after Geoffrey was sent to jail, she wanted to get as far away from Southern California as she possibly could. With the help of her former San Diego State professor, Madeline found a bed for the summer in a “writer’s retreat” on Nantucket Island. The “writer’s retreat” ended up being a bunch of Chi O girls from the University of North Carolina who had majored in English and liked to host poetry slams. But the room was cheap, and Madeline found a job busing tables at 21 Federal, leaving her days free to write.

By the end of summer, she had finished her first piece of writing ever—a novel entitled The Easy Coast, about a young woman who is brutally kidnapped by her loser drug-dealing boyfriend.

With further help from her former San Diego State professor, Madeline sent The Easy Coast to three agents in New York, and within a week, all three had called saying they wanted to represent her. Madeline flew from Nantucket to New York to meet with these agents, and this was how she met Trevor.

He had been her pilot.

Trevor liked to describe the way Madeline looked when he first met her: she was a beautiful blond from Southern California on the day her greatest dream was about to come true.

That year, in Madeline’s memory, was a giant starburst, an explosion of heat and light. Her book found an agent—Redd Dreyfus—and shortly thereafter, a thirty-thousand-dollar advance from an up-and-coming editor named Angie Turner at the publishing house Final Word. And Madeline met Trevor Llewellyn, and the two of them fell in love. Nine months into the relationship, they were engaged. By that time, Madeline’s book had received two starred prepublication reviews, from the notoriously cranky Kirkus and from Publishers Weekly, both announcing the emergence of a startling new talent.