BY FRANK BEGHIN
Copyright is held by the author.
HAVE YOU ever had a character — one you’ve nourished and groomed — come alive before your very eyes. Stuff like that only happens in the movies, right?
Yesterday morning, while shopping, I came across the spitting image of one of my protagonists.
It was like a bad sci-fi novel, except for the setting. Instead of being fanciful and flamboyant, it was mundane and down-to-earth.
The earliest part of the day had been routine: There were no hints that elements of the Twilight Zone would creep in, not that there was anything to be frightened of. Quite the contrary. What happened to me was more of an awakening, like the universe was trying to tell me something.
The department store I entered — which was quiet and dull most Saturday mornings — was charged with an exceptional energy. The hustle and bustle of its shoppers seemed to suggest Christmas was around the corner.
Maybe it has something to do with Halloween, I mused. Fright night was only two days away.
Colourful, ghoulish banners were posted everywhere, confirming my suspicions. The banners advertised sales of up to 70% off.
“Don’t miss out,” a young woman said, as she handed me a flyer. Her blue, pin stripe t-shirt – decorated with the store’s logo — identified her as one of the greeters.
“It’s our Halloween special,” the woman continued, cheerfully. “You won’t find deals like these anywhere else.”
At least, not until the next sale, I was about to tease, but she was already welcoming the next customer.
For a simple grab-and-go, navigating through the crowd was a challenge. Luckily, I was thin, so I could wriggle my way around.
After a few wounded toes and a couple of bumped elbows later, I managed to make my way to my destination — aisle 3.
As I turned the corner, the last thing I expected to see was a character from my book.
Wh . . . what’s going on? Is that Emma?
Have you ever tried navigating down a flight of stairs in the dark? Unnerving, isn’t it? It’s even more unnerving when your body anticipates one step too many.
Although not as jarring, my encounter in the shop was just as unexpected.
Despite my astonishment, though, I was intrigued by the chance to meet one of my favourite imaginings — if that’s who she really was.
Emma was with friends at the far end of the aisle. Her mysterious appearance, in addition to her sweet, beguiling aroma — was that a hint of lavender I smelled? — drew me closer.
I only paused briefly when a peculiar thought crossed my mind: Is any of this real?
It would be the ultimate irony to discover I was part of someone else’s fabrication — a mere player who “struts and frets his hour upon the stage.”
The twist in perception brought a wry smile to my lips. Not even a desperate playwright would be interested in my comings and goings.
And yet, here I was about to interact with the gem of my novel — real or not!
If Emma was a figment of my imagination, was it wish fulfillment that made me see her now?
The longing to set pen to paper was suddenly overpowering. I had been away too long from my beloved character. My unfinished manuscript now seemed like an abandoned mistress – one whose Siren’s call tormented me.
Foolishly, I felt the need to apologize, but for what? For neglecting her?
A scene flashed before my eyes, one that was both familiar and unsettling.
Emma, shivering and out of breath, was slumped against an old stone post. Surrounded by heavy winds, her laboured breathing was barely audible.
Overhead, menacing storm clouds gathered. Occasionally, a zigzagging burst of light would break up the darkening sky — followed by thunderous clatter.
None of this mattered to Emma. Her gaze was fixed on a snakelike, cobblestone walkway. The path cut through broken terrain, pushing aside clumps of withering grass and weeds.
At the end of the walkway stood a weathered timber farmhouse with boarded-up windows. The front door was ajar, hanging lopsided from its rusty hinges.
Adjacent to the building, but at some distance, was the remains of a wooden barn. The pile of charred and broken pieces of lumber reminded me of a funeral pyre.
The field behind the home was covered by rows of brown and wilting corn stalks. The dying crop — in desperate need of water — was pummelled mercilessly by the wind.
In this desolation, the building seemed an unlikely haven, but Emma needed to find shelter.
As she limped along the walkway, she failed to notice the amorphous, black shape slithering towards her from the open doorway.
Hugging the ground like a shadow, the flittering darkness glided effortlessly over the stone pavers, following the curves and contours of the winding path.
As it approached Emma, it began to sprout tendrils that resembled the gnarled branches of a decaying tree.
My knees shook.
I opened my mouth to shout a warning, but — in this dream-like state — I was unable to speak.
Emma froze when she saw the danger.
As it got closer, the darkness rose up, as if to engulf her. It grew in size as well, looming over her menacingly.
But instead of being swallowed, Emma began to dissolve.
No, not dissolve, but strip away, like an unravelling ball of yarn.
The strips became fragments, turning into . . . words?
Like dancing hieroglyphics, the words shuddered in space before being swallowed whole by the void, as if the darkness was some kind of miniature, black hole.
Emma’s eyes were the last to transform, and before they did, they turned towards me in panic.
Wait, I thought, ridiculously, that’s not supposed to happen.
I remembered the scene clearly: An unknown assailant had kidnapped Emma, not some twisted reject from a horror movie.
And the farm, although suffering from a drought, had not reached this dilapidated state.
Why was this being played out differently from what I had written?
My head was heavy, and my legs felt rubbery.
The scene evaporated, and I was back in the department store.
A catchy rendition of “Girl From Ipanema” was playing over the shop’s speakers.
Frowning, I looked around. Everything seemed in order — no malicious ink spot here — so why was I on edge? It’s not like the thing was going to pop out from behind a display case and shriek:
“Clean up in aisle 5! Clean up in aisle 5!”
Even for my imagination, that was a little far-fetched.
Emma was still with her companions. She was checking out the items on the bottom shelf. She didn’t seem in jeopardy.
And yet . . .
For a brief instant, Emma caught my gaze, and my breath faltered as her soulful, brown eyes pleaded with me.
Just like the character in my book . . .
Inexplicably, I wanted to hold her in my arms, soothe her, and feel the caress of her ginger hair against my cheek.
Nothing will ever tear us apart again, I wanted to cry.
I’ll be waiting for you in the car, a faint voice echoed, as if reaching from the deepest recesses of my mind.
Tania, my wife . . . I had forgotten her.
She must be wondering what’s taking me so long. I gulped. What do I tell her? My grab-and-go hit a speed bump?
Warily, I glanced back at Emma.
No longer did traces of fear cloud her eyes. In fact, they actually sparkled, as if she was laughing at my foolishness.
Thankfully, none of the others had witnessed my split-second of awkwardness. When they began to leave, I was almost relieved.
As the group brushed past me, apologetically, I felt Emma’s short, bristly hair rub against my pant leg. Before completely passing me by, Emma stooped. She sniffed at my shoelaces, as if they were the most fascinating things in the world.
Does she recognize me?
“Come on, Emma,” a young girl in pigtails chided. “Leave the nice man alone.”
The girl, no more than six or seven, wore a blue, corduroy jumpsuit, with a yellow, hooded top. Attached to the hood were 3D goggle eyes and hair fringe detail.
“Maybe I can convince Momma to buy you a squeaky toy,” the girl continued, trying to bribe the pup.
Feeling a gentle tug on her pink, nylon leash, Emma cocked her head and looked up at the child as if annoyed.
Squeaky toy? Seriously? Isn’t it bad enough you made me wear this silly costume, her expression seemed to say. Now you want to get me a stupid cat plaything?
Emma had ladybug antennae strapped to her head, in keeping with the Halloween theme.
The pup left my side in a huff, and Emma’s deep, folded skin wobbled as she trotted towards the girl’s mother.
It was only when they had left the store, I fully appreciated the coincidence of the pup’s real name.
What were the odds of meeting a ginger-haired, sweet-smelling Chinese-Sharpie puppy named Emma?
She wasn’t my Emma, of course. My Emma was stuck in Limbo, waiting for me to free her, and the only way I could do that was by continuing her adventures.
Suddenly, I knew what I’d be doing once I was done shopping.
There was a pen and paper at home with my name on it.
I peered at the shelves beside me, then, mystified.
I was in the wrong lane.
Birdseed was in aisle 4.