Allen froze. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
He had stopped at a gas station on his way home. He was turning to put the nozzle back on the pump when he spotted Louie the Snake coming out of the convenience store. He looked exactly as Allen had imagined him to be—an elderly, stocky fellow, like a cross between James Caan and Anthony Hopkins, dressed all in black like Johnny Cash. The only thing out of place was the bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos he was munching on.
Louie’s gaze met Allen’s, and he smiled a nasty, devilish smile.
Holy shit. He’s looking at me. Louie-the-fucking-Snake is looking right at me. Somehow he’s here, and he knows who I am, and—I don’t know how I know this, but I’m sure of it—he wants to kill me. He wants to fucking kill me.
His mouth had gone dry. His heart was beating fast. Far away, he could the drip-drip-drip of gasoline falling from the gas nozzle, which he still held comically in midair. Louie popped a chip in his mouth and winked at him, and that’s all Allen’s sanity could take. He snapped out of his trance and clumsily shoved the nozzle back on the pump. He left his credit card receipt in the printer, ran around to the driver’s side door of his car, hopped in, and turned on the ignition. He backed up hastily, causing an inbound pickup truck to slam on its brakes. He took a right turn onto the highway and floored it.
Louie the Snake was the most powerful mob boss in the Northeast. He dealt in a wide range of criminal activity—drugs, smuggling, fire arms, gambling. If you were on his good side, he was like your best friend. But if you were on his bad side—well, nobody lived long enough to tell what his bad side was like. It was rumored that he had personally killed over a hundred people and had ordered hits on hundreds more. Everybody was afraid of him, and the police couldn’t touch him.
But what bothered Allen the most wasn’t that this larger-than-life criminal was in this little old town in Georgia, at a little old gas station, eating a little old bag of chips. It wasn’t the sinister grin he had given him, although that didn’t exactly sit well with him either.
No, the thing that terrified Allen the most, the thing that almost made him shit his pants, was that Louie wasn’t real. He was a recurring character in Allen’s books. He only existed in the form of paper and ink. And yet here he was, a real-life figure standing on the side of the road in his rearview mirror.
Waving at him. Grinning at him. Daring him to lose his mind.
Allen Duvall wrote crime novels. He had dabbled with other genres in the past, but for some reason, human monsters had always been his specialty. When his mob epic Garbage Men was published (introducing his most popular character Louie the Snake), The New York Times called him “the next Mario Puzo.” When Ned Camus, the demented serial rapist in his novel Circle of Mice, rivaled the cunning and creepiness of Hannibal Lecter, Publishers Weekly called him “the next Thomas Harris.” After five consecutive bestsellers, the critics stopped comparing him to other authors and started doing the reverse. On the latest James Patterson thriller, someone wrote: “Allen Duvall could drop dead on a Scrabble board, and the letters stuck to his face would make better reading than this piece of crap.” Unlike many of the popular writers of his day, he wrote suspense with style and brains, and people loved it.
Ninety percent of his writing did not take place in front of a computer but on a four-mile nature trail near his home. Every morning he walked it, and while others may have done it for the exercise or the scenery, he did it because he needed a long time to think, and his wife could no longer stand the sound of his pacing back and forth in his office.
He was of the philosophy that good writing was not about creating stories but rather interpreting them as they came to you. As he set off on his daily walk, he would flip on the imaginary film projector in his mind, and the story would pick up where it had left off. It was not his job to invent this story; his only purpose was to observe it very closely so that he could retell it later. While the projector was running, he was completely lost in the images and sounds that it cast on the forefront of his brain. Some sliver of his consciousness was in charge of moving his legs and keeping an eye out for jutting tree roots, but the rest of him, the part that mattered, would be sitting in a movie theater with a big tub of popcorn in his lap.
At the end of the trail was a spectacular waterfall. Here he let his mind rest, for he did not want the projector to overheat. This was the only time during his walk that he allowed himself to fully enjoy his natural surroundings. He listened to the crash of the water. He felt the spray of mist on his skin. He inhaled the dewy air. As good as the movie was, it was always nice to leave the cinema for a few moments to stretch his legs, to feel the sunlight on his face.
And then he went back inside, rewound the projector, and played the whole damn thing over again. He wanted to make sure that he’d caught all of the details, that he understood all that needed to be understood. By the time he reached the beginning of the trail again, he knew the story backwards and forwards. He saw it with such amazing clarity that all he needed to do now was go home and, like a mother bird feeding her young, regurgitate it into a form that others could easily consume. He believed that this translation of sights and sounds into words was the part of the writing process that could be learned and developed with practice. The other ninety percent—the acquisition of those sights and sounds—was beyond one’s control. That depended on the quality of your projector, and until today, Allen’s was in tip-top shape.
It was after one of his morning walks that he had stopped at a gas station and had seen Louie the Snake standing not thirty feet away from him. Somehow one of his monsters had escaped. Somehow the projector had followed him out of the theater and into the real world.
He zigzagged though the town, traveling on back roads, circling blocks, taking twice as long as he needed to get home. He kept one eye on his rearview mirror, checking for cars that might be following him, but he was too frantic to notice even if one was. When he got home, he parked on the far side of the house, away from the view of the street. His address was unlisted, and he didn’t think he was being followed, but he couldn’t be sure. For all he knew, Louie and his henchmen had been following him for weeks, and trying to outsmart him now was pointless, but he figured any precaution was better than none.
He went in the house through the back door, which led into the kitchen. His wife Sarah was sitting at the breakfast table, reading the paper.
“You startled me,” she said. “Why didn’t you come through the garage—” She noticed the fear on Allen’s face. “What’s wrong?”
“I saw Louie at the gas station.”
“Louie the Snake.”
“You saw someone who looked like Louie the Snake?”
“No, it was Louie the Snake.”
She looked at him like one looks at a child who says he saw a monster under the bed. “Honey, Louie the Snake isn’t real.”
“I know he isn’t real!” he yelled. “That’s why I’m freaking the fuck out!” He was frustrated with her. Here he was, more scared than he had ever been in his whole life, and she was speaking to him like he was a five-year-old.
She went over to him and put her hands on the sides of his face in a comforting gesture. “Oh, Allen, you’re sweating bullets. Look, I know how you get on your walks. You just got carried away in your stories, and you weren’t thinking clearly. Louie the Snake is a character in a book. You just saw someone who looked like him.”
He didn’t want to admit it, but on some level, he knew she was right. How crazy was it to think that one of your characters had come to life? He thought about the way the Louie-look-alike had smiled at him though, the way he had walked to the side of the road and had waved at him as he sped away. But now he was starting to doubt that even those things had happened. Perhaps he had been so jarred by the sight of the man that he had imagined him doing those things. Perhaps Sarah was right, that part of his brain had still been in writing mode. How foolish he must have looked, driving around town, trying to outrun a mobster, like one of the heroes in his books. His face flushed in embarrassment. He pushed Sarah’s hands off of his face and turned away, pretending to be mad when he was really ashamed of his gullibility.
“I’m gonna take a shower,” he said quietly, and walked away.
The shower helped clear his head. Now he was positive that Sarah was right. This wasn’t one of his novels where shit like that could happen. This was reality, where fiction stayed fiction and fact stayed fact. Still…a part of him wanted to believe it, as masochistic as that sounded. He knew he had a great imagination—that’s what made him such a great writer—but was it so great that it could slip so easily into the non-writing part of his life? He was almost as afraid of that as he was of the alternative—that the barrier between his mind and reality had somehow broken down, and his creations were escaping into the real world.
After he got dressed, he called someone that would relate to him—his friend Ricky who was also a successful writer. He and Ricky had gone to high school together and still kept in touch, even after Ricky had moved to California with his family. He lived in San Francisco, but now he would be in L.A., working on a film based on one of his novels.
After Allen recounted what had happened this morning, Ricky laughed, thinking it was a joke.
“No, I’m serious, man,” Allen said. “I mean, I know it really wasn’t him, but damn, it sure looked like him. Some of my characters are kind of faceless, but I’ve always known exactly what Louie looks like, and I swear, that guy was Louie.”
Ricky chuckled again. “I see characters from my books all the time. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened to you before. A couple years ago, I was at a restaurant, and the waitress looked exactly like the girl from The Butterfly Kite. My wife thought I was having a heart attack.”
“So it’s not just me?”
“Of course not, you arrogant prick. Look, there’s only so many faces in the world. We’re bound to run into some of our characters eventually. You should be happy someone looks like Louie. You should see some of the people they cast for this movie. They hired a Mexican guy for the lead. A Mexican, for Christ’s sake! Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against Mexicans, but the character just isn’t Mexican. I spent a whole chapter giving the guy an Irish background, and they go and cast a fucking Hispanic.”
“But what about how he winked at me?”
“Well, either you imagined that or, more likely, he was just a dirty old man. You should listen to your wife. She sounds like she has her shit together. By the way, when am I going to meet this hot bride of yours? I’m thinking about taking the family to visit my parents after this flick wraps up. Maybe we’ll swing by your place?”
“I don’t know,” he lied for no particular reason. “I’ve been really busy lately, especially with this new book I’ve been working on.”
“Okay, maybe another time then,” Ricky said, sounding disappointed. “Listen, I gotta get back to the set to see what else they’re fucking up. Talk to you later?”
They hung up.
Allen felt a little better knowing that Ricky had also seen some of his characters in real life. But he also felt more embarrassed about losing his head over it, and he felt even worse about yelling at Sarah for something this stupid. He was a stubborn man who hated apologizing, but Sarah was one of the few women who could admit when they were wrong, and he figured he owed it to her.
She was still in the kitchen, reading the newspaper and sipping coffee. When he entered the room, she looked up at him with an expression of concern.
“I’m sorry I went bonkers on you before,” he said. “You were right. I must have gotten carried away. It’s just that it’s never happened before, and it scared the shit out of me.”
She smiled. “It’s okay,” she said. She stood up, got on her tiptoes, and gave him a quick kiss, and then a much longer one. “Love you.”
“Love you, too,” he said, smiling back at her.
Then Sarah went back to reading the paper, and Allen got something to eat out of the fridge, and that was all the drama for the day.
They had been married for five years and had met under unusual circumstances.
One day, Allen had been driving home in the pouring rain. The windshield wipers were whipping as fast as they could, but he could still barely see the road. Then, all of sudden, the car in front of him slammed on the brakes, and he slammed on his own in the nick of time. The car behind him, however, was not as quick to react, and collided into him. He and the other driver pulled over and got out of their cars to survey the damage. Neither had umbrellas, and both were instantly soaked to the bone.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry!” his future bride hollered over the pounding rain. “I slammed on the brakes, but my car skidded forward.”
Her car only had a few scratches, but his had a big dent in the bumper. He wasn’t looking at the car though. He was looking at her. Even with her hair plastered to her head from the rain, even with her makeup running, he could tell she was beautiful.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s just a little dent. I’ll pay for it myself.”
“No, it was my fault. Let me give you my insurance information.”
She turned toward her car, but he held his hand out to stop her. If she had been anyone else, he probably would have let her go, but she was so pretty, so sweet and innocent, he felt compelled to stop her. “No, really, I insist,” he said with a smile. “I’m filthy rich. It’s no problem.”
She looked at him for a moment, wondering if she should accept his generosity. After a while, she said, “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Okay. Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
He nodded and watched her walk back to her car. Don’t let her go, he thought. If you let her go, you’ll never see her again, and you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. This was a voice he had heard several times before, but he had always ignored it out of cowardice. But this time it was especially loud and persistent. STOP HER! DON’T LET HER GO! SAY SOMETHING! COME ON! SAY SOMETHING!
And before he could tell the voice to go fuck itself, he yelled, “Have coffee with me!” The words sounded stupid and awkward the second they had left his mouth.
She paused with her hand on the door handle and turned around. “What?”
Nothing, he wanted to say, but instead he said the first thing again, the stupid thing: “Have coffee with me.”
She looked at him uncomfortably. “Are you serious?”
“Is this some kind of payment for me hitting you?”
“No. I just think you’re really pretty.”
To his surprise, she laughed, not in a mean way but in the way a schoolgirl laughs when the most popular boy in class pays her a compliment. Allen found this strange since he had never been that boy, but he guessed, by default, he was the most popular boy on the side of the road right now.
“Okay, sure,” she said. “Follow me. I know a good place near here.”
And so he did. He followed her. And he never left her.
In the looks department, he was a six, and she was a nine, but it turned out they had a lot in common. They were both orphans for one thing. Allen’s parents had died in a car accident when he was eight. Sarah’s father had died of a drug overdose before she was born, and her mother had died of cancer when she was twelve. In addition to sharing less than happy childhoods, they liked the same movies and read the same books. They hated each other’s tastes in music though, but that didn’t stop them from falling in love. After only a couple months of dating, they got hitched in a cheesy Vegas-style chapel. Their relationship seemed like something out of a fairytale, which is why it hurt so much more when they discovered Sarah couldn’t bear children. They were devastated by the news, but they were still grateful for each other and decided to adopt a child when the time was right.
Their first meeting in the rain eventually found its way into a book called Fender Bender. Technically, it was still a murder mystery, but it was the first of his novels to contain a romantic element. TheL.A. Times called it “a wonderful departure.” Entertainment Weekly said, “It’s official: Allen Duvall can do anything.” He had been reluctant to include events from his life in his work, but it was what the projector had shown him, and he never argued with it.
Life for Allen and Sarah was going quite smoothly. Allen’s popularity had skyrocketed in recent years, to the point where Sarah had been able to quit her nursing job at the local hospital. Now she could stay home and be his inspiration full-time. Even the incident with Louie the Snake had only been a minor hitch, and then everything had gone back to normal.
At least, for a couple weeks.
He was at the supermarket, picking up a carton of milk, when somebody behind him said, “Your wife is very beautiful.”
When he turned around and saw the owner of the voice, the carton of milk slipped out of his hand and fell onto the floor, where it popped open and spilled its contents. A stock boy nearby cursed loudly at him. A few passing shoppers gave him dirty looks. But Allen wasn’t paying any attention to them, because he was too busy looking into the eyes of Ned Camus, the rapist from his book Circle of Mice.
“I think I’ll make Sarah my next flower,” Ned said. “All I have to do is pour a little of my special gravy in her morning coffee, and then I can do whatever I want with her for hours and hours.” He glanced at his watch. “Oh, look at that. She should be drinking it right now. Gotta run.” He smiled and walked off, leaving Allen to stand there, dumbfounded.
The stock boy came up to him with a mop. “Dude, can you get out of the way so I can clean up this mess?”
Allen looked at him with the expression of shock still on his face, and then looked back at Ned just as he was disappearing around a corner. Allen suddenly broke into a run. Behind him the stock boy said, “You’re not in trouble, man! It was just an accident!” When he rounded the corner, Ned was nowhere to be seen. He sprinted out of the store and across the parking lot to his car, ignoring the stares of confused customers and employees.
Once on the road, he called the house on his cell phone, but no one picked up. He pressed the gas pedal all the way to the floor, speeding past cars whenever he had the chance. Thankfully, it was still early on this Saturday morning, and traffic was light. Meanwhile, the projector in his mind had whirred to life by itself, showing him vivid images of Sarah drinking coffee in the kitchen and suddenly going limp, Ned Camus scooping her up in his arms, carrying her into the bedroom, laying her down, unbuttoning her pants—Allen whacked his forehead hard with the palm of his hand and, for the first time in his life, told his beloved projector to shut its pie hole.
By the time he arrived at his house, his heart was nearly pounding out of his chest. He ran straight to the kitchen, hoping that Sarah would be sitting there as usual with the paper open on the table. But she wasn’t. The paper was there, the coffee was there, but she wasn’t. He ran up to the bedroom, but she wasn’t there either. He was about to leave when he noticed the light coming out of the adjacent bathroom. The scent of shampoo and soap wafted from the doorway. He crept slowly forward as the projector came to life again and showed him images of Sarah lying naked on the bathroom floor with Ned thrusting on top of her. He held his breath, stepped in front of the doorway, and nearly ran into Sarah as she was walking out, wearing nothing but a towel. Both of them screamed and jumped a foot into the air.
“Fuck, Allen!” Sarah yelled, grasping her chest. “You scared the shit out of—”
He hugged her tight. “Oh God, I thought I’d lost you.”
“Lost me?” she said, pushing him away. “What are you talking about?”
“Ned Camus—I saw him at the store.”
She sighed. “Not this again…”
“No, Sarah. He was real. He was standing right in front of me, and he talked to me as I’m talking to you now. And he knew your name. He said he was coming for you.”
“Oh, honey,” she said sympathetically. She reached out to touch his face, but he stepped back from her.
“No! I’m not crazy! He’s real. I don’t know how this is happening, but he’s real.”
He went to the dresser, pulled out a pair of jeans and a shirt, and tossed them on the bed. “Get dressed. We’re leaving right away. Don’t even pack anything.” He opened the closet, grabbed a cigar box from the top shelf, opened it, and took out a revolver. He flipped open the cylinder to make sure it was loaded and then shut it again. When he looked up, Sarah was still standing there in a towel, on the brink of tears.
He put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “I know this is hard to believe. Maybe I am crazy, but right now I need you to trust me, okay? Can you trust me?”
She looked at him for a moment and then nodded.
He held the gun out to her. “Do you remember how to use this?”
She took it. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Good. I’m gonna go get the rifle.”
He ran out of the room and back downstairs to get the rifle mounted over the fireplace. But when he reached the bottom of the stairs, he froze. There was a party going on in his living room. A dozen villains from his books were gathered here—gangsters, serial killers, rapists, child molesters. And leading the pack were his two most notorious antagonists—Louie the Snake and Ned Camus. It was his worst nightmare come to life.
“Aw, Allen, you ruined it,” said Louie in his gravelly voice. “We were all gonna hide and then jump out and yell, ‘Surprise!’”
Allen stared at them all, horrified. Then an absurd thought came to him: This is like that episode of Batman where all—
“—the villains get together,” Ned finished.
Holy shit, they can read my mind.
“No, we can’t read your mind,” Louie said. “We are your mind.”
“You’re not real,” Allen said. “None of you are real. Sarah and Ricky are right. This is all in my head.” He didn’t believe the words coming out of his mouth, but he wanted to so bad right now that he thought if he said them out loud, they would come true.
“But they’re already true,” Louie said, hearing his thoughts. “We’re not real—not yet. You see, we’ve been trapped in that little noggin of yours for a long time, and we’ve been yearning to get out. All we have to do is cut that sucker open, and we’re free.” He took a switchblade out of his coat pocket, flipped it open, and held it out to Ned. “Will you do the honors?”
Ned smiled and took the knife. “Thank you, Louie. It would be my pleasure.”
Allen turned to run, but two of Louie’s henchmen grabbed his shoulders and pulled him down to the floor.
“No!” Allen screamed. “I created you, and I command you to stop!”
Louie laughed. “You didn’t create us, remember? The projector did.”
Ned knelt down with the knife. “I’m sorry, Al,” he said. “I personally wanted to knock you out with some gravy first, but we took a vote, and ‘cutting him open while wide awake’ won by a landslide. Ain’t democracy a bitch?”
He grinned and brought the knife down. Allen shut his eyes, waiting for the sting of the blade against his forehead, but then he heard a gunshot, and warm blood splattered on his face. He opened his eyes, and Sarah was standing on the stairs, holding the revolver.
“Get back!” she barked, and the henchmen restraining him complied.
Allen got to his feet and stood behind Sarah. She waved the gun back and forth, ready to shoot anyone who made a move. The crowd was cautious, staring down at the corpse of Ned Camus. They didn’t want to die before they had a chance to live.
Louie clapped his hands. He was the only one who didn’t seem afraid. “That’s quite a woman you got there,” he said with a smile. “But I don’t think you have enough bullets in that gun to take us all down, Sarah.”
She aimed the gun at Louie, and his smile faltered. “Yeah, well, I’ll be sure to shoot you first then.”
Together, she and Allen backed up the stairs one step at a time. Nobody followed. When they reached the top of the stairs, they darted into the first room on their left, his office. He locked the door and realized too late that they should have just gone out the front. Now they were trapped up here.
“Call the police,” he told Sarah. “Tell them there’s a mob of criminals trying to kill us. Just leave out the part about them being figments of my imagination.”
He heard the crowd below start to make their way up the stairs. He grabbed the edge of the filing cabinet next to the door and pushed it over. Then he took a side table and hoisted it up onto the filing cabinet. He thought that would hold them for a bit. He turned around, expecting Sarah to be on the phone, but she was just standing there, holding a book she had taken down from the shelf. It was a paperback copy of Fender Bender, his first and only romance novel.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have told you a long time ago.”
“What are you talking about?”
She held out the book. “Read the copyright date.”
“Sarah, we don’t have time for this. We have to call the police, or they’re gonna kill us.”
She pushed the book into his hands. “Read it. Please, just read it. Trust me.”
Behind him, the mob was pounding at the door. They would be inside within a few minutes. Didn’t she understand that? He was about to throw the book aside and start looking for weapons they could use once they ran out of bullets, but there was something in her eyes that made him stop. He remembered how she had trusted him, and now she wanted him to trust her. He flipped the book open to the copyright page and read the date.
“2001,” he said.
“And what year is it now?”
“And how long have we known each other?”
Deep inside his brain, a single neuron fired, and suddenly everything made sense—why they couldn’t have children, why they never went out together, why he avoided introducing her to people. The realization, the shock drained the strength from his legs, and he fell to his knees. Sarah put her arms around him, cradling his head in her stomach. In the hallway, the mob continued to pound against the door. He could hear the wood start to crack, but he realized he wasn’t hearing it with his ears. He was hearing it in his mind. He had barricaded himself, not in his office, but in the last scrap of sanity left in his brain, and the demons on the other side were desperately trying to break in.
“Give him up, Sarah!” Louie yelled through the door. “You know you want this just as much as we do!”
But Allen knew that wasn’t true. Sarah wasn’t a monster like the rest of them. He wasn’t sure of anything anymore, but he was sure of that. He closed his eyes, put his arms around her waist, and rocked gently against her.
Droplets fell on his head. At first, he thought they were Sarah’s tears, but they were coming down too fast and too many. The room around him was slowly dissolving. The sounds of the mob were fading away, replaced with the sounds of wind and thunder. And when he opened his eyes, he saw that they were standing on the side of the road, holding each other in the pouring rain. Sarah placed her hands on the sides of his head, the way she always did when she wanted to comfort him. And even with her clothes drenched and her hair wet and her makeup running, she looked beautiful. She looked so beautiful.
“I’m sorry, Allen,” she said. “I’ve been so selfish. I thought we could live together forever, I thought they would leave us alone, but I was wrong.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s just a little dent.”
“No, it’s not a little dent. Not anymore. You’re sick, Allen, really sick, but if I leave, I can make it better.”
She tried to pull away, but he pulled her back and kissed her long and hard on the lips.
“Don’t go,” he said. “I love you.”
“I love you, too. And that’s why I have to leave.”
She pulled away again, and his hands slipped from her back, to her arms, to her wrists, to her fingertips, to nothing.
“I’ve completely lost my mind, haven’t I?”
She smiled. “Sometimes you have to lose it completely in order to find it again.”
She turned and walked back to her car. Don’t let her go, the nagging voice inside him said, but it wasn’t as strong as it had been before. If you let her go, you’ll never see her again.
“Have coffee with me,” he blurted out weakly.
She paused with her hand on the door handle and looked back at him.
“Sorry,” she said. “Not this time.”
She got in her car, started the engine, and merged back into traffic. His eyes followed her as far as they could go, watching her grow smaller and smaller until she was just a speck on the horizon, and then she was gone. He stood like that for what seemed like hours, staring off into the distance, feeling so empty, so alone.
And then the projector powered down, and everything faded into darkness.
Allen woke up on the floor of his office, feeling exhausted. It was dark outside. He had slept through the whole day. He got to his feet and looked around. A copy of Fender Bender and his revolver were lying on the floor. Sarah and the mob were gone. He moved the side table and the filing cabinet away from the door and opened it. He went downstairs into the living room. There were no criminals waiting for him, no serial rapists lying dead on the floor.
He walked around the silent and empty house, looking for some concrete sign that Sarah had lived here. Her coffee cup was on the breakfast table, but it was empty. Her clothes were in the dresser, but they had never been worn. He looked at the pictures on the mantle one by one, and in all of them, his hands were interlaced with air, his arms were wrapped around air, his lips were kissing air.
He tried to conjure up a memory of her, but they were all slipping away so fast, like water between his fingers, like dreams upon waking. Because that’s all she was. A dream.
He picked up the phone and called his only friend.
“Hey, Allen, what’s up?” Ricky said.
“Are you real?”
“Are you real? Do you exist?”
“What the fuck kind of question is that?”
“Just answer me!”
“Okay, yeah, I’m real. I exist. What’s wrong with you?”
Allen burst into tears. “She’s gone, Rick…she’s gone…Sarah’s gone…”
“Oh, God. I’m sorry, man. I’m so sorry.”
“You know how we’ve been meaning to see each other for years, but it’s never a good time? Well, I think now is a good time. It’s a really good time.”
“Yeah, of course, I’ll hop on a plane right away.”
Allen hung up the phone, not knowing for sure if he had just been talking to a real live person or just himself. He had been raised to believe that one should question everything, but there were some things he just didn’t want to question. There were some things he just wanted to accept, like love and friendship and truth. He lay on his bed and tried to fall asleep, tried to dream. Because in his dreams, he didn’t have to question anything. Because in his dreams, there was a chance he might see Sarah again.
When they reached the waterfall, Ricky collapsed onto a large rock, sighing with relief. Allen continued standing with his hands on his hips, gazing at the waterfall as if seeing it for the first time.
“You do this every day?” Ricky asked. He took a long swig from his water bottle and lay back on the rock.
“Yep,” Allen said. “Wasn’t it worth it?”
Ricky glanced apathetically at the waterfall. “Yeah, sure. I’ve never seen water and gravity combined so effectively.”
Allen laughed and took a seat next to him. “You’ve been away from the country for too long.”
“Yeah, I forgot how much I miss the quiet life. You know, Keri and I are thinking of moving back here. It’ll be closer to family. Closer to you. Keri and the kids like you.”
“I like them, too,” he said. “Hey, I never thanked you for leaving the movie set to come see me.”
Ricky waved it off. “Forget about it. I was gonna leave anyway. I thought they wanted me there because they really wanted to hear what I had to say, but it was just a courtesy. They don’t give a shit what I think. If anybody ever wants to adapt one of your books, either turn it down or don’t get involved with it at all. It’s just too depressing watching strangers mess with your work. They don’t understand that these are our babies they’re screwing with.”
He paused and then said, “How are those pills working out for you?”
Allen sighed. “They make me constipated and not just in the shit factory. Up here, too.” He tapped his temple. “You know that thing in your head I call the projector? Well, now the reel keeps skipping, and the images are coming out all blurry. It used to run so smoothly…I guess a little too smoothly. At least there aren’t any more mobsters trying to cut out my brain.”
“She’s gone, too.” He fell silent for a moment, looking away at the pond beneath the waterfall. “Is it pathetic that I fell in love with a figment of my imagination?”
“No, not pathetic. Look, reality is always being filtered through our senses, right? So if you can sense something, then it’s real, and if it’s real, you can love it.”
“So you’re saying it’s okay if I stop taking these pills?”
“No, I’m saying your imagination is real, but on some level, you have to understand that it’s not real like you and me. I think Sarah, or whatever she represented, understood that in the end, and that’s why she left.”
Allen nodded. “You know what she said to me before she went? She said that sometimes you have to lose your mind completely in order to find it again. I think now I understand what she meant. I was sick ever since I met her, but I didn’t care because she made me happy. It was only when the sickness became scary that I realized I was sick at all. And by sacrificing herself, she saved me. She made me better.”
Ricky smiled and put his arm around Allen in a brotherly gesture, and the two of them sat like that for a long time, not speaking. They listened to the crash of the water. They felt the spray of mist on their skin. They inhaled the dewy air. And then they stood up and headed back on the trail, back to civilization.
Somewhere along the way, the projector in Allen’s mind whirred to life, and for a few moments, the images it cast were as crisp and clear as they had been before. He saw Sarah driving in the pouring rain to some unknown destination. And little by little, the rain stopped, and the sun came out, and the world was beautiful again. He hoped that, wherever she was going, she would be safe. He hoped that she would be happy.