Angie yanks a hanger from the clearance rack in Ramona’s Cabinet, holding it up to herself. “What about this one?” The white, sundress with red flowers is pretty, but a little gawdy.
I wrinkle my nose and shake my head.
“Okay,” she huffs, hanging the dress back up. ‘What’s going on with you?”
This question’s sudden appearance has me wrinkling my brows in confusion. “What do you mean?”
Her arms cross in front of her chest as a lecturing brow arches. “You honestly think I don’t notice? How long have we been friends now?”
Avoiding eye contact, I slide a few hangers along the metal rack. I admit my mood has been off lately. After my last conversation with C.C. I find myself looking at things differently. In the past, a shopping expedition with Angie would’ve been the highlight of my day.
My best friend gives me her best “you can’t avoid this” expression. “Are you going to answer or not?”
The thought of telling her the truth is ridiculous. She’d likely think I’m out of my mind. I give my shoulders a nonchalant shrug. “It’s nothing.”
“Something’s bothering you.” She insists. “You’re unusually quiet. We haven’t hung out for almost a week, which in the past was unheard of. And,” she quickly adds when I try to speak. “Even when we do hang out, you’re distracted. Want to tell me what that’s about?”
Her expression, her words, her mannerisms. Could Angie be a character? Was someone writing this entire conversation this very second?
“Okay,” I surrender. “Okay, you’re right. I have been distracted recently.” I debate being completely transparent. But again, I can’t bring myself to do it. “It’s work,” I lie. “Alot’s been going on at the office lately and I’m feeling a bit stressed.” I force a smile. “That’s all.”
Her jaw ticks with agitation. She can tell I’m lying. But is that because we’ve been friends for so long? Or for another reason?
The idea that the girl I befriended five years ago—wait….were those memories real, or written?
The sudden realization that our entire friendship had been fabricated nearly robs me of air. The walls of the store begin closing in at the thought of everything around me being nothing but words on a page.
I need to get out.
Before Angie could say anything else, I rush for the door, the ringing bell overheard making me pause for a moment, before dashing into the fresh, outside air.
“Hey,” Angie says, hurrying to keep up. “What’s going on? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing’s the matter,” I urge, walking without direction.
Angie’s shorter than me, so my long strides make it difficult for her to keep up. “Don’t lie to me,” she says.
“I’m not lying,” I argue.
I skid to a halt as she runs forward, stopping right in my path. “Bull crap,” she snaps. “I know when you’re lying, remember?”
I sigh, rubbing my fingertips along my forehead. I suddenly feel a small headache coming on. I soften my tone when I respond. “I don’t want to talk about it.” I have no right to be irritated with her. She’s confused by my behavior. In the five years we’ve known each other—God, was that ever real—I’ve never shut her out like this. I can only imagine how worried it makes her. If our positions were switched, I’d be knocking furiously at that closed door too.
“Look,” I finally say. “It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you about it. It’s just….” How do I phrase this? “It’s difficult to explain. Let me try and make sense of it first.”
“Then answer me this. Is it bad?”
It might be.
I don’t say that out loud. “No,” I answer.
She nods, placing her hands on her hips. “Alright, then. Figure it out first, then tell me. Okay?”
I smile at her, thankful she’d no longer push the issue. “I will.” My right hand shoots up. “Promise.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” she swears.
“Well,” she exhales, turning round. “What do you want to do now? We’re obviously done shopping for right now.”
“How about lunch?”
She hums as she debates. “I’m not really hungry right now. Are you?”
Admittedly, I’m not. I haven’t had much of an appetite these days. “We can hold off on food for a while. I’m not feeling very hungry either.”
“Why don’t we get something to drink then?”
“What’re you thinking?”
“Coffee?” She offers.
The thought of coffee almost makes me wince. “Why don’t we get something else.”
Her eyes go wide. “Do my ears deceive me? Did you just turn down getting coffee?”
“I’ve been drinking a lot of it lately,” I defend. “I want to cut back on it.” It’s not a complete lie. I’d been planning on cutting back my caffeine intake anyway. Recent situations just made that a bit easier for me.
“What about a smoothie?” She offers. “I could go for one of those.”
As long as it wasn’t coffee. “Smoothies sound good.” I begin walking straight, heading for the door on the other side of Ron’s Antique Shop.
“Where are you going?”
I pause, Angie’s confusion in turn confusing me. “What do you mean? I’m going to the Quarter Bean Café.” It’s a local coffee shop and smoothie bar. We always went there for smoothies in the past.
“Actually, I want to check out this other place.” She says.
I frown. When did another smoothie bar open? “Where is it?”
She grabs my wrist, pulling me along as we cross the street. “It’s nearby. The people I work with have been raving about it. They say it’s really good.”
I let her tow me along for a couple of seconds, until I see where exactly we’re heading. I immediately dig my heels in. “Wait,” I protest.
She peers back at me. “What’s wrong?”
We stop in the shadow of the stone archway. “There’s no smoothie bar down there.”
“No, not exactly.” She points down the stone alleyway. “It’s another coffee shop, but my coworkers say it’s got great smoothies there too.”
I shake my head, pulling back as she pulls on me again. “I don’t want to go there.”
Now she’s the one who frowns. “Why not?”
I grasp at straws inside my head, finding whatever excuse I could find. “I heard it’s not very good.”
“That’s not what I heard.” She counters. “Everyone I know who’s gone there says its excellent.”
“I have a stomachache.”
“You didn’t before.”
“It just started.”
She regards me, clearly confused by my sudden resistance. “Fine,” she says, letting my arm go. “I’ll go up there by myself and see.”
I immediately grab her arm, holding her back. “No, don’t.”
“What’s with you?” She asks. “You’re really starting to worry me.”
I bite my lower lip. For some reason I can’t think of an excuse to stop her. I don’t want her going in by herself, but I can’t bring myself to go in either.
“Okay, how about this,” she offers. “I’ll go in and get something. I’ll be right back. If you don’t want to come in, that’s fine.”
I don’t want to let her go, but how can I possibly stop her?
Reluctantly, I release her arm. “Okay. You’ll be out soon, right?”
She nods. “I’ll be right back. Five minutes, tops. Wait for me here.”
I watch her as she enters the archway, swallowing whatever emotion tries to claw up my throat as she—to my discomfort—vanishes through the open, iron doorway. The colorful chalk board beckoning visitors to “Come On In.”
I pace away from the archway, noting the time on my watch.
Five minutes, I tell myself. She’ll be back in five minutes.
The seconds tick by at a slow drag. I move back and forth in front of the archway. Glancing towards my watch every few seconds.
“Five minutes.” I repeat.
The gated doorway sits open, and I watch it constantly for when Angie walks out.
“Come on,” I whisper. “Come on, Angie.”
Five minutes pass.
The ticking of the second hand grows louder and louder as I wait.
Come on Angie. Where are you?
Unable to take the noise of my watch anymore, I peer down at the face.
How did that happen? How had time, which seemed so slow before, suddenly go by so quick?
I glance back towards the iron door. Angie was inside. She had to be. There was no way it’d take her this long.
You have to go in, a soft voice whispers.
The realization hits me like a ton of bricks. Angie didn’t come out, because I needed to go in. I imagine her inside, yanking at a door that won’t open. The image of my best friend locked up and scared has my feet moving before I can process another thought.
I bound up the stone steps, throwing the café doors open ready for a fight, and skid to a halt at what I see on the other side.
A lot of people. More people than I’d ever seen inside before. My mind registers Jan, Al, and the other two girls from my earlier visits. It’s the first time I’ve seen them in a long time. But it’s not just them. People from the town were there too. Ron, my Landlady, some of my coworkers. Other people I recall passing on the sidewalk, but never actually meeting.
And, finally, Angie.
She sits on a stool along the barista counter, laughing at something C.C. just said.
I hurry over, as Angie sips on a yellow smoothie.
C.C. glances up, flashing a friendly smile. “Well, hello there.”
Angie turns towards me. “What’re you doing up here? I thought you were going to wait for me outside.”
“I’ve been waiting. You said you’d be out in five minutes.” I hold up my wrist so she can see my watch. “It’s been ten.”
Her jaw drops. “Oh my gosh, I’m sorry. I must’ve lost track of time.”
“Clearly,” I say through stiff lips.
“You’ve got to try this, by the way.” She holds up her smoothie. “It’s mango orange. And it might even beat out the Quarter Bean Café.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” C.C. says, with a wave. “That place is pretty good.”
“You ever been?” Angie perks.
“Once before,” C.C. answers. “It was a while ago, but I remember it being good.”
As they continue talking, I study C.C., trying to decipher her actions. She appears so laid-back, so friendly and open. She’s carrying on a conversation with Angie as though they’ve known each other for years.
“Okay,” I interject, taking my friend by the arm. “You got your smoothie, let’s go.”
“Wait, why?” Angie reluctantly moves to her feet.
“I have an errand to take care of.”
She frowns. “No, you don’t. You didn’t mention any errands earlier.”
“I just remembered.”
Now she’s the one digging her heels in as I try leading her back to the exit. “Hold on, we were talking.”
“Well, I need to take care of this errand.”
She resists my pulling. “I can wait for you here.”
I turn my head to argue with her, only to freeze at what I see.
Not in ice, but—it appears—in time. She’s in the process of yanking her arms back from me, her body half-turned from the movement. Even her hair is paused mid-flip.
When the shock fades, I register the utter silence surrounding me.
Everyone else is frozen too! Some in the middle of conversations, others in the middle of movements, whether it be typing, flipping the page of a book, or lifting their drinks to take another sip.
“It’s a bit excessive, I’ll admit, but She didn’t know how else to get you here.” C.C. rounds the counter, moving gently between her frozen customers.
“What?” Is all I can muster.
“You’ve been avoiding it, haven’t you?”
I don’t need an explanation to understand what she’s saying. “You can’t blame me,” I snap. I gesture to the rest of the room. “Especially not after seeing this.”
It surprises me how calm I am. Is it because it’s too shocking to react? Or because I’m simply being made to accept what I’m seeing?
At this rate, I can’t even tell if my thoughts are my own or not.
C.C. nods. “No, I can’t blame you. And neither does She.”
“I’m not doing this.” I point towards Angie. “Let her go right now.”
“It’s not up to me. And she’s not a prisoner.”
“Isn’t she? I mean, you used her to get me up here.”
“Again, excessive, but it was the only way to get you here.”
“I don’t care!” Did she actually think that would make me feel better? “Let her go!”
“I told you, she’s not a prisoner. She’s not going to get hurt or anything like that. I just want to talk.”
“We talked enough last time.”
“Enough to tell you the truth, yes. But not enough to tell you why.”
My original resistance to….well, everything vanishes with those words.
Yes, I’d been asking myself that question for the last several days. Why?
Why was I told the truth? Why am I the bearer of that burden? Better yet, if this is indeed a story, why was I created? What purpose would I serve?
C.C. appears to see my internal reaction, and waves me along. “Come on, I want to show you something.”
She walks back towards the counter, pausing halfway around it. “Come on,” she says again.
I hesitate, wondering where she intends to take me. But the promise of answers is too much for me to resist. I glance towards Angie one last time before following her towards the door behind the counter.
My feet slow as we enter the back room. A soft glow emits from old-fashioned, vintage lightbulbs, highlighting aged, robin-egg blue shelves lining the walls on either side.
Large, glass jars with chalkboard labels line every inch of them. Each one contains different tea leaves, coffee beans—ground and unground, dried, edible flowers, sweeteners, and other odd-end things.
The ceiling is decorated with golden stars and constellations painted on a midnight blue background. “This looks like a sorcerer’s room,” I mumble, studying the contents of a smaller jar. It looks like glowing, gold dust. “Is this even edible?”
C.C. chuckles. “Everything in here is edible. I wouldn’t have it otherwise.” A small, rose gold ball I didn’t notice earlier jingles like a bell around her neck as she walks to the far end. A wooden door, painted midnight blue sits closed.
She stops in front of it.
Unease worms inside my stomach. “I take it whatever you want to show me is on the other side of that door?”
“What is it?”
“Mission?” I sputter. “I have a mission?”
She smiles. “Every Main Character does.”
Main Character? Is that what I am?
I scoff, my tone dripping with sarcasm. “Main Character. Sure, why not? And what’s this mission exactly?”
“The Author’s been struggling lately. She needs help.”
“Help? Help with what?”
“Characters. She has a lot of them, you see. That can make it difficult sometimes. Not just understanding them but understanding their stories too.”
To say I can’t sympathize would be a lie. I distinctly remember my own struggles in the past.
Wait, was it possible that my struggles, were really Her struggles?
“Alright, let’s say I believe that.” I continue. “Where do I come in then?”
Rather than answer with words, C.C. answers with action. She grabs the curving, rose gold handle of the door, yanking it open.
My jaw drops.
A city, at least it’s outline, sits in the distance. A setting sun casts orange and purple hues of light over the large buildings. It’s serene, beautiful, dare I say, ‘Unreal.’
I draw closer. “Where is that?”
“It’s called the Cityscape,” C.C. answers. “Inside are all the characters of Her stories. But don’t let its modern appearance deceive you. There are many environments that will change depending on the story.”
My mind tosses and turns in an attempt to comprehend what I’m seeing, and what she’s saying. “Wait a minute,” I pace away. “Let me get this straight, I’m supposed to go in there,” I point through the door. “And, what? Interview characters?”
“More or less.”
“Explain the ‘more’ part.”
“Basically, you’ll be exploring these areas. Learning more from the characters, or from what you see. And don’t worry,” she adds. “You won’t get lost or anything. Even if you can’t find this exact door, another will appear in the area you’re in.”
Me, out there, with Characters?
“And what’s the danger level here? Any chances of these characters causing harm?” It the Author’s imagination is anything like my own—which I begin to suspect it is—then there’d be several dangerous Characters I could come across.
“Don’t worry about that either. You’ll be safe. I promise.”
I study the distant building, light shining through their windows. It’s so….large, and unknown. Hell, there were nights I barely felt comfortable walking familiar streets. How am I supposed to traverse a place like that? “No,” I whisper. “I’m not doing it. Find someone else.” I turn back for the door.
“There is no one else.” Her voice slows my steps. I stop at the opposite end of the room. “You’ve always wanted to be more, haven’t you? Deep down.”
I try to ignore her words, but they sink beneath the surface. I think of my life so far. Working a job I don’t enjoy. Wasting time and a degree on something I get little to no fulfillment on.
“What you feel is the epitome of a Main Character mindset,” C.C. continues. “Every story begins with a journey. A choice to pursue something bigger.” I turn back towards her, and she gestures to the door, and the city beyond it. “And this is your beginning. This is your time to choose.”
My mind wanders to Angie, to the other frozen residents just through the opposing door. “Do I really have a choice?”
“Of course,” she says with a frown. “Every Main Character does. But if you decide to walk away, you’d go back to your original life. Repeating everyday over and over again. Like a hamster on a wheel.”
Images of me going to work and then going back home play inside my head. I’ll perform the same things as before. Repeating the same dull existence I’ve had. There’d be patches of brightness. Angie, for one. My family. Ron and my landlady, the other people I enjoy talking to.
But was it enough?
A restlessness had taken hold of me in the past. A restlessness for more. The open door across the room beckons with its own silent, siren song.
“Let’s say I do this.” I step closer. “Let’s say I accept this ‘mission,’ as you put it. When would I start?”
She smiles, reaching out and plucking a pad of paper and pen from the shelf closest to her. She extends them my way. “Right now.”
I close my eyes tight, a small, internal war raging inside me. Am I really going to do this? Like all stories, once the choice is made, there’d be no going back.
Gently, slowly, hesitantly, I take the pad and paper. I take a step towards the door, pausing before I pass through. “Any advice?”
“Just one,” C.C. answers with an encouraging smile. “Follow the bell.”
Follow the bell?
I don’t ask her to expand on that. I don’t see much of a reason to.
I hold the pad and pen close, take a deep breath, and step through the door.