I could see them — Jeep and Blaine standing tall against Venusian villains. Adam and Joy unraveling the puzzle. Hank and “Stella” taking on the thieves of alien tech. I even could still see Devin Green realizing the truth about Krayatura.
I could see them all.
What dastardly villain inside me was preventing me from telling their stories? Stark raving lunacy? Simple fear? Imposter syndrome?
The fear of getting it wrong? Maybe that was it — I was so afraid of telling the stories wrong that I didn’t tell them at all. Was that it?
It couldn’t be as simple as I just didn’t want to do it? Simply that, after all was said and done, I didn’t want to go to the trouble of telling their stories?
“TROUBLE!?!?” they shrieked in unison.
“That’s enough of this,” Hank said. Because he was the burliest, he grabbed my hand and pulled me off the chair and onto my feet, then took me by the shoulders and looked me in the eye. I saw the steely glint and was afraid until I realized he was holding back a smile.
“You listen to me, Bluhm, and you listen hard, because you haven’t been paying attention.” He paused to make sure that I was hearing him. “This —” he said, turning and releasing my left shoulder so he could gesture at his companions, then re-affixing his grip so I had to face him — “This. Is. FUN. This is what you do to get away from the facts and figures of everyday life. These are the stories you want to tell when you’re tired of the everyday — which lately is pretty much all the time, innit?”
“Actually,” I said, “‘Innit’ is more something that Joy would say.”
Now Hank laughed out loud.
“Yes! That’s the spirit,” he grinned and shook my hand vigorously. “Now, how’s about you walk over to your keyboard and start having fun?”
I looked over his shoulder. Stella, the trim young woman with her hair pulled through the back of her baseball cap, nodded. Adam Comfort set his square jaw, and the line of his mouth curled ever so upward, and beside him the tall woman-like creature with the face of a skunk gave me the thumbs-up sign. Jeep, the newest and freshest of my imaginary friends, just gave a curious squint and looked over at her friend Blaine, who was a vampire, but he was immersed in reading about some independent film director’s latest project. Still, he looked up long enough to offer a droll smile.
And finally Devin, the 14-year-old boy whose life I had mapped out into his twenties, sighed a deep “Here we go again, don’t worry, he’ll let us all down again this time too” sigh, but he walked up to me, handed me his oh-so-accurate sketch of the giant creature we both expected he would be studying and chasing for his long and enchanted lifetime, and looked up at me.
“Tell me, sir,” he said, because he was polite to strangers and the fact that he considered me a stranger stung, “are you going to have fun this time? Are you going to keep having fun and maintain the spirit? Are you Scrooge laughing at himself and pledging to keep Christmas in his heart year-round and he was as good as his word? Or are you going to become Mr. Potter again, clinging to his treasures until he’s old and bitter and scowling at everyone as he sits in semi-darkness?”
“You deserve to ask that question, for you have waited the longest,” I found my voice at last and looked into his green eyes, noticing their color for the first time. “Your eyes are green.”
He smiled and scoffed. “You noticed. That’s not a bad start.”
The promise caught in my throat, because I’d promised so many times before.
“I promise to try,” I said after a moment. “I’ll try to have fun.”
“NO!” they shouted in unison. Behind Joy, a tall rabbit raised his hands and dropped them in obvious frustration.
“I don’t ever think he’s going to get it,” the rabbit fussed. “He’s a total nincompoop, that’s all he is, a foolish man who never will rise to the call after all. We’re doomed, simply doomed. We’ll be in the bottom drawer of his desk until the end of time. I —”
“Oh, hush up, Aloysius,” the skunk woman said. “He said he’d try, didn’t he? He just doesn’t remember that it’s not about trying.”
I chuckled. I smiled at the gathering — the pookhas towering over the man who would look like John L. Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels if he was wearing his fedora, the woman with the skunk face who reminded me of Veronica Lake and with an accent like Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who, the young woman in the baseball cap who could be played by Scarlett Johansson if I would finish the story and sell the movie rights before she’s too old, the boy with the dinosaur sketch, the teenager with the vampire friend — all of them looking at me so hopefully, and I realized something for the first time.
“Oh my god,” I said slowly, surprised at the tears that suddenly journeyed down my cheeks. “I love you. I love you all. I’m afraid that if I finish telling your stories, I’ll have to say goodbye and let you go.”
They stared back. The quiet was like the moment between the lightning and the thundercrack.
And then their cheer was all I could hear. They roared, and the sound washed over my imagination like honey slowly pouring over ice cream.
The most surprising of all was Jeep, who raced over and threw her arms around me with a granddaughtery hug. She pulled her face back so she could look me in the eyes with her sweet gorgeous red-haired freckly face.
“I knew you’d figure it out,” she shouted like Princess Leia telling Han Solo she always knew he could be a hero. Then her face turned serious, or as serious as a face can turn when it still wants to smile the biggest smile in the history of smiles. “You’re not going to forget this time, are you? You’re not going to open your journal to this story someday and get all regret-filled and whine, ‘OMG, how could I forget that moment?’”
They were all crowded around me, patting me on the shoulder and back and tousling my hair in delight, but Jeep’s question stopped them all in their tracks and quieted the room.
I looked at them all one by one, the characters who had sprung from nowhere into my mind and now, at last, into my heart, and I desperately wanted to tell them “No, I’ll never forget and I will race to the keyboard and I won’t stop typing until I’ve told all of your stories.”
But I never wanted to disappoint them ever again.
So I repeated, “I promise to try,” but this time I said it through grateful tears and with the pen racing across the page as if possessed. And so they let out a collective sigh that could have been relief or anticipation or anxious hope.
Jeep smiled and nodded. But she was the most hopeful because she was the most recently emerged, so I looked over at Devin, the young man who so wanted to see his share of dinosaurs before I die. I was relieved to see he was smiling, too, a more wary smile than Jeep’s excited grin, but a smile with more hope than I’d ever seen in his eyes — and he seemed to forgive me that I’d never actually seen any look in his eyes before.
“Maybe this is the time you follow through,” Devin said. “Maybe this is the breakthrough day.”
“I’m almost ready to promise more,” I said, “but I’m afraid because I’ve broken so many promises to you before.”
“Then, no promises,” Hank said, and he took me by the shoulders again and turned me toward the keyboard. I took a tentative step, and he gently pushed me the rest of the way.
“Good boy,” he said, and hopped back into my brain. “Now have fun.”