Charlie crouched on the back corner of his narrow bed, trying to push himself into the corner of the small room and closer to the freedom beyond the cinder block walls. The room was the most unpleasant hospital room he could have imagined; it seemed like the type of room you would keep a spy in while tormenting him to release state secrets. In his saner moments he amused himself by thinking that they would start playing children's songs sung by a certain purple dinosaur in order to torture him into renouncing his views of reality.
The room was about eight feet by ten, with a low ceiling. The walls were painted a pale green that made Charlie feel like vomiting when he stared at them for too long. Missy would hate this color, he thought. But then, my Angel does have very good taste in all things except husbands. When Charlie was lost in the haze of the drugs they forced into him and the madness that welled out of the dark hole within his deepest soul, the walls seemed to disappear into the vague distance. He'd hurt himself once or twice running into the walls in the grip of some wild desire for freedom. Freedom, Charlie thought. What was it like? Have I ever been free? Or have I always been here? It's so hard to remember anymore.
Charlie wandered in his mind, sometimes imagining the worlds he'd created in his stories. He could see the characters clearly in his mind when he was out from under the smothering weight of the drugs. When he was sedated, the shapes of those worlds began to twist and distort. He remembered vaguely wishing that he'd never thought up the Scarlet Rat. Of all of them, I hurt Mikey the most, he thought. Charlie began rhythmically bumping his head against the wall beside him, the mildly painful pattern helped him to steady the images in his mind somehow. Michaelina should have been a beautiful, happy woman, he thought. But then I took everything from her; her mother died when Mikey was so very young, and then I killed off her father when Mikey needed his love and protection to learn how to be a woman. I left her with nothing but pain and emptiness, unable to understand the love that the king feels for her. Poor Michaelina. That was all my fault.
Charlie had been unable to finish her tale, to carry her through the pain and wounds that stood between her and her ultimate victory. He'd been undecided on whether Niall would live to see the end of the story, unable to feel whether the story would let him live or whether it would demand that he be sacrificed upon the altar of myth. Dr. Haven asked about Mikey sometimes. I know that he doesn't really believe in my power, Charlie thought. But there have been times when he seemed to almost believe. He seemed to almost accept my powers as real. Charlie was wracked by a violent shudder as he remembered the hungry look in Haven's eyes the last time they had talked about Mikey. He looked like he believed very much in my story and wanted… he wanted oh so much to go there… to go there and take the place of the king, to wallow in wealth and his vision of order.
Haven believes that he could make a perfect world with himself at the center of power, Charlie thought. He doesn't understand responsibility; he only sees the power and wealth. He thinks that I can't see this in his mind when we talk. He doesn't think the hunger shows in his eyes. Charlie closed his eyes to shut out the horrid green of the walls and the harsh flickering light from the aged fluorescent tubes overhead. He was feeling a sense of floating that didn't appear to have much to do with sedatives. He felt like he was floating in a warm gray mist; he should have been afraid he supposed, but somehow he sensed that he was safe for the moment.
"Yes, Charlie," said a voice. "You are safe here, especially when you are calm enough to make this place for your mind and soul to rest in."
"Then I'm imagining this place?" Charlie asked the voice.
"Perhaps," said the voice. Charlie could hear the smile behind those words. He had no idea who was speaking, but he instinctively trusted him. The voice was clearly male; a baritone resonance and slow easy way of talking revealed a kind nature in Charlie's mind. And since this is all in my mind, Charlie thought, he will be whatever I decide he will be.
"Are you so very certain of that, Charlie?" The voice asked him. "Perhaps I'm just another manifestation of your need to be punished."
That could be the truth, Charlie thought with a frown. I can't trust anyone here… or perhaps that is I can't trust anyone in the real world.
"But what is real? And what is the creation of a master storyteller? How do you know which is the more real?"
"That's easy," Charlie laughed.
"Is it?" The voice asked. Charlie's confidence wilted a bit. "Odd. I've always found that to be a rather difficult distinction to make."
"Who are you? And where are you?" Charlie asked the voice.
"Who I am is one of those things that might be difficult to explain or to accept," the voice said. "If it makes things easier, you may call me Lucas. As for where I am, well, I'm right here. You just need to decide where 'here' is."
Charlie turned around. Or maybe I just think I'm turning around, Charlie thought. It's not like I have any real frame of reference here. There was a man sitting on a cloud near Charlie. He had white hair, although he didn't seem particularly old. His face was lined with experience and wisdom, but somehow conveyed the impression of agelessness to Charlie. Lucas was smiling at him, his eyes twinkling with concealed mirth.
"What's so funny?" Charlie asked him.
"You are," Lucas answered. "For all the suffering you put yourself through over your perceived crimes against your creations, you just can't help being a storyteller, can you?" Lucas smiled fondly at Charlie's frown.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You, with your cataloguing of my appearance and the feelings it conveys to you," Lucas said patiently. "All of this serves to bring me more firmly into your place of safety, and to make this place more real for that matter. You should accept that Creation is a part of you, just like breathing or eating or loving."
"Why not?" Lucas mocked him. "I'm sorry that this gift distresses you, Charlie. But I think that you will find that you have the strength to wield this gift when you're ready to accept it."
"How would you know anything about this so-called gift?" Charlie asked Lucas, irritation coming through in his voice.
"Because I share the same gift," Lucas answered earnestly.
"Prove it," Charlie challenged.
"I can't prove it here, Charlie," Lucas said, smiling. "This is your place, not mine. In this place, I have only the power you allow me to have."
"I'm not controlling anything," Charlie snapped. "I haven't had anything to say about my life since that damn puppy appeared. Not since the shadow man appeared and tried to kill me. Not since Melissa disappeared."
She's ok, you know," Lucas told Charlie. "She misses you, of course and wants to come home, but she's handling this better than you are."
"What?! You mean, you've actually seen my wife?"
"Oh yes," Lucas said. "My wife and I met her when she was just getting started on her quest…" Charlie was having trouble hearing Lucas. The sound of wind whipping through trees surrounded him, like a storm blowing in. The light was fading around him, and Charlie found himself expecting the sound of thunder at any moment. He strained to make out what Lucas was saying, but it was no use. There was too much other noise around him now. It was getting too dark to see the other man now; Charlie squinted and leaned toward the place where Lucas had been sitting. It was almost completely dark now, now sign of anything but dark mist anywhere he turned.
"Lucas!" Charlie shouted, but no answer came. Charlie turned wildly, trying to find some point of reference in the darkness and was startled when he bumped his head against a hard surface with enough force to cause an eruption of purple light behind his eyelids. He grabbed his head with both hands, feeling the coldness of the cinder block wall of his room at his right side once more. "Oh Lucas, why'd you leave? I want to hear about Melissa." Charlie held his aching head and rocked gently on the bed.
When he opened his eyes, he was once more surrounded by puke-green walls and brutal fluorescent lighting. There was no light coming through the small window set high in the wall. Must be night now, Charlie thought. I wonder if Haven will be back today? As if thinking about the man summoned him, Charlie heard the sound of footsteps approaching his room. The jingling of a large ring full of keys at the door to his room removed all doubt. Charlie instinctively pressed back into the corner as far as he could, whimpering softly in fear. Please, no more drugs… no more pain, I can't take any more. But I can't give you what you want, either. No more, please… Please.
"Please, no more…" Charlie whispered as the door opened and Dr. Haven stepped into the room.
"Good evening, Charlie," Dr. Haven said with a smile that betrayed his hungry need to control Charlie. "How are you this evening?" Charlie held his head tighter and rocked faster, agitation overcoming his resolve to be calm.
"He doesn't seem happy to see us," a voice said from the corner of the room. Charlie involuntarily looked for the source of the voice and saw the shadow man sitting on a chair in the corner of the room, which was bad enough. The real problem was that the chair was on the ceiling. Charlie stared at him for a long moment and then began to scream. The shadow man grinned at him. Dr. Haven stepped to the door of the room and pressed a button on the intercom.
"Nurse, bring Mr. Thompson's regular dose right away," he ordered.
"Yes doctor," said a woman's voice from the intercom. Haven turned back to Charlie.
"It's all the same to me, Charlie," he said. "Sooner or later you will agree to write for me, though things will go easier for you if you would just cooperate. I could reduce the drugs, and there would be no need to consider shock therapy." Charlie stopped screaming and stared at Haven fearfully. Haven stepped to the corner of the room where Charlie had been pointing. He felt chilled suddenly, as he did so often lately. Charlie watched in horror as the shadow man reached up, down from the ceiling, and patted the doctor on the shoulder.
"He's only doing what's best for you, Charlie," the shadow man said. "We all just want what's best, now don't we."
"You're not real," Charlie said to the shadow man. "You. Are. Not. Real."
"Now, Charlie," the shadow man answered, making a tisking sound. "What a thing to say."
"Charlie? Are you seeing him again?" Haven asked, plainly curious about the delusion that Charlie experienced more and more frequently. His mind refused to correlate the delusional episodes with the cold chills that he often experienced at the same times. As a man of science he should have at least found the coincidence curious. He was prevented from asking further questions as the nurse arrived and handed him the hypodermic. She then helped to hold Charlie still so that the doctor could inject the sedative in his arm.
There were more questions, but they flowed over Charlie like water in a stream. He heard them, but they made no sense to him. The sedative was fast acting and strong. It was hard to fight off the effects and maintain awareness of any kind in the best of times, and this wasn't the best of times for Charlie. His head hurt, and fear of the shadow man made retreat into the narcotic fog desirable now. He let Haven's voice wash over him without bothering to make the effort to decipher his meaning. He collapsed back into drug-bound sleep.
Haven stood and watched until Charlie was safely unconscious. He moved closer and attempted to straighten Charlie into a more comfortable position, and then stood beside the bed stroking Charlie's forehead just like a mother would comfort a fevered child. "Sleep now Charlie," Haven said. "Tomorrow will be soon enough to write about my future wealth and power. Maybe you could make me a king like Niall; wealthy and powerful, yet free to roam the city carousing at will. Yes, that would be good."
The shadow man chuckled at Haven's words. "You're giving me a fine idea, my good doctor," the shadow man said to himself. "Yes, a fine idea indeed. And a delicious twist to the story I think."
* * *
"Charlie?" Lucas called softly through the fog. There was still no answer.
They must be keeping Charlie sedated, he thought. I hope I can still reach him. There is much for him to learn yet if he is to have any chance of surviving. If the shadow gets any stronger, he will threaten Melissa and her champions. Already he is twisting the outcome, and nothing is the way I wrote it anymore. I must reach him, before it is too late!
"It may already be too late, I'm afraid," Patience said nearby. Lucas sighed.
"It may be," he agreed reluctantly. "But what can we do? Their story is living on its own now. What else can we do?"
"We can pray," Patience answered softly. "Perhaps He will help them where we cannot."