The Virtual Red Couch is hosting a collaborative short story project. Each week, a new author will continue the story. Check back every Monday to see how the story unfolds!
Written by Clare Morgan
Emma lingered for a moment on the last step. Ahead of her, Daniel led little James by the hand through the familiar stacks of weathered books.
“Just try getting out of my sight again, see how that goes for you,” Daniel said firmly to his clueless brother. But his voice was soft and genuine, and Emma recognized the tight tinge of worry still in the back of his throat.
Turning around one last time, Emma could see Alice Schreibel moving across the stone floor of her palace with long, slow strides. Even from a distance, she had begun to look younger, more fresh. Her arms and shoulders were relaxed, her back straight but not stiff. Everett said something to her as she walked toward him and she laughed. It was the clear, full, ringing laugh of a woman who knows herself and is comfortable in her happiness. Emma didn’t think she had ever before heard anything approaching a laugh like that in the bookstore. Putting an arm around his companion’s slim waist, Everett led her through the arched entryway at the far end of the hall. They stopped for a moment in the doorway: distant shadows silhouetted against a vermillion sun. She leaned her head gently on his shoulder. Together, they continued out into their brightening world.
Emma watched them walk until they were out of sight. Then turning back, she stepped off the stone stairs onto the splotched red and brown carpet of The Inkwell’s loft. She was keenly aware of the shop’s smell and the heaviness of its air; the way a person is sensitive to odor on returning home from a long trip. She wondered if James and Daniel were waiting for her, but she didn’t hurry to catch up—there were no deceitful griffins or dark forests threatening her brothers in the real world—and she wanted to be alone for just a moment.
Emma thought about what had happened to them. Most of it did not make sense to her, but she felt that the more she mulled it over and let her adventure sift around in her brain, the important things would begin to unpack themselves. She was already forgetting details of their journey, and this made her feel a little bit frantic inside. She would have liked to write everything down from the beginning. How she lost track of time in her book, the hunt for James that led to the mystery staircase, her and Daniel’s confusing trek in Schreibel’s imaginary world, meeting Everett, and finally, their happy ending. She had found her brothers; Everett had found his friend.
But Emma was not ready to go home.
She did not entirely grasp where she had been, or what had happened, or why it had happened to her. She did not know how she would explain it all to her parents—she didn’t think they would understand. In a few hours, a little girl had learned much about the real world from a completely fictitious one. Emma thought that even if she had a whole day to sit and think, she could not begin to organize it all.
Yet there she stood: in the half dark of The Inkwell’s attic—now almost foreign to her—facing the staircase that would take her down to her brothers, to the sidewalk outside. She put a hand on the thin wooden banister. It seemed smaller; she could almost curl her fingers entirely around it. Closing her eyes, she felt the still quiet of the old room pressing into her for another moment. Then she started down.
By the time she stepped off the stairs, Emma knew she could never go back to Schreibel’s world. It didn’t matter that there was so much left she hadn’t seen—it wasn’t hers to explore. More readily now, Emma made her way to the front of the store. She walked past the History and Geography section, thick books with plastic covers and a whole wall for the Civil War. Gardening…Self-Help…then Cookbooks followed. She walked through the Children’s Section and saw an illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. On the cover, a giant white rabbit, clearly frustrated, surrounded by watches and clocks, sent a heavy shiver across her shoulders. She looked at the clock on the shop wall: four-forty-five, it read. They wouldn’t be late for dinner after all.
“Of course,” Emma said to herself, not at all surprised. “An imaginary world could have its own imaginary time.”
She continued through the rows of books toward the front of the store. Coming around the tall shelves, Emma could hear James and Daniel’s muffled, playful voices growing closer. The thought of them being once again comfortable and safe made her smile. As she passed Ms. Schreibel’s office—barely a closet jutting back from behind the register—a flash of pink caught her eye.
Moving behind the register, she stood in the doorway. The shopkeeper’s office was packed full of books, catalogues, dust-jacket posters, and stacked boxes, containing presumably the same things. Overwhelmed as the space was, there was still a tidy order and placement to everything. As Emma’s eyes fell over the room, Remy ran past her legs and jumped up into Schreibel’s desk chair. The calico curled himself around and started cleaning his paws with fixed attention. Directly above him, perched plumply on top of a filing cabinet and staring back at Emma, was a pink, stuffed pig. A smile began to creep over the young girl’s face, and she broke into a laugh.
“Daniel! James! Come look!” She called to the front of the store with a grin. Daniel came around the corner with a frantic looking face, still leading James by the hand. They stopped short in the doorway next to her.
“Look,” Emma said, “isn’t it all familiar?”
There was Remy, not very fierce looking, but his calico pattern took the boys back to their dizzying griffin rides. The floppy-eared Piglet pillow carried the same look of fright and surprise on its round face as the live porcine Emma had encountered in the woods. On the desk was a large binder of National Geographic inserts, laying open to a 3-page spread about the duck-billed platypus. Paintings of mountains and forests lined two of the walls, and on the third was a blown-up cover of Everett Hawthorne’s latest adventure. It was matted and framed in black wood, and the fearless figure looked impressively like the man who risked his safety for Emma’s brothers. There was a small white card stuck in the bottom corner. It was signed: For Alice, my everything, to whom I owe…everything. E.H. The note was written in tight, scrawling handwriting. Something about it seemed familiar to Emma, and she ran out into the maze of books in search of what she thought it must be.
Pulling the first book in Arlington Stone’s Adventures of Everett Hawthorne series off the top shelf of the fiction section, Emma opened the cover and flipped to the dedication page.
“I knew it!” she said, and then the full force of what she had just discovered began to hit her. She tripped back to the office with wide eyes, holding the open book sacredly in both hands.
“It was her. It was Schreibel.” She held the book out to Daniel, who read aloud the dedication:
“For Everett, my everything, to whom I owe everything. A.S.” he looked quizzically at his older sister, and then to the note in the frame.
“She wrote them! She wrote them!” Emma exclaimed, and then said breathlessly, “Everett kept saying that Ms. Schreibel had created their world and that they had been on so many adventures together! I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before, I just couldn’t imagine that he meant it like that—like this!” All the bitterness and resentment she felt towards Alice Schreibel from years of unflinching strictness began to melt away, and all Emma could think to do was smile.
“How could it be her? She seems so cold and closed off. But in her head, she had beautiful adventures and courageous heroes and mystery, and love, and FUN?! Why did she act so much different…I don’t understand?”
For a few moments, the three siblings stood in silence looking at the vividly daring figure in the painting. Emma remembered how lonely Ms. Schreibel had sometimes seemed, and how many days Emma had wondered what she spent her time doing after four o’clock in the afternoon. Now she knew.
“You know, it must have been really hard for her to live inside her own head so much. Maybe that’s why she made up that other world—to have somewhere to go and someone to go to. Still, it must have been hard,” Emma wondered aloud.
Little James took Emma’s hand and, grinning mildly up at her, said, “Good stories make a good life.”
“That’s right!” Daniel interjected. “Schreibel told us that! Maybe she made up her stories to make her feel less bad about her lonely life?”
Emma looked at the note in the frame and then to the book’s dedication: my everything.
“But,” Emma said, squatting so that she could look James right in the eyes, “Every good story needs characters.” She squeezed his chubby hand and looked up at Daniel with a gentle smile. She understood now.
“Good people make a good life.”
Just then, the bell on the shop’s front door jingled.
“Emma? Dan?” called a familiar voice. James let go of his sibling’s hands and ran to the store’s entrance.
“Hullo dad!” he yelled, out of breath as he galloped along.
“Well hi buddy! Where’s your brother and sister?”
“Coming dad!” Emma called back. She closed Alice’s first book and set it on top of the nearest pile. She would come back another day and ask Ms. Schreibel about the dedication; but for now, she had the last book to finish, and an entire adventure of her own to write. She put an arm over Daniel’s shoulders and they started toward the front. Their dad stood waiting by the door with James hoisted on one hip.
“You guys are a little late getting home, did you have a fun afternoon?” He asked, holding out his arm to them for a hug.
“We did,” Emma said, smiling and putting her arms around him. “We got a little bit distracted though, sorry for being late.
“Nothing like a good book to make you loose track of time,” her dad responded with a laugh. “No harm, as long as you all keep track of each other and stick together.”
“Oh, don’t worry Dad, Emma doesn’t hardly let go of us anymore.” James said, and winked at his sister.
“Couldn’t stand to,” Emma responded, and pulled her brother into the hug. Then together they stepped out onto the hot sidewalk, and started home.