My name is not Chad Wilkes. I'm Mark Holtz, and I am forty-two, this November. I have a wife, or had one. We divorced two years ago. We never had any children. We had a dog named Pokey.
Chad Wilkes is thirty. His birthday is in March. He has never married, and has no pets. I know this, because I created him.
I woke up a week ago in his bed, and I was forced to put on his clothes, and wander his town. Neighbors greeted me by his name. But I am not him. I don't feel like him, I don't have his memories. The body I am in feels like a middle-aged man, rather than one just barely into adulthood. The same ache in my knee that I had before last week is still there. I look in the mirror and my lined face and greying hair look back at me through my light brown eyes. Chad's eyes are blue.
At the moment, Sherry is pouring me coffee. It's a bit awkward. You see, we slept together two weeks ago, despite a long promise to each other that we'd never let our relationship get to that level. We'd known each other too long. It would create too much drama.
Or, rather, this is all true of Sherry and Chad. Christ, I'm starting to think of his phony past as if it were real.
I stopped trying to convince Sherry that I'm not Chad three days ago. She thought I was making a joke in poor taste. I hated the feeling of hurting her. She's been a sweet girl all her life.
Again, I have to mentally check myself. Sherry is not a real person. I created her, just like I created Chad.
"Anything to eat today?" she says, trying to sound chipper. Her smile is usually radiant. Today it looks like she clipped it to her face with a safety pin.
"Nah, I'm fine," I reply.
"Alright," she says. The smile drops a bit. "Let...let me know if you need anything else."
"I shall," I assure her.
I sip my coffee. It tastes real. The counter-top feels real under my arm. The stool feels real under my ass. Sherry, three days ago, when she slapped me...her hand had sure felt real.
But the memories of us sleeping together, the memory of growing up with her, of watching her go through a bitter, loveless marriage that ended in divorce just two months ago, the divorce that mirrored my own...those memories don't feel real, because I didn't experience them. I just wrote them.
I'm a novelist. I write pseudo-romantic overwrought potboilers, and they sell like hotcakes. Middle-aged women usually are my demographic, but I'm big with younger women and even some men, too. Critics have never liked my work much, but three of my novels have been turned into movies, and the other novels have all been optioned by Paramount, so I'm crying all the way to the bank. Initially, I just wrote about two people meeting each other and whatever spiritual, psychological or romantic troubles that followed, but after my third book, I thought, why not set my next one in the same town?
After that, Smokey River, Montana became the site of all my stories as I ventured into the private lives of its residents. It's a mid-sized town, about four thousand people in it, so about two thousand potential protagonist couples. Chad was my latest hero. Not yet sure who the heroine would be.
See, I wasn't sure where I was going with this story when I sat down to write it. I was under deadline, expected to produce another Smokey River story before the end of the year, and here it is July and I'm halfway through and no closer to finishing. Chad was introduced in the last book and as soon as I created the character I knew I wanted to write more about him, so he became the lead in this story. But what is his story?
"Hey," it's Sherry again. "Are you...doing anything tonight?" This is a bold move. She hasn't even mentioned our night together in days. Ever since that slap.
"Um," I say. Real eloquent there, Mr. Writer. "N...not as far as I know. Why?"
She sighs. "I didn't want to, but we need to talk," she says. "We got too much history to just tip-toe around and pretend we barely know each other."
Now it's my turn to sigh. Because I do barely know Sherry. I only invented her for this story and I'm still feeling my way along. I had a thumbnail sketch of her character, and used my divorce as fuel to write in hers, but other than that, she's mostly a blank slate. Is she the female lead of this story, or is she a romantic false lead? Is she good for Chad, or is she trouble? The kind of stories I write, she could be either one.
"Sure," I finally say. "Let's meet at my place tonight." It's the only place that feels even a little like home to me. "Seven?"
"Can we make it my place?" she says. Of course. Chad's place is where it happened.
"Okay," I agree. I just want her to stop talking and serve someone else so that I can think.
One week ago, I sat down to force this story forward, come hell or high water. I was starting not to care if what I wrote was my best, or even good. I just needed to get something banged out to hand to my publisher. Had to meet that deadline.
I can't really explain it, but as I wrote, I felt like someone was watching me, watching with a vested interest in what I was doing. But that could have been the glass of Guinness. Or the second glass. Or the Jack Daniels I chased it with. Sometimes drinking helps get the creative juices flowing, but all it did that night was increase the paranoia that someone was just over my shoulder, trying eagerly to see what I was writing.
And then I fell asleep at my computer. And woke up in Smokey River. I thought I was having a nightmare, but I've gone to bed five times since then, and I have woken up in Smokey River each time.
"Thanks," says Sherry. "I...I guess I'll see you then. You don't need to bring anything." I resolve right then to bring flowers. Carnations, pink ones to show that I'm not trying to take us to places we're not supposed to go.
Chad and Sherry's night together was the last thing I wrote. I wrote it completely under pressure. I hadn't planned on it happening, just like Chad and Sherry never planned on ruining their friendship this way.
I finish my coffee and whisper a quick "see you tonight" to Sherry, making my way for the door. This town is so quiet, so genteel. Everything feels too perfect. Even this runaround with Sherry feels plotted. Every step I've taken since arriving in town feels like it was planned out before I took it. Just the opposite of how I felt while trying to write this story.
The sun is bright and the weather is warm. Old Jed Crawford is getting out of his car, ready to head in for his morning joe. He smiles at me.
"Chad," he says. "How's the job hunt going?" Chad's a logger, because I had to give him a job of some sort, but I don't know shit about logging, so I had forsaken going into work the first couple of days I was here, finally answering their repeated calls to tell them I quit. I had not yet learned that it's better to just follow the rules and let everyone think I was Chad. If I had, I would have asked for leave, or used a few sick days, but Chad's got a couple of thousand in the bank, and I hope to be back in reality before I blow through it all.
"Oh, same as always," I reply cheerfully, because that's what Chad would have done. The plot feels like it's telling me to go home and plan for my evening with Sherry. Chad would be going home right now to plan for it, checking to see how much carnations are, picking out an outfit. Time to be Chad, and do what he would do. I follow the plot and head for Chad's house.