It started last Halloween when she saw Dorian Gray walking around Beacon Hill carrying his portrait. She was watching the neighborhood’s many party-goers and sugar-addled, costume-clad children from the top step of an unoccupied brownstone (unoccupied for the evening, at least, or perhaps merely occupied by people who despised or feared trick-or-treaters) when she saw him: dressed lavishly for a nineteenth-century evening out on the town, and carrying a large oil painting partially covered by a heavy red velvet cloth. The ornate gold-painted picture frame started at his shoulder and descended nearly to his knee, but he seemed to be having no trouble holding it up. His skin was smooth, his hair was thick and lustrous, and his portrait was sneering and aged but not yet devastated. Perhaps, she thought, he was only a few years into his life of sin. He was berating a young man dressed as the TiVo mascot for not recognizing him.
“Dorian!” she called out. When he looked up, the TiVo scurried away as fast as a full-color antennaed television screen could be expected to manage. Gray’s beard was flawlessly manicured, and his eyes were a shade of iridescent blue usually only found on the wings of exotic butterflies.
“I know who you are,” she said. An apology. A consolation prize.
Her volume was conversational, but he seemed to have heard her even across the street. He smiled, innocent and radiant, like one of the nearby four-year-olds receiving her first foil-wrapped sweet, and his left hand twitched towards the fabric draped over the edge of his portrait. His rings flashed. He nodded his head towards her, once, then turned and walked downhill towards Charles Street, navigating the increasingly dense crowd and uneven cobblestones with improbable grace, given the bulk of his artistic burden.
That night, she had more vivid dreams than ever before in her life, but could not remember more than snippets upon waking. Clapping for Tinkerbell. The Velveteen Rabbit and the Skin Horse.
It was a month later that she saw Emma Bovary, emanating boredom and staring into the window of Cynthia Rowley on Newbury Street, wearing a dress that, to most observers, would have seemed oddly formal for modern day, but perhaps not jarringly anachronous. Watching Emma, she touched her own hair, wondering how the other woman had made her center part so precisely straight. Emma reached for the shop door, then turned back, and they were looking into each other’s eyes. Emma raised a finger to her lips -- shhhhh -- and then the glass door shut behind her.
Another month later, she saw Francis Macomber at the Littlest Pub, buying drinks for everybody in the bar.
After that, she saw someone nearly every week. Spider Jerusalem in his black linen suit, going into a closed night club. Winston Smith struggling to tie his shoe outside the State House. Bartleby sitting on a park bench, his face turned up to the sun. Heidi Holland at the Isabella Gardener Museum. Yossarian running to catch the number 96 bus. They always caught her eye before they, or she, walked on. They always seemed to know that she knew.
They came from novels, short stories, graphic novels, plays, and poems. There seemed to be no discernable pattern to the appearances, no commonality in the character’s age, gender, race, places of origin, or era. Or species: a large St. Bernard mix followed behind her and to her left for the entire length of the Boston Common. When she finally turned to look at him directly, he sat and tilted his head at her. She said, Buck. He gave a lolling doggy smile as only really big dogs can, and trotted away towards one of the small bridges, terrifying squirrels and ducks equally as he passed.
They were usually alone, but not always. They were mostly central characters, but not always. She saw Garp buying tickets for a Red Sox game. She saw Owen Meany boarding a train at Back Bay. She saw Jacob Marley standing across the street from the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter, watching but not going in.
There was no trend she could find among their authors, their genres, or even in how well she knew their originating texts. She saw Scout Finch hanging upside down from the jungle gym off Sacramento Street in Cambridge, and she hadn’t even read To Kill A Mockingbird in high school like she was supposed to, she’d only skimmed the Cliffs Notes. Scout stuck her tongue out at her, and she supposed she deserved it.
By spring, she had begun to notice that some of them were acting out of character. Yossarian running, that made sense, no quarrel there, but would Charlie, of chocolate factory fame, actually smoke? Nor did it make any sense to see Jo March getting a pedicure at Davis Square Nails and Spa. The physical features began to seem off as well; did Becky Thatcher dye her hair red since her story was written, or had Mark Twain gotten his facts wrong? She hadn’t expected Alex Cross to look exactly like Morgan Freeman, but she hadn’t expected him to be obese, either. She took a seat on the bench next to him outside Darwin’s Cafe, opened her cell phone and said his name quietly into it, as though making a call. He shifted. She looked over, and he was looking right at her, one eyebrow raised, amused at her pathetic subterfuge. She shrugged, embarrassed, and stood to leave. When she waved goodbye, he smiled generously and waved back.
They never spoke to her.
It was nearly summer when the bug started following her around. She saw him outside her apartment building, ducking into a crack in the wall. Then she saw him hiding flush against the wall outside her bank in Harvard Square. He nearly got trod upon by someone else leaving the gym at the same time she did. Finally, she saw him dart from underneath the soda machine to catch her train after she’d gotten herself a seat on the Red Line, headed inbound. He circled her feet twice, then parked himself one inch in front of her left boot.
“I thought you were supposed to be big,” she said. The cockroach’s antennae twitched. The train stopped at Park Street, and they both got off, the roach leading the way. She looked briefly at the sculpture on the station’s ceiling over the outbound track, a giant hand bestowing a blessing.
No one saw her follow the roach down a set of stairs onto the tracks. No one saw her go through the door between stations. No one heard the music that escaped when that door opened. It is likely that no one would have recognized the piece anyway, as the artist’s music had heretofore only been described in books, and had never been performed.
* * *
If you see her, tell her you know who she is. She has a small curved scar by her right eye, from a childhood accident involving a cat and one of her younger brothers’ action figures. Her hair is dirty blond and chin-length. She is fit, and looks like she might be a runner. Her eyes are light brown, like the underbelly of a sparrow, and her favorite color is yellow, because hardly anyone ever picks yellow.
It is not only fairytale characters who become Real if you believe. It is not only children who give characters life by thinking about them, by loving them. If enough people read, the heroes of these stories may even be able to take on lives of their own.
If you see her, tell her you read this story, her story. Her name is Fiona.