Off Guard

I heard the voice from behind me, heard the name called out toward me. The name wasn't mine, but the voice was beckoning me.

"Roland?"

Roland... now that's a name I haven't heard in a long time. A long time.

I turned, slowly, to face the woman. When our eyes met, there was no immediate recognition. Maybe, the eyes were familiar. And the face rang a distant bell, but I couldn't be sure. For the moment, all I could tell was that this person knew me from one place, and one place only.

It had been just over six years since I had been there, almost 12 years since I first ventured in that establishment. I immediately thought of my last time there, of my fall from grace, of my hasty departure.

She had used my false name, had obviously not known about my exposure.

I smiled, but my eyes gave away that I couldn't place her face.

"It's me, Shannon." She added the name of the pub, as if to help me remember.

She looked different. Longer hair, dyed to a deep brunette. Her face seemed fuller, though she was still a beautiful woman. It had been about 10 years since I last saw her, perhaps four years since she had crossed my mind (I remembered her when I wrote about my time, playing the part of my fictional character, Roland Axam).

"Shannon," I exclaimed, the Scottish accent coming in rough, from years without practice. Though, in truth, her name was easy to enunciate, despite my rusty brogue.

"You haven't changed a bit," she smiled, and embraced me in a warm hug.

"You're too kind," I said, sheepishly. "I'm fatter than ever and the grey hair keeps coming in. But you look great. I didn't recognize you with your hair. And it's been so long."

Shannon was the first person in the pub to meet Roland, to learn of his history. She's the one who introduced me to the regular patrons, with whom, in time, Roland got to know quite well. Shannon was the first person to hear Roland's tragic tale, but she had left the pub long before the secret was out, that Roland was fictional in all but appearances.

Obviously, she didn't know that everyone in the bar had learned that I was not Roland, that I had been running an experiment, and that I had hurt a lot of people.

"What are you doing here?" she asked. We were in suburbia, in my home turf, not Roland's. Roland had lived in a place on the shores of Big Rideau Lake; later, after Shannon had moved on, Roland had bought a condo on Rideau Street, on the fringe of the Byward Market. The last place one would expect to run into Roland would be in the Barrhaven LCBO.

I had no stories prepared. I had no practiced lies. It was just me. "I live out here now," I said. "And you?"

"I live here, too. Married." She held up the ringed finger, as evidence. "How about you?"

"Same." I refrained from holding up my hand. It was gloved, anyway. "I married in 2009." I pulled the date from when I was frequenting the bar, when Roland had been involved in a long-distance relationship, crafted to avoid the advances of one of the pub employees, who had started developing feelings for my fictional counterpart.

"Kids?"

"Two. Daughters. You?"

"A boy," was her response. "Sam is five."

"That's great, I'm happy for you."

"Same here, Roland. You deserve to be happy."

"Thanks."

I wanted to get out of this conversation. While it was nice to see an old friend doing well, she really wasn't my friend: she was Roland's friend. And in my mind, Roland was dead, at least, he was in the real world. When I walked out of that bar, more than six years ago, it had been the last time that I pretended to be my fictional character. The fact that I could recall his voice (though, not his soft tone) so quickly surprised me, but I didn't want to continue it.

And now, I have learned that Shannon lives in my neighbourhood. Need I be cautious? I had been taken off-guard, had miraculously pulled it together and recovered, but would I always be so lucky?

What did it matter? She knew Roland for only a couple of years, and at that, only off-and-on over that time. We had been friends, but had never been as close as the others, who now knew of my deception. If I saw her again, I would smile, maybe wave, but be aloof. We would gradually become strangers to one another again.

"It was nice to see you, Shannon. Take care." I walked toward the craft beer aisle without looking back.

Hopefully, closing that chapter in Roland's story.

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