Over the past couple years, I’ve taken up reading as a hobby. First, I started out with the classics the way most people do: Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984. You know, all those books I pretended to read when they were assigned in high school. And after I was done with those, I started searching for a genre to pique my interest, but couldn’t settle on anything in particular. But then I realized that it’s not the genre that entices me the most – it’s the character. What’s better than being able to relate to a character at a personal level? A well-written character lets you believe in the characters, empathize with their struggles, and get immersed in the storytelling. Characters are what give life to reading. But I only ever wanted to relate to those characters; I never wanted to be one.
I picked up a book about three days ago in my local bookstore called A Small-Town Murder. It was a lone copy on top of the stack of Bill Browder’s new book, Freezing Order. It looked like someone had moved the book to the front of the store almost in some kind of spite that it wasn’t shelved in the forefront of a customer’s bookstore trip. When I picked it up, the cashier immediately leaned over the counter. He was an elderly man with a bald patch and a faux gold chain connected to the arms of his glasses drooping over the nape of his neck. I’d come to know him well as my reading habit developed. He was a sweet man who seemed almost as lonely as me. He gave a wry smile and pointed to the book in my hand. “That one’s from a local author.”
“Oh yeah? That’s neat,” I answered absently as I tried to read the back cover.
“Yep,” he said. “Guy keeps coming in here and moving the book from the crime and thriller section to the front of the store.” He shook his head with a laugh. “He thinks I don’t notice, but I’ve been moving them back after he leaves. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just keep them in the front from now on. No harm in that, is there?”
“No,” I said quietly. I was admittedly hardly paying attention to the cashier – I couldn’t read and talk at the same time, and I was fairly entranced by the back-cover description: “Ben, a young man in his early twenties lives alone in a small town in Montana. He starts to notice strange things happening around his house until he realizes someone is watching him. Can Ben escape his stalker before becoming his latest victim?”
I couldn’t believe it – someone had written a story with a character in small-town Montana. I hadn’t been the type to read a crime / thriller novel, but the character sounded too relatable to pass up. He even had the same name as me. I looked up and down each face of the book for a price tag. There was none. “How much?” I asked.
The cashier waved off my question. “Honestly, the guy will be thrilled to know someone actually looked at the damn thing. Just take it.”
I smiled and thanked him, then took the book home. And since I picked it up in that store, I couldn’t seem to put it down. The writing wasn’t particularly impressive, but the character was fascinating: he was in his early twenties, had thick red hair, freckles, big round white-framed glasses he hardly ever wore but desperately needed, unmarried, had a cat who slept all day. Sure, that description doesn’t usually scream superhero, but he didn’t need to be – he was exactly like me. What are the chances? I thought. Honestly, it was a little refreshing not reading about a rich hulking Adonis of a character who was smooth and cunning and good at everything. The character had even taken up reading in the last couple years and found himself spending most of his time focusing on that new hobby when he wasn’t at work. This book felt not too different from an auto-biography for me. Sure, I’ve seen relatable characters like in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Catcher in the Rye, or All the Bright Places – I know, concerning books to find relatable. But of all the hundreds of books I’ve read, I’d never found one like this.
After a couple hours of reading, I’d already glided through the first few chapters. The main character, Ben, had become rather reclusive as of late because of some traumas that aren’t explained well in the book. He was smart, but had some trouble socially in high school. There was also an ironic component: he lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone’s name, but Ben didn’t know anyone besides the sweet old man running the bookshop. When I read descriptors like this, they felt like personal attacks in a way. But it’s just a fictional character, right?
I thought so too until I got to the fourth chapter: around the end of Act 1, so to speak. As the descriptors continued and grew more acute, a sinking feeling overtook my stomach. The character’s previously unexplained trauma started to come out: his best friend had been murdered four years earlier. My best friend was murdered four years ago. Reading this would have brought me to uncontrollable tears if not for the descriptors I’d already read – instead I started to panic. Red hair, freckles, heavy-set, loner, reader, lives in small-town Montana, has a good relationship with his elderly bookstore cashier, lost a friend four years ago to murder, is named Ben. No, these weren’t just coincidences anymore – this was me. And then I read the lines where that first major plot point developed: “There was a whistling in the cornfields outside his house. Ben had been losing sleep over a new thriller book he was reading, so even the slightest unexpected noise made him uneasy. But this was different – somehow, either via premonition or stroke of genius preparation on the killer’s part, he knew he was being hunted.”
Then it came: the rustling in the cornfield.
I threw the book across the room, its pages flapping through the air until it smacked into the wall and slid to the floor. My heart was beating uncontrollably. I could hardly breathe. Then the cashier’s words slipped back to my mind in a brief flash: “That one’s from a local author.” The author knew I’d pick up that book. He was hunting me. That author wasn’t just local – he was in the field outside my house.
I switched on my bedroom light and waddled over to the window on my knees, trying to keep out of view of the cornfield. I then poked my nose over the windowsill and squinted into the darkness. A few stalks of corn were still swaying, but I couldn’t tell for sure whether it was from the wind or if someone was out there. An owl hooted from a nearby tree and almost made me jump out of my skin. He must have been watching me – watching me read until Act 2 when he could reveal himself, and start to make his clumsy pursuit from which I get away from in the interest of keeping the story suspenseful and building tension. But come Act 3, we’d inevitably have some type of showdown where perhaps he kills me.
I scanned the cornfield again – still no sign of him. I crawled over to the book again, trying to find where I left off. After some searching and page-flipping, I found my place and read on to see what was next. I could either see the book as a horrifying prediction of doom or a playbook: in the moment, I chose to see it as the latter. So I read on: “Ben threw his book aside at the sound. Its pages flapped through the air until it smacked into the wall and slid to the floor. His heart was beating uncontrollably. He could hardly breathe. Ben switched on the bedroom light and walked over to the window, waddling on his knees. He then poked his nose over the windowsill and squinted into the darkness. A few stalks of corn still swayed, but he couldn’t quite tell if it was from the wind or if someone was out there. An owl hooted from a nearby tree. Ben wrote off the sound for now. He didn’t know where or when his stalker would strike, but he knew one thing for sure: he was being hunted.”
Since then, I haven’t picked up the book. I can hardly look at it without my skin crawling. I think the killer is watching me read – wanting to play along with every page turn, sadistically waiting for me to read the script of my own demise. Then I remembered the other thing the cashier had said: “No harm in that, is there?” My breathing shook and hasn’t stopped since. That statement couldn’t have been further from the truth.