This time, Trent saw the fictional character standing on the side of the road.
He wasn't a pirate, or a bloody baroness, or even a person at all. But a strange, unique creature, as brightly coloured as the rainbow. Part-elephant, part-jellybean, part-wizard, Gufflepuff was a character Trent hadn't seen for years. More precisely, since he had been ten.
Gufflepuff was the main character in the first story he had ever written.
Thirty pages long and handwritten on the back of old homework, Trent would have never believed that that first story - Gufflepuff meets his friends - about a creature who is bullied on his first day of school for being different, but soon learns to accept himself and teaches the world to accept him too - would have led to his current success. To the high-stakes and beautiful craftsmanship of the Scum of Arcadia.
But it had. And as Trent's car drew nearer, he wanted nothing more than to pull over.
To thank Gufflepuff for helping him along his creative journey, for being a pivotal point in his career. His love of the craft. His self-discovery.
To say sorry for not making his story the best-seller Chip's had come to be.
However, no matter how hard or quick Trent pressed down on the brake, the car wouldn't stop. Instead it simply continued to speed on past, zooming away from Gufflepuff in a puff of grey smoke.
When he looked in his rearview mirror, Trent didn't just see his first ever main character anymore.
Standing alongside him in the far distance, there was every character in every story that Trent had ever written. Those he loved, those he didn't. Those he had not finished, those he had dumped or trunked. And, somewhere deep inside him (in the same place as the burn and the itch), something broke.
"Look at them, pitiful creatures," Valeria said, shaking her head. "All lost once, now being lost again."
Trent gritted him teeth. "They're not as important to me as you guys," he snapped. Trying to convince them, but mostly trying to convince himself.
"Yes, they are," Chip said gravely. "If anything, they're more important. Those are the characters and stories that you had to give up to get where you are today. The ones who taught you how to write how you do, plot how you do, make readers feel the things that you do. They helped and schooled you. Gave their lives so that you could succeed."
"And now," Valeria hissed. "You're dumping them like trash, just like you're dumping us."
"Their sacrifice was for nothing."
"Stop it, guys!" Trent cried, wildly swerving the steering wheel so that the Honda bumped up onto the side of the kerb. He didn't care how many people were staring, or whether he'd get a parking fine, or arrested or whatever. The simultaneous joy and guilt and...and...regret pulsing through his veins already felt like a life sentence. "I won't do it. I can't, okay?"
He swore he saw Chip and Valeria exchange co-conspirator smiles.
"I love writing," he gasped. "Or at least, I know I did. But I just lost myself along the way, I forgot what it felt like to live and breathing my work, to fall head over heels for it. I forgot what writing really meant."
"But you can find yourself again."
And with that, Trent knew he could. He knew he should.