There had been moments, of late, when he had thought just for a second that he had seen the light passing through her. It happened when his head was turned; it happened as she was passing by him and he only caught an unthinking glimpse of her from the corner of his eye. When he looked full at her she was solid and corporeal, just the way she ought to be.
It puzzled him at first, and then concerned him, and finally worried him deeply. It was not right. It upset the natural order of things. He, after all, was the one who was a figment of her imagination, and not the other way around. She had no business fading away on him like that. Sometimes it made him feel positively indignant.
He took to watching her, in searching sidelong gazes, hoping and dreading to catch her at it again. Sometimes she looked up and found him staring. "What?" she would ask.
"Are you all right?" he would return, not sure what else to say. Her brow would knit briefly in the gentlest of frowns, even as one corner of her mouth quirked upward in that familiar half-smile that made him lovesick. "I'm fine," she would answer, and he would nod, accepting the lie, knowing that she was not, and that she did not even know it herself.
- - - - - -
In the mornings he got her up and made her coffee and packed her lunch and kissed her soundly and sent her off to work. During the day he did the housework and the shopping and tended the garden. He loved the garden. He loved planting and watering and weeding and watching the little seedlings stretch up toward the welcoming sun. Sometimes, as he was working in the garden, he would pause and chat with Mrs. Davidson next door. He liked Mrs. Davidson. If she understood that he wasn't real, she was too polite to mention it. He knew, from things she had said, that Mrs. Davidson prided herself on being open-minded and accepting of minorities. He supposed that he fit the minority' bill quite nicely.
They had three pets: two cats and a dog. The dog, like him, was not real, and so he took to studying the cats in his spare time for clues. He watched them moving around the house; he changed the lighting conditions and watched them again. He paid close attention. The cats, however, showed no inclination to let the light pass through them. They only meowed and swished their indolent tails and wound their fat bodies in tight figure-eights around and between his ankles whenever he stood next to the cabinet where their food was kept.
Still, when she was home, it kept happening. It frightened him, this trick of the light she kept playing on him. His brother, who was of a more suspicious nature than he, thought she must be doing it on purpose, but he couldn't bring himself to believe it of her. Instead he just studied her sadly, surreptitiously, wondering if it were due to some failing of his own.
He knew that she needed him. He knew that the whole reason he was here was to make sure that, in the end, she wouldn't need him at all anymore. It was a curious position to find himself in, he thought, especially when he considered that technically speaking he wasn't even really here in the first place. He thought about these things late at night, lying awake in their bed, cradling her in his arms as she slept, and studying her carefully in the half-light to see whether she was solid, or fading away again even as he held her.
- - - - - -
Spring stretched into summer. The cosmos and the zinnias in their garden grew taller than the top of the fence in the back yard. He gave Mrs. Davidson the secret recipe for his fertilizer, and she gave him tomatoes and zucchini from her garden. A week, even two, at a time would pass without incident. He would just have begun to let down his guard, to breathe more easily, when suddenly it would happen again.
It was worse now, he thought. He saw it outdoors now; he had never noticed that it had happened outdoors before. His brother, ever the skeptic, muttered that it was only because they spent more of their time outdoors in the nice weather. He was not comforted. He was sure it was an ominous sign.
Still, he did not tell her what he had seen. He did not ask her about it. He tucked it away inside himself, and took it out to brood over it while he walked the dog, while he did the ironing, while he turned the gentle spray of the hose on his garden and watched the sunlight paint rainbows on the mist. He turned it over and over in his mind just the way he would have turned a curious object over in his hands.
He meant to ask her about it; really, he did. He spent the idle hours of his mind, while his hands were busy with the household tasks, formulating the question, searching for the best description, for the right phrasing. He rehearsed the conversation many times in his mind. Sometimes he thought he had it all worked out, but it always seemed that, just as he had, he would look up and see right through her again, and he would lose all his courage and have to begin the process afresh. So the autumn passed, and still he said nothing.
The final straw came one night, early in the winter, when he was loving her. Of all the things that were good, he liked this the best. It made him forget, for just that little while, that he was only imaginary. That night, when at last she dug her fingers into his shoulders and called his name, he opened his eyes to look at her face in the near-dark, and instead was overwhelmed, was blinded, by the brilliance of the light all around her and through her. He cried out and squeezed his eyes shut and hid his face against her breast, afraid to look, and when he finally grew brave enough to lift his head and open his eyes, she kissed him and smiled at him and said it had been good for her, too. He knew then, with a terrible certainty, that he would never find the words to ask her about it.
- - - - - -
One day that spring he was making her lunch while she sat at the table with her cup of coffee and her slice of toast. It was a beautiful morning. He had the back door open, and a soft breeze whispered across the porch and through the screen door into the kitchen. He tucked her sandwich into its little plastic box; he put the box into her lunch bag and added a banana.
Today, he thought, he would turn over the soil in the garden and put down some of his special fertilizer. In a few days he could start setting the little marigolds. The tomato seedlings that Mrs. Davidson had given him should probably wait a few more days, until...
He felt her eyes upon him and turned around. She was still sitting at the table, leaning on both elbows, her hands around the mug of coffee, watching him just watching him with a small, bemused smile.
"What?" he asked her.
"It's funny," she said, "but you know, sometimes, just out of the corner of my eye, it looks like there's some kind of shift in the light, right where you are. I can't describe it exactly. I always feel like if I could look up fast enough, I could actually see you." She shook her head a little, smiling fondly at him. "Just a trick of the light, I guess."
He closed his mouth on his astonishment as she finished her coffee and glanced at the clock on the wall and rose from her chair. She brought the mug and the plate to the sink. She reached her arms up to encircle his neck, and she kissed him. When she stepped back, he put her lunch bag into her hands. She went to the door and took her keys from the hook on the wall. She paused in the doorway and looked back and smiled at him. "See you tonight, honey," she said. "Have a good day. Love you."
"Love you," he echoed helplessly as the screen door swung shut behind her.
© 2000 by Foxsong. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission.