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Two inches of glass separated us.
“Hi,” he said.
I didn’t say anything, only dragged my fingertips along the cold black tabletop.
“Your mom says you’ve been doing well in school,” he began hopefully. The crackling of his voice over the speaker was piercing. “She says you’re applying to Yale, and maybe Columbia—“
“Not Columbia,” I said flatly. “Not anymore.”
“It’s a great school, Mary,” he said, leaning forward slightly, his expression eager, expectant. “It’s close enough to home, and you’re a legacy.”
“I don’t want my life to be built on other people’s successes,” I said. Or failures. “Look, is this almost over?”
His eyes flashed with momentary disappointment. “It’s been three minutes,” he said.
Three minutes, I realized, my fists clenching instinctively—that was how the long the doctors said it took Nathan Fletch to die.
“Columbia has a great liberal arts program. You’ll be in the city with family; maybe we’ll get you an apartment…”
“No. Stop.” The words somersaulted out of my mouth and caught in the air.
He cleared his throat and glanced away.
The tension was thick; palpable. I couldn’t stay there. I stood up, my heart pounding, almost knocking over the hard plastic chair in my haste.
“Are you leaving?” he said, and I could tell he was upset by the way his forehead creased; creased like the wrinkled white shirt they found Nathan in, painted with blood.
“Yes,” I said, and swallowing my pride, I added, “I’ll be back in three days.”
He looked relieved then, and I almost couldn’t stand it to see him look that way, like all the weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He deserved that weight. He deserved to carry the Earth, like Atlas with the sky, for his entire life.
I heard a chuckle as I walked towards the double doors of the dimly lit room—a sardonic, tuneless chuckle that I recognized immediately.
“You know the story of Heracles and Atlas?” said Nathan, striding into place next to me. I was struck at once, as I always was, by his calming presence, his kind blue eyes, the way he talked without seeming to draw a breath.
“It’s ridiculous, it really is,” he said, grinning ear-to-ear. “Heracles had to get these apples from Atlas’s daughters, right, and Atlas thought, ‘Hey, this guy’s an idiot, I’ll get him to take the sky from me when I come to bring him these apples, and then I’ll run away so he’ll have to carry it forever.’ But Heracles, he knew what was going to happen, so he pretended to go along with it and took the sky, and then he was like, ‘Oh wait, Atlas, can you take this for a second while I adjust my cloak?’ and Atlas did, and then Heracles grabbed the apples and ran away.”
“Nathan,” I said, stopping short an inch from the doors. “Why are you doing this to me?”
He looked at me, the light of laughter slowly fading from his eyes. “I’m not doing anything to you, Mary. Can we talk?”
“Outside,” I said, and I opened the doors.
The morning was cold—the kind of cold that stings your skin and makes your eyes water. Nathan closed his eyes and smiled.
“It’s nice today,” he said, and he lifted his hands up to meet the frosty air.
“Of course you’d like it,” I said, shoving my hands into my sweatshirt; I didn’t have any gloves. And then, haltingly: “Can you tell me why you’re back? What—what can I do to make it all up to you?”
Nathan opened his eyes and looked directly at me. I shivered, but not for lack of warmth.
“Mary, you blame yourself for everything.” He glanced up at the sky, which was robin’s egg-blue and cloudless, just the way he liked it. “I’m not angry.”
“You should be. It’s got to be my fault, somehow.” I kicked at the dry yellowed grass lining the walkway, recalling the dry yellowed grass I had sat in seven short months ago on Nathan’s front lawn. I hadn’t even tried to go to school that day, just driven to the Fletches’ house and collapsed there, waiting for something—anything—to distract me.
“But it’s not, and you’ll forgive him eventually. Hell, I’ve forgiven him,” Nathan said. “What happened was a freak accident, and I accept it. When you accept it, maybe then I’ll leave. Okay?” He moved towards me and extended his right hand. I extended my left, leaving a few centimeters between us; I couldn’t touch him. But the action was comforting, and I breathed a little easier.
“Better,” said Nathan, and he looked at me sideways. “You’re wondering if this is all real, right? You’re wondering if I really am back?”
“I guess I don’t even care anymore,” I said flatly. The line between dream and reality was already gone, erased; the two worlds blended like a watercolor. Sleep was short and life was empty.
“Even if I’m not really here,” Nathan said, and suddenly I was aware of our distance, even though we stood nearly shoulder to shoulder, “you’ll have to talk to him eventually. You’ve known this all along. I guess…” He hesitated slightly. “I guess I’m here to remind you.”
Words rose in my throat like bile, and I couldn’t help it. The floodgates burst. “I loved you,” I blurted, sinking to the ground. The colors of my surroundings melted together and began to run. The buildings around me looked like tissue paper thrown against a streaky sky, and the ground was just a layer of fabric under my feet.
Nathan wasn’t really there. I knew he wasn’t. It was as if I had fallen asleep and found myself tangled up in the sheets of a parallel universe, paralyzed not with fear but something much, much worse. Worse yet, reality’s biting cruelty had failed me as a remedy, and I was forced to walk the streets of this blood-spattered world, chased by nightmare.
Someone pulled me to my feet. I didn’t turn to face them at first—vanity made me weak. Then I realized it was Nathan, a dew of tears on his face, unmarred as it was before that day, his arms wrapped around me.
I couldn’t say anything. He couldn’t either, apparently. There was only silence. It was glassy silence—beautiful but tenuous; breakable. And in the seconds before it shattered, I wondered how he could touch me, and whether I too was gone.
He was gone within moments. He had disappeared before, but I knew this time he wouldn’t be coming back. There was something in the way my surroundings suddenly came into focus, the way the green in the trees seemed to intensify and the brownstones all around me seemed solid, tangible. It was as if some great hand of fate had redrawn that line—that line between dream and reality-- and I was finally back from a very long vacation.
I took a breath.
And then I turned around.
I decided to talk to my father, who had, one year ago killed Nathan Fletch, the love of my life, by accidentally driving his black Mercedes onto the pavement where Nathan was walking one rainy Thursday night.
I decided to forgive him.