Sixteen and a half.
John opened doors for me and carried my books like some boy out of the fifties, and when he kissed me my heart raced and a shiver slid down my spine. On the nights Dad worked, he came over, parking his car around the block and climbing in through my bedroom window so Mrs. Philips wouldn’t see.
I didn’t forget Donar, exactly, but John and I spent so much time together I didn’t think of him often, and when I did, it was only in passing. Sometimes, if John wasn’t with me and I woke up in the middle of the night from the same old nightmare of the burning house and my mother trapped inside, I would hear his voice like a whisper in the back of my mind. Go back to sleep, Anna, he would say from somewhere in the dark. I’m here.
It was all I needed to keep my fears away, and I didn’t ask for anything more.
My roommate’s love of techno drove me out of the dorm for some peace and quiet. But it was late, and when a twig snapped behind me, my heart almost jumped out of my chest. I threaded my keys through my fingers and made a fist around them in my pocket. Laughter drifted from the shadows, and two girls passed by me on the sidewalk. I forced myself to relax. It wasn’t really any different than walking home from school by myself, and I’d done that since I was twelve.
Except I hadn’t really been by myself then, and it hadn’t been dark. I stopped beneath a maple tree and closed my eyes, thinking of Donar. My hero. My protector. “I miss you,” I said softly.
I’m here. It felt like a caress, and my heartbeat steadied with the sound of his voice, even if it was only in my head. Even if he was only in my head.
Ugh. I was in college. The last thing I should have been doing was summoning imaginary men from the deep of my subconscious. It was one thing to cling to Donar as a little girl, one who had just lost her mother, with an absent father no less, but it was something else to think of him now. Maybe Mrs. Philips had been right about counseling all those years ago. I pressed my fingers against my eyes and leaned back against the tree trunk. Imaginary friends were for children, and I wasn’t one anymore.
But I would have given my left arm just then, for the familiar warmth of his hand around mine, and his voice coming from outside of my head. For anything familiar, really. That’s all that it was, I decided. A taste of homesickness. I’d get over it. And I didn’t need Donar to keep away the noises in the night anymore. He couldn’t do anything anyway. He was just a figment of my imagination.
A rustle of leaves sent my heart racing again, and my eyes flew open. The shape of a man in shadow. I squinted but I couldn’t make out his features in the dark. It was probably just a trick of the light. Or else it was some frat boy trying to scare stupid freshman girls into his bed.
The shape chuckled, warm and rich, and the leaves crunched beneath his feet as he came closer. “Is there no third option?”
My breath caught and the shape resolved into better focus, strawberry blonde hair and familiar blue eyes. “Donar?”
“I’ve always answered when you called.”
I frowned, reaching out. My hand passed through his chest, with just the barest jolt, like the spark off a weak battery. “You’re not real.”
“I’m not tangible,” he corrected me. “I’ve always been real.”
“You’ve always been a fantasy,” I told him. “Some imaginary friend I cooked up out of nowhere to keep myself from being scared. You were never real.”
“Maybe you’re right.” He looked away. “Would you like me to go?”
“No,” I said. “I just – I wish you were real. I wish you could be, and we could be…”
He smiled, or at least his eyes did, the rest of his face was still shadowed. “Let me walk you back to your dorm.”
“My roommate is there.”
He offered me his hand. “If I’m not real, she can’t see me.”
I hesitated, staring at the smudge of his arm, blurred at the edges. But I remembered what it felt like to hold his hand in the dark, and I wanted that reassurance. When I took his hand, it was solid and warm, and when his fingers closed around mine, I saw them clearly. These were the same familiar hands that had stroked my hair from my face and dried my tears, large and strong and calloused.
“Wasn’t there something about a hammer?” I asked him, feeling the roughness of his palm. “In one of the stories you used to tell me?”
“A magic hammer, yes.”
“Tell me that one,” I said.
“There were four dwarves who lived beneath the earth,” he began. “And they made many marvelous things between them…”
My roommate didn’t see him when we walked hand and hand into our room together, or when he lay down beside me in the bed, and I curled up in his arms. And she didn’t hear him when he whispered the story of the prince’s golden boar in my ear, made by the same dwarves as the hammer, though she did look up from her computer when his breath tickled my ear and I laughed aloud.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, biting my lip to keep from grinning. “I just remembered something funny. Um. Good night.”
“Good night,” she said.
Donar kissed my temple, his lips a touch of static against my skin. “Good night.”
It was the best sleep I’d had in years.
Eighteen and a half.
I didn’t want a boyfriend. I didn’t need a boyfriend. Dating was completely overrated, and the boys on campus were nothing in comparison to Donar. At night, I invited him into my bed the way I had once snuck John in through my window. During the day he walked with me from class to class, even sitting in at lectures when there were seats to spare.
He wasn’t real, but when he touched me, I could feel it. Electricity skating over my skin and shivering down my spine. He wasn’t real, but sometimes, in the dark, when my throat thickened with loneliness and homesick tears, I turned my face into his chest and swore I heard his heartbeat. He wasn’t real, but my sheets smelled like the air right before a thunderstorm and fresh cut grass after he spent the night between them. It wasn’t me. All my bodywashes and shampoos smelled like almonds and vanilla.
He wasn’t real, but I wanted to believe he could be.
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