Eric’s touch wasn’t electric, and he didn’t smell like rain, but I never had to wonder if I really heard his heart beating or if it was just some echo of my own. When he walked with me to class, no one walked through him, and when I took him with me to parties, no one thought I was talking to myself. His features never blurred, and I never worried my hand would go right through his chest.
And he loved me.
He loved me, and he wanted me for always and forever, and I wanted him, too. I wanted to go on real dates, with my real boyfriend, in the real world. I wanted to know I wasn’t crazy.
I didn’t mean to fall in love, but I did. I fell in love with normal and real and Eric, who smelled like cinnamon and made love to me like there was nothing else in the world worth doing.
A half carat diamond framed by six sapphires, three on each side. After I said yes, I went back to my dorm room and hyperventilated. This was the rest of my life. The rest of my life laid out for me with children I wasn’t exactly sure I wanted and in-laws I wasn’t sure wanted me and what was I doing marrying a boy in his twenties? Donar had warned me about boys in their twenties.
Oh God, Donar.
It was supposed to be you.
Shh, he said in the back of my mind. I’m here.
And then he was holding me in his arms while I cried for the man I could never marry. The man I was giving up, because he wasn’t real, and he never would be.
“Marry Eric, Anna. Marry Eric and be happy. I’ll still be with you. I’ll still come to you, if you call.”
It was a beautiful fall day, and everything about our wedding was perfect. Everything about Eric was perfect. I smiled so much my face ached, but I didn’t notice how sore I was until the next day.
My father had a heart attack. Too many years of working too hard with too little sleep and drinking too much soda and eating too many French fries. When they opened him up, his arteries were so choked with cholesterol the doctors couldn’t believe he’d lasted as long as he had without some kind of trouble. Eric drove me all the way home, dropped me off, and drove all the way back in the same day, to make it to his clinicals. They don’t give you time off in medical school unless you’re the one who’s dying.
I picked Dad up at the hospital and got him home and into his own bed. Eric told me to stay as long as I needed to. As long as Dad needed me. I went into my old bedroom and shut the door, but it was full of all the things I didn’t want to remember.
I refused to call for Donar. It didn’t seem right, now that I was married. It didn’t seem right to want another man as much or more than my husband. Even if he wasn’t a real man. Even if he wasn’t anything more than a ghost in the best of circumstances. And he couldn’t do anything to help anyway, not really.
I’m here, he said.
At twenty-four, I was definitely too old for imaginary friends, but the nights got long and the days were empty while my father slept, and Eric barely had any time to talk on the phone. It wasn’t his fault. We both knew what medical school would mean for him, but how could we have anticipated something like this?
I talked to Donar even though I refused to see him, and when I couldn’t sleep he told me stories, like he had when I was a little girl, and I told him everything about the last four years. Of course he already knew most of it, being in my head, but he listened anyway, asking questions and offering sympathy in all the right places.
“I knew he wanted to go to medical school, and I knew in theory how much work it would be, but it’s different, experiencing it,” I admitted finally. “And it isn’t even that I’m not happy, because I am. Eric is wonderful. I just wish I saw more of him.”
You will, in time. And I’m here.
“I’m married, Donar.”
Is it so wrong to share your burdens with a friend?
I didn’t answer. When he said it like that, it seemed so reasonable, and those six months we had spent, that I had spent, loving him impossibly, were so far away.
“I can’t see you,” I said. “If I do this, we can’t see one another. We can talk, but that’s it.”
Whatever you need, Anna.
And I would try not to think about what it meant that I was still hearing voices in my head, twenty years after I should have given them up.
You’re not insane, he said, his tone firm. You’re not suffering from some kind of mental disorder. None of this is any different than someone who claims to speak to God in prayer, I promise you.
“I’m inclined to believe the people who make claims like that are kind of crazy, too,” I said. “And besides you’re not a god.”
He was silent for so long I opened my eyes and sat up. My heart thumped unevenly, afraid he was gone. Really gone. After all this time.
“Don’t do that to me!”
Do you remember your mother, Anna?
“Only a little.” The image of my mother’s empty body rose in my mind and I closed my eyes to block it out. Better if she’d really died in a fire, than wither the way she had, thinner and thinner until there was nothing left. “I remember she used to read to me before bed, and I’d cuddle up against her and turn the pages.”
Do you remember what she used to read to you, when you were very small?
“No,” I said, even as I tried to remember some clue. If he knew, I must. If he was in my head, I had to remember something. “Tell me.”
Your mother loved myths. She used to read to you from Bulfinch and the Eddas. You didn’t care for the Arthurian legends, but you loved –
“The Norse.” It clicked together like the tumblers of a lock, my mother laughing when I begged for stories of Thor and his goats. He always seemed to go on adventures, and I wanted to go with him one day. “Thor was my favorite.”
He was very real to you. Especially after your mother died, you clung to the idea that he would protect you. You believed it so absolutely. Children are very powerful that way, holding fast to ideas long dead and breathing new life into them. You started telling your own stories about Thor’s adventures, and the idea of his character in your mind was so complete…
“It was you,” I said. “Wasn’t it?”
Me, he agreed. And here I am still, all these years later, because of the love of a child.
“Anna?” my father called, his voice hoarse.
“I have to go,” I said.
I’ll be here, he answered.
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