Peter wakes up instantly wired, knowing it’s too early. Thin morning light streams through the flimsy mesh curtain that is strung across Josie’s window. Every cell in his body feels switched on. He opens his eyes and stares at the ceiling, aware of the warmth from her body in the bed and the gentle repetition of her lungs expanding and contracting. He doesn’t want to look at her yet. Everything feels suspended, outside of time, outside of life. He is terrified that if he looks at her, the spell will be broken and she’ll be dead again. He’s terrified that she just won’t be there, or worse still, that he has finally lost the plot and crossed over into his dreams.
He turns over slowly and carefully, trying not to wake her. She is sleeping facing him, her hair a glossy puddle next to his shoulder. Her eyelids flicker as she sleeps. Is she dreaming? Has she ever dreamt of him, like he does of her?
Her face is so familiar and so strange at the same time, it’s like being in bed with a film star. For years he has studied this face in his memory, watched her over and over in his head, recalled in minute detail every aspect of her. Yet she doesn’t know him at all.
He feels the sheets against his skin, the softness of the pillow beneath his head, the weight of his body on the cheap, sprung mattress. He tries his hardest to attach himself to this moment, to believe that he is here, with Josie, watching her sleep, in this bare apartment in this snowy town that is completely alien to him, but the harder he tries, the more unreal everything seems. The posters on the walls are too placed, too carefully chosen and arranged, like a film set. The way she is curled up on the bed, with her perfect features facing him, is staged and cliché. His own hand, resting on his chest, rising and falling, feels stuck on, like it doesn’t belong to him.
How can he tell her? How can he ever begin to explain? That he already loves her, that he always has, that this has been his dream every day for the last seventeen years.
And Claire. How could he possibly…
All at once, he understands.
His life up to this point now belongs to another dimension, a different branch on the timeline of reality. If he were to take her back with him, everything would fall apart. These two things – his being with Josie and his old life, cannot exist together. One has to cancel the other out. The Dead Girlfriend Paradox.
There is no going back. If he wants to be with her, he has to disappear, too.
If he does it, if he leaves his old life forever, what would he be leaving behind? He searches the database of his memories, convinced he is overlooking something. Some huge, important thing that he would miss.
But there is nothing.
And there she is. Right in front of him. Stirring, opening her eyes with a disgruntled squint and a stretch. Looking at him, smiling. The decision has already been made.
“Morning.” she grunts.
“It’s too early.”
“Sorry. Couldn’t sleep.”
“I need coffee.”
“I could try to find you some. You could direct me.”
“Cupboard to the left of the oven.” she mumbles into her pillow.
Peter rolls off the bed and pulls on his trousers, takes his phone out of the pocket. Three missed calls and a message. They are all from Claire.
“How about I pop out and grab us something from a coffee shop? I’m not a big fan of instant.”
“Knock yourself out.” she slurs. Within seconds, she’s breathing rhythmically again.
Peter wraps up against the cold and crosses the square. Turning back to check he is clear, he takes his phone out, fumbling with his gloves, and opens the message from Claire.
I think we should talk. Call me? x
Reality punches him squarely in the guts. Claire’s face flashes into his mind, suddenly strangely unfamiliar. Her dark hair, her pale skin. At first glance, you can see the resemblance; but she’s not like her, not really. Claire has an outward look to her, like she’s engaging with the world, inviting everyone to join in. Her face says I’m uncomplicated and nice and I am happy to make your acquaintance. They are so vastly different in so many ways. It was never that she was like her exactly, it’s that she was a connection. Something tangible that tethered him to Josie, allowed him to hold on just a little tighter. If Claire knew, it would break her heart. And if Josie knew…
A panic lights up in his chest as he thinks of everything Josie could see. He opens his phone’s gallery and starts deleting anything with Claire in it. He goes through his texts and deletes everything from her. He thinks about his Facebook account, filled with their life together. Hurriedly, he changes the settings so that his account is private and then he deletes the app from his phone. He considers deleting his account, but it would arouse too much suspicion, garner too much attention. Josie won’t be on there, he knows that much. One advantage of a girl who wants to keep herself hidden from the world.
He joins the queue in the coffee shop and looks around at the couples sitting together, smiling. The friends. The families. Can he really do this? Give up everything to be with her?
The urge to bolt, to go back to his hotel room, grab his bag and fly home and forget any of this ever happened, almost overwhelms him. Maybe he should go back to Claire. Simple, straightforward, uncomplicated Claire. They had a nice life together, one that included friends and family. Does he really want to give all of that up, for Josie? A woman who has seen what she has seen? Done what she has done?
A hand taps him on the shoulder and he jumps and turns. A smiling old lady gestures at the counter and talks at him in Estonian. He shakes himself, smiles apologetically and makes his order in English, ashamed at his incompetency. Ashamed at himself in general. It’s a feeling he will need to get used to.
Josie is still in bed when he returns. Her dark head is almost under the duvet. The apartment smells of bodies and sleep. He put the coffee down on a pile of books by the fireplace, sits down on the mattress and puts a hand on her hair.
“Josie.” he whispers. “Coffee.”
She rolls over and opens her eyes, stares at him as if confused for a moment.
“Don’t call me that.”
He laughs gently, missing the gravity of her tone. “But it’s your name.”
“You can’t ever call me that again. My name is Sonja now. Sonja Meyer. I’m German and my parents are both dead.”
“Josie, come on, that’s just weird. I can’t call you by a different name.”
“You really have no idea, do you?” She throws on her trousers angrily and scrambles up off the mattress. “What if someone hears you say it?”
She lights a cigarette, bends down and starts screwing up balls of newspaper for the fire. He tries to picture her as Sonja, the German orphan. It can’t be done. He watches as she furiously and deftly builds the fire, wearing only her jeans and a see-through vest and his chest burns. He doesn’t know how to proceed. He feels completely lost.
“I have work later.” she says.
“So I need to get ready.”
Hands on hips, she stares at him, the cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth.
“You want me to go?”
“You have a hotel, right?”
“Yeah. I do.”
“Josie, I…” She raises her eyebrows. “Sonja. Whatever. Look, are you kicking me out kicking me out?”
“I told you, I need to get ready for work.”
“Well it feels like you’re trying to get rid of me.”
“I am. That’s why I asked you to leave.”
“But…what I mean is…”
“Look, Pete. If you want to see me again before you leave, that’s fine. But you’re going to leave eventually. I don’t see the point in pretending like this could go anywhere. You know it can’t, right?”
His chest is on fire. “Well, what if it could? What if I stayed?”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Why is that stupid?”
“Think about it, Pete. What would you tell people? You’d have to keep me a secret. Forever. You could never tell anyone where you were, never have anyone come see you, never tell them anything about your life.”
Trapped. That’s how he feels. Constrained. Like his lungs are exploding in his chest. Like he is drowning.
“I’ll do it.”
“I can and I will.”
“I won’t let you do that. I can’t ruin someone else’s life as well as my own. And your family, your friends. They will all worry about you. It can’t be done.”
“I’ll work something out. And I’ll remember to call you Sonja everywhere but here, at your place. Here you’ll be Josie. With me. You can be yourself again. I know you want to. I know you want me to stay, Josie, I could feel it last night. I could feel you letting go, being yourself. I saw you again. Josie from school. It’s still you.”
And he sees it. The shudder of her bottom lip. He knows he has got through to her. She is trying so hard to stay strong, but he’s got her. And he will not let her go. He will not.
A single tear crawls slowly down the side of her nose.
“You can’t.” she says.
He steps forward and wraps himself around her. She buries her head in his chest. She heaves and contracts, makes herself small and he lifts her up, places her on the bed and holds her as she shakes and cries silently, curled into a tight ball.
He lies there, feeling her breathing slow, and he starts to plan.