The Book

Here’s a romantic story from a couple of years ago. Possibly slightly disturbing but who am I to judge.

The first time Kate saw him her heart skipped a beat and her stomach went into free fall. Then these two sensations got tangled up with overwhelming horror. He’s 15, for fuck’s sake, Kate muttered to herself. And it wasn’t like she’d looked at him closely enough to notice anything particularly attractive, not at all. She’d caught a glimpse of her new neighbors as they were moving in: a woman and two boys. The recluse that she was, Kate didn’t hold with welcoming neighborly gestures, so she just registered the fact of the next-door house being now occupied and for the most part forgot about them. Until today.

She’d gone on a quick walk to the grocery store in the late morning to get apples and her way passed by the new neighbors’ front yard. She glanced nonchalantly in that direction and saw the taller of the two boys sitting in a rocking chair on the porch, reading a book. This was a picture so stunning in the Gadget Age that Kate unconsciously slowed down as she tried to remember the last time she’d seen someone, anyone sitting on a porch and reading a paper book. Long ago, she told herself.

The boy suddenly looked up from his book and smiled at her. Then he waved. Skip a beat, go into free fall all over again. She returned the smile, glad that he couldn’t see her lips tremble and waved back. Then she went on to the store, keeping her eyes on the pavement all the way to the store and back. On the way back, though, thanks to peripheral vision, she managed to steal a glance at the porch and saw he wasn’t there anymore.

She went into her own house muttering “What the hell’s wrong with you? He’s fifteen!” and slammed the bag with the apples on her kitchen counter. The paper bag tore, the apples spilled, a couple fell on the floor and Kate swore and stomped her foot on the floor, something she had last done when she was five. She was now 26 and had no history of falling for younger men. Men? Ha, try boys. She had never ever felt attracted to people so much younger than herself, that was for sure. She sighed and bent down to pick up the fallen apples. The phone rang.

“Hey, kid,” said Nan’s voice.

Nan was short for Narnia, Kate’s best and probably only friend. Kate couldn’t be bothered to maintain any friendships these days, not after she broke up with the guy she thought was what romantics would call the love of her life. This had happened a year ago when she still had something like a social circle, so she’d been treated to all the usual stuff, including – though naturally not limited to – the suggestion that she was too young to waste so much energy on a breakup and that her whole life was ahead of her, so no need to be so dramatic about it.

At first these pearls of wisdom made her angry, but with time she grew indifferent to them and to the people they came from. Her parents were both dead, killed in a car crash three years previously, so, she once told Nan, at least she was spared the unwelcome sympathy from her nearest and dearest. As for the rest of the people she considered more or less close, she could just distance herself from them, which was exactly what she did. Except for Nan.

Kate and Narnia had met in college, where Kate majored in English and Nan in software engineering. Nan was the most down-to-earth, level-headed person Kate had ever met, so she was naturally attracted to the tall, slim, model-like girl. Nan had not just looks but brains as well and although Kate would never admit it to her, Nan was an inspiration. Kate often suspected she was a bit too indecisive, a bit too self-conscious for her own good, and pretty mousy as far as looks went. Okay, not mousy but nothing much to look at. So Kate believed and no amount of laughter from Nan could convince her otherwise.

“Hey Nan,”’ she said now.

“OK, what’s wrong?’ asked Nan.

“Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine,” Kate lied, hearing her voice quaver and hating the traitor. Nan, of course, who knew her almost better than she knew herself, didn’t buy it.

“You’re not fine, so spare me the lies. You sound seriously stressed and you are speaking too fast. So, go on, tell me about it.”

Kate huffed.

“I heard that too, you know,” Nan said, as cool as always.

“All right, I’m not exactly fine but I’m not depressed or anything. Jut a bit confused about something and it’s a small something,” she told her. It wasn’t small, it was anything but. Just thinking about it made her heart rate pick up.

“I’m listening,” Nan said.

How do you begin to tell even your best and only friend that you’ve had seriously indecent feelings towards a fifteen-year-old? Even though you somehow could see the man he would become in five or ten years because you’ve been dreaming about him? All this was seriously weird. It would sound like she’s hallucinating. Maybe she was.

“It’s… confusing,” was what Kate settled for.

“I got that. Can you elaborate?”

“Um, no.”

Kate picked up the small glass penguin that sat on her coffee table and started turning it in her hand.

“Do you think time travel is possible?” she blurted out, surprising herself.

“I know it’s possible and so do you. Think about traveling to Europe.”

“No, I mean… from years in the future.”

“Kate, do you want me to come over?” Nan sounded completely calm, completely in control.

“No, Nan, I’m fine, it’s just a question.” A question she had no idea why she asked.

“Then tell me why do you sound like you’re freaking out? What got your heart racing?”

“Honestly, Narnia, sometimes you scare the hell out of me,” Kate snapped. “How did you know what my heart rate is?”

“You’re panting, woman, I can hear it.” Nan laughed. “Now, what’s this about time travel from the future?”

“Just an errant thought. You know, I sometimes get these. It was out before I could process it.”

Kate caught herself nibbling at her thumb nail, penguin clasped tightly in her fist. She forced her hand out of her mouth, put the penguin on the table and clenched her fist again. This, whatever it was, was getting out of control and Nan wasn’t helping. Truth be told, she couldn’t help if she didn’t know what was wrong with Kate but truth could stuff it for the time being as far as Kate was concerned.

Nan sighed.

“OK, you obviously don’t want to talk about whatever’s happened. Call me when you do, all right?”

“Yeah, will do.” Kate agreed a bit too eagerly for her own liking. “Sorry, Nan, it’s just too weird right now.”

Narnia said she understood and she sounded convincing enough.

“OK, so when you’re ready to talk about whatever got you totally unhinged, I’m here,” she said.

“Thanks, Nan.”

Kate felt tears coming into her eyes, so she hung up before she started sobbing into the phone.

“What the fuck is wrong with you!” she yelled at the empty house. She looked around, got up from the couch slowly, went to the kitchen counter, grabbed an apple, and bit into it as if it was personally responsible for her restlessness. For half an hour she just sat on her couch, stared through the screen door leading to her small back porch and chewed on the apple. Then she got up with a determined expression.

Another half an hour later a freshly showered, shiny-haired and very calm Kate took her laptop to the back porch, made herself comfortable in her old wicker chair and, still wearing that determined expression, started writing.

Kate was a freelance writer and she thought she was doing rather well. Personal growth and healthy living were her thing, which, she sometimes told Nan, was exceptionally ironic given her own inability to “grow” and find that perfect state of being she advised her readers to strive for. Nan disagreed most of the time, saying perfection is impossible anyway, so why try at all? ‘Still,’ Kate would say, ‘Look at me, I can write a fat cookbook with all healthy recipes and I can do another one on finding and keeping love.’

Yet she was far from the poster girl for her own work. She ate whatever she liked whenever she liked, attributing – with resentment – the fact she stayed skinny to her genes. She also had no love life to speak of.

‘So what,’ Nan would ask, ‘At least you know what you want and what makes you happy.’ ‘Do I?’ Kate would ask. ‘Yes, you do,’ Nan would say, pointing out that otherwise she’d be in another destructive relationship just to avoid being alone.

As far as Nan was concerned, anyone who could live alone, not feeling the need for another person’s constant company, was a happy individual. ‘Yeah, but you might not feel the need for another human being around you because you’ve been hurt too bad,’ Kate would say, ‘Just look at me, I’m afraid of relationships.’ ‘This will pass,’ Narnia assured her with her therapist voice, as they both called it. ‘Could you give me a date,’ Kate asked sarcastically and then Nan…

Someone knocked on the door. Kate started. She didn’t move, thinking whoever it was would just go away. But the knock came again, not urgent or angry, just the knock of someone who knows she’s at home. She got up slowly, left the laptop on the table and went to the door.

She looked through the peephole and wasn’t particularly surprised to see the boy who’d wreaked havoc in her head. He was looking down and he had a book in his hands. Basically, he looked like a student summoned to the headmaster’s office. Kate smiled nervously, her heart fluttering, palms sweaty. She took a deep breath, wiped her hands on her jeans and opened the door. She was going to deal with this right now.

She found it in her to raise her eyebrows in polite surprise when she met the boy’s chestnut eyes and she also managed a perfectly good friendly smile, or at least she thought she did.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi, I’m Joe. I live next door,” he said and pointed in the direction of his house. His eyes darted here and there, and his voice quavered a bit.

“Nice to meet you, Joe, I’m Kate,” she said. Her body had gone numb except her heart, of course, which was trying to escape through her ribs.

“Um…” he started. He looked confused.

“Anything I could help you with?” Kate asked, crossing her arms, so he couldn’t see she was trembling and also to stop her heart from finding a way out. He glanced at her face for the tiniest moment and scratched his head.

“OK, this is very weird but I need to talk to you. The thing is, I dreamt of you. A week ago,” he blurted out, clutching the book to his chest.

Kate gasped. She began to say something but he didn’t give her a chance to utter a word.

“It wasn’t dirty or anything like this, I swear, but it was very weird. We were, like, a family, you and I… Hell, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” he said and rubbed his right temple, still avoiding her eyes.

“Do you want to come in?” she said quietly, forcing herself to remember that she was an adult, not a 16-year-old emotional volcano. “I’m guessing there’s more than just this dream.”

Joe’s eye widened and he stared at her.

“How… Yeah, OK, I could come in, if it’s no problem. But you don’t have to.”

“Don’t have to do what?” she asked, confused.

“You know, invite me in. I mean, you don’t know me or anything.”

“I know you live next door with your mom and you brother,” she shrugged. “Plus, I’m curious.”

She opened the door wider and gestured for him to come in.

“Let’s go to the back porch, it’s cooler there,” Kate said and led the way. She gave herself a mental tap on the shoulder. She sounded so cool and adult.

Joe sat in one of the rickety wicker chairs Kate loved so much she didn’t have the heart to replace, still clutching the book.

“Anything to drink?” she asked.

“No, that’s all right, I don’t want to be any trouble,” he said hurriedly.

“All right then, tell me about this dream,” Kate said and sat on the other chair across the small round table. “And what’s with the book?”

“Uh, they’re sort of connected,” Joe said.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” Kate said with a smile, crossed her arms and her legs, looked down at her legs and uncrossed them. Enough with the defensiveness, she scolded herself.

“Easy, Alice, contain your impatience,” Joe said suddenly and shut his mouth abruptly. He blushed. “I’ve no idea where that came from,” he mumbled and ran his hand through his hair. Thick, dark hair, wavy hair that looked infuriatingly familiar to Kate. Her fingers had memories of touching it.

Kate just sat there frozen in place. The words he spoke also sounded familiar, like she’d heard them before, more than once. Like she’d heard them often.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

Joe reached for the laptop.

“Mind if I close that?”

Kate shook her head.

He closed the laptop and put the book on it.

“I’m listening,” Kate said, no longer smiling. Her wrists were starting to hurt and she realized she’d tensed as if waiting for a blow.

“OK, right. So, we moved here last week. My Mom changed her job, so we came down here from Chicago.”

“Quite a change,” Kate said.

“Yeah, I know, but I’m totally fine with it. I don’t like big cities, I guess. It’s tougher on my little brother but anyway.” Joe stirred as if he wasn’t particularly comfortable in the chair.

“Joe, how old are you?” Kate asked suddenly.

“I’m seventeen, why?” he said, squinting at her.

“Just asking.”

“Teddy’s ten. Our Dad died last year, in case you’re wondering why there’s just the three of us.”

Kate shook her head.

“It’s none of my business, but I’m sorry to hear that.”

He shrugged, face serene, save for a little tic of the left corner of his mouth.

“Heart attack. It was tough for Mom.”

“I lost my parents three years ago. Car accident,” she said.

“Yeah? Must’ve been tough for you, too.” This time he kept his eyes on hers for more than a millisecond.

“Not as tough as it must have been for you, I guess,” Kate said.

“Guess so. So, about that dream…”

“Yes, tell me about the dream.”

“It was actually a series of dreams,” Joe said. “It started the first night I slept in this house and it’s been going on since then. Try not to freak out, OK?”

“I will,” Kate tried to smile but couldn’t. She knew what he was about to tell her. This was seriously weird but at least her body was once again starting to feel like her own.

“So, we were, like, a family. As in, married. And we had a baby. A girl.”

Joe rubbed his temple vigorously again. Then he dropped his hand in his lap and looked at it unseeingly.

“Are you going to throw me out or call the police or something like that?” he asked, trying to make it sound like a joke and failing miserably.

“What? No, of course not,” Kate said, surprised by the bewilderment in her own voice. “Why would I do that?”

His head snapped up and he smiled a shy smile at her. She returned it.

“The thing is that these dreams feel seriously real. I mean, really real.”

Kate, who had unconsciously leaned forward while Joe was speaking, now leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms and her legs. This time she didn’t uncross either. Otherwise she would have reached out and touched his hair.

“The kid was so cute,” Joe continued. He chuckled. “Grinning all the time, you know, with that toothless grin. So cute! And…”

“What?” Kate asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

“We were, like, really in love, you and I,” he said quietly. He was now looking straight into her eyes, confident, pouring warmth into her veins. She knew these chestnut eyes jut as well as she knew the hair, the hands, the rest of him. How was this possible?

“Would you excuse me a moment?” she said and got up.

On wooden legs she went into the house, rummaged in the kitchen drawer where she stashed all the things that she knew she had to throw out but couldn’t bring herself to do it and took out a pack of cigarettes and a small, bronze ashtray inlaid with mother-of-pearl. A thrashy gift from Nan after a visit to London. She took out a cigarette, lit it, scooped up the ashtray and went back out.

“Sorry about this but I really need it,” she said.

“That’s OK,” said Joe. “I’m sure it sounds like I’m delusional or something.”

“No, you don’t sound delusional. Are you?” she asked, siting down in her chair. She was very proud of her legs – they didn’t let her down, didn’t buckle.

“Don’t think so.” He shook his head.

Kate took a couple of puffs on her cigarette, staring at the smoke. Joe was quiet. Neither of them looked as if they felt uncomfortable with the silence.

“Did you tell you Mom where you are?” Kate asked.

Joe shook his head.

“It’s her day with Teddy today. It’s been rough for him, so she tries to distract him as much as she can, help him get used to the new now.”

“You’ve got a great mother, then,” Kate said, putting out her cigarette and leaving the ashtray she’d been cradling in her lap on the ground.

“Yeah.”

“OK, tell me about this book.” She nodded to the book on the laptop.

Joe’s face lit up and he grabbed the book.

“This is where it all gets seriously weird,” he said, all businesslike now, and held the book out to Kate. “Take a look.”

Kate took the book and looked at the title “A Life of Wonder” by Alice Peterson.

“Alice,” she murmured.

“Look at the publication date,” Joe said, leaning forward.

Kate opened the book, leafed through it and smoothed out the copyright and publication page.

“That’s a joke, right?” she said half amused, half stunned.

Joe shrugged. He ran his fingers through his hair. Kate pretended she hadn’t noticed.

“Could be,” he said. “But who would play such a joke on me? Or you? And why?”

“Oh, Joe, anyone could do it, it just takes some money these days and a twisted mind.” For a second she believed what she was saying.

“But why?” he insisted. “Why would anyone put a publication date from 45 years in the future on a book and then leave it in an empty house?”

“It was left in your house?” Kate was confused.

“Yeah,” Joe said. “I found it on the bedside table in my room. And then I read it,” he added after a pause.

“What’s it about?” Curiosity got the upper hand and this suited Kate just fine.

“It’s an autobiography. This Alice Peterson seems to be some famous artist but I googled her and couldn’t find anything at all about such an artist. Figures, I guess. So…”

“So you thought it’s come from the future,” Kate smiled but her lips trembled a bit.

He shrugged and looked away.

“Or it’s a seriously sick joke,” he allowed. “By someone who knows my surname. I don’t think I know anyone who’d do something like this.”

Kate again leafed through the book and the dedication page caught her eye. To Kate and Joe, my parents, who helped make me what I am today, it said. Kate shuddered.

“Joe, I have to tell you something,” she said, eyes still on the book. Then she looked up and met his eyes. “I’ve been having the same dreams.”

The boy’s eyes widened. He beamed. It was as if he’d confessed his undying love for her and she’d just said I love you too, which in a way was what had happened.

“Really?” he whispered. “You’re not just, I don’t know, playing along with the next-door lunatic?”

Kate shook her head. The dreams had troubled her, even though she only remembered fragments. But she did remember the feeling, the baby, the peace.

“The little girl with the wide grin, the feeling of happiness, of home, and some random details like you putting her to sleep and me biting my nails because I couldn’t get her to sleep, yeah.”

“Wow,” was all he could say.

Kate asked him what the book was about apart from the fact that it was an autobiography, and he said, “A lot of it is about the two best parents in the world, according to the author.” Two people, who’d encouraged their daughter’s talent from the start, had brought her up to be always curious about the world around her and to pursue her dreams. This sounded suspiciously cheesy and Kate would bet there was some serious trauma behind all this bliss. But Joe sounded excited while he summarized the plot for her, ending with “You know, I think I wish I had parents like us.” This made her laugh, a bit nervously, but laugh she still did.

I was never a princess, the first sentence read. I was a person, a unique individual who was free to follow her own path if it made me happy and didn’t directly interfere with other people’s happiness.

“May I read it?” Kate asked. “It sounds kind of fascinating.”

“Sure. I already read it twice,” Joe said.

Kate raised an eyebrow.

“Twice? You’re weird, you know that?”

A wave of sincere shock washed over his face.

“What?”

Kate laughed.

“You’re seventeen and you read paper books instead of dating girls, playing video games, hanging out on Twitter or whatever. That’s the latest definition of weird, didn’t you know?”

“Oh.” His face sagged with relief and he grinned. “Yeah, I guess I’m weird. I do some of these things, though, just not a lot,’ he admitted. ‘Especially the dating.”

Joe dropped his eyes, stared at his hands and started flexing his fingers one by one.

“Why not?” Kate asked softly. “It’s not like you’re unattractive or have some other obvious flaw,” she explained and added, grinning “I’m saying this as your future wife, you understand.” She was now perfectly calm, perfectly at ease with Joe. Perhaps it was a delayed shock or something. The words coming out of her mouth were ridiculous.

He looked up startled, then saw her grin and laughed. She joined in and for a while they just sat there, on Kate’s back porch, giggling like naughty kids. The laughter dissolved the last of the awkwardness brought on by the odd situation.

Joe left a little later, with Kate promising she’d read the book as quickly as possible. The whole story felt surreal. They clicked instantly, and that had never happened in Kate’s life so far. It could be a temporary illusion, of course, that she knew had happened before, so all she could do was give the whole thing some time. And read that book, which was probably some practical joke on her or Joe. Joke or not, it was strange how both had had identical dreams, every single night since they’d laid eyes on each other. The dreams had been making her more and more anxious by the day, she’d told Joe, making her question her sanity.

“Yeah,” he’d said, “I thought I was turning into a schizophrenic too.”

He’d told her that he’d asked his mother and brother if they could see the publication date on the book and they’d both said yes, neither expressing any major surprise with it, which Joe had first thought strange but later had reasoned they had just immediately assumed it was a joke or an error.

 

Kate read the book and, she told Joe over Skype, she wasn’t too impressed with the life history of the author. A successful artist, happy mother of two, a woman whose dreams had come true. Boring.

“Very inspiring,” she wrote to Joe, “But not really my kind of literature.”

“But that’s not the point, Kate,” Joe wrote back, “You know it’s not.”

Kate had agreed that wasn’t the point. The point was whether someone had played a joke on one or both of them, for some sick reason, or it was all supernatural.

“I think it’s some idiotic experiment, to tell you the truth,” Kate said a few days later. Joe had come over for a chat and they were again sitting on her porch. “Some stupid experiment.”

“Yeah, but why are they doing it on us?”

Kate shrugged. She’d offered to make hot chocolate for both of them but Joe had looked at her as if she’d offered him a lollipop. She made coffee.

“Random subjects, I guess.”

“And the dreams?” Joe went on. “Do you think they can be part of it? Can someone induce dreams, like in Inception?”

“I don’t know but I sure hope not. That would be too much,” Kate said. “I could ask Nan about it, she’s the smart one.

She had talked to Nan about the book and Nan had agreed it must be some sick joke or a psychology experiment. “Only,” she’d said, “You know they call them tests these days, not experiments.” Kate had told her she couldn’t care less about the politically correct term for what some mysterious someone was doing to her, which, she mused, was probably to see if a book from the future could get two people to hook up.

“But you said he’s underage, Kate,” Nan had pointed out.

Kate had agreed Joe was underage but that wouldn’t continue forever, would it? Maybe the mysterious experimenter was doing a longitudinal experiment – she’d taken a course in psychology at college and now things were starting to come back to her. And then she’d told Nan about the dreams. Her friend had taken this with unusual hostility.

“Kate, that’s sick, that’s just plain sick. Are you seriously having a crush on a seventeen-year-old kid?”

“Of course not, Nan, but I can’t control my dreams, can I?” she reasoned.

“Yeah, I’m sure that’s what pedophiles say – they have urges they can’t control.”

“You’re being ridiculous, Nan,” Kate had snapped and the conversation had ended there.

Kate started avoiding Nan, which wasn’t so difficult given she was in California and Kate was in Illinois. She’d spoken to Joe about the fallout and he’d been sympathetic, suggesting it was something temporary. Kate hadn’t told him the reason, however close they now were, talking freely about anything and everything, either online or on her back porch on those not too frequent occasions when Joe came over. She had been blunt with him, telling him it wouldn’t be a good idea to se each other too often, sparking rumours or suspicions.

“Yeah,” Joe said the last time he went over, blushing. “I know. But can I still come from time to time? We’re neighbors, aren’t we?”

“Yeah, but… Joe, this is not just unusual, it’s illegal,” Kate said, her own cheeks flushed.

“What, talking?” Joe was genuinely surprised. “Come on, Kate, we’re not doing anything wrong!”

“Not yet,” she said before she could stop the thought taking the shape of words. Then she asked him to please go and closed the door in his face.

For a week after that, Kate stayed away from instant messaging, working furiously, trying to save her brain from overheating. On Monday, she made a decision. Around Thursday afternoon, she stopped writing and started making phone calls and browsing websites. By Saturday morning she was all set. When the knock on the door came, she was looking around her house carefully, thinking if she hadn’t forgotten something important.

The knock started her, not least because it was 6:30 in the morning.

“More books,” she muttered. “Can’t leave them.”

She started pulling the dozen or so books that remained on the shelves and putting them in an empty box on the floor. There were several empty boxes there, scattered around, their tops gaping at her.

Another knock came, this time harder. Kate groaned, dropped the book she was leafing through, and went to open the door.

“What is it?” she asked sharply.

Joe didn’t answer, he just looked at her. He hadn’t been sleeping much, by the look of him – paler than usual, bags under his eyes.

“What are you doing here, Joe?” Kate asked impatiently. Mastering this impatience cost her a stab of pain in the heart.

“Can I come in?” he asked.

“Well, I’m in the middle of something and I really don’t have time for a chat right now,” Kate said and started to close the door, avoiding his eyes.

“Just for a minute,” he insisted quietly, his gaze never leaving her face.

Kate shrugged and stepped aside to let him in.

He made a few steps into the room and stopped abruptly. He looked around and his face fell.

“You’re leaving?” he asked, still with that quiet, level voice.

Kate gave him a curt nod.

“Because of what you said last week?”

His eyes radiated pain. Kate had to look away.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “Just tell me what you want and let me get on with my packing.”

“Where are you going?” he asked as if she hadn’t spoken at all. He was standing next to her couch, hands in his pockets.

“Away.”

He nodded.

“Right. You’re not telling.”

Kate shook her head slowly. He took a step towards her and she instinctively took a step back. He took another. Kate didn’t move.

“I came to say that I love you. I don’t care if that book is a stupid joke or an experiment. I don’t care how lame I sound, or how teenagery or whatever. I’m just telling you a fact: I love you.”

“Joe, I don’t…”

“I don’t really care if you want to hear it or not,” he said and took another step towards her. She was against the wall now. Joe leaned in and touched her lips with his very gently.

“Bye,” he said, turned and slowly walked to the door. He opened it, left and closed the door behind him, all very quietly. Kate stood where she was for a while.

 

The savage shrieking of her phone alarm tore through the waves of sleep. Kate woke up with a gasp, rudely pulled out of some dream that was very nice but she immediately forgot it because of the alarm. She dragged herself up to a sitting position and hid her face in her hands. What day was it today? Oh, right, the meeting with her editor. Plus Tom was out of town, at some seminar or something that Kate didn’t care about, and she was free to spend the day as she liked. After the meeting, that is. Kate yawned, looked longingly at her pillow, and got out of bed with a grunt.

Going through the morning motions of bathroom, kitchen, tea, breakfast, she thought about the last four years. They weren’t bad years. She’d surprised herself by turning into a pretty successful children’s book author in Britain, of all things and places. Nan was outraged at first but she got used to it eventually. They were speaking again, though not as often and they never talked about Joe.

Tom had been a part of her life for the last two years and she was kind of happy about it, comfortable. He was a bit boring, his sense of humor a bit drier than she liked but he was okay. And he was five years older than her. Her heartbeat was always regular around him and that suited her just fine.

“He’s okay,” she murmured, popping the teabag into her cup of hot water. Then she started dipping it and pulling it up again, staring into nothing. Was Okay enough for happiness? It was for her. Yes, it was, thank you very much. Kate jerked the teabag out of the cup and dropped it into the garbage. Then she sat at the kitchen table and turned on the TV. She’d gotten used to watching TV in the morning, she even liked it now.

An hour later, she was on her bike, riding through Midsummer Common to her favorite café on St. Andrew’s Street, where she’d meet with her editor, Rose, for breakfast. Rose was great to work with, if somewhat overcritical at times. But that’s what all authors thought, probably, that their editors are overcritical.

Kate sighed and lifted her face for a second to feel the light drizzle that was marring the view. She didn’t mind the drizzle. In fact she loved it. It was one of the reasons why she stayed here so long. After a few seconds she looked back ahead, just in time to avoid hitting a man who was walking slowly ahead of her. She swerved to the left to overtake him but he swerved left too. Kate tried for the right. Without turning, he also moved to the right. There was no time and no space, so when she hit the brakes, she bumped lightly into him. Then he turned.

“I’m really sorry but I had no… time…” Her voice trailed off and she stared at him. Joe smiled.

“Hi, Kate. I didn’t expect to see you here,” he said with perfect calm.

“I… well, neither did I,” she said. Her heart did its old trick. As if nothing had happened. As if four years had not passed. But they had passed. Joe was even taller than before and he looked like the man from her dreams. Kate probably just looked old. She tried to push that thought away and smiled.

“So, what are you doing here?” she asked.

“Studying,” he said, shrugging.

“Oh. Good for you, then. Cambridge University, I suppose?”

“Yep. Psychology.”

‘Oh,’ she said. She was starting to get mad with herself. What was with the “Ohs”? A sudden attack of dumbness? “That’s really great. Well done.”

“And you?” he inquired politely, ignoring her feeble praise.

“Oh, I… I write children’s books,” she said and laughed.

His eyes widened. Still the same chestnut color, still the same warm light in them.

“Seriously?”

“Yes,” she grinned. “And I actually like it.”

“Well, that’s… that’s great, then. It’s funny, really.” He kicked at the wet asphalt.

“What’s that?” she asked, still standing astride her bike, the two of them blocking the narrow lane.

He laughed a bit nervously and scratched his head under the hoodie.

“I’m specializing in child psychology.”

“No!” The word came out before Kate could stop it. She didn’t mean it to sound so sharp but couldn’t keep it in.

“Yep,” he nodded. Then he looked at his watch. “Actually, I have a lecture in 20 minutes, so I really have to go. Can I see you again?”

Kate hesitated and he saw it.

“Don’t worry about it, you don’t have to say yes,” he said quickly, looking away.

“No, I… I do want to see you again. Got a lot of catching up to do, don’t we?” She tried to sound casual, friendly, anything but eager. She failed and he saw that, too. He was too smart.

“You could put it like that,” he shrugged and smiled.

“OK, when?” she asked, ignoring his words.

“Is tonight good? Sevenish?”

“Sure. Are we having dinner?” This time her smile was genuinely happy. It felt strange, like something she hadn’t been in a long time. She ignored all the alarm bells in her mind and continued to smile.

“Yeah, let’s have dinner,” Joe said. His lips weren’t smiling but his eyes were. “There’s an Italian place just next to the Corn Exchange. “De Luca’s” You know it?”

“Of course I do,’ she said with a grin she couldn’t control more than she could control her words. “And now I really have to go or I’ll be late for my meeting, which is not a good idea, since it’s with my editor.”

“All right,” Joe stepped aside and gestured for her to pass. “See you tonight, then.”

“See you.” She gave him a short wave and pressed the pedals. Her mind was chaos, all alarm bells and excitement, doubts and self-consciousness. And happiness.

 

Twelve hours later she was back in her bed, with Joe next to her. Trying, and failing, to calm her breathing, she hid her face in her hands.

“What is wrong with me?” she muttered from behind her fingers. Joe gently pulled her hands off her face.

“Nothing’s wrong with you,” he said quietly, propped up on an elbow, and brushed his fingers against her cheek. He bent down to kiss her but she turned her face away. Joe sighed. ‘Nothing is wrong with you,’ he repeated slowly.

“There’s a word for women like me, Joe. It’s cougar. I’m sure you’ve heard it,” Kate said. She fished the T-shirt she slept in from under her pillow and quickly put it on. Then she sat up and hugged her legs.

“I have heard the word, yes,” he said. He sat up too and leaned back on the other pillow. “And it doesn’t apply to you.”

“Yeah, right,” she growled. He stroked her back. Kate shuddered. Joe removed his hand. She suddenly felt very cold and lonely.

“Do you want me to go?” he asked quietly.

“No,” Kate said without thinking. “I don’t know,” she sighed after a pause. She then turned and faced him. “I just cheated on my boyfriend of two years with someone I had a crush on when he was 17 and I was 26. How does that sound? Normal?”

“ Maybe not when you put it that way, no,” he agreed. “But that’s not all it was, was it? And by the way,” he looked straight into her eyes and added softly “I think your relationship with that Tom is over, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I’m afraid it is,” she said gloomily, averting her eyes. Joe leaned forward and took her hand in his. She looked up, feeling the tears of embarrassment welling in her eyes.

“Is that why you’re crying?” he asked.

“No!” she sobbed. “No,” she added and took a deep breath. “I guess I’m just embarrassed.”

“Embarrassed?” He looked incredulous. “By me? By us?”

“No…” she sighed. “I don’t know, Joe, I just… feel wrong. I feel ashamed of myself.”

He pulled her to him and held her tightly, although she tried to break away for a moment, before she gave up and rested her head on his smooth chest, listening to his heartbeat, letting its rhythm take over her confused thoughts.

“You’re very stupid, do you know that?” he said quietly.

“Thanks,” she murmured and brushed away a tear that had spilled over the rim of her eye.

“No, really.” He was gently stroking her hair. “We didn’t just meet on the street and hit it off for some easy fun. I mean, I’ve been waiting for you for four years.”

She pulled away sharply.

“What?”

“Easy.” He raised his hands and smiled. “I didn’t say I was saving myself for you or obsessing over you or anything. It’s just that… what I told that day you were packing is still true, that’s all. It hasn’t changed.”

“That’s all,” she repeated in a hollow voice.

“Scared much?” he casually inquired, wrapping one long arm around her waist.

She looked at him.

“What are we doing, Joe?”

“We’re being together, Kate. We’re just being together. I love you.”

“I love you too,” she whispered and let him pull her back to him again.

 

Two months later Kate Marsden and Joseph Peterson were married. No guests, no party, just the two of them, and Rose and her boyfriend Mark as witnesses. Kate didn’t really have any close friends here, she realized when she and Joe were discussing their wedding plans. The discussion didn’t take long. They both wanted to get married as soon as possible, as if rushing to make up for lost time and they were both a bit annoyed they had to give a month’s notice. “Like leaving a job,” Joe had said. “For a better one,” he’d added with a grin after a second. Kate had then jumped him and he’d stopped grinning, busying himself with giving in to her attack.

She had been suffering bouts of anxiety and uncertainty ever since she’d said “Yes” that night a week after their first date, when he asked her to close her eyes, put something in her hand and squeezed her fist shut. Kate had a sudden urge to throw the ring away and run out of the house but she didn’t. She was done running, she decided. So she said “Yes” and felt happy again.

Then the anxiety attacks began. She’d told Tom everything – or part of everything, at any rate – as soon as he’d come back from his seminar or teambuilding event or whatever it was. He’d taken it calmly enough though he couldn’t resist a sarcastic comment about speed dating. He’d asked where she planned to live. Kate told him she’d found a place at Petersfield Mansions, a two-bedroom flat.

Tom had sniffed, saying he always thought she was the house type. Kate had shrugged, responding that she didn’t mind either, really. Then she decided to put an end to a conversation that was getting more awkward by the second and she left to go for a run. Her stuff was already packed. At that time she was just happy, there was no anxiety, no uncertainty, nothing to bother her.

“That’s because getting married is a big step,” said Joe now, his heart still racing under her palm, his body, like hers, slick with sweat. ‘I could repeat that every day if you want. If it will make you feel better. It’s nothing to do with you or me.’

“But what if…”

“No,” he said and kissed her. “No what ifs, please.”

“Still,” she insisted. “What if we’ve made a rash decision?”

Joe, who had been watching her with amusement, now looked serious.

“Does four years sound like a rash decision?” he asked.

“Oh, come on,” Kate felt a chill and pulled the covers up to her chest. “You did not make this decision four years ago.”

“Yes, I did,” he said, honesty ringing out on every word. “If I ever saw you again, that is, which I knew I would.”

Kate stared at him. He winked.

“Joe, this is creepy. You can’t have decided to marry me when you were a teen.”

He shrugged and moved under the covers, closer to her.

“I just know what I want. What’s creepy about this?” His voice made the words sound perfectly sensible but Kate wasn’t giving up so easily.

“Um, that most people don’t know what they want at 17. Or at 27, for that matter,” she added.

“Are you telling me you don’t know what you want?” he asked. His tone was joking but his eyes did not sparkle as they did when he was joking.

She snuggled to him. He was so warm and his body fitted hers so well.

“I do,” she said. “It’s just scary and unusual, that’s all.”

“You’ll get used to it,” he promised with utter confidence and kissed the top of her head.

 

Two months later the anxiety attacks went away. The worst one was on the morning when they were to go to the registry office – sweaty palms, racing heart, dry mouth, the works – and then, when they entered the room, it all went away. There was no going back for either of them now and, Kate thought, her brain had finally accepted the facts. She even allowed herself the thought What if everything is okay and we’re happy?

That was a thought she had gotten used to pushing away because it was scarier than the fears that plagued her on a daily basis in the weeks before the wedding. Perfectly normal, understandable fears, perfectly reasonable what ifs that anyone would ask were they in her shoes. Like, what if Joe changed his mind when the infatuation went away? What could be more reasonable than that?

She was 30 and he was 22, after all, and that wasn’t something either one of them could change. And she couldn’t talk to Joe about this particular fear because she suspected he would be insulted. She would be if someone suggested she’s fickle. Or what if she got bored with him? That was also possible, wasn’t it? What if she couldn’t handle the age difference and became chronically jealous, checking his phone, his clothes, whatever it was that jealous people did to their partners? That was reasonable to expect, too. And then this tiny voice piped in And what if everything is perfect? and Kate hushed it because it was scary.

Could she handle this sort of happiness? The fears she could manage. She could try and see them in a rational light. She could tell herself that they’re groundless. But if everything was perfect she would go mad with worry how long perfection would last. Because she knew with absolute certainty that nobody was happy all the time. Not even most of the time. So, the scariest question was How long will it last?

This fear she did share with Joe. He wouldn’t get insulted by it. Again, he was the voice of reason and light humor. “I could get dead drunk once a month as a precaution,” he’d offered. “Or we could make it a habit to shout at each other once a week, or something.” Then she’d pulled his hair and he’d added, “Seriously, Kate, let it go, just…”

“If you say “relax” I’ll scream and kill you,” she said.

“… relax,” he said and grinned.

It was now January, the Petersons were three months into their marriage and they still hadn’t gotten bored with each other, as Joe so often liked to remind her. Kate was putting the dishes from dinner in the dishwasher. Joe had cooked it. He’d turned out to be an amazing cook. Kate was wondering how to tell him she was pregnant. Not that they were trying or anything, they just weren’t not trying, either.

He was on the phone with someone from the research lab where he spent most of his time these days. The conversation was short and Joe said “Bye” after a couple of minutes. She shut the washer’s door and turned it on. When she went into the living room, she saw Joe going through the bookshelves. He turned when he heard her.

“Have you seen that book?” he asked.

“Which book?”

“The one… you know. That one, from four years ago. The Alice book.”

“Oh,” said Kate and settled on the couch. “It’s on the top shelf. I didn’t want it within easy reach. Don’t know why, really. I don’t even know why I took it with me.”

“Because it was kind of yours. But it’s not there,” Joe said after a while. He was six foot two, so he could easily scan the top shelf, unlike Kate, who found this very unfair.

Kate got up from the couch and went to check for herself, peering up at the shelf. The book clearly wasn’t there.

“I don’t remember moving it,” she said, confused.

“Me neither,” Joe said.

“What do you need it for?”

He shrugged.

“I don’t need it, exactly, I just wanted to see if it was still here. I suddenly remembered it.” He smiled. “And the dreams.”

Kate smiled back and leaned in to kiss him.

“Well, it was there this morning, I think. Maybe it disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared?”

“Very funny,” Joe said but didn’t laugh. He looked distant, thoughtful.

“Joe?” Kate gathered up her courage and looked up into his eyes.

“Yes?”

“I’m pregnant,” she said quietly.

His face lit up. He opened his mouth to speak but then apparently changed his mind and closed it. He hugged her tightly, lifted her up, kissing her again and again until she started protesting that he’s squeezing her to death and pecking her to death. He paid her no attention and continued to squeeze and peck until she burst into giggles. She wrapped her legs around his waist, her back pressed against the books. The edge of the shelves painfully jabbed her skin but she didn’t care.

Not far from there, in the house at 142 Chesterton Road, a 15-year-old girl called Jinny Coldwell, who’d just moved in with her father and two older brothers after her mother’s death a few months ago, found a book on her bedside table. Jinny took the book, surprised. The house was empty, besides the furniture. Maybe the previous owners had forgotten it when they were moving out, she thought. There was a photo of an orangutan on the front cover and the title said “Living like Durrell. The Notes of a Wildlife Enthusiast.” The name of the author grabbed her attention: he had the same surname as Jinny. Martin Coldwell. She opened the book.

 

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