“So how about those abs? You know you wanted a piece of that,” my friend Connie jibed as we walked haphazardly out of the bar.
Dawn is breaking – just barely – and the black sky was starting to change its hue into a more bluish-bruised tone.
“Naw I dunno, he seemed a little cross-eyed,” I said, trying very hard to focus on the path we were on before tripping over another pothole. I’d sprained my ankle the week before, and I wasn’t going to repeat it.
“Bullshit. He was totally checking you out and you know it,” Connie snorted.
Connie and I have known each other since we were 12. You could call us BFFLs – nothing in our worlds escapes our conversation, kosher or not. That inevitably included topics about boys.
We decided to sit by the river and watch the sunrise. Connie had been engaged not too long ago, and she wanted to celebrate whatever that was left of her single life. Her announcement came as no surprise to me – Brad was a wonderful man – although her willingness to settle did, when she swore she’d remain independent for the rest of her life.
We sat in silence in the comfort of each other’s presence before she finally spoke:
“By the way, Levi’s back in town.”
“Levi. You know, Levi Ackerman? The guy you used to date in high school?”
“I never dated anyone.”
“You absolutely did. You even wrote his name on your notebooks. Three times. With different dates.”
“Sweetie, you went on three dates with him. You even kissed him. Remember? Mr. Ash-face?”
And that’s when I recalled – Levi Ackerman. Calling him Ash-face was an understatement. He always had a permanent frown on his face. He was difficult to talk to. On a scale between introversion and extroversion, he broke it. He was death itself.
“How did you know?” I asked.
“He found me on Facebook,” she began. “It was weird. I totally forgot about him, but then his name showed up and the next thing I knew, we’re friends with each other. He’s asked about you and says he wants to catch up. You should check your Facebook every now and then, you know. Get out there and see what’s going on with the world!”
Slowly, my memories returned. Of course. Levi Ackerman. I’d totally forgotten, but I did write his name on my notebook. I did talk to him. And I did go out with him three times – all of them dates. We even kissed on the last date. That was ten years ago.
But here’s the thing I told no one about – I made him up.
It was hard to escape any conversation about boys when you’re sixteen. There was always news about the latest couple in school. Being in an all-girls boarding school, they were inevitably the only highlight of the day when class was out.
Connie had been on casual dates, and I was always somewhere buried in books. I love to read. I was incessantly teased about my chastity and my anti-social behavior. But could you blame me when I was enraptured in worlds vastly different and far more exotic than the dull predictable reality I lived in?
I wrote his name the first time during English Literature. As the teacher droned on about the tragedies of Macbeth, I was doodling unstructured nonsense. Without me realizing it, my hand began to trace a name that I thought at the time would be mysterious, masculine, and mature.
“Levi Ackerman? Who’s that?” Connie snatched my notebook out of my hands when I wasn’t looking.
“Just someone I met recently,” I lied. I’m a horrible liar, but for some reason I decided to create a story. “We were in an elevator when it stopped working, and we were stuck in the sweltering heat for four hours.”
“Really? How come you never mentioned?”
“I didn’t think it was necessary. It was just that one time.”
“Are you going to see him again?”
“Um… I don’t know…”
“You never write anyone’s names on your notebook. He must’ve left an impression on you. What’s he like?”
I tried to imagine him. “Well… he’s actually in college, but he’s my height. Jet black hair, shaved at the bottom half of his head. And he’s got this mean death glare, like he’s always annoyed with someone. And when he talks, it’s like he just wants to be left alone. He’s got a cuss word at the tip of his tongue all the time too. But other than that, he’s not a horrible guy. He was quite calm when the elevator was down. I actually felt pretty safe with him around.”
Connie looked at me as if I were an alien. “Your taste is so weird,” she said. But she returned my notebook. and continued, “So when do I get to see him?”
“Oh…. actually I don’t know if i ever will. I never got his number.” (but I gave him mine – at least, in my head.)
Connie sighed and abandoned the conversation. But oddly enough, I began to think about how this newly imagined person would be like if he existed. I started to imagine that we’d meet on weekends, catch up over MacDonald’s, go to the library, sit and read in silence, and call it a day. We would have these unofficial dates three times, each one more comfortable than the last. And each time we “dated”, I’d write his name and the date we went out – January 27, February 3, and February 10. And on the third date, he would conveniently announce that he was going away to Norway – not because his was going to pursue his graduate studies there, but because it was far away enough for people to not pry about a potential ‘long-distance relationship’, and it was the perfect excuse to close the story. I promised that I would cherish the short time we had by taking his name and post it on my bedroom wall, remembering him every chance I had. We’d then kiss, wish each other all the best, and move on with our lives.
And that would be the end of Levi Ackerman – at least, it should have. I broke my promise to remember him. I forgot about my wall. I had not thought of him again for the next ten years.
“Levi called,” my mother said as she poured some berries tea into a plain teacup.
I nearly spat out my chocolate cake. “What now?”
“Levi Ackerman, you know, the boy you were trapped in a lift with?”
I try to visit my mother every weekend. Working as a graphics designer in a creative agency, I hardly see my home, let alone anyone. But I always make it a point to visit my recently-widowed mother whenever I get the chance.
“Wait, how did you know about Levi?”
She took a sip of her tea. “I was cleaning your room and saw a boy’s name on your wall. I didn’t know you had a boyfriend at the time, but I didn’t want to pry.
“But recently I was at the post office waiting in line to buy stamps when someone bumped into me – it was quite a hard shove – and I almost fell over. Thankfully someone broke my fall and caught me right on time – and guess who it was!”
I cringed. “Levi Ackerman?”
“That’s right! And my what a fine man he is. Not quite as tall as I’d imagine him to be, but he has a sure, sharp face with very clear brown eyes. And his hands were firm. You can tell a decisive person from the way their hands feel.
“Anyway it turns out he moved back not too long ago. He now works in the library you used to visit when you were in high school. Why don’t you go there and say hello to him sometime?”
I stared at my mother, and checked for signs of insanity. “Are you sure that was him, Mom? He could be anyone.”
“Oh don’t be daft sweetie. I may be old, but I’m not stupid. Here’s his business card.”
I took the card from her with shaking hands. My mind reeled – what was I supposed to do?
“By the way dear, call him as soon as you can. He says he can’t wait to see you.”
“I made you up.”
I didn’t call him. How do you start a conversation with someone you thought you imagined as a high school girl? With the information my mother left me, I decided to wait for his shift to be over, and confront him in person.
The library closed at nine o’clock, and I waited by the benches in the park, watching and waiting for any movement that resembled a library staff. The night wasn’t cold, but the breeze made it chilly and before I knew it my teeth were chattering – or was it my nervousness?
And then I saw him.
It was hard to tell from a distance, but it started with a shadow of a man of average height walking out of the library’s back exit. Greeting his companion goodbye, he made steady but unhurried strides towards my direction (which happened to be where the train station was). As he walked, the lights from the lamp posts reflected his face like spotlights flashing to the rhythm of the music – sharp gaze, clean face, short black hair.
He didn’t look quite as angst as I remembered though. He looked rather tired.
I stood up, but stopped myself from walking towards him. I only wanted to watch and see what he would do next.
His eyes which were looking at nothing in particular gradually started to move in my direction, and our gaze finally met, and he slowed down before stopping. For a short moment, we said nothing.
There were no hugs, no kisses, no gushes of “I missed you” or “I’d been wondering how you’ve been”. We just decided it was time to catch up, and there was a bar near the train station that was ironically quiet enough for us to visit.
To give me some credit, I didn’t start the conversation with “I made you up”. We talked about what happened since we last “saw” each other, and what we’d been doing since. I’d imagine it to be awkward, but we carried on as if we were only picking up from where we left off ten years ago.
He set his wine glass down. “Well, I’m obviously here. And it’s impossible to make me up. I still have the notebooks and letters you gave me years ago.”
I gulped. “I did? What did those letters say?”
“You don’t remember? They weren’t long, but they were encouraging. They were like presents. One day it’s a message in a bottle, the next would be a ribbon on a stuffed toy puppy. Usually I’d throw them out, I always looked forward to them. You always told me how embarrassed you were about writing my name in your notebooks. But I still have them. I never forgot.”
I took another swig of my shiraz. “I wrote your name on my notebook because you weren’t real at the time.”
“But we’re here, aren’t we. This is real.”
He was right. I was looking at the man I literally created from my figment of imagination – or at least I thought I did.
We went on for the rest of the evening, talking, reminiscing, even with pockets of laughter here and there. He offered to walk me home – and I didn’t decline his offer. As we walked up the steps to my apartment, I decided to invite him in and offer him black tea – his favorite beverage. I brewed a pot.
We both sat at the dining table in silence, content with the moment. It didn’t matter if my friends or my mum didn’t know who he was, or how he entered my life.
“I still can’t believe you’re here,” I said quietly.
“Why not?” He sipped his tea, steam emitting from the tiny cup.
“Look, I know we didn’t think much about what happened before. Heck I didn’t take it seriously either. If anything, I thought it was a breath of fresh air from the stale library I’d been studying in. Just makes it all more ironic that I’m working in one now.”
He set the cup back down. “But I missed you when I was in Norway.”
“Sure I loved it. The peace and stillness was riveting. But it was also pretty lonely. It’s strange. I never do get lonely. I had a huge piece of land. I spent a lot of time exploring the wilderness. I’ve run through forests, climbed waterfalls, embraced the silence… but then I’d end up thinking back at our time in that small cramped library, and then I’d end up rereading your letters, wishing I was home.”
He brought his chair and sat closer to me, his face inching forward. “I’ve wanted to see you again.”
I stared back at him – his clear brown eyes, set on a strong but sharp features, with his jet black fringe hanging over his face. If there was any doubt to clear, it was right there and then. He was as real as it could get.
I leaned forward to meet him. “So have I.”
I had started to think about her again late last year. Stress, I think. My research on wartime history was going very well, but I had broken up with my now ex-girlfriend, which may not have been a bad thing. I started to take up online dating, as recommended by colleague who signed me up to several ridiculous websites that linked you to old friends.
Living next door to the wilderness for most of your life does things to your head. You hear all sorts of things, on top of the occasional wolf’s howl to the moon. But they were always accommodating. One time in my youth I accidentally stumbled into their territory, but the pack leader and his alpha female were friendly, and I gained their trust.
Strangely enough, they always brought something to my doorstep – empty bottles, rocks, the occasional carcass. They never made a big deal out of it, only leaving their peace offering before running into the night.
I was especially enraptured by that alpha female wolf. There was something about the way she posed with her pack. Or it could be because she was the only black wolf with green eyes. It made her stand out, like emerald gems set in black rock.
I never questioned why they kept bringing these things to me, but it made me feel welcomed into their world. One night, they brought something that was really peculiar – the alpha female brought her new pups with her. On that very special night, she decided I was trustworthy enough to bring her entire family out in the open, and to share her world and her family with me. And in a rare moment of elation, I leaned forward to hug her.
I cannot explain this but the strangest thing happened. Suddenly she disappeared into a cloud of powder, which gently fell onto the floor. For a moment, I thought I had been holding a very real, very strong black wolf. The next moment, there was nothing but an outline of white ash. And then, nothing.
This house is so strange.
I wanted to see this wolf again. This strong alpha female. I remember her eyes well. Always piercing, always observing. But never judging. I missed her badly, and sometimes I found myself wishing she would come back.
The next thing I knew, I imagined her what it would’ve been like had she been human. I wondered what she would have been like as a wife. She would have her own ambitions, her own dreams. She would be creative. She would be the best mother for my children. And she would understand me and appreciate my need for silence and space as much as she appreciated it herself. Her name was perfect. Very soon after, I started writing her name on my notebooks.
I never told my friends the truth behind her name: I made her up.
Now I look around at my new empty apartment back in the city, staring at the outline of a person left behind on a chair.
This choppy, awkward, error-riddled and poor attempt at fan-fiction was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s short story “The Thing About Cassandra” from his new release Trigger Warning: Short Fictions & Disturbances. This is my first book from this author. I knew he was good, but I didn’t realize how good he really was.
I’m probably stupid for powering through this in one sitting – I wrote this after an hour’s worth of attempting at calligraphy. So it was almost midnight by the time I actually started writing. But the story was just that good. Imagine what it’d be like to imagine someone vividly enough for them to come to real life!
To feel less shortchanged, go buy the real deal. Please. It’s not without reason that Neil Gaiman is one of the best writers around there is.