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Ghosts That We Knew

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i.

Peter means it when he says it.

Or at least, he wants to mean it. Means to believe it. When he finally calls her mom. And he’s pretty sure that’s close enough to count.

That night, she settles on the side of the mattress and tucks him into bed. “I love you,” she says, running her hand across his forehead and pushing his hair out of his eyes.

He rubs his cheek against her arm as he remembers doing back when he was small, and then he closes his eyes.

She stays there for a long time, until he finally drifts off to sleep. And when he sleeps, he dreams of blimps that speed like jets, and of jets that drift like boats on the water, and of his father, standing on a bridge and looking out to the far-distant horizon.

Peter wakes to the still dark of after midnight and lets the dream bleed away, bit by bit and piece by piece. When it’s completely gone, he turns over and closes his eyes once more.

-x-

He sits at the counter for lunch the next day, his mother watching him quietly from the other side. With restless fingers, he picks at the lettuce sticking out from inside his sandwich.

His mother shifts without warning and draws in a swift breath.

“We can go home,” she says, her voice too loud after the silence, her words tumbling one over the next as if she’d let them loose unexpectedly. “We can go home, if you want.”

Home. Peter draws in a breath now, too, but slow and soft. Home means Rieden Lake, he tells himself. The house, not some nightmare world at the bottom of the water. And the lake house means his mother, alone, without Walter.

He teeters there for a moment, on the razor-thin edge of belief, and then, at last, he falls.

Peter looks up at his mother and smiles. “Okay. I’d like that.”

He watches her with keen eyes, sees the swift intake of breath and the joy that suffuses her whole being, making her lighter, softer. She bites her lips together to hold back the smile and glances down to study her fingers, tracing circles on the table.

They’ll pack tonight, she says when she’s recovered herself. They can leave first thing in the morning.

-x-

In one world, it happens that way. And in that world, that reality, those words are all it takes. An ending and a new beginning, the future set in motion. But in another world, in some different universe, the timeline twists, and it shifts, and it heads down an infinitesimally altered path:

“We can go home," she says, "if you want.”

Peter looks down and studies the sandwich in his hands. “It’s okay. I like Florida. It’s sunny here.”

He doesn’t look up, because then he’ll see her poorly-covered disappointment. She may not be his mother, but he’ll still give her the dignity of not being observed in that moment.

“All right,” she says, slower now. “Well. There’s lots to do here. We could … go to the beach?”

He looks up now, finally, and meets her dark, still-too-anxious eyes. “Sure, mom,” he says, pushing the corners of his mouth up into a smile. “That sounds good.”

The lines around her eyes shift slightly and start to relax.

-x-

The trajectories aren’t far apart at first, in this world and that; effect still follows cause in the same reliable pattern, unperturbed by a little lost boy who’s there instead of here. Undisturbed by a lonely, broken woman and the fictional world that rests too heavily across her shoulders.

It's three days later when Peter sneaks away again. This time, though, he leaves a note behind. He visits Olivia’s field of flowers, and he sits and he looks up at the sun and watches the jets streak too fast across the sky. And he waits, leaning back on the palms of his hands as the day trudges by and thinking, wishing hard.

But she doesn’t come.

-x-

They’re in the grocery store when he sees her again. She's standing in the canned goods aisle with her lips pursed and her forehead wrinkled as she studies the shelves. Peter's feet seem stuck to the ground as he does the math, calculates how long it will be till his mother pushes the cart around from the next lane over, or whoever she’s with comes looking for her.

She’s just one more thing that doesn’t quite add up.

He slides one foot forward, then the other, one step, then two and three. He doesn’t speak until he’s almost close enough to touch her arm, and all he can manage is, “Hi.”

Her head turns, a swift snap, and then she freezes too, like he did the moment before. He thinks she’s holding her breath.

“Hey,” she says eventually, the word coming on a long exhale, and then, “My mom wants beans,” as though she’s certain he’d like to know.

He does, though he can’t really explain why, anymore than he can explain why he’s drawn to her like gravity.

-x-

He watches his mother talking to Olivia’s there in the store, and he thinks that he likes the way they smile.

-x-

She comes to his house on Saturday just a few days later. Peter’s mother seems happy that he’s found a friend. Olivia’s mother seems relieved.

Walter sits on the couch on the other side of the room as the two of them play checkers on the floor, his hands folded together, just watching.

-x-

They meet again the next weekend, and again a few days after that. Sometimes at the park, sometimes at Peter’s house. Sometimes on the playground at the daycare center Peter’s father inexplicably runs.

They never meet at Olivia’s house.

-x-

“I’ve been to another universe,” Olivia says two weeks later as they sit together on the swingset, idly swaying back and forth. “I know that sounds crazy, but —”

Peter plants his feet on the ground and cuts her off. “I think I’m from another universe.”

Olivia turns and stares.

-x-

She tells him the story of her sketchbook, of how she’d taken it to his father — to his father — and both book and man had vanished as if they’d never been. And she shows him the replacement she’d begged off Miss Ashley, the pictures she’d drawn from the memories in her mind, and this time he sees them for what they really are.

His father. His world. His home.

-x-

The grownups' voices carry up the stairs and into Peter’s room, the continuous muffled exchange between the two women punctuated occasionally by Walter’s sharper commentary. Peter sits on his bed and flips a coin over and over in his fingers. Olivia plucks the toy airplane off his desk and zooms it around in front of her face, buzzing a soft engine sound to match the swoops and dives.

Two weeks have gone by. Two very long weeks without a single word passing between them about impossible things or the rabbit hole they’ve somehow found themselves down.

Peter feels like he’s about to burst inside.

He tosses the coin aside onto the coverlet and pushes himself up off the bed. He paces slowly over to stand beside Olivia by the desk. She freezes the plane mid-dive and turns to look at him, her eyes serious.

“Could you take me there?” he asks, his voice low, almost a whisper, as though her mother — or his mother — or Walter — could hear. “If I wanted to go, could you take me with you?”

She looks down and bites her lip. “I don’t know.”

He reaches out and wraps his hand gently around her wrist. “Olivia, it’s my home. My mother. My —“

“Son?” Walter calls from the hallway.

Olivia gasps.

Walter walks through the door.

And the world shifts —

-x-

The toy airplane hits the ground with a muffled thump.

“Oh, no,” Olivia says, pulling her arm free from his grasp and stumbling backwards. “Oh, no, Peter. He startled me, I was afraid he’d heard us, I —”

“It’s okay,” he says. He turns, slowly, and looks around. “It’s okay,” he repeats, softer. They’re in his room in the Florida house. His room, not that other Peter’s. The same, but just a perfect amount of different.

“Olivia.” He pivots, swings back to face her. “I — ”

But she’s gone.