Read More: A brief interview with James S Kendall
This is not a ghost story. There may be a death. There is certainly betrayal, certainly unfinished business. A love across worlds? Maybe. Part of me always believed Billy lived in my imagination, but he was flesh and blood. I felt his hand warm in mine, his breath on my neck. His scent still clings to my pillows.
This is not a ghost story, but I am haunted by him. Waking up after the accident, glass in my hair, I felt for him next to me, seeking the assurance of his strong arm. Instead I found crushed glass on an empty seat and felt… unsurprised? A police siren drew closer somewhere through the dark trees. I lost consciousness again.
They told me they’d searched with infrared and dogs. That’s how they look for lost and injured Invisibles. Do I believe them? I’ve seen what the police think of that fraction of a percent, mistrusted and mistreated because they can’t be seen. Or maybe Billy had been unhurt and clear-headed and took the opportunity to walk away.
I find myself looking back for clues, as if some past detail could assure me that he’s alive or dead. We’d met birdwatching, a voice from nowhere scolding me for startling a nesting woodpecker. I found myself apologizing to his discarded backpack, his deep voice direction-less in the trees.
Finally, he threw an acorn at me saying, “I’m over here, dammit!”
I’m usually shy around other men, especially those with deeper voices than my own. But, for some reason, I felt bold around Billy. Despite his irritation, I invited him to coffee.
I’d never met an Invisible in person before. His transparency wasn’t what I’d imagined. It had weight to it. It hid parts of things he held: a glass, a fork, a heart.
We talked about birdwatching. Me, jealous that he didn’t need a blind. Him, frustrated with moving through the woods.
“When you can’t see your limbs or clothes, you get tangled in everything,” he explained.
He told me that he taught at a school for the blind. “It’s nice being around people who treat you like anyone else.”
“Is your family… like you?” I asked.
After a pause, he said, “It’s hard to talk with you staring at my navel.”
I had been staring at his chair as if the seat spoke. His bag opened, a pair of glasses emerged, already fading where he held them. “These help,” he said. He touched something and the lenses glowed a soft blue. The frames disappeared as we wore them, but the glow remained.
“So, your family…” I prompted.
“…is something I don’t really talk about,” he finished.
“Sorry. Bad feelings?”
“Not at all, I just don’t like exposing too much. Makes me feel like I’m giving someone control over me.”
“I’d never dream of taking control,” I said with a smile. “I promise never to pry. Though I may have to invent some kind of past for you.” I watched the glowing lenses lean toward me. I startled a little at the firm warmth of his hand as he squeezed my own and watched, fascinated, as parts of my fingers vanished into him.
“I think we’ll get along just fine,” he said. I could hear the smile in his voice.
Over the weeks, we moved slowly into a relationship. I kept my promise and he kept his privacy. He did indulge my habit of speculating wildly on his past. I think he enjoyed it mostly because I wasn’t digging for the truth.
“Your father was a diplomat from Romania.”
“And my mother?” he asked.
“Wonderful! You can’t tell, but I have my leg tucked behind my head right now.”
“Stop trying to distract me. You have 13 half brothers and sisters.”
“Well, my mother did get around.”
“Only four from her.”
“Ah, father’s oats sown.”
“Well, he was a dashing, international traveler.”
“So, you think I wear all these sequins because I was raised in the circus?”
“No, you were raised by your father, traveling the world with him and your private tutor …who you fell in love with.”
“Ah yes.” I thrilled to feel his fingertips trace down my jaw. “You remind me so much of him.”
I had no contact with his past or any of his wider life. But he gave his present self so completely that every evening was energized with all the obsession and immediacy of a one-night stand.
We kissed on our fourth date standing in a warm rain. We were waiting for our ride to show up, standing back under an awning. I was watching the flowers I’d given him slowly fading away up the stems from his hand while he told me about an article he’d been reading when he trailed off in the middle of a sentence. I looked up to see a group of Invisibles across the street all aglitter from their safety lights like a cloud of fireflies in blue and white and red.
We watched them for a while, then Billy asked, “are you wondering why I’m not over there?”
I turned to him with a smile. “I’m just happy you’re with me.”
Then he pressed his lips to mine, our scruff velcro-ing together as he pushed me farther back into the shadows. I closed my eyes to the rush as he became a living dream, suddenly real and so close. Still, part of me stayed distracted by how much better he would fit into that crowd of lights instead of tangled in the shadows with me.
The sex was otherworldly. How can I explain the terror and physical joy seeing myself vanish into a sensation of most intimate warmth? It was dizzying. Giddy. Every moment of our fucking was like standing on the edge of a cliff with the ocean roaring spray over you while wearing a blindfold.
I tried to explain the sensation to Billy as we lay together. He was silent for a long time. For a moment, I felt a confusion of distance between us, like a favorite song suddenly having an unknown verse. Maybe I was just more sensitive in our intimacy: tangled naked together, his head heavy on my chest, my fingers tracing the muscles of his shoulder.
“You make me sound like an exotic fantasy,” he said, his low voice vibrating my whole chest.
“No,” I protested, reaching for his hand. Finding hairy thigh, I felt my way to his wrist then watched parts of my hand disappear as we laced our fingers together. “You’re a miracle.”
What a stupid thing to say, accentuating his otherness. I always said stupid shit like that after sex. I wonder now if I wasn’t trying to widen the gap between us, fighting off a hidden fear of intimacy. Or, maybe the fear of Billy’s animal body too real for me in the dark.
He started sleeping over but never more than one night in a row, never leaving so much as a tooth brush behind. We had brunch with my friends, an awkward dinner with my parents. I hoped he wasn’t offended by the unfocused smiles they wore or the saccharine politeness dialed up to “Stepford.”
“When will I get to meet your friends?” I asked him one night.
“From the rodeo?” he asked. My latest backstory for him involved the mythical coupling of a bull and a young rodeo stud.
“From your school,” I said. I was running my hand over his hair. He kept it buzzed. Billy told me that most Invisibles keep their hair short and easy to maintain. I liked that it had the soft, bristly feel of boyhood summer cuts.
“They’re all teachers. You’d find them boring.”
“You don’t bore me,” I said, knowing it was just another one of his excuses to keep me away from his personal life. Again, I felt a disorienting sense of distance between us. I could visualize his weightlessness even as parts of me ached pleasantly from his rough solidity. Still, he felt like a dream always on the verge of vanishing.
He got up and turned on the light. I shut my eyes to hold on to that full reality of his sinewy body instead of the unreality of his voice coming from the empty air.
“Let’s just stick to the fantasies for now,” he said.
I didn’t think of him at all during the crash. I don’t remember if he shouted. I don’t remember if his arms were flung against me or if his airbag went off. It was like he wasn’t even there. We had been arguing about what had happened to him that evening. I was shaken. He was angry. Though, he seemed angrier at me than at the violence done to him. There was something deeper there but hidden back in the shadows of his life and behind my veil of make-believe. Was he really ever anything but an imaginary friend to me?
“Get on the ground! On the fucking ground!”
We had just left our three-month anniversary dinner. […]
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James S Kendall’s fiction has appeared in The Antioch Review, West Branch, Blood Tree Literature, and has been long-listed for the Santa Fe Writer’s Project Award. West is also a recipient of a Loft Literary Center Mentorship Award. James was born in New York City and grew up in Florida, Indiana, rural Pennsylvania, and all the roads between. He now live in Minneapolis with his wife and son.