They told me I could have anyone I wanted, but I wanted him.
He was champagne overflowing from a bottle in celebratory sparkles. The white froth of a contented wave. The kind of wild wind that tangled little girls’ hair and made grown women’s hearts race. He was music being played at full volume til people lost their voices screaming along.
He was so full of life that it made people breathless.
I’d loved him since ten years old. I still remember it like it was yesterday. A crater lake and a summer storm. Dares and adrenaline. His limbs gliding effortlessly through the water as wet hair plastered to his forehead like seaweed. I soon realised the ripples he made in the cool tranquil liquid were nothing compared to the waves he created in the world.
Rain was trickling down his cheeks like tears, mingling with the lake water, when he saw me. I remember it so vividly because nobody had ever looked at me like he did.
After that, I went practically everywhere with him. I spent Christmas with his family, watching him tear open his presents with a kind of joy I could only envy. I laughed with him. Everyone did. His smile was impossibly contagious.
The years moved too slowly, like watching a seedling grow and painstakingly counting each leaf.
My favourite moments were when we climbed to the top of the hill on the cul-de-sac. It was always just him and me. He was always moving from one thing to the next like a yo-yo. But up there on that hill he always had a serene calming peace about him. It should’ve made me uncomfortable, but it didn’t. Everyone else I’d met seemed to be the opposite.
The hill overlooked his neighbours’ houses, freckled amongst the greenery like stars in a sky. We’d watch life unfold below us; without us, and he seemed so surprisingly contented there, on the outside. I think that made me love him a little bit more.
He’d talk up there on the hill. Honest, vulnerable, naked thoughts that nobody else ever heard him utter. And I listened. I was no stranger to confessions. I’d heard more than most. But his truths were soft, like his heart.
Up there, alone together on the hill, he almost felt like he was mine. I savoured the sensation.
By the time we left for university, I’d decided, out of all the months he wore, December looked the best on him. He went swimming the most then, jumping into the water with a huge splash as if it were one of his oldest friends. After, when he’d get out, he’d always wear the red and green sweater his Nana had sewn for him. I longed to run my fingers along the wool, to sink into it as his arms wrapped around me. I didn’t.
January looked the worst on him. January was for new beginnings. January was when he met her.
They were both studying medicine and they met in a tutorial. She was at the desk behind him. He picked up her pen when she dropped it. And then… then he saw her in a way he’d never really seen me. He saw her in a way nobody had seen me.
It was so ordinary… so mundane. Their meeting was nothing like ours. Ours was lightning strikes and breathlessness. Ours was life changing.
A few drinks at the bar quickly turned to introductions between families. The two merged together like raindrops racing down a foggy window. He and I could never have worked, not like they did. I’d always known that. We were as different as smiles and tears, as fire and water, as night and day. But it still hurt. It was a dull pain in the chest that I’d never felt before.
Invisibility was nothing new to me. I was used to feeling vaporous, more wraith than human. I was used to passing by unseen, but it felt different when it was him seeing through me.
She was sweet, I couldn’t deny that. She had a smile like a bird’s feather, all soft and serene and stunning. She looked at him like he deserved to be looked at, more love than longing. She fisted her hands into the fabric of his Christmas sweater and pressed her cheek against it as he pulled her to his chest.
I wanted to be her then. I wanted him to be mine and I wanted him to look at me like I was his. He could never seem to take his eyes off her, as if he was constantly painting pictures of her in his mind, or silently storing away moments of her to relive in his dreams.
He took her home for summer break. It shouldn’t have been surprising when he took her up the hill with him, but it was. It had only ever been the two of us to share that place. Neither of them noticed me, lingering like a dark grey storm cloud. Neither of them noticed anything but each other really. I couldn’t blame her. What else was there to see, when his bright green eyes held an entire world within them?
He spoke to her with only slightly less openness than he had once spoken to me, and I realised I hadn’t experienced jealousy until he’d turned around during that tutorial almost a year before.
She had her slim arms circling his shoulders and he was grinning like a kid holding a mountain of fairy floss, and I wondered what he’d look like in my arms. But the image that appeared in my mind wasn’t one like this. Even when he’d looked right at me, he hadn’t smiled. He hadn’t held happiness like he did in this moment.
And so, I let him go. Or at least, I tried. Time would bring him to me eventually, I knew.
The next time I saw him was when he’d graduated university, gotten his degree and was beaming like a man who was about to save the world, because, I suppose, he thought he was. I was sure everyone else, like me, was certain he already had. I knew his smiles were more of a cure than any training and education, medicine and steady hands.
I was around the hospital a lot. I watched him perform surgeries like I used to watch him practice his backstroke. He had the same kind of calm about him. That unnerving, brilliant steadiness about him that was so rare amongst people.
I visited his patients sometimes. I could tell it always upset him when I did. It bothered him in a way not many things did. The people usually looked at me with fear and regret, occasionally relief, but never the peaceful acceptance and mild curiosity that he had all those years ago.
Sometimes I visited the people before he even made it to them. That disheartened him even more. I longed to console him at times like that, to lay a gentle hand on his slumped shoulders and whisper a word of comfort. But my hands had never been gentle and people only ever heard my words when they were too late to be comforting.
He still smiled when he saw her or heard her on the other end of a phone call. I tried not to watch. I tried not to listen. I was darkening his days while she was the lantern shining despite me. I couldn’t blame him for loving her.
One time I visited the man on the operating table. His body was all opened up when he left, the line on the screen flattening like a sea’s horizon, beeping sounds filling the room as I lead the man out.
He was wearing his old Christmas sweater that day, now stained and with a small hole growing in the right shoulder. It was that day that his hands shook on the steering wheel, no longer steady like they’d been trained to be, like they always had been. I sat in the passenger seat, staring at him. His face was tense in a way that seemed wrong on him, like a garden that never had weeds, suddenly being overrun with them.
One thought kept playing in my mind like the chorus of a song. He’s trying to save people from me. The thought made me wish I could shed a tear like the one currently rolling down his cheek.
I couldn’t have left if I wanted to. Not this time.
His eyes must’ve been blurry. He didn’t see the car hurtling down the road on his right.
For a split second, I was reminded of the day we first met, how the storm came out of nowhere. How he was brave and stupid and reckless, even at ten years old. How his friends had been even stupider and dared him to swim across the lake and back. How he’d watched the lightning streak across the sky and grinned, hardly hesitating before tugging off his shirt and diving into the cold choppy waters.
He'd never swam that far before, and soon the effortlessness of his limbs turned to strained and struggling movements. I floated above the surface just behind him, incorporeal, bodiless, transparent… but not for long.
He disappeared beneath the surface, before clawing his way above it again, gasping for air in a way that was all too familiar to me. His arms were too weak, I knew. It was always some kind of weakness in the body that summoned me. Usually, it was accompanied by desperation.
But then he saw me. He tilted his head at me with a kind of inquisitiveness that made me wonder for a tiny moment if maybe he didn’t know who I was. But that was impossible. People always knew who I was, even when they refused to admit it. But this wasn’t denial, it was something else entirely. Something that had kept me curious for years after.
He didn’t look away from me as he took what I was sure would be his final breath, and then sunk beneath the surface. I followed him under.
A frenzy of bubbles left his lips, racing towards the surface. Thunder rumbled but I don’t think he heard it. I was ready to grab hold of him when something broke the surface. No, someone. His father.
I watched, wordless, unseen, as he was dragged to shore, as he coughed up water and someone breathed in his mouth in between pressing their hands to his chest. He was breathless, and it stole the air from everyone else’s lungs too.
There was so much panic then, it was potent in the air, like smoke. I could almost smell it.
I watched it all. The fearful phone call and ambulance arriving. I stayed by his side through it all, sure he’d be mine soon. But he wasn’t, not then. He still had to save the world I suppose.
But now… now when the front of their car collided with the side of his, I knew. Not many people came so close to me, only to slip from my grasp more than once. The car rolled. I watched. He was so close to me then, and I was struck by the thought that the world would miss him.
When the vehicle stopped moving, its wheels were in the air, the roof crumpled and his jumper more red than green. The sky was too blue, the air too still, as if nature didn’t know who they were about to bid farewell.
Glass was everywhere. It crunched under someone’s shoes as they rushed forward from their parked car, phone in hand, help on the line. His head was lolled to the side, his body limp. But he wasn’t mine. Not yet. Afterall, I’d waited this long, I could wait a little longer.
It was déjà vu really, watching the ambulance arrive, watching the road disappear behind us through the small window at the back. I thought of the cul-de-sac hill then, how he’d watched from the top like he was already gone, already mine. And I wondered, yet again, why he wasn’t afraid of me, like so many others.
His family met us at the hospital. She arrived shortly after. I saw their panic again, like I had years before. When they spoke to the doctor, they were already grieving. They knew what I knew then: he couldn’t avoid me a second time.
He woke a few times, half delirious, and they said their goodbyes to unhearing ears.
And then he looked at me; breathless again.
I was reliving that moment from years ago, remembering why I loved him, why I wanted him. I reached out then, trailing my fingers along his blood-stained woollen jumper. He kept his eyes glued to me, like I was an old friend, as if it was a reunion like any other.
I’d wondered what he’d look like in my arms and now, finally, I knew. His face was pale, eyes dimmer than usual, eyelids fluttering, but he smiled. He smiled at me like nobody ever had and it was the most human I’d ever felt. For a second I thought about how many others would mourn for him. I wondered if it would even be possible to count. Afterall, he was the kind of person who saved the world without realising it. That’s when I knew.
The epiphany came to me like he did; it had stayed out of reach for so long and now I could hold it. He wasn’t afraid of death – he wasn’t afraid of me because he’d lived a life full of enough love and happiness that he could die without regrets. Even back then, even at age ten, he’d been so alive that, ironically, he wasn’t afraid of life’s rival and partner.
I ran my finger over the condensation on the window beside his bed, tracing the words,
I loved him too
I wanted someone to know. That even I, the one who stole people’s loved ones away, had loved him. But, of course, my finger left no mark.
He and I were as different as smiles and tears, as fire and water, as night and day, but I loved him like he was the sun, because he didn’t fear me for being the darkness. When he closed his eyes, leaned in to me, and followed me from the room and the earth, he was ready, because he’d lived.