TIME, BOUND AND UNBOUND
When Wesley came back, it was as if no time had passed at all. Adelaide’s house looked just as it had: the peeling white paint, the overgrown front garden, the lion’s head doorknocker, the sweeping porch, and there, the light still shining behind the window on the left, even this late at night. And although he could not see her, he could imagine Adelaide lying on her bed, surrounded by those fluffy white pillows, covered in that old quilt, a book in her hand.
So vivid was the ghost of her memory and those nights spent in that wondrous bedroom, all Wesley had to do was close his eyes and he was transported back in time when he would lie next to her, his head in her lap and her hand in his hair as he listened to music through his headphones—even now, beyond death, he was haunted by the notes of his favorite songs, the ones that made him dream of Adelaide.
But they had always had an abundance of dreams, if nothing else.
If Adelaide dreamed of him, he didn’t know. He liked to think that perhaps she did and that was what pulled him from the darkness. It seemed like something she would be capable of, didn’t it?
The light in the window went out.
Adelaide soon would be fast asleep.
Once again, Wesley thought it better not to intrude. With a heavy heart, he retreated back into the darkness from whence he came, thinking that there was always tomorrow. And, yes, tomorrow, he promised, he would work up the courage to step onto the porch, climb that old trellis, and knock on her window.
But Wesley had never been any good at recognizing his own cowardice. It was, quite literally, his fatal flaw.
Adelaide had a weak grasp on the workings of time. It was the one thing that had always confounded her—or, at least, she was told that she was constantly confounded. In her opinion, the way she experienced time was completely normal. Everything just was—there was no sense of then and now, no tick or tocking, no slowing or quickening.
It was her parents that informed her that her interpretation of time was incorrect.
At five years old and after numerous visits to different doctors, it was determined that Adelaide’s brain was perfectly normal. Undiagnosable, they called her.
Adelaide didn’t understand what all the fuss about.
“Dear, it’s just that you get a little confused sometimes,” her mother told her. “Like when I asked you yesterday what you wanted for your birthday and you said nothing because your birthday was last week.”
Yes, she remembered, but it seemed like that question was posed to her forever ago. And so clearly she also remembered that vanilla cake with rainbow sprinkles, the taste of it still on her tongue. And that book she had gotten—the one about the seven continents—she had spilled milk on it, and she had wiped her hand across the pages and the liquid blurred the images, Antarctica’s icy landscape smearing. She very much wanted to go there one day. It seemed like a neat job: an explorer. Who knew what you would find out there in the world? Adelaide had taken the book apart and taped the undamaged pages to her wall: mountain ranges, deserts, grand forests surrounded her. She dreamed about traveling to them but it always felt like she would be too young, too little to ever go anywhere.
“Adelaide?” her mother said. “Your birthday wasn’t last week. It will be this coming week. You see? A whole year has passed. But for you, dear, sweet little one, for you it’s like it did happen yesterday.”
And that Adelaide was willing to admit: she did have a little trouble with the ordering of events. She also believed her mother was telling her the truth, as her mother wasn’t keen on lying and had no head for imagination. But still, she didn’t really understand just how different she was. She couldn’t experience time the way others did—she didn’t know what it meant to live linearly.
But then again, who was to say that she was in wrong?
Maybe it was everyone else in the world who got time wrong.
Once Adelaide started school, it became clear that it would be difficult for her to function in a world ruled by the ticking clock. On the outside, it was a strict routine (wake, eat cereal, tie her shoes, brush her hair, walk with her mother to school, sit in her small chair in the front row, listen to the teacher, repeat what the teacher said, lunch, playground, more sitting, and then home). But on the inside, Adelaide felt as if she was doing the same thing over and over (walking, walking, listening, listening, lunch, lunch, sitting, sitting). It was all so endless, and it was impossible for her to keep the hours of her life in the right order.
One day, as Adelaide stood all alone on the playground, she remembered she had been in the middle of book about the Amazon forest (unlike her classmates, she could already read), and she very much wanted to finish that page she had been on.
So she left, not realizing it was only early morning.
But somewhere along the way, Adelaide lost track of her mission, and instead of walking home, she headed to the center of town. She had been thinking about the drugstore, that little coin machine that rolled out those little plastic containers with toys inside. And it just so happened she had a quarter in her schoolbag.
The next thing Adelaide knew was that it was dark outside and a plastic gold ring with fake blue stone set at its center was on her finger.
How beautiful. She had always loved that ring, for a lifetime, she had admired its beauty.
Her father found her. He wasn’t happy. As he tightly gripped her arm, a steady stream of admonishments fell from his lips: how stupid she was, how she made him leave work to search for her, how the whole town was up in arms over a non-missing kid, how she was in trouble for leaving school like that, how ridiculous her mother was for all the hysterics, and so on and so on.
He never even commented on how lovely her ring was.
But such a lashing wasn’t unprecedented from him, and it didn’t deter her from up and leaving school whenever she was compelled to. Before the bell rung at the end of the day, she would wander off, thinking school was over. She would walk home and fix herself breakfast in the middle of the afternoon; she would find a spot in the library and stay there for hours; she would return home and read until her mother came crashing into her room. It got so bad that the principal had a meeting with her parents and suggested that maybe a traditional school wasn’t the right place for her, which really was a point that couldn’t be argued.
Not long after Adelaide began to be homeschooled, her father disappeared—not that she had a clear timeline on when exactly the significant moments like those happened. Adelaide, for years, thought he was at work or was downstairs in his study. In a voice with barely contained resentment, her mother had to remind her that he was no longer there: “Now, dear, remember, your father doesn’t live here anymore. He left us. You remember crying in the driveway when he drove away?”
Adelaide began writing the important things down. She filled journals as the years passed and studied them intently, trying to get the order right, trying to make sense of the entirety of her life. She even taped little notes to herself on her bedroom walls so she could walk by them and center herself in time.
But sometimes she would read about something, and it felt like it just happened. Even the aged words she had written came to life inside of her memory: yes, standing at the edge of the driveway, watching her father drive away, and knowing that it was her fault—if she had been normal, if she had been right as rain, he wouldn’t have left.
“You’ve got to try and be content,” her mother told her once. “Content with the world and yourself. Everything else is out of your control.”
But her mother wasn’t content. Although she tried to hide it, she was awash in bitterness. Her life wasn’t what she had dreamed or wanted it to be.
And it seemed that curse was hereditary, because Adelaide’s life would never be what she dreamed it would be, either.
Wesley first met Adelaide on dreary Sunday. In the unkempt backyard of his rundown home, he was in the middle of taking apart his car’s engine—it was process he found calming, because it was the one thing he had always understood. He hadn’t been any good at school. Couldn’t string two sentences together to save his life and words and letters twisted themselves in his mind.
But he knew his hands and the inner workings of an engine well.
Except for that day, it seemed. He had been at it for hours, and he still couldn’t determine just why the engine was making a weird creaking sound.
So entranced with his work, Wesley didn’t know there was someone behind him until they said, “Maybe it’s your timing belt.”
Wesley cursed, a mighty “Fuck!” He turned to find a girl standing there, her faintly red hair wet from the light rain. For a moment, he thought she was a ghost. But she smiled at him, and he knew she was very real.
Looking around, he asked the first thing he thought of: “Where in the ever-loving hell did you come from?”
The girl pointed behind her to the large plot of woods that surrounded his house. “And where did you come from?” she asked, politely, if a little confused.
“Nowhere,” he said.
And indeed, he would come to believe he hadn’t really existed anywhere or in any time before this moment. He had been the mere suggestion of a person, a hazy outline, a man on the cusp of a cliff. His existence was solidified right here, right now. And only dumb luck and a little bit of fate had allowed him to be here, on this rain-drenched afternoon, in his backyard, fucking around with a car engine, so that she, this still nameless girl, would be able to find him.
In retrospect, Wesley might’ve attributed more to that moment than was really there—love had a way of distorting memories, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst.
“What did you say before?” Wesley asked, still not sure if maybe he had fallen asleep and was dreaming all of this. “About the timing belt?”
“That grinding noise. It could be the timing belt is off just a little bit and throwing off the crankshaft,” she said, walking closer to glance at the exposed engine.
“Yeah, that’s the one thing I haven’t worked on yet,” he said. “You work on car engines or something?”
“No,” she said as if he had suggested something ludicrous. “But I’ve read about them.”
Oh. He was at a loss at what to say. All he could do was look at her with what he knew was a stupid expression on his face. She would see him for what he was soon—a loser—and then she would disappear back into the ether.
Seemingly growing bored with the car engine, she walked away and pointed at his house. “Do you have anything to eat in there?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Are you hungry? Can I get you something?”
“Yes, thank you. I’m not picky,” she said, sitting down in an old metal chair.
Wesley went inside and came back out with two pieces of bread and a slice of cheese. He hadn’t been shopping for a while—not since his mother had disappeared. As was her habit, she had started seeing some new guy and had gotten herself swept away once again.
Slightly embarrassed, he handed her the plate, but she didn’t seem to mind he had so little to offer.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Welcome,” he said. “I’m Wesley, by the way.”
Swallowing the large bite she had taken, she held out her hand rather formally: “Nice to meet you. I’m Adelaide.”
They went quiet. Adelaide ate, unbothered and content, and Wesley stared at her, trying to figure out what exactly her deal was. He was more than sure that he had never seen her before, even though she looked to be around the same age as him. But before he could ask her anything about herself, the sound of voices came carrying out of the woods.
“They’re coming for me,” she said.
“How do you know?” Wesley said as figures emerged from the tree line.
“I decided I wanted to go for a walk,” Adelaide said, standing and placing the plate on her chair. “And I might’ve been gone longer than I thought. I have a little trouble with time.”
Before the search party of cops and other assorted people reached them, Adelaide took him by the hand and said, “Meet me in woods tomorrow night. We can talk more then.”
The next moment, the cops were pushing him around, asking a bunch of questions, while Adelaide tried to assure everyone that she was perfectly fine and that Wesley here had been so kind. She had gotten lost, turned around in the woods, and he had made her a nice sandwich. In the chaos, he lost sight of her. Then everyone seemed to disappear at once—that one mean cop giving him a final push—and Wesley was alone again.
Wesley waited for Adelaide that next night. In the darkness of the woods, he wandered in the shadows, quietly calling her name, but she never answered him. As the night wore thin, he came to the conclusion that he was a fool. Adelaide was never going to show up. It was either some kind of elaborate joke or she had thought better of the meeting—thought better of him.
He went home, strangely heartbroken. For a moment there, he had been filled with promise when all of his life, he had contained nothing, had been nothing more than that poor kid who got into too much trouble and had no future awaiting him.
But the next night, Wesley went back to the woods, and the night after that and the one after that. He didn’t know why exactly. Maybe he wanted to punish himself. Prove what a waste he was. Maybe he was addicted to that sweet, bitter disappointment.
Then one night, on his lonely walk, a voice called for him: “Wesley!”
It was her: Adelaide, wearing a pale white dress that shone like the moon.
“There you are,” she said, as if she had been looking everywhere for him.
And yes, there he was, at last, a ghost turned real.
Who knew how long Wesley would’ve lingered out on the front lawn like one of those little jockey statues holding a faded lantern up to the all-encompassing night. He had all but given up on making himself more stable, more solid. It felt as if any gust of wind would blow him away completely, sweeping him back into the void forevermore.
But one night, in the twilight, Adelaide’s light went on and something extraordinary happened: Wesley felt himself grow more substantial, more real, more alive, and then Adelaide opened the window and after a sweeping moment she said, “Wesley, there you are.”
Before he knew it, she disappeared and reappeared at the front door. “Wesley?”
“I’m here,” he said, stepping forward.
Oh, how beautiful she was.
Wesley didn’t see the accumulated years or how they had changed her.
“Is it time for us to go now?” she asked.
And Wesley knew that for her, those long years apart had meant nothing. For her, he had never been gone, dead, or buried.
Adelaide, at times, suffered from acute loneliness, which was due to the fact that the years she had spent on her own outweighed the childhood and young adult years spent with her mother, spent outside of her house. And the older she got, the less and less time compressed to bring her back to those times in her life when she wasn’t lonely.
Yet there was one time period in her life that remained first and foremost in her mind: the short, sweet year she had spent with Wesley. Even twenty, forty, sixty years later, she still waited for him. She would pack a bag, braid her ever-thinning hair, put on her old shoes, and sit by her window.
But he never came.
Every now and again, she caught herself falling backwards in time; in the midst of braiding her hair, she would look in the mirror and be startled by how old she was—her paper skin and all those lines; while putting on her shoes, she would realize how difficult it was to bend over, her back aching, her joints stiff; at other times, she stopped right as she was placing her clothes in her suitcase and would begin to cry, because she remembered she had packed like this a million times over, the same clothes, the same folds, the same sense of hope, and it all added up to nothing.
Adelaide wasn’t one to wallow, however, mostly because all things existed all at once for her, so one mood of one particular time gave way to another mood of another particular time.
So, on the whole, Adelaide had done well over the years. Before her mother passed away, the two of them had worked out a system of alarms that alerted Adelaide to tasks she must complete: eating, going to bed, getting the mail, going for a walk, and gardening. And it was her garden that occupied a good portion of her life. Two times a day, her little calculator watched beeped three times, bringing her back from whenever she was, and like Pavlov’s dog, Adelaide knew it was gardening time.
And her garden offered more than greenery and flowers for company. It was out there that she first met Rebecca, her next door neighbor, a yappy girl who was sincerely kind-hearted nonetheless. Rebecca had wandered into the garden one day and seemed to have never left: “Oh, how pretty it is out here! All these flowers! And look! Strawberries! How do you do it? I can’t keep anything alive. I killed a cactus once.”
“It’s not so hard, if you read the right plant guides,” Adelaide said. “And I suppose if you’re a little lucky that doesn’t hurt either.” She then patiently explained her detailed machinations of plant care, and for her part, Rebecca listened intently and didn’t seem at all bored with it.
Rebecca visited often—the only person Adelaide ever saw besides the mail lady and the people at the grocery store who had no patience for her. The two of them got along well, despite the difference in their years and experiences. It wasn’t hard to see that Rebecca was lonely like her—the girl never talked about any of her friends and often expounded on how being different made you special.
Rebecca also liked to watch over things for Adelaide.
“Have you noticed anything strange around your house lately?” Rebecca asked one day as she pruned a rose bush that wasn’t doing as good as the others.
Adelaide paused. Everything was strange to her. “Like what exactly?” she said.
Rebecca titled her face towards the weakening sun. “It’s just the other night when I was walking home, for a minute there, I thought I saw a guy standing in your front yard. He was really like just an outline and then he was gone,” she said. “It creeped me out.”
Adelaide thought of Wesley: he was coming in the night to take her away. Or no, wait, he had come for her already. It was one of the two.
“No, can’t say I know anything about that,” Adelaide said, but she looked up and saw a shadow pull aside the curtain in the kitchen window.
“Well, you should be careful,” Rebecca said, sounding worried. “There are all kind of weirdos out there. And with you all alone in this house—I think I’ll keep an eye out for anything suspicious.”
Adelaide turned her attention to the dying rose bush. “You’re too kind,” she said. “But you must have more important thing to do than fuss over me.”
“Believe me, I wish I did,” Rebecca said. “But you’re like my only friend in this town. And even if I did have a hundred friends, it wouldn’t matter. I’d still want to be here.”
Adelaide drifted. It felt as if she had been sitting here with Rebecca for years. Just the two of them and the wilting roses. It felt unfair to keep her there when her life was just beginning and Adelaide’s was close to ending. But Adelaide had spent other whole lifetimes all alone, and she didn’t know which one weighed more. It seemed like the accumulated loneliness always won out.
“Thank you, dear,” Adelaide said. The timer on her watch went off. “The time for gardening is over.”
In fleeting turns, Wesley was anxious and then content, miserable and then elated, needy and then fulfilled, which meant he was in love—for the first time, really, in love. It all happened so quickly: the course of his life changing so resolutely. Adelaide haunted his every thought, every want, every desire.
They met in the woods whenever they could. Always, Wesley waiting for Adelaide to sneak away from her house. In the beginning, they did nothing more than talk. Adelaide was an encyclopedia of useless but interesting facts. She spoke of places she had never been in such detail that Wesley felt that he had been to those faraway cities and continents. She theorized about physics and math to the point where Wesley had no clue what she was on about. But she was so passionate about it all that he wanted to know what she knew.
In return, he found he had little to offer. All he had was an ordinary life filled with missed chances and bad luck. But Adelaide listened intently as he talked of his mother and his no-good father. And when he told stories of all his misadventures in school or his run-ins with the cops, she laughed and laughed and then told him quite seriously that he was the best kind of trouble.
But in all that giddy excitement of new love was a knife’s edge of fear: they both knew the world would work to keep them apart.
Indeed, one night, Wesley came to the woods and Adelaide failed appear. Most likely, he mused, time had slipped away from her. But then she was absent for the next five nights. Sensing something was wrong, Wesley awaited nightfall and then drove to Adelaide’s house. He parked a few streets over and walked up to her front yard. The house was dark except for one window on the second floor. After a few quick calculations, he scaled the side of the wraparound porch, using an adjacent tree as leverage, and then crept slowly over the thin, narrow roof to what he sincerely hoped was Adelaide’s window.
One glance into the room told him luck, for once, was on his side.
Adelaide was there, the promise of a dream.
He knocked quietly on the glass pane, and Adelaide jumped up from her bed, clearly startled, but once she saw it was him, she rushed to the window to open it.
“What are you—how did you?” she said, reaching to take hold of his arm as if afraid he was going to fall.
“Can I come in?”
Adelaide looked behind her and then nodded her head. Wesley crawled through the window and entered Adelaide’s world. It was exactly how he had imagined it: books upon books, maps pinned to the walls, reproduced photos of landscapes, seemingly a thousand hand-drawn portraits of flowers and fauna, and there right next to her bed, the diagram of a car engine.
“Quite the place you got—” he began to say but Adelaide cut him off by throwing her arms around him.
“How long has it really been?” she asked, her voice a whisper in his ear.
“Just a week,” he said, carefully placing his own hands on her waist.
“A week? I thought it must be longer. Years, maybe. I thought I wouldn’t see you again,” she said.
“No, I’m right here. I found you,” he said.
And oh, what a feeling it was to be needed.
Adelaide pulled away. “My mother found out I was sneaking out. But she doesn’t know about you,” she said.
“I’ll just have to come and meet you then,” he said. “She won’t keep you from me.”
They sat together on her bed—Wesley a little uncomfortable at how comfortable she seemed with having him in her bedroom. “She doesn’t think I’m capable of anything,” she said. “She thinks I’m just some silly child who needs constant supervision.”
“You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything you wouldn’t be capable of.”
“Yeah, capable of anything but telling you what time it is,” she said.
So, yes, there was that. But it was nothing more than a strange quirk. It didn’t define her. She was so much more than those moments of fleeting confusion—if only she could see that.
“We should run away together,” she said. “I know we’ve only known each other for…”
“Three months now,” Wesley said, filling in the blank.
“Right. Three months. But it feels like forever to me,” she said. “And not just because I get confused about those kinds of things. It just that when I’m here with you, I feel real. For the first time, I’m really me. Am I—does that make sense?”
It did make sense. Wesley had caught that same feeling. It was like he had floated through his whole life—a ghost—and now he had been given shape, body, meaning, all molded by Adelaide’s hands. And when he was away from her, he returned to that no-shape even worse than before.
But Wesley had never been any good with words—there was no translating what was in his heart. So he kissed her, not for the first time and not for the last. As the kiss continued, he thought of what she had said once: “I wish I could explain to you what it feels like. Every time you kiss me it’s like the very first time and the millionth time all at once. Like there’s no end and no beginning.”
They devised a plan of escape—well, Adelaide devised a plan and Wesley agreed to it, knowing he could never come up with something better. Wesley kept sneaking into her room every night and leaving right before morning. Sometimes they talked (only in whispers), sometimes he listened to her records (with headphones) as she read, and other more numerous times, they made out (never quite crossing that unspoken line they weren’t ready for).
Those nights were the most peaceful of his life. It felt right and proper to lie there with his head in her lap, her hands in his hair, and the whole world held at bay. And he knew that he wanted to devote his whole life to Adelaide.
But something strange happened once he left her: doubt appeared in his heart. He worried he wasn’t good enough—he had a nowhere job at the gas station and no money saved. Adelaide wanted to leave this town behind, but Wesley knew that the odds of them finding something better out there were slim. But he couldn’t tell Adelaide any of that; he couldn’t kill her dream with reality.
He did, however, need to find a way to make their plan feasible. Once they got out of town, they would need money to start over somewhere new (maybe on the west coast, Adelaide had said, where the trees were ancient and the beaches went on forever). The only thing Wesley could think of was doing what he had always done: steal what he needed. His mother had taught him to shoplift when he was just a kid. In high school, he had gotten swept up in a bad crowd of car thieves. He called up one of those old friends and asked if they had any openings in the crew.
And it just so happened that they had branched out to home robberies and needed a new wheelman. And although Wesley didn’t feel good about it, he rejoined the crew and served as the getaway driver. Every other night or so, he would drive a crew of two or three to nearby towns and sit in the car as they robbed upscale houses.
Adelaide only vaguely noticed his absence. One night, she showed him a notebook where she kept track of which nights he climbed through her window.
“There are nights you don’t come,” she said, pointing to the boxes missing a check. “Where do you go?”
“Nowhere,” he said, the lie coming quickly to his tongue—he knew Adelaide would never approve. “Sometimes your mom stays up late, so I can’t climb up.”
Adelaide frowned. Wesley wasn’t sure she believed him, but she didn’t question him again. It was a little too easy to push away the guilt of lying. After all, he was doing it for them, wasn’t he?
But at the rate at which Wesley’s illicit earnings were coming in, it would take him forever to save up enough—especially, as Adelaide’s plan included leaving right after she finished her final year of homeschooling in two months.
Wesley needed a bigger cut of the profits.
“Ready for the big time, huh?” James, the de facto ringleader, said when Wesley told him he was done being the lowly wheelman. “Well, let’s see what you got.”
They chose a house in town. James had cased it earlier and knew there was an unlocked window in the back. Wesley, as some kind of rite of passage, had to go in on his own in the middle of the day in order to “prove how tough you really are,” as James had said.
Full of nerves, he entered the rather resplendent home of some highfalutin lawyer. He did as he was taught: searching through drawers, under cushions, and in closets for jewelry, cash, or anything that appeared valuable.
But just as he was about to make tail out of the master bedroom, a startled voice stopped him. He turned to find an older woman standing in the doorway. From the way she was dressed, Wesley figured she was the maid. Before he could react more, the woman pulled something from her pocket: a glass jar.
Utterly confused, he watched as she circled herself in what he guessed was…salt?
“I banish you, ghost,” the woman said, throwing some salt in his direction.
Really, Wesley should’ve run for it, but he was suddenly incapable of moving. “Um, I’m not a ghost,” he said, feeling as if he must explain himself.
The woman shook her head. “You can never be too safe.”
“Yeah, no, but I was just robbing the place,” he said, holding up his bag of loot.
“And why are you doing that?” the woman said, never moving so much as an inch outside of her makeshift circle.
It was a good question. Why was he doing this? He hadn’t seen how reckless he had been since he had met Adelaide. “For love,” he said.
A look came over the woman’s face—she felt sorry for him. “You’re in real trouble, aren’t you?” she said. “The thing is I don’t particularly care what you take. They’re not very nice people. But, see, I know your face now.”
Wesley understood. The woman wouldn’t stop him, but she would have to tell the homeowners and the police about him.
“Yeah,” Wesley said. “I should go then.”
He walked slowly up to the woman and then around her, careful not to disturb her salt circle. “Sorry about this,” he said. “I just—I love her, and I know I can never give what she deserves.”
The woman sighed. “We all get what we deserve,” she said. “In this life or the next.”
A shuffling noise coming from downstairs caught the edge of Adelaide’s hearing. Footsteps, perhaps? But whose? Was it her mother up early again?
Adelaide consulted her wall of notes—little pieces of paper taped together that served to inform her of the events of her life—and there: her mother was long dead.
So who was downstairs?
Anxiously, Adelaide approached the source of the noise: the kitchen. “Who’s there?” she said, stepping onto the worn linoleum. A specter passed before her eyes, brushing passed the breakfast table and forming more fully. “Oh, there you are.”
“Yes, sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you,” Wesley said.
Adelaide went back and forth between love and hate. When she forgot that Wesley abandoned her, it was all love, all hope, all possibility. But eventually, she did remember the truth: Wesley had broken his promise, and she was filled with a quiet rage about that particular fact.
“You said everything was the same—that you hadn’t changed your mind,” Adelaide said, getting the feeling that they had been having this same conversation for a while now. “But you never came for me.”
“I know,” Wesley said. “But I’m here now. For whatever that’s worth.”
In truth, it wasn’t worth much.
And Adelaide wasn’t completely convinced that his ghostly presence was real. She had been haunted by many things in her life—time, love, and loss—but she had never been haunted by a real ghost.
Quite clearly, Adelaide recalled the last time she had seen Wesley alive. He had come through her window like he always did, but she knew immediately something was wrong and thought the worst: “You’ve thought better of running away together, haven’t you?”
Wesley sat next to her on the bed and took her hand. But he wouldn’t look her in the eye. “Of course I’m not chickening out,” he said, and he kissed her hand, held it to his lips as he next spoke: “Nothing in the world would ever take me away from you.”
“But something did take you, didn’t it?” Adelaide asked the remnant of Wesley.
“I got in a spot of trouble,” he said. “I should’ve told you, but I didn’t want you think less of me.”
Adelaide looked down at her hands: old now with papery skin. “You leaving made me think less of you,” she said.
In her mind’s eye, the real Wesley leaned over and kissed her, soft and sweet, and she knew and didn’t know that it would be the last earthly kiss. So she kissed him harder, tried to remind him that this was all there was. They would get nothing else.
As he stood at her window, somewhere in the future or in the past, he said, “I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow. Promise.”
And Adelaide asked, “Where did you go?”
“Just a few towns over. It was only supposed to be for a little while, and then I was going to come get you. I didn’t think you would even notice,” Wesley said. “And then time—it just got away from me. It’s amazing what you could learn to live with and without.”
And yes, she knew that was true.
“I just thought if I got a little more money, if I bought us a house, a piece of land, if I got a little older, a little better, then it would be better for you, for us,” he said. “And then, I guess, I ran out of time.”
Adelaide look down where Wesley was looking: a gaping, ghastly hole in his stomach, a deadly wound.
“I was good at getting myself into trouble and not so good at getting myself out of it,” he said.
Strange, but knowing Wesley had died long ago was a comfort. She hadn’t liked to think of him in somewhere in the world without her.
But still one question remained for Wesley to raise: “So where do you think we go from here?”
To hold on or to let go?
“I don’t know,” Adelaide said.
Adelaide stood in the sun, looking up into the blueness of a clear sky. How long had she been here now? Minutes? Hours? Days? Did such radiance last forever? And if not, why couldn’t it? Why couldn’t love be forever?
“So. There’s this…um, let’s say, this person I like,” Rebecca said, bringing Adelaide’s attention back to the ever-elusive present moment. “But I don’t know what to do about it. I can’t even get her—I mean their attention.”
“Well, I think sometimes it’s best to surprise people,” Adelaide said. “People are very different when they’re caught off-guard. At least, that’s how I approached Wesley.”
Rebecca turned from the roses, dirt covering her hands. “Who’s Wesley?” she asked, full of curiosity, youth, and hope.
Adelaide tried to remember if Rebecca and Wesley knew each other. Did their timelines intersect? Or did one exist after the other? “Have you not met him before?” she said. “He’s here. I can introduce you.”
Rebecca seemed hesitant as they walked into the house. All was quiet and still. Nothing had altered the insides of her home for years. Adelaide liked everything to stay just as is, because even the smallest change alarmed her. But as she took in the dusty couch, the antique dining room set, the faded family photographs, the dead, dried flowers in glass vases, and the well-worn rugs, an unnameable kind of sadness took hold of her. All these things—this house—which she had taken comfort in for so long suddenly offered no comfort at all.
Quietly, Adelaide knew she was done. Done with this house, with waiting, with being lost in time and space.
Wesley had come back for her.
And when did things like that happen? When did lost things ever return?
Already, it felt like it was too late to tell him that she had changed her mind: she didn’t want banish him forever into the unknown.
“So is this Wesley around here somewhere?” Rebecca asked.
“He is here,” Adelaide said, doubting what she had just a moment ago known to be more than true. “Or he was here. Just a second ago.”
“That’s okay. Maybe I can meet him next time I visit,” Rebecca said.
“He came to get me. It was just a little while ago. Or—” Adelaide said, trying to put things in the right order as it all slipped away from her again. “No, he’s been here for a long time now. Just me and him.”
“Yeah, that sounds nice, but it’s time for your hour of reading, right? You do that before you make dinner?”
Rebecca stayed with her, reading quietly and then helped her cook a simple meal. She was a nice girl with a big heart—and Adelaide hoped that wouldn’t get her in too much trouble.
Saying goodbye on the doorstep, Adelaide asked, “How did it go with that person you liked? The one you told me about?”
“Oh, I haven’t—I only told you about that a few hours ago,” Rebecca said.
“Right, yes, of course,” Adelaide said. “Well, if you’re on the cusp of love, it would be my advice that you let yourself fall. Don’t get scared. Don’t run away. Don’t let time alter you.”
“Yeah, thanks, maybe I’ll try that,” Rebecca said.
After her friend had left, Adelaide wondered what had become of her. In the intervening time they had been apart, had Rebecca taken her chance? Was she in love? Was she loved in return? In the way she deserved to be?
It seemed as if Adelaide would never know.
All was clean and clear in her mind. Unlike before, she saw the thread of her life as straight and unwound. It all made sense, at last.
Adelaide had stepped out of her body, had left it behind in her bedroom upstairs.
Wesley was still there. He had kept one promise: not to leave until she banished him.
When he saw her, he went even more ghostly pale. “Adelaide, are you—?” he said. “Did you—?”
Adelaide raised her hand and looked through them. No more skin, no more bone, no more confused mind. “Yes, I do believe I’m a ghost,” she said. “It’s quite wonderful.”
Wesley floated towards her, and when he reached her, he took her hand in his. Adelaide could barely feel the touch at first, but the longer they stayed connected, the stronger their presences became until it felt like it once had: electric and real and all-consuming. She pulled him closer, wrapped her arms around him. And almost, just almost, she could feel his breath on her shoulder, hear his heartbeat in her ear, smell that cologne he always wore.
“Adelaide, I robbed us of a life, but in the afterlife, if you want, I’ll stay with you,” Wesley said.
She kissed him then, the ghost of a kiss.
They could make each other real again.
“No, I don’t want to stay. I would like to go now,” she said. “Let’s haunt the whole world.”