As evening faded, the fireflies came out. They flickered around us in the grass, tiny and bright. Gradually, they adjusted tempo and began to flash in unison. Beside me, Fisher was just a black silhouette against the sky.
He sighed and I was struck by the eeriness of someone else breathing. Even after a week of light and noise and freedom, I couldn’t help but be accustomed to silence. When he breathed out, he sounded tired. I liked that he sounded any way at all.
Since leaving the house on Norman Street, I found myself intermittently gripped by a sudden, awful suspicion that nothing was real. Now, the sensation rose again, gnawing at me, insisting that I’d only created Fisher and the fireflies and the country road because the deep boredoms of my storage box and my attic were in danger of becoming fatal.
I replayed preceding days, finding it suddenly imperative that I trace my path back along its trajectory. From attic to street, to a train and then a bus, and finally, a five-mile walk down a long road into the center of a small, sleepy town. Then, when I could be certain that my narrative was complete, without gaps or unexplained jumps, the panic in my chest subsided. I had come from somewhere.
Beside me, Fisher cleared his throat. “Will Aurelia punish you for being out so late?”
I found the question too baffling to answer. Since my arrival in Bliss, my aunt had shown little interest in my comings and goings. She existed in a slow, peaceful world that did not extend beyond her studio and her greenhouse. Her realm was narrow, like my wooden box, and she did not like to look past it.
In the field next to us, a shallow creek wound aimlessly through pastureland. I watched it for a minute as it rippled and shone. Then I breathed in sharply.
A girl lay face-down in the water. From so far away, her skin was bluish. Her hair looked white under the moon.
I stopped, reaching for Fisher’s arm. “Look. Do you see that?”
He shook his head, squinting out at the dark pasture.
“Look, just look. She’s in the creek, white and naked.”
“There’s nothing there.”
But I was already struggling through the fence, wading out into the tall grass. I crossed the pasture and knelt beside the stream, reaching for the girl, tugging at her wrist. She was heavy and her hair stuck to my arms and tangled between my fingers. Her skin felt cold, slippery with a film of plant scum.
Fisher started after me, slower at the fence, taking a minute to navigate the network of wire. He came up beside me and stopped a few feet from where I crouched over the girl.
I held her by the wrist as though presenting her, offering her hand. Her fingers hung limp and blue, flopping when I waved them at him. “Can’t you see?”
“Your hands are full of water,” he said, and the sound of his voice made me feel breathless.
“No, she’s real—a girl—she’s a real girl.” I let her wrist fall and her arm splashed back down into the stream.
He was looking at me too kindly, holding out his hand. “Come on. Get up out of the mud.”
“Why can’t you see her?”
He took my hand and pulled me to my feet. “I don’t know, but I can’t.”
I stood in the grass, drying my hands on the front of my shirt, turning again to look at the girl who lay face-down, hair fanning out like a pale web in the current.
She rested at my feet, cold like twilight and creek water. Beside me, Fisher was solid and warm, but oddly featureless in the dark. I had a sudden, desperate conviction that if he touched me, it might prove that I was real. I wanted him to grab me and shake me, or press me hard against his chest, and then I might be sure that I was solid, and not a figment of my own imagination.
I was standing in a meadow at dusk, inhabiting a place either outside or inside my head. Each possibility stretched off toward a vast and distant horizon. I had no definite sense of time or territory, and no way of knowing which world was the real one.