What it would be like if a fantasy romance novel plot was part of your actual, real-life, going-to-work, buying-health-insurance, snow-shoveling, hair-washing, bickering-family wrangling, reality. What would you say to your friends? How could you say out loud that you had fallen for a shapeshifter? Or had a ghost lover? Or an otherworld existence? How would you know you weren’t crazy?
And what would you sacrifice to accept your true self?
Claire Islington, blessed with a perfect life, is torn between her fiancé and a phantom lover from nineteenth-century England who awakens a passion in her like she has never known. Her soul echoes the refrain, “Love is enough,” and yearns for a long-denied fulfillment. But to follow is to follow a ghost: across the sea, to another land, to another time and a point where lives collide.
In the dream Claire was choking on shimmery fluid clogging her mouth and throat.
“Too late, too late,” she screamed. The irises outside the cottage opened their spectral heads. fueled by some fertility drug, some feeding memory cry. And out came rosemary, bled through with powder-blue forget-me-nots. Not vines at all but vinelike, running rampant over the small house, suffocating it, while Claire, on a chair like tiny Alice who cannot grow big enough to break through roof and windows, choked within.
Too late. Too late. Too late. The voice was hers, but she wasn’t speaking, her mouth filled with shifting silver. She wanted to crow and caw and cry for help, but the asking would not come. She gasped in silent demands of air want, air lust, air desire, until she woke up. Drenched and drowned in sweat in her own bed, her own apartment, her own slippery skin that didn’t quite fit, like a dress forced on by a well-meaning aunt.
Her chest felt swollen and painfully tight, her lungs stuffed with echoes and remnants of ineffectual screaming, scarred by the intake of false air, oxygen made for lungs other than her own. Help me, she wanted to say but she said nothing. She sat on her bed, wearing a pink nylon nightgown she hated, didn’t remember buying, and pulled her knees to her chin. She felt as if she was bleeding, blood and fluid and life pouring from her too loose, ill-fitting skin, but she wasn’t even sweating anymore. She just sat, shaking and lost again. Another boat had sailed off, separated forever from the jagged coastline. She sank into the swallowing seabed but was forced back to shore by an unseen fist. The only person she could talk to was Toby.
Claire got out of bed and tripped over the poetry book, which had fallen to the floor. “Shit.”
Her hand shook so much her fingers had difficulty making contact with the buttons of the phone. The color of the phone shifted from red to green to violet to red again. At first Claire dialed the wrong number and a tremulous, ancient female voice answered.
“I’m sorry,” Claire said.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Claire said, and hung up to dial Toby again.
“Hello,” Toby answered, sleepily, groggily, velvet-voiced, mossy soft and seductive. “Hello. Who is this? Claire?” His voice snapped awake. “Claire? Are you okay? What is it? Claire?”
“I’m sorry, Toby. I didn’t know who else to call,” was all she could say. Her voice poured into the open receiver.
“Where are you?” he asked. “Are you home? Do you want me to come over?”
She heard a soft, female voice in Toby’s apartment.
“I’m sorry. It’s Claire,” he said. “I don’t know. Just a minute.”
Toby spoke to Miranda differently than he spoke to Claire. The undercurrent of uneasy anticipation that always lingered in his voice was completely gone. Maybe she really was crazy.
“Are you okay?” he asked Claire.
She couldn’t hear herself. She must have been speaking because Toby answered her.
“It’s all right. Don’t worry about it. I’ll come over. No, it’s okay. Stop it,” he said. If you didn’t want me to, you wouldn’t have called. It’s okay. Really. I’ll be right over.” He kissed Miranda and hung up.
Claire walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. She stood in the blast of cold air until she could breathe again. Toby’s presence was only a tease, a shadow of what she wanted, what she couldn’t have, what she could never have, like a copy or a photograph of a real thing. But you couldn’t reach into a photograph or a song or a painting. You cannot become part of something incapable of accepting you. You couldn’t enter a universe without a door. Or a door without a key.
Toby let himself in with the key Claire had given him a long time ago. He made her tea and read to her: old stories of fairies and dragons and earth and nature, long poems with words out of favor and images steeped in dust. Toby’s voice shook them from their slumber.
I dream of infidelity, Claire thought as Toby read. Not to be unfaithful to you or Ian but unfaithful to me, to time, to life. Unfaithful to all that has been given me. I reject it. I betray it. I long for betrayal. I lust for some other hand, a different voice, a different air to breathe.
“Follow Me is a passionate story of love that transcends time which is found, lost, and found again. A brilliant concept, the relationships in the past and the present occur simultaneously, giving us a glimpse into what can be if only we believe.” — CK2S Kwips and Kritiques, Kelley A. Hartsell, April 2007