“You look beautiful,” Mother said to me again, one final time, as she placed a tender kiss on my forehead and slipped out of my dressing room, closing the double doors behind her.
I stared at my reflection in the dressing mirror and tried to see what she saw. Surely, the woman staring back was stunning. The image of bridal perfection. Black hair beaded and braided. Lips tinted. Cheeks flushed dark with rouge. Hazel eyes darkly lined and shaded. A hanging gold tikka on my forehead, encrusted with dazzling amethysts that matched the royal violet of my silk sari to perfection.
Regal. Elegant. Practically divine. So why were my eyes so devoid of light? Why did I feel so empty inside?
“Because you don’t love him,” he said to me, appearing on the window ledge, as though he’d been there all along. “You have never loved him, Maya.”
“What do you know of love?” I spoke bitterly through clenched teeth, afraid of the manic laughter building in my chest. “What do you know of anything? You aren’t even real.”
He frowned, his unusual sea-blue eyes darkening. “And our adventures? Were those not real?” He walked toward me with strong, purposeful steps that looked… felt… solid. Despite his non-existence.
He trailed a hand along my arm, down my shoulder to my elbow, stopping just above the delicate curves of the Mehndi inked across my skin. There, within the elbow’s bend, was a long, thin scar which he traced with his fingers. “Remember when we climbed the tall tree in your yard? Pretending to be explorers. Pretending to have braved the great Kilimanjaro. I promised you a butterfly,” he walked behind me, whispering into my ears, “and I delivered.”
I shivered at the strange warmth on his breath, the heat I felt off his skin. I closed my eyes, convinced that if I believed hard enough, he’d disappear. “You aren’t real,” I chanted. “You aren’t real.”
“There is nothing he can offer you that I could not provide twofold. Three.” His hands tightened around my wrists and he pulled me, harshly, violently, toward him. “I have been with you, have lived for you, for as long as you can remember. I will continue to serve you for eternity. Just say the words. Say the words and I can save you from all this.”
He walked me to the window and pushed open the curtains. Gone were the expertly manicured lawns of the country club. The splashing of the waves on the beach. I could no longer hear the wedding procession or the playing of the Shehnai. My family and friends’ laughter and chatter faded away to leave only a peaceful silence.
Instead was a long series of paths and hills. At its very top, at the farthest edge of the horizon was his palace– majestic and glimmering in dazzling twilight.
“Say the words, Maya, and you can taste eternity with me. As it was meant to be.”
I breathed shallow and pressed my lips tight afraid of the eager agreement lingering on my lips. Instead I asked, “If I don’t say them?”
“Then I remain, forever stuck in your world, forever a part of you– until you wish me away.”
“And if I go? What happens to my family?”
“They exist as you want them to.”
“But they would not be real. They’d be dreams, forgotten memories.”
“Perhaps this life is the dream,” he pointed toward the palace, toward a promise of untold riches and delight, “and you’ve been waiting all this time to wake up.”
His lips pressed hard on mine, firm and warm and real. I lost sense of time, of the fabric of space around me. Something felt strange. My own body seemed so far away.
I ripped open my eyes and blinked.
“Maya? Are you alright?” The dark, textured voice beside me spoke. I sat up in bed, clutching the sheets, drenched in sweat.
Slowly, surely, my bedroom materialized and the shadows of the dark became nothing more than dressers, tables, mirrors.
“I had the dream again,” I told him, shaking, melting into his embrace. “It felt so real.”
“It’s alright,” he whispered in my hair, placing feather light kisses on my head. “It’s alright, it was just a dream.”
I breathed in his scent and sighed. He was right. I knew he was right. But my heart still raced like a mad stallion in my chest.
I clung to his shirt and closed my eyes, letting his voice, his words, seep into my brain.
“It was just a dream,” I repeated, closing my eyes and laying my head back on the pillow.
Outside the window, the sky remained in eternal twilight.