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Contemporary Fantasy

"Come on, Aoife. Please!"

"It’s Eva, here. And, no. Out of the question," she shook her head. "You know that's not how this works."

"Number one: no one can hear me but you, and the names are pronounced almost identically, anyway. Number two: what do you mean? That's exactly how this works!" She'd spun away from him, under the guise of checking her equipment, but Tadhg was having none of it. He jumped around her, invisible the moment he stepped out of the giant oak’s shadow. The blanket with her photo equipment remained undisturbed on the grass beside her as he closed the space, reaching for the camera in her hands. "If you won't do it, show me how this thing works and I will."

He gritted his teeth, as his hands passed through the device, finally connecting with solidity enough to tilt it in Eva’s fingers.

"No, you will not!" She jerked the machine away from him and glared.

He swallowed, raising his hands in retreat, and took a step back toward the tree. But just one.

"You know I'm right: he doesn't love her and is about the worst thing in the world for her–"

"And you think you'd be better? You don't even know her." She looked at the sky, checking the sun’s position. In the distance, the wedding party made their way across the freshly-mowed field next to the churchyard, toward the area she’d indicated, earlier.

"But I do." That brought her gaze back to him. His eyes held hers for a long moment and he swallowed, again. "I talk to her in her dreams."

Eva's hands slipped on the camera; but before the gasp had passed her lips, he caught it. Elation spread across his face as he held the firm weight and raised it to her.

"Tadhg, what are you doing?" she whispered, eyes wide. She took the device in numb hands.

"Asking you for help."

Her face set into hard lines, and she gripped the camera more tightly.

"How long have you been doing this? Does Manannán know?"

"A number of months, as humans count time. And no: I still exist-–somewhat," he said, frowning as he looked through the shaded colors that used to be his solid hand, "--so the god of tricks and illusions–-the Sea Lord,” he amended, as if the more respectful title tasted bitter on his tongue, “--does not know."

"So you do realize how dangerous that is, then? We're forbidden to enter human dreams for a reason. What if she'd woken up while you were there? You'd be trapped in her dream world, your life bound up in hers, until she died–-and you with her!"

"Better than here!" He swung his ghostly arms wide.

"You live in Fairie."

"You call this living? Mine is a shadow land, Aoife. I'm trapped between Fairie and the human world, and I can't fully enter either of them! I watch life, like some sort of pervert," he spat the words. "Do you know what it is to see life all around you, and be just outside it? I'd rather die a part of something–-even if it’s only dreams–-than exist like that.

"'Look but don't touch' has never been my forte." He finished with a desperate, wolfish grin.

"I believe touching someone else's bride was why Manannán sentenced you to the In-between, in the first place," she said dryly.

“You’re right,” he said, his gaze steady on her. “That is why I’m here. It was a foolish thing I did. …And a very long time ago.”

She tilted her head, turning it slightly to slide her eyes to their corners as she looked at him. She knew his charm, had seen him hone it over centuries–-both in Fairie and the human world. Somehow this was different. The teasing smile he wielded like both sword and hypnotist’s watch wasn’t there, and his vaporous eyes held the ghost of determination, not twinkling mischief.

“How do you know the woman you met in her dreams is actually her?” Eva looked at the group talking and laughing as they waited for her at the designated spot. The woman in white leaned toward the groom, her lips moving on words lost in the air between them and the photographer. The groom seemed not to hear, moving exactly opposite her toward the other end of the group. Her smile faded for a moment, and she stepped back. “Humans often dream themselves different than they really are.”

“Oh, she does. She’s much bolder in her dreams than in her waking life.” There was the mischief, even if he couldn’t twinkle, in this state. “She speaks more freely in her dreams, too.

“I watched her for months, before I visited her. Truth be told, it was her friend who caught my eye–-the blonde bridesmaid, with the body a love goddess would envy–-but Saoirse…my eavesdropping kept drifting to Saoirse.” 

Eva observed him closely as he spoke. His tension eased, slightly, and a wistful, softer note entered his voice as he gazed at the bride. 

“She’s kind…and patient. Her friends and family ask too much of her, but she helps them, anyway. He,” Tadhg sneered and jutted his chin toward the groom in the midst of the wedding party milling about while Eva tended to her photo equipment, “got mad because she was late to see him after picking up her mother’s medicine, and complains when she has plans with a friend, though he’ll not bothered to make plans with her beforehand. They eat dinner together every evening, –-at his house, -–which he expects her to make or at least have planned before she does anything else; and he never offers to help when her friends ask her to babysit or run errands.

“She almost always does what they ask, and always feels guilty if she doesn’t. Do you see the circles under her eyes? She tries to cover them, but you can still see the tint. Her mind’s never still, even if her body is–-although that’s seldom. She needs to rest, but he doesn’t see it. He doesn’t see her. She’s altogether lovely, and tries to love him; but he only cares that she makes him comfortable and gives him what he wants.

“You’ve seen it,” he said, prizing his gaze from the bride at the outskirts of the ring of bridesmaids, groomsmen, and family members with the boisterous groom in the center, his back still to her. “No more than you’ve been around them for photos, I know you’ve seen it.”

Eva frowned. She blinked back from her thoughts, quickly schooling her expression to reveal concern, but nothing more, and made a show of looking through the photo equipment laying on the blanket. 

“You just said she loves him. Why would you be any better?”

Anger flashed across his eyes like lightning through fog, but the hurt with it took longer to dissipate. He nodded: a fair question, if harshly worded.

“I admire her,” he said softly. “I want to be with her–-keep her company, at the very least; help, if I can. He doesn’t even appreciate her.”

“He could grow to.”

Tadhg looked away from the grinning vision in pooled white satin, as she laughed with the others at the words of a man who looked at everyone else.

“We both know he won’t.”

Eva turned her attention back to the camera.

“Don’t you think she’ll notice when her fiancé suddenly disappears and another man is standing in his place? If she’s as great as you say, she won’t just skip off and marry some handsome stranger who happens to land beside her. No matter how charming he thinks he is.” She cocked an eyebrow and looked up at him. “Or do you mean to put a geas on her, just in case?”

“No, no Fae binding. That won’t be necessary.”

“That’s arrogant, even for you,” she said, “and cruel. You want him to vanish, replaced by you, and expect her to be happy about it? Just like that? She’ll fear you and hate you for taking him away. You said she loves him. How’re you going to explain it-–to her and the rest of them?”

“I won’t have to,” he said. “I want to go in as a changeling. I’ll take on his looks, slowly adjust his voice to mine, and take over his life. I’ve watched him, too. I know his schedule, and his world. I’ll be better at his life than he ever was.” Tadhg looked back toward the group. “…He has the love of the most beautiful soul alive and all he sees is convenience. As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve learned some in the In-between. Maybe he will, too. 

“As for Saoirse, in her dreams she already thinks I’m him.”

“You came to her as her fiancé?” Eva asked wide-eyed and a little too loudly. The wedding party glanced in her direction.

“Sorry,” she called, her cheeks colored. “Thought I’d brought the wrong lens. I’ve got the one we need. I’ll be just a moment.” She glared at Tadhg’s unapologetic smirk from the tree’s shadow.

“To answer your question: no, I didn’t do it, she did. I spoke to her as a bodiless voice. Eventually she assigned his looks to me. I thought about revealing myself–-after all, they were only dreams. But as I talked with her, watched her, watched them, I…” he faltered and cleared his throat. “I couldn’t stand by and do nothing–-not seeing how he overlooked her. 

“So, I’m asking you: change us out, change me for him. I didn’t mean to deceive her, but I did and now I want to make it right without hurting her. If I tell her the truth, it’ll hurt. She’ll think she’s crazy or that I tricked her on purpose. But even if I do nothing–-fade back like the shade I’m reduced to–-she’ll come to know that he’s never going to be the man she thinks he is, or can be. That’s me.”

“How do you know she wants the dream-man and not the fiancé she knows when she’s awake?” Eva slipped a camera strap over her head.

“She told her maid-of-honor. She believes the dreams are signs of what he's like, deep down, and premonitions of what he’ll be like when they’re married. I told you she tries to love him--the man she sees; but it's the one in her dreams that she actually loves. …And that’s not him, it’s me.

“I want to make her happy, Aoife. I don’t want to see her let down…by him or me.”

She glanced toward the group, their dwindling patience showing in the side-eyed regards that met her, and fiddled with the camera one more time.

“I could bring her to you,” she said, shooting her eyes to Tadhg’s. “You’d be together, technically, without breaking Manannán’s punishment. You’d have her forever.” She saw his breath catch. She didn’t know shades breathed. “As long as there’s a human world and Fairie to exist between, you’d live with her.”

He was frozen for a long minute. Then she watched sadness roll over him like a descending wave: his eyes drooped at the corners, then his mouth; his shoulders fell and his whole body sagged under the drenching weight.

“I can’t do that to her, “ he whispered. It was almost too quiet for Eva to hear. “This isn’t living. If I can’t have a life with her, I’ll watch and keep to her dreams. But I won’t take her life from her.”

Eva was still, fighting to keep the surprise out of her face as she regarded the shade-man beside her. 

“So be it,” she said, finally, and walked toward the waiting group. A shadow nearly lost in the bright sunlight followed a half-step behind her.

After several small group shots, Eva called for the full wedding party to gather under the branches of the spreading oak. 

“Right. Let’s have the bride and groom together, this time. Just in the center, there,” she directed. “Now bridesmaids beside Saoirse, groomsmen beside Tadhg.”

“Todd!” he corrected.

“Todd, my apologies,” Eva nodded, her cheeks warming. “Now, put your arm around her–-act like you like her.”

The groom started, noticing his bride beside him.

“I know you’re the professional, here,” he said, his oily smile showing he thought her anything but an expert, “but what if she were holding my arm? Like I’m leading her somewhere? I think that would look better.”

“That’s a little stiff, don’t you think?” asked Saoirse, softly, biting her lip.

“Don’t do that. You’ll mess up your lipstick and we’ll have to wait even longer while you fix it. And she’s posing us, anyway. Why would this be any more ‘stiff’?” He turned, smiling toward the front and held out his elbow for her to hold.

“Right, then,” Eva said, teeth clenched behind a too bright grin. “This will be the last one before the ceremony.” 

The party settled into their positions and photo-smiles. She stared past Todd’s head at a misplaced shadow that hovered just behind him. With a deep breath and a blink that could have been a nod, she counted.  

“One. Two. Three!”

The camera clicked, rapidly, several times.

By the last, the groom had pulled his bride to him, one arm around her waist, the other with hers at her bouquet, and kissed her deeply.

Eyes bulged throughout the little group, as they exchanged surprised glances.

“You look beautiful,” the groom whispered beside her ear as they parted to laughter and whistles. “You’re lovely, inside and out, and you should hear it, everyday. I’m sorry you haven’t, but I’ll remedy that. …I love you.”

Saoirse’s eyes widened as she leaned back to search his.

“Thank you,” she squeezed his hand, “I love you, too.” 

Eva thought the bride might say more, but she seemed at a loss for words. Audible ones, anyway. The photographer recognized hope when she saw it.

The party made their way to the nearby church, as Eva reached for her camera case. 

“I’m glad you haven’t figured out how to make me hear you, yet,” she said to the thrashing, angry-faced shadow she could see hurling curses beside her. “I’ll explain, later; but you have some soul-searching and changing to do, if you ever want to get out of where you are now.” She watched him ball his fists and swing ineffectually around her and himself, before stomping in circles, silently yelling more obscenities. A half smirk twitched up one corner of her mouth.

“Luckily for you, you’ll have plenty of time to do it.”

May 21, 2022 02:59

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1 comment

Noah Tillier
21:34 Jun 17, 2024

It was a pleasure to read this piece! The moral dilemma is really interesting -- to escape punishment and make Saoirse happier but at the cost of forcing another person (even if they are dismissive and inattentive) into an in-between world. I loved the photos as a means to replace Todd, and couldn't help imagining seeing the expression change through the photos.


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