Some things you just can’t explain. Feelings surging up inside because of a certain scent or image or face. Knowing things and not knowing how you knew them.
Lilah was like that.
Nobody else seemed to notice her, but I did. I saw her walking by at the subway, her copper-gold hair flowing behind her, the weighty folds of her emerald-green skirt gripped in her fists. I saw her standing in the small strip of forest beside the highway, her dark eyes staring blankly at the cars whizzing by. I saw her standing at the top of a bank, a white envelope clutched in her hands - no one stopped to wonder who she was and what she was doing, except me. I had waved, in an attempt to get her attention, but all I received in response was odd glances from passerby. Moments later, she was gone.
At first - as I’m sure anyone would - I questioned my vision, my sanity, my imagination. I couldn’t try to explain her to anyone without bringing gasps of concern and worried suggestions. I should go see a doctor. I should have my vision tested. I should see a psychiatrist. I should get my hearing checked - though I’m not sure how much good that would do. I only saw her - she never spoke, and she never looked my way.
Though the more and more I saw her, the greater conviction I had that she was real. How would my vision conjure someone like her? Wide eyes, a deep blue-green, that constantly darted around as if searching for something, but never landing on me. A pale, rosy face that noticed no one and was noticed by no one but me.
All through my life all I ever wanted was to not be seen - it was easier that way: you could avoid drama, judgement, horrible people, and problems in general. If you weren't noticed, nobody bothered you, and you could have a perfectly peaceful life. But ever since I started seeing her, all I wanted was for her to notice me. I wanted to be seen.
If I needed to be noticed, I reasoned, I should practice on others. It started with a brighter-colored shirt or a colorful watch to wear to work - a job that paid decently, branch manager of a tech company. Then growing my hair out a few inches longer than usual. From coworkers, I received comments such as, “Oh, those are some interesting socks!” that didn’t seem necessarily positive or negative, but at least confirmed I was noticeable. But soon it became clear there was nothing I could do to get her attention.
The image of her wouldn’t leave me as years went by. I climbed the business ladder and moved to bigger cities - and she was there, too. I bought a sensible apartment and went on a few dates. But I never felt anything real - nothing like the longing to be noticed by her, or the rush of mixed emotions when she almost looked my way. I was dissatisfied with who I was. This was always who I wanted to be when I was younger, sensible and well-off. I was young, thirty-seven, and successful - who wouldn’t want this? But what’s the point if all I ever work to become is nothing?
A long time passed and she stopped appearing. It had been a long time since I had last seen her, but still, at night, she always resurfaced in my mind. There must have been a reason only I could have seen her. She certainly wasn’t normal - she had a strange way of dressing, with shiny black shoes and high-necked frocks that you wouldn’t see on a woman presently. Most peculiarly of all, though I had seen her for several years, she never seemed to change. Her hair was always the same long length, and signs of aging never reached her. As time passed, she was the same, and my career became more consuming than ever. The days blended together, locked in rigid rotation. I almost forgot about her entirely.
Until the day she came back.
I was sitting on my apartment balcony, watching the streets below and drinking coffee. Coffee had been my main source of energy then. Work had become my entire life. There are so many people in this city, I had thought. So many people, moving so fast. After a moment, I realized I was one of those people. How often did I get moments like this, just sitting and thinking? It’s been forever.
It’s also been forever since I’ve seen her, I had thought. My mind wandered down the same well-worn road of wondering about her. Where she came from, why she never changed, what her name was, why only I ever seemed to see her. Why I wanted her to see me so much.
I sat alone, accompanied only by the sound of cars three floors below. I watched the silhouettes of the people passing by, backlit by the shop windows. They mixed together in a flurry of feet, high heels, rubber boots, - questionable, since it hasn’t rained lately - tennis shoes… and then, when all the feet had cleared and the streets were emptied, there was one pair that was standing completely still. A black pair glinting in the light.
If that didn’t make it clear enough that it was her, the copper-gold hair illuminated by the streetlights did. My breath caught in my throat, and my heart quickened with excitement. It was her. And she was staring straight at me.
A surge of emotion grew inside of me. I couldn’t exactly tell what it was, but it made me dart off the balcony, throw my coat around my shoulders, and be out of my apartment and racing toward the stairs before the screen door shut. I didn’t bother with the elevator, but sprinted down the stairs three at a time, silently hoping - praying - that she would still be there when I was down.
She was. Standing in the lamplight exactly where I had seen her moments before. The wind from passing cars disturbed my short black hair, but didn’t seem to affect hers. I walked up to her, and she looked at me, and then I realized I had absolutely no idea what to say.
It seemed she didn’t either. She stared at me cooly, her eyes level with mine. She seemed to be waiting for me to speak.
In a spurt of poetic genius channeled from my preschool days, I said shakily: “My name’s Alex. What’s your name?”
She stepped forward, looking at me. I gasped sharply. The lamplight shone through her body, casting wavering streams of light on me like water reflections. She remained silent, her lips moving.
“Who are you?” I wondered in awe.
Her lips moved again, in the same pattern. Lilah.
“Lilah.” I whispered. She nodded.
My brain strained for a way to ask her why she was the way she was without being offensive. However, since it’s evident I had lost my ability to intelligently speak, I asked, “What’s your favorite color?”
A trace of a smile flickered across her face. She reached into her coat pocket and withdrew a white envelope. I had almost forgotten about it - it was the same one I had seen her holding the day she stood on top of the bank.
She pulled out a letter, and a flurry of pressed rose petals spiraled out. I reached to catch them, and she did at the same time. Her hand passed through mine, and my arm prickled with brief paresthesia. She gathered the petals back in the envelope, folded the letter carefully, and showed me a piece of it, mounting, “Favorite color.”
Far off a child is laughing,
Laughing at the clouds,
Laughing at the raindrops,
Falling in their mouth.
It was an odd little poem, but there was something cheerful and bright about it. “That isn’t a color.”
Her lips moved again, and I strained to decipher what she was saying. “I say it is. Some colors you don’t see. Some you feel.”
In perfect response to her poetic words, I ask, “Was that a letter?”
Drawing a stick of charcoal out of her pocket, she wrote on the back of the envelope.
It is from my brother. I have yet to find him. I do not know where he has died. She tapped on the return address on the envelope, where Theodore was written.
“So you are a ghost.” I say suddenly.
She looked at her hands in surprise, silently speaking. “Goodness. I suppose I am.”
I laughed, and a store owner looked at me oddly as he clicked off the light. He stepped outside and began to walk across the road to his car, and I didn’t want to waste another moment with Lilah. I gave a small gesture to her to walk with me, and we went down the road.
Time passed, and soon it was midnight. She told me about how she had died when she was thirty-eight, her house had burned in her sleep. Her family had escaped just in time, badly hurt but alive. In the morning, she awoke and stepped out of her own body - a pile of ash. I told her about how I had wondered about her for years, always hoping she would turn my way. She explained that she had been searching for Theodore, and really hadn’t realized I could see her until she thought I was looking at her when I was watching the streets.
“All these years of me trying to get your attention, and the one time I’m not looking for you you think I am?” I smiled incredulously, laughing.
She spread her arms, silently saying, “Life - or rather, death - is funny.”
We went on talking, and I told her about my success but unhappiness in work. She asked me what I liked doing, and I told her Iused to like painting, so she told me to at least try doing that. Idiotically, I told her that for her, I would. Time continued to go by, and neither of us showed signs of tiring. Or conversation flickered from lighthearted to serious, and by the time we were back outside my apartment, it was nearing 4:00 AM. I knew I had work in five hours, and I was just about to offer to share the ten gallons of coffee I would be brewing when she grabbed my wrist, sending a shiver of paresthesia up my arm. It’s uncomfortable, but at the same time my brain is screaming, SHE TOUCHED ME!
“I am sorry, Alex,” she looks at me, and I feel as if I can almost hear her voice. “I wish I could stay here with you. You are bringing back things I lost with my life.”
“What does that mean?” I ask quietly, my heart thudding nervously. It can’t be anything good.
“When you die, you lose part of who you are.” She paused, looking at me, waiting for me to understand. “Your senses dim - you cannot speak. You lose the ability to feel.”
“To feel?” I whispered. She nodded slowly, a trace of a frown flickering across her face.
“I’m sure I could have loved you, if you were alive when I was,” she said, pulling a long strand of bronze hair behind her ear. “I should feel sadder than I do, but each day a little bit of me leaves. I am not much of myself anymore. I am not much of Lilah anymore. I am not much of anything anymore. I hope you understand.”
A lurching feeling grew in the pit of my stomach. “You’re fading away.”
She nodded faintly. “I should be afraid. I should be curious as to whether I am going somewhere new or leaving forever. I used to be. But now… not so much.”
I swallowed, tears welling up in my eyes. "I'm so sorry, Lilah."
Her eyes widened, and she stepped forward. "Don't cry," she mouthed silently. "Don't cry for me."
“But…” I inhaled a deep, shaky breath. The feelings I’d felt over the years when I saw her had only solidified now that I knew her. Or what is left of her. "I think I love you, Lilah. I've never felt this before... I've hardly known you - I’ve seen you, and I’ve wondered about you, but not long have I really known you - you say this isn't even the real you - I... I never want you to leave. There's something... I'm afraid for you, Lilah."
She moved her lips again, no sound leaving them, but I could almost hear her voice, coming from somewhere far away. "Don't fear for me, either. Please. I’m sorry." She hugged me, and the paresthesia spread to my entire body, prickling, tingling, hurting, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t even mind the fact that anyone who happened to look out their window at 4:23 AM that day would have seen someone hugging the air under a streetlamp. I just wanted to stay there forever. I closed my eyes for a long time, and when I opened them, my arms ached from being suspended in the air, and I didn’t see a beautiful woman with sea-green eyes who flickered like water. I did, however, see a white envelope with faded rose petals around it on the ground. Slowly, I picked it up and walked back to my apartment.
A decade has come and gone since I spoke with Lilah. I took up painting again as I promised her, and auctioned off my work online until it caught the eye of an art museum in South Carolina. A collection of my work was showcased, paintings of a girl with copper-gold hair and shiny black shoes under a streetlamp, rose petals being caught by a glowing, watery hand, a girl rushing by at a subway, emerald skirts gathered in her fists.
I met my wife at that showing. Her name is Clarise, and she's a journalist. She has brown hair and green eyes and the most beautiful smile in the world. I quit my job and bought a beautiful little house in Georgia for us. On my thirty-eighth birthday, we had a little girl together. She has black, wavy hair like mine, but her wide eyes are a deep green-blue.
Her name is Lilah.