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Knowing that Carlene was all right, Aliss sat down in the ruby chair. Hugh sat at the edge of the sofa closest to her, leaning forward, forearms on his knees, hands wringing.
The numb feeling lingered as Aliss’s mind settled. She gazed at Hugh, recalling more of him, how his manner and the squint of his eye when challenged or riled had always made him seem older. She pictured the first time he shaved his head, when she’d watched each razor stroke marveling at how fierce he looked, and how much stronger. She was drawn to the weight it added to his charm. When they made love afterward, she’d imagined him calmer, more observant of her self-sufficiency and desire to please, but his practicality and intensity remained strongest, drawing her closer, yet confusing her attempts at resolve. He was the same Hugh she’d befriended, trusted and come to love. In the present, he was no different, confusing her again.
In her mind, she heard him say, “You’re the most important thing in the world to me,” before that voice fell away and she realized he was speaking now.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
She considered the question longer than necessary because it didn’t make immediate sense. “Today?”
Hugh leaned toward her with a pained look. “I asked what you remembered from before you left. Haven’t you been listening?”
With memories hopscotching back in dribs and drabs, she appreciated the buffering numbness, aware of wanting to please Hugh up to a point, not because he knew things about her life that she’d forgotten, but because she remembered loving him, having the strong sense that he deserved to be cared for, too.
He sat up and spoke slower. “I know this is hard. We’ve both been through a lot. You’ve got to understand how long I’ve been trying to keep you safe … making sure you could stay. When you stopped recognizing me, I was determined to hang around, like a ghost, until you knew me again.” He pulled his hands over his face. “I was a minute or so behind the path you took, afraid you ended up … well,” he breathed in deep, “you landed here, thank goodness. And that man who followed you… I haven’t seen him since. I took care of things that night, went home to check the business and set things up so I could be away for long chunks of time. When I got back the next morning, you’d forgotten me somehow, wouldn’t buzz me in.”
Aliss recalled his computer business, something about software and services that seemed complicated to her. Except for his idea that someone had followed her, she let the rest evaporate.
She knitted her brow and strained for the right question. “Where am I?”
His face relaxed. “Not at home.”
Some of Aliss’s energy returned as she contemplated this. Looking around the room for some difference to become apparent, she remembered the book of photos she’d flipped through at breakfast. “No,” she said. “That doesn’t make sense. I couldn’t just take over someone else’s life.”
“Right,” he said. “But you got here …” his voice became tinged with nervousness, “you got here just after … this world’s Aliss died.”
Aliss was speechless for thirty seconds, then gasped something unintelligible.
He reached over and took her hand.
She began to lower a thick internal veil. “This all has to stop,” she said. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I think you should leave.”
Hugh measured his words. “You don’t know what you’re saying. I’ve taken care of a lot of this, but it’s time you knew, so we can move on from this point — together. We are supposed to be together.”