A romance with a supernatural twist.
"You know what I'd love to do?" I asked my fiancé Liam. We were having coffee at our favorite coffeehouse, trying to decide how to spend the rest of our Sunday afternoon.
"What would you love to do?" Liam smiled playfully. He gently tugged a strand of my long brown hair and curled it around his finger.
"I'd really love to go to the beach and eat lobster."
Liam stared at me, shocked. "Juliet, since when have you liked the beach?" he asked, his blue eyes shining with curiosity. "And you hate seafood."
It was true. To me, the beach had always been too hot and bright. I'd never cared for lobster or any kind of seafood. And the mere mention of boats had always made me seasick. But that was before my heart transplant.
"I can't explain it," I said. "I just want to go."
"Okay," Liam agreed. He kissed me. "After what you've been through, I'd bring you the moon and stars if I could."
On the drive to the beach, I thought about how lucky I was. I had a second chance at life and I was engaged to the most wonderful man in the world. Liam had stayed with me through everything. Looking at him driving, the wind tossing his golden hair, I was reminded again of how much I loved him. Yet since the transplant, sometimes I felt I had become a different person. What was wrong with me?
I'd known Liam for two years. He was a physical education teacher and I taught kindergarten. He was a specialist who traveled to many schools. He came to our school once a week to help children who needed extra practice in their basic motor skills. The first time I saw him on the playground at the school, my heart told me he was The One.
There must have been a spark in his heart, too, because he asked me out to play volleyball! When we got tired of volleyball games, we'd shoot hoops at the local park. Or we'd meet before school and jog around the pond at the park. Our life together was built around athletics and teaching. We got engaged a year after we met and planned to marry the following spring.
When school started that fall, I got sick. At first I thought it was the flu. My body ached all over and I noticed my heart raced all the time. I tried to ignore it and went back to work after a week. I hated to miss a day of school because the children were always so glad to see me and I felt a responsibility to keep their days as normal as possible. For several weeks I dragged myself to the job. I told Liam I wasn't up to any sports for awhile.
Then one Monday afternoon after my students had gone home and I was preparing the next day's lesson, I suddenly felt dizzy. I remember thinking I'd better sit down. Then everything went black.
I woke up in the hospital. After many tests, the doctors told me a virus had damaged my heart. Although the virus was gone, the damage to my heart was permanent. My only hope was a heart transplant.
I was terrified. I'd always been healthy and active. The prospect of being disabled was sobering.
Liam was wonderful. He held me and told me over and over, "You're going to make it. The doctors will find you a new heart."
"You don't know that." I wept in his arms.
"Juliet, I know it sounds crazy, but I do know it. You're going to get a new heart and we're going to be married. Maybe not this spring like we planned, but I know it will happen. I know it in my heart."
My damaged heart wasn't convinced, but I drew strength from Liam's assurances. In spite of his love and devotion, though, I felt very alone. I missed my parents. They had both been killed in a car accident soon after I graduated from college. When they died, no one had asked me for permission to transplant their organs. While I waited for a heart, I couldn't help thinking that if I'd known about transplants, their deaths might have helped other people.
I talked with Dr. Thomas, the transplant surgeon, about my parents. He explained that some organs had to be taken right at the moment of death. "For example, hearts and lungs have to be functioning, so we have to take them from a patient who is brain dead. That is when there's no activity in the brain at all, even if the heart and the rest of the body are functioning.
"In your parents' case, we don't know how much trauma occurred to their internal organs. There are parts of the body, like skin we need for burn patients or parts of the eye, that can be transplanted after the death of the donor. But doctors often don't want to ask a newly bereaved relative for permission. They might be afraid the grieving person may become angry."
"I wish I had known about transplants then," I said. "I think it would have been wonderful if my parents could have helped someone see again or provided skin to burn patients so they could get well and go back to their families."
Dr. Thomas was reassuring about my own situation. "You're a good candidate for a transplant because you're in excellent health other than your heart problem. You're lucky you have O positive blood. It's the most common type in the United States.
"I'm going to send you home in a few days. While you're waiting for the transplant, you muct have complete rest. I don't want any stress on your heart. Don't climb stairs or do anything else physical."
I sighed. "I guess that means I can't go back to work," I said sadly.
"No, I'm sorry. Not until after you get your new heart and you've had a chance to recover from that surgery. Keep a positive attitude," he advised. "You've got a lot going for you."
When I was released from the hospital, Liam took me back to my apartment. Luckily, it was on the ground floor. I was so weak, I had to use a wheelchair to get around. I also needed to keep a working cell phone on me and stay close to the hospital. If Dr. Thomas found a heart, I'd have surgery immediately.
I spent a lot of time reading and watching television. I missed my students. I missed going out with Liam and all the ball games we used to play. I got tired of being in my apartment, but it was such a struggle to get out and maneuver in my wheelchair. I felt stuck. Life on my own felt overwhelming. It scared me to read that about twenty-five percent of people waiting for a heart transplant die before a heart becomes available.
Thankfully, Liam spent time with me in the evenings and on weekends. We'd sit out on the patio where I could see the green trees and the mountains that separated our valley from the ocean.
A month after I'd gotten out of the hospital seemed like it had been years. "Aren't you sad to be stuck with me?" I asked Liam.
"What, are you crazy?" Liam took my hand and kissed it.
"There are a lot of women in the world who would love you. Women who "
"Stop right there," Liam said. "I don't want another woman. I want you."
"You can't be sure there's a future with me," I said. "There are so many things that can go wrong even if I get the transplant."
"Sweetie, there are never any guarantees in life. I could get hit by a truck tomorrow."
"Don't say that!" I cried.
"Oh, you do have some feeling for me," Liam teased. He smiled, trying to cheer me up.
But I wasn't going to be sidetracked so easily. "I love you," I told him. "I've thought a lot about you this past month. That's why I'm willing to let you go. It can't be much fun, being tied to an invalid. That's not what you wanted when you asked me to marry you."
"I asked you to marry me because I want to spend the rest of my life with you. In sickness and in health. Remember? We haven't made those promises yet in front of a minister, but I've already made that commitment."
"But things have changed. I'm not the woman you fell in love with. I can't do anything without being exhausted."
"Do you still love me?" Liam asked.
"Of course I do."
"Then what else matters?"
"Oh, don't give me that love-conquers-all speech. I don't want to hear it." I turned away from him and stared at the sky. Blinking back tears, I watched the clouds form. Maybe we'd have rain today.
"Look, Juliet, I know you're having a hard time. It isn't easy to face death."
"It isn't death that scares me. Even if I live, even if I marry you, our lives will never be the way I planned. I wanted to have children one day. I wanted to have your child. Now that will probably be impossible. Don't you want to have children?"
"Right now we need to get you safely through the transplant. That's what is important."
"You need to realize what you're getting yourself into. I don't want you to look at me someday and see the woman who ruined your chance to have a good life."
"That is not how I feel," Liam said. "And I promise you I'll never feel that way."
"I just want you to have the best."
"I do have the best. I have you."
"You're not being very practical," I grumbled.
"Who said anything about love is practical?"
My cell phone rang. It was Dr. Thomas. "A new heart is waiting for you."
"Not at all. We need you here as soon as possible."
After the waiting, everything seemed to happen so fast. While Liam was driving me to the hospital, he said, "I can't believe how lucky you are."
"I know. The doctor said the heart is a perfect match. He also said the donor was declared brain dead after an accident and his parents have agreed to donate the organs." I shook my head. "I know this is my chance to get well. But I can't help feeling bad for the person who died and the family."
"I know. Think of it this way it's a chance for some of that person to live on in you."
"You're right. I've thought of that, too."
Once we got to the hospital, my life was turned over to the doctor and staff. I felt like a celebrity when everyone rushed around to get me to the operating room. My last conscious thought was of Liam, wondering if I would see him again.
When I woke up in the intensive care unit, the first person I saw was Liam.
"Hey, gorgeous. How are you feeling?"
The breathing tube kept me from talking. I squeezed his hand instead. Liam looked tired. I wanted to reach out and brush the hair off his forehead, but my arms were full of intravenous tubes. Inside me, my new heart beat steadily.
In the days that followed, I was in a lot of pain. After all, to get the new heart, the surgeon had to crack open my chest, take out my heart and replace it. All that moving around of the internal organs was traumatic to my body.
Dr. Thomas said the surgery had gone well. After my stay in the ICU, I was moved to another section of the hospital. The day I was able to get up and walk was the biggest thrill in my new life. A nurse on one side to steady me and Liam on the other, we walked around my little room.
"Whoa, now, don't overdo it," Liam said as I headed for another circle.
"But I'm not tired."
Liam and the nurse steered me back toward the bed.
"Tomorrow you can go a little farther," the nurse promised.
"We'll get down the hallway tomorrow," Liam said. "Then the next day we'll waltz in the visiting room."
I tried to laugh. It came out as a cough, which made my chest hurt.
The nurse went on to her next patient.
Liam leaned closed and we kissed.
I smiled. "This is so special, Liam. You've been there for me every minute. I know I'm not fully recovered, but I feel good. Much better than before the surgery. And I have you. What more could I ask for?"
Liam laughed. "We'll talk about the wedding another time." He spent the rest of the day entertaining me with stories from school. After we said goodnight, I watched him leave, aware with every heartbeat of exactly how much I loved that man.
It was hard to get to sleep. I wanted to stretch my legs again, but I was afraid to try walking without help. Besides, I wanted Liam to be with me when I walked into the hall for the first time. I wanted to go down to the waiting room with Liam, out of the hospital with Liam, into my new life with Liam. Eventually I fell asleep thinking of all the ways we would be together.
In my dream, I was walking on the beach. A cool morning breeze caressed my face as sandpipers played peek-a-boo in the ocean's waters and waves crashed on the mist-shrouded shore.
A small red boat materialized out of the mist and landed on the beach. Near it was a man dressed in a wetsuit. I felt compelled to walk toward him. I was sure I'd never seen him before, yet he seemed oddly familiar.
When he saw me, he reached into the boat and pulled out a heart-shaped red construction paper card. It reminded me of the cards my kindergarten students made for Valentine's Day. He handed me the card and I saw it had set sets of initials: N.F. and J.C.
"J.C.. That's me, Juliet Carver. But who is N.F. Is that you?"
He pushed the boat out into the water.
"Wait, I want to talk to you!"
He stopped and turned toward me. I walked closer to him. He embraced me, then kissed me on the cheek. "Juliet," he whispered in my ear. His cold breath chilled me. He let me go, turned and pushed his boat out on the water, vanishing like a ghost into the mist.
I startled awake.
"Shh, shh," the night nurse said. As she bent over me, I read her name tag. Jessie. "I didn't mean to wake you. I just needed to get a blood pressure reading." She removed the cuff. "Don't worry, your pressure is normal. Were you having a nightmare? You look upset."
"I'm okay," I said. I swallowed and smiled shakily at her. "I just had a strange dream, that's all. I saw a man I've never seen before, but he seemed to know me. And he kissed me."
"Was he good looking?" the nurse asked.
"Well, yes, come to think of it, he was. But I'm engaged! I shouldn't be dreaming about other men."
"Well, honey, if you don't want him, send him to me. I could use a dream lover." The nurse left the room, chuckling.
When Liam came to visit the next day, I was too embarrassed to tell him about the dream. He helped me walk to the hall and down the long corridor, there and back. It was exhilarating and exhausting.
That night, I had the same dream. This time, when I awoke, the room was dark. I lay in bed wondering. Had Liam's conviction before the transplant that the dead person would live in me come back to haunt me?
In the morning, I quizzed Dr. Thomas about the heart donor. "Can't you tell me more about him?"
The doctor answered with another question. "Why do you want to know?"
I couldn't tell him about my dreams. "I'm just curious."
"I can tell you the man was in his twenties and he was in a boating accident, but that's about all," Dr. Thomas said.
That explained the red boat.
"I'm sorry I can't be more open. The law says I have to protect the confidentiality of the donor. It works both ways, you know. The donor's family is not allowed to know the identity of the recipient, either."
Liam came into the room after Dr. Thomas left. "How's the most beautiful woman in the world doing this morning?" he asked, kissing me.
I laughed. "Great. Just waiting for the handsomest man in the world to show up."
Liam helped me walk down to the visiting room where he dared me to dance with him.
I wanted to get out of the hospital, so I worked hard to regain my strength. I pushed myself to walk farther, to do the breathing exercises that cleared my lungs. I was anxious to go back out in the world and go forward to the new life that had been given me.
But at night, at the hospital, my defenses were down. The vision of the other man kept returning. I kept trying to push him out of my mind. I couldn't confide about dreaming of another man to Liam. What would he think of a woman who said she was madly in love with him, yet kept dreaming of someone else? And why was it always the same man? How could I be obsessed with him if I didn't know who he was? I felt so alone. There was nobody I could talk to. If I said anything, everyone would think I was crazy.
Liam was waiting in front of the hospital with the car door open. Gratefully, I stepped out into the sunshine and smelled the fresh air. It was wonderful to be alive.
That night the mystery man appeared again in my dreams. Once more, I woke up hearing the echo of him whispering my name. I liked the way he said my name. Maybe I liked it too much.
But Liam was always there during the day, my flesh-and-blood love, to take away the strange longings I felt.
Slowly I became independent again. Once I could do my own laundry and even cook dinner for Liam, I felt more capable. Because I was immune-compromised, Dr. Thomas didn't want me to work for awhile, especially around young children who could pass along a cold or a fever. Perhaps because I couldn't work, I often found myself being short-tempered with Liam. Some days I felt fully recovered. However, on the days I wasn't feeling well, I took it out on him. Once I even snapped at him for leaving an open jar of applesauce on the counter instead of putting it back in the refrigerator. When I apologized, he took me in his arms and said, "I knew we'd have some bad days. I understand you must be going through some difficult times, even now."
"Why are you willing to put up with me, even when I'm being unfair?"
"Juliet, I am so grateful you're still alive. I know I said you would come through the surgery all right, but there were times when I had doubts, too. I didn't want to share any negative thoughts with you. I made a promise to myself that I would deal with anything as long as you were with me. Having you makes my life worth living."
How could anyone be angry with a man like that?
"Listen," he said. "Tomorrow's Sunday. We'll do anything you like."
"Anything?" I teased, giving him a suggestive look. Liam wanted to wait before we resumed having sex, afraid he would hurt me.
"Well, almost anything." As he kissed me goodnight, my heart racing in my body, I told myself Liam truly was my dream lover. So why was I kissing Liam and thinking about N.F., the mystery man?
That night in my dream I walked along the beach and saw the man in the wetsuit by the boat again. This time, I thought, I'll find out what's going on. I decided to kiss him on the mouth and see if I felt as passionately about him as I did about Liam. He embraced me and handed me the Valentine. "Juliet," he whispered in my ear. I turned toward his lips, let them touch mine. Once again, the coolness of his body shocked me, but I wanted more of him. I breathed in deeply. He dissolved into mist as I breathed his body into mine.
I woke up crying. How could this be happening? I loved Liam, not N.F., whoever he was. Yet somehow, I felt his body was part of me. I tried to put the dream out of my mind. Nevertheless, I tossed and turned until dawn.
The time had come to face the issue. Somehow I had to stop being haunted by a man I had never met. Liam drove me down to the beach to eat lobster, but the mystery man was with me, too, dogging my steps. And we were going to the beach, something I'd never enjoyed before I got my new heart.
At the restaurant, we watched the pounding surf from our window table. I ate a big bowl of clam chowder and a whole Maine lobster. Everything tasted delicious.
"Don't you find it a bit strange that you are suddenly so fond of lobster?" Liam asked. "Especially since you never cared for it before."
"I guess this is the new me." I frowned. "Sometimes I feel so odd, like I'm not myself." I fiddled with the edge of the linen tablecloth.
Liam put his fork down, ignoring the remains of his fish and chips. "The doctors told me that patients who receive heart transplants have the hardest time adjusting post-surgery compared with other transplant patients. They said it's because we think of the heart as the place where we feel emotions."
"I know," I said. "They mentioned that to me, too. Most of the time, I'm happy. But sometimes I feel sad when I remember when I first saw you, it was my heart that said you were the one for me. And I don't have that heart anymore." I hesitated, wondering if I should tell him what was really bothering me.
"Juliet, what's wrong?" Liam gazed at me tenderly, melting my heart.
I didn't want to hurt him, yet I owed him the truth. "I keep having strange dreams."
"Look, if I tell you about it, I don't want you to overreact. They're just dreams."
"Frankly, since I don't know what you're talking about, I can't promise how I'll feel." Liam leaned back in his chair.
In some ways, Liam was very predictable. We had promised to be totally open with each other and I owed it to him to keep that promise. I'd been dreading this moment. I would have to admit I'd been keeping something from him. He didn't know about the mystery man who had invaded my dreams, touching my very soul.
I sighed. "In my dreams, there's a man. I'm on the beach with him. He's tall and dark and he's standing by a red boat. The man kisses me on the cheek and hands me a Valentine. It has my initials and some other initials on it. But I've never seen him before."
"What are you telling me? You've fallen in love with someone else?" Liam crossed his arms over his chest. He looked so sad it broke my heart.
"No, no, no. You've got it all wrong. That's not what I'm saying at all. How can I love him if I've never seen the man in real life?" I twisted the edge of the tablecloth into a knot. "Look, this is going to sound bizarre. But I think he's the man who gave me his heart."
"The donor?" Liam thought for a moment. "How could you possibly be having dreams about him? Juliet, you're not making sense."
"I didn't say it was logical or I could explain it." Unbidden tears rose in my eyes.
"Okay." Liam rubbed his forehead. "Maybe you're feeling a little guilty because his dying meant you could live. It doesn't mean he's trying to contact you from the grave or something."
"Then how can you explain my dreaming about this particular man? Or wanting to go to the beach? Or eating lobster?"
"You've had a close brush with death. A lot of people must see things differently after an experience like that."
"But why these cravings that are so specific? And multiple dreams with the same man? Saying it's a new lease on life doesn't make sense."
"Okay, for the sake of argument, let's say it does have something to do with the donor. We only know that person was in an accident." He paused, then added, "Maybe you're being sympathetic. Remember that time your teaching assistant got ulcers and you started to have stomach pains?"
"Yes, I remember. I think this is a little more serious than that."
"Hmmm." Liam thought a minute. "What did you say his initials are?"
"Okay. So we need to find out what the donor's initials were. Maybe the hospital will tell us."
"The hospital can't give out that information," I said. "I asked about the donor after my surgery. They say it's confidential."
"I bet we can find something in the newspaper," Liam said. "I'm at the school tomorrow, but we could look it up online after I'm done. We'll find him. I don't want someone else in my woman's life."
I brushed away my tears. Why hadn't I thought to investigate on my own before? On the other hand, maybe it would be best to check it out with Liam by my side. My spirits lifted considerably. "That's a good idea," I said.
Liam finished his meal and we walked down the cliffs to the beach.
I hugged him. "Thank you for understanding." We kissed and my new heart beat faster. We walked hand in hand on the beach and collected little shells from the sand. As we watched the sunset, a sense of calm I hadn't felt in a long time settled over me like a protective cloak.
I didn't dream at all that night.
The next day, Liam came over and we sat down in front of my computer. We checked to see if there were any accidents around the time of my transplant. Sure enough, there was a small article about Nathan Fontaine, diver for a salvage company, who had been injured in a boating accident and was on life support. The day of his death was the day I got my new heart. Above the article was a small photograph.
It was the man in my dream. An icy hand squeezed my heart. Oh, no, I thought. Then the world turned black.
When I awoke, Jessie, the nurse, was taking my pulse. "Long time, no see," she said.
"I thought you worked nights."
"I finally got day shift."
"Well, I put in for a change and I finally got seniority."
I shook my head and she realized I wasn't asking about her.
"Oh, you mean, what happened to get you here? You fainted. Scared your fiancé to death, so to speak. How do you feel now?"
"Okay, I guess."
"Dr. Thomas wants you to stay in the hospital for observation and some tests."
"It doesn't mean anything bad is happening," she said. "We just need to check it out, make sure everything is working right."
"Do you think my body's rejecting the heart?" I asked. Like all transplant recipients, rejection was what I feared most. I was very careful to take the medicines I'd been given every day; that made rejection less likely. Even so, organ rejection was always a possibility.
"No need to worry now," Jessie said cheerily. "Dr. Thomas will check you out tomorrow. Do you feel like having visitors? Your fiancé is outside waiting."
"Sure," I said.
Jessie left the room. I heard her say, "Five minutes."
Liam came in and brushed my lips with his. "Juliet, how are you doing? It's a good thing I caught you or you'd have a bump on your head."
"Thank you, Liam," I said. "It was the photo. The donor. He was the man in my dream." Tears ran down my face.
Liam cradled me in his arms. "Shh, shh," he said. "Don't think about it right now. We'll talk about it tomorrow, after you see the doctor."
Jessie came back and told Liam the five minutes were up. "Juliet needs to rest."
The next day, Dr. Thomas did all kinds of tests to check my heart. After everything was done, he came to see me. "Everything looks good," he said. "There's no sign of rejection. Be sure to take your meds on schedule and you should be fine." He raised his eyebrows in a question. "Your fiancé says you were looking for the donor."
"Yes, we were."
He shook his head. "We spoke about this before. I want to discourage you from doing that. The rules are in place to protect your privacy and the donor's privacy."
"I understand." And I did. But what he didn't understand was it wasn't me who had started the search. It was the donor who was seeking me.
Jessie wheeled me out of the hospital this time. "I'm still waiting for that dream man," she said.
"Believe me, if I could get rid of him I would," I told her. "He seems to stick to me like glue."
"Well, maybe there's a reason he's hanging around."
"Maybe so," I muttered.
Liam waited at the curb to take me home. We looked at each other. "No more detective work," we said at the same time.
But N.F. didn't agree. He haunted me mercilessly. The more I tried to push him out of my dreams, the more he resisted. Night after night he came to me. Finally, I tried getting aggressive with him. I slapped him, kicked him, knocked him down. Once I held him under the water until he stopped moving. I looked at his blue, motionless body and shivered. He may have only been a ghost, but I was sorry I'd killed him that way.
As it turned out, I hadn't done him in. The next night, he was back again, whispering in my ear. "Juliet."
"What do you want from me?" I asked.
He whispered so softly I could scarcely hear him. "I want you to know me."
"I can't know you. It isn't allowed. There are laws against it." I didn't want to tell him I was afraid to know him, afraid of what I'd find, afraid that I was no longer Juliet Carver, but some strange creature with a double soul, whose joined parts had cancelled out my humanity and made me a monster.
"I allow it," the ghost said.
"Do you want your heart back. Is that it?"
"No. It's yours now. I just want you to know who I was," he pleaded.
I woke up in a cold sweat. I must be hallucinating, I thought. This is not happening to me. I can't be having visions of a dead man.
Yet I knew I had to settle this. I found another newspaper article on the internet again and forced myself to study the picture. Nathan Fontaine. N.F. The short article merely reported he had been injured while scuba diving and was on life support. His boss at the salvage company had told the reporter that Nathan had been an excellent employee who loved his work.
I sat staring at the photo for quite awhile. Then I decided what I had to do. I checked phone listings and found his name.
"Let's see what happens if I call the number." I'd never been in the habit of talking to myself, but I'd started lately. It helped to keep the ghost out of my mind. "Maybe N.F. has a roommate. Or maybe the call will be forwarded." I was so nervous I fumbled with the buttons on the phone and the call didn't connect. I tried again, only to hear, "We're sorry, that number has been disconnected.
I went back to the news site and found an obituary. In it, I found his parents' names and it listed the cemetery where he was buried.
"Well, this is creepy," I said to myself. "I don't want to go to the cemetery. . . . His parents could tell me if he was the donor. There's no other way to find out." I sighed. "But what can I say to them? Maybe they won't want to see me. To them I might be only a reminder of their son's death."
I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. "On the other hand," I argued with myself, "They must be special people. They had to sign the papers for the transplant that gave me their son's heart. Maybe it would help them to meet the person whose life they saved."
Part of me wanted to meet Nathan's parents. Part of me did not. I finally told myself, "It's too much, too soon. It's okay to go slow. You found the names of his parents. That's enough for one day." I'd filled up on information and couldn't absorb any more.
I went home and ate dinner alone. Liam called and asked if he could come over. I brushed him off. "I'm tired," I said. That was true, but it wasn't the whole story and Liam knew it. He said he'd call back in the morning, which irritated me. And it bothered me that I was irritable with him. Obviously, this was one of those times I wouldn't be happy, no matter what Liam or I did.
For the next week, I avoided Liam and my ghost Nathan as best I could. Liam would call, my answering machine would pick up, and I wouldn't return his call. When Nathan appeared in my dreams, I wouldn't let him near me. I covered my ears and screamed when he tried to whisper my name.
Yet during the day I often went to the beach, watching the waves crash on the sand. It was peaceful and quiet. At the beach, I was left alone. It was bliss.
One night, I called the Fontaine house from my apartment. I held my breath until a man's voice answered. The sound was so much like the ghost's voice, just a touch lower, that I dropped the phone. When I picked up the receiver, Mr. Fontaine was asking, "Is anyone there?" I couldn't bear to hear more of the voice so much like my ghost, come alive. I hung up the phone.
The next night a woman answered. I started to cry.
"Hello, who's there?" she asked in a soft, pleasant voice.
I hung up the phone again. I felt so sorry for them. It wasn't fair to add to their burden. I had to get myself together. "I mustn't call anymore," I told myself.
When Liam showed up at my apartment, I was still thinking about Nathan and his family.
"Juliet, I'm worried about you," Liam said. He stood in the doorway because I hadn't invited him in. "Why aren't you returning my calls?"
"I mean to. I forgot." I couldn't look at him.
"Juliet, it's me, Liam, your fiancé. Remember?
"Yes, I remember. You don't have to be sarcastic."
"I want things to be the way they were," Liam said. He leaned against the door frame and smiled. Another time, perhaps, I would have been charmed, but not now.
"That would be fine, except I'm not the way I was," I said. "And I have to find out about this man who's haunting me."
"We agreed you wouldn't do that. I don't want you to pursue it. It's hurting you."
"No. You don't get it. It's not knowing that's hurting me. I have to do this." I grabbed his shoulders and shook him with an intensity that surprised us both. "I have to," I repeated.
Liam put his arms around me. "Then at least let me help. Let me be with you. I hate not seeing you." He tried to kiss me, but I pulled away.
"Liam, I love you. But you can't help me. I have to work it out myself. Please be patient. I know what I'm doing." My mouth was saying the words, but my brain was thinking: You know what you're doing? Who are you kidding?
"All right." Liam shrugged his shoulders. "What do you want me to do? Pick up the pieces when you're done? This is our relationship. You're throwing it away like it means absolutely nothing to you."
"Look. Our relationship is on hold until I straighten this thing out. It isn't your fault, it isn't my fault, it's just the ways things are right now." I crossed my arms over my chest and leaned away from him.
"What about my feelings? Am I supposed to put them on hold until you want to come back to me?"
"Yes. That's exactly what I want."
His eyes closed. A spasm of pain contorted his face. He opened his eyes. "Fine, you've got it," he said tartly. "Just remember, you can't love a dead man." He turned and hurried down the hall.
I grabbed the door and yelled after him, "Leave me alone!" Storming back into the living room, I knocked over all the photos on the fireplace mantle with a sweep of my hand. They crashed to the hearth and the floor, the glass smashing into shards on the hardwood. How could he think I loved a ghost? Why couldn't he understand I needed to know all about me, this new me that included a foreign heart?
Liam's disapproval made me even more determined to find out all I could about the mysterious Nathan Fontaine. I found his parents' address on the internet and often went out of my way to drive by the house. The home was painted a cheerful yellow with white trim. The well-manicured lawn was bordered by red roses that rambled along a split-rail fence. Driving by in the daytime, I never saw any activity. I would have wondered if anyone lived at that address, except in the evenings I would sometimes see shadows pass behind the curtains of the living room. Eventually, when I got bolder, I sat in my car across from the house after the sun went down.
One night, the curtains were open. I watched the blue glow of the television and the shadows of Nathan's parents as they sat in the living room. When a figure got up and looked out the window, I slouched down behind the wheel. I was afraid the person had seen me, but no one came out.
The next morning when I drove by, a small red boat sat in the driveway with a For Sale sign on the front of it.
"It's the boat," I whispered. I parked my car down the block and walked back to the house. The polished boat sat on a trailer, obviously well maintained. I ran the palm of my hand along its side. This boat was not a dream.
"It's a beauty." A tall, dark, older man came out of the house. He walked over and stood by me.
"It's great," I agreed. "Why are you selling it?"
The man's face darkened. "It was my son's. He died in an accident. My wife and I decided to let it go. . . . Have you ever piloted a boat?"
"No, never." I took a deep breath. It was time. Time to ask him what I'd come to ask. Time to end all my suspicions. "You're Mr. Fontaine, aren't you?"
He nodded, surprised.
"Mr. Fontaine, I'm not here to buy the boat. I'd like to talk to you about your son."
"You knew Nathan?"
"Not exactly. Mr. Fontaine, this is going to sound strange. I was given a wonderful gift everal months ago. I received a heart transplant from someone who died in a boating accident. I think my new heart once belonged to your son."
Mr. Fontaine looked stunned.
A woman came out to the porch. "Dean? Is everything all right?"
"Yes, fine," Mr. Fontaine called back. He turned to me. "Would you like to come in?"
"Thank you," I said. I went inside and introduced myself to Nathan's parents. On the mantle above the living room fireplace there were family pictures. "It's him," I whispered. "This is the man in my dream."
Mr. Fontaine pointed to one. "That's Nathan and his boat. He was our only child. We didn't have a child for a long time. We thought we'd never be able to have one. Then Nathan came along. That boy loved water even as a baby. He swam like a fish. When he got older, he learned to snorkel, then scuba dive. He bought that boat you saw outside. We used to tease him that he lived for that boat. He loved it and everything about the ocean. Nathan said that's where he felt most alive." He took the photo down and hugged it to his chest. "We still don't know exactly what happened. They think Nathan must have hit his head. He wasn't breathing when his diving partner found him. He was revived, but his brain was dead.
Tears sprang into my eyes. "I'm so sorry."
Mrs. Fontaine spoke. "Nathan was a generous person. We knew his driver's license indicated he wanted to be a donor. When the doctors said there was nothing more that could be done for him, we requested that his organs be donated."
"I guess this is when I come into the picture," I said. I told them my story, how sick I'd been and how the transplant gave me new life. "I want to thank you for everything, to tell you how grateful I am."
Mrs. Fontaine asked, "But how did you know it was Nathan?"
"Well, this is going to sound bizarre. I've seen him in my dreams. I found the article about a man's death the same day I got the transplant. Everything just clicked."
"Does he talk to you in your dream?"
"What does he say?"
"He wants me to know who he was," I said. "Actually, I'm ashamed to say it, but I've been trying to avoid dreaming about him. It just seems weird to dream about someone I've never met."
Mrs. Fontaine cried in her husband's arms, her shoulders shaking.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. Maybe I shouldn't have come here." I got a package of tissues out of my purse and offered it to her.
Mrs. Fontaine took the package and pulled out a tissue. "No, please. I'm glad you're here. I'm a little jealous, actually. I wish I could dream of Nathan. I hate to think of him gone forever."
I reached out to hold her hand. "He isn't gone, not all of him. I have his heart."
"It isn't the same," she said. "I can't touch him or hold him in the way I want."
"Of course. I do understand. It must be so hard for you. I wish I'd had a chance to know him." I was surprised to hear myself saying those words, but they were true.
After Mrs. Fontaine dried her tears and composed herself, I asked, "This may sound strange, but did Nathan have any favorite foods? Things he especially liked to eat?"
"As my husband says, he liked everything about the ocean. He could eat seafood every day if he could. And he was crazy about lobster."
I explained to Nathan's parents about my craving for lobster and also about wanting to go to the beach. "I know it isn't logical, but I think I acquired a few of Nathan's characteristics along with his heart."
"I'm happy to heart that," Mrs. Fontaine said. "I'd like to think that part of what made Nathan so special still lives on."
We talked for awhile longer. When I got up to leave, Mrs. Fontaine said, "Thank you so much for coming. It means a lot."
"I'm glad I did. It was a pleasure to meet you both." I shook hands with Mr. Fontaine and gave Mrs. Fontaine a quick hug and kiss on the cheek. Mr. Fontaine walked me out toward my car.
Out on the driveway, I looked longingly at the boat. It was as if the boat were calling to me. I sighed.
"Let's take her out for a spin," Mr. Fontaine said.
"Are you sure? You'll really take me out?
"Sure. Just let me ask Edith if she wants to come."
They both came back. Mr. Fontaine hooked up the boat trailer to their van and we drove off.
At the marina, Mr. Fontaine lowered the boat in the water, then parked the van. The three of us got in the boat and he started the engine. Mr. Fontaine backed the boat out, turned around, and we sped past the breakwater into the open ocean.
I expected to get seasick, but my stomach was fine. "This is wonderful," I said.
Mr. Fontaine stopped the engine and we sat as the boat rocked quietly to the rhythm of the waves. The bright sun rippled over the water. Seagulls flew overhead. Peace washed over me like the tide.
"I love this place," I said. "I don't think I've been this happy since. . . well, since my surgery."
The Fontaines exchanged smiles. "Would you like to pilot her?" Mr. Fontaine asked, inclining his head toward the steering wheel.
"Really? That would be great."
He showed me how to start up the engine and steer. Piloting the boat was much like driving a car. I found it very easy.
"You're a natural," Mr. Fontaine said.
We spent all day on the ocean. When we drove back to the Fontaine house, I was so exhausted that I fell asleep in the car. It was a comforting sleep, with no ghosts to trouble me.
Mr. Fontaine parked the boat in the driveway. When he walked by the boat, he pulled the For Sale sign off of it.
I looked at him, surprised.
"Edith and I were talking while you slept. We want to keep the boat so you can use it. We'd like to give it to you."
"Oh, I couldn't," I automatically protested. "I live in an apartment. I'd have no place to put it."
"That wouldn't be a problem. Just let us know when you want to use it and we'll take it down to the marina for you whenever you want to go out. It would mean a lot to us to know that someone who loves it is using it."
"Well, let me think about it," I said, but I knew when I left that my heart would lead me back here to say yes.
I drove home and fell into bed. What an eventful day it had been! That night, I dreamed again of Nathan. This time, I didn't try to kill him or scare him away!
"Juliet," he whispered in my ear. "Thank you." The ghost held me by the shoulders and looked me in the face. "Now you know who I was. That's all I wanted from you. I can leave you now."
"Nathan, it's okay. Your parents loved you very much and they are so sad you're not with them now."
The ghost wavered and trembled a bit at my words. "But you can be with them, in a way," he said. "I mean, you're a part of what's left of me."
"I can't be their child. I can't be the Nathan they loved."
"I know. I don't want you to be me. But you are different now. You are not the Juliet Carver who went into surgery."
"That's true," I agreed. "I've changed. I'm happy I carry a part of you inside me. And I'm happy that you are in my life." I was surprised to say it, surprised to want a ghost haunting me. I'd accepted him as part of me, a part that enriched my life.
In our dream, we walked along the beach and collected shells from the sand. I held his hand, not like a lover, but like a long-lost brother who had been found again.
The Fontaines took me out on the boat once a week. I knew it was time to reconcile with Liam. I just wasn't sure how to go about it. I decided to ask Mr. and Mrs. Fontaine if I could use the boat on my own. I explained what I planned to do and they agreed. Mr. Fontaine said he have the boat in the water waiting for me at the marina. Then I called Liam and asked him to meet me there the next day.
"If this has something to do with your ghost, then forget it. Count me out."
"I'll be there at noon," I said. "Wear your bathing suit."
I went by the Fontaine house to thank them in advance.
"Good luck," Mrs. Fontaine said.
"Have a great time," Mr. Fontaine said. They both waved as I drove away. It was kind of like leaving home.
Liam was at the marina at noon, just as I'd requested.
"I hoped you would be here," I said, kissing him long and hard. When we came up for air, I said, "I missed you."
"Have you managed to exorcise your ghost?" he asked.
"Now, none of that," I said. I grabbed his hand and we walked down the dock. "This is the boat."
"It's a boat, that's nice."
"No, it's not a boat. It's the boat. The boat in my dream."
"Juliet, if you're going to start that stuff again, I'm done," Liam snapped.
"Well, you're going to have to be interested if you want me in your life."
"I am not going to compete with a ghost."
"You're not competing with a ghost," I assured him. "Look, I'm not the woman you fell in love with. I've changed. I'm sorry for what I've put you through. What I put us through. But I needed to know that basically I am still me and that I still love you. I'm also different than I was and you need to decide if those difference are okay or if we should call it quits."
Liam looked at me, astonished.
"Come on. We're going out on my boat."
"Your boat? What are you talking about?"
"Nathan's parents gave it to me. If you want to find out the rest of the story, you'll have to come on board." I jumped in the boat, pulled the tether ropes off and started the motor.
Liam stood on the dock. I motioned him to get on. He didn't budge. I gunned the motor and motioned again. This time he jumped in.
"Where'd you learn to drive this thing?" he asked.
I grinned and took off.
Out on the ocean, I stopped and anchored the boat. I got out a picnic lunch and we ate. Then we talked for several hours. I told him about the Fontaines, the last dream I'd had of Nathan and how happy I was that I had accepted him as part of my life. "This is not a competition. There's no other love interest," I said. "And now I'm ready to be with you. I want to be your wife. Are you willing to accept me as I am, ghost-occupied and all?"
"Does this mean the ghost will be with us on our honeymoon?" Liam asked.
"Yep, it's a package deal. Love me, love my ghost."
"I'm going to have to think about it."
"Okay, think. I'm going swimming." I took off the shorts and shirt covering my bathing suit and jumped in the water. "Come on in," I teased Liam. "The water's fine!"
Liam joined me and we slowly swam around the boat, following little fish that played hide-and-seek with us. I grabbed Liam and kissed him underwater, then we surfaced to breathe in the salt air. We clung together in each other's arms, treading water, embraced by the sea.
"I love you, Juliet," Liam said. "I love all of you."
With those words, I realized that Liam was still the man for me. "Does this mean the wedding is on?" I asked.
"Yes, yes, yes." Liam kissed me with each yes.
We climbed back in the boat and dried off. We sat together, kissing and caressing as we watched the sunset.
"We'd better get back," Liam said.
"I want you to meet Nathan's parents. I haven't known them very long, but they seem like family to me."
"I wonder why," Liam teased.
"No, really," I said. "They're great."
"Are you taking me home to meet Mom and Dad?"
"Yeah, sort of," I admitted.
"Will I have to ask them for your hand in marriage?"
"Maybe," I laughed.
We parked the boat at the marina, as Mr. Fontaine had requested. Liam followed me in his car back to the Fontaine house, where I introduced Liam to them.
Soon we were all laughing and chatting together. When we left, Mrs. Fontaine gave me a wink and a nod. Mr. Fontaine gave me a thumbs-up sign.
Liam came back to my apartment and I fixed us a late-evening candlelight dinner. Afterwards, we shared our thoughts, our feelings, our bodies. When I fell asleep, I dreamed Liam and I were walking along the beach. We came to the boat. Nathan was there.
Nathan hugged me and I smiled at him. He whispered in my ear, "Juliet, I have to leae you now."
I panicked. "No! Don't leave me!" I tried to hold on to him, but he backed away.
"Thank you for everything you've done for me. Now I have to move on." Nathan nodded to Liam. Liam put his arms around me.
"Goodbye, Juliet," Nathan got into the boat and disappeared into the mist. I cried a few tears, but I knew the ghost was right. He didn't belong in this world any longer.
I awoke and saw Liam's blond head next to mine. Pushing a curl off his forehead, I gazed at his sleeping face. My heart told me I would love this man forever, no matter what.
In the months before the wedding, we spent a lot of time with the Fontaines, sometimes on the boat, sometimes just around town. They asked us to call them Dean and Edith.
Dean became like a father to me. Even so, he was surprised when I asked him to walk me down the aisle at the wedding. It was a beautiful ceremony, with teachers and students from my school attending. The minister spoke of my illness, my recovery and my new life. And the best part of my new life was being Liam's wife.
After the ceremony and the reception, Liam and I visited the cemetery. As the sun was settting, we found Nathan Fontaine's grave. There, we tenderly place shells that we had collected at the beach a beach I had learned to love. We thanked Nathan for the gift of his heart which had made our wedding day possible.
Copyright September 11, 2021