Jeremy woke up with a crick in his neck. Sleeping in his car was even less comfortable than sleeping in the park, but it was beginning to get cold enough that he was glad he hadn't lost his car just yet.
The car contained everything he owned. Well, technically he still owned the stuff in the storage locker, but the owner had put his own lock on the door since Jeremy quit paying the rent in August. Sooner or later, he'd cut Jeremy's own lock off and sell the stuff inside. Jeremy didn't remember how long he had before that happened, when he could come up with all the back rent and reclaim his stuff. It didn't really matter, since he didn't have the money anyway.
He still had $100 in the bank. He had started hoarding his money and quit paying things early on. He felt as long as he had money in the bank, he hadn't really hit rock bottom. That money could have bought two more months' rent on his storage locker, but then it would have been gone.
With money, he could still be part of the world. He could get a day pass at the YMCA and get a shower to prepare himself for a job interview. He could take his clothes to the Laundromat, too. He had been very, very careful with his money since he got down to $500. He had let his apartment go, he had let the storage locker go -- after cramming as much stuff as possible into his car -- he had let his car insurance go, which meant that he wouldn't be able to license his car in February when the plates came due, but he figured he'd probably end up having it towed by then anyway -- he'd run out of money to buy gas and it would sit in one place too long.
He got out of the car and stretched. He checked his cellphone -- he'd probably lose this soon, because he hadn't paid for it this month and didn't intend to. He wasn't sure how much of a grace period he had before they cut him off. He was hoping he might get a job before that happened. That was the only reason he still kept it. He lied to prospective employers -- he told them he didn't have a cellphone, and that he was out most days looking for jobs, so he asked them to leave a message. He turned on the phone a few times each day to check to see if there were any messages. There hardly ever were.
When the battery was almost dead, he would drive around in his car long enough to charge it up. He didn't know how much longer he'd be able to afford the gas to do that, though.
He was getting very close to the end of being able to even to pretend to maintain a normal life. Pretty soon, he'd just be one more guy hanging out around the homeless shelter. He had already started resorting to panhandling, trying to keep from having to use the dwindling stash of money in his bank account. He had actually been amazed how easy it was, once he got over the humiliation of being reduced to it. In fact, he probably could make a lot of money that way, if he put his mind to it.
He was still hoping to find a real job. So far, he hadn't gotten one. He hadn't even had an interview in a month except the ones that he got from the state employment office, and those were useless. He had begun to suspect that none of the supposed openings was really open, that they were just covering up the fact that they were hiring people they'd already decided to hire by going through the motions of posting and interviewing people, just to keep up the appearance of being an equal opportunity employer.
There were no messages on his cellphone, which was no big surprise. He'd checked it last night about 6:00, and it was only just 9:00 a.m. now. He turned the phone back off.
He got his backpack out of his trunk. He kept his laptop in it, his last possession that actually was worth money. When he finally ran out of money in the bank account, he'd sell it. Should be worth a hundred or two.
He walked over to the park. He liked the park. He dreaded oncoming winter, knowing that to survive he'd almost certainly have to go downtown, where the shelters were. When he ran out of money altogether, when his car was gone the way of his apartment and most of his possessions, when the temperature outside got below 20 degrees, he would have to spend at least some nights indoors somewhere, and the shelters downtown were the only place he was likely to find a place. He would probably have no money by then, so he wouldn't be able to take the bus back and forth.
Winter would almost certainly mean the end to his daily trips to the park.
Maybe it would be a blessing in disguise. Maybe he would begin to get over her if he didn't keep coming here every day. He shook his head. He didn't want to get over her. He didn't want to forget her. He wanted to come here every day and think of her.
He stopped. Far in the distance, sitting on the stone by the doorway, the stone she had been sitting on the first time he saw her, was . . . could it be? All he could see from this distance was a figure in black. He began to run.
By the time he got close, he saw that he was mistaken. Whoever it was, she looked nothing like Liliana. Tianalamara. Whoever she was.
This woman had dull brown hair, the color of dead leaves. Her face was plain, her figure nothing special. She was ordinary. Forgettable. Nothing special.
He had slowed as he approached, but momentum took him up to her side. She watched him as he approached, watching him with curious interest. Unlike most people he came close to these days, she regarded him with a friendly smile. He was used to frowns, and even more used to people studiously staring in some other direction, pointedly avoiding making contact with him, trying to pretend they didn't see him.
She wasn't like that, and it warmed his heart.
"Sorry," he said, by way of explanation, "I thought you were someone else."
"Who did you think I was?"
"Oh, um, just . . . a girl I knew. Silly of me, though. She wouldn't have been here this time of day."
He stopped. He had never told anyone about Liliana/Tianalamara, not since early on, before he'd begun to realize her nature. He was sure that if he tried to tell someone, they'd think he was crazy. But here was a complete stranger, asking a question that begged him to explain the whole weird thing, and who cared what she thought?
He sighed. "It's a long story."
She drew her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs. It stung his heart, because it was a gesture he'd often seen Tianalamara make, when she was Liliana and she came to him.
"I'm not going anywhere," she said. "I like stories. Why don't you tell me all about it?"
He didn't know how to begin. He stammered a bit, then laughed bitterly.
"What's so funny?"
"Me. I can't even figure out how to start."
"Why is that funny?"
"Because for a while, up until a short time ago, I was a real storyteller. People paid me for stories, and they flowed out of me like water. Now I can't even find a way to start to tell my own story."
"Well, start with the girl you thought I was."
"Yes. Well, her name was Liliana. Actually, that wasn't her name, but that was what she told me to call her, and the whole time I knew her that was the only name I had for her, until the very end -- but this is the beginning. At first, all I knew was that she was beautiful, and unlike every other beautiful woman I'd ever met in my entire life, she was actually interested in me."
He told her the story, in fits and starts. He could have done a better job writing it. Or maybe he couldn't. He hadn't tried writing true things. He just didn't know whether or not he could still do that. Maybe he should try.
Anyway, she seemed attentive, so he told her the story. She didn't even interrupt him or seem skeptical at all when he talked about discovering that his lover was not human, but a creature out of faerie.
He kept going, through the visit to faerie, the obsession with returning there, the final, dreadful, nearly fatal mistake, his last night with Liliana, his terrible loss. He told her everything, except Liliana's real name.
"So then what happened?"
"I'm not really sure. I couldn't write anymore. I'm not sure whether it was because she inspired me or if my gift was always that some part of me was somehow in tune with that other world, that world that provides so many of our stories, and she just helped me focus it, and now I've been cut off from it altogether. . . I don't know. Anyway, I can't write. I keep trying. Of all the things I've given up since then, my apartment, my possessions, I've managed to keep my laptop, and I keep trying, but it's no use."
Her eyes suddenly filled with tears, and she reached out a comforting hand to him. "Oh, Jeremy," she said, "I'm so sorry."
He suddenly realized he hadn't introduced himself. He didn't know who she was. And he hadn't told her his name.
"Who are you?" he demanded, suddenly suspicious.
She smiled sadly. "Who do you think I am?"
"I don't know. Who are you?"
She just stared at him, still smiling.
"I don't know. Really."
"You really don't know me, Jeremy? You know me better than any mortal alive, any mortal who has ever lived. You even know my real name."
His mind reeled. "Tianalamara?" he whispered.
"But . . . But . . . You don' look anything like her!"
She laughed. "What you saw before was my glamour. My magic, if you will. This is my real form."
"But . . . I don't understand. How can you be here?"
"King Oberon has set a spell on you that keeps all magical creatures and subjects of his realm from coming close to you."
"Well, I am no longer a subject of King Oberon and Queen Titania."
"What? How can that be?"
She shook her head. "How is not important. It was . . . difficult. But I have renounced my life, my magic and my glamour. I am a mortal now, like you. And so I can come to you, but I cannot appear as I did before."
She looked down at herself and grimaced. "I know that I am not as attractive in this form as the one that bewitched you." She looked up at him and bit her lower lip. "And bewitched is what I did to you, and if you hate me for it, I cannot say that I could blame you. Either way, if you want me to go away, I will. I cannot go back to faerie, but I will leave you alone, if that is your wish."
Jeremy was dazed, his mind still working at trying to catch up. This stranger was . . . Tianalamara? Could it be?
The idea that the Liliana he knew was the product of illusion and magic was not all that surprising, really. But this woman bore not even a passing resemblance to her.
"Wait. You said . . . you mean you've given up your home, your . . . everything? For me?"
She nodded. "I wished to . . . make amends. To help you. To see you again. To try to undo at least a little of the wrong I've done you."
"That's . . . that's . . ." he couldn't even conceive of what she had given up. She was a magical creature who lived in a wonderful world, she was someone who had been around for -- what was it, hundreds of years? And who would be around for . . . "Wait. What about . . . aren't you immortal?"
"You gave up eternal life for me?"
"I don't know."
"We faerie folk don't die of age, but we can be killed, so I may not have lived much longer anyway. No one knows what may happen from day to day. But more than that, you mortals . . . we do not know what happens when you die in this world, but we do not believe that your being comes to an end. My people, like yours, have different theories of what happens. Whatever is the case, I will now share that fate. So I do not know. Perhaps I will live forever, in some sense, because perhaps you do as well. But as to the kind of life I would have had as one of the fey, yes. I have forsaken that."
"I can't believe . . . do you love me that much? Truly?"
She smiled. "Yes, Jeremy. I do love you. Enough to do this just to visit you. To tell you not to kill yourself out of grief for me. If you will have me, I will be here with you. If not, I will go, even though I cannot go back to my home, and find my way in your world on my own. But I could not bear to watch you wasting away."
Jeremy shook his head. "I can't believe this. I . . ." He hung his head. "I don't think I could have done this for you," he admitted.
She laughed. "But you are doing this, Jeremy, in your own way, and not even for the chance to see me, but just out of grief for the loss of me."
"What do you mean?"
"What do I mean? Look at you."
"Oh. No. I mean, it's like I told . . . well, you, but I didn't know it was you at the time. I can't write. I lost my job, you know about that, I was still with you. I've been trying to find another job, but . . ."
She shook her head, grabbed him and suddenly kissed him.
He felt a shock run through his body. Suddenly all his doubts were resolved. She didn't look like the Liliana he had known, but as soon as their lips me he knew she was indeed Tianalamara.
"You're fooling yourself," she said. "You've been in grief, and in shock. You can find a job. You can even write, even if you have been cut off from faerie. You can write stories that are true. You can write things that are not stories, articles for magazines or newspapers or textbooks. You can teach. You can do a hundred things."
He laughed. "You make it sound so easy."
"It can be easy. You are a very bright and talented man. You have the capacity to do almost anything you set your mind to."
He laughed again. He almost believed her. He still had money in the bank. He could still take a shower at the YMCA and go interview for a job. Maybe he could even write, if he quit trying to make up stories.
He looked around. The crisp autumn air made everything look clear and bright, almost like the heightened reality of faerie. The trees were still mostly green, and the ones starting to turn gave promise of the colorful weeks soon to come. The woman at his side was not exotically beautiful, not a fanciful creature from a magical world, but she loved him more than he could even imagine, and had sacrificed everything she had or was for him.
Life was good. Today was going to be a very, very good day.