Alex felt different. Logically, he knew he shouldn't, but he did. He could still feel the breeze from the passing bus – the bus which, according to Kate's letter, should have killed him. He was alive, as alive this moment as he had been a moment ago, but somehow the sunlight seemed brighter, the unusually balmy day warmer.
He opened the letter and read it again. It was you in front of that bus. Wait for me. I'm at the Lake House. Don't go. Her letter had saved his life; her letter had nearly taken it. The hint of where, that she would be in Daley Plaza that Valentine's Day, had been a lure to him, honey to a bee. He could still see her, chatting cheerful to a plump older woman. He wondered who the other woman was. Maybe her mother. He liked that thought, that she valued her family more than he had valued his, that she would take her lunch break on such a lovely day to spend it with her mother in the warm February sunshine.
There were no buses coming now, but he could feel a pull in the back of his mind, an insistent tug like an unruly child. They had changed the future. He wasn't much of a reader, but weren't there movies like that, movies that told what happened if you changed the course of fate? He was alive when he should be dead; what would happen if he went over there now, introduced himself to Kate, asked her out?
She wouldn't go back to the Lake House. She wouldn't find his letter, the first one that he had written in reply to hers. They wouldn't start their aching correspondence that would alternate enthrall and tease him. They might not fall in love at all.
He took a step back, shaking his head. No, she had to go to the Lake House. He had confidence in the universe's ability to right itself; she would go anyway. Maybe someone at the hospital would irritate her, maybe she would get a call from that odious ex of hers and she would flee. Either way, she would go.
With one last look, drinking her in, he returned to the little office he and Henry had started. It was only two years; he could wait. Perhaps he could look out for her, as well.
The months went by; no, the months crawled by. Sometimes he would sit in the window of the little café across the street from her apartment at the time she said she usually went home, watching for her little Mustang to pull in when she returned from the Lake House. Once, he had driven slowly by the Lake House, watching her frantically scribble into a leather notebook. He remembered that day, the first day they had written, and the thought of watching from her side had drawn him like iron filings to a lodestone. He had never thought of himself as particularly poetically-minded, but he liked that analogy. She was his lodestone, the compass to which he fixed his heart.
It was two years. He could wait.
He nearly abandoned his vow to wait when the day they had agreed to meet at the restaurant arrived. He sat on a bench across the street from Il Mare, one hand clutching the back like a lifeline as he twisted to watch the entrance, the one holding tightly to a bouquet of roses. They were dark red, and the smell rose around him in the night like fragrant ghosts.
There. Kate stepped out of her dark orange Mustang, radiant in a beaded black dress. She was perfect; lovely. She entered the restaurant, her shoulders squared confidently; happy to be one of the few who would be allowed past the revered portal – one of the few with a reservation made two years before. He watched the hostess greet her with a smile and dawning recognition, the holder of a mysterious reservation made two years before. They disappeared into the bowels of the restaurant and he half-rose, gripped by the urge to go with her, to meet as they had promised.
Luckily, his hand gripped the roses quite as strongly as the urge gripped him. The florist had been lax, and a thorn dug into his palm, distracting him. With a hiss of pain, he glanced down at the single drop of blood welling in his palm. The sight of blood sobered him and cleared his mind; she didn't think she loved him yet, not really. It was the separation that caused that, and with the separation came the letter that would save his life.
That night, he drove to the Lake House and put one of the roses in the mailbox, along with a letter of instruction. As he did it, the knowledge of what he did that night blossomed in his mind; he had pressed it between the pages of Persuasion, wrapped the whole in layers of plastic, and put it under one of the floorboards of Kate's yet-unfinished apartment.
It was two years. He could wait.
Alex avoided her the rest of that year. He didn't want to see her get back together with Morgan, her odious no-longer-ex. He threw himself into his work, all the while aware of two timelines still in his mind. He could feel the one where his life ended abruptly, the sense of it growing more urgent as Valentine's Day drew nearer. If Kate didn't warn him, would he still die in front of the bus? Would the him that was here vanish like a soap bubble?
But she had to feel it too; it was like there were two different realities in his mind. He knew what he had to do, and on February 14 of 2008, the date on the tattered, much-folded letter he still carried, he took his brother Henry aside as the office opened, before Kate and Morgan, their first clients of the day, arrived.
"She's going to ask about me," he told Henry in a whisper, glancing at the rest of the staff.
"Who?" Henry's face creased in surprise, glancing around as well.
"Kate. Our client. She's Kate." He nodded at the dawning understanding on Henry's face. "She can't know I'm alive. You have to tell her I died in front of Daley Plaza two years ago today. I was hit by a bus."
"What? But… you weren't. I mean, no one died in front of Daley Plaza two years ago today. She'll know it's a lie." Henry frowned, a crease appearing between his eyes.
"No she won't, because she'll have the memory of it. I remember it, the feeling of being hit, the blackness, but I also remember not being hit. She has to think I died two years ago, or I will. Do you see?"
Henry looked completely confused, and Alex didn't blame him. He was confused as well, but he knew this was how it had to be. "No. But I'll do what you ask. Who should I take it with me for the consultation, then?"
They settled on Vanessa, who could be trusted with this sort of fabrication. She read romance novels, Henry told her; she would think the whole thing terribly romantic and would play along.
Alex hid in the closet next to their little conference room, the one with the thin wall adjacent to the conference room that had been necessary to isolate the room from the sounds of the lobby. He could hear every word that was said; the exclamations of happiness over their design, the back-and-forth between Henry and Kate over minor changes. Morgan, he noticed, was silent, as though this idea was all Kate's, and he had no opinions at all.
He heard the ritual words of farewell as Kate and Morgan, happy with the design, got up to leave. He heard the pause as she saw his drawing of the Lake House. Her question to his brother – who drew that? – Henry's answer that Alex, his brother, had drawn it. Where can I find him? Kate asked – Henry, sounding nervous and not nearly sad enough, responding that, I'm sorry, he passed away two years ago today. Where? Asked Kate, sounding shocked, tears clogging her throat. Alex swallowed, feeling guilty and excited all at once. Guilty – he was causing her pain, lying to her like this. Excited – it was two years today. Two years. He could hold her soon, he could feel the anticipation building.
Daley Plaza, Henry told her. He was hit by a bus. A moment of shocked silence, and then clatter of heels as Kate dashed out of the office, Morgan following a moment later, shouting questions. Alex waited, counting heartbeats, and then opened the door. Henry was waiting for him, looking even more puzzled than before.
"She didn't even look surprised. It was like she remembered the same thing you do, that bus accident that never happened." Shaking his head, Henry dismissed the whole business as strange before giving his big brother a broad grin. "Well, it's about time. Go get her, would you?"
Alex didn't wait a moment longer. He sprinted down the stairs to where he had left his truck, hidden around the side of the building, and headed for the Lake House, his heart in his throat. Wait for me. I'm at the Lake House. She was waiting for him at the Lake House.
It had been two years. He wouldn't have to wait any longer.