And the thing is, the thing is, that Claudia Brown doesn't exist.
She never has. Not in this screwed up reality. This reality they created because they were playing with things that they just didn't – that they don't – understand.
So Claudia Brown doesn't exist.
In her place is this woman who looks so much like her, but is worlds away from the woman he…
…the woman he…
… whatever. There's no point finishing that sentence, even in his mind. Because Claudia Brown doesn't exist, and he can see no way of bringing her back. Even if he could, should he? Does he have the right? After all, the people in this world have lived lives of their own, and who is he to say that what they have lived is wrong? Just because he's been thrown off course, tossed out onto an unknown ocean, doesn't mean to say they have. They know who they are. They know where they are.
The woman wearing Claudia's face is happy. Jenny is happy. She's engaged. Isn't that enough to tell him that he should just let go? Get a grip, deal with it, move on.
But he can't, and it isn't just because every now and then he thinks he sees a spark in Jenny's eye like the one he sometimes saw in Claudia's.
Jenny is an utterly different person. He doesn't need a psychologist to tell him that. At first he didn't even like her, but now he's seen enough to know that beneath the ridiculous hard-assed act, the heavy make-up, the deliberate provocation, there's something more. And so even though he's continually astounded at the confirmation of just how different a person can turn out, every now and then she'll say something, or do something, or smile, and he'll see Claudia. She'll be there, as beautiful as ever. It's like seeing a ghost.
In quiet moments he'll find himself staring at Jenny, searching for that ghost. When she doesn't know he's looking, when she's paying attention to someone else, he can't help but watch her profile. Because he knows that face, he does, even though it's now the avatar of someone new, someone not yet known. So he stares at her, looking for ghosts and losing himself in memories. God knows he has few enough of those.
It wasn't as if he'd even known Claudia that well. They hadn't had a chance to get to know each other, not properly. They'd been thrown together and almost immediately he'd been dealt the sucker-punch that Helen was still alive. Claudia was still new to him, and yet his head had already been turned so fast that he was surprised he hadn't got whiplash. He can almost laugh out loud at those early days, when the memory of their unorthodox introduction would pop into his head unbidden every time she met his eye. But what could he do? What was he supposed to think? Despite the growing cracks in their marriage, he'd loved Helen. He still did, in a way. And there was Helen back, or not back, or whatever the hell she was. What was he supposed to do?
So he'd waited. He'd prevaricated. He'd made up excuses. He'd told himself he was too old for her anyway. Too old, and hauling around too much baggage. Why would someone that young and vibrant want to deal with him? He was a dour Scot, with too much history and a chin full of stubborn stubble. She was young, beautiful, full of life and quite certain to have a whole queue of men lining up around the corner. He'd been surprised to discover she was single – he'd found that out via a safely circuitous route, careful not to seem too obvious that he wanted to know.
He kicked himself for that now, of course. The waiting. He'd waited, and waited, and wondered. He'd seen a flicker now and then, that spark in her eye when their gazes met, but he'd put it down to idle flirtation. He'd tried to ignore it, because he didn't know how to deal with it. He'd spent eight years mourning his missing wife. He didn't know anything else anymore.
Then she'd been head-butted by that damn Pterodon, and it was like a light going off in his head. He'd picked her up, carried her to the ambulance, stayed with her until she'd woken up. When she had, he hadn't been able to stop himself touching her - her hip, her shoulder, her chin, her hair.
He could still remember her fear, her uncharacteristic need. And it was him she called out for.
"Nick – don't leave me!"
When he heard that, he knew he was lost. He knew he'd waited too long, and he'd be damned if he was going to wait any longer. So he'd kissed her, though she couldn't see him and he'd have to leave her. He'd kissed her, and he felt her kiss back. Just for a second. Just for a moment.
Another memory that rattled his core. Her lips, so soft, against his. Her skin, so smooth under his hands.
It still kept him awake at night. He still felt it when the sun caught the freckles on her doppleganger's cheek.
How important something seems when it can be measured in minutes. When it can be quantified by the things not done, rather than by the things done.
When they'd survived that, he'd tried to push it back beneath the surface again. The kiss had been enough to tell him that something that good couldn't come without a price if it went wrong. He should have known she wasn't going to let him get away with it that easily. She'd turned up in his lab, hair flowing and eyes as bright as he'd ever seen them. And she'd asked if he still loved his wife.
That had floored him. She didn't ask why he'd kissed her – which was annoying, because he'd rehearsed an answer for that – she asked if he still loved his wife.
The smile she'd worn as she'd left told him that the question was a warning, and that knowledge was enough to ignite another flame in his heart.
Don't play games with me, Nick Cutter, warned the question.
That kiss could be the beginning, said the smile.
If he had the courage. If he could make up his mind.
He knew now that he should have run after her there and then. He should have spun her round, pressed her up against the wall and kissed her. He should have locked the door of the lab, drawn the blinds, and done so much more.
But he hadn't.
She'd begged him not to go with Helen, but he hadn't listened to her then, either. Nor even when she'd bared her heart in front of everyone – and thinking about it now, he knew how much that must have cost her. She'd been the brave one, she'd been the one to spin him around and force him to face this thing that had exploded like a supernova between them.
He'd pulled away, looked into her eyes, and seen everything he wanted, right there. He hadn't been able to stop himself pulling her back in. And that kiss… that kiss…
But he'd still followed Helen. He'd let Claudia walk away.
And now she was gone. Claudia Brown didn't exist. And in her place was this woman who didn't know him from Adam, who hadn't introduced herself by pressing her lips to his, or let him go after the most passionate clinch he'd been in since a teenager.
He'd come back through the anomaly so sure of what he wanted. But Claudia Brown didn't exist. All that was left of her was a photograph he'd slipped into his wallet soon after the Pterodon incident.
Jenny isn't her. He keeps telling himself that. Jenny isn't her. His visit to her house is enough to tell him that. Her public-school fiancé, her engagement party is enough to tell him that. But every now and then, he'll catch a glimpse of her, unguarded. Without the stupid bravado, without the gung-ho, just-because-I'm-female-doesn't-mean-I-have-empathy crap, and he can't help but stare. Because at that moment, he can see a glimpse of Claudia. And every time he does he can tell himself that she still exists, that she still knows him.
Because he still knows her, still remembers what she looks like and how she smells and the feel of her lips. He remembers her voice, her smile, her eyes. And all the time he can remember those things, he'll keep looking for her in someone else's face. And every time he sees her, he'll keep waiting.
It's like chasing ghosts.