It wasn't supposed to happen like this, but it did, and it has, and there's no changing it now, I suppose.
In another life, he whispers into my hair, words spilling over my temple and brushing my eyes shut, in another universe, with an alternate reality and a different you and a different me, we would have been together.
In this life, though, my entire existence has been racing towards this point.
And there's no changing it now.
His name is Erik Dean.
I'm seven and he's moved into the house behind mine, and as I'm swinging in my backyard he climbs the tree overhanging our fence. His hair flops in front of his eyes and he tears his shirt on a branch and doesn't even seem to notice.
He asks what my name is and I tell him, because he's the first new thing in this town since me and that's definitely something to be exited about.
Allie Pollard, he repeats after me, tasting my name on his tongue, that's kind of pretty.
I like him immediately.
He's the new boy at school and I feel important because I'm the only person he knows and that means I get to show him around and answer any questions he has. It goes really well, until he tells me I have funny hair and I stomp on his toes.
He still sits next to me in art class, but he points out all the mistakes I make when I try to draw my family. I glare at him and work even harder to prove him wrong. Miss Peters says I've done the best work in the class, but Erik whispers that I still got the nose wrong. I scratch a line of red crayon right across his drawing of his new house and call him stupidface, but he just laughs.
That night he climbs the tree again. He calls out to me and I studiously ignore him, still seething over the art incident. He stretches onto his stomach and rests his head on his folded arms, staring at me with dark, curious eyes.
When I ask him if he's alright he completely misses my sarcasm and mistakes my words for an invitation. He tries to jump out of the tree but falls instead. The bones in his left arm crunch painfully as all of his weight lands on them alone, and he makes a weird sort of howling noise as soon as he hits the ground, clutching his arm to his chest and scrunching his eyes shut.
He gets a bright yellow plaster cast and as all the kids at school sign it he tells them I broke his arm like it's something I should be proud of.
The plaster comes off five weeks later.
He climbs the tree and drops into my backyard every night after that.
He doesn't like peanut butter and jam but he does like seafood because he's weird, but neither of us like apples unless my dad's carved smiley faces into them, so I can forgive him his strange taste.
We play dress ups and I make dolls out of toilet paper rolls and icy-pole sticks and Erik invents fantastic worlds for them to visit. He plays a pirate captain and I play his first mate, or a mermaid trying to lure him to my magical island, or sometimes his co-captain.
I do get annoyed when he tries to overrule my decisions as co-captain, but I have more fun playing these games with him than I've ever had before.
He wants to be a pirate when he grows up, but if that doesn't work then he'll be an astronaut. He wants to travel around the world and then through space, to see the whole entire universe.
I tell him that that's silly, because the solar system is much too big and he'll never have time to see it all.
He tells me that time must go slower in space, because otherwise the planets couldn't be as old as they are, and I believe him because it seems to make sense.
When he asks me what I want to do when I'm an adult, I tell him that I'm never going to grow up.
Erik is popular at school, always regaling the other students with madcap stories of adventures he had before coming here, in far off fantastical places.
Everyone thinks his stories are great, but they don't know that he saves the best ones for me. He sits in our tree and spins tales of fairies and princesses fighting dragons and saving worlds, and I fall in love with every word.
We're ten and sitting across from each other at my kitchen table eating ice-cream straight from the tub when he tells me that he thinks I'm the prettiest girl in school.
I just roll my eyes and tell him to give the tub back to me, but inside I feel a sort of warmth I've never experienced before. It blooms and spreads throughout my chest, along my extremities and up to my face, which suddenly feels uncomfortably hot.
Erik smiles knowingly and takes his time in passing the ice-cream.
He wears stupid jumpers with the weirdest patterns knitted into them, stitches of off-white and navy blue crossed with evergreen and shockingly bright crimson.
Red, like your hair, he tells me on a day he's wearing a particularly garish one.
I scoff. My hair is not that colour.
No, you're right. Your hair is much uglier.
For his eleventh birthday I buy him a puppy, because I saw it in a shop window and thought it was the perfect mix of cute and ridiculous, just like him.
The puppy is basically a giant ball of fluff, and it turns out that he loves it so much he starts bringing it everywhere, even to school.
People start joking that I've bought my own replacement.
Maybe they're right, Erik teases, the dog does slobber a lot less than you.
To my horror I start to grow up, no matter how much I try to fight it.
My limbs stretch, until I'm all long legs and thin arms and flat chest. I feel awkward and gangly being half a head taller than Erik, but then a week later he's caught up again, almost as though he willed himself to grow to catch me.
We're a right proper duo for all our adolescence, never one without the other.
It's always Allie-and-Erik, Erik-and-Allie, as though we no longer exist as beings in our own rights but have become one.
I draw him a picture of us stitched together in one of his worst jumpers, making a point to colour my hair a much nicer shade than the pattern. When I give it to him he tells me it's lovely but I still can't draw noses, and I punch him in his.
Every year for my birthday he gets me a bouquet of yellow roses.
I don't remember ever telling him that they're my favourite.
He pulls me to him like a magnet, like he's the sun and I'm a lowly planet orbiting him, round and round in circles but never close enough to touch.
The attraction thrums in the air whenever we're in the same room, a tangible red thread tied around our souls and tugging us together.
One day when we're sixteen we're walking home from school when it starts to rain, forcing us to run for cover. He nearly slips on the wet concrete and I grab his hand to stop his arms from pin wheeling and help him regain his footing. I don't let go until we're safe on my front stoop.
The cloud of fog from his breath hits my lips and I can almost taste him. My heart is beating so loudly surely he must be able to hear it and oh god is he really going to kiss me and –
He pulls back and clears his throat and scratches his neck.
And then he runs away, back out into rain and around the block to his own house.
I don't feel angry, I feel disappointed.
And everyone knows that's a million times worse.
We while away our afternoons with useless things like television and procrastinating over our homework, because we're both clever and we know that we'll get it done, in the end.
We pretend that things didn't come dangerously close to changing completely that night outside my front door, and we manage for the rest of term.
I go away for the Summer, back to the coast to see my extended family, but Erik and I still talk every night while I'm away.
I tell him about when I saw a mermaid at the beach and he tells me that he saw a meteor fall in his backyard and then we fight over whose story is more plausible.
It's the same as always, really.
We're going to travel the world, Erik promises when I get back and this dumb town feels even smaller than before.
He steals – saves, he corrects me every time – a brown van from the junkyard, and while he acknowledges that it's old enough to be a museum piece he assures me it still has life in it yet. He affectionately nicknames it The Jolly Roger, and he starts working on it whenever he has a spare moment, fixing it up with the aim of having it roadworthy by the time we finish school.
I offer to help but he insists that I just watch, so that becomes our routine for a while; Erik fixes the van and I perch myself on the bench in his garage and watch him work. We sing whatever songs we can think of to pass the time until the dog starts howling along with us.
I tell Erik he looks cute with grease smeared across his cheek and he tries to pretend he isn't pleased.
The other times I broke Erik were okay, because the breaks were physical and minor and his nose looks cute with that bump in it, yeah, much better than it did before.
When I break him this time it's a total accident, but I think that just makes it worse.
Sam has been in my class for years but he got a haircut and grew a few centimetres taller over summer and suddenly he seems really interested in me.
Erik grumbles about how all the girls are interested in Sam simply because they don't know better, pointing out that he has a rather large nose in proportion to the rest of his face.
When Sam finally asks me out I almost say no, but then I realise that Erik's had years to make a move and hasn't yet, so I tell him sure, I'd love to go on a date with him Friday night.
Erik trips over a chair when I try to nonchalantly tell him, and makes a rude comment about how I've always had a thing for noses that aren't quite right.
I yell at him to go look in a mirror as he stomps off, and only realise once he's gone that my meaning may have been easily misinterpreted.
Where Erik is made up of sharp angles and moody blacks and burgundies offset by shockingly intense blue, Sam is all warm, bright yellows and soft, welcoming features, and I find myself opening up to him quicker than I imagined.
He's quite nice, really, and so when he starts calling me his girlfriend I don't correct him.
I actually start encouraging it when Erik starts seeing someone. Her name's Veronica and she wears purple eyeshadow and black dresses and I kind of hate her.
One night after too much rum I tell Erik how I feel about her.
He tries to hide it, but I see him smile at that.
We're nineteen and school's done. Veronica is long gone, Erik's signed up for and dropped out of four different undergraduate degrees, Sam's become a nurse and I'm floundering my way through an archaeology major.
Everyone's surprised, except for Erik. He says of course I'd want to study how to collect old junk. I point to The Jolly Roger and he just shakes his head.
Even though I'm in university I don't feel like a real adult.
I'm definitely not a little girl anymore, though, because Sam proposes and before I can think too much about it I say yes.
Erik takes The Jolly Roger and the dog and disappears without warning.
I stare out my window and wait for him to drop into my backyard again, but he doesn't come back.
Three years with Sam drag by and I can feel every single second of Erik's absence like an individual hole in my heart.
Until he falls out of the tree again. He crashes onto the shed we built underneath it, and the noise startles me awake.
When I get out into the backyard I'm still in my nighty and he's wearing a tricorne hat. He tells me The Jolly Roger is out the front and he's ready to go, but I have no idea what he's doing or what any of this even means. When I tell him so he looks at me with a mixture of smugness and nerves that I didn't think was possible.
Come away with me, he whispers.
But I can't, I have – I have things I have to do and responsibilities. I grew up.
Erik looks wounded. He shakes his head and says, not to worry, I'll soon fix that.
And then his hands are around my waist, curling around my ribs and pressing the bones together until it feels as though they're interlocking, creating a cage around my heart to stop it from jumping right out of my chest.
His lips brush against mine and when I exhale he breathes me in. My skin burns beneath his touch until we're melded together. He tastes like smoke and stardust and now that it's started I can't stop it.
I don't want to stop it.
Erik drives us down the coast and I stick my head out the sunroof and reach for the stars shining above us. He steps on the accelerator until we're flying along, the entire world zooming by in the blink of an eye and yet going so slowly in comparison to us.
His hand holds my ankle, keeping my feet steady and my soul grounded. He's my only connection to the rest of the Earth and the only thing stopping me from floating away.
I laugh and the wind catches the sound, throws it over my shoulder and lets it tangle with my hair. Erik laughs too, a noise that starts out as a low rumble and spills into a joyous chuckle.
He laughs and looks up at me, tugging on my ankle to pull me back inside the van. He's so focused on me he doesn't see the turn coming up, and that's when we lose control.
The world tumbles over itself, twisting in and blurring out of focus and swirling into a shining nebula of screeching tires, crushing asphalt and screaming metal, crunching in around us until I can't breath.
I fold in to Erik's arms and he holds me tight, cradles my head and smothers my screams in his jumper as we roll and roll and roll until I'm overcome by fear.
There's a particularly loud crash, drowned out by Erik's erratic heart beat in my ear.
And then there's nothing.
Red-red-red, like the colour of my hair, the fire burning in my soul and down my limbs. Like Erik's jumper, a scratch of crayon over a crudely drawn house, a thread tying soul-mates together. Like metallic blood pooling in my mouth and sticking to my skin.
I scream, but no sound comes out.
Erik is above me, blurred at the edges and with a crooked nose, but there nonetheless. I feel his hands cupping my face but they seem detached, somehow, like they're a natural part of me rather than a part of him.
Oh, so this is how it works, he's saying, words slow and sad and dripping with regret, even when you choose me I don't get to keep you.
I want to reply, to tell him that of course he can keep me, I'm his forever, I've always been his. Since I was seven and he dropped out of the sky and into my life I've been lost to him.
But I can't. Time's running out and there's too much space between us, even as he presses himself against me. His heart beats quadruple for every single beat of mine, and I know that that's wrong but I can't remember why.
I'm not going to lose you again, he gasps, as though the oxygen is leaking out of his lungs too, come back, Allie, please.
Twenty-two years all building up to this one defining moment, the very last page of my life, lived in the comfortable cocoon of Erik's embrace with the reassurance of his lips against my forehead.
I don't want to say goodbye, but I do, because he deserves at least that.
Maybe next time I'll be reborn into one of those lives where we get to be together.