I look down at my husband’s ring on my thumb, where I wore it not so long ago in remembrance of him, to feel closer to him. It’s a comforting weight, and I give Grady a weak smile.
He’s waiting patiently for me to say something. Probably for me to order him to do the dishes, or take out the trash, or rub my feet. And while those aren’t bad ideas, I’m not taking this lightly. I know it’s not a joke.
“Are you hungry right now?” That was the problem right? He could get too hungry and lose control and hurt me. That’s what had happened with Biff. He’d been too hungry, that was all.
“Yes,” he replies. “I’m always hungry.”
That gives me pause. Always hungry? Or was it just an expression?
“Okay, well, sit down. I’ll feed you.”
His eyes follow me around the kitchen as I get the ground beef out of the refrigerator and put it on a plate for him. I even give him a fork.
He stares at it, and then at me. Uneasy, I motion to his plate. “Well, eat up if you’re hungry.”
He does, one bite at a time. I guess I’m glad he doesn’t have to worry about salmonella.
“How’s that? Feel better?” I ask as he scrapes the last bite into his mouth.
He nods. “Yes.”
“Yes,” he says, “I’m always hungry.”
“Okay, well…” Damn. I thought I’d just be able to feed him and give him his ring back, but if he’s always hungry…?
But maybe this will still work. “I guess put your plate in the dishwasher and we’ll see how this goes.”
“Okay.” He gets up, places his dishes in the dishwasher, closes it, and then turns and stares at me.
There’s something wrong here. His eyes are empty. Not empty in the same way as when he’d been full zombie, but close enough.
I stand and walk up to him, looking for any sign that there are thoughts and feelings in that head of his.
“Sing me my favorite song.”
He cocks his head. “Which one?”
I smile, a glimmer of hope igniting. “The one that made me realize I loved you.”
The glimmer dies as he starts singing. Perfectly in tune, on pitch, perfect timing. But emotionless.
“Stop,” I say, slicing the air with my hand.
He cuts off mid-note, and stands there waiting.
“Say the alphabet backwards.” He does, which is a feat, because I think I would have trouble with that, needing to think before every letter. But it’s like his brain is disengaged. He doesn’t have to think about it, he just does it. Simply because I told him to.
“Do five jumping jacks.” He does.
“Stand on one foot.” He does. “Now hop.” He does.
And while his face looks tense around the eyes, like he’s unhappy, he still does it with the unflinching, unquestioning demeanor that means he will keep doing it until I tell him not to or he falls over.
This would be the true test. I have to know for sure that it won’t work before I give up on this chance.
“There’s some kale in the crisper drawer of the fridge. Go get it and eat it if you’re still hungry.”
Grady hates kale, with a passion. Yet he goes right to the refrigerator and finds it, and takes a big bite straight from the plastic bag with the door still open.
He turns a little green, his nose wrinkling at the taste, but he keeps chewing.
“Stop,” I say, putting my hand over his when he raises it for another bite. I can tell he’s hating this. I take the kale from him and shut the door to the fridge, and then stand there with my hands gripping my head. What now?
He just stands there, waiting.
I turn around and brace my hands on the counter. This isn’t the solution I was hoping for.
All jokes aside, this isn’t what a marriage is supposed to be. I love him for the person he is, and when I have his ring, he’s not himself, he’s a puppet. And somehow that’s worse than being a zombie.
But isn’t either one better than dead? I wish I could say yes, but it isn’t me being puppeted around.
How could this even work? Could we still have a relationship like this?
I turn around and stare at him. I could keep the ring, wear it always, and keep him from ever thinking about death or dying ever again. I could keep him from going to Ms. Josephine’s house tomorrow, or ever again.
I’d never make him eat kale again. I’d be a good wife, keep him happy. I wouldn’t abuse my control.
But I would have to control when he ate. Would I also then have to control when he went to the bathroom? When he cleaned himself? What if I had to order him to do those things every time?
That wouldn’t work. He’d be more like a pet than a husband.
It might still be worth it if some of his personality showed through.
One last bit of hope in my heart, I step close to him, arms open. “Please hug me.”
He steps forward and encloses me in his arms. Though his chest is warm and he smells like woods and fresh air and his chin is on the top of my head… I feel nothing coming from him. “Tighter,” I say, tears welling. His embrace tightens, and I should feel loved, comforted. Instead, it’s like an overly-tight hug from a stranger.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m not giving this a real chance. I tip my head back, looking up at him. He’s looking back at me, and I’m trying to see something, anything, any spark in his expression, in his eyes. But I see nothing, feel nothing from him.
“Kiss me?” I ask.
He obligingly leans down and presses a kiss to my lips. I squeeze my eyes shut, tears welling, heart cracking. “More. Longer.”
His warm lips return to mine and linger. He even alters the angle, the pressure, all of the right physical things.
But his kiss has all the emotional warmth of a robot’s.
“Stop,” I beg, tasting my despairing tears on his lips. Pressing my face into his shoulder and clinging to his shirt, I mumble, “Just hold me.”
And he does. He holds me up as sobs shake me and despair weakens my spine and my knees. Wordless and emotionless, he holds me through the ugly cry until the tears slow to sniffles and I can stand on my own feet again. I pull back and whisper, “Wait here.”
Then I go clean myself up, blow my nose, wash my face with cool water. I meter my breaths and fight back the endless tears until my eyes aren’t bloodshot anymore.
Then I go back to the kitchen and order him to hold his hand out. I didn’t miss the significance of the way he put his ring on me before. It was a promise the way our wedding vows had been, a promise he would try. And he did, we did. We tried.
My silent promise to him as I slip his ring back on his own finger is that I will love him— for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in both sickness and in health, until death do us part—and beyond.
And that I won’t try to keep him here on this earth as my slave, no matter how badly I want him to stay with me.
If he uses his free will to decide he must die again, then I will support him and his choice, and love him anyway. Forever and ever and ever.
And his death is apparently the only option left to us now.
Despite my best efforts my eyes are wet again as his soul shows back up in his. He knows. The second he comes back, he knows what it means. The knowledge that this won’t work is right there in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I won’t try to keep you here that way.”
He folds me up in his arms, tightly, sweetly, face pressed to my neck, as his breaths waver with emotion.
This embrace is everything the other wasn’t, and even though we’re both crying in despair, I can feel the endless love coming from him down to the very cells of my bones.
How will I ever live without it? Without him?
Why, why, do I have to try to survive without him again? It’s so unfair.
It’s a cruel joke that the universe gave him back to me just long enough for our love to be revived, even deeper than before, only to take him away again.
“I just love you so much. I don’t want you to go.”
“Please… please know that you two mean too much to me for me to stay.”
You two. Already he adds our baby. I nod, rubbing his head and nape. “I know.” And I do know, but it kills me.
It kills me that he still thinks he has to die. It kills me that I can’t see or offer any other solution. And it kills me that I’ve finally lost hope for a different outcome.
No matter what I do or he does or Ms. Josephine does… at some point my husband will disappear and only the monster will remain. That monster didn’t know me, didn’t love me, and could hurt me. Could hurt others. The only sure way to prevent that is for him to die.
I crumble, harsh sobs stealing my strength, and he follows me down to the floor, his arms around me.
I’m not sure I want to stay in a world without him in it. For a fraction of a second, I want to go with him. To die too, so we’ll at least be together. But almost immediately, I pull back from that thought. There’s another life inside me now. I can’t give up my life, my soul, without giving up his or hers too, and I’m just not willing to do that. Even for Grady.
That tears me into pieces, because I want to have them both. I want us to be a family. I want it so bad, that I would do almost anything to get it.
But not that.
And finally, finally…my heart shifts closer to understanding, to forgiveness. We’re both choosing our child over ourselves.
I grab his shirt with both hands and press my face into his neck. I want to feel him closer, deeper, stronger. I need it to last me the rest of my life.
His body shakes against me as he cries too. Then and only then do I realize what this is doing to him. “I’m sorry.” But I’m not even sure he’s heard me. I turn in his arms and pull his wet face to my chest.
“It’s okay. I understand now. I love you. It’s okay.”
It’s not okay that his death is the only way to keep us safe , but it is okay, now, that he made that decision.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” I murmur over and over, stroking his hair as we cry together. Him silently, me with harsh sobs and stuttering breaths.
My soul-mate is going to die tomorrow. For the final time. And I just don’t know how I will live through losing him again.