I drive for a few miles, hyperventilating, checking the rear-view mirror as if he would follow me. And maybe he would. Maybe he’d appear in the passenger seat beside me, and I’d have to talk to my hallucination of my dead husband.
I’d lost it. Grief had really and truly made me crazy, made me insane.
Pulling over to the side of the dark road, I put it in park and locked the doors, just in case, as I tried to catch my breath. Skin clammy, hands shaky, I met my own eyes in the mirror.
I looked crazy. And scared.
My mind had fractured from sorrow. Maybe it was because I’d had no chance to say goodbye. He’d gone to work one day, just like always, and never come home.
But that night, when he hadn’t come home, I’d known something was really wrong. I couldn’t reach him, he didn’t call. I’d sat up all night worrying, and when the sun had risen on the next day without him there, I’d sobbed on the floor in the kitchen.
Because it had felt like something had been torn from my soul. I’d known he was dead.
Maybe right then was when my mind had snapped. When the call came, I’d only felt shock.
But he’d seemed so real, just now, in front of me. I could still hear his voice calling my name, desperate, begging. I gripped my hair, hard. Because I wanted it to be him. I wanted him to be a ghost, or an apparition, or an angel that had come back to see me. As long as I could see him again. I wanted to feel him again, hold him again, kiss him again.
Maybe I wanted him back so unbelievably bad that I’d made him appear outside our door.
He’d looked awful, but it had been him. Or rather my delusion of him.
Could delusions push a door against you? Would a delusion block headlights from going into his eyes?
Maybe it was his ghost?
I leaned my head on the steering wheel, laughing as tears fell.
There were no such things as ghosts, and my husband couldn’t come back to life no matter how bad I wished it was so.
But what if…?
What if he hadn’t really died, and something else had happened to him instead? The casket had been closed. I’d stared at the smiling picture of him on top of it, unable to believe he was inside. What if he hadn’t been inside. Maybe they’d been wrong, and it had been someone else killed on the job.
I’d spent over a month wishing, praying this was a horrible nightmare that I’d wake up from. Praying that there’d been some kind of mistake, that it wasn’t my husband who’d been in that awful accident. Maybe my prayers had been answered.
But where had Grady been since then? Why hadn’t he come home?
Why was he wearing the suit I’d taken to the funeral home?
I didn’t have any answers, but I was certain of one thing; whatever happened to him, wherever he’d been…
If he could come back to me, he would.
He loved me more than anything, and he told me every single day. Part of what hurt so bad about his death was that it felt like he was still here, when he wasn’t.
What if he had been? If by some miracle he was alive and had come home, why was I running away?
So I wiped my tears, put the car in gear, and made a u-turn towards home.
I have to know if it was him, or I’d imagined him. I have to know what happened, or if I was crazy.
I have to know.
When I get home, the garage door is still up. Everything else looks normal and undisturbed. The front door was closed, and no shadows moved behind the curtains.
I sit in the car, fighting off disappointment and fear.
Maybe I’d been dreaming, sleepwalking. I’d gone back to sleep quickly after the neighbor’s dog quit barking, but then I’d awakened to some sounds outside. Rustling, and the trashcan lid. There’d been some feeling in the air, a weird pressure, but I’d ignored it, thinking raccoons had gotten in the trash. I’d turned on the light to chase them off when I’d heard the scraping at the door. When I’d heard him say my name.
Shaking, I turn off the car and shut the garage door behind me. I wouldn’t run again. This was my chance to see Grady again, even if it was all in my head.
Breathing deep, I get out of the car and quietly entered the house. The lamp was still on in the living room, and I stepped toward the warm glow. As I round the corner, I see him, and stop. My knees weaken under me and I sink into a chair. “Oh my God.” He’s lying on the couch, looking gray and dirty and thin and just as dead as he should be.
But then he opens his eyes and turns his head toward me. “I’m sorry I scared you. Can we talk?”
However he appeared, whatever he is, my dead husband is lying on our couch talking to me.
I sit up slowly, no sudden movements, because Maisie still looks like she’s ready to run at any second.
She sits on the edge of her chair, hands gripped together, face pale and eyes wide.
This was not the homecoming I’d expected. I thought she’d be more relieved, happier to see me. Lord knows I was relieved. I wanted to scoop her up in a hug, press my face to her neck, and just hold her. I miss her. But she looks like she would scream if I reach for her.
“Are you real?” she asks into the silence between us.
“Yes,” I say, one side of my mouth ticking up. But then I put a hand to my chest, because everything was weird right now. But I was as solid as the couch I was sitting on.
Her lip started to wobble in that adorable way she cries when she’s trying hard not to. “Then where have you been? What happened to you? Why is there blood on you? Are you hurt?”
I hold a hand up. “The blood’s not mine. I’m not hurt.” But I don’t expand, because I don’t know where the blood came from. And I don’t want to know right now.
“Then where the hell have you been!” she shouts, fists clenched on her thighs, tears in her eyes.
Her outburst isn’t unexpected. If only I had more to tell her. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. I don’t know what happened. My memory is—spotty. Blank.”
“You don’t know where you’ve been? Well, why did you leave? Why didn’t you come home before now?”
I try to summon an answer, but I don’t have one. “I don’t know.”
“You’ve been gone all this time, and all you can tell me is you don’t know? You can’t just go missing, and then waltz back in here without an explanation. Where have you been?”
I could hear the accusation in her words. “I think…I think I’ve been asleep somewhere for a little while.” I put a hand to my forehead, a memory of blinding pain surfacing. But it didn’t hurt anymore. “I think I got hit on the head, so maybe I’ve been unconscious for a few days.”
“Grady,” she breathes out, horrified.
“It’s okay. It doesn’t hurt now—”
“No, you don’t understand,” she says, standing and backing up a step. “You’ve been gone for six weeks.”
I flop back against the cushions, absorbing that bomb, when she drops a bigger one.
“You died. We had a funeral. I wr-wrote your eulogy,” she said, eyes flooding. “You’re wearing—” She gestured at him. “You’re wearing the suit I took to the funeral home to bury you in.”
My eyes won’t leave her face, but my mouth won’t work either. It just hangs open while I try to sort out a reply. I don’t remember.
“I’m sorry.” I rasp.
“I thought you were dead.” She presses her hand over her mouth, trying not to let her sobs out as she stares at me with tearful, red eyes.
I’ve been missing, and she’d truly thought me dead. For six damn weeks.
“I don’t remember anything,” I rasp, on the edge of panic. And I don’t. There’s just a heavy blank spot in my memory, and a vague awareness of time passing. But not six weeks worth of time. “It seems like it’s been a day or two, at most.” I don’t remember. I can’t remember. I don’t remember anything.
“Are you freaking kidding me?”
I’m lost at sea, from my blank memory, from what she’s told me, from her reaction. “What? Why are you mad at me?”
“Why am I mad? Why am I mad?” She stands up and covers her face with both hands, then she drops them and holds them out toward me. “I’m mad because I thought you were dead.” Her arms flop down to her sides. “I didn’t want you to be dead, I’m glad you’re not, but for six weeks I’ve been dying inside because I thought my husband had been killed in an accident, and then you show up at our door, and can’t tell me where the hell you’ve been, or what happened to you, or why you left, or why we had a funeral for you. So, yes! I’m mad. And confused, and—and scared that I’ve finally lost my mind.” She pushes her hair back from her face as she paces away.
“I truly don’t remember. Please believe me.” I need her to believe me. My memory is blank and I feel a little bit like I’m on a thin ledge above an endless pool of black when I try to remember. I’m going to fall in if she doesn’t believe me, if she doesn’t hold me.
Slowly, carefully, I stand on shaky legs. “But I’m here now.”
She turns back to face me but then takes a step back. She’s ready to run again. Freaked out, understandably. So am I, but we’d have time to work through that, after.
“I’m here, Maisie.” I take another step and reach a hand out. “It really is me. I’m not dead. See?” She lets me step closer and grab her hand. I put it to my chest, my hand over hers. “Feel me. I’m real. I’m alive.”
“You’re so cold.” She looks up at me with those beautiful blue eyes.
“I’ve been outside with no shirt.” Her hand feels so amazingly warm against my skin that it almost burns. Like coming in out of the snow, freezing, and taking a hot shower. “I just need to warm up.” I want to burrow into her warmth, to wrap myself in it.
I kiss her forehead, breathing in the scent of shampoo and woman that I never thought I’d smell again.
She steps closer, less scared, but still eying me like I’m a ghost instead of her husband.
I reach out to brush her hair back, and she lets me, so I take that as a victory.
“It’s really you, Grady? You’re alive?” Her voice is ragged with disbelief and hope.
“It’s me.” And that’s the only thing I’m really sure of right now.
She nods, a sheen of tears appearing in her eyes, and then she steps in to me, pressing her cheek against my chest. Her hands smooth up my back, but a second later, she’s clutching me, sobbing.
I don’t know what to do other than hold her, so that’s what I do, my own eyes burning at her pain. “Shhh, baby. It’s okay.”
Eventually she calms and pulls away, sniffling. But she still isn’t happy. This is far from the reaction I was expecting. “Aren’t you happy I’m alive?”
She pops backward and glares at me. “Yes, of course I’m happy you’re alive!” Her expression almost makes me laugh, because it’s her You’re-being-ridiculous face. It’s comforting.
“I’m just also confused, and worried about you, and stressed, and wondering what we’re going to tell your family—” She gasps and covers her mouth. “Your poor family. What are we going to tell them?”
I rub her upper arms. “We’ll worry about that tomorrow. For now I’m just…I’m really glad to be home.” And it’s true all the way to my bones. I can tell that wherever I’ve been, I’ve missed her with all my heart.
I pull her close again. I just can’t get enough. Not of her, of her warmth, of her arms. I’m starved for her.
But she’s still a bit stiff in my arms.
I loosen my arms and she readily steps back. It stings, but it’s been six long weeks of thinking I was dead for her. She looks exhausted, wrung out. Fragile. She needs some time.
“You look tired. We can talk some more in the morning. We should go to bed.”
She nods but then clenches up.
“I’ll sleep on the couch. It’ll be like we’re fighting,” I add, touching her chin, trying to get a smile out of her.
She nods, but her expression stays anxious.
“I’ll get you some clean clothes,” she says, and she’s gone with a fruit-scented breeze. I drop my hand.
She comes back with my sweats and a t-shirt. When she passes them to me, I catch an odd sickly-sweet scent.
I bend my head down and sniff, then jerk my head back. “Mothballs?”
She wrings the hem of her night shirt, my t-shirt, and says, “I’m sorry. I just packed them up a few days ago. I couldn’t do it before now.” And she tears up again.
Once more I’m reminded that my wife has been mourning me while I was… while I was what? I don’t know.
“It’s okay. This’ll work. Thank you.”
Before I would have thrown my clothes off right there in front of her, but I go the bathroom to change, because it’s weird now.
We’re married, but we’re strangers. It’s been six weeks since we saw each other last, and it passed in the blink of an eye for me, but not for her. What the hell happened?
I flick the light on, shut the door, and turn to set my clothes on the counter.
That’s when I see myself for the first time.
In the mirror above the sink, there’s a man that looks a bit like me. But he’s gaunt, pale, covered in dirt with a dark, cracked stain on his chin. His lips are darker and I swear, the brown color of his irises is lighter and washed out. They’re almost gray.
What the fuck.
I back up, and there’s more dirt and stains on my wrinkled suit jacket, on my pants. I look like shit. I look dead.
No wonder I freaked my wife out. No wonder she couldn’t see her husband when she looked at me.
The way I look scares me, too.
I strip down and use a wash cloth to quickly wipe myself down. I shake the dirt out of my hair and wash it and my face in the sink, avoiding the mirror.
I put on the mothball-smelling clothes, and almost chuckle, because it’s ironic somehow.
I’m wearing a dead man’s clothes, lovingly packed away by his mourning wife.
My clothes. My wife.
I clench the edge of the sink, trying to get as firm a grip on my emotions.
I put the washcloths in the hamper, but the suit goes in the trash. And the shoes.
With a deep breath, I open the door to see Maisie still standing in the living room, cupping her elbows in that protective gesture she does sometime when we argue. She looks me over and her face relaxes a bit, and I know it’s because I look more like myself again.
The couch is made up for sleeping, but I walk to her first. I hold my arms out, and for a second I think she is going to just stand there.
But then she flies into my arms, and I’m holding her while she cries. Holding her, the feeling of her arms tight around me, does something for my soul. It’s a pleasure so good it hurts, and I have to clench my eyes shut because suddenly they’re burning.
I’m home. Everything else can wait.
“Go to bed,” I tell her, “You need your rest. We’ll figure this out tomorrow.” Tomorrow, together.
She nods and we say good night. I don’t try to go into the bedroom with her because I’m wide awake. Apparently, I’ve been asleep for six weeks, and I don’t want to sleep anymore right now. I need to think.
She slips into the room and shuts the door. I stand there a minute, and put my hand on it. She’s right on the other side of the door, but there’s a gap of at least six weeks between us. I drop my hand and walk away.
I lock the bedroom door and stand there staring at it, my palm pressed to the surface. Why had I done that? In all the years of stupid arguments we’d had, no matter how mad I’d been at Grady, I’d never locked him out.
More often than not, I’d laid there pouting, hoping he would come in and apologize, so I could apologize, and then we could go to sleep together. Almost always, he did just that.
But I wasn’t mad now. Well, maybe a little, but I was mostly scared, and confused, and worried, and tense. Grief had been replaced by suspicion.
Earlier it had felt as if my husband was just on the other side of the door, but he hadn’t been. Now he was, and I could feel him there, but it wasn’t the same. He wasn’t the same.
Was he sick? He looked awful. Where had he been? Why had he left me? What happened to him?
Is this even real?
The bed sags under my weight as I sit on it. Maybe I’m having a mental breakdown and he would be gone when I opened the door again. The thought wrings my heart out, because whatever was happening now, I don’t want to go back to thinking he’s dead. To missing him with every cell of my body.
I just…how could this be?
How could he disappear for six weeks, and reappear now? How could we have all thought he was dead, how could we have all had a funeral, when he was very much alive? And how the hell could he not remember?
He said he’d been hit in the head. Maybe that was it. Or maybe he was sick, like he said. Maybe his memory would come back to him, and in the morning he could explain to me why I’d thought him dead up until half an hour ago.
Or maybe… I look at the closet door. Inside on a shelf is a box that holds all our important papers.
There had been one thing all this time that had bothered me almost as much as his death. A last charge to his credit card, on the night he died, from a local hotel.
I flip the light switch in the closet and pull down the box. Beneath the funeral home bill, the life insurance paperwork, and all the other important papers I hadn’t had the energy or will to look over yet, was the credit card statement.
The paper rasps as I pull it open and stare at the innocuous charge that had befuddled me all this time.
I’d told the police, but considering he’d died at his work, and the nature of his death, they hadn’t seen it as relevant.
But now he’s not dead. He’s alive, which means everything the police know is wrong and screwed up. Everything I thought I knew is wrong. And he says he doesn’t remember where he’s been, or what happened, or with whom.
I re-fold the paper and sigh. But as I place it back in the box, I notice something else at the top. Our bank statements, with all the zeros seeming to stand out in bold.
We’d had a few accounts together. A joint checking account, a joint savings, and individual savings account for each of us. When he’d died, I was the beneficiary to all of them. They’d taken his name off the joint accounts, and closed out his individual savings.
Right then is when my heart shatters for the second time, my fragile hope dissolving into heartbreak.
If my husband hadn’t died in an accident, which he obviously hadn’t… Had he faked his death?
Maybe he had been trying to get away from me, to leave me, as I’d thought. And now he is lying to me, trying to convince me he has selective amnesia to resolve himself of any blame. Did he leave me, and decide to come back when he ran out of money, showing up at our door ragged and dirty?
Could he have left me, and come crawling back when he lost access to his finances?
Or maybe he was into something he shouldn’t be. Drugs? Gambling? The mob? Something where he felt it was necessary to fake his own death to get away from it? And maybe that was why he didn’t want to tell anyone he was actually alive. He was still hiding.
But none of that fit the Grady that I knew in any way. That I married.
Maybe he really did just get hit in the head somehow, develop amnesia, and wonder the city, lost, until he finally remembered his address and his wife.
So why had he been wearing his burial clothes? Why had he been covered in dirt and dried blood? What the hell was going on here?
I can’t think of any scenario that ties all those things together that isn’t totally insane. And even my insane theories have gaping holes.
Who was it, if not him, that was accidentally killed and buried in his casket?
Whatever had happened to him, I am committed to helping him figure it out in the morning. I owe it to him if he’s telling the truth.
I owe it to myself if he’s not.
When I lay down on the bed, it’s different. I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep with all the insanity, but with my eyes closed, it’s like Grady is just staying up late to watch television because we’ve had an argument, and the last six weeks was a bad dream, and I don’t feel so alone.
Settling on the edge of the couch, I put my forearms on my knees and concentrate with all my might. I remember work, and I remember snow and cold. What else might there be?
But it’s like trying to capture smoke in my hand. There would be the hint of a memory on the edge of my brain, but when I tried to explore it, it would disappear.
I get up again and pace, full of a tense energy I can’t explain. Hours ago I was sluggish and barely lucid, and now my thoughts are racing and I can’t sit still. Why? What has changed?
I have a flashing memory of a dog barking and then silence, but I shut that memory down. I don’t want to know what happened during that gap, I have a bigger gap. And bigger problems.
I want to ignore them. I want to go on with my life, with my wife, and just pick up the pieces and keep going. But how can I?
I’ve been missing for six weeks, with no memory of it. Everyone I know had a funeral for me, thought I was dead. I’d have to ask Maisie tomorrow why that was, why they assumed I was dead, not just missing. Not that I would ever do it in a million years, but why wouldn’t they just assume I’d run off and left my wife and decided to start a new life somewhere else? Things like that weren’t unheard of.
I’ll ask Maisie tomorrow why everyone thought that. Wait—
Everyone thinks I’m dead.
What about my parents? My sister? My friends? What would I tell them? They would likely understand if I told them I had amnesia. But what about everyone else?
What about my boss? Do I still have a job, or would Biff have replaced me already? He would have had to, to keep the crew and project on track. And what about the government? I’m sure they’d have little sympathy for our situation when I showed up to tell them I’m alive.
And how would we pay back the life insurance Maisie must have received when they found out I was alive? What if they thought we’d committed some kind of fraud?
I scrub my hands down my face. What a screwed up situation this is. Everyone thinks I’m dead except my wife, and she looks at me as if she’s not sure. But I’m not dead.
I place my palm to my chest to be reassured by it’s steady beat. But just like most of the time you weren’t even aware of your heart beating, it turns out you weren’t really aware of it not beating either. I feel nothing.
I move my palm around on my cold, empty chest in disbelief, waiting for a heartbeat to come.
And then there’s one little thump. I wait for an eternity, and there’s another. It’s slow and it’s weak, but it’s there.
Relief and dismay flood me in equal measure. It’s too slow. How can I be sitting here conscious, how can I stand and walk around with such a slow heart? I test it out by standing, but I feel fine. Okay, I don’t feel great, but I’m conscious and feel no different than I did sitting. I don’t know what’s going on but this is part of it.
I must be sick. That would explain how cold and sluggish I am, the slow heartbeat. But why am I sick? With what? How and where did I catch it?
I can’t remember.
I sit back on the edge of the couch and close my eyes. I need to remember.
I push my mind back to the last thing I remember. Going to work. The memories are murky, muted, like I’m reaching across a great distance. Like they were from my childhood instead of this year. And no matter how much I try, everything fades to black after clocking in.
Maybe trying to force my memory is the wrong idea. I take a few deep breaths, just trying to relax and let my mind wander.
I go back to my memory of work. I remember clocking in, I remember Biff being his typical cranky self. It could be the memory from any day at work in the last three years actually, except it made my stomach sink. It was that day, the day something happened to lead me to this point.
So I let the memory play over and over, trying to get past the murky gray fog after I clocked in.
I walked outside…and saw Travis without his hardhat on. Yes! I’d had him cut the engine and put his hard hat on and—
The image of Travis wavers, flickering between daytime and night time. From a sheepish expression on his face, to an obstinate one. I don’t understand it, but I don’t push it, because when I try to, it starts to fade completely.
The next thing I remember is seeing snowflakes falling through my windshield. The sky was dark gray, like at dusk.
Okay, so I’d worked my shift and then got into my truck to leave. What happened after that?
Red blinking light—red falling snow—red barrels—red liquid in the dirt.
The images flash by so fast, I can’t make sense of them. It’s just a sea of red.
I blink my eyes open.
There was nothing concrete, nothing that made sense. I close my eyes and conjure the red light again. It blinks on and off in my mind a few times. Then it comes to me. It’s the light at the intersection by my work. So I did leave that night.
But what the hell happened after that, to keep me away for six weeks? To make everyone I knew think I was dead?