I sit up slowly, no sudden movements, because Maisie still looks like she was 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 him. Lord knows I was relieved. I wanted to grab her up in a hug, press my face to her neck, and just hold her. But she looks like she would scream if I reached 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.
“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 can’t just go missing, and then waltz back in here without an explanation to offer me. You’ve been gone all this time, and all you can tell me is you don’t remember where you were? Where have you been?”
I could hear the accusation in her words. Why did you leave me? “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. She’s telling the truth. I’d been missing, and she’d truly thought me dead. She pressed her hand over her mouth, trying not to let her sobs out.
My heart breaks for her.
“I don’t remember anything,” I rasp, “But I’m here. I’m here now.” Slowly, carefully, I stand and step toward her. She takes another step back, her hand behind her, pressed against the wall.
She’s ready to run again. Freaked out, understandably. So was I, but they’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 grab her hand and put it to my chest, my hand over it. “Feel me. I’m real. I’m alive.”
She comes half a step closer, and looks up at me with those beautiful blue eyes. “You’re so cold.”
“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 sitting next to a fireplace.
I kiss her forehead, breathing in the scent of shampoo and woman that I never thought I’d smell again.
But she’s staring at my chest, her expression dissolving into fear again. She snatches her hand back.
“You’re heart’s not beating,” she says in a raspy whisper, eyes wide as she backs away again.
“Sure it is,” I say, “feel it.” But she won’t. She’s standing back, looking at me like I’m a monster.
I put my hand over my heart, fully expecting to feel it 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 move my palm around on my cold, empty chest in disbelief, waiting for a heartbeat to come. I wait for an eternity.
And then there’s one little thump.
I look up at her, desperate for her to believe, desperate for myself to believe. “Yes my heart is beating. Feel it. It’s slow and it’s weak, but it’s there. I just need to warm up. I might be sick. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember anything. But here.”
She allows me to grab her hand and place it back on my chest. After all, it would be crazy if I was standing here with no heartbeat, right? We both wait, and we feel it.
But I know it’s still too slow. I don’t know what’s going on but this is part of it.
She drops her hand, less scared, but still eying me like I’m a ghost instead of her husband. But it’s been six long weeks of thinking I was dead for her. She looks exhausted, wrung out. Fragile. She needs some time.
And maybe she’s already let me go.
The thought makes my sluggish heart squeeze with pain, but I have to believe our love could conquer anything, even this. Whatever this was.
I reach out to brush her hair back, and she lets me, so I take that as a victory. “You look tired. We can talk some more in the morning. We should go to bed.”
She nods but then clenches up. She’s freaked out.
“I’ll sleep on the couch. It’ll be like we’re fighting,” he adds, touching her chin, trying to get a smile out of her.
She nods, but her expression stays stiff, 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, and even if I was alive, it didn’t take away the pain of what she’d experienced.
“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. 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 six weeks between us. I drop my hand and walk away.
CONTINUE TO PT. 10 (COMING VERY SOON!)