“I have to leave for work. Are you sure you’re going to be okay?”
Maisie called in to work the first few days I was home, but she’d apparently used up all her leave time, and her boss’s patience, after my funeral and couldn’t take any more time off.
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
I sit back in my chair, feigning a casualness I don’t feel. On the inside, I’m a wreck.
“Are you certain?” Maisie’s gaze lands on my fingers tapping on the table in a frenzied rhythm, and I force my hand to go still. She takes her purse off her shoulder anyway. “Maybe I should—”
“You should go to work,” I snap.
Her eyebrows go up at my surly tone, and I know I’ve got to fix this quick. I’ve been snapping at her a lot in the last few days.
“I’m sorry.” I say, hanging my head. “I don’t mean to be cranky. I think some time alone would be good for me. I think I’ll take a nap.” That was only partially true, but peeking back at her, I can tell that worked.
But I can’t eat, and I can’t sleep despite feeling exhausted. I’ve been ‘resting’ for a few days, and I think I actually feel worse.
I’ve been seriously underplaying my reaction to my flashback. Often I wanted to scream and cry and break things, but I stayed calm for Maisie’s sake.
My flashback attack, for it couldn’t be called anything else, had definitely thrown me for a loop.
I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know how to explain to her that I remember dying. That I remember struggling for my last breath and the feeling of my heart shuddering to a stop as I reached out to her in the dark. And then all sensation, all awareness, even the blackness disappeared. There was just…nothing. It was like I stopped existing. And I think I did.
Only, in that nothing, I heard Ms. Josephine singing.
And then my next memory is somehow six weeks later, and I’m spitting dirt out of my mouth surrounded by headstones. I haven’t told Maisie that.
I don’t even want to admit in silence to myself, but I think…I think I died. Like really died.
Yet somehow I’m back.
But I didn’t know how to tell her that. I don’t know what it means, and I don’t have all the pieces of my memory yet or even anything concrete I can say.
She nods. “Okay. But if you need anything, anything at all, call me?”
I’m an ass for the way I’ve been acting when she’s so generous and sympathetic and understanding. Guilt stings me as I nod, and then stand to give her a goodbye hug and kiss. On the cheek.
I’m unsuccessful at pushing down my agitation enough to enjoy the moment with her in my arms. I need to get out, to get lose. I need her to leave, and if she doesn’t do it soon, I might snap.
But I’m way better at hiding things from my wife now than I was…before. I walk her to the door, and wave at her as she leaves.
Just an exhausted husband in his sweats, waiting for her to leave so he can fall asleep on the couch to the sounds of a football game.
I count to sixty after I hear her car leave the driveway, and then pull my hoodie on, hood up. I peek out the little window on the door. No neighbors out.
With Maisie gone, I can finally give my restlessness an outlet. Hood pulled low over my eyes and hands in my pockets, I head down the sidewalk, unsure of my destination.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I mean, remembering their death would throw anyone for a loop. And that’s part of it, but there’s more. Inside I feel a little hectic, a little crazy, but my body and brain are slow and sluggish. But I don’t want to worry Maisie, so I’ve hid it from her.
Something catches my eye and I glance over. In the neighbors yard, there’s a little cross under their big tree, new and white. Surrounded by balls and toys, a little collar hanging off the top. I stop short, staring.
Barkley had died?
It was an apt name for the annoying dog, who loved to bark at anything and everything. Bark-bark-bark, at all hours of day and night to the point that it could make a person insane.
But I knew our neighbors must be pretty upset. They took the term ‘fur-baby’ literally.
I feel bad for them. And I feel bad for the dog.
So bad in fact, that sympathy and guilt are choking me, squeezing my breath away, and why?
Surging down the sidewalk, I escape the little memorial under the tree, pulling my hood even further down.
I feel like there are eyes watching me, wondering at my reaction. Judging me. But I feel like I’m dragging a boulder, and I can’t away from the eyes fast enough.
Gaze on the tree-line ahead of me, I make my way to the woods, trying to clear my head and slow my heart and breath. To fight off the edge of panic from a source I can’t identify.
Once in the shadows under the trees, I pull my hood off and tip my face to the canopy of shivering branches as I unzip it. I can breathe again.
But fatigue settles over me in a wave, as if I’d sprinted all the way here carrying a heavy pack. Rough bark grips my sweatshirt as I slide down against a tree trunk to rest and catch my breath.
Fatigue, another symptom I could add to the amnesia, and the brain fog and irritation I’d been struggling with the last few days. Plus the nausea that kept me from eating. Great.
Eyes closing, I focus on the sounds of the woods. Leaves rustling in the breeze have always calmed me, even in autumn when their sound was more crisp. The air was different here in the trees, and the feeling of it, cool and damp against my skin, was comforting.
I must have zoned out for a minute, or fell asleep, because I have to drag my heavy eyes open a bit later when a unique scent tickles my nose. Musty, but kind of sweet, like a horse barn, with an earthy, coppery scent beneath.
As quietly as I can, I stand up and search the shadows. Snapping twigs and crunching leaves to my left draw my attention, and I turn my head to meet the wary gaze of a healthy young buck. I can tell it is male by the rack on his head. I can tell he is healthy by… instinct.
We stare at each other, my eyes fixed on the black of his.
The blackness expands until everything, everywhere, is flat black.
The blackness clears slowly, color and dread filtering in to take it’s place.
I close my eyes tight once more. I’m praying that when I open them again, it’s to a colorful fall forest without so much red.
Breathing deep, I open my eyes. But the scene is the same as it was; gory.
Crawling forward on my hands and knees, sticky leaves clinging to my palms, I approach the deer to check for life. But it’s eyes are dull, it’s exposed lungs, still. It’s throat is mostly gone. It’s dead. The ground around it’s hooves is stirred up, telling me it was incapacitated a bit before it died.
I sit back on my heels and try to breathe, try to think. But this…
I’ve been a hunter all my life. I know how to humanely kill a deer and neatly dress it for processing.
This… was not that. This was not neat, and it was not humane.
This was savagery. This was predator killing prey in the oldest, least humane way possible. Nothing but claws and teeth.
My claws. My teeth.
My hands, coated in dark red older blood, and newer, brighter, shinier blood. I look down and see that once again, my shirt and pants are soaked with blood. I look back at the deer, and I know suddenly, without a doubt, what happened to the neighbor’s yappy dog the night I came back.
I fall back on my hands and scurry backwards until my spine meets a tree, and then I press my head hard back into it and close my eyes.
How did I have the speed to catch a deer, the strength to bring it down?
What was wrong with me? Why did I have these urges, these blackouts? What happened to me in the last six weeks that made me this way?
I bang my head back a few times against the tree. Why the hell can’t I remember?
And what was I going to do now? Maisie was the only one who knew I was still alive, and yet she was the one person I couldn’t share this with. She would be scared and worried, and disgusted, and want to call doctors and authorities and who knows who else. I can’t tell her until I have more answers. I don’t know if I can ever tell her that I suspect I really died, and then came back somehow. Came back different.
I have to find Miss Josephine, and I have to get those answers. Whatever it takes.
But I hate it. I hate it all. The blackouts, the blood. The six-week gap in my memory, the things I can’t explain, the lies of omission to Maisie.
Who knew coming back from the dead could be so hard?
I pick myself up off the ground, take off my sweatshirt, and rip off my bloody t-shirt. I bury it shallowly under a pile of leaves and dirt, but it’s better than explaining another bloody shirt to Maisie.
I shrug my black hoodie back on, zip it up, and pull the hood over my head again. Thankfully, the dark color would hide the blood from a distance.
But what should I do about the deer? I look around, but short of digging a hole with my bare hands, my only option is to leave the deer here. At least it would feed more animals. But it doesn’t feel right.
I kneel by the deer and, feeling silly and rueful in equal measure, I say a quick little prayer thanking it for it’s sacrifice. “And I’m sorry,” I add, reaching out to close it’s eyes.
But the woods are a witness. They’re silent and wary, the trees shying away from me, and even the crunch of the leaves underfoot is muffled to uneasy whispers as I make my way back out.
I keep my eyes averted as I pass the neighbor’s house. There are some things ‘sorry’ can’t fix.
Had they found their dog the way I found the deer?
Remorse, shame, and bile rise up and suffocate me. Only the bile goes back down with a hard swallow.
But I don’t remember doing it. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t conscious for the deer either. It’s not my fault!
Yet it is. My hands did it, whether I remember it or not.
Knee-jerk defensiveness wars with my guilt as I toss my bloody sweatshirt in the dumpster in the alley behind our house.
I have to own this, and I have to figure out how to fix it.
Because I’m sneaking in the back door of my own house, half naked, with blood-stained hands.
I’m scrubbing my skin raw, to try to get it all out. There’s blood and fur so far under my nails, I’m not sure I’ll ever get it all out. Did it matter much that it was animal blood?
If I hurt animals when I was blacked out, what else might I do in that darkness?
I’m certain I don’t want to find out.
When I get home, I open the door and see Grady at the table. Almost exactly like I left him, but freshly showered and in clean clothes. He’s staring off into space, his hands gripped together under his chin.
“Hi, babe.” He doesn’t seem to hear me until I toss my keys in the dish my the door. The clashing sound draws his attention and he seems surprised to see me. And wary.
“Hi,” I repeat. “How was your day?”
“It was a day,” he says sourly, and turns away to glare off into space again.
“What’s wrong?” He doesn’t answer. Great. His super good mood from earlier was unchanged.
Before, I would have confronted him about his mood. I would have lovingly pestered him until he told me what was bothering him. We would have talked it out. But that was before.
I spent an anxious day at work, worrying about him, fighting the urge to sneak away and call him every break. Instead I just seemed like the crazy, anxious widow who can’t get herself together all day. And now I’m tired, and I don’t have the energy to push him to talk to me.
I start dinner, clanging dishes and pans as the food cooks and I stew. I’m tired of not being able to tell people my husband is alive. I’m tired of him looking so sick and doing nothing about it. I’m sick of his resistance to seeking help. I’m trying to understand what he’s going through, but I’m tired of his attitude around it. He says he wants answers, but I can’t tell that he’s doing very much to find them, and I’m tired of that, too.
I thought my husband had come back to me, but the guy at the table seems to be his paler, surlier twin. He’s secretive, subdued. There’s something going on that he’s not telling me, and I know it, and that makes it harder to trust that he’s telling the truth when he says he doesn’t remember where he’s been the last six weeks.
While I’ve been mourning, crying, dying, he was somewhere doing something, and yet he doesn’t remember?
Either he’s telling the truth, and he was hurt by someone and has amnesia, or he’s lying to my face. And right now, I’m just not sure which it is.
I set our food on the table and pull out my chair, resigned to a tense and silent dinner. But before the first bite enters my mouth, he speaks.
“We need to talk to Biff. I’m done resting.”
“Okay.” I study him, trying to let go of the sour feelings and thoughts I’d been having now that he was opening up. “What’s changed?”
“I’ve been thinking—”
That much was obvious. He looked like he’d barely moved all day. But he also looks…better.
His hair is damp from a shower, and his eyes are bright and alert and his face has a healthy glow that he’s been missing since he came back. He ticks some things off on his fingers, and I tune back in.
“I remember going back to work, and I remember being hurt. I have no memory of what happened after that, or between then and now.
But Biff is the one who identified me. He’s the one that called in my death. Only, I’m not dead. He’s got to be involved in my disappearance somehow, or at least know something that will help. We need to talk to him.”
“We can’t just walk up to your job site and ask him if he did something to you.”
“But I can.” I get it now.
He nods. “I need you to talk to Biff. Find out what you can about that day, or after, or anything at all.”
“It is a little suspicious, isn’t it?” I ask between bites, the wheels turning. “Do you think Biff was the one who hurt you?”
I don’t want to consider it, and I can tell by Grady’s face that he doesn’t want to either.
He presses his lips together in a thin white line. “I don’t know what to think. If it was him, I can’t think of a single reason why he would.” His defeated shrug cracks my healing heart.
“I’ll do it.” I’d meant to talk to Biff at some point, if only to thank him for being a good boss, a good friend, and for doing the hard thing I hadn’t wanted to do—identifying my husband’s body.
The body of the husband who sat, whole and uninjured and definitely not dead, in front of me.
If Biff hurt my husband and caused this whole situation, we need to know. We need proof. We need justice.
And I just need to know what the hell is going on with my husband. Suddenly, I have much more energy. “Okay, we’ll go after dinner, see if we can catch him before he leaves for work.”
“I’m ready when you are.” He pushes his plate away.
“Aren’t you going to eat?”
“No, I’m not hungry. I ate while you were gone.” He drops his gaze, and guiltily adds, “I’m sorry.”
Sure, it was annoying to make him dinner if he wasn’t going to eat it, but I’m just so glad that he ate at all. “It’s okay. I’ll just wrap it and stick it in the fridge. You can eat it later, if you get hungry again.”
He nods, and I scrape a few more bites in my mouth before wrapping his plate and taking it to the refrigerator.
“What did you eat?” I ask, my head in the fridge, seeing his plates from earlier and struggling to fit it in there with the rest.
“Oh, just some meat.”
His voice sounds funny and I turn back to look at him, but his back is to me as he puts on his jacket. I must’ve imagined it.
I’m getting on my own coat, Grady fidgeting by the door, when my phone rings.
I answer it without looking, without really thinking about it. “Hello?”
“Hi Maisie, it’s Krissy.”
“Who’s that—” Grady starts.
I flash a look at him and put a finger across my lips to silence him on impulse. It’s his sister. And he doesn’t want her to know he’s back yet, so he can’t be talking in the background.
“Hi Krissy. How are you?”
Understanding crosses Grady’s face, and then sadness a split-second before he turns away.
Since Grady’s funeral, Krissy would show up every few days to check up on me. We’d have coffee, chat—cry—and then part ways. I can’t believe I forgot about our meetings. But to be fair, there had been a lot going on.
Husbands back from the dead and all that.
“I’m okay.” There’s a pause between her words that tells me she’s lying. “How are you?”
“I’m okay too,” I reply, trying to sound a bit more convincing than she did.
There’s an empty pause that reminds me that we weren’t really super close until lately.
“Would you mind if I stopped by in a little bit? I made something for you.”
“Um, sure. I’m heading out the door right now, but I should be back in about—” I shrug at Grady. I don’t know how long it will take to talk to Biff and be back in time to hide Grady in the bedroom, or convince him to see his sister. “Like two hours?” I guess.
“Okay, see you at seven. Bye Maisie.”
“Yep, see you then. Bye.” I press End and look at Grady. “Your sister will be here at seven.”
His lips tighten and he looks away. I don’t know why he’s so against telling his family, but it’s going to be a fight to get him to talk to her. But first, Biff. “Let’s go.”
I’m trying to decide where to park outside Grady’s work so that no one sees him when he suddenly yells, “Stop the car!”
I flash a look over at him as I smash the brakes and he’s gripping the handle hard as if he might jump out, staring out the window. “Are you remembering something? Are you having another panic attack?”
Why did I not consider that might happen? I have to help him.
Heart in my throat, I pull into a parking space and throw it in park. “Are you o—”
He’s out the door before I can even finish my sentence, striding toward a fine-dressed woman on the sidewalk.