I wrote ‘Til Death several years ago. A friend of mine brought a short story contest to my attention and encouraged me to submit a work. Since I had never written a short story, I decided to give it a whirl.
Needless to say, this story didn’t win, but since it’s been sitting in the depths of my computer files for years and I have no plans to submit it anywhere else, I couldn’t see a reason not to share it here!
To those of you who write short stories regularly, I salute you! I’ve written a couple now, and I must say that they are infinitely more difficult for me than writing a full-blown novel.
With that in mind, Enjoy! (I am sure it goes without saying that all content is here is copyrighted, but I’m going to say it nonetheless!)
Sipping her second mug of rooibos tea, Erica Riley stared at the green numbers that illuminated the top of the kitchen stove and watched in silence as time slowly ticked on. Five minutes to wait. She knew he’d be here, but anticipation had woven a tight knot deep in her gut regardless.
There was nothing unusual about a midnight date with a man. Lots of people had them. Granted, at that time of night they were usually referred to as booty calls, involved lots of hot, steamy sex, and more often than not were illicit. None of that applied to Erica’s situation.
Of course, there was the fact that it was her husband she was meeting, and it was only a minor detail that her husband had been dead for two years. That did tend to put a damper on their relationship.
Relationship. How could she even call it that? She hadn’t seen him for two years until three months ago when he had quite suddenly begun appearing at the same time every night. He hadn’t even so much as talked to her the first month. And again, there was the fact that he was dead.
12:04. Briefly, she wondered if she had lost her mind and began to think back to when her life had first begun the chaotic downward spiral she had almost grown accustomed to.
Erica swore as she climbed into the driver’s seat and swiped at the front of her coat, spraying icy droplets across the dashboard and steering wheel. Her breath condensed in the air, giving her curses a ghostly, physical form for a second in time. She had wanted to leave before the weather rolled in. The weathermen had been going on for days about the expected snowfall, but it hadn’t been predicted to arrive until the early hours of the morning, and no one had said anything about freezing rain.
For just a moment, she almost contemplated returning to the house and taking Annie up on her offer of a couch for the night. It would mean, of course, that she’d have an excuse not to tackle her mounting pile of laundry first thing in the morning and that her cat would give her the cold shoulder for the next three days simply for slipping out of their routine for a single night. No, it was better to just go home. The drive was only twenty minutes anyway. She sighed as she turned the key in the ignition. The little 2008 Nissan Sentra had gotten her through worse. It would surely get her through this evening.
Poor Annie. Annie had had a rough day, having had another run-in with the boss they had come to call Mr. Bellows. Nothing was ever a small issue for him. Everything required a rant, and today Annie had born the brunt of it. Who better than her best friend to console her? Annie had, after all, been there for Erica day after day for the months leading up to (and the months after) Jared’s short, but unsuccessful battle with cancer. Erica could offer no less in Annie’s time of need. She supposed a wiser woman would have just used the telephone, but a phone didn’t provide hugs and it certainly didn’t bring the wine, the majority of which Annie had consumed.
It was a quarter to midnight when she backed out of the driveway and headed to the main roads, testing the brakes as she navigated to see what kind of condition the roads were in. Mostly okay. A little slip here and there, but nothing horrible yet. She should have put the snow tires on before the winter set in. She’d lived in Connecticut long enough to know that a mild autumn didn’t mean winter wouldn’t show up with a vengeance come January. Deciding it wouldn’t wait any longer, she made up her mind to call the garage first thing Monday morning and have Rich put them on.
Since Jared’s death, she’d had to learn to rely on herself more than she’d ever thought possible, but there were some things she simply didn’t have the strength, or the skill, to take on and changing tires was one. She instantly relegated anything automobile related to Rich, her father’s long-time mechanic. Better to let him handle it than have to listen to her father go on about the number of scam artists posing as mechanics in the commercial garages.
She had just gotten off I-84 and was slowing to a stop at the end of the exit ramp when she felt the horrible grinding, stuttering jolt that indicated the antilock brakes had kicked in. Then, within a blink, the moment had gone and the little Sentra sat still at the stop sign, Erica’s thumping heart the only indication that there’d been any issue at all. The wipers rhythmically slapped the windshield, chasing away the freezing rain and now snowflakes that fell and melted on the glass.
Five minutes from home. She’d never been more relieved. For someone who hated driving in bad weather, she had a knack for picking the worst nights to go out. There was the time they’d been anticipating the worst snowstorm of the year and she’d left work an hour later than normal. Her windowless cubicle in the middle of the building had left her with no idea of how quickly the drifts were piling. She could have (and looking back, probably should have) checked the internet, or simply gotten up and looked out the conference room windows, but she hadn’t. Jared had repeatedly texted, but she’d been listening to music and hadn’t heard the pings. Regardless, she’d made it home that evening just fine, even if she had gotten an earful from Jared. She didn’t blame him, of course. She would have done the same.
Erica cautiously made the turn and was thankful to discover no additional ice on the roadway. She was glad that traffic was light, but still would have appreciated a car in front of her. At least that way she’d have some indication of ice buildup on the road before she got to it herself. Always better to watch the car in front of you slide before taking the slide yourself. It gave you a half-second to prepare.
Just another few minutes and she’d be home. And then it happened.
Even knowing that she couldn’t stop and that slamming on the brakes wasn’t a good idea, Erica did it anyway because when a buck the size of a small moose appears in the beam of the headlights, you simply don’t just keep driving.
All was a dizzying spin as the car flew wildly out of control. Brief snippets of her surroundings appeared and disappeared as quickly as they arrived, like an incomprehensible science fiction slide show. Trees. A white fence. Trees again. Snowflakes streaming from the darkness, adding to the disorientation. And then, suddenly and without warning, it stopped with a bang.
Erica wondered who had fired the shotgun. It took her several minutes to realize that there was no shotgun. Her car had been stopped by a tree, the front driver’s side crumpled inward, the distorted metal no longer resembling the front of a car at all. It looked, instead, rather like something that should have been hanging in the Museum of Modern Art.
The buck, of course, was nowhere to be seen. Erica said a small prayer. She might have totaled her car, but at least she hadn’t killed anyone.
She wondered what they would talk about tonight. Jared had refused to give her any information about what “life on the other side” was like, persistent though she might be in asking, and he wouldn’t tell her what it was that had suddenly allowed him to visit, though she wondered if perhaps even he didn’t know.
Her life had been taking bizarre turns lately and she was looking forward to seeing him. He seemed to be her only constant these days, but then, Jared had been her rock when he was alive, too.
They had married four and a half years ago in a picturesque October ceremony with the kind of New England foliage and azure blue skies that only happened in Hollywood movies.
Children, however, did not come so easily, and a year and a half of dedicated attempts the “good, old fashioned way” hadn’t produced results. Looking back, it was a lot of strain on a young marriage, but Jared had never given up, even when Erica had. Of course, he wasn’t the one who’d been charting his temperature daily, marking the calendar, purchasing various prediction kits, and bursting into tears when the cramping and bleeding continued to arrive month after month.
He had, however, been the one to console her every single time. When they finally sought help from a fertility specialist, they had both been surprised to learn that her body was not the issue at all. In fact, it was Jared’s blood work that came back with abnormalities, and when the specialist recommended follow-up testing and seeing his family practitioner, neither Jared nor Erica had thought much of it. Even when the practitioner asked for CT scan, they weren’t worried.
Until the phone call. When the phone rang and the nurse on the other end requested that Jared come in that afternoon, well, that had been a little unusual.
It was cancer, they said, as she and Jared sat in shock, numbness flooding every extremity. Worse, it was pancreatic cancer.
Erica gave a bitter half-laugh at the memory as she cupped her hands around the mug to warm them. She was always cold these days.
“But, we caught it early, right?” she had asked. “There are treatment options?”
“Well, that depends. Pancreatic cancer is extremely aggressive, but we don’t usually see it in someone your age. You’re young, Jared. We need followup scans before I can determine a treatment plan, and unfortunately, with this type of cancer, timing is incredibly important,” Dr. Esting had told them, turning to Jared. “I’ve called the hospital. You need to head there immediately for an MRI and possibly a PET scan, depending on the scheduling there. I can refer you to a pancreatic specialist this week. He’s one of the best in the country, Jared, so if there’s anyone who can give you an accurate prognosis, he’s it.”
From there, it was a blur. PET scans, ultrasounds, a nightmare of a pancreaticoduodenectomy, chemo, more scans. Test after test, treatment after treatment. And just four months later, Jared was gone.
After that, Erica’s thoughts on having children varied widely depending on her mood. Had they conceived, she would have faced raising a child as a single mother, not to mention the fact that she would have been pregnant for the majority of Jared’s treatment, possibly delivering a baby even while her husband was dying in a hospital ward five floors above.
But to have had a piece of Jared to cling to after he was gone… Well, that might have been worth it. She wondered if she would have been strong enough.
“Mom, I’m fine,” Erica said into the phone again as her mother protested. “Really. They cleared me to go home. I’ve got a couple of staples in my head, that’s all.”
“Maybe I should come take care of you for a few days.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. The doctor said I don’t even have a concussion. They were surprised, actually,” she told her as she stood from her seat on the couch and stretched. Her whole body ached as though she’d taken a beating.
“Yes, well, heads aren’t made for steering wheel impacts. Are you sure I can’t come up and play nurse for a little while?”
“No. It’s fine, Mom. I’m not even planning on staying home.”
“What? You’re not going back to work on Monday, are you?”
“I have to. There’s a lot of stuff piled on my desk right now. It’ll just pile up higher and I’ll end up with more of a headache than I already have.”
“Oh, Erica. I wish you’d let me come take care of you. You’re your father’s daughter.”
Erica smiled. Her father had a renowned stubborn streak. “I’ll check in tomorrow evening, okay?”
She hung up the phone, set it on the coffee table, and went for the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. The aches and pains were nothing a good, strong dose of ibuprofen wouldn’t take care of.
Sifting through the various bottles behind the mirrored cabinet door and not seeing it, Erica grew frustrated. Where was it? She had just bought a new bottle not too long ago. How could she have gone through it already? She must have thrown it in her desk at work, though she couldn’t recall having done so.
“Hmmph,” she growled to herself as she picked up a bottle of Tylenol instead. “This won’t work nearly as well, but it’s going to have to do. I’m not calling Annie just for Motrin.”
Unscrewing the cap, she dumped three pills into her hand and downed them with a glass of water.
A nap. A nap on the couch was just what the doctor prescribed. Sure, it was 8 p.m. and she would probably have been better off just going to bed, but realistically, she just couldn’t get her mind to agree to settle on the bedtime of a six-year-old.
Erica switched on the television (perhaps she could convince her mind that dozing while watching T.V. was acceptable) and flipped through the channels, looking for something that would simultaneously hold her interest and let her sleep at the same time. She finally settled on Forrest Gump, a movie she’d seen enough times that she felt no pressure to stay awake, and one she liked enough to watch for the umpteenth time.
By the time Forrest had made it to boot camp, Erica was out cold. She awoke only long after the credits had rolled and an irritating onscreen twit trying to sell knives that she “couldn’t live without” was yelling obnoxiously from the screen.
Groaning, she sat up and stretched her neck from side to side, feeling half a dozen pops, as she reached for the remote to turn off the television.
Mr. Fuzzbutt meowed at the sudden silence as though surprised. The cat had joined her on the sofa at some point during her nap and now stretched a paw out languidly in front of him, as spoiled cats were wont to do. Leaning to stroke his marbled head, Erica could hear him begin to purr before she’d even touched him.
She and Jared had adopted Fuzz when she had been the in the depths of depression after another failed attempt to get pregnant. Jared had insisted on the name.
“Who couldn’t smile at a name like that?” he’d asked.
At first she’d protested. She liked Elijah. “Would you have named our child Mr. Fuzzbutt?” she retorted.
Jared had given her a dashing grin with a dimple in his left cheek, the kind of grin he had flashed frequently in his life, the one that had caught her attention on the first day she’d met him. “Well now, I suppose that all depends on how much hair the kid would have had on his butt,” he replied.
She couldn’t help it. She’d laughed. And even though she’d defiantly called the cat Elijah for the first few months, Fuzzbutt stuck indefinitely.
She glanced at the clock. It was nearly midnight. Heaving a sigh, she prepared to lift herself off the couch.
“Come on, cat. Let’s get to bed.”
Naturally, she wasn’t tired, but neither was she in the mood for television and her head had begun to throb enough so that a book wasn’t a remote possibility.
“Tea,” she told Fuzz. “Tea to help me sleep.”
“Roow,” he replied enthusiastically.
“Well, no, not for you, of course,” she said, “but it’ll warm me up a bit.”
The cat jumped from the couch and followed her to the kitchen, winding his way around her legs as she filled a mug with water, dropped in a teabag, and placed it in the microwave.
Though watching the mug rotate within was nothing short of fascinating, Erica visited the bathroom quickly and then changed into the flannel pjs she’d gotten from Annie for Christmas. There was nothing like flannel to take the chill away.
Throwing her hair in a quick ponytail, she scrubbed her face with soap and warm water, careful to avoid the bandaged area. Judging by the tenderness in the skin, there were several black and blue marks that had yet to form. By the end of this week, she’d look like something from a Wes Craven film. That should make for some interesting conversation at work.
She stepped back as a sudden blinding light assaulted the center of her vision with no warning. Momentarily stunned, she blinked repeatedly until she could see the familiar bathroom around her once again. She glanced around the bathroom, continuing to blink and take in all that surrounded her. Everything was as it should be. The soft, sage bath towels were folded neatly and hung on the rack behind her, her toothbrush in its holder on the side of the sink, the foaming facial cleanser on the shelf where she had just placed it, and even the single cracked floor tile from when she had dropped the hairdryer once at just the right angle was in place. It was all just as it should have been.
“Well, the doctor failed to mention that might happen,” she said to herself. She’d be following up with her physician in the morning for sure.
It was just after midnight when she pulled her tea from the microwave. Adding just a touch of honey, she called Mr. Fuzzbutt and he trotted behind her with a chirp as she made her way to the bedroom. She swapped the mug for a magazine on the nightstand beside her bed and climbed beneath the comforter on the side she always slept in, even though she no longer shared the bed with Jared. There was just something right about leaving his space open, as though he might just be night fishing with his brother or out drinking with the boys, as though he might come through the door so tired after work one evening that he’d desperately need to collapse onto his side of the bed.
Absently, she perused the magazine, flipping the pages backwards, a habit she had acquired from her earliest days reading teen magazines as a twelve-year-old. She couldn’t explain why she started at the back of a magazine, but it was natural to do so, even though Jared used to tease her about it.
Leaning over to the night table, Erica picked up her mug and sipped at the tea as she browsed the pages. It was an unexpected movement in the doorway that caught her attention and when she looked up, the vision before her was beyond all cognition.
Jared stood in the doorway to their bedroom.
She jumped as nearly scalding tea spilled across her lap and Mr. Fuzzbutt’s tail. The cat ran, hissing, from the room. The distraction pulled her eyes from the vision of her dead husband as she quickly wiped at her lap and the soaked magazine. Her eyes immediately returning to the spot where Jared had stood, Erica was dismayed to see nothing out of the ordinary.
Jesus, what was wrong with her?
She set the mug on the stand beside her, got out of bed angrily, and ripped the comforter from the bed, not caring that the jagged motions jarred her head and made it throb harder. As if what she had been through last night hadn’t been enough, now she was hallucinating.
“And making a goddamned mess while I’m at it,” she mumbled as she reached the bottom of the basement stairs and jammed the comforter into the washing machine.
She needed sleep. And maybe a shot of vodka.
Sliding to the floor next to the washer, Erica sobbed and let the flood of tears come. Of all the things her delusional mind could have imagined, why had it insisted on dredging up the pain of Jared’s memory?
Most days she could live the with fact that Jared was gone, but the last twenty-four hours had been painful enough. She hardly needed a reminder of how alone she was in the world.
“Oh, Jared,” she said softly to the empty laundry room. “I was the one who should have died first. You were always so much stronger.”
One more minute. It was amazing to Erica how fast a mind could spin in only a minute’s time. It felt as though an hour should have passed. And yet, her mind never truly stopped turning, did it?
She missed Fuzzbutt. The cat, like so many other things had taken off a few weeks ago, first leaving her sick with worry, then just lonely.
He’d managed to escape once or twice before when she was bringing in groceries, always at night, but each time he had returned in the morning. She liked to think that someone had found him, recognized his gentle and sweet soul for what it was, and had taken him in to spoil him. She only hoped he hadn’t been hit by a car. The world could be just plain cruel sometimes. Fuzz deserved better.
She would confront Jared tonight. She knew he could explain it, this bizarre turn her life had taken in the last several months, the oddities, the things missing, friends gone. If anyone should be able to know such things, it should be someone on the other side. She hoped, anyway.
The pile was higher on her desk than she remembered leaving the day before. Jeremy must have brought by the last round of batch records for review before she’d gotten in. Erica threw her head into her hands, which was dumb because it only caused the splitting pain on the left side of her head to expand into the right side as well. It had been two weeks since the accident, but the pain was still persistent. She supposed she should call the doctor.
The lack of sleep didn’t help. Ever since having seen Jared that Saturday night, she’d been plagued by dreams and hadn’t slept well. On one of those nights, she thought it was last Tuesday, she had woken up in the middle of the dream to discover Jared watching her sleep. That was ridiculous, of course, because Jared was dead and had been for years. It could only be explained by the fact that she must have dreamed she’d woken and seen him before she actually woke.
Thank God it was Friday. She needed only to make it through the day before she would put her plan in motion, a plan that would (hopefully) prove she hadn’t lost her mind. She was going to stay up all night. A little caffeine and some distraction from a best friend should help keep her awake. She needed to know that she wasn’t delusional.
And if she was…
Well, if she was, she wanted to be sure before she called the doctor with claims of hallucinations.
Gritting her teeth, she began to sift through the papers on her desk, doing her best to concentrate on the information within them, signing her name on some of them and placing sticky tabs on others where she had questions about the process or where someone had missed a signature.
At noon, she dialed Annie’s number to invite her for the evening’s “festivities.” Oddly, Annie did not pick up the phone. Disappointed, Erica left a message on her voicemail in hopes that she would call back before the end of the day.
“Damn,” she mumbled to herself as she glanced at the clock. Looking again at the pile of records on her desk, a pile which hardly seemed to have shrunk at all, she decided she’d take a working lunch. Having just run out of “sign here” tabs, she opened her bottom desk drawer to pull out a new stack, but was surprised to find that the tabs weren’t there. In fact, all of her extra supplies were missing.
“Really?” she said aloud. “For crying out loud, people, the company can afford more sticky tabs. There’s no need to steal them.” The complaint was more to herself than to anyone else since the office was practically empty over the lunch hour.
When the afternoon progressed without word from Annie, Erica tried calling again. Annie had been Erica’s closest friend for twenty-three of her thirty-two years, but she was not known for being the most reliable at returning phone calls.
Still no answer.
By the time Erica arrived home, she had progressed from feeling worried about Annie to feeling annoyed to feeling angry. It looked as though she’d be pulling an all-nighter by herself. That was fine. It was nothing she hadn’t done in college a half-dozen times anyway.
The evening progressed rather uneventfully for the most part, with Mr. Fuzzbutt howling at her as she prepared dinner.
“You don’t like this kind of cheese,” she told him, as she stirred the swiftly melting Pecorino Romano into her pasta.
Regardless, he sat expectantly, his fluffy tail whipping from side to side on the kitchen floor in anticipation of some dropped morsel, occasionally twitching one tufted ear. He licked his lips, or at least made a good show of it since cats did not, in fact, actually possess lips.
“You’re a cat, in case you hadn’t noticed,” she said. “Not a dog.”
She shook her head.
Later, as she read a book with her mind only half focused on the words before her, she decided to try Annie’s number. If Annie couldn’t be here tonight, the least she could do was keep Erica chatting for a while. The phone rang and rang, the voicemail never picking up.
Hanging up, Erica furrowed her brow at the phone. She looked at the cat who had curled himself up on the back of the sofa. He watched her, large feline pupils seemingly expectantly waiting for what she had to say.
“She forgot to pay her phone bill again,” Erica said. “Guaranteed.”
“Mrrrrp,” Fuzz chirped in response.
It was around midnight when Erica felt the first pangs of fatigue, reminding her that those college days of staying up all night were long gone, not meant to be reenacted by a thirty-two-year-old.
Still, she steeled her resolve. She would do this.
She was rewarded when Jared appeared at precisely 12:08 a.m. There was no indication that he would appear, no sudden chill in the air, no hair standing on end. There was nothing. And then, suddenly, there was Jared.
He sat on the sofa next to her feet and she was reminded of all of the times she would coerce him into massaging her feet as they watched a movie on Friday nights.
“Jared?” she practically whispered, wondering if she had really lost it.
God, his eyes! That light. She had forgotten how alive with amusement and intelligence his eyes had always been. How could she have forgotten?
He smiled, a lopsided grin tilted ever so slightly to the left and Erica felt as though the entire world had been turned upside down. Her chest was tight and it was then that she realized she’d been holding her breath. She let it out slowly, fighting the dizziness that washed over her.
“You were here the other nights, too,” she said.
He nodded again in response.
She looked at him questioningly. “What are you… I mean, you can’t… Can you speak?”
Shaking his head, he gave her a sad smile, and pantomimed locking his lips and throwing away the key. Lifting his eyebrows, he shrugged. How was she to hold a conversation with a ghost who couldn’t talk?
“Do you visit me every night?”
Jared nodded enthusiastically, his dark hair falling into his eyes. He brushed it away.
“The same time?” she asked.
He nodded again, and placed his hands together, laying his cheek upon them to indicate that she was usually sleeping.
“Why are you here? I mean, what are you doing here?”
He raised a finger and wagged it at her as he shook his head.
She found herself smiling, even while wondering how any of this could be real. “Are you saying you can’t tell me?”
“Oh my God, Jared. Have I lost my mind?” she asked, suddenly aware that not only was she probably hallucinating, but that her mind was providing extremely elaborate detail. “If I had to be hallucinating, why couldn’t I at least have given you a voice?”
Jared screwed his face into a look of dismissal and waved a hand at her. He pointed at her and mouthed, You.
He gave her the A-OK sign, touching his thumb and forefinger together in a circle, keeping the remaining fingers straight.
She laughed. “I’m okay?”
He shook his head.
“I’m not okay?”
Jared shook his head again. He pointed to her, made the A-OK sign, and then raised his hands and brought them down slowly, fingers moving as though he were playing the piano.
Confounded, she threw her own hands in the air. “I’m not following you, Jared.”
He seemed frustrated, but pointed at her and pointed to his lips. You, he mouthed, pointing to her.
He nodded, then made the A-OK sign once more.
He shook his head and mouthed to her.
Clearly excited, he nodded again.
He held up a finger to indicate he wasn’t done. Again, he raised his hands and slowly dropped them, fingers waving back and forth.
Rain, he mouthed.
“Rain?” she said.
He nodded again, then pantomimed the entire series again, mouthing the words as he mimicked.
“I’m right as rain.”
He nodded eagerly as she laughed. Her dead husband had just told her that she was right as rain. She wasn’t entirely certain it was much of a consolation, but she was glad anyway.
Suddenly, Jared looked up and gave her a sad smile, eyes conveying more than his mouth ever could, even if he had possessed the ability to speak to her. He tapped his wrist, blew her a kiss, and was gone in an instant, his disappearance accompanied by several seconds of a slow, but rhythmic beep, the source of which Erica couldn’t identify. When it subsided, she was left wondering whether she’d needed to call Annie or her doctor on Saturday morning.
She waited with anticipation for Jared’s arrival, her eyes checking the antique mantel clock every thirty seconds even though it felt as though minutes had passed each time. If she were prone to pacing, she would have been doing so now. But she was prone to cleaning, and so she dusted the top of the baker’s rack for a third round, as though a single speck of dust could possibly have been left behind after the first two.
Having gone over last night’s encounter at least several dozen times in her mind, she could hardly believe it had happened at all. In fact, a part of her certainly did not believe, and she was anxious to see if tonight would prove to convince her that she had, in fact, seen Jared.
Sure enough, when 12:08 arrived, Jared arrived with it. His ghostly form was a sight for sore eyes and she drunk him in as though she hadn’t seen him in years, which, when she thought about it, was close to the truth. He winked at her and tapped his wrist, indicating that he was right on time.
“Punctual as ever,” she told him with a smile, trying to ignore the hot sting of tears behind her eyes. Until he’d actually appeared, she had almost convinced herself that last night had been a figment of her imagination.
Sensing the unshed tears, Jared held a spectral hand to her face, his palm hovering just over her cheek, without touching it at all. There was a sadness in his eyes. She hated that it was there for her. Closing her eyes, she leaned into his hand for comfort, and was jolted nearly off her feet when a frigid sensation sent shockwaves through her bones, starting with the teeth on the right side of her mouth, exactly where her cheek had slipped through the form of his hand.
With no warning, Jared disappeared from sight, a soft whoosh-whirrrr-whoosh-whirrrr echoing in the air behind him.
Erica was looking forward to Jared’s visit tonight more than ever. He had found his voice yesterday and managed to say a few words. Glorious words. Ones that surprised even him.
“Fuzzbutt’s gotten fat.”
So perhaps the words themselves weren’t as glorious as the sound of his voice, but there was no doubt that even he was visibly startled by hearing the words he spoke.
Without thinking, she replied, “He has not.” Eyes wide, she looked at him. “Jared!” she breathed.
Erica stopped herself from lunging forward to hug him, realizing that even though she could hear him, his physical form did not exist as anything more than an apparition of vaporous disposition. She had learned that well early on and didn’t wish to repeat the scenario.
“You can hear me,” he said, his eyes dark, serious, and locked on hers.
“Well, that’s progress.”
“Why can I hear your voice now?” she asked.
“Oh no, I’m not getting caught up in that! You know I can’t tell you anything.”
“Not while you were mute, you couldn’t, but surely you could tell me something now, right? You must have some idea why this has happened. Why you’re here?”
“Uh-uh. Nope. There are rules, Er.”
“Ha, that’s not the Jared I know.”
He gave her a sly smile in return. “There are rules even I cannot break, Erica.”
She gave a mock scowl, then smiled at him. “So breaking into the community pool when we were in college was okay?”
“Hey! That was different.”
“I remember it like it was yesterday, you know.”
He shifted his ghostly form, drawing closer. For just an instant, she swore she could smell him, a brief whiff of masculine scent that was as familiar to her as her own. The scent was gone before she could be sure she had smelled it at all, leaving an ache in her heart at the recollection. His eyes blazed with a heat she knew all too well.
“You were so beautiful that night,” he told her. He held a hand up to her face as if to brush her hair back, then thought twice and dropped it again, knowing he couldn’t touch her.
“You’re just saying that because we weren’t wearing swimsuits,” she told him.
“No,” he answered, his eyes taking in her features as though he had not seen her clearly until this very moment. “No, Erica, you were beautiful because you were you. Your spirit is beautiful, you know.”
She felt her ears burn under his gaze. “Yes, well, that night it didn’t seem to be my spirit that held your attention if I remember correctly.”
He smiled, a full grin complete with dimple. “Any full-blooded male with a heart beating in his chest and blood in his veins would have done the same. You can hardly blame me.”
“I don’t blame you.” Perhaps she was speaking of other things, then, of a time that had nothing to do with a pool or their years in college. The words and their meaning grew confused even in her own mind.
“I know, babe. I know.” And it seemed he did.
He appeared exactly on time, same as he had every day for the last ninety-one days. She should know, as she’d been marking the days on her calendar ever since she’d first seen him. He stood beside the seat she occupied at the kitchen table, his hands slung into the front pockets of his jeans, the same faded jeans he had often worn lounging around the house, except, of course, that they couldn’t really be the same jeans since Jared had died and they had gone to charity.
There was something different this evening and she couldn’t immediately put her finger on what exactly had changed, at least, not right away.
“Hey, babe,” he said with a smile. “Ready for date night?”
“Every day is date night with you. If I keep losing sleep, I’m going to start missing work altogether,” she said. She’d been late to work more often than not in the last few months, which wasn’t entirely a problem since she found she lacked the ability to care any longer.
“You never liked that job anyway,” he said with a wave.
“That’s not true!” she argued.
“Erica, come on. You can’t lie to me. I can see exactly what’s going on in that head of yours.”
She frowned. “That’s not fair, you know.”
“That I can read your thoughts, your feelings, and know you through and through?”
“I can’t read you!”
“Babe, I knew you through and through when I was alive, too. Your face has always given you away.”
It was true. She was an awful liar and had never managed to keep emotion from her face. Anger, elation, fear, anguish—whatever it was, it was plain for all to see.
“You know what you want to ask,” he said.
“Yes, and I know you won’t tell me,” she said sullenly.
Confused, she looked up at him, hesitating. He nodded, encouraging her to continue. It was then that she realized what it was that was different.
Jared was solid.
He stood before her, smooth flesh, dark hair, and strong hands—all with an authenticity and a vitality unlike any she’d experienced before. It was odd, but even when he’d been alive, he hadn’t been this real. It was, quite simply, otherworldly and she grew dizzy with the realization. Suddenly disoriented, she gripped the kitchen table, her knuckles turning white as she fought to keep her wits about her.
He stepped forward so that he stood behind her and placed his hands upon the back of the chair. Leaning down, he spoke softly, as though the meaning of his words might better be received in a lover’s tone.
“You know the truth, Erica,” Jared’s voice was soft in her ear, her neck tingling with the warmth of his breath.
“No,” she answered.
She blinked, then nodded slowly, a single tear coursing down her cheek. Quickly, she brushed it away.
“That night in January. The freezing rain.”
He held her hands in his, caressing them gently and she could feel him. She could feel him as she hadn’t since he was alive. The warmth, the strength. She needed that strength and she could feel him giving it to her, lending her everything he had.
“The accident,” she continued.
He nodded gravely.
Erica took a deep breath, involuntarily swallowing.
“I didn’t survive.”
“Time of death?”
“Noted,” the attending physician said as she reviewed the notes in the chart, adding her own to the list.
“Damn shame,” the nurse said, pulling his hand from the deceased woman’s wrist. He stood to move the ventilator, the heart monitor, and the various other pieces of equipment from the bedside so that the orderlies could convey the body to the morgue without tripping over the cords. “The fact that the family had to fight to end it. Did they think she was going to come out of it? Three months in a hospital bed, wasting away. What’s it take to just let someone go with dignity anymore?”
“It’s all politics. You know that.”
“Shame. Just a damn shame.”