She would always wish that he had died quickly. Instead, he drew it out, lingering like he had over his kisses.
“Listen, I know you’re excited about your new skis, but I really don’t think this is a good idea.”
She replayed the scene in her head often, urging him to get his lines right this time. He never did.
“It’s okay, babe.” The rakish grin, the slapping of the ski goggles onto his face. “I know what I’m doing.”
“No, really.” Screaming at him was pointless; he was dead. “Really. This isn’t a ski slope, you know. Just a gully in your backyard. Please just don’t.”
“I know what I’m doing.” Repeating himself; still the wrong lines. “I’ll be right back.” His breath invaded the hood of her winter coat, pressed up against her like his warm lips on her cheek. The lips left a wet spot that soon turned cold in the crackling air. “And I’ll have a surprise for you.”
It wasn’t a surprise. Not the stumble, not the legs scissoring up in the air. Not the tumbling headlong. Not the tree.
“He’s still breathing!” That was a surprise. Had she said that? No, it couldn’t have been. Maybe his mother.
A week… or four days. Maybe eleven? Machines. Doctors. Medicine. Temptation to rip the lines out and get him away. No one else could see the coffin hanging from the ceiling, waiting to swallow him up.
He loved long goodbyes. She hated them. They argued over which was better, and he won by dying.
This made it all the more interesting when she ran into him at the grocery store. In the meat aisle, a place she hadn’t been often since he had died.
She didn’t seem him right at first, her vision fogged with misery as she cautiously poked one package of meat after the other. She couldn’t remember what it was she was looking for. She didn’t really care why she had wanted it. Only she knew that this thing, this grocery shopping, was supposed to mean something to her, supposed to sustain her, and so she did it.
When she reached for the ground beef, she was jostled by another shopper. The fog bounced around her head before settling; the shopper jostled her again, trying to maneuver closer to the meat selection. She looked up. A large arm reached through her line of vision, then hesitated. Stopped.
“Is that you?”
It was his voice. The fog retreated, growling anxiously, gnawing at the edges of her mind. She turned and saw his face; she gave a slight, bemused laugh. “Yes. I think so.”
He smiled. “It is. I see you in there.” She started to answer, then stopped. She stared at him, for so long he raised an eyebrow in query. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” The words shot from her mouth unbidden. “Nothing’s wrong. I’m fine.” Hope had wormed its way into her heart and sat there, growing while she held her breath and willed him not to speak, to not make her speak. Hope dug in its painful claws and she cried out, “You’re fine too. You’re here. You’re fine.”
“I’m fine,” he agreed solemnly. “Hard to be anything else when you’re dead.”
“No.” The hope squeezed tighter. Her heart would be ready for the meat shelves soon. “You’re right here. Standing right here. You’re fine.”
“I’m fine,” he repeated. “Just dead.”
She reached out to him, stopped. It was cold near him and she didn’t want to know how cold it could be. “Stop being dead,” she ordered, heart compressing further. “You’re here, okay? So just stay.”
He was shaking his head while she talked, sending it side to side like the ringing of a death bell.
“Stay. Just stay,” she begged in reply. The bell kept ringing. “I’ll do anything.” Hope burst her heart, disintegrating, and she choked on the rising bile of its death. “I swear. Name it. I’m sorry. I was wrong. You were fine.”
His head arrested mid-ring, cocked sideways to examine her.
“Just stay.” She held her hands out to him, palms up, empty.
“I can’t stay.”
“Can’t?” Her hands started to tremble, so she carefully closed the fingers on them and pulled them back. “Don’t you mean you won’t? Don’t you think that if you tried–just tried–you could find a way to stay?”
“I’m sorry.” A smile turned up his mouth at the corners, corners pointing to his eyes. The eyes were grinning death’s heads and she could not see her happiness there anymore. “I can’t.”
Can’t punched her squarely in the jaw, knocked her into her cart. In desperation she fought back. There was nothing to grab, nothing to hold, but still it found a grip on her throat and squeezed, turning her black and blue inside. Her hands tried to free her, but there was no purchase.
Her body swayed, trying to throw the can’t away. She screamed from her soul, screamed and screamed until the sounds broke past the can’t and came pouring out, past her tongue and teeth, splattering to the ground and flowing toward him.
The screams split, circling his feet but not touching him and his sad, deep, death’s head eyes. She lunged at him, all angry claws and hurtful teeth, but her hands fell useless at her side and she hadn’t moved from where she stood. She hurled a shriek at him, tried to throw her soul away, but it wouldn’t leave.
Her shriek bounced back at her, shattering her eardrums in bright red blood, leaving her deaf.
She could not reach him.
Pain fell from her eyes, running into rivers racing toward her heart. She cried; she slowed. She stopped.
The silence engulfed him, and he spoke. Her ears healed at the touch of his voice. “It’ll be fine, you know,” he said.
“That’s what you said before.” Her feet were lead and she could not walk away. “You lied.” Her heart was lead, too, pulsing its weight in her guts. “I’m glad you’re dead.” Her lungs were ribbons, tied in beautiful knots, pulling her ribs tight to suffocate. “I hate you.”
His smile was tears. “Now you’re the liar.” He reached out and tugged at the beautiful knots, picked up her heart and tied it back into place. “I miss you.” He leaned in between her ribs, his warm breath sticking to the cold and unchanging lead. “I was wrong.”
“You were wrong,” she affirmed, crossing her arms.
“I was wrong,” he echoed, drifting back from her. She held his breath against her, and it stayed. “I still have to buy some things.” He hadn’t chosen any meat. “I can’t stay.”
“No.” She nodded. “I love you.”
He agreed, his breath strung between them. “Goodbye.”
He left without waiting, disappearing between the fresh green lettuce and the bountiful apples of the produce section, leaving his breath behind. She let him go because she couldn’t follow, turning her cart into the bread aisle without ever looking away