It was sudden. And that’s what had made it so hard. One moment they were driving down a cozy, country highway and enjoying the quiet companionship that only comes with years. And the next, the car was in the ditch and his husband was dead. Just like that.
Later, a doctor told Kyle that he was in shock; as if putting a name to an inexpressible feeling of loss was equivalent to throwing a drowning man a buoy. He turned down the opportunity to receive any further counseling.
Days later, all of which had been spent in bed, he felt something brush his foot in a soft caress. He smiled at the familiar gesture. And then frowned. There was, of course, no one in the bed beside him. He got some air after that.
A week later he was applying concealer to the dark folds of skin under his eyes that looked more like bruises than what they were. He wanted to look better than he felt for the funeral later that day. It was going to be the last time he’d see Mark — what was left of him — before the burial. He was thinking about the shovel piling dirt over the closed coffin when he felt a pressure around his waist and dropped the stick in the sink. He stared in the mirror for a long time before washing the concealer off his face. Mark had never liked it when he wore make-up.
Kyle started to inadvertently revise his eating and television habits after the funeral, vaccinating himself against loneliness with mindless sitcoms and police procedurals that blurred together, and filling his sense of loss with Ben and Jerry’s.
A week into his new routine he returned home to find the ice cream melted in the freezer, but nothing else. Later that night the television shut off after one hour and wouldn’t turn back on.
Mark was right.
But when Kyle tried to turn the front door’s knob to get some air and a little exercise nothing happened.
That was the first time Kyle really questioned his assumption. Mark had never done anything like that in life. Did that make the presence someone else? Or were people changed by death? He felt a shiver at the last thought.
After other select foods went bad in the fridge and the door stopped working if he wanted to go anywhere else other than to work or the grocery store Kyle decided to confront him — it — after having a breakdown in the bathroom and rocking himself to sleep in the empty bathtub.
It didn’t take it well.
And that was to be expected, assuming that anything can be expected when you’re dealing with an un-departed, supernatural presence that bears a few faint and scattered behavioral resemblances to your deceased significant other.
But a few knocked over books and shattered dishes were only the beginning.
The realtor blamed Kyle for the sabotage: the sold signs that miraculously appeared on his lawn, the last-minute tour cancellation text messages and emails he never sent her, and one day, even the flat tire she got on the way to an un-cancelled open-house. Whether she quit or he fired her in the conversation that followed the latest of her accusations, Kyle wasn’t sure. But the house did go off the market for good.
A week later he tried to leave for work but the front door wouldn’t open. Neither would the back.
By the time he’d given up on the bedroom window he could smell gas and heard the bedroom door close behind him. The sound of sheets rustling filled the vacuum of sound that followed the click of the door’s lock. Turning back from the window he watched the duvet peel back from the rest of the bed, followed by the under sheet. They folded into neat triangles on the bed Kyle hadn’t made. He hadn’t, in fact, made the bed in weeks now that he thought about it. But someone had been. Had it been him/it? Was any of this really Mark?
He looked around the room but there was nowhere to go. Eventually, feeling tired, cold, and numb, he lay down on the bed, resigned.
“Show me who you are,” Kyle whispered. The need to know was all that he was left with.
He let himself think back over the last few weeks as he was slowly tucked in. The gesture seemed loving until the covers passed his jaw and kept going. Was this the price of being brushed by the fingertips of the man he still loved? That his motions and intentions would become twisted by the gulf between them?
As the moments passed and Kyle found himself unable or unwilling — he didn’t know (and didn’t care) which — to move, clarity began to settle over him like a shroud. As he felt himself growing lightheaded in the soft darkness of their cold bed he found himself suddenly attuned to details. Precious ones: the gentle caress of impossibly light fingers brushing through his hair and the rough but familiar prickle of a well-groomed beard on one of his smooth cheeks. He even thought he heard the ghost of a sigh, the kind that Mark had made when they lay down together. It was a sigh that told him that everything that had been wrong with the world had suddenly been made right again in Mark’s eyes.
Whether his vision blurred from a lack of oxygen or the tears that rolled down his cheeks, he couldn’t say. Mark had come back. And that — not how, not what Mark might be, nor what he thought-wanted-needed Kyle to become in turn — didn’t matter. He let out a sigh of his own as the touches became more material with every breath he exhaled.
Jason M. Harley is a professor of educational technology and psychology. He spends his days hopping between university labs and lectures and his nights hopping between fictional worlds. Sometimes it’s tricky to tell where his days end and his nights begin, however, given the nature of his research. His fiction has appeared in Perihelion Science Fiction and SQ Mag. Follow him on Twitter @JasonHarley07.