I thought he was a ghost.
The same one I’d seen a hundred times in the last eighteen months, doing all manner of everyday things. Driving the car behind me. Crossing the street in front of me. Jogging along the beach, sweat soaking one of his faded green Michigan State T-shirts that seemed to multiply in the wash.
And it never failed. Every time, every single time, my heart would beat a little faster. I knew it! I knew he wasn’t really dead! They’d been wrong. I’d been right. He was still here.
Except he wasn’t. Of course he wasn’t.
But the voice was pitch perfect.
My breath caught as I experienced a euphoric millisecond of hope before I realized the man next to me in the produce section at Foley’s, the one with my husband’s face and voice and hands, was not an apparition at all, but his twin brother.
“Wes.” I recovered, managing a smile I hoped would pass for glad, if not happy. But my insides trembled. I’d been dreading this moment ever since I’d heard he was moving back to take over his father’s medical practice. Like Drew was supposed to. “Hey.”
We hugged, and I had to rise up on tiptoe, just like when I used to hug Drew. His chest was hard and muscular, and his shirt was dark blue. Drew had a shirt almost exactly like it. Don’t breathe. Don’t breathe. This has been a Good Day, and if he smells like Drew, it will slide the other way in a heartbeat.
Pulling back, Wes crossed his arms and looked at me with Drew’s gray-green eyes, unable to mask the sadness in them. “It’s good to see you.”
“You too,” I lied, twisting my wedding ring around my finger. It was a diamond eternity band. Eternity. What a crock.
“How are you?”
“I’m—I’m fine.” I wasn’t fine, I’d never be fine again, but I’d learned it was the answer everyone wanted to hear. “How are you?”
“Okay. Still a little jet lagged.”
I nodded. Wes had been in Africa working for Doctors Without Borders for the last several years. He’d come home for the funeral, but I’d basically been an automaton in those days. I don’t know whether it was my body’s defense mechanism or what, but I’d been so stunned, I’d barely felt a thing. It made no sense. A fatal heart attack at age thirty-four? But he was a doctor in perfect health! A man in the prime of his life! A father and husband and son and brother and friend! He couldn’t die—that was absurd. He had his entire life ahead of him.
And we had plans! We were going to have more children and plant a garden and take a trip to Europe. We had dinner reservations and his father’s retirement and a three-year-old child to parent for the next fifteen years. And we were only halfway through the third season of Game of Thrones! He couldn’t die now!
It took a week or so for the disbelief to subside into blind grief, and after that, I didn’t get out of bed for weeks, except to vomit. I have no idea who I saw in that time. Thankfully, my mother had stayed on to take care of Abby, and by the time I emerged from the haze, Wes was gone again.
And I’d been glad.
Even now, the sight of him still made the edges of my vision go a little cloudy. Out of nowhere, a bolt of anger shot through me. How dare you walk around with my husband’s face and speak with his voice and look at me with those eyes that are so like his I want to cry?
It was irrational and childish and unfair, but widowhood will do that to you—along with crushing all of your dreams and making the remainder of your life a Plan B you never imagined, didn’t want, and couldn’t escape.
“How’s Abby?” he asked.
At my daughter’s name, I softened. Took a deep breath. Abby was my reason for living. “Good. Can’t wait to start kindergarten next week.”
“Kindergarten. Wow.” He smiled and shook his head. His eyes crinkled at the corners just like Drew’s used to. “I can’t wait to see her. Okay to come by sometime this week? I have a few little gifts for her from Africa.”
No. Stay away from us. “Um, sure.”
“Great. I’m staying with Mom and Dad while I look for a place, so I’m not far.”
I nodded. My in-laws lived in a huge, custom-built home on the lake a few miles outside town. Still, it felt much too close.
“Hey, want to come to dinner at their house tonight? Bring Abby? I’m dying for a home-cooked meal, so Mom’s making smothered pork chops. That’s why I’m here. She forgot an ingredient and I offered to come pick it up.”
“No, we can’t,” I said quickly. “I have plans.” It wasn’t a lie, although I would have lied before going to dinner over there tonight. Nothing against Lenore’s cooking, but I wasn’t ready to sit across the table from this ghost. And my mother-in-law stressed me out on a good day.
“Oh. Another time then.” Wes glanced at my empty cart. “Well, I’ll let you get back to shopping. It’s really good to see you, Hannah.”
I gave him a tight-lipped smile and moved toward the exit, abandoning my cart and hurrying out the door without purchasing anything. Adrenaline coursed through me. Note to self, shop at different grocery store.
Inside the safety of my car, I took a few deep breaths, my hands gripping the steering wheel tightly. You’re okay. You’re okay.
But I wasn’t.
I pressed my lips together, waiting for my heart rate to return to normal. This would be hard, seeing him around town. I’d have to take precautions to avoid it. In my head, I made a list of all the places he’d be likely to go, living at his parents’ house. Which stores, which post office, which barber shop. Which roads he’d take to go to work, which routes he’d be likely to jog, which restaurants and coffee shops and gas stations he might frequent. I’d stay away from all of them, and pray he stayed away from mine.
What little peace I’d made with my life was too fragile to risk.
On my way home, I picked up a pizza and small salad for dinner, since I hadn’t bought any groceries. I also stopped at the liquor store, since tonight was my night to host the grief support group I was in. Wine with Widows, my mother liked to call it.
“Doesn’t it get depressing?” she’d ask. “Week after week of talking about nothing but losing your husbands?”
“We talk about other things,” I told her, although we really didn’t. Every part of our day, every interaction we had, every emotion we felt, was colored by grief and loss and injustice. We weren’t the same women we’d been before, and we felt like no one but us could understand that. Our old friends were painful reminders of our previous lives, and our new friends had no idea what we’d been through. I could be myself around them without worrying they’d judge me for the things I said or thought or did or felt.
Abby and her sitter were drawing on the sidewalk with chalk when I pulled into the driveway, and my heart lightened as soon as I saw her curly blond hair bent over her work. She was everything to me, and now I had to be everything for her. I blocked out the white picket fence that had sold Drew and I on this cottage-style house close to the lake, refused to look at the front porch where two big rocking chairs and one small one perched, ignored the giant rock at the foot of the driveway on which Drew had painted our address in thick white numbers, focusing solely on my daughter.
“Mommy!” She came running over to me as soon as I emerged from the garage. I scooped her up and she wrapped her arms and legs around me, burying her face in my neck. She always greeted my like this at the end of a work day, and it broke my heart to think it was because she’d been worried I might not come home. Her therapist assured me she felt safe and loved, which I supposed was all I could ask for, but could she ever really feel secure in a world where her daddy was here one moment and gone the next? Where he said be right back, dropped a kiss on her head, went out for a run, and never came back? How could she? How could anyone?
I paid the sitter, fed Abby, bathed her, read to her, and tucked her into bed. Every night, I answered a question or told her something about her daddy, in an effort to keep him alive in her memory. She’d been so young when he died. The injustice of it broke my heart—that she might forget the man who’d loved her so much, who’d cried when he held her for the first time, who’d never see all the milestones of her life. I’d grown up without a father too, and it crushed me that she would always have that same empty space in her life.
“What was Daddy like when he was five?” she asked me tonight.
“I’m not sure, sweetheart. I didn’t know Daddy when he was five.” Why didn’t I ask more questions about his childhood?
“What did he look like?”
“We could ask Nana for a picture,” I suggested.
“Okay,” she said.
“What song do you want?”
“Lullaby of Birdland.”
It was a tune I’d told her Drew had liked hearing me sing to her when she was in my belly, and she requested it often. I sang it to her, and kissed her sweet-smelling cheek. “Night.”