The gaunt man rapped on Jericho Smith’s door just after three in the morning, a little more than two hours after the old woman had taken her leave. Not that the hour much mattered; the old woman’s promise would have kept Jerry awake even without Teresa’s insistent pleading.
But it was three in the morning. And though he ached with guilty relief at the break from Teresa’s cold, clinging presence, Jerry wanted to finish what he’d begun. He wanted his wife warm and alive in his arms again.
He missed the porch light’s switch on his first try, then flicked it on and opened the door. Swaying a little as he knuckled the skin beneath his ragged beard, he looked up at the stoop–shouldered man on his doorstep. Way up. “Can I help you?”
“I know your recent visitor well,” the gaunt man said by way of greeting. He had an ancient smoker’s voice, flat and crackling. “It would be inadvisable to pay her heed.”
In contrast to Jerry’s unlawyerly torn and bloodied tee–shirt and jeans, the gaunt man wore an outfit that put him somewhere between banker and bandit. Beneath his wide–brimmed black fedora and his breeze–flapping duster, the man’s jacket and vest were as impeccably tailored as his yellowed–ivory shirt.
Jerry blinked out into the cold and tried not to touch together fingertips raw from the edges of photographs and love letters. “And you are . . .”
“Concerned.” But the sunken eyes staring down from the hat’s shadow held no concern. They held no expression at all, only a faint silver glint. The thin lips barely moved. “You do not understand the dangers of the path you have chosen.”
“Um. Thanks. We’re full up on weird shit for tonight, though.” From the bedroom on the second floor, Teresa still wailed at their separation, a high, grating eeeeeeeeeee that even after four months still puckered his asshole and roiled his stomach. He swallowed down the nausea and tried to smile. “Really. A lifetime supply.”
“I know what she taught you,” the gaunt man said. “You must stop at once.”
Stop? No, he wasn’t about to stop. Even if he’d hallucinated everything he’d seen, he wasn’t about to stop, because maybe he hadn’t, and if he hadn’t then Teresa would be back in his arms by dawn. “If you know what she told me, you know why I can’t do that.”
“And yet I must persuade you otherwise. Might I come in?”
Jerry’s feet were cold, and the draft stung the cuts on his forearms and fingers. Teresa was still wailing from the bedroom upstairs. He needed to get back to her.
“Hey, look,” Jerry said. “Come back when the sun’s up, would you? We’ll have a drink. On the porch.” But even as he spoke, Jerry found himself backing away from the door. Stepping aside so it could swing wide.
God damn it. It was the same thing the old woman had done to him, and Jericho Smith was not the sort of man who got pushed around like this. Especially not twice in one night. But the gaunt man was ducking through the doorway, limping onto the pale Italian tile. A swirl of dry leaves skittered in after him.
“Hey,” Jerry protested. “What part of go away don’t you understand?”
The gaunt man bent his neck to look down on Jerry, the black duster draping his stooped shoulders making him look like an ancient bat. Leaves settled around his feet, the draft disappearing as the door closed with a click. Jerry looked down at his hand on the brushed–brass doorknob. When had he—
He looked at his hand for a moment. Fresh scabs, trickles of blood. If the old woman was just pulling his chain, it was a nasty, painful practical joke. But she hadn’t seemed the joking type.
Neither did this guy.
“Look,” he said at last, wiping the worst of the blood on his pants leg before extending it to his visitor. “Obviously, we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. I’m Jerry. Jericho. Smith. Jerry Smith.”
The gaunt man looked down on him impassively, like something small and dead and insignificant. “Yes.”
Jerry dropped his hand, a slow flush burning its way up his cheek. He desperately wanted to say something, if only he could figure out what that something was.
“Take me to her,” his visitor ordered, and Jerry found himself walking. Through the high–ceilinged foyer with its crystal chandelier, down the hallway with its many closet doors and maple wainscoting, the gaunt man followed Jerry, and he did not look at the dark rectangles on the wallpaper where photographs had until so recently hung. The man’s right foot dragged, his heavy shoe scraping unnervingly against the tiles until he stopped behind Jerry at the base of the stairs.
But from the bedroom Teresa was crying out her need and dismay at their separation, louder than when he’d been up there a few minutes ago, louder than she ever had. It was all Jerry could do not to fall to the floor and cover his head with his arms. He did not move.
The gaunt man stepped past Jerry and onto the first step. He inched up the stairs slowly—left foot stepping onto each carpeted stair with slow deliberation, right foot swinging after—but he moved. For a moment, despite everything, Jerry admired the man. Walking into a maelstrom like that without so much as a blink—Jerry missed his wife so badly that he’d hardly left the house since her suicide, and he couldn’t bring himself to climb the steps sober on her quietest days. Let alone tonight. In her excitement, she hadn’t given him a moment’s peace since the old woman had left.
At the landing atop the stairs, the gaunt man had come to a stop, and was looking down on him. “Jericho. Come.”
Jerry swallowed hard and closed his eyes, summoning his will. He’d made this climb a dozen times a day for the past four months. He could do it once more. He breathed deep, let it out, and placed his foot on the bottom stair.
The bedroom door stood open as always, only a dozen paces from the head of the staircase. The tornado shriek of her cries whirled against him, pushing him back, but he clutched the railing and fought his way up. By the time he gained the top stair he was covered in a skin of sweat that Teresa’s chill dried instantly on his skin, and breathing as heavily as if he’d run ten miles.
The gaunt man awaited him there, his angular face expressionless. “And you say you wish to bring her back?”
Jerry should not have been able to hear a word through the wailing wall of sound. But each scornful syllable carried as if uttered directly into Jerry’s ear.
“Give up this madness, Jericho Smith.”
“I can’t—” At least, that’s what Jerry thought he said. The words were buried beneath Teresa’s yearning cries.
Almost imperceptibly, the gaunt man shook his head. “You are choosing unwisely.”
Despite everything, Jerry found himself laughing. He assumed he was laughing, anyway; it might as easily have been screams forcing the air from his lungs, stretching his mouth so wide his lips nearly split against his teeth. Unwisely? Unwise was the kindest word Jerry could imagine calling this.
But Teresa’s ghost was real, and the old woman had promised.
Up in the bedroom they had shared, Teresa was still howling her lonely desperation. In front of the television in the family room—that was a joke, family—on the first floor, Jerry cursed again and maxed out the surround sound. The movie was plotless and stupid, but the bullets and bombs and howls of simulated pain were almost loud enough to drown her out. Almost.
“Ter,” he called toward the ceiling, trying to keep the frustration from his voice. “I love you, but please. Please stop. I can’t take this.”
Raw as winter wind, her keening tore through the sounds of war. At some point her endless frigid want always got to be too much for him, and it looked like he’d reached that point for tonight. Jerry killed the television just as some nameless actor got his head blown off, and he levered himself up from the armchair. He stooped for the bottle on his way to the stairs, drank off a healthy slug. The burn never helped with the cold, but he kept trying. “Please. Ter. Just one night?”
She shrieked on, less like the ghost of his wife than a frightened child in need of protection. Not that Jerry could protect anything more substantial than the bottle of Johnny Walker in his fist. But he’d try. He always tried. And she usually calmed down when he entered the room to be with her. She’d always taken comfort in his presence.
But it would be so cold in there, so unbearably cold. The freaks and hoaxers who’d come to his door had gotten that much right, at least. The rest of it might almost be tolerable, if not for the cold.
His breath began to steam as he stumbled up the stairs—wraithlike at first, but thickening with each step. He dragged himself past the plywood that walled off the bathroom. The wood was still unpainted, raw as an unscabbed wound. But it was better than the alternative. Before he’d nailed it up, he’d seen her body—half–submerged and surrounded by candles—every time he walked by the bathroom. This was better.
He fought onward to the bedroom they’d shared. At first he’d tried to board that door up, too, but she’d shrieked out from behind the plywood until he’d torn it down.
“C’mon, Ter,” he offered drunkenly. “Give me a break, would you? I’m coming.”
He set the booze down outside the door—he’d learned that lesson months ago, when she’d shattered the bottle in his hand—and slapped at the light–switch inside, revealing the sponge–dabbed walls beyond the doorway. Last summer, well before they’d thought they were going to be parents, he and Teresa spent a long holiday weekend splashing paint around in that room. The walls ended up a peaceful blue, daubed with white and golden overtones. He and Ter had been mostly blue, too, but they hadn’t let that them stop them from making love.
Like sleeping in a cloud, she’d whispered after, as they spooned on the mattress they’d just about broken their backs hauling in. Safe as snails.
Now he could barely see the clouds on the walls through his steaming breath, but the room still stood as they’d left it. Even the vases on the dresser—on the floor, tonight—remained. He picked them up when she knocked them over, replaced them when she shattered them, kept the roses fresh. She’d loved flowers, when she was alive, and Jerry thought maybe they might help her rest.
Tonight, though. Tonight, her presence dropped the temperature low enough to scorch the red petals black. Tonight, she would not stop her God–damned shrieking and two steps into the room his fists were already balled against it. His jaw hurt from clenching. His chest was tight as coffin–nails, so tight he could barely breathe.
Another step and now she was rushing to him, swarming around him, the frigid pinpricks of her embrace jabbing at his skin despite the alcohol in his veins, a lunatic itch he didn’t even try to scratch away. Scratching down to bone wouldn’t make it stop. Clouds and cold, she was, a moving mist, an armless embrace wriggling at mouth and ears and nose, trying to fill up the empty spaces within him.
He knew she was only trying to help, but those spaces would never be filled, never again. Here was only cold, and hurt. He fought her back, flailing stiff–armed at the mist around him. Cold and clinging as a winter spiderweb, it wrapped around his open hands and bare arms.
She keened out another cry, this one shrill enough to shatter glass behind him. Hot tears fought past the painful crush of eyelids closed against her, freezing as they streamed down his cheeks, but still he fought her back. She wanted to fill him with her cold, as he’d filled her with the warmth that would have become their son.
“Please.” To her, but not just to her. To himself, to God, to anyone listening. Anyone who could help. “What do you want? I love you, Ter, but please, stop. Make it go away. I’ll do anything.” His ragged nails were digging into his palms. Blood trickled across his knuckles and dripped onto the carpet. He could not release his bunched muscles, could not catch his breath. “Please, go away. Come back. Do something. But stop this. Please, God, stop this.”
And then, through the mist–veil that was Teresa’s form, the ragged shrill that was her voice, Jerry heard knocking. Not the television, he’d turned that off.
The front door.
The white–haired woman moved through the house as confidently as if she’d lived there all her life, leaning heavily on her cane as she tapped her way past Jerry and toward the family room. She’d looked up the stairway as she’d passed it, acknowledging Teresa’s keening but not seeming much fazed by it. Now she was studying a framed photo on the wall: Teresa, on the bed in the cloud–walled room, buried beneath the stuffed–animal avalanche that they’d accumulated in the few short months since learning of her pregnancy. Teresa’s head was thrown back in laughter, her full lips spread wide, black hair and pale face all of her that could be seen.
“Tell me,” the old woman said at last. “Why do you still display her photographs?”
It was the first thing she’d said since she’d greeted him by name at the door and pushed her way into the house. The question’s directness startled an answer from Jerry, who had closed the door on the November night and followed her in.
“That one right there was the last best time we had.” Even after she’d lost Justin, Jerry hadn’t been able to box up that photo. “At first I kept it because I wanted to remind her how happy we’d been.”
“And now?” The old woman scratched her pink scalp through the thin, wild mane of hair clinging to it. “Why do you remain in this place? Why do you keep her photographs?”
“Who are you?” he asked, instead of answering. “Why are you here?” Why did I let you in? he wanted to ask, but the words didn’t make it to his lips.
“Someone who can help, perhaps.” Like her eyes, her voice was strangely youthful. “If you answer my question.”
“Look,” he said. “Lots of people hear about this whole ghost thing. I’m sure most of them come by with the best of intentions, just like you. But I took my number out of the phone book for a reason. Thanks for coming, but you really should go.”
He moved toward her with the intent of taking her arm and leading her to the front door, but somehow he’d walked past her instead, and turned on the pole lamp in the corner. Now he stood before the mantle, looking at the wedding photo in its silver frame. Teresa and him, holding hands and smiling wide, taking their first step toward a new life.
“Tell me.” A motherly tone to her voice. “Why do you keep the pictures?”
Her heavy wooden cane thumped against the floor as she stepped down onto the carpet and settled on the edge of the couch. Fine. She wanted to know? Hell with it. He was just drunk enough to tell her.
“To remind myself that she’s not just that cold thing up there,” he said bitterly. “That there was a time that we were happy.”
“Her condition wears on you,” she observed.
“Of course it does.” The bar in the corner beckoned. The open bottle was still upstairs, but there was always more. “You want a drink?”
“No,” she said. “Neither do you.”
Jerry scooped up the photo as he stepped toward the bar, studied Teresa’s smile. She’d had a beautiful smile. Straight teeth, and the sun’s warmth in her eyes. “I’m pretty sure I do.”
“No,” she said again, the word firm with command. “You don’t.”
A sudden dizzy wave engulfed him, and Jerry pulled up short, nearly fumbling the frame away. He did want a drink, but suddenly he didn’t, too. Both at once. The dizziness passed as quickly as it had come, and he wheeled on the old woman. She was intent on learning what was what? Fine. He’d told the story often enough. No skin off his ass to tell it one more time. Then she was out the door.
“She killed herself,” he grated. “Is that what you want to hear? She killed herself because I wasn’t enough to keep her here after she lost Justin.” The stock, self–pitying answer wasn’t enough, suddenly. Anger twisted his voice. “She killed herself because I couldn’t stand the way she looked at me, after, like she was dying herself, and because I used that as an excuse to spend every waking hour in the office. Because I used it as an excuse—as an excuse to sleep with my secretary. Is that what you came to hear? Is it?”
Something cracked in his hands, and he looked down at the frame. He’d squeezed it too tightly, and now a narrow line zigzagged across the glass from the top of the picture to the bottom, cutting across their joined hands, dividing him from her. All the anger ran out of him, seeing that.
“I was the one who had to—” He swallowed back the lump in his throat. “I found her body.”
Floating in the tub, the swell of her breasts breaking the water like gentle islands. For a second when he’d seen her there among the candles, hope had come that she’d finally shaken off losing Justin. It had been a long time, but he still remembered what it felt like, her skin smooth against his, her body warm as they made love. He wanted that again. He hadn’t stepped forward, though, hadn’t dared speak for fear of breaking whatever peace she’d found for herself. But God, he wanted her.
That was the part that still gave him nightmares. Standing there, stiff against his suit pants, tempted to touch himself but not wanting to steal even a moment of the closeness that lovemaking had been for them, before. Just in case she wanted to.
And then, the bottle of pills on the edge of the sink. The sudden realization of the water not rippling around her. The sight of her chest not rising.
“—right,” the old woman was saying.
“What?” The word came harsh with the tears welling in his eyes, spilling down his cheeks. Whiskey tears. He was too drunk for this conversation, for this crazy old woman who’d pushed her way into his house.
She rose, leaning on her cane as she stepped around the coffee table and approached him. “The doctors were right,” she repeated. “You were wrong to do those things. But her death wasn’t your fault.”
He looked down. “She was only twenty–nine,” he told the floor. “We could have tried again. If I stayed home, maybe I could have—”
The old woman raised a hand to lift his chin so she could fix her eyes on him, unnatural green and full of life. Her movements were measured and her face seamed with wrinkles, but her eyes were as engaged as a child’s. Her lips creased in a gentle smile, and then, quick as a dream, her gnarled hand darted forward to swipe across Jerry’s cheek.
Before he could jerk back, the pink tip of her tongue had swiped out, absurdly young and nimble between her cracked lips, and she had licked his tears from her finger.
“Paid with tears,” she murmured, and she closed her too–green eyes. “Called with blood and paid with tears. Yes, it will do.”
The skin prickled on Jerry’s arms, and he shuddered. What had he gotten himself into? “Really,” he told her. “You should leave.”
“Hear me, Jericho Smith,” she said, and her stare shoved him stumbling back against the mantle. It was impossible that a look could do such a thing, but there he was, crushed against the granite, pain radiating from the impact. And there she was, unmoving.
“Hear me, and listen well, because I should not be telling you the things I am about to tell you, and they will not be repeated.”
The chill–bumps on his arms had not gone away. If anything, they’d drawn tighter. The old woman’s voice rang louder than Teresa’s cries, more powerful than he could bear to hear. He listened.
“Your son was not supposed to die. Not then. Not for a very long time, in fact.” She leaned forward against her cane, green eyes gone inexplicably golden, now. “He was taken before his time, for reasons I will never be able to explain to your satisfaction.”
It wasn’t only her eyes that had changed. Her face was just as wrinkled, her jowls just as loose, but the power in her voice was beyond age, beyond reason, and for a moment Jerry could see the young woman she had been. It was not just imagination—he saw her haughty chin, her fierce, hooked nose. She had been beautiful. She was beautiful, with dark cascading curls and lips as red as heart’s blood.
“The boy was not supposed to die,” the woman said again. “I grieve for you that he is so far beyond even my help. Your wife, though. Her death compounded the wrongs done to you, and her spirit remains. Her, I can bring back. If you truly love her.”
“This was the easy part,” the black–haired woman said, stepping back from her oversight of Jerry’s work as Jerry smoothed the last irregularities from the shape he’d bunched together on the bed. This was crazy. Knotted sheets and slashed comforters, bathwater and scotch—how was any of this going to bring her back?
“You understand everything that may happen?” the old woman asked when he turned to her. “And still you hold steadfast in your desire?”
Jerry nodded despite himself. He shouldn’t believe any of it, not for a second. The things she’d promised were more impossible than Teresa’s ghost existing in the first place. But if one, why not the other? And if the old woman was telling the truth—oh, God, if she was telling the truth.
“Good,” the black–haired woman said, and she smiled tiredly. “Above all, this requires you to want it.”
With the smile, her cracked, ancient lips lost the look of the younger woman. Her golden eyes faded back to green as the crevices around them deepened. In moments, Jerry could no longer see the black hair she had possessed in her youth. Her hooked nose was no longer fierce and proud—just ugly, old, now. It had all been delusion. Only exhaustion, drunken hallucination. Nothing real. But still . . . he wanted to believe.
Jerry looked from his strange visitor to the cartons of photographs arrayed on the floor around the bed. “Thank you. For telling me how. If this works . . . if this works, I want to repay you. How can I do that?”
The old woman tightened her bulge–knuckled fingers around her cane and smiled her thin, ancient smile again. “I’ll let myself out. You still have much to do, this night, and I have given you all that I can.”
Her cane thumped against the carpet, and she grunted loud enough for him to hear her descend each step. By the time the front door closed behind her, he’d opened the first carton to pore through the notes and cards and photographs saved from his life together with Teresa.
He drew out a photo—Teresa sitting on a rock in a wildflower–strewn clearing, arms wrapped around her knees, looking up with warm eyes and a wide–mouthed smile. The thick paper rattled in his fingers with a gathering breeze. Teresa, coming back to celebrate with him. The temperature dropped, but she couldn’t help that. She didn’t want to hurt him, the old woman had assured him. It was how spirits interacted with the world, beyond their control.
Teresa’s presence swarmed around him again, prickling his skin, but now he was ready for it. He shooed her away as best he could with gentle waves of his hands. “I know, Ter,” he told the air. “I know, sweetheart. Soon, I promise.”
The photograph was slick against his lips, cold with Teresa’s presence. He held it there for a moment, gathering up his belief, and then, as the old woman had instructed, he slashed the edge of the photo across his forearm. He held it there as the blood rose, as it clung to the glossy surface and flowed down to patter on the carpet, then he laid the memory on the woman–shape he’d made on the bed.
“Unwise,” the gaunt man repeated, his back to Jerry as he ducked into the frigid bedroom. Teresa’s eager cries fell silent at once. Jerry’s visitor gestured, and Jerry followed him into the room, fighting the urge to finger the maddening cuts that sliced his arms from fingertip to armpit. But papercuts didn’t matter, not now. The gaunt man was looking at the shattered vases, the withered cascade of roses strewn across the dresser and down onto the carpet. He was turning to study the woman–shape on the bed, covered in bloody photographs.
“It is worse than unwise,” the gaunt man said, turning back to Jerry at last. “It is wrong. I will not permit it.”
“Permit it?” Jerry’s anger, dulled for a moment by curiosity and the gaunt man’s quiet confidence, flared again. Who did he think he was? Where did he come off telling Jerry what he could or couldn’t do? “What do you mean, permit it? Who gave you the right to permit anything? I let you into my house, old man.”
The gaunt man’s hat scraped against the ceiling as he drew himself to his full height. Jerry heard the dry rattling of bones, smelled the faintest whiff of decay as the narrow chest puffed out beneath suit and duster. The black coat flapped with the motion, and the gaunt man’s snarl shredded the air, raw as new–dug graves.
“I forbid this.”
The walls shook with the force of the command, and Jerry’s knees buckled.
The gaunt man’s arms furled out—wide as the room, wide as the house, wide as all perception. Inside the duster was vacuum–black, so dark it sucked the light from the room. Jerry reeled dizzily against a sudden sweeping vertigo that pulled at him like gravity.
The screams came faint at first, faint as the white star–specks in the darkness filling Jerry’s vision. The gagging–sweet smell of corruption grew stronger as Jerry staggered toward the gaunt man on rigid legs. The flecks dotting the blackness within the duster grew nearer, larger, their feedback howl doubling and redoubling in volume.
Louder, brighter, more rank. Time itself vanishing into the black. The lights resolved into faces, blinding–white comets streaking tails behind them, mouths spread fearsome wide, inside each mouth a blackness darker even the space around them.
Jerry fell to his knees before the gaunt man and his terrible coat of screams
—Death, the gaunt man was Death or an angel or something between, just like the old woman—
but despite the warm release of bowels and bladder voiding, he would not yield to the blackness and the howling
—the old woman who promised he could have Teresa back if he gave the ghost his blood and tears and memories—
he could not yield, not when Teresa’s every cry cut with her need for him.
“No,” he breathed, the effort in the word sending flashes of light whirling through his vision. “No, you can’t take her from me again.”
The coat snapped closed. The darkness and the screamers within it vanished as if they had never been. The world undimmed and then there was only Jerry, kneeling before Death’s well–polished shoes with flowing nose, with wet cheeks, with piss soaking into the carpet through his jeans and shit–stink surrounding him in a pale echo of the stench within the cloak. And Death himself, looking down with cold, pitiless eyes.
“I could take your life.” Death’s words filled the room, filled Jerry’s ears, but they did not boom as had his angry command. They came clipped and level, instead, not threat but fact. “Between this breath and the next, you would be mine.”
“Yes.” Miserable defeat in the word, in Jerry’s groveling posture. But Death was not claiming him. Not yet.
“Your soul would exist only within me. An eternity of torment, if I wished it. Or an eternity of peace. I could give you either.”
What he’d experienced just beholding the cloak’s infinite terror would be nothing to being imprisoned within it. Jerry knew this just as he knew he would never win freedom once held within that space. And yet.
He lowered his head, studied the rug beneath him, acutely aware of his own wretchedness, his own human stink. “Yes.”
“And you are not afraid?” A note of curiosity in the gaunt man’s words.
“Yes. Dear God, yes, I’m afraid.”
“Yet you would do this. Despite my forbidding it. Despite the danger to yourself.”
Not a pause, not even now. Not when he could still bring her back. “Yes.”
Nothing, for a moment. Then, a vast sigh, the sound of autumn wind sweeping the last leaf from a skeletal tree. Jerry dared look up. A long–fingered, leathery hand extended toward him.
“Rise, then. I will assist you.”
Jerry took the hand. The contact stung the cuts on his fingers. The gaunt man pulled him effortlessly to his feet. “Help—why—”
Death stared down at him for a moment, eyes glistening silver in the spare skull of his face, and then the gaunt man’s back bowed again as age rushed over him swift as dusk across a graveyard. He sighed again, the exhalation washing Jerry in the fading smells of tobacco and dust and bones. At last, the gaunt man blinked.
“She taught you how to open a gateway,” he said at last. “You would not like the things that would follow your wife through. I will hold them at bay while her soul fills the vessel you have made for her. If you wish it.”
Jerry looked from the gaunt man to the half–empty box of photographs—the last he had—on the bed beside the shape that the old woman had promised would become flesh filled with Teresa’s spirit. “How could I want anything else?”
The gaunt man closed his silver eyes. His reply was the whisper of leaves across a tombstone, miles distant. “Only, do one thing first. Listen to her. If you truly wish this, listen to her.”
Teresa’s wailing ripped into Jerry’s skull as though it had never paused. The cries of a single soul should not have been louder than the vast hordes within Death’s cloak, but it was Teresa’s soul, and it drove Jerry to his knees again. Not at the gaunt man’s feet, this time. Before the bed, his shrine to memory and hope, and to his love for her.
He listened. As best he could, he listened. There were only screams.
“You were told that you could bring her back by filling her with your wishes, your memories.” The words rustled out from a space separate from Teresa’s cries. Jerry should not have been able to hear both. “Your happiness.”
A pause, filled with the biting cold of Teresa’s presence. She had been warm as the sun, in life.
“But what of her?”
Filled with her anguish to rejoin him.
“What kept her here?” the gaunt man asked. “Thousands, millions die every day. They move on. Why is she still here?”
Jerry bowed further, hands clutched to his head, lacerated forearms grating raw into the carpet, staining it with his blood. “She didn’t want to leave in the first place.” He gasped out the words. “Now she wants to come back.”
The gaunt man’s words were implacable as steel. “She killed herself.”
“I need her,” Jerry protested into the carpet. Teresa twined around him, icy sparks biting into his body’s every surface.
“She killed herself.”
“Then why?” Jerry moaned. “Why is she still here? Why doesn’t she just leave if she doesn’t want to be here?”
“Listen to her,” the gaunt man said again. “Breathe her in, and she will talk to you. Breathe her deep.”
He’d give anything to have her back—his blood, his tears. His life, if he could make that offer. But he could not tolerate the thought of being filled with that terrible frigid emptiness.
“Breathe,” the gaunt man repeated gently. “If you love her as you claim to, breathe.”
Jerry closed his eyes, and tried to inhale. A sudden maddening prickle on his lips and in his nose, and Teresa was rushing into his mouth, a wash of mist and gnawing cold that froze his teeth, numbed his throat. He gagged against it, coughed, and Teresa drew back.
“Try again.” The words came from far away. “Breathe her in. Listen to her.”
“I can’t.” He’d fought back that terrible, choking cold for so many endless nights that he couldn’t force himself open to it now. Force himself open to her. He couldn’t. Jerry raised his head, opened his eyes. “Help me. Please.”
The gaunt man regarded him with a long, even gaze, and then he nodded once, deliberately. “Breathe.”
Jericho breathed, and let her in. Not just the cold, not just her pitiful cries. Not just the angry impotence of broken vases and spilled, blackened roses. And not the warm smiling girl he’d married. Jericho breathed, and let in who she was, now. He loved her? This moment, this attention, this solitude, the dim, cold vestiges of her love for him like fraying black silk ribbons tethering her to this place. So he took her in. Listened. Felt.
Deeper than winter, the chill within her, and it made brittle every crack within him, stretched wide every hungry space. Jerry choked, struggled for air. His chest expanded, contracted. Oxygen brought no relief from her empty hunger. And these were the faintest echoes of her suffering. What were memories and photographs, what were blood and tears against the screaming void she had become?
Jerry became aware that the moaning cries he heard were his own, muffled by the carpet but ragged and loud in his ears.
But he knew the truth, now.
It took immense effort to lift his head with her torment’s weight within him. His voice crept small and raw and miserable from his throat. “She’s not . . . ” he gagged, retched. “She’s not who she was. She doesn’t want to . . . to come back.”
“No,” the gaunt man agreed. “She doesn’t.”
“Can you . . . ” Jerry trailed off. What was he asking? If this was Death before him, there was a reason for his presence. “Are you here to give her peace? Is that why you came?”
“She does not need me for that,” the gaunt man said. “Only you.” He knelt by Jerry’s side, placed a warm, careful hand on Jerry’s shoulder. “Breathe her out. Let her go.”
Could he? Jerry thought about rising, throwing off the consoling hand. The old woman had told the truth, he was sure of it now. He could have his wife again. His beloved, the woman with whom he’d lain awake all those nights, talking about the future, planning, hoping, arguing, making love. The woman he’d immortalized in the photographs piled on the bed. The woman to whom he’d pledged eternal love before God and man.
He could have her again, and the gaunt man had said he would help, if that was what he wanted.
“She’s all I have.” The words fell from his mouth, frozen dead things. “How can I let her go?”
But he did not have her, and he never would. Not the woman he loved, the woman who had given meaning to his life.
“What’s left for me?”
The gaunt man’s hand and his silence at Jerry’s shoulder were strangely comforting. It was not Death’s place, Jerry realized, to tell the living how to live. No more than it was the place of the living to lay claim to the dead.
Jericho Smith closed his eyes. Breathed deep, one last bitter touch of cold solace, all that he could hold.
And then he exhaled, and let Teresa go.
JD Paradise is a technical writer by trade, and a novelist and short–story writer on the trains to and from New York City. He does his best to exclude numbered lists and stem sentences from his fiction, and generally keeps the undead out of the documentation. So far, everyone seems happier that way.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish