Beth is a thirty-something internet analyst with two kids and two dogs who can’t read, and a husband who won’t. She was previously published in Tick Tock: A Time Travel Anthology.
Six Long Years
by Beth Gaydon
When I arrive at my home and open the door, my lips still burning from my date’s goodnight kiss, I see my husband inside and my mouth falls to the floor. My surprise is not because he’s caught me in a torrid affair (if you could call two dinners that). No, I cannot pick up my jaw because my husband has been dead six long years, trapped in a watery grave at the bottom of the Atlantic along with seventy-five other men and women. I stand frozen, unable to process what I’m seeing, finding it impossible to move further than the entryway.
There are rumors the plane was downed in an act of secret terrorism, but we’ve received no official answers. Search and rescue took two years to find any wreckage, and the bulk of it remains missing. I have eight million questions, but when he strides toward me, my mind goes blank and I reach up to touch his face. There’s stubble there; that’s new. He spent our whole relationship clean shaven. I rub it, certain ghosts do not grow facial hair they never had, but he is so cold, colder than anyone I’ve ever touched. “How is this possible?” is what I mean to ask, but what comes out is, “Who are you?” My brain cannot fathom him being who I think he is, so he must be someone else.
The man barely bats at an eye. “Someone you used to know,” he says.
Considering this accurate, I remove my hand from his face and finally shut the door behind me. This reunion cannot be a good idea, but it would be worse to let him leave without attempting to get answers.
We walk to the kitchen. It’s the same home it was when he left; there’s no need to direct him or show him around. He slides into the same chair he always preferred, the one closest to the sink. “You fixed the wobble,” he remarks, holding onto the table with one hand, trying to rock the chair back and forth.
“Years ago.” I sit in my seat in front of the refrigerator. “Coffee?”
“It’s too late for coffee.”
I shouldn’t have sat before offering him anything; I’m a bad hostess. It feels wrong, waiting on him, but this isn’t his home anymore. He is a guest. I shuffle to the liquor cabinet, my feet now aching from hours in heels, and pull out a bottle. Whatever story he has to tell will be a doozy, so I bring the whole thing, along with two glasses.
My supposedly dead husband takes everything from me and pours. They are dainty pours, not like the ones I remember. We sip for a moment. “How was your date?”
My date kissed me not at the door, but outside the restaurant as we said our goodbyes. I stare at my husband. Was he spying? What is his angle?
When enough time without an answer passes, he waves his hand. “You left a note with his information,” he reminds me. The tension flows from my shoulders as I remember, and we both take a sip. “Well? Where should I start?”
“Are you a ghost?” I ask. I expect him to laugh, but he responds with only a faint shake of his head.
“Sometimes I wish that,” he replies. Perhaps he is not a ghost, but his eyes, at least, are haunted. I wonder how to follow up this question, but he gives me no hints.
“Are you here to stay?” I settle on.
“No,” he says. “I wish that too. Always.”
“Then why are you here at all?”
“I had to see her,” he replies. He leans back in his chair and takes a sip, perhaps waiting for me to tell him no or kick him out. I should, of course. Instead, I sigh.
“She’s sleeping.” If she wasn’t, she’d have run out by now, wanting the details from my date. Unless he’s done something to her. My stomach clenches, reminding me the man who walked out that morning wasn’t stable then and can’t possibly be now. My hand slides to the cell phone in my pocket, ready to dial without my brain’s permission. Most of me still thinks I’m in a dream, a bizarre, insulting dream, but my hand knows better and it’s ready to act. I take a deep breath and glance down, searching for the call icon.
“That’s for the best.”
“You won’t wake her?” The words leave my lips before I think them through. I am too focused on the phone to control my mouth.
“Not on purpose,” he answers. He throws back the rest of the whiskey and pushes away from the table. The chair scraping across the linoleum makes me shudder. He knows where her room is, but he doesn’t move, still waiting for my permission. I don’t get up. I can’t. Perhaps I have gone crazy, but even in the throes of insanity, my daughter is off limits. Our daughter. He sees this and does a bob and weave motion with his neck, impossible to interpret. “I just want to say goodbye. I didn’t, you know. That day. I planned on it, but I overslept, and by the time I got up, she was already gone.”
The situation is unfair. He has all the information about his last day of parenthood, and all I have is rumors. Finally I get up, hand still on my phone. “If you touch her, I will kill you,” I say, even though right now he seems immortal. “If you so much as whisper in her direction, I will call the police.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t already,” he replies, and turns on his heels. He leads the way out of the kitchen, but I rush ahead before we reach the hall. I can’t let him get to her before me. He was a ghost, an apparition, when I first opened the door, but now he’s a danger. My heart pounds as I open Gabby’s door. I stick my foot across the doorway, preventing him from moving in without stepping over me. It’s unclear what this will accomplish. He’s too tall for my foot to make much of a difference.
“What…” he whispers, his voice trailing off. I follow his eyes to Gabby’s wall above her white writing desk. It’s covered in paper, pages ripped from magazines, internet print-offs, and newspaper clippings. The desk is too, but it’s not visible in the faint, slanted light shining in from the hallway. He moves in for closer examination before I can stop him. I follow, shushing him, and we come to a stop in front of the collage. It’s too dark to read all of it, so he pulls a cell phone out of his pocket and switches on the flashlight. I turn to glance at our sleeping child—teenager, she’s a teenager now—but she doesn’t stir.
My husband and I read the headlines together. I’ve seen them, of course. Sometimes I’ve even been the one to give them to her. He’s likely seen them too, but not like this, spread out in a detective-style map of clues. “Gallant Flight 287 Goes Down with 76 People on Board. No Survivors.” “What Happened to Gallant Flight 287?” “Terrorist Attack or Mechanical Malfunction?” “Two Years Later, Black Box Still Missing.” “Pieces of Plane Found in Caribbean.” “Was Pilot Peter Rowe in on Flight 287 Crash?” “Pilot Intentionally Crashed Plane, Says Former Co-Pilot.” “Who is Peter Rowe?”
The newer they are, the more bizarre they become. Conspiracy theorists run the internet these days, and Gabby spends far too much time in their forums. I think this as I stand next to one of the dead, though, so perhaps I’ve been too quick to call people crazy.
“Come on, Pete,” I say after we’ve stood for five minutes. He’s standing there like he’ll read those headlines forever, and eventually Gabby will wake up. He turns his body, but his head focuses on the wall until I grab his hand and lead him away.
We go back to the kitchen, where he downs another whiskey. He puts the glass down too hard and stares at me, waiting for me to admonish him. I do nothing. The entire world knows Peter Rowe is a murderer, best of all me. I glance at the kitchen window, the one I’ve had to replace due to soaring bricks about a dozen times now. If Gabby wasn’t sleeping, perhaps I’d go out it. Sitting there with him, though, it feels no different than before he left. He hurt other people, even then, but he never hurt me.
“Tell me what happened,” I suggest. “Maybe I can understand.”
“You can’t,” he answers.
“What happened to Neil?” I ask. It’s always bothered me, the crash being blamed on Pete when Neil was co-captaining right next to him.
I don’t think he’s going to answer me. He sits there, studying a room that has not changed in six years. It’s the only room I haven’t redecorated, the only room he’d never injected himself into to begin with. He glances at the whiskey a few times before letting out a large sigh, reaching for the bottle, and pouring another glass. I haven’t finished my first yet, but he tops it off.
“Consider him my Louise,” he finally says.
It takes me a minute to understand—it’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie—but then I do. Neil went along for the ride willingly. “Is he alive then? Are they all alive? Are you?” I realize I’ve already asked him this, but I have an uneasy image of purgatory rolling around in my head.
This time, he ignores my questions. “It wasn’t about you, Annie,” he says. “I need you to know that.”
I hadn’t thought it was, or at least I hadn’t thought I hadn’t thought it was, but a huge a wave of relief washes over me, anyway. Not wanting to interrupt whatever else he is going to tell me, I only nod.
“I’ve heard the stories, all the dumb rumors. How I planned it all, chose that flight for revenge. I didn’t know she was on that flight, Annie. What kind of pilot reads the passenger logs? Who cares? We don’t meet them.” He takes a shot, and so do I. We’d been married for eleven years when I found out about his affair. She came to me, told me everything. At first I was mad, but frankly, it wasn’t all that surprising. Pete was a pilot. He was gone more than half the time, living separate lives in separate cities. I was a bit surprised there was only one. Besides, I’d had plenty of emotional affairs myself over the years. I’d forgiven him. What we had took work, too much work to be perfect. It’d never made sense to me he’d kill all those people just because she took his flight. But then, it doesn’t make sense to me he’s here now either.
A stirring from the direction of Gabby’s bedroom makes me jump then, almost slamming Pete’s head down under the table so he won’t be seen. But if she’s awake, she’s choosing to stay in her room. I let out a long breath of relief as Pete stares down the hall, his eyes glossy and faraway. I wonder what Gabby will do if she sees her long dead father, but I truly do not want to find out. We both speak in whispers after this.
“The morning of, I kissed you. Do you remember?”
“Yes,” I say. Of course I remember. He was gentle, gentler than he’d been in a long time. And he’d stared into my eyes afterwards, like he’d done when we first got together. At the time, I thought he was trying to rekindle our connection, to make sure his indiscretion never happened again. After the news came out that he’d likely crashed on purpose, my views changed. He wasn’t trying to return. He was saying goodbye.
“I meant it, the way it felt. It was about love, not goodbyes.”
I touch my lips again, haunted by a phantom kiss—not from James earlier that night, but from Pete long ago. It’s like he’s reading my mind. “When did you know it’d be the last time?” I ask. It seems a safe question. It’s not an accusation, but maybe I will get answers.
“After we took off. I didn’t have a date, not until we were in the air. It was a good day for flying, blue skies, few clouds. We didn’t even see birds. Great conditions.”
“Pete… you sound crazy.” And he does, talking about great conditions for crashing a plane. Yet I’m the one talking to a dead man.
Pete doesn’t respond, and now I wonder who else was on the plane that day, who else slipped under the radar. Maybe Pete wasn’t just homicidal. Maybe he was acting on orders. I’d seen things from him before, odd things, terrifying things. It was not good to be in Pete’s way, and he enjoyed flouting his contacts with shadowy figures. But downing a plane… who was he attacking, if not himself?
“I can’t tell you anymore than this. Like I said, I just had to tell you it wasn’t about you. Never about you. I loved you, Annie, and I still love you. Tell Gabby to stop reading those articles. Tell her it will only bring her more pain, and she’ll never understand. There are things outside her world, outside yours… What happened is a blip in humanity, even if it seems gigantic to you.” He stares at me like he wants to say more, but then his eyes flit to the clock and he jumps up, almost knocking over a chair. He steadies it, then takes my hand, his icy palm sending a chill through me. “Goodbye, Annie. Take care of her.” He heads for the door, ready to leave.
Gabby appears in the kitchen as Pete is opening the door. All of us freeze. Her face turns white. Pete’s eyes droop. I get a grip first and throw my arms around Gabby, protecting her and claiming her at the same time.
“Dad?” she asks, in a strange half-whisper, half cry.
“I love you, Gabby,” he says. Then he turns to me, nods, and goes out the door.
“What just happened?” Gabby asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Is he a ghost? Can ghosts grow beards?”
“I don’t know,” I say again.
Gabby clutches me. Neither of us will ever be sure of what we’ve seen, that much is certain, especially when Gabby gasps and points down. “Mom, look.”
When I see it, I gasp too. Leading from the table to the door is a trail of sludgy, wet footprints, and one soggy piece of seaweed.
Copyright 2022 by Beth Gaydon