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 was so stunned, I’d barely felt a thing. A fatal heart attack at age thirty-four? But he was a doctor in perfect health! A man at 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 party 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 that 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 the 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.”
After she closed her eyes, I sat there a moment, stroking her damp hair back from her forehead. She looked more like Drew every day, although her hair was lighter and her skin more fair. No trace of my Italian ancestry at all, which my mother-in-law often pointed out. Not that she was openly rude, but I’d always had the impression she didn’t think I was good enough for her son.
I thought about Wes, and what it would do to Abby to see him. Would it confuse her? There was a picture of Drew holding her as a baby on the nightstand, and I picked it up. If only they weren’t so identical. But other than a few lines around his eyes and coloring deepened by the African sun, the man I’d seen at Foley’s today looked exactly like the man in this photo.
Sighing, I set it back on the nightstand and went downstairs. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror hanging near the front door, and was taken aback at how pale I looked, especially for August—my olive complexion was sallow, my brown eyes dull, my hair a drab shade somewhere between tree bark and dog shit. I leaned closer and saw the gray that was beginning to grow in at my hairline. Yikes. For a second, I wondered what Wes had thought when he saw me. Certainly I must have bared little resemblance to the girl he’d first met.
Not that she existed anymore.
I frowned as I took in my appearance. I’d aged ten years inside the last eighteen months. Sorrow had etched permanent lines on my forehead and dark circles beneath my eyes. I considered it a good day if I remembered to brush my hair before throwing it in a ponytail. I’d finally lost the ten extra pounds I’d carried around after Abby was born, but then I’d lost ten more and all my curves.
But what did it matter? Who would ever care whether I had curves or not?
In the kitchen, I ate some salad and picked at Abby’s pizza crusts, then I did the dishes and straightened up the living room. At first, I’d wanted every rug, lamp, and stick of furniture to remain exactly as they were when Drew was alive, as if the entire house was some kind of memorial to him, or at least to the life we were living. Six months later, I’d moved all the furniture around, a vain attempt to feel in control of my life. I’d bought a new bed, repainted the kitchen walls, planted new shrubs in front of the house, and donated his car, his clothes, and his books. None of it alleviated my grief or my fear that nothing in life is actually within our control, and we’re all just flying blind in a vast, empty space full of uncertainty. God laughs at man’s plans and all that.
I wasn’t always this pessimistic. Once upon a time, I had hopes and dreams, and life stretched out ahead of me, full of possibilities. After all, I had love, and love conquered all, didn’t it? Love could solve any problem, heal any wound, move mountains, build bridges, tear down walls.
But it couldn’t save my husband. It couldn’t give my daughter back her father. And it couldn’t fool me again.
Give yourself time, friends said. And I had. I was doing much better day to day. I liked my new job at Valentini Farms Bed & Breakfast, enjoyed the company of people I worked with, had good friends, and was Mommy to an adorable, remarkably well-adjusted little girl. But I no longer harbored any little-girl illusions of my own.
Some problems were insurmountable. Some rivers too wide.
Love didn’t always win.
* * *
“I fucked the tree guy,” said Tess, a forty-year-old mother of three who’d lost her husband to a brain tumor ten months ago after a decade of marriage.
We all gaped at her. Everyone had only just sat down. I hadn’t even poured the wine yet.
But Tess was not one to waste time. “I totally did it. He came back to grind the stump of the tree they took down last week, and he was out there all shirtless and hot and male, and I completely lost my mind. I don’t even know his name.”
“What happened?” I asked, filling everyone’s glasses. There were four of us in the group. We ranged in age from twenty-eight to sixty-something, had different jobs and education levels and skin colors and interests, but we were connected by an experience that had radically reshaped all of our lives.
“I stared out the window the whole time he was out there working,” she began. “Then before I knew it, I was putting on these stupid short shorts, spraying perfume on my neck, and wandering into the backyard asking if he wanted to come in for something cold to drink.”
Perfume. Did I still own perfume? It was one of those things I never thought about anymore, along with bikini waxes and birth control.
“Where were the kids?” someone asked as I took a seat next to Tess on the couch, tucking my bare feet beneath me.
“They’re visiting their grandparents this week,” she said, tucking her blond hair behind her ears. “I’ve been alone in the house for days for the first time since Chuck died.”
The group murmured in sympathy. We knew how empty a house could feel. It could make you crazy.
“So then what happened?” Grace prompted. She was the youngest of our group and had lost her high school sweetheart to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. She’d been pregnant with their baby, a boy, at the time.
“He came into the house, and I threw myself at him. We did it right there on the kitchen floor.” Tess squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. “It was over in three minutes.”
“Was it…good?” Grace wondered.
“Yes.” She blinked at us as her eyes filled. “It was fantastic.”
My mouth fell open. I’d totally expected her to say no. How could sex with a complete stranger compare to the sex she’d had with her husband? She didn’t even know this guy. But I didn’t want Tess to feel bad. I took a sip of wine and made an effort to keep my face sympathetic as she went on.
“I was almost hoping it wouldn’t be, you know? But it felt great. I felt…alive. For those three sweaty minutes, I didn’t think about Chuck or the kids or grief or guilt or anything—I don’t even think I thought about the tree guy! I just wanted something for myself, something that would remind me that I’m still here. That I can still feel. That I’m not dead. Because…” Her shoulders lifted. “Frankly, I’d started to wonder.”
We all nodded. It was familiar to us, that numbness inside and out, that fear that you’d never taste anything again. But the idea of being intimate with another man turned my stomach. I couldn’t imagine it. And who’d want me, anyway? A thirty-five-year-old bag-of-bones single mother in love with a dead man wasn’t anyone’s idea of sexy.
“But I feel horrible.” She sniffed, touching at the inside corners of her eyes. “I feel ashamed and disloyal.”
“You shouldn’t.” Anne, the oldest member of our group and surrogate mom to everyone, spoke firmly. “You know you shouldn’t.”
I murmured agreement, but secretly I was with Tess. I felt disloyal when I even looked at another man and found him attractive. I couldn’t imagine the shame I’d feel if I acted on it.
“But Chuck’s only been gone ten months. It’s too soon, isn’t it?” Tess asked.
“Says who?” Anne grabbed a tissue from the box on the coffee table and handed it to her. “The grief police?”
There was a collective groan. All of us had experienced it, well-meaning friends of family—or even complete strangers—telling us exactly how we should grieve and for how long, as if there was one correct way to do it and we were screwing it up. It was especially bad in a small town, where everyone loved to gossip.
“God, I fucking hate the grief police.” Grace made a face. “If one more person tells me it’s time for me to move on, I’m going to punch them.”
“Or it’s too soon to move on,” Anne said.
“Or they know how I feel, because they’re divorced and single too.” Tess took a big gulp of wine. “I wish I had a nickel for every time someone said that to me.”
“Or he would want you to be happy, and you’re not getting any younger.” I shook my head. “Do they think I don’t know that? And why is it that they think he would want me to jump in bed with someone else? That’s not going to make me happy.”
“Nobody gets it.” Grace shook her head. “My sister saw that I still had Mark’s cell phone number in my phone over the weekend and blew up at me. Told me I was crazy and that I didn’t want to get better.”
Tess closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Let’s talk about something else. Hannah, how are you doing this week?”
I took a deep breath. “Drew’s identical twin brother Wes is home from Africa. I saw him today.”
Grace gasped. “Where?”
“Foley’s.” I swirled sauvignon blanc around in my glass, a rueful smile stretching my lips. “I thought he was a ghost.”
“Fucking ghosts,” Tess grumbled.
“Yeah, I could barely talk, and I escaped as fast as possible. I didn’t even buy any groceries.”
“I don’t blame you,” Grace said. “No one would blame you. That’s a pretty huge trigger.”
I sighed. “He wants to come by the house and see Abby. I’m sure he’ll want to be part of her life.”
“That means part of your life, too,” Tess said. “Can you handle it?”
“I don’t have much choice, do I? It would be cruel for me to keep him away from her. The whole reason I stayed here was so she could be close to her dad’s family. I don’t have family up here. But seeing him with her is going to be so hard.”
Anne reached out and patted my arm. “Well, don’t pressure yourself. If he’s a good person, I’m sure he’ll understand how difficult it is for you to see him.”
“He’s a good person.” I found myself almost smiling, at a memory. “I actually met him first. He introduced Drew and me.”
“Really?” Tess cocked her head. “I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah. I had just gotten a job at this diner in Detroit and Wes came in all the time to study. He and Drew were finishing up medical school at Wayne State that year. I remember being really surprised how different they were, because they were so identical.”
“How were they different?” Grace asked.
“Well, for one thing, Drew hit on me right away—he was such a big talker—but Wes had never even flirted with me. I even thought he might not be into girls, but later I realized he was just really shy, especially compared to Drew, who was always the life of the party.”
“Has Wes ever been married?” Tess wondered.
“No.” I tried to think back. “Drew told me once he had kind of a serious girlfriend in college, but that was over well before I met them. And he didn’t bring anyone to our wedding. I think he’s just been really dedicated to his career all this time. I mean, in the four years Drew and I were married, I can count on one hand the number of times Wes was around. Drew always missed him so much.”
“I bet. Twins are usually so close.” Anne cocked her head. “Is there any chance talking to him might help you?”
I thought about it. “I don’t know. I like Wes, but I’m scared, you know? I finally feel like I have a handle on things, and when I saw him today, I was so rattled. I nearly had a panic attack in my car.”
“Then take your time,” Anne said. “A good guy will respect your boundaries. Maybe he can see Abby at your in-laws’ or something. Then if and when you’re ready to be around him, you can reach out.”
I nodded, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever be ready for that.
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