He thought it was the end of the world, but then he discovered that it was just the end of his world because every day, every year, even after their deaths, he woke up and went to work, and life went on even though he felt like it should have stopped. They had died on Halloween, a freak accident; the brakes failed, everything failed, and then boom, boom, boom, they were dead.
At first, in grief, he had given up celebrating the holiday. But this led to too many questions and eggs on his house and broken windows, and even though he called the police, they never could catch the little brats responsible, and the kids always managed to make the mess at a time when he wasn't home, no matter how vigilant Martin was. When he walked down the ghost-decorated street, he could hear the whispered questions. Why doesn't that grumpy guy give out candy? And saw the shrugs and heard the misguided responses. I don't know. Maybe he's just a religious freak. That did it. He was not a religious freak but a medieval historian, for chrissakes. And so he'd squelch the rumors by giving out the f-ing candy.
For some reason, no one seemed to know his story. He supposed this was the nature of the suburbs. People moving up and out, keeping to themselves inside their fences. The kids only wanted to fill their pillowcases with Snickers and M&Ms and Hershey bars. They didn't care about the cost. So, as time went on, as the days became years and the years became a cluster, Martin began buying the candy again. He turned his porch light on and muttered the words, robotlike, Happy Halloween. That should satisfy them, he thought. He wanted to say Happy Fucking Halloween but these were children, these were parents. What did they care about his personal tragedy? And besides, he didn't want someone to call the police on him. If there were razors or poison in their candy, he wanted the blame to go elsewhere, because, having lost his own family on that very day, he wouldn't inflict that kind of pain on others, and he certainly didn't want to be suspected of it. This year the orange plastic bowl of treats was half empty both from the candy he'd given out and all the extras he'd consumed. There was a pile of wrappers on the floor that served as a testament to his gluttony, and he was about to turn off the stupid scary music and head to bed when he heard the doorbell ring.
When he opened the pumpkin-draped door, there she was in the outfit she had worn on the day she died—a gray pants suit. Andrea, brown hair shimmering in the lamplight, looking alive.
He didn't say anything because he couldn't.
"So," she said, "may I come in?"
Still, he was speechless. Finally, he managed to state the obvious. "But you're dead."
"This is All Hallows Eve, anything can happen," she said casually. He noticed then that she was bleeding around the neck. He realized that this was because, and he didn't like to remember this one detail, she had been decapitated in the accident. "I know I don't live here anymore, so I thought it might be best for me to knock. I didn't want to scare you. So, Martin, how have you been? You look—" she began. He suspected that she couldn't quite manage a compliment.
"How did you expect me to be?" he asked, thinking of his beard and his long hair, wishing he had cut them.
"I don't know," she said with detachment. "They keep us pretty busy in the realm of the dead. They encourage us not to dwell on the past. Still, for some reason, I've been thinking that I should come by and see you. How long have I been dead, anyway? You know, time is different after."
"It's been five years. Come in, I guess," he muttered. She was still standing there outside as he held the door. He had pinched himself twice. When he bled on the second try, he knew this wasn't a candy-induced dream.
"I thought you'd never ask. It's a little chilly out here for my tastes. I always did like summer better." He looked her over and realized that she looked the same as she had on the day she died. She hadn't aged.
"But it's warm for October," he told her as they both sat down on what used to be their couch.
She crossed her legs and said, "Well, my heaven is in Bermuda, so I'm kind of used to tropical weather."
"Do you find yourself traveling much?" he asked because small-talk somehow seemed appropriate.
"No, not really. Although I've been to the Indian heaven as well. Mother Teresa's there, and they have really good curry." Andrea always did enjoy food.
"Do you miss earth at all?"
"Well, they have drugs for that So, if we start to feel too homesick, we take a pill. What about you, have you missed me?" The question seemed so innocent.
"We don't have those drugs, so it's been a little hard," he told her.
"Yes, life on earth is more painful. Have you considered suicide? From what I understand, that business about you automatically going to hell is just a myth. It was started by some Christians who didn't want to lose church members. There are all sorts of people in heaven, in case you're wondering. Last week, I had tea with Jesus and Buddha. There's a lottery. I got a good number. Some people have been waiting to talk to them for thousands of years. Muhammad had a previous engagement. They've all had some explaining to do about why they weren't clearer in their teachings, especially with regard to women. It made Her mad, you know, all these people mistaking her gender like that."
"Can I get you anything to drink?" he asked, realizing that he wasn't being a very good host.
"Maybe some coffee," she said. "For some reason, people don't drink that as much up there. It's not like they need the caffeine anymore. Anyway, Martin, the reason I'm here is that I just wanted to know if you were all right." She looked him up and down, and worry seemed to crease her placid face. He had adjusted by now to the shock of her bloody neck.
"I'm managing," he said.
"How's your book on medieval medicine coming?"
"I decided to trash it."
"Based on the number of young people I've met from that time period, I don't think the medicine was all that effective anyway."
He went to the kitchen to get her coffee. He had put it in her favorite mug. Now he handed it to her.
"Oh, this is good," she said, her face tearing up. "Do you still go to the fair trade store?"
Yes, he told her that he still did. He talked with her for a while. Around 11:30, she asked him the time. He told her.
"Oh, well, we better finish up," she said. "We can only walk the earth till midnight."
"Is this your first walk?"
"Well, they say you shouldn't go for your first few years. It's too distressing both for you and your loved ones. You need to wait until there's a bit more distance. You haven't recovered from losing us yet, have you, Martin?"
He looked at her. Though she was pale and bloody, to him she still looked beautiful. "May I kiss you?" he ventured.
"I'm not sure if that's allowed, but we could try. Don't be alarmed, though, if I vanish. That's what happens when you break one of the rules."
They attempted it. To his surprise, she still felt human.
"Oh, this is nice," she said. "This is one of the things they give you drugs to make you forget. There is no sex in heaven, you know, because it would be too complicated having children born in the afterlife. It could lead to overpopulation and poverty and such. And that would make heaven, well, less heavenly. Maybe I could try to stay here," she suggested.
He asked her how that would work. They formulated a plan. He would hide her in a closet until the next day. That way if the Commissioner of Darkness came round looking for, he wouldn't find her.
Martin was a bit skeptical. "What if he asks to search in the closet?"
"I don't know," Andrea said. "I guess you'll just have to come up with a good story. Be convincing."
* * *
The clock stuck midnight. Was Andrea still in the closet? He had put her behind the Christmas tree and the children's baby things. Some of that stuff was so old now that it smelled. Allister and Jonathan would have been 15 and 17 now had they lived. He hadn't had the chance to ask Andrea how they were, how they liked Bermuda heaven. Martin worried. Bang, bang. Another knock at the door. That must be the Commissioner of Darkness, Martin thought, as if any of this was logical. He was tempted to pinch himself again. Martin thought of Andrea's words. Be convincing. He thought of college. He had played Nathan Detroit in his school's production of Guys and Dolls. Good old reliable Nathan, Martin thought as he answered the door.
"Hello," said a hunch-backed man with greasy, black hair and grimy nails. He looked dark, like a character out of a Tim Burton movie, Martin thought. Not a guy you'd want running a daycare. He was definitely better suited for his role as the Commissioner of Darkness.
"I'm the Commissioner of Darkness," the man said.
Be convincing. "What are you talking about?" Martin asked accusingly. "Aren't you a little old for trick or treating?"
"I am not a trick or treater," the man said formally, as if he, too, was an actor who had studied in the very formal, overdoing-it-Laurence-Olivier school of acting. Once more unto the breach, Martin thought.
"Well then, what are you doing here?" Martin said. "It's a little late to be knocking on people's doors, don't you think?"
"I am here for your wife," the man said.
"What is wrong with you?" Martin asked. "My wife's been dead five years. Now get the hell out of here."
But the man (Could you call him a man, really, if you weren't sure of his mortality or humanity?) persisted.
"Look, buddy, we can make this easy or we can make this hard."
Let's make it hard, Martin thought.
"If you don't take this show on the road," Martin said, "I'm going to have to call the police." Martin tried to look threatening but wondered if the man had special powers. Could the man turn him into a field mouse if he didn't cooperate?
"Why are you mortals always so difficult?" the man asked.
Martin kind of felt bad for him. Rounding up the AWOL dead must be an unpleasant task.
"Look," Martin said, "if I could help you, I would, but I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about, and I have to work tomorrow, so would you mind leaving?"
"You really haven't seen her?"
"No," Martin said. "Not in five years."
The man studied him. "You wouldn't lie to me, would you?"
"Why would I do a thing like that? Besides, wouldn't a dead wife be a little difficult to conceal?"
"You'd be surprised with the kinds of things people try and get away with," the man said.
"Hmm, really," Martin said, "like what?"
"Like having their dead wives sitting on the couches right inside the door."
Martin opened the door. "No wife here. It's pretty obvious, don't you think, from the mess?"
"It could be better," the man agreed. He scanned the room.
"I've got nothing to hide," Martin said, drawing on all his acting skills. He was so darn convincing that he thought he might have even passed a polygraph.
"You really haven't seen her?" the man asked.
"I really haven't seen her," Martin lied.
"Well, if you see her, give me a call," the commissioner said, pulling out a card. The card said Gordon Ludwig, Commission of Darkness. It listed a New York area code. Martin supposed the dead might blend in well in New York.
"Commissioner Gordon?" Martin asked. "Are you serious?"
"Well, you know, Batman."
"Look," the commissioner said, "I've been doing this job long before that stupid comic book."
"You don't like Batman?" Martin asked. "I mean, it does deal with cosmic themes. Pretty well, if you ask me." He had decided that the best strategy was to act like he was in no hurry and that he had nothing to hide.
"You mortals," the man said disapprovingly, "all act like you're the only ones who have ever lost anyone."
Martin thought that he had touched on a sore subject. Note to self, avoid Batman when speaking with the Commissioner of Darkness.
"What's a Commissioner of Darkness anyway?"
The man seemed like he was beginning to grow impatient.
"It's too complicated to explain; you wouldn't understand."
My ass, I wouldn't, Martin thought. "You wanna come in, have a drink," Martin asked, "before you go back to ghost-hunting or whatever?"
"No," the man said, "I can't drink on the job." Martin could tell he was the straight-laced type.
"Well, stop back anytime," Martin said. "But look, I've really got to go. I have some teaching prep to do." Martin shut the door and hoped the man would leave. He waited a few minutes, and when he opened it again, the man was gone. He half-expected Andrea to be gone too. He wasn't sure if he should check the closet or just wait. Maybe at midnight she had turned into a pumpkin or something. Martin got a flashlight and some holy water. (He had a little bottle in the kitchen. One never knew.)
He opened the closet. There she was. Quickly, he threw some of the water on her, said, "The power of Christ compels you."
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Just playing it safe."
"What, you think I'm a demon?" she asked.
"Heck, I don't know. What am I supposed to think? This is all too weird." He checked just to be safe. The holy water didn't appear to have burned her.
"Is he gone?"
"What'd you say?"
"Told him I had to get to bed. Acted like I had nothing to hide. Invited him in for a drink. You know, the Keyser Sö ze strategy."
"The Usual Suspects with Kevin Spacey. Don't act guilty. Come up with elaborate stories if you have to."
"You know, Martin, you always were a bit strange."
"You married me," he pointed out.
"Help me out of here," she said. He walked over to the crib and tried not to knock over her stored-away bag of Precious Moments collectibles. Those things were ugly, Martin thought.
"And then what?"
"Let's go to bed, I guess."
"Is there any way we can clean that blood off your neck?" he asked.
"It bleeds perpetually, I think," she said.
"Oh, well, in that case," he said and then he didn't really know what to say. "Think you'll still be here tomorrow?"
"I should be, yeah. As long as I can avoid the Commissioner of Darkness."
"Think he'll be back?"
"He seems like the persistent type, but he can't just come into the house without your permission. Unless he can get a search warrant."
"They have rules?"
"The afterlife is very well run. Like a nice resort."
"Well, I don't want to screw up your time there. I mean, can you get sent to jail for bad behavior? Lose your time share?"
"Martin," she pointed out, "I'm dead."
He knew this all too well. He reached out to touch her. Put his arms around her, felt her. She smelled like lilacs.
"That flower smell, is that perpetual too?"
"I don't know. I hadn't noticed it. Does it bother you?" she asked.
"No," he said, "it's pleasant enough. I was just wondering."
He could feel her bleeding.
"Will the blood stain?" he asked.
"Doesn't it usually?" she asked.
"Yes, but you're not usual," he pointed out. "I don't know what the rules are."
"We played by the rules, Martin, and look where it got us."
"I thought heaven was okay," he said.
"It was, but..."
"The pill is wearing off, and I'm starting to realize how much I've missed you," she said. "I don't want to go back."
"Don't," he said. "Stay."
"You think we can manage this?"
"Let's not talk right now," he said, suddenly aware of her presence, the thing that was large and all-encompassing.
"You have nothing to say?"
"That's not it, not at all."
He wanted Andrea. He thought about the first time he had kissed her. And what if this was the last time, a brief reprieve before the emptiness that would mark the rest of his life?
"Should I have killed myself?" he asked.
"I wouldn't have wanted that, I don't think," she said. "But..."
"Nothing," she said as if thinking.
"Would you have?"
"I would have played by the rules, too, I think. I don't know. So has your life, has it been happy?"
"Of course not," he said. "But let's get out of the closet."
"And go where?"
"Upstairs," he said. Despite all the complications, his body still had simple needs. She seemed amused.
"You want to, now?"
"I mean, you can do that, can't you?"
"We can try," she said. "I should be able to, I don't see why not. I hope I don't disappear."
He reached out, pressed his hands against her bloody neck, and the first thing he felt was the warmth of her. She wasn't cold like the dead usually are.
"It's like you're alive," he said. She seemed to burn with fever. "Is this how you're supposed to feel, normally?"
"Like you said, normally doesn't really apply."
She reached for him, slid her tongue into his mouth, pressed her body against his.
"You're in good shape," he said, "for being dead."
She didn't reply. He wished again that he hadn't let himself go. She closed her eyes and he wondered if she was trying to remember him how he had been, younger, slimmer, when she was alive.
But maybe she wasn't thinking about that, maybe she didn't even care because she said, "It's so nice to feel you again. Didn't realize how much I had missed the warmth of body to body. The smell of you."
"He won't come back?" he asked.
"Not tonight, no, but we'll have to be careful. I'll have to stay inside."
"Won't you get bored?"
"I've seen all of heaven and all of earth that I want to see, Martin."
"What about Allister and Jonathan?" he asked, thinking of their boys.
"They've got the happy pills," she reminded him, "and lots of video games. I think I should stay. If it's all right with you. Just, if the commissioner comes back, act like you've never seen me."
"And you think that'll do it?" he asked.
"Well," she said, "we can hope, right?"
Hope, he thought, was the thing he had lost. He could feel it returning like a pleasant breeze. He led Andrea upstairs and he clung to her because the one thing he wanted in life was right there.
* * *
Despite subsequent visits from the Commissioner of Darkness, Martin was able to throw him off the trail. They became friends, sort of. Martin even bought him the DVD of the new Batman movie. The commissioner appreciated his interest. "This is for me?" he asked, seeming touched. Martin suspected that he didn't get many gifts. After that, the commissioner pretty much turned a blind eye, and Andrea's fears about disappearing seemed to be unfounded. "As long as I don't commit a crime or anything, I guess I'm all right," she said. "Or maybe disappearing is just another myth about death."
Martin was able to live out the rest of his life making love to his dead wife, which was quite enjoyable. They found ways to manage the blood loss. Martin invested in a supply of gauze. They missed their sons, of course, but knew that they were taking happy pills and that they'd see them again. Allister and Jonathan were too young to try to walk the earth alone.
Halloweens, too, became more enjoyable. Now it was the anniversary of their reunion as well as of their separation. He bought Andrea lilacs. They smelled like her anyway. And so the whole house smelled of the flower he had come to associate with life and with death. She came out then and helped to give out candy. People told her that her bleeding neck looked very real.
* * *
Before he died, Martin published a highly successful historical account of the Inquisition that made The New York Times Bestseller List. Despite his fame, he was reclusive. He didn't like to have guests over, though no one understood why. His colleagues in the history department, especially Sally Kessner, a frumpy but ambitious woman who had sacrificed her personal life for her career and was envious of Martin's New York Times success, thought that Martin had become too eccentric.
"You have to go out sometime," Sally said. "Why don't we hit McAllister's this Friday?"
"I do go out," Martin said cryptically. "But I prefer staying in."
"Oh, come on, Martin," Sally whined and flashed a smile that revealed a lipstick spot on one of her teeth.
Sally called about every other week. Andrea didn't appreciate all the phone messages she left, but Martin couldn't very well tell Sally that. There was a thin line between seeming strange and seeming insane, and, in life at least, Martin was careful not to cross it.
In addition to selling well, Martin's book was also critically acclaimed. The way he wrote about the Middle Ages, well-known critic Howard Jones wrote, "was mesmerizing in its spell-binding intensity. Martin Lickman's portrayal of this period is so utterly convincing that it almost feels like Lickman has been there. His attention to detail in this work is truly astonishing." Martin and Andrea clipped the review and hung it on the refrigerator.
* * *
When Martin died, twenty years after his reunion with Andrea, Andrea went back to her Bermuda heaven. She had given him a map with very specific directions, so he found her there. Apparently some people get lost, since heaven has so many twists and turns. It was kind of like the Paris metro system. Andrea said the Commissioner of Darkness so enjoyed the new Batman film that he let her in without a problem. "It really takes dark to a whole new level," the commissioner said.
"Good thing I spent some time in French heaven," Andrea remarked.
The children were in Bermuda heaven, waiting and not at all surprised to see him. Because they had been on the pills, their boys weren't mad that their mother had abandoned them. Instead, once Andrea and Martin joined them again, things pretty much picked up where they had left off. In the interim, Martin was the only one who had aged. Allister suggested that Martin get rid of the beard he had grown, but Jonathan thought it made him look soulful.
Lori D'Angelo's work has appeared or is forthcoming in various literary journals including The Bakery, Connotation Press, dirtcakes, disClosure, Drunken Boat, Everyday Genius, Forge, Gargoyle, Hamilton Stone Review, Heavy Feather Review, Juked, Literary Mama, LOUDmouth, The New Verse News, Pequin, Praxis, Prime Number Magazine, Red Lighbulbs, r.kv.r.y., Reed Magazine, Spittoon, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Stone's Throw Magazine, TAB, and Word Riot. I am a fellow at Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, a grant recipient from the Elizabeth George Foundation, and an alumna of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Fiction Workshop. I live in Virginia with my family and teach writing.