After You by Hamilton Perez

Sophia doesn’t say anything after. She looks at me instead, surprised, perhaps embarrassed, like she’s wondering why I’m still here, and I can’t help remembering how it used to be. How she’d pull my arm around her like a blanket. How she’d softly brush her lips against my fingers. Now, I think she counts the seconds before deciding enough time has passed, rising naked from the bed, and wandering listlessly about the room.

“You’re going?” I ask, not intending it to be a question but my voice betrays me.

“Did you want me to stay,” she says, emphatically not a question.

I think of the time before we were married, when she’d become shy and withdrawn and pulled away from me—only to ask if I still wanted to buy the farm.

The farm?” I’d said. “Do you mean buy the cow?

Her whole body turned red once she realized. “What, so I’m a cow then!” She held up the comforter to hide her smile, but I took her blushing warmth against mine, and the sweetness of our lovemaking left us tired and full like Thanksgiving dinner.

Sophia stops at the mantle where I’d set a bouquet of daffodils and forget-me-nots cut from her garden, which I’ve maintained since her passing. She examines their petals, touches their edges, considers them. Does she see? Does she understand? Each stamen, each petal is a letter that says I love you. I miss you. I need you.

Against the far wall, the portal to Eternity sits casually like an open window. Beyond this material plane, I’ve seen cosmos no mortal was meant to gaze upon. Jubilant angels burn like bonfires, star-eyed demons swim through cloud nebulas, and odd creatures like planet-sized beating hearts drift through the void, solitary and immense. A faint breeze blows in from god knows where, making the candles surrounding the portal flicker and curl with otherworldly life.

“You don’t have to go right away,” I tell her.

“I should, though. You know that. I shouldn’t even be here.” She walks to the foot of the bed and wraps her thin fingers around the metal frame, unconsciously exploring its shape. The candlelight gives her pale, waxy skin a golden blush of warmth, so that you could almost forget what she is. “You’re planning on doing this again.”

“Of course, aren’t you?”

“James…” Her eyes have an unnerving effect when they fall on me. There are stars in those eyes. Very distant stars.

She’s changed, I know. Didn’t even recognize me the first time I brought her back. It had only been a few months, but for her much longer—no, not longer. She said time wasn’t really a thing anymore, dismissed it and our life together like some half-remembered dream.

We’ve come a long way.

“I kept the room just the way you like it,” I say, desperately. “Same as before.” I point to the old Martini & Rossi ads hung on the walls, the dresser with makeup prominently displayed on top, the mirror behind it with old love notes written in lipstick now smudged over its face.

She glances around. “Oh yeah…” she says. “I don’t remember that being there,” she points to the rows of candles, the lines of black sand, the torn wallpaper that hangs around the portal like ragged flesh.

“You have to look past it,” I say, and the corners of her lips curl into a faint smile as she does just that—looks beyond our mortal affair to the other side which I can tell is already calling her back.

Does she not see, not care about, all that I’ve learned and uncovered—the arcane rituals to re-inhabit her body, the coronial methods of preservation, all the blood I’ve spilt from my hands—for her, for us—all to bring her back. “I can’t just let you go,” I tell her. “You’re still my wife.”

“I’m not though…” she says with a sympathetic frown. “We said until death do us part. Remember?”

Remember? I remember the tests, the waxy gowns, the overnight trips. I remember the wet, stinging warmth creeping out my eyes when the doctor confirmed our fears. I remember Sophia putting her calm hand on my trembling one. “It’s okay,” she said. “Nothin’s keeping me from you, sugar.”

I remember her lowered into the ground.

I remember saying goodbye.

“That’s not good enough for me,” I tell her.

“James, this isn’t just long distance.” She walks around the foot of the bed and sits beside me. “I’m gone.”

For a moment, that hits me: the void of the past, the parts of us that go, unsalvageable, into night. But that can’t be the truth of it. I won’t let it be the truth of it. “What if I could make this permanent?” I ask her. I’ve brought her this far already. Defied death to see her. Couldn’t I go just one step further? Couldn’t I fix this? Fix her—fix us?

“You can’t,” she says simply. “There would be…consequences.”

“What could be worse than being separated?” I say.

She smiles and bends forward to touch my cheek. “I can’t stand to think of bad things happening to you for my sake,” she says. “And I know you feel the same for me…”

Was that a hint, I wonder, or a veiled threat?

“What are They going to do?” I say, forcing a chuckle to lighten the tension. “Send us to Hell?”

“No,” she says, flatly. “I don’t think there’s any such place. There’s life and afterlife and nothing in between. Life is a gift. You get what you get. But we keep stealing more. And this time…” She stops, her eyes falling on her naked legs, her breasts, on me. “I’ve already let this go too far,” she says, returning from very far away. “It won’t continue. They’ll know. They’ll act. There’s no getting past Them—in this life or the next.”

I asked her once about Them—those timeless, impersonal beings behind it all. She claimed They couldn’t be put into words and left it at that. They’d become like an infidelity between us. Something we tiptoed around, could never approach candidly. When pressed, she’d make vague comments and smirk to herself like it was an inside joke. A shared orgasm. A circle I was just outside of.

“So everyone that dies gets a free pass regardless of what they’ve done, but if I want to see my dead wife—”

“They’re not your fairy godparents, James. They’re visionaries. Those that don’t share Their vision are removed from it. Simple as that.”

I take her hands in mine, massaging her fingers with bandaged hands. Thought I could find the magic touch to reconnect us, but I search the cracks in her knuckles, the delicate lines of her palms, the smooth joints and the soft veins, and still she gives me nothing.

I gently slip her wedding band over her finger. “I’ll chance it if you will,” I say—my big romantic gesture. If bringing her back isn’t enough, perhaps daring Them will be.

“I can’t let you do that for me,” she says, removing the ring and dropping it in my carefully-wrapped palm. I must look defeated because she puts her hand under my chin, lifts my eyes to hers, makes me look across the uncharted cosmos between us. “Cheer up,” she says. “The fire and brimstone’s only on this side.”

She smiles, alien and divine, looking at me like a storm that will pass. Her whole body shrugs, as if to say: I can wait…

Taking my hand, she leads me back to the portal. I don’t even realize it’s happening until she lets go. She’s completely autonomous now, and I miss her needing me the way I need her.

Sophia lies at the center while I make my way around, blowing out the candles one by one. Beyond the open portal, the wind howls. It rises in pitch and drops suddenly, and Soph laughs to herself like it said something funny.

I remember her last words before passing in that cold hospital bed. “Time to buy the cow,” she chuckled, still in pain, tears running down her cheek.

When the last candle is out, she’s gone, the portal is closed, and I am left alone in the dark, clutching the cold, gray hand of her old form. The form I loved so dearly. The one she’s left behind.

Hamilton Perez is a writer, freelance editor, and aspiring creature from the black lagoon. His stories have appeared in Metaphorosis, Arsenika, and The Dark. You can follow him on Twitter.