Sometimes she is alive. He’s never sure if that’s better or worse.
Most of the time she is dead.
He loses count of the number of funerals he attends, the number of gravestones he sees. The number of types of gravestones he sees. Sometimes she dies in a group, and that is definitely worse: those times come with multiple funerals, a mass of shocked stony mourners who have no more tears for her. Sometimes she dies alone. Most of the time, she dies with another person. That varies—a daughter, a friend, a coworker, one of her parents (he tells himself not to be glad about that, fails). A couple of lovers, of husbands—different ones, which surprises him; he had always told himself that she would end up with Mark. Always. And yet, always turns out to be not as always as he had thought.
At least not when she dies.
He debates whether or not to talk to her. She of all people might understand, might even be able to understand. And she of all people is the one person who might listen, might understand, and still tell him to go to hell. No. He needs to find help elsewhere. Or elsewhen, he guesses. Someone must have answers. Someone must be able to help.
Instead, he finds himself at funerals, or at grocery stores, or coffee shops, watching. Or shaking.
He’s sure that she sees him, every once in a when. He’s equally sure that these whens are exactly the worst time to approach her; based on her expression, things must have been bad before. Very bad. Not surprising, really: the one constant in his life was that he was a piece of shit. He knows this; doesn’t really need the knowing looks and words thrown his way at these funerals.
He really should just start turning his back at these funerals, come to think of it. Spend these whens actually enjoying coffee. Or a good meal. Or a shower. He’s rarely around long enough to enjoy any of this, but he should try. Make the most of each hour, each minute, each second, some overly chirpy teacher had told him once. He’d never done that before now.
He doesn’t do it now, either.
Possibly why he’s losing weight. Although that could be just aging.
Maybe he’s just not eating enough.
Maybe this isn’t really him.
Maybe this is him, only him without sleep and food for—for—he has no idea how long this has been. He spends the next funeral trying to figure it out, getting so absorbed that he completely misses the moment when the church empties out, leaving him on a hard bench. Almost completely misses the strange woman—definitely not her, not her, not her—who comes up to him on that bench, putting her arms around him, kissing him lightly on the cheek, getting offended when he doesn’t respond.
“It’s a church,” he manages, when he realizes he has to say something. “And a funeral.”
“Never stopped you before.”
Maybe he does deserve this.
Maybe he should talk to her.
Maybe she would remember.
Some of the mourners do. Not just the crap from before, but the rest of it. All of it. He knows from the careful way they talk to him, from the things they don’t say. He’s certain he does: certain he remembers every expression on her face, the way the wind would catch her hair, every single one of her favorite television shows, although some of the funerals cast doubt on this. Most of her dreams, at least the ones she told him about, both the ones that terrorized her at night and the ones that cheered her in the day. The way she sang. The way she laughed. The way she had begged him.
I’m begging you—
That, he remembers. He’s certain he remembers. Even when he remembers none of the people at her funeral. Even when he cannot remember her name.
Even when he cannot bring himself to go and speak to her, as she sits in a corner, laughing with a friend over coffee. Or when he sees her swimming, swimming, not drowning, never drowning.
He should wait on the beach for her to emerge from the waves.
He should plunge into the ocean.
He should close his eyes against the sun.
A million lifetimes would not be enough, he told her once. It is true. It is horribly true. He places his head in his hands, shaking, unable to see if this time she is alive or dead, if this time, she will see him.
|Other short stories by Mari Ness appear in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Apex, Nature Futures, Diabolical Plots, Translunar Traveler’s Lounge, Fusion Fragment, Daily Science Fiction and right here at Kaleidotrope. A chapbook, Dancing in Silver Lands, was the 2021 Outwrite Chapbook winner in Fiction, and can be ordered from Neon Hemlock Press. An essay collection, Resistance and Transformation: On Fairy Tales, is available from Aqueduct Press, and a poetry novella, Through Immortal Shadows Singing, from Papaveria Press. Mari can be followed on Twitter at @Mari Ness and notes that all poetry and fiction is written under the admittedly lazy supervision of two magnificent cats.|