“I know you’re there,” Silas Chen says.
His niece Victoria, crouching in the doorway separating the hallway from the kitchen, calls out, “But you can’t see me!”
Silas exchanges a weary half-smile with his sister Gwen. She is five years younger than Silas, a timestamp of permanent import on their relationship, even as the difference shrinks while their middle ages expand. When Silas was a child, he would hide on Gwen and pretend to be dead when she found him. Gwen would shake and tickle him, pinch his cheeks, and half-laugh, half-tear up while shouting, “This isn’t funny!”
Silas imagined he played dead so well his arms, legs, fingers, and toes still wouldn’t move when he would eventually send those secret bodily messages to lift, wiggle, or twitch. The longer he remained play-dead, the more convinced he became that his body was a cage and he wouldn’t be able to move when he needed to, which both scared him and inexplicably thrilled him.
Gwen says to Victoria, sing-song, “Someone should be in bed and not eavesdropping.”
Silas hopes Gwen won’t be too hard on her daughter. Victoria doesn’t know how to process the shock and grief any more than the adults do.
“I am not dropping!” Five-years-old, made of charged electrons, Victoria Muppet-rushes into the kitchen for the cover-blown, tickle attack of her uncle. Silas, still in his chair, scoops her up and airplanes her over his head. While Victoria is airborne and giggling, her mom tersely ticks off the bedtime checklist: go to the bathroom, wash your face, brush your teeth, pick out one, only one, book for Daddy to read, and where is Daddy? Gwen falters, as though she said something she shouldn’t have. Maybe she did. Hell if Silas knows. He cannot provide comfort or answers for anyone else, never mind himself.
Victoria offers her bed to Uncle Silas again, and he declines, insisting the couch fits his long body better. He presses the button of Victoria’s nose and kisses her forehead. She wipes it away and her maniacal laughter turns to tears. She tells him she’s sorry about Uncle David. He says, “Thank you. I am, too.” He wants to ask if Victoria can stay a little longer. She would help keep the waiting trap of his thoughts from snapping shut. Silas swings her off his lap, her feet padding onto the kitchen tile, and says, “Bedtime, little Vee. Goodnight.”
She wipes her eyes and says, “I am big Vee,” and stomps out of the kitchen, toward the plaintive calls of her father.
Silas covers then wipes his face with one hand. Gwen asks if he wants more wine.
“Do you have to ask?” he says and exhales a shudder. He holds in all the other shudders, the infinite queue of shudders, ones to be doled out in the coming days, months, years. The very thought of future years without David is a purgatorial burden. There is no segue to what he says next because he shouldn’t be quiet, not now when he is so ill-prepared for the looming contemplative intrusion of silence, one surely to feature an endless replaying of what happened when he returned home after work.
After Gwen refills his glass with Pinot Grigio, he says, “I knew something was wrong the second I opened the door.” He pauses, honoring or damning what he will say next. “Do you want to hear this?”
“If you want to talk, I’m here. But you don’t have to talk either. You don’t have to do anything.” Gwen satellites around the kitchen, carrying the empty bottle of wine, until she crashes it into the deep sink. She says, “Sorry,” twice, quickly rinses her hands, then leans against the counter, her arms crossed.
He should wiseass a joke about how uncomfortable she is. The joke would help them both, but he’s not capable of it. He says, “I came home, maybe an hour early. David wasn’t at the dining room table. His laptop wasn’t even open. Notebook and folders closed and neatly stacked. Right away, I knew. Maybe he’d stopped working already, but I fucking knew that wasn’t right. I ran around calling his name and I went into the TV room and he was just—he was on the floor, on his stomach, head turned away from me, toward the TV. The screen was blue.” Silas waves a hand, as though pantomiming the previous detail be stricken because it wasn’t necessary, or he didn’t have the time or the want to explain the blue screen. “He does his exercise DVDs in the morning, okay? So, David was in his exercise clothes. T-shirt and compression shorts. And, you know, his heart gave out. It must’ve happened right after I left, not too long after I left. Instead of me getting home in the afternoon an hour early and however many fucking hours late, what if I stayed an extra hour in the morning? Why would I have? I wish I stayed. I should’ve stayed.”
“Silas—it’s not your—you couldn’t have known—”
“He was dead. He’d been dead for hours, for the whole day. For what we call a day, right? It had been a long day for me at work, too. That’s what I used to call a long day. I had no idea how long a day could be. No one does until you do. I haven’t seen—I haven’t seen many dead people. None, except for funerals. But David was dead, Gwen. I won’t get into—he was so clearly gone. His body was there and he was gone. He wasn’t there anymore. I didn’t know what to do. I—I said his name over and over, and I ran back to the kitchen, to like—what—get him a glass of water or something? I don’t know, I don’t know what I was thinking. Except I wasn’t thinking I could help him. I knew I couldn’t. Is that terrible? Is that awful?”
Gwen shakes her head and whispers, “No.”
“I didn’t leave him alone. I would not do that to him, not while he was still home. I was in the kitchen, but I could still see him and if he could’ve, he would’ve been able to see me, too. I called 911 and when I was on the line, giving them his name and my name and address, I turned slightly and I cupped a hand around my mouth and the phone so he wouldn’t hear, like I didn’t want him to be worried. And I wasn’t facing straight down the hallway to the TV room, I was turned, but I could still see him, but I wasn’t really watching him either because I was trying to be all there, all together on the call. I didn’t want to screw that up. The call was the worst and most important thing in the world and I couldn’t fuck it up. And then I swear, right before I hung up, I saw—movement.” Silas waves his hand by his temple. “I was facing this way’’—he turns his torso so Gwen is on his hard right. “Like now. I’m not looking at you, but I can still see you without focusing directly on you.” He pauses and remains looking but not-looking at Gwen. “David was on the floor, already permanently on the floor like he will be in my fucking head forever now, but I was turned so he was a blurry, peripheral background shape, and then—then the moment before it happened, I knew it would happen. I mean, I didn’t turn to fully see it, and I don’t know if I saw anything, but then I saw it anyway.”
“Saw what, Silas?”
“I was in the kitchen—again not really looking at him—and I saw him lift his upper torso and turn his head. I hung up and ran back to the TV room and sat next to him and held his hand and I watched him. I watched him until the ambulance came. His head was turned, facing the kitchen and not the TV and that stupid blue screen. He was facing me.”
“Come sit with me on the bench. Share a pretend cigarette with me,” David’s mother, Janice Harrington, says. She hasn’t smoked in over two decades, but never passes on a chance to remind anyone and everyone how much she misses it. A tall white woman in her late sixties, she keeps manically fit (her own self-description) via competition. Prior to the pandemic, she played in pickleball tournaments two weekends out of every month. The tournaments are due to return later this summer.
Janice grabs Silas’s hand and gently pulls him toward a green, wooden bench under the shade of an oak tree’s weary branches.
Silas says, “I should help with the clean-up.” Friends and family gather trash, fold tablecloths, distribute leftover food, break down folding tables and chairs. His elderly parents, Fung and Catherine, oversee and coordinate the packing of Gwen’s minivan. Ninety minutes earlier, they brought everyone to tears and laughter, telling the slightly-embellished-for-effect story of meeting their future son-in-law David for dinner. A lovely evening that had ended, unbeknownst to them at the time, with David rushing to the ER because he’d accidently ingested a small amount of shellfish.
Janice says, “Eh, let everyone else do it.”
The memorial service was held at Lynch Park, a green space and rocky beach jutting into Beverly Channel, and began with Silas kneeling on a seawall, emptying an urn of David’s cremated ashes into the relentless, foaming ocean. The intimate procession walked to the picnic area adjacent to a rose garden for what Silas described as a casual reception meets eulogy. Silas knew his husband of twelve years and partner for fifteen didn’t want anything to do with a religious ceremony, but David had shared no other final wishes or instructions in the event of his death. They believed they would have plenty of time to discuss such abrupt finalities later in their yawning, nebulous future.
Silas says, “We’re lucky the rain held out.”
“Are you feeling lucky, Silas?”
“No, not particularly.” He smiles without smiling. He can’t sneak anything past Janice. Never could. His using “lucky” was a subtle, cynical fuck you to the universe, one he wanted heard and tallied.
“Me neither. But it was a beautiful afternoon, Silas. You did my poor David proud. He was always proud of you.”
Tears pool and spill, as they have all day, as they have since that afternoon—Silas can’t do this. Not now. He’ll further indulge in cherished memories, later, after. After when or what, he isn’t sure, but he can’t do it now. He’s afraid his memories of David, his David, could be tainted by the now, by what’s running through his head now, and by the fears of what’s to come.
Janice says, “When David first told me about you—this was months before I met you in person—he showed me a goofy picture on Facebook. You were standing in someone’s kitchen. Or was it yours? And you had that long hair and the waistband of your sweatpants hiked up to your chest. He pointed and said, ‘Mom, that’s the guy. The guy.’”
Silas wipes the tears from his cheeks and shakes his head, as though answering “no” to a series of impossible questions.
“You can talk. Or I can keep talking, like I do. Or we can just sit here and share a cry with our pretend cigarettes. On a day like today, Menthol and filterless.”
“I knew something awful had happened to him the second I stepped into our house. It was like passing through an invisible barrier, and after I passed through, I could no longer remember where I was before—”
Janice doesn’t fill the pause. Sometimes a pause is language.
“He was on the floor in the TV room, dressed in his workout clothes. His head was turned toward the TV, which was still on, but the screen was blue, all blue. That kind of freaked me out. Is that weird? The fucking blank blue screen. His head was turned away from that, and toward the kitchen, toward me, like he was—was waiting for me to come home. Waiting for me to help him. But I couldn’t. The other—the other weird part was his right arm, was bent at an odd angle—” Silas leans forward on the bench and demonstrates. “—so the back of his hand and forearm were pressed to his lower back, like he was reaching for an itch, or rubbing a sore muscle. He’d been complaining about his back lately and I told him to take a day off from working out every once and a while.
“I don’t remember deciding to leave his side to go to the kitchen and I don’t remember the walk to the kitchen, but there I was, with David now twenty feet away, me with the phone in my shaking hand. And while on with 911, I wasn’t looking at him, but I could still see him. Like now, I’m looking or facing straight ahead but I can still see you out of the corner of my eye, right? Do our eyes have corners? I’ve been thinking about eye corners. Thinking it’s bullshit. It’s all bullshit. Everything. And right before I hung up, most of me looking at the red phone symbol, the one you press to hang up, and in my eye corner, I saw movement. I couldn’t tell exactly what it was that was moving, but David or something near David moved. That’s what I saw in the eye corner. I hung up and turned my head. Nothing was moving. I waited and watched but nothing. Then I went back to David and his right arm wasn’t behind his back anymore. His right hand was next to his face.”
“I haven’t been home in over a week. I’m getting too old for couch surfing,” Silas says. A bowl of microwave popcorn rests on the couch between him and his friend Michael. Baseball is on the television. Michael Lavoie is in his mid-fifties and is gregarious in the way that dares the world to say something to his face. Gray frosts his short, curly dark hair. He is a Red Sox fanatic and is equally obsessed with his floundering fantasy baseball team.
Michael looks up from his tablet computer for the first time since the second inning; he blinks madly behind his saucer-sized reading glasses and says, “Hey, the guest bedroom is not a couch.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Oh, and you’re not that old.”
“You can stay as long as you need. I appreciate the company.” Michael’s husband Bob is a medical software consultant and is away on his first week-long work trip since the pandemic hit. Bob is due to return in four days.
Silas says, “Thank you, I really mean it.” They became friends in the mid-’90s, meeting when Michael moved to Brighton, into the apartment across the hall from Silas. Michael has had jobs in advertising for as long as Silas has known him, and he once worked on a campaign with David, who at the time was a recent marketing hire for a small chain of seafood restaurants. Michael inadvertently introduced David to Silas when, after successful completion of the restaurant’s campaign, Silas crashed their celebratory not-date at Fugaku’s sushi bar.
“Unlike Bob,” Michael says, “you don’t complain when I have baseball on.”
“I complain inside my head.”
“Yeah, you can leave now. Thanks.”
“The door will hit my ass on the way out.” Silas lumbers into the kitchen.
Michael mutters to his tablet about his fantasy team’s lack of innings and quality starts from the pitchers, then asks over his shoulder, “Are you ready for that?”
“Ready for what?” Silas returns to the couch and holds up his glass. “It’s just water.”
“Smart ass. I am delicately asking if you are ready to go home,” Michael says.
“You have never asked anything delicately in your life.” Silas appreciates his friend’s honesty and bluntness, as off-putting as they can be sometimes.
“I am not pushing you to go or stay. When you do go, you can come back here if it’s too soon.”
“Thank you, again. The original answer I almost successfully avoided is ‘no.’ No, I am not ready. But I’m at the point where each day that goes by will make it that much harder to go back. Plus, I really need to get going on the probate stuff. Fuck. I have a lot of shit to deal with.”
“Yes, you do. But do it at your own pace. If I can help with any of it, please let me. I know you won’t ask. Consider this a pre-ask.”
Silas hugs the bowl of popcorn and slouches deep into the couch. “What if I walk through the door and it’s like—it’s like the last time I walked through that door?”
“You haven’t been home since? Not even to—” Michael pauses. His bluntness has a limit.
“Gwen went in and got me everything I needed for David and for me. I had to make a detailed list and draw her a map.”
“The next time you walk inside your house, Silas, it won’t be the same. It might be harder, but it won’t be like the last time.”
Silas nods as though he agrees, but inside his head, instead of complaining about the baseball game, he tells Michael he is wrong. He fears it will be exactly like last time. He says, “I knew as soon as I walked in. Part of the knowing was that I wouldn’t be able to do anything. David was on the floor in the TV room, on his stomach. He never laid on his stomach. He slept on his side, or on his back if he’d had a few drinks, and then he would snore and I’d tease him about it the next day, text him snoring cartoon gifs. Anyway, there he was on the floor, on his stomach. He definitely wasn’t snoring. The TV was still on. His workout DVD had ended, and the screen was a blank, dead blue. He wasn’t facing the TV. His head was turned toward the kitchen and me, and his eyes were closed but—let’s just say it was obvious he wasn’t asleep. I called 911 and turned my back to him when I did, because I just couldn’t. Not while I was looking down at him. I answered her questions and I told them to hurry the fuck up. I knew it was already too late, but I told them to hurry. Also, I didn’t want to be there alone with him like that. And—when I hung up, it was like he’d heard my thoughts about not wanting to be alone because his eyes were open. He was dead and they had been shut and then he was still dead but his eyes were open.”
Silas stands on his front stoop, overstuffed night-bag slung over one shoulder. It’s early evening, twilight. The return home time. He wanted to be here in the morning, with sunlight on his back, projecting his shadow on the red door. Instead, he stayed at Michael’s, made the phone calls and the appointments he had to make. He answered work emails that could’ve gone unanswered. The next thing he knew, the morning and afternoon and this ninth day had passed. Time was accelerating and decaying.
Nine days ago, Silas opened the front door without pause or consideration. That’s not to say he wasn’t thinking anything. Like the rest of us during our waking, automatic moments, Silas buoyed within the flowing groundwater of subconscious thought. Perhaps in his mind he summarized his workday, tallying the anxieties and attempted normalcies associated with his recent return to the partially occupied office. As likely, he flitted through unconnected thoughts; what would they make for dinner, the exterior trim needed painting and should he do it himself, was it too late for a walk, the anticipatory joy of removing his work shoes. Silas walked inside into what felt like an empty house. If one lived with another long enough, one earned the ability to sense the other person’s presence, or lack of presence. None of the lights were on. Had they lost power? David was not sitting at his semi-permanent workspace at the dining room table, hunched over his comically small laptop, flanked by stacks of papers and an oversized exterior mic he used for meetings, wearing one of his three pairs of reading glasses that made him look old and unbearably cute. The laptop was closed. His permanently stained coffee mug and plastic blue water cup (one David had measured how much it held to the nearest fluid ounce to track the amount of water he drank daily) were not next to the laptop, were not on the table. Silas stared at where David wasn’t, as though waiting for him to un-disappear.
And there was the smell. Had Silas noticed David was not at the dining room table or the smell first? Initially, he thought it was a garbage smell, or had David microwaved Brussels sprouts? An ammonia sharpness and fecal tang intensified as he wandered into the kitchen. He rolled open the two windows above the sink. Had the septic system backed up? Did David leave, go to the hardware store? No, Silas had parked next to David’s car. Silas didn’t normally call out his husband’s name when he entered their house, nor had he ever had reason to. Increasing dread forced the lilting, plaintive syllables from Silas’s sinking chest.
“David?” The house remained quiet; listening-quiet. Silas hurried through the kitchen toward the hallway half-bathroom while checking his phone for text messages. There weren’t any. He typed out, “Where are you?” He called out David’s name again while walking with his head down, watching for a return text or the three dots that meant he was responding. The suffocating odor and silence simultaneously narrowed and expanded his universe, and he was inexorably drawn to the new black hole in its center. He was a few steps away from the living room when he looked up, saw David, and dropped his phone.
Silas recounted this scene many times to friends and family. His own personal folktale, he’s aware of how the story has changed, lengthened, shortened, depending upon who was receiving the retelling. He never purposefully embellished. If anything, Silas would insist he did the opposite. He believes he has lived through and continues to live through the event as told in each retelling. He believes what happened is now a never-ending, ever-evolving story with a truth that will forever remain hidden from him. Dicing up the what-happened into various tells and retells makes it easier to swallow, to digest.
However, there remain details Silas left out in his retellings and will continue to omit in future retellings: his gutturally repeating his husband’s name upon first seeing his body; the blinding curtain of tears and how it has permanently transformed the hue and tone of his perception; pressing a shaking hand to David’s neck and cheek; the coldness of his rigored skin; David’s soiled shorts and the puddle of urine between his splayed legs; how before he left David’s side to retrieve his phone, he already thought of David as a body, as inanimate, as the past; how when Silas was in the kitchen and talking on the phone, he wasn’t looking at David, couldn’t look at him, not even with the corners of his eyes, so his back was turned and his left hand was a visor over his eyes in case he would see anything by accident, and then in the other room David stood, David stood up, and Silas knew this even though he wasn’t watching, even though his back was turned, and he knew because the living room floorboards creaked under David’s shifting, repositioning weight, and more than that, Silas felt David standing up, and he didn’t and won’t include this feeling in any of his retellings not because he can’t explain that instinctual, animal knowing but because Silas did not turn around, because he was afraid to turn around, and the horror of being afraid of his husband’s reanimated body was what kept Silas turned away, and even after Silas hung up the phone, he didn’t turn and wouldn’t look until he knew David lay back down.
Now, the house is still and quiet like it was nine days ago. There are no lights on. David’s laptop remains closed on the dining room table. The windows are shut and the house smells of bleach cleaner. Silas opens the kitchen windows. His smart watch buzzes with a text from Michael and then a few seconds later, one comes in from Gwen, as though they’d synchronized, and he loves them for it.
He walks into the high-ceilinged living room and turns on the wall-mounted television. The volume is at an absurdly high level. Silas powers on the DVD player and switches to the HMDI feed. The workout DVD’s main menu fills the screen. Electronic workout music, bass-heavy knockoffs of pop and dance hits pump through the speakers. David used the same set of DVDs for almost ten years. Silas knows the music by osmosis. He presses play and sits on the floor in the spot where he found David. The DVD whirrs through three sets of workouts, a blur of moving and contorting younger bodies. When the disk is completed, instead of returning to the disk menu, the DVD signal cuts out and the TV screen goes blue, the speakers silent.
Silas only planned this far, to this point. The blue screen is a detail he has included in each retelling, a detail that seems important, though he isn’t sure why. As far as he knows, all the other Blu-Rays and DVDs returned to the menu when finished playing and not this blank blue screen. He doesn’t believe in signs, but he wants to believe this technological hiccup means something or could mean something. Nothing as trite or absurd as his now being tuned to David’s beyond-the-grave spirit channel. But at the same time, yeah, maybe that’s what he wants.
There’s a low frequency hum in the anxious speakers. Silas listens, then he thinks he might say something. What can he say? He is afraid of the silence, of the nothingness, of metastasizing loneliness, but he’s more afraid that whatever he says, David or some simulacrum of David might answer. Nine days on from the initial horror, this is the newest one. Many argue ghost stories are inherently optimistic because they presuppose life after death. But what kind of afterlife awaits if the person he knew best and loved most would fleetingly return to haunt him, to frighten him more than he’d ever been frightened in his life?
Silas lays down in David’s spot and presses the right side of his face to the floor so that he still sees the blue television screen. He imagines a spreading deadness within his limbs as the same blue color, and he wiggles a finger slowly, until it stops. He thinks of whispering, “I’m in here,” like he did when young Gwen couldn’t find him during their hiding games. Awash in guilt, Silas indulges in the magical thinking of those past playing-dead transgressions being the reason why he found David the way he found him. As terrible and sadistic a thought as it is, at least it would be a reason, an answer to why.
The blue screen on the wall above him is implacable. Silas flexes a knee and readjusts his left arm. Then there’s that feeling again, that feeling of knowing David is standing behind him. There is no doubt. No maybe. If Silas were to lift his torso and swivel his head in the manner that he described David doing in one of his retellings, he would see David standing only a few steps away. And David would see Silas on the floor. And David’s arms would go slack and he’d drop his phone and his face would open and then avalanche.
Silas listens for the floorboards behind him to creak. He hears the silence before the creaks, those shaking, micro vibrations birthing soundwaves that haven’t yet reached his ears. He holds his breath and waits and waits and he decides that he won’t look, won’t ever look behind him, and he will stay here on the floor until someone finds him, calls out his name, presses a hand to his cheek. Yet Silas does turn his head without deciding to do so, as though his body has a rebellious laugh by moving on its own.
In Silas’s later days and years, the same feeling (if he were to describe the feeling for someone else, though he never will, he’d say it was a knowing and not a feeling), the same certainty will overcome him, the certainty that David is there, around the next corner as Silas paces their home, or David is there, behind a door about to open or the door that was just closed, or David is there behind the shower curtain or David is there, hidden by a tree only a few paces from the hiking path, or David is there, on the other side of the bed with Silas lying on his side and unable to sleep, and every time, when Silas turns with a whisper or a scream on his lips, he sees nothing.