His smile was the same. His eyes crinkled in the same way, the dimple appeared in the same cheek, and his teeth were perfectly white and bright as usual. The only thing out of place was the effect it had on me. In the past, his smile was the quickest way to get me to smile. It also caused the fireworks to go off in my head, my heart to jump into my throat, the butterflies to flutter in my stomach, and every other cliche you’ve ever heard about love to come true. But not anymore. Now my head was a muddled mess, my heart had nearly stopped, and my stomach had dropped to my feet. Because he wasn’t supposed to be here.
“You’re supposed to be dead.”
“And yet here I am,” he said, still smiling. He was standing across the street from me, leaning against a streetlamp, and as he started to walk towards me, I was reminded of how nonchalant he was. For the past six months he had been dead to me. I had seen his mother cry over his body, his family shed tears at his funeral, and his priest say a prayer as his casket was lowered into the ground. So how was he strolling towards me now, with that smile still dancing on his lips and his eyes still sparkling with all the answers to my questions?
He stood in front of me now. We shared the same sidewalk square, the same space, the same air. I thought maybe he was hogging all the air because I was finding it very difficult to breathe all of a sudden.
“How are you alive, standing in front of me right now?”
“It’s a long story,” he said. “Walk with me.” He started walking down the sidewalk, and after a moment, I followed.
“The police probably told you about the five guys that were looking for me. The first was my best friend who claimed that I had cheated at poker and won $500 off of him. He’s my best friend, but he can get paranoid sometimes. And he’s not that great at poker. So while I probably should’ve stopped before he lost $500, I was saving up for something special.” At this point he glanced at me with one corner of his mouth creeping up. “Do you know what that was?”
“What?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer. It came out barely louder than a whisper.
“A ring,” he said softly. “For you. I was going to ask you to marry me.” His eyes were nearly as soft as his voice, but there was something else in there too that made my heart pound and my head dizzy. But I could only smile and look away in response.
“Anyway, he was looking for me, but not so that he could kill me. He just wanted his money back. And maybe some tips on how to get better at poker. So he was cleared.
“The second guy was my business partner. You’ve met him, we’ve had dinner before.”
I nodded. He was a nice guy, if a bit on the intense side. I remembered the police interviewing him and how he had lost his temper under all the stress. I had felt bad for him, because he truly was a good guy underneath the temper.
“He was looking for me because I made a very poor financial decision over the weekend. Again, I was saving up for a ring for you, and it made me reckless. He just wanted to talk, see if we could work our way out of it. Turns out we didn’t have to because being reckless paid off. During my funeral, he got a text saying the risk had paid off and I had made him a bunch of mone. He’s intense, and so he cried even harder, saying what a shame it was I couldn’t share the bounty with him. His name was quickly cleared.”
I nodded. All of this was true. But where was he going with this? We were walking towards the river now. Somewhere in the back of my head, I realized that this was what we had done for our first date. Before I could say anything, though, he had already moved on.
“The third guy was my Starbucks barista. This one probably took you by surprise because you didn’t even know he had existed. But he does and he’s madly in love with me. Don’t worry, though, I’m still in love with you,” he laughed. I laughed too, but just because he did. He was right, I didn’t know about this guy. I thought I had known everything about his schedule, the people he talked to, the friends he hung out with, but apparently not. Apparently there’s a lot I don’t know.
“Unfortunately, he was also a stalker. He followed me home once and from then on spent hours outside my apartment, looking in on my life and trying to work up the courage to say something besides “have a nice day” and “enjoy your coffee”. But we never interacted besides at Starbucks, which is probably why his name was cleared of my murder, even if he was still a creep.
I had been watching my feet as he told his story and we walked along the river. It was hard to look at him, but now I could feel his eyes on me and it suddenly became harder to not stare back. My pulse sped up as his eyes slid over me, almost as carefully and slowly as his hands once did. There was still something in his eyes that I couldn’t place, and it made me nervous as our eyes met again. But he just kept smiling and continued his story.
“The fourth guy was someone I didn’t know until the day before the police found my body. He was convinced I had slept with his mother, and he angrily approached me in the parking lot outside my office building. He had a knife in his hand and a picture in the other, and the guy in that picture looked just like me. But I didn’t sleep with anyone’s mother. He was a bit hard to convince, but I’m a lawyer and I’ve done the impossible before. He was still angry when he left, but not angry enough to kill me and when he was taken in by police a couple days later, he was quickly let go.
“Now the fifth guy you should know pretty well.”
“Why?” I asked. My hands began to sweat, my tongue dried up, and my fingers began to bounce at my side. But if he noticed he didn’t say anything about it.
‘Because the fifth guy was my murderer.”
I calmed down a bit, but just a little bit, and as our eyes met, all I could see was sadness. I hoped he saw the same in mine.
“He was all over the news, the guy who accidentally killed the town’s best defense attorney. He became even more infamous when he was found swinging from a rope in his cell the day after being interrogated. People were angry. They were mad that justice wouldn’t be served for the man who had achieved justice for so many others. But it’s okay. I’ve forgiven him.”
“Why?” I ask, confused. He had always been a logical person, a man who bent to reason, not emotion when he made the decision to forgive. And logically, this guy should not be forgiven.
“Because he didn’t kill me,” he said simply. “You did.”
Oh gosh, oh gosh, he knew.
And suddenly I could recognize that look in his eye. He wanted revenge.
My heart started racing, faster than ever before, as if it knew it might stop soon. I backed away from him, but he followed me as I ran towards the bridge over the river, the bridge where we had our first kiss. This was not a coincidence. He knew what he was doing, but how was he doing it?
“How are you alive, standing in front of me right now?” I asked again, the only words that would come to my head.
“See, your question is faulty because it contains two questions,” he replied calmly, strolling towards me. “The second I’m in the process of explaining. It’s why I made you take a walk with me. Because, you see, I know that you planned nearly all this out. That story should’ve been very very familiar to you, because you planned for all of these people to be investigated so that the police wouldn’t even think to investigate you for hiring someone to kill me. And it worked. He succeeded. I’m not alive right now. The only reason I’m standing in front of you is for revenge.”
He hadn’t touched me all night, but suddenly he reached his hand out. I shrunk away, but I didn’t need to. His hand passed right through me.
“You’re a ghost,” I said.
“Kinda,” he smiled. “Do you have anything else to say? Like maybe why you had me killed?”
Once more, I looked into his eyes. I really did love him once. I might still love him. After all, love and hatred are not enemies, but close friends. And my love turned into hate, and he knows why. And I don’t regret it.
“You know why,” I said softly, but not weakly. I made sure of that. He knew what he did. I could see it in his eyes as they turned from sadness to realization to anger.
“Yeah, I guess I do,” he said as he took his hand and put it through my chest, right where my racing heart was. But this time as his hand went through me, it hurt, more than anything I’ve ever felt before. It was far more painful to die at his hand than it was to kill him, and that, I suppose, was the intent.