Romance Sad Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

Content warning: Mentions of mental illness, physical violence, death.


Even before Nick’s death, I had been funding a pretty good life for my therapist. Genetic predisposition for depression and social anxiety, plus two absentee parents, equals plenty of CBT fodder. But after losing my partner of three years to an unsolved murder? I basically became a full-blown basket case. The small mountain of empty pill bottles shoved into the bottom of my nightstand could have proved that much.

A month before the anniversary of his death, I was woken up by a call from his mom. 

“Hi, Helen,” I mumbled, still half-asleep. Squinting, I could see the day outside my heavy blinds was brilliantly blue, and the sun was directly overhead.

“Hi, Em. How are you?” 

“The same. You?” 

“I’m doing alright. I’m actually heading to the farmer’s market near you - do you want to join me? It's a beautiful day!” 

A flicker of rage passed through me at her chipper tone.

“No, I’m alright. I just want to relax today.” 

She paused.

“Alright, sweetie. Let me know if you want to do dinner sometime this week.” 

“Yeah, maybe. I’ll have to see, I’m pretty busy this week.” 

She said goodbye and we hung up. Only a year after Nick’s death, and it seemed like everyone wanted to forget what had happened and just pretend everything was fine. Forget that he had been killed and that we still didn’t know who did it.

When you lose someone you love, it feels like the memories you shared with them become endangered, because you’re the only one still holding on to them. You’d think that if anyone could understand that, it would be Nick’s mom, but these days she seemed completely fine and I was still…well. I was working my way through it. 

The apartment was still littered with Nick’s stuff. I couldn’t afford our place on my own, but what was I supposed to do? Let some other couple take over our home? I owed it to him to take care of the cheap furniture we’d agonized over picking and arranging, the mattress we’d almost killed ourselves trying to lug up the stairs. He’d been so proud of our place that he’d hosted his first grown-up party for our housewarming, complete with a questionably-assembled charcuterie board. He had always been the outgoing one. He was the one with all the energy and zest, the one everyone loved right away. I was the cautious one, the quiet one, but Nick had always appreciated that about me. I smiled at the memory of him trying to make salami look artful on a plate before heat prickled behind my eyelids. I blinked it away and rose out of bed to get some breakfast.

Not much in the fridge. A wrinkly old apple, mouldy shredded cheese. I could feel hunger hollowing out my stomach, but couldn’t muster the energy to think about going to buy food. I closed the fridge door and turned and nearly jumped out of my skin. For a heartbeat, I was positive I had seen Nick standing right in the middle of our apartment. I tried to shake it off. I knew that the meds I was taking for the myriad acronymed conditions I was diagnosed with made me a little foggy. But more weird things happened, things I couldn’t brush off. Nick had always taken the longest showers, and I’d find the shower turned on when I was positive I hadn’t left it running. Nick was a tennis player, and I’d find the TV turned on to tennis games even though I don’t even know what channels sports are on. I know you’re probably thinking that I’m either making this up or just fully out of my mind, but I wouldn’t lie about this. It meant too much to see him again for me to lie about it.

One night something happened that meant I couldn’t just try to ignore my seeming descent into full nutcasery. I was reading in bed one night around three - I’ve pretty much lost the ability to sleep at normal times - when I heard a noise like a snake slipping through grass. I looked up at the door of my room, feeling like I had been dunked in ice. It was quiet for a moment, and then I watched, horrified, as the doorknob turned down. I couldn’t believe it. After watching all those true crime documentaries, and after having to survive my partner being murdered, I’d be killed in a stupid home invasion. A home invasion in a cheap apartment in a shitty building! I was still cursing the irony of my imminent demise when the door swung open. It was Nick.

He looked bad. I hadn’t made it to his funeral, because one of his friends had gotten the bright idea to tell me the morning before the service that Nick had been planning to propose to me the weekend after he had been killed. I had barely been able to survive that day, let alone go to the funeral. But that night, when he came into my room, Nick looked like how I had imagined he must have looked at the viewing. He was pale and looked tired. For a moment, I wavered between screaming my lungs out and rushing to hug him. Unable to decide, I froze and pulled my knees to my chest as he walked towards me unsteadily. He sat at the end of the bed, near my feet.

“How do I look?” He asked, voice hoarse like he had a sore throat.

I blinked.

“Are you really here?” I asked. “I must be dreaming.” 

He grinned. “‘Cause I’m so dreamy, right?” 

I smiled even as tears immediately welled up and spilled over. I launched forward to hug him and almost knocked him off the bed. He was cold. The thought occurred to me that I might have died and gone to heaven, or that I had entirely broken with reality. I felt surprisingly at peace with either. As I squeezed him, I was unsettled to realize he smelled different. Or rather, that he didn’t smell at all.

“How are you here?” I asked.

“I shouldn’t tell you.”

“Why are you here?” 

“I need your help.” 

“Anything,” I assured him. 

He explained that he had three favours to ask, but that he would only explain the first tonight. He knew who had killed him. The night he had died, he was meeting up with some childhood friends to catch up over drinks. He was walking home after the bar when two men walked up, asking for his wallet and phone. Nick remembered in detail what happened next. He refused, the men yelled, and he refused again. The quick silver flash of a knife. The slick of blood on his hands. The men rifled through his pockets as he lay dying, running off with his stuff. 

I had known the basic facts - Nick had been stabbed, Nick had been robbed, and Nick had died alone. But hearing it from his mouth was like a gut punch. 

Nick knew the name of the man who had stabbed him. The other man had yelled it after Nick was first stabbed, perhaps out of surprise. Nick gave me a description of the stabber down to the last mole on the man’s chin. And last but not least, Nick believed the man who had killed him had kept Nick’s phone. All I would have to do would be to submit an anonymous tip with the name, description, and the suggestion the phone was still there - if he had a criminal record, they might get a warrant to find the phone. It wasn’t airtight, but I swore I would do what I could. 

I didn’t remember falling asleep, but I must have, and when I woke up Nick was gone. If he hadn’t promised he would be back again, and if I didn’t have a job to do, it would’ve been too much to bear.

I was worried about how anonymous a police website could be, so I double VPN’d and loaded the anonymous tip page. Name, description, and a comment about the phone. I had no idea if it would lead to an arrest, much less a conviction, but for the first time since I had lost Nick, I felt the cobwebs shaking off a little. I was so excited for the next time I saw him that I didn’t mind the weird stuff he was doing around the apartment. Cabinets left open, doors creaking shut for no reason. One time I even saw his shadow sitting in his spot on the couch. It should have been horrifying, but knowing he was living with me again - if you can call it that - made the little apartment feel like home again.

I didn’t see him for a couple of weeks, and I was feeling anxious that I had lost him for good again. But one night, just like the first time, he came to our room just after three. 

“Ready for the next favour?” He asked. 

I nodded, grabbing his hand.

“I need you to go to the beach with my mom tomorrow.” 

I tilted my head. “Why? Do you think the man who attacked you is going to be there?” 

“No. I just need you to go live a little.” 

I snorted. “Do you really think you’d be off partying on a beach a year after I died?” 

He rolled his eyes. “I don’t know if going to the beach with a fifty-five-year-old woman and her family counts as partying, but, yes, I would continue to give your mom the time of day if you had died.” 

“I’m not not giving her the time of day, it’s just…Nick, I can hardly get out of bed most days.” 

“That’s depression.” 

“That’s grief.” 

“Maybe they’re not mutually exclusive!” 

I frowned at him. He didn’t get it.

“I need you to get out and live,” he continued, “For my sake. I can’t move on until I know you’re going to be okay.”

I groaned but agreed to hang out with his family. I didn’t want to spend our time together arguing. 

I went to the beach with his mom a few days later. It was jarring, being back out with his family. His sister, who had been pregnant the last time I had seen her, now had a healthy one-year-old named Nick. It was almost too much, seeing them again. It reminded me too much of the Christmases I had spent with him, the family dinners. And they didn’t even bring him up once - I didn't know if that was for my sake or theirs. But it felt good to be with other people who knew what it felt like to lose him. Forgetting myself for a moment, I enjoyed the heat of the sun on my skin and even went into the water. 

We fell into a somewhat comfortable pattern for the next week or so. He would spookily move things around, I’d feel surprisingly comforted by having a ghost for a roommate. He visited me for the last time the night before the anniversary of his death. 

“Did you like the beach?” 

“It was nice,” I admitted, smiling. I noticed him looking smug and rolled my eyes.

“What can I say, I’m a genius,” he said, grinning.

“Yeah, yeah. If you’re so smart, why do you need me to run errands for you?” 

His smile faded.

“Yeah, that’s actually what I need to ask from you.” 

I sat up.

“When I said I needed you to be happy before I could go, I wasn’t speaking strictly metaphorically.” 

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I don’t want you to feel bad. But I think the reason I can come back and speak to you is that you’re holding on to me. You’re keeping me in the middle place, and I need to move on.”

“The middle…what are you talking about?” 

He furrowed his brow. “It’s hard to explain. I don’t even really fully get it. But I need you to let me go. Or at least to try.”

I felt a dam holding back a year’s worth of anger buckle and break.

“Well excuse me for trying to hold on to your memory! The whole fucking world is so ready to act like you never even existed and I’m the bad guy for trying to hold on!” 

“Do you think my family is acting like I never existed?” 

His question neutralized my anger immediately, like a hot pan dunked in cold water. I thought about it. His sister and brother-in-law hadn’t forgotten, they’d named their child after him. His mother hadn’t forgotten - she was still trying to bond with her dead son’s girlfriend, after a year of me not bothering to make an effort. The realization that I had made a big mistake swept over me.

“No. They’re not,” I agreed, voice breaking. 

He picked up my hand to squeeze it.

“I’m sorry that I have to ask you to let me go one more time. But I can’t stay in this halfway place forever, and neither can you.”

He explained what he needed me to do. In my heart, I was still fighting to find a reason to hold on. 

I had never been much of a crystals and vibes girl, so getting together the things Nick had told me I’d need for the ritual was a bit of a scramble. He said I’d need a white candle, some lavender, clear quartz, salt, and a photo of him. I managed to rustle up a coconut-scented three-wick, an old drawer sachet my mom had given me, a cheap ring I’d bought at a craft fair, and a box of iodized table salt. I used a picture I’d taken of him on a hike, his eyes squinting against the bright sun. 

The next night, just after three in the morning, I started the ritual. I made a circle of salt on the floor of the apartment and sat in it. Lighting the white candle, I recited the words Nick had instructed me to use:

“Oh great spirits of the night, oh nocte spiritum, I seek your aid!” 

I felt like an idiot. Pressing on, I tossed a few lavender buds into the flame, as instructed.

“Oh great spirits of the night, accept this offering of sweet herbs in exchange for your help.” 

For a moment, nothing happened. Then the candle flickered as if a stiff breeze had passed through the room. I tossed a few more lavender buds in.

“Great spirits of the night, reveal to me the form of Nick Sutton!” 

The candle flickered again, this time nearly going out. It was pitch black for a moment. When the light returned, Nick was sitting in front of me in the salt circle. 

He looked like he had when he was alive - skin healthy, eyes shining, full of life. 

“It’s good to see you like this again,” I said.

“You don’t look so bad yourself,” he replied, and took my hand. His hands were warm. 

“So I just put the picture in now?” I asked. 

“Put the picture in while you’re holding the quartz, and you’re good to go. Or I guess, technically, I’m good to go,” he joked. He dropped his grin when he saw my face.

“Will I see you again?” I asked.

“You will,” he explained, “But don’t tell them I told you.” 

He grinned softly and I tried not to get overwhelmed. 

“Okay,” I said, steeling my resolve. “I’m going to do it now.”

I dropped his hand to pick up the quartz and held his photo with the other hand. Hesitantly, I put it towards the flame. At the last moment, I pulled my hand back.

“Wait, we don’t even know if the guy who killed you will get arrested or anything. You have to stay.” 

“I’ve thought about that. But we’ve done what we can.” 

“What if he doesn’t get arrested? We’ll have to try again?” 

He shook his head. “You needed an answer about what happened to me. I brought you what I could. Can that be enough?” 

I felt the familiar anger rising in me for a moment before I looked into his eyes. He didn't seem bothered. He seemed relaxed. Who was I to tell him he had to stay?

“It's not fair,” I told him.

He nodded. “Sometimes it isn't."

I was quiet for a minute.

"It feels wrong to try to be happy without you."  

“You’re the person I love most in the world. What would I want other than for you to be happy?” 

It was almost too much to bear. But what could I say? He had come back from the dead to try to help me live. Dead or alive, it didn't change what we had shared, as long as I remembered it. And now I had to do what I could for him.

“Okay. This time for real. Ready?” I asked.

“Ready,” he replied. 

I leaned forward and dropped the picture into the flame. I looked up, and as the photo began to fade and disappear, so did Nick. I rushed to close the gap between us, kissing him one last time. And then he was gone.

The candle went all the way out once I was alone. I rose with the tendril of smoke snaking up from the extinguished candle and carried myself to bed.

The next morning was rainy, but I felt lighter and clearer than I had in a year. I could tell he was gone. The apartment felt empty again, but more peaceful too. I texted Nick’s mom and asked her to get dinner. I was on my own again, this time for good. But that didn’t mean I had to go it alone.

June 03, 2022 21:25

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