The din of the vacuum buzzes heavily in her ears as she dusts the picture frames on the mantle, her gaze following Mark’s unpredictable course through the living room. Her husband’s sun-spotted fingers clutch the vacuum’s handle tightly. He avoids her eyes, focused on the non-existent specks of dirt on the floor.
The house is bright, the curtains pulled open for the first time in many months. She is not sure she likes the light that eviscerates their home, exposing their sorrow to the world like a sliced-open abdomen on an operating table. All the arteries and organs of their grief on display for the passers-by.
“What time did you say he was coming?” she asks loudly, pitching her voice unnaturally high to be heard over the vacuum.
He turns the machine off. “11:00, I think.”
She nods, rearranges the faux marble coasters on the coffee table, and shuffles towards the bathroom to check that her hair looks okay.
The hallway is filled with pictures and distant happiness. She does not look around, though she does pause in front of the room that pulls the air from her lungs with its gravity. The door is closed but she can see it all clearly: thin white curtains, a pale lavender duvet, bookshelves filled to bursting, and a small nail polish stain on the corner of the gray rug.
Something clatters in the kitchen. She ducks into the bathroom and checks her appearance. Watery hazel eyes in wrinkled sockets, uneven lips painted with a neutral pink, the tip of her long nose a faint red. She sighs.
“This’ll have to do,” she whispers to herself.
“Ingrid?” Mark calls from the kitchen.
“Did we get lemons for the water?”
“Check the bottom drawer of the fridge, right-hand side.”
“I did,” he replies. “No luck.”
Ingrid glances once more at the mirror and tidies a strand of silver hair before rushing to the kitchen. Mark squats precariously before the open fridge, pushing takeout boxes and plastic tubs of forgotten leftovers around in search of lemons.
She envies his collectedness, the easy facade of a button-down shirt and neatly trimmed beard.
“Let me look,” she says, and takes his place in cool air of the fridge.
She spies the lemons in the back corner and reaches for them, knocking a fragile paper container and its unknown contents to the floor. It hits the tile with an almost comical squelch, bursting open and spewing forth its contents.
“Shit,” she hisses. The pristine kitchen floor and the leg of her white pants are both covered in a strange-smelling reddish sauce.
Mark rushes to find cleaning supplies. Standing, Ingrid places the lemons on the counter and surveys the mess.
The doorbell rings, a sound that seems to shake the sunlight from the room.
Ingrid and Mark catch each other’s gaze, uncertainty hanging in the dark circles beneath their eyes. The house tightens around them, its grip on their memory firm and unrelenting.
“I’ll get the door,” Mark says. “You go change.”
“But—the mess.” Ingrid gestures at the explosion of red on their floor.
“I’ve got it, don’t worry.”
Ingrid hurries to the bedroom and changes into a dress. She leaves her pants to soak in the bathroom sink, watching the cold water turn a thin shade of pink.
She’s only dimly aware of the muffled voices from the living room, one as familiar as her own, one completely foreign.
Ingrid applies a bit of perfume, wishing that she and Mark hadn’t fooled themselves into thinking they were ready for this. That they had been kind enough to let themselves wallow in grief a while longer.
Straightening, she walks confidently from the bedroom, held together with the scent of orchids and bergamot.
Ingrid finds Mark in the kitchen, kneeling on the floor over the mess with a stranger who holds a stained paper towel. The stranger is thin, almost alarmingly so, with dark hair and a silver septum piercing hanging from his nose.
He stands and smiles at her.
“You must be Mrs. Pearson,” he says. His voice wavers a bit, belying his well-hidden uncertainty.
“That’s me. It’s Seth, right?”
“Yes ma’am,” he replies, tossing the dirty paper towel into the garbage. “It’s nice to meet you.”
She opens her mouth to say what a pleasure it is to meet him, but the words stick to her tongue like bile. Mark stands, too, the last of the mess wiped from the floor. He catches her expression and flashes Seth an excessively toothy smile.
“Let’s settle in the living room,” Mark says. “Would you like something to drink?”
“I’m okay,” Seth responds. Head down, he leads the way to the couches.
The three of them sit in unison, hands folded demurely into laps, lips folded tightly into silence.
Seth looks around the room for a while. “You have a lovely home.”
“Thank you,” Ingrid says, glad to have found her voice again.
“We’re glad you’re here,” Mark says hollowly, and they all pause, remembering what brought him.
A fatal accident. An unspeakable loss. A second chance, but not for her.
“Is that her? Your daughter?” Seth asks, pointing at a picture on the mantle.
Mark stands and picks up the photograph. It’s one of their favorites, taken at a family beach trip a little over a year ago. She’s sitting with the ocean behind her, smiling up into the sun. He passes the photo to Seth. “Yes, that’s Emma.”
“She was beautiful,” Seth whispers, running his finger along the edge of the frame. “She was in college, right? I can’t wait for college.”
Ingrid’s breath catches, ripping away her polite smile. “I’m sorry, I don’t know if I can—”
“It’s okay,” Seth says loudly, his face flushed. He stands and sets the picture down. “I shouldn’t have—I can go.”
“I’m so sorry,” she repeats, “I thought I was ready.”
“I’m sorry, too. For everything.”
Seth turns to leave, and Mark crosses the room to open the door with an apologetic smile. Through watery eyes, Ingrid watches the teenager walk out into the blinding daylight, taking something precious with him. She reaches for Emma’s picture, caressing the shape of her daughter’s cheek.
“Wait!” Ingrid calls, striding towards the door and down the steps before she can change her mind.
Seth pauses and spins around just as she wraps him up in a tight embrace. He’s much taller than Ingrid is, and smells heavily of cheap cologne. He feels nothing like Emma, his frame skeletal and stiff. But after a moment, he relaxes into Ingrid’s arms and she can hear his heart beating.
Not his heart—Emma’s.
Ingrid gasps, tears streaming down her cheeks. The gentle thudding of her daughter’s heart warms her entire being, her daughter who was the most selfless person she’s ever known, selfless even in death.
“She saved me,” Seth whispers.
Ingrid glances up into his face, wiping away his tears. The tapered end of dark, ropy scar sticks out beneath his shirt collar.
Emma would have loved him.
“Can you stay for lunch?” Ingrid offers.
Seth nods and links his arm through hers. Together, they walk back up the steps to the house, where Mark is waiting. Ingrid is suddenly glad to see the windows open, to see their home taking in breath again.
“Will you tell me about her?” Seth asks.
Ingrid smiles up at him. “I’d love to.”