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Tea with My Dead Husband
By Maria Cook
When your dead husband shows up at your door, it turns out that the first thing you do is hug him. I’d have thought that I would scream, but there you have it.
His face was smeared with mortician’s makeup. He’d managed to pull out most of the twine they’d used to sew up the inside of his mouth, but some still dangled down his chin, like shreds of string cheese.
When I jumped into his arms, the tissue paper they’d laid under his skin to hide the sagging of his battered body crunched audibly.
“Oh! I’m sorry, did I hurt you?” These were my first, breathless words to him.
“No, no,” he assured, as if I’d accidentally stepped on his foot.
Without a thought, I kissed him. His mouth was gunmetal cold.
Then I yanked him inside. Couldn’t risk the neighbors seeing. Half of them had come to his funeral. In the entryway, my husband, my Dan, glanced around slowly. As if he’d just returned from a long, hectic trip.
Our cat, Tipsy, was splayed on the entryway floor, licking her cream-colored belly. She glanced up at Dan, blinking her copper eyes.
Here we go, I thought, tensing. Animals could sense evil, right? That’s how it worked, in every horror story ever? Tipsy would surely jump up, hissing, and run from the room, leaving me to infer that the husband before me was actually a malicious spirit, wearing Dan’s corpse as a suit.
Tipsy tilted her head back and yawned deeply. Suddenly smiling, Dan knelt to pet her, rubbing her nose with his thumb. Tipsy pressed her face into his hand, purring like a motor.
I knelt beside Dan. For the past month and three days, I’d been petting Tipsy alone. Slowly, I slid my hand over the other side of her face, scratching at her whiskers, brushing Dan’s knuckles.
“I missed you,” I blurted. Suddenly I was ready to cry.
“I missed you too,” Dan whispered. For the first time, I noticed how cloudy his eyes looked. Dusty, almost.
I wanted to tell him everything—every single thing I’d been thinking and feeling since the moment I got the call from the coroner. But something stopped me… oh God, a sudden thought.
He did know he was dead, right? I wasn’t going to have to explain it, was I? Would I have to watch the realization dawn, watch him scramble to find a non-existent pulse, watch his face twist up in horror? How could I possibly break that kind of news to him?
“Do you want some tea?” I asked weakly.
We’d never had a difficult conversation that didn’t revolve around tea. Just bagged stuff, with whole milk and artificial sweetener; nothing fancy. We sipped it to soothe ourselves through the hard talks of life—the should-wes. The why-haven’t-wes.
“I don’t know if I should drink anything. I mean, I don’t know if I can. Under the circumstances.”
So, he did know. Thank God. But then…
“Why did you just now come back? It’s been over a month…”
“I just now woke up.”
“In your casket?” I could barely unstick the words from my throat.
“No, no…” Dan was still kneeling, one hand resting over his knee. “I woke up next to my grave. Sitting there. That’s all I remember.”
“Do you know why? I mean…do you know what’s happening?” It was absurd that it had taken me so long to ask. A normal person would have led with the question. After screaming.
“I have no clue.”
“Do you want to go to the hospital?” It was a stupid suggestion, I knew. But I felt such an urge to suggest something.
Dan laughed, and the sound, for whatever reason, spurred me to keep speaking. In a moment, I was talking faster than I knew I could.
“I’ve been so mad at you. They had to walk me out of work, when I got the call. You were already gone, once I got to the hospital, and I couldn’t say goodbye and I was so mad, I was so fucking mad, I always told you to be careful and you didn’t listen, you never wore your seatbelt—it’s like you did it on purpose! And then I was alone!”
I was sobbing. Shaking. Furious. Relieved.
Dan bowed his head into my hair.
“I’m crying too,” he said, after a minute. “But I don’t have tears anymore, so you can’t tell.”
When Dan looked up again, his eyes were bright red, as if all the vessels inside them had burst. It was jarring. Frightening, actually.
“Ah…are you alright?”
Gingerly, Dan laid two fingers beneath his left eye, pressing slowly. “It’s the embalming fluid. Probably irritated my tissues, when I tried to cry. You know…maybe you should have some tea, even if I can’t. We should probably talk.”
“Alright. I’ll put my mug in the microwave,” I said. “You should go wash up. You’ve got… stuff on your face.”
He knew what I meant. The mortician’s makeup.
I rose to my feet. Dan went down the hall, to the bathroom. Like a robot, I reached for my mug. Filled it with water. Stuck it in the microwave. What if I had just imagined the entire previous thirty minutes, and now I was just a crazy person, standing alone in her kitchen?
Then, the sound of running water from down the hall. That sound, over the hum of the microwave, was so shockingly familiar. A series of noises I’d never expected to hear, in this house, ever again.
Dan came back in different clothes. The jeans and button-up shirt he’d been buried in had been replaced by a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. The redness had faded from his eyes. The makeup was gone. He’d pulled the last bit of twine from his lips.
We sat at the kitchen table, with the blinds shut. I hunched over my tea, breathing deeply of the steam. First order of business: did he remember anything else about waking up? No. He only remembered walking home. Second, did he feel okay? Could he still feel the wounds of his accident? No. Besides having no pulse and no need to breathe, he felt perfectly normal.
That just left the future. What were we going to do with it? Disguise Dan as a living person, so he could get a job? Keep him home where no one could see? Or maybe we should just spend our time celebrating this incredible thing that had happened. This miracle.
* * *
Dan was already in the kitchen, when I awoke the next morning. He whirled toward me as soon as I entered the room, a plate in his right hand, a grin on his face.
“Breakfast,” he said, proudly. I didn’t ask how many attempts it had taken to get such perfect eggs and bacon. “Your tea is in the microwave. Oh, and I’ve decided what we should do with my superpower.”
“Yeah. Being undead counts as a superpower.”
I sat at the kitchen table. Sun peaked through the cracks in the closed blinds. “Alright, what’s this idea?”
Dan looked directly into my face. Pointed a spatula at me.
“We need to go on Skeptic’s World. And we need to win a million dollars.”
Skeptic’s World was a talk show featuring legendary T.V. personality and skeptic, Brian Handle, and an assortment of guests, each one claiming to possess a supernatural ability. While the show’s assorted medical and scientific experts refuted each guest’s claims, Handle himself would interview them, all the while mocking their supposed abilities. Inevitably, each guest was proven to be a fraud, and trotted off the stage in shame. Anyone who could prove that they actually possessed supernatural powers would win a million dollars, but of course, no one had ever won. The show wasn’t about winning. It was about drama and humiliation. Television at its best.
But Dan’s undeadness was real. He could win.
“After taxes, the prize won’t make us filthy rich,” Dan said. “But it will still be a pretty penny. It could be the start of a really cool life, for you. For us, I mean.”
“Isn’t it hard to get on a show like that? What’s the application like?” I asked.
Dan grinned. “I’ve already looked into it.”
Turned out, the Skeptic’s World application had two parts. The first was a paper form; the second was a video essay that applicants uploaded themselves. Responses usually took three weeks, minimum. We received an acceptance letter in just two. Tickets to L.A. came in the mail, soon after.
We weren’t too surprised. Probably, no applicant had claimed to be undead before. It was such an easy thing to refute…assuming it wasn’t true, as it was in our case.
I was a wreck at the idea of us traveling in public, but Dan remained calm. “People will just think I’m a weirdo in makeup. Weirdos are allowed to travel,” He said. In the end, he was right. No one, at either airport, said a thing—though we got plenty of frightened looks.
Our hotel was just a mile up the highway from the Skeptic’s World studio. That first night, Dan lay with his eyes open, beside me. By then, I’d learned that he didn’t sleep. But he usually closed his eyes, pretending.
“Anything wrong?” I asked.
He turned on his side, to face me.
“Why do you love me?”
Dan hadn’t asked me that since college.
“You know why,” I scoffed.
“No,” he said, emphatically. “Tell me.”
“Because you’re funny and smart and kind.”
“Yeah. Lots of people are nice, but not many are kind. I’ve seen you flip over beetles that were stuck on their backs, in the driveway. You’re a good person.”
“Are you sure?”
Dan asked so quietly, I wasn’t sure I’d heard him. But I nodded anyway.
* * *
Skeptic’s World guests had to arrive at the studio by 6 a.m. Beneath a hoodie, pulled tight around the sides of his face as a makeshift disguise, Dan wore the clothes he’d been buried in—the jeans and button-down shirt.
He seemed uncomfortable. His jaw was knotted up, his brow furrowed, as we walked through the studio door. Stagehands ushered us down a barren hallway, to the “pre-show area”—a large room with peeling blue walls and a linoleum floor. Here, we would wait until 8 a.m., when filming started.
Three other guests had already arrived: an old woman in a fringed, hippie getup, a twenty-something guy who looked as nervous as Dan, and a mustached man in a green and gold pirate costume.
“I think we may be the most normal people here,” I whispered to Dan. He hunched against the back wall and stared at the floor, silent.
At 7:45, we were led to the wings of the Skeptic’s World stage and lined up. I was overcome with excitement. We were here. On Skeptic’s World!
“Isn’t this cool?” I whispered. But Dan looked like he was about to vomit, if that were possible.
Finally, the Skeptic’s World theme blared. The studio audience applauded, just beyond view. A spotlight gleamed. And then, there he was—Brian Handle, strutting onto stage, one hand raised high, waving.
“Thank you so much, ladies and gentlemen! I’m Brian Handle, and welcome to another episode of Skeptic’s World!”
More applause. I nudged Dan. He looked at me pleadingly, though what he was pleading for I didn’t know.
“We’ve got a great show lined up today, with several interesting guests, including one man who supposedly possesses memories of his past life as a pirate, and another who claims to be undead. Personally, I think these two could have collaborated on a better story. Undead pirates! That’s Hollywood material.”
Handle paused, to let the audience chuckle.
“Now let’s go ahead and meet our first guest. She claims she can speak with the dead—gee, that’s one we’ve never heard before. Please welcome Marian Brown!”
The hippie lady hobbled onto stage. Here was our chance to watch Handle roast someone in person. But Dan looked like a kid in deep trouble, who was just about to be caught.
“Please tell me what’s wrong.” I pressed.
“Abbie…please don’t be mad at me, okay?” There was that pleading look again.
“Why would I be mad?” I could feel my eyes narrowing.
“God… okay. I lied to you. The night I came back, you asked if I remembered anything, and I said no. Well, I lied. I know exactly why I was sent back.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa… sent back? Someone sent you? What the hell does that mean?”
“Okay, so, after you die, you go to this place--”
“Wait, there’s an afterlife? There’s an actual fucking afterlife, and you didn’t tell me!?”
I was whisper-yelling, so as not to be heard on stage, but it was all I could do to contain my volume.
“Look, just let me say what I need to say, alright?”
On stage, the audience was cheering as Brian Handle cracked joke after joke at the hippie lady’s expense. They would lead her off the other side of the stage, soon.
“When you die,” Dan went on, “you go to this place. I’ll just call it heaven. And there are people there. I mean, they’re not people, like human beings. Let’s just call them angels.”
Oh yeah, sure, I thought. Let’s just call them that, you deceitful asshole.
“So, there’s different parts of heaven. Some are nicer than others. Not everyone gets into the really nice part. But I did. I don’t know how. Most people have to follow the right religion, to get in. Trouble is, it’s a really obscure religion that practically no one has heard of. The angels have been trying to get humanity to follow it for ages, but it’s still unpopular.”
The hippie lady had been led offstage. Now the twenty-something guy walked out into the spotlights.
“Angels aren’t allowed to interfere with people’s free will. But sometimes, they’ll spot someone on earth they really like—someone who’s a really good person—and they’ll do everything they can to get that person to follow this religion. Because then, that person is sure to get into the really nice part of heaven.”
“Wait, what’s so great about this really nice part of heaven?” I had to ask.
“Just, you know, really nice houses. Really nice parks, better restaurants, stuff like that.”
“There are restaurants?”
Already, the crowd was jeering at the twenty-something guy. I couldn’t see what he was doing, on stage, but it wasn’t garnering sympathy.
“The angels decided that they liked you,” Dan went on, without answering my question. “They kept putting things in your path. There’s this one book that you have to read…it’s the only modern book about the religion. But you passed by every store display for it, and every online ad. So finally, they came up with an idea. After I died, they decided to send me back into my old body, just for a night, so that I could tell you to read this book.”
“They sent you back… to tell me to read a book?”
“Yeah. I mean, it was supposed to scare you into paying attention. I was supposed to show up, tell you that you had to read the book, and then disappear.”
“But that makes no sense. Why would I ever be scared of you?”
“I don’t know. It’s like…” Dan sighed, “Do you remember that horrible Sales Manager at Allatech? Jason whatshisname?”
Allatech was a company I’d worked for, right out of college. I had left after a few months because of an inept manager named Jason Green. He’d made the job unbearable.
“Yeah, I remember…”
“Remember when you told me that Jason was a nice enough guy, but he only cared about how things looked on paper? Not how they actually worked in practice? That’s how the angels are. They’re nice enough—sweet, even. But they have no clue what they’re doing. They try to manipulate people into doing the right things, but they don’t understand how people work. I think they looked at their paperwork, and they said ‘Hey, humans are afraid of zombies. We’ll get her attention with a scary zombie!’ and they sent me. That’s all the thought they put into it.”
The twenty-something guy had left the stage. The pirate guy was walking into the lights. We were on next, and I was furious enough to storm straight out of the studio.
“Are you even going to tell me what this book is, that I’m supposed to read? It was important enough for them to send you back from the dead, yet you haven’t mentioned it.”
“It’s… ah…” nervously, Dan glanced around, as if looking for someone whose homework he could copy. “I can’t remember.”
“Are you serious?”
“It’s called crystal… something. By Pam… somebody. I think.”
“You think? You’ve let me worry, this entire time, about why you came back and how it was possible, and now you’ve brought us on this stupid show—why? What were you thinking?”
Dan bowed his head.
“I thought this would be an easy way to get you some money, and once we’d won, I could tell you the truth, and go back. But I realized last night…you’ve probably been thinking about all the things we could do with that money, together. So, had to tell you.”
Brian Handle had the pirate guy on the ropes. The clearly-crazed man was standing on his chair, reciting some kind of poem. The audience booed. Finally, he was escorted off stage.
“Alright folks, well, we’ve had three busts in a row, but our next guest should be interesting. For the first time on Skeptic’s World, we are going to meet a man who claims to be undead. His wife will also be joining him today, which is confusing, since the saying goes ‘til death do us part.’ In any case, please welcome, Dan and Abigail Jarvis!”
My rage did not subside as Dan and I stepped into the dazzling spotlights of the Skeptic’s World stage. It was the sort of rage that makes it difficult to see clearly. But even I could see Brian Handle’s face change, at the sight of Dan.
Have you ever seen a corpse walk onto a stage? If you haven’t, I can tell you, it doesn’t look like someone wearing makeup. It doesn’t look like CGI. It looks like a corpse. Walking. Onto a stage.
The audience hushed. Handle himself fell silent. I’d gotten so used to looking at Dan, over the past two weeks… it was only seeing him next to Handle—the side-by-side comparison—that made me remember. Oh, right. My husband’s eyes are sunken and dusty. His skin is greyish blue. His movements are measured and doll-like. Because he’s a dead guy whose very appearance had been meant to scare me shitless. As if I could ever be scared of Dan.
But oh, was Dan scared of me, just then. He looked just as he had the day he’d broken my favorite Christmas ornament. The one my Grandma had passed down to me.
We finally reached Brian Handle, and Dan stuck out a hand to shake with him. Handle withdrew. Annoyed, I stuck my own hand out. After a moment, Handle reached out gingerly, and shook with me. I’d never seen a real person gulp—actually gulp, like a skinny-necked cartoon character—but that’s just what Handle did, as his gaze turned back to Dan.
“So, ah… go ahead and take a seat, you two.” To his credit, Handle was trying to sound incredulous and confident, as always. Trying to hold his show, and his shit, together.
Dan and I sat side-by-side. Handle collapsed into his own chair, about four feet opposite ours, like an old man on the verge of a stroke.
“So… Dan. You claim to be undead, is that right?”
“Yes,” Dan said, deliberately not looking my way.
“Well, that’s quite a claim to make…what makes you think that you’re not actually alive?”
Clearly, Handle had a script and he was going to stick to it, come hell or high water or literal zombies.
“I have no heartbeat, no blood, my body’s full of embalming fluid, and I don’t breathe,” Dan said, almost sarcastically, as if Handle’s question annoyed him. As if he wasn’t the one who’d suggested coming on this stupid show.
“And what about you, Mrs. Jarvis? Do you believe that your husband is undead?”
“Yes,” I sighed.
Handle should have been cracking jokes. He should have been asking me, “Doesn’t having an undead husband make certain things less… lively?” He should have been cocking his head at Dan, smirking. “What a bummer,” he should have been saying, “to have to put up with married life, even after death!”
Instead, he was silently studying Dan’s face, the way a man might study a tiger’s, moments before he’s eaten. Maybe Handle had always known this day would come. When his curiosity—his ego—would lead him to that dark place that no one wants to go, but everyone wants to hear about.
“Well,” Handle finally said, “I have a friend here today who may have something to say about your condition, Mr. Jarvis. Please welcome Dr. Richard Palmer.”
Usually, Handle would have risen to his feet, one arm extended toward the stage wing, where his expert guest would come striding from the darkness. But this time Handle remained in his chair as an old, bearded man in green scrubs shuffled onto stage. The entire studio felt like a bated breath. People wanted to scream, I could tell, but they were waiting. Waiting for the final word.
But I couldn’t wait any longer. As Handle welcomed Dr. Palmer, I turned back to Dan. I didn’t care if there were cameras on us. I didn’t care if everyone heard.
“How could you do this to me?” I hissed.
“Dan, this is the worst thing you’ve ever done.”
“I know,” he groaned.
Dr. Palmer was now standing beside Handle’s chair, staring at Dan, his bushy eyebrows climbing to his hairline.
“Mr. Jarvis, would you mind joining me over here, please?”
Dr. Palmer was keeping it together much better than Brian Handle. In fact, his face was alight with curiosity.
Dan rose from his chair and walked to the front of the stage where a table, boasting an impressive spread of medical equipment, had already been set up. Though no one had invited me, I also went to stand beside Dan. Our conversation wasn’t over.
Dr. Palmer began speaking in a dry, even voice.
“First, Mr. Jarvis, since you claim to have no heartbeat, I will use a stethoscope to listen for one.”
“Fine,” Dan sighed.
Dr. Palmer picked up his stethoscope and showed it to the audience like a magician before affixing it into his ears, and bringing the end up under Dan’s shirt. Dutifully, he pressed the stethoscope to one spot on Dan’s chest, then another. I waited for him to withdraw, and lay his stethoscope back on the table, before I confronted Dan again.
“So, should I bother asking why you lied to me?”
“I mean… it’s obvious, isn’t it?” Dan sounded truly incredulous.
“No, Dan. It sure as hell is not obvious.”
At the front of the stage, Dr. Palmer was explaining that he had not been able to detect a heartbeat, but not to worry—some medical conditions can suppress the sound, which is why, hundreds of years ago, people were sometimes mistakenly buried alive. He should still be able to detect Dan’s pulse with a blood pressure reading.
Dr. Palmer approached Dan once more, strapping a cuff to his upper left arm. But Dan’s face was turned away, to the right. To me.
“Abbie, I didn’t want to scare you. I mean, the angels told me to, and I agreed to, and maybe it would have been the best thing, long-term. But I know how you get, when you’re scared… like that time we watched Pet Sematary. I thought it would be fine, because of the cheesy 80s effects, but you were terrified.”
“I wasn’t terrified!”
Dr. Palmer was still squeezing away at the hand pump on the blood pressure reader--shhp, shhp, shhp.
“I knew that if I scared you like that,” Dan went on, “you’d be alone, with no relief. I’d already been selfish enough, dying the way I did. Then they wanted me to scare you, on top of it. It was cruel!” Dan’s eyes were growing red. He was tearlessly crying, burning himself with embalming fluid.
Dr. Handle had finally given up on the blood pressure gauge, and laid it back on the table with no explanation to the audience whatsoever. Several people, upon noticing Dan’s reddened eyes, decided they’d seen all they needed to. They stood, shimmied frantically down the thin studio aisles and out the side doors.
“So,” I said to Dan, struggling to keep my voice even, “you did what you did because you didn’t want to scare me? Bull. You knew that I wouldn’t be scared of you. So what else is there? You’d better tell me, because I’m ready to walk off this stage.”
“Oh, fine!” Dan shouted, clearly exasperated. “I did think that there was a small chance you might be scared, but mostly…”
Dan winced, briefly, as Dr. Palmer shoved two fingers into the crook of his neck, searching for a pulse. The doctor was muttering something about how equipment could lie, and the simplest ways were best.
“Mostly, I just didn’t want to say goodbye to you again. I woke up by my grave and walked all the way home, thinking about how much I’d missed you…then I started thinking about what I should say to you, instead of scaring you, then all the sudden I was at the door, and there you were…”
Dan wasn’t bullshitting, now. This was real, this way he was looking at me. Like I was the only thing in the world worth looking at.
“You hugged me, first thing” Dan choked out, as Dr. Palmer rushed back to his table, fumbling for a medical needle. “You drug me inside, and that’s the only place I wanted to be.”
Dan was trembling, now. Dr. Palmer had plunged his needle deep into Dan’s left forearm, face alight with manic energy, but my husband hardly seemed to notice.
“I knew that as soon as I told you what I’d been sent to tell you, I was going to disappear.”
“But you wanted to stay,” I murmured.
“There’s no blood!” Dr. Palmer suddenly shouted. His needle, which had been meant to draw blood from Dan’s arm, had instead been filled with a thin, pinkish yellow liquid. A few audience members cried out. Dr. Palmer rushed back to his table, sifting through his medical equipment for what turned out to be a small beaker.
“Dan… you do remember the name of the book, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” he admitted.
“Do you think you’ll be in trouble, with the angels, when you go back?”
“Nah. They’ll complain, but that’s all.”
So. This was it. We were going to be separated again.
“I wish we’d had kids,” I blurted.
Dr. Palmer had emptied the contents of his needle into a beaker, and passed it under his nose before declaring, “This is formaldehyde. The smell is unmistakable. This man has no blood! This man is filled with embalming fluid!”
Audience members shrieked. The studio lights came on. Brain Handle leapt to his feet, gesturing backstage, shouting “I don’t care—I don’t give a damn! Cut the feed!” Dr. Palmer whirled on Dan and began feeling up his shirt, along his torso. It was distracting. Yet Dan still smiled.
“You can have kids in heaven. I mean, you live there. It’s just different.”
I reached out to grip Dan’s right hand—the one not being actively examined by a wild-eyed Doctor Palmer.
“Well,” I chuckled, “you want to have kids with me, once I get there? Cancer runs in my family, I shouldn’t be all that long.”
“Yes. And next time, I won’t leave you, Abbie. Not for anything.”
I looked into my husband’s eyes. Red. Dusty. Dead. Alive.
“What’s the book called, Dan?”
“It’s Our Crystal Universe,” he said.
“And who wro—wait a second. Isn’t that that book about crystal healing? The one that everybody criticized Oprah for recommending?”
“So… holy shit, crystal healing is real? Like, chakras and auras and all that? Oh my God!” I laughed.
“I know, right?” Dan shook his head.
“Well… who’s the author?”
Dan took a deep breath. At least, he rolled back his shoulders as the weight of the question fell.
“I love you, Abbie.” He whispered, as Dr. Palmer tugged at the skin on his left elbow, as Brian Handle attempted to pull Palmer away from Dan, as several beefy security guards threw up their hands, making it clear that they hadn’t signed up for this shit.
“I love you too, Dan. So much.”
Dan yanked his left arm away from the crazed doctor, and clasped both of my hands in his.
“The author is Pamela Stockgate,” he said. I smiled.
Dan’s body went rigid. His hands snapped to his chest and crossed over one another. The life—no, that’s not right—the knowing left his eyes and he fell, stiff, onto his back. Now he was more than dead. He was gone.
* * *
Dan was right. After taxes, a million dollars didn’t make me rich. But it was still a pretty penny.
Our Crystal Universe wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Turns out that the universe is actually a crystal, and everything is made of light? That part, I don’t really understand.
But I do understand the parts about the afterlife, and the stuff about life twisting off to unexpected places, and love’s ability to conquer all obstacles. Including, but not limited to, death.