The first time Hank appeared to her, Mary didn’t even know he was dead.
There she stood, washing dishes from her daughter’s lunch and holding her breath to block the smells that wafted up at her: the rubbery odor from the yellow gloves she wore, tangy milk and cheese, and the lemon-scented dish soap that Hank got for her at that gourmet shop in Kennebunkport last summer.
She turned up the hot water and glanced out the kitchen window, where Jenny pushed herself on their old wooden swing. On every return, the child dragged her feet through the dirt and leaves below her.
Beneath Mary’s fingers, the faucet water cooled; before she could move a pan out of the way, leftover remnants of macaroni and cheese congealed. Mary cursed and fiddled with the hot water knob, but the stream only got colder. She shut off the valve and dumped the pan’s milky contents down the disposal.
When she turned around, intent on finding a spatula to scrape the pan, she found her husband sitting at the kitchen table. She startled and dropped the pan, flinging a quarter-sized piece of cheese out onto the linoleum floor.
“Hank! You scared me,” she said. “What are you doing here?”
“Well,” he said.
And then Mary knew that something was wrong; something awful was wrong. Hank had the look on his face that he wore when he was caught in a lie. His upper lip was tucked inward, and his jaw worked back and forth. The look had revealed the extra charges on their credit card, their forgotten sixth anniversary, and the long-ago lie about the strip club for his cousin’s birthday.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Should I get Jenny?”
“No, no. This isn’t for her ears, not yet,” he said.
Mary sank into the chair next to him. It was the one Jenny sat in while she ate. It had deep grooves in the wood, left over from her booster seat. “What is it?”
“Gone? But you’re—”
“Gone,” he said. “Gone, as in dead.”
She considered this. Her husband did not normally sit across from her in the middle of a cold November weekday, dressed in his work uniform, his name stitched in clean white lettering on the breast pocket.
“Dead,” he said again.
Mary gave a short laugh, which came out sounding like a strangled burp. She covered her mouth, and then dropped her hands into her lap.
Hank reached his own hand across the table. He flipped it face up, and clenched all but his index and middle fingers into a fist. It was sign language for the letter F, but it was also their signal. It was those fingers their daughter gripped in her tiny baby’s fist, which they adopted into their own love slang when Hank imitated her, squeezing Mary’s fingers under the covers. Over time, it meant everything from I love you to I’m sorry. Right now, it said I’m telling the truth. Dutifully, she grasped his fingers. “Your skin is burning up.”
“I know. I always thought it would be the other way around. Didn’t you?”
With his other hand, he rubbed the stubble on his chin and squinted in the wan afternoon light. “I felt this little pinch,” he said, gesturing to his chest. “It was almost nothing, really. But then, I fell right into the engine I was working on. I thought about you and Jenny, and I was here.”
“I wanted to visit you before you knew, I guess. See you one more time, before you found out. They’ll call you soon.”
“How do you know?” She paused. “Wait. Can you tell the future now?”
“No,” Hank said. “Common sense, is all.” He turned away from her to look out the window.
Mary followed his gaze, still clutching his feverish fingers. Outside, their daughter had abandoned the swing, leaving her mittens on top of it. They watched as Jenny climbed the splintered ladder up to the slide. Mary pictured her daughter’s face upon hearing the news, teary and worried, her hair fraught with playground static. Dread curled inside of her, hooking into her stomach and settling like a cat. “Will I ever see you again?”
He cocked his head to the side. There was a small rip in the collar of his khaki shirt. “Yes,” he said finally, and left her.
The phone rang.
And she does see him again, seven years later, after driving Jenny and her friends to a football game. She circled the lot to exit, and there he was, in her rearview mirror.
“Who is Michael?” he asked her.
She slammed the brakes and turned around. “Hank!”
“Well?” he asked. “I leave you for what – an hour? And you’ve got a new man? Fast worker.”
Her eyes welled up. “Aren’t you going to ask about Jenny?”
He shook his head and smiled. “I visit her more often.”
She turned on the overhead light. His hair had grayed at the temples, and a hint of a paunch rounded his belly.
“I know, right?” he said. “I thought once people died, they would quit aging. Turns out I was wrong. My damn knee has been killing me.”
“What are you doing here?”
He averted his eyes. “Don’t ask me if I can tell the future again, too,” he said. “Just do me one favor before I go, okay? Don’t take Willard Street home.”
Mary nodded. “Can’t you stay in the car with me on the way?”
“I could probably do that.”
She pulled out of the lot. Behind them, the high school was ablaze with the football game and the raucous chatter of hundreds of teenagers. A stray lock of her hair brushed her face, and she tucked it behind her ear. “Will I ever see you again?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he reached forward and rested two fingers in her palm.