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When You Came Back

This is Lynette Mejia's seventh story for Daily Science Fiction

***Editor's Note: Adult story, includes reference to domestic violence***
When you came back, they said it was a miracle. Dead three days like Jesus in the tomb, like Lazarus you rose and walked again among the living. Where you had been and what you had seen, that was between you and God, but it didn't stop the preacher from asking. I watched him look into your cold eyes, hard as blue marbles, and I saw what he saw: wherever you had been, it wasn't anything to share. The afterlife is best left to the imagination, I guess.
When you came back, I was devastated, shocked into a new reality. In those three days I'd learned to live without you, had learned to imagine a future in which you didn't exist. I didn't speak, not at first, and for that, I'm sorry. I'd spent those three days thinking of you dead, picturing you lying there in cold storage, your skin hardening, your last hateful expression chiseled into stone. You'll forgive me if it took some time to adjust my expectations.
Driving back home I couldn't help staring, even in the uncomfortable silence. When we drove over the Cohaw River Bridge you shrieked like the devil inside you was trying to come out, and though I managed to keep the wheel steady, my throat went dry and my heart nearly stopped to think about why crossing water now hurt you.
When you came back, the kids were afraid. They'd put you to rest, same as me. How can they be expected to handle this, I wondered, as we pulled into the driveway. I wracked my brain trying to come up with something to say, something to tell them that would make sense. But then, our lives never really had made sense, had they? Even as babies they'd learned to fall asleep listening to the sounds of our arguments, the sound of your fists changing the landscape of my face. Their first words were questions, and when you stopped their questions, their second skill was learning to lie. Growing strong in spite of your best efforts, they constructed two realities: the one that existed inside the house, and the one that existed outside. Our doorway was water for them, and crossing it every day after school was like asking the devil for a handshake.
When you came back, we had to begin again. Once I'd gotten a handle on this new reality, I figured it was a chance to start over. I had loved you once; I clearly remembered that. I remember looking at you all those years ago and thinking that you were the answer to every one of my problems: the poverty, the ignorance, the daddy who hurt me, the mama who didn't care. But it turned out the answers weren't inside you at all, though it took me years to figure that out. I thought, maybe this is like a reset button, a chance to do it right. Your eyes may have been cold but your skin was warm, and soft, and your voice, though tinged with the memory of brimstone, was mostly the same. You didn't yell, or hit, or drink. Mostly you just sat there, staring at god knows what, keeping your own counsel while we moved around you like ghosts. At one point I even wondered if maybe we were the ones who were dead, and you were still alive. Maybe, I thought, this is what death is like, sometimes: moving in an endless orbit around the things that brought us pain.
In time we learned to live with you again; learned to stop walking on eggshells and watching you from the corners of our eyes, like you were a dead rattlesnake taxidermied into a striking pose. In time the memories of you were just memories, and the reality of what you were got slowly covered in dust, like some ugly knick-knack you don't like but can't throw away because it came from family. Slowly, our fear turned to dust in our mouths, and we continued, more or less, down the path we had started on before you returned.
Of course, I've lived enough now to know stories don't ever end that way. This morning I saw the old gleam in your eye as you ate the eggs I'd cooked and pretended to stare at the wall. I saw it in the set of your jaw, the way you held your fork. I sat there and watched you and thought, the universe doesn't like unfinished business.
So I understand that what you were, what you had been, couldn't possibly have died when you did. You hadn't been gone long enough to be punished for every hurt you'd inflicted, every pain you'd forced us to suffer. One day soon that look would turn black, and you'd rise up, hand curled into a fist. We weren't safe, not really, unless you were dead. Nothing had changed and yet everything had.
When you came back it was a mistake.
Don't come back again.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, July 14th, 2021
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