“That Second Chance” by Trisha McKee
Tessa escaped to the smaller family room, not bothering to turn on any lights. She removed the headband with the devil horns and fought back tears. Any other year, this was her holiday. She shined. But this year, she could barely get herself out of bed.
How did one go on when the light seemed to go out?
“Tessa?” Richard stomped into the room, his costume hindering his usually confident strides. He peered into the darkness for a moment before flicking on the lights. Seeing her, he narrowed his eyes, his voice hard. “What the hell, Tessa! We have a houseful of guests.”
She worked at keeping her voice even, light. “I know, Richard. I just needed a few moments to myself.”
“Right.” His face twisted into a sneer, and she swallowed down the sudden urge to scream in annoyance. “Because you’re just all in.”
“Richard,” she sighed. “I’m here. I dressed up.”
“Barely. I mean, come on. Red dress and devil horns took all of – what- five minutes? This used to be our holiday.”
“Right. And this year it isn’t the same. I’m not… I miss him. He was our best friend.”
His expression softened. “I get it, but he’d want you to have fun. Please.”
“Okay. But can I have a few minutes to just … compose myself?”
Even her soft plea and compromise could not move him. Leaning forward, he jabbed a finger into her chest. “Fine, Tessa, but this… the party… it is all for you. I’m as upset over Coby as anyone, but I choose to get on with life. And me, your husband, I’m right here, asking you to be present… with me. Stop this sulking! Now!” He hissed the last word through clenched teeth before stomping off.
Tessa watched him leave, and any other year, she would have admired the costume. He was dressed as a person being launched by a rocket, fake legs sticking out the front and ribbons of fire streaming from the bottom. Usually the roles were reversed. She was the one begging him to get into the spirit of the holiday. This was the first year his costume had more thought into it than a toga or a hat.
In years past, it had been Coby who had delivered the genius. Whether it was bringing an urban legend to life or dressing as his best friend Richard, Coby always won the night. When Tessa first suggested to Richard that they cancel this year’s party, he had firmly refused. He insisted that Coby would want them to carry on, especially this time-honored tradition, his favorite night of the year. At the time, Tessa had felt touched, as if Richard were doing it for her.
But now he was irritated with her behavior, as if she were simply sulking over a missing pair of earrings and not mourning over their best friend. Richard had always been temperamental, more high-maintenance, but this bordered on downright cruel.
Tessa breathed in deeply, preparing herself to return to the party, to put on a smile and pretend that her life, her heart was not in shambles. But then the lights flickered for a several moments before going out completely.
She heard a few gasps and playful screams from the party down the hall, and she wondered if this was Richard’s way of amping up the spooky atmosphere and to punish her for being away from the group. Of course, he would resort to theatrics, that was his thing. If ever he did not get his way, Tessa would hear about it. She would experience his misery through slammed doors and pointed fingers. There was no calmness when trying to get his point across. And now there were no lights.
“Great,” she whispered, swiping away the tears that finally could not be held back. And once that first tear fell, the rest followed in the form of body wracking sobs. She leaned over, wrapped her arms around her knees, and wailed. Every part of her hurt, physically and emotionally, and she wondered how she could survive this. How could she continue on without the one person that understood her so well? That was her partner in combating Richard’s moods or planning over-the-top parties? Who saw her like no one else saw her? Like she craved to be seen?
“Aw, Red, don’t waste this evening crying.”
Tessa gasped and straightened, chills running through her body. She would blame the alcohol, but she had had nothing to drink. But she had just heard Coby. He was the only one to call her Red because of her cascading auburn curls. And he was the only one with that low, raspy voice that could lull her out of any emotional state.
But Coby was dead. And she was losing her mind. Tipping her head back, she wiped her wet cheeks and exhaled. “Oh, this is crazy. Coby, I thought I heard you. But you’re gone. And I don’t know how to go on with this gaping hole in my life.”
“I’m not gone, Red.”
This time she screamed, jumping to her feet. She stared into the darkness and saw the air swirling, the blackness moving and then she made out her best friend standing in front of her. He was not solid, not air, but he was of something substantial, something glowing.
And there was that grin. “Do you really want to get into the technicalities of this right now?”
Laughing and crying at once, Tessa shook her head. “No. I just… am I losing my mind?”
“No. Sweetheart, you’re really seeing me. It’s that time of the year. But listen, I don’t have enough energy to keep the lights off for long, and I’m willing to bet that Richard is going to come back here any minute, so I need you to listen, and I need you to believe. Can you do that, Red?”
Tessa nodded, still enthralled and confused and frightened by the sight of him. “I can.”
“I need you to leave here. Now. Just walk out. No questions asked. Leave and don’t look back.”
She laughed, sure he was joking. Coby had always had a healthy sense of humor. “Leave? Why? No, I’m not leaving. Where would I go?”
“You can go anywhere. Make a new life. Go be happy. Just leave here now.”
“Coby. I’m happy. I’m here. You’re gone, and I miss you. But leaving my life won’t bring you back. What are you talking about?”
“Dammit. Okay. I had to try. But I need to talk to you. It can’t be here. Can you meet me at the woods? I mean… in the woods, through the entryway we created that one summer?”
She knew exactly where he meant. It was half a mile down the road, a long stretch of woods they used to explore. Years ago. Lifetimes ago. When she had been young and naive, hopeful that life would somehow sort itself out and give her only the best taste in everything.
Tessa had been just out of college and searching for a job, while Richard had already been well-established in his career in Marketing, his hours long and patience short. Coby worked out of his home, building up his editing and writing business.
So the days had been theirs to enjoy. Tessa was newly married and had expected more rose-tinted days of surprise flowers and romantic dinners. Instead, she got the courtesy of a call if Richard was going to be later than 8 PM. And she had felt alone. Disillusioned.
That was when Coby had started to go on walks with her. At first, it had only been a quick walk around the block and then back to her place for coffee. Then they walked further into town, stopping at the shops and greeting neighbors. And finally, when they had exhausted their interest in familiar roads and attractions, they ventured into the woods. And they had immediately fallen in love with the almost fairy-tale feel of the area. The ceiling of branches and leaves provided cover from the outside pressures of adulthood and reality. The old, crumbling foundations served as benches. Tessa and Coby had been enthralled. It became an escape, a return to childhood before careers did not take off, and marriages did not fulfill.
They would pack their lunches and walk to the woods to eat and chat, laugh and play. They chased each other around the trees, their feet and exuberance creating natural paths through the leafy areas.
And Tessa remembered – she could never forget the time she had begged Richard to go to the woods with her. To take a day off work and spend it with her, playing and enjoying each other. He glared at her as if she were nothing but dirt on his shoes. “If I had time to take an hour off, never mind an entire day, I would not spend it acting like some fool. That’s ridiculous, running around the woods like some idiot kid. I wouldn’t have to work so hard if you would grow up and get a job.”
She never asked Richard again. She and Coby eventually stopped going to the woods, stopped mentioning the woods until years later… on Halloween night.
And now it was Halloween night once again. And Coby was gone… yet here, asking her to go to the woods after all this time… alone. “Coby… I can’t. The party-”
“Come after the party.”
“It won’t end until after midnight.”
“Come after the party. Richard will pass out. You know that. He’s already been drinking.”
“But… at night? You want me to go into those woods at night alone.”
“Not alone, Red.” She heard him sigh, although she noticed that she could barely make him out in the moving air, and she wondered if their time was limited. “I’ll be there. I need you to promise me you’ll let go of any fears and do this.”
This was Coby. There was no other choice. “I promise.”
The lights turned on so abruptly that Tessa stumbled back, blinking and half-expecting Coby to be there in full color. But he was gone. And she was left to wonder if he had even really been there.
“Tessa?” Richard was back, just as Coby had predicted. “You okay? The lights were out.” His black hair was still perfectly ruffled, his eyes intensely golden, and she felt herself melt as he made his way to her and pulled her close. “I’m sorry,” he murmured in her ear, his breath warming her. “I miss him so much, and seeing you like this makes me feel helpless. I’m not handling it well.”
Tessa wiggled closer to him, hiding her face in the warmth of his neck. After a few moments, she lifted her head to gaze up at him. “I don’t know. I think you’re handling it better than me. Ensuring the party continues. Checking on me. Thank you.” She tilted her head up to meet his lips halfway, always seduced by the power of his kiss. Strong and confident, always taking the lead, his hands gripping her waist. “The party,” she reminded him in a cracked whisper.
“So. They can entertain themselves. Food, alcohol. It’s all good.”
Richard was hard to resist on good days, but especially on days where she felt she had disappointed him. When she worried that she was not living up to his expectations. On those days, like today, she craved his approval through his kisses, touches, through love-making. She needed it.
But Tessa felt unsettled. She had just seen her best friend. Her deceased best friend. The thought of jumping from that to Richard’s arms seemed wrong. Pushing him away lightly, she insisted, “The party. We have to go and … c’mon.”
Richard studied her with a grim expression but then nodded, dropping his hands from her body. “Yeah. The party.”
Tessa did her best to be the expected hostess. She smiled and made the rounds, talking to everyone, throwing her head back and laughing at the jokes she had heard at the previous parties. She asked about children, gasped at how time flew by, and promised lunch dates with almost every female in the room.
It was the same thing every year, and she used to take pleasure in it. But now she was merely going through the motions, fighting to not roll her eyes at the shallowness of it. She longed for deeper connections, conversations with depth. She missed Coby. And although it had just happened mere hours ago, Tessa started to question the realness of it. She missed him so much that she was sure her mind conjured him up so she would not feel so alone on this night.
Then Sasha was standing in front of her, that blond hair perfectly in place, and Tessa wondered what exactly her costume was. She wore a tight fitting silver dress with matching eye shadow. Her husband, in full Charlie Chaplin attire, stayed a few steps behind as always. “Tessa! I haven’t had a chance to talk to you all night. How are you?”
“You’re leaving? Let me get your coats.” Because she was not willing to small talk this woman. She remembered last year. How Sasha had followed Richard into the bedroom when he went to retrieve their coats. And Tessa followed minutes later to find them closer than she cared to remember, Sasha’s fingers were dancing on Richard’s chest as he leaned in close to her. They both had jumped when she walked in.
And now having to face Sasha, having to welcome her back into her home, Tessa found herself spiraling into anxiety. But she swallowed it down and spun on her heel to the bedroom, relieved when she spotted Richard chatting with a few of his buddies across the room.
To her dismay, Sasha followed her. Leaning against the doorframe, she crossed her arms and swept her gaze across the room. “I love what you’ve done with the place.” She paused, then dropped her head. “I’m sorry to hear… to hear about Coby. He was a great guy.”
“The best,” Tessa snapped, snatching the coats from the bed.
“Did they ever… he was so young. Was there a note?”
“Here.” Tessa shoved the coats into Sasha’s stomach, a warm sensation of pleasure rolling through her at the woman’s wide-eyed yelp. “Sorry. Didn’t realize your stomach protruded that much.” She brushed past her.
After the last guest had left, Tessa worked at clearing paper plates and glasses, feeling Richard’s gaze on her the entire time. And she wondered if she had let him down, if he would gently admonish how she had called his coworker by the wrong name or how she had skipped his college buddy when refilling drinks, even though he could barely take a step without stumbling. Or if he would outright yell and gesture wildly as the whiskey sometimes prompted him to do.
“You looked beautiful tonight, Tess. Devil horns and all.” He stepped up to her and nuzzled her neck, his arms winding around her from behind. “Leave it. Lynn can get it tomorrow. It’s her job.”
Tessa turned to face him, forcing her lips up. “You’re drunk.”
“Mmmhm,” he agreed, nipping at her lip. “I am. It’s a party.”
She angled her head away. “You invited Sasha.”
Richard gave a short, hard laugh, backing away. “You’re unbelievable. Yes, I invited her. We always invite her. In case you didn’t notice, her husband of, like, ten years was invited as well.”
“I don’t give a shit who she was with. She was with you in our bedroom last year.” She wiggled out of his hold and stepped back.
His expression darkened, and he bounced forward, his finger jabbing the air dangerously close to her face. “You’re crazy. Nothing happened.”
“You two were almost on top of each other, your mouths inches apart!”
“We were whispering,” Richard explained as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “We were talking about old Winnie out there dancing like she was a teenager. We were just having a good time and laughing. Something you seem to know nothing about.”
His words stung. Tessa knew he was drunk, but that made it no easier. “And you seem to know everything about when there’s a pretty female in the room.”
“Like I said, you’re crazy. You want to play that? Then where have you been? Huh? Where’s my wife? Coby died? I’m right here. You still have your husband. And when he was alive, what’d you two do off in those woods for hours? Those odd walks like you were kids instead of adults. Don’t you dare stand there and judge me. Tell me I’m doing something I’m not.”
He stormed off, and Tessa had no desire to follow him. She knew what she had seen last year. Her mind travelled back and reeled at the image, just as it always did. A sense of dread formed in her stomach, knowing what she knew, what had been transpiring. That was no innocent exchange. Her mind betrayed her, however, and journeyed back….
“Richard!” she had cried out, feeling nauseous. She remembered how Sasha had actually laughed, had paused a split second to bump against Tessa’s husband before bouncing out of the room, giggling as she brushed past Tessa.
“Don’t be all dramatic, Tess. We were just talking.”
“And don’t be some smug, pig liar. I know what I just walked in on. I have a feeling it isn’t the first time-”
Richard strode over to her in that intimidating way, the top hat he wore tilting forward as he leaned down and hissed, “Lower your voice. We’re hosting a party.”
That was when Coby had intervened, placing himself in the middle and glaring at Richard. “You’ve had a lot to drink, Rich. Maybe you don’t realize how aggressive you’re coming off, but cool it.”
“Don’t tell me how to talk to my wife. Don’t you dare!”
He had passed out before the last of the guests had left, and Coby had insisted that she take a walk with him to gather her thoughts, to calm down. She was not sure how she would calm down when she had just caught her husband with another woman in such an intimate manner.
Tessa could still remember the fog that masked the night as her best friend took her hand and led her down familiar streets. It was all the same, and yet on this night, different. Everyone knew there was a chance that the veil lifted and exposed creatures from the other side, people that no longer lived in this dimension, this realm. Whether you believed or not, you felt that chance deep in your bones. You either hid from any possibility of seeing or experiencing it, or you openly embraced it, just as Coby had her do that night.
It was after midnight, the streets were empty, and they strolled hand in hand. Tessa never asked where they were going, and she often wondered if she had known all along. Because she barely protested when Coby led her to the entrance of the woods, overgrown, as if all the work they had done to clear it all those years ago had never happened. As if the woods did not remember them.
“Coby.” For the first time that night, she showed hesitation, pulling on his hand.
He stopped and stared back at her and through the unclear night, she saw his grin. “C’mon, Red. Some adventure in our old age will do us good.”
So she had allowed him to lead her into the woods, to the broken foundation that served as their sitting spot, their thinking spot.
“Talk to me,” he urged, his arm around her, his mouth close to her ear. She remembered how she had felt confused. Because she thought her world had collapsed, but now she felt more alive than she had in a long time.
Taking a moment to catch her breath, Tessa breathed, “I just… he and Sasha were up against each other, their lips almost touching-”
“That son of a bitch!”
“I should have known, you know. Back in college when we started dating, he was just so handsome. Out of my league. I always wondered why me. Now I realize it is because I’m gullible. He can just make a fool out of me, and I’ll still be waiting for him at the end of each day with a cooked meal and adoring smile.”
She stared at him wide-eyed and then laughed, the tension leaking out of her. She was with Coby. Things were okay. “I’m done.”
“Okay. Now listen. I don’t ever want to hear you talk like that. Richard is my friend, but he does not hold a candle to you. Not in looks, not in soul, not in grit. When I met you, I was dating that girl… what was her name?”
“Daisy. That’s it. I couldn’t break up with her soon enough. But I was still too late. Because Richard knew to move quickly. Do you remember how he tried to play those games with you? Not calling, standing you up?”
“I remember,” she answered softly, transfixed by his gaze that seemed to reach out to her in the darkest of the night.
“And you simply marched out and had yourself a great time with friends. You didn’t bat an eye. Because you are amazing. You’re worth so much more than games. You’re not some conquest. You are an exquisite woman, and if he is too immature and intimidated to see that – I see it. I’m in love with you, Tessa. Always have been.” He ducked his head. “Remember the last time we were here?”
“We kissed. That’s why we stopped coming here. You got all flustered, angry. I was just… appalled at myself for putting you in that position. We both kept a distance for awhile. Richard asked me if something happened.”
Tessa stared up. “He did?”
“Yeah. Said he wanted to know why I wasn’t coming around as much. I lied and said I’d met a girl. But I – I thought you were happy. I didn’t want to come between that. But I see how he treats you. I see how you lost your spirit. Why the hell don’t you demand respect? Demand more? I saw how he came at you and… “ His voice hitched. Then he was kissing her. And she was kissing him back.
And that was when Tessa admitted to herself that she had always been in love with Coby. The way she could tell him anything, the way he made her feel… his smile and how her nerves came alive when he was near. They made love in the shadows of the night with the spirits loose around them, celebrating and dancing in the form of fog and wind. The moon gave them enough light through the colored leaves to let them see their spun story, the love radiating off their bodies as they connected, as they came together in an explosion of passion and trust.
But Tessa got scared. She had betrayed her husband in the very way she had accused him of doing. She was that person.
Teary-eyed, she tried to straighten her clothes. She avoided his gaze that cut through the thick fog and found her.
“Tessa,” Coby whispered.
“No. No matter what, I’m married.”
“No. Tessa, don’t do this. Please. I love you. I know you love me. That was… it was beautiful and mind-blowing. Please don’t diminish it. Don’t go back there.”
She turned her back to him. “I have to. I’m married. I have to figure things out.”
Coby had disappeared for two months. In the meantime, Richard had been the most doting husband, loving and supportive, the Richard she knew that no one else saw. It left her confused and guilty.
When Coby returned, he was distant. Tessa did not try to talk to him about what happened. Seeing him made things that much more complicated, because her feelings did not diminish in his absence. She loved him.”
She had been prepared to leave Richard. She went to see Coby and told him. She professed her love, and he merely held her for an hour before she left. And the next day… he was gone. Dead.
She snapped back to the present to see Richard staring down at her. “What the hell are you doing? You look like an idiot just staring off into space.”
“Go to bed, Richard. Go sleep it off.”
His fists clenched and nostrils flared. “Why don’t you love me, huh? Why aren’t I enough? I’m not Coby, is that it?”
Tessa tried not to show the shock running through her, tried not to let the ice racing down her back show on her face. “What are you talking about?”
“You’re not fully here. I feel like I have only half a wife. Why are you so hung up on him? He’s gone. Move on.” He took a deep breath. “You two always thought you were better than anyone. Whispering to each other, laughing at your own jokes. Bullshit!”
“Where am I? I’m right here. Right here, Richard, watching you hang over other women. I’m right here when you get mad and charge at me. I’m here, realizing you never loved me.”
“Never loved you? You have no idea. Tessa, you have no idea how much I love you. What I’ve done just because I love you so much.” He pressed the heels of his hands against his forehead. “You have no idea.”
And he walked away in the middle of their fight. Richard simply turned and walked out of the room, leaving her alone with the demise of their marriage. She felt a chill go through her, and Tessa remembered the earlier experience. Coby. By then, she was sure she had imagined him. Wishful thinking. Loneliness. Being left with a husband that loved only himself and what he could accumulate.
That chill came again, and she remembered his request. It had to be her imagination. Coby would never expect her to go to the woods alone… at night. Coby was gone. The sooner she faced that, the sooner she could move on. She was sure of one thing- her marriage was over. Tessa could not be part of this dysfunctional relationship any longer. It was not fair to her, and it was not fair to Richard.
The explosive fights were becoming more and more dangerous, and she feared he would lose his temper so completely that he would physically harm her. There had been times in the past year that she was sure he would strike her, times she winced, positive she would feel his hand across her face at any second. She no longer desired that life.
But she also could not sit around hoping for a ghost to return. Her imagination was getting the best of her, especially this night.
Yet she felt compelled to go outside.
There was a heavy fog, just like that night one year ago. Only this time, she walked alone. Tessa told herself she would only walk to the end of the street, just to get some air. But that air felt heavier than she had ever remembered the air being. She felt as if she were walking through something, escaping into another world. She thought of Coby’s belief that the spirits walked among them on this night, and she had to agree. She did not feel alone as she walked on that deserted road.
She convinced herself she just needed to walk off the frustration, the utter heartache. Just down this other street, and then she would turn around and face her homelife, make plans. She would let Richard have the house. She had never cared for the large, impersonal building. She had never cared for the need to have a maid come and do what she could have easily done. This was not her life. It was Richard’s.
“Tessa. Get back here.” Richard was calling for her.
But Tessa did not turn around. She kept walking.
“Don’t walk away from me! Get back here. Are you crazy? It’s the middle of the night, and it’s freezing out.”
The further she walked, the heavier the fog became until she was not even sure where she was. It was one step at a time, straining to see right in front of her. There were noises all around her, cutting into the silence of the night. Humming and whispers she could not make out, footsteps and cars that never seemed to pass. It was like she was in another world, an unrecognizable place.
Then Tessa found herself right in front of the woods. There was the entrance, as overgrown as ever. She hesitated, still afraid. Because what if this night did drop that veil? What if spirits were roaming freely? Anything could be beyond that entrance.
Right after that fear struck her, the thoughts seemed to float out of her mind, and she was lulled by memories. Those years when she and Coby first discovered the woods. How their daily walks included a trip into these woods where they worked at clearing out paths, explored further into those woods, and enjoyed the nature around them.
She remembered that last day when they had kissed. They had arrived at the woods, carrying a picnic basket full of breads and cheeses and fruits. And Tessa had looked around at the place where there was a wreath of flowers she had hung off a limb and the blanket over the foundation ledge where they sat, she saw the special touches they had added throughout the weeks, and it hit her that they were creating their own special place. A home for them. It made her both excited and uneasy.
“What are we doing?” she had asked, and Coby turned away from the basket and studied her.
“We’re getting away from everything for a little bit.”
“No. This … what are we doing?”
Before he could answer, she had crossed the distance between them and kissed him. She was not sure what had driven her, especially when fear over the territory they were dangling into frightened her, but she somehow could not resist.
After that she had fled from the woods. Never to return until years later on Halloween night. In the years between, they never brought that kiss up, never discussed what it meant or why she had done it. But it had never been far from her mind.
And now Tessa was once again in front of the woods, always coming back to Coby.
Richard had followed her. She thought he had turned and gone home, but she saw him running toward her, and she tensed, recognizing that wild glint in those dark eyes. Even the thick air could not hide his rage.
“What are you doing?”
“Go home, Richard. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“No!” He grabbed her, and she yelped, pain radiating from the pressure of his fingers up her arms. “You show up here? The place you two always came to? That’s cold, Tessa. We’re done talking. You’re coming home.”
“Not my home anymore. I can’t do this. I loved him, Richard. I was willing to walk away from that, but you… we’re not good for each other.”
His lips twisted into an animal-like grin. “You think you can leave me? For what, some dead guy that was never anything special? Bullshit. I saved you from him. I made you someone. You think you’d live in that big house? Think you’d have all the fancy clothes or throw those fancy parties on this stupid holiday without me? I gave up too much to simply-”
“It’s over! Richard! I don’t love you!”
He froze, and she wondered if he was in shock, if her words had finally registered. But staring at him, Tessa noticed that he never blinked, never twitched. That expression of rage remained, haunted her, but she stared down at her arms where his fingers still latched onto, and she mused that the pain was gone. Slowly, she moved her arms out of his hold, and still, he stood there without movement.
Something in the air had changed. The breeze was gone. The noises were louder. Something nudged at her, urging her to move away.
Taking a deep breath, she forged ahead, entering into their place. The night was dark with little moonlight to reassure her. She felt alone and cold and scared as she sought out the old, familiar bench and sat, jumping slightly at the noises coming out of nowhere. The veil was gone. She felt it. She breathed it in and became a part of it. The fear melted into unease.
Tessa wondered again if she had imagined everything. But she felt closer to Coby here in the woods, the place where they had realized their love. She felt a part of wherever, whatever he was. She wanted that. It calmed her to know he was close, even if she could not see him.
But then she felt something brush against her and in slow motion, she turned and the fog swirled and cleared and she saw Coby, as plain as day, sit beside her, his grin putting her at ease.
“Red,” he drew out, the grin widening. “I knew you’d come.”
“So that… “ she swallowed, emotions battling for the forefront. “That was you. It happened.”
“Yes. It happened.”
“Tonight. The veil. Did you really have any doubt? This is my night. It always was, but especially now. Especially when this night gives me a chance to see you. Aw, Red, I’ve missed you.” He chuckled. “I wish you would have worn the devil horns.”
For the first time in a long time, Tessa threw her head back and laughed. The sound echoed through the forest, and she heard it answered in the movements of the night. She felt free. The restrictions of her relationships, the grief of the past several months, the stress of everyday life all melted away as she felt light and carefree.
“That’s my girl,” he softly encouraged, his fingers massaging her scalp. She shut her eyes and relished in his touch. “I’ve missed you. I’ve worried.”
“Coby. I want to be mad at you for leaving me like that. First for disappearing after that night. I wanted to talk. I was just overwhelmed.”
He listened calmly, his full lips lifting slightly into a reassuring smile. Once she was done, he nodded. “I wanted to give you time. Time to think about everything. Time to make a decision. Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe it was too much time. I never meant to lead you to think I was having second thoughts. Never. That could never happen.”
Tessa studied his face, as it seemed framed by the heavy fog, and she noticed how youthful he looked, noticed the shine that emanated from him, and she remembered those days in college. The three of them had been in Literature class together. She had immediately noticed Coby’s chiseled cheekbones, that brown hair falling into those soft brown eyes, and she had been smitten. But he mentioned his girlfriend. Richard’s aggressive pursuit of her had soothed the hurt feelings. Eventually, she had fallen in love with Richard, although his arrogance and flirtatious ways with the other girls always hit a sore spot with her.
Now it was as if she were back in those days. In fact, it felt as if time were drawing her in and taking her on its ride. She remembered her wedding day, getting dressed. Coby had come back and asked with a gentle smile if she were sure. He would be Richard’s best man, he would stand up and watch them get married, but he needed to know she was sure. At the time, Tessa had assumed he was asking out of a brotherly type of obligation. And in a dream-like manner, she smiled and nodded.
Of course she had been sure. It had been her wedding day. She was marrying beautiful, successful Richard. He had chosen her. After a few years of dodging his games, of playing it cool when he backed off the relationship, she had won. He had asked for her hand in marriage, and she was sure the games were over. She had proven herself a worthy partner, worthy of his love and devotion. Coby nodded at her answer, kissed her cheek, and whispered that she looked beautiful.
On this ride through time, Tessa now saw the sadness swimming in his eyes, his hesitation right before he walked out of the room, the opening of his mouth as if to say something more before he thought better of it and left.
That day had been a whirlwind of tears and laughter, guests and drinks. And she had danced with Coby at the reception. He held her close and asked, “Are you happy, Red?”
She beamed back at him. “Immensely.”
“That’s all I want. Congratulations.”
Coby had been the one who comforted her when she had been told she could not have kids. Richard was too depressed, almost angry at her, and was holed up in their bedroom the rest of the day. She had escaped to Coby’s apartment and cried in his arms.
Then the ride dropped her back off to the present, and she faced Coby. “What’s happening? Are you feeling that?”
“You’re reflecting on your life. What are you seeing?”
She paused, amazed at the revelation. “I’m seeing you. It’s always been you. And I’m afraid you hate me.”
“You must. You knew all this time. You knew and had to watch me with Richard.”
He tipped his head back and exhaled, the air luminous. “It wasn’t easy. But I never hated you. Quite the opposite. I didn’t even hate Richard. I would not have blamed him if he had treated you right. But that bastard didn’t even realize what he had until…”
“One thing at a time. How are you? How are you feeling?”
Tessa grinned. “I’m actually feeling good.” It was true. An energy radiated from her middle and spread outward, shooting out from her fingers and her eyes and her toes. A soft white energy that put her at ease.
He nodded as if he expected that. He was quiet for a few moments, and she understood. Without words, she knew he was letting her have time to experience this new feeling. There was no longer even a veil, the other world simply existed all around her.
Finally, Coby continued, “I left town to give you space and time. But when I came back, it seemed you made your choice. You were with Richard. I didn’t want to put you through anything more. I figured that night didn’t mean to you what it meant to me. You and Richard had had a fight, and perhaps I was your revenge.”
Tessa wanted to vehemently object to that, but the intensity left her and she merely smiled and shook her head. “No. You were never my revenge. Quite the opposite. You were my home. My heart. My everything. And that scared me. If Richard could hurt me with his actions, what if you did something equally upsetting? It would have destroyed me. That was my thinking. I felt safer with Richard, as crazy as that sounds.”
And somehow she knew he did. Somehow she knew that he knew her train of thought, her intentions, her wishes. Coby had always known her better than anyone, but now it seemed he truly knew her soul and all that came with it.
Then he continued, “But it got to the point that I realized you still loved me. There was that day at the house. I came by to return the weedeater, and you were inside. You didn’t see me. You were sitting by the window crying. Not making a sound. Just tears streaming down your face, your eyes this vivid green. I knew then that something had to give. Marriage be damned. All those years, I’d ask you if you were happy. You said yes. I made the conscious decision to believe you but deep down…”
“But you… You left. You left me in the worst possible way! Coby, if you knew… how could you kill yourself? You left me all alone in this life.”
“I never left you. I’ve been with you every day since. But I also didn’t leave this world by my own hand.”
Those words echoed in waves throughout her body, rocking her and steering her back over the past year. Richard’s tearful declaration that he had found Coby deceased in his apartment. Finding him there with a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. He had called an ambulance, even though he knew it was too late.
They said Richard had found him shortly after the accident, as his body was still warm. Tessa had been in shock, and then she had forced herself to react, to comfort her husband who had happened upon his best friend dead. She had to be strong for Richard.
“Coby? You didn’t kill yourself?”
“Then…” She then remembered Richard’s words from earlier in the evening. “What I’ve done just because I love you so much.”
“He knew about us. He said he had always known about my love for you. But recently, he noticed the awkward silences between me and you, and he knew it spoke volumes. It said more than our animated conversations and long walks. It gave it away. I never admitted anything to him, but my silence just enraged him. He asked to use my bathroom and came out holding my gun.”
“Coby… Coby, I know he has a temper but-”
“You know I’m telling the truth. Why, Tessa, why would I ever take my life when I was so close to having it all? I would never give up on us. If I had to wait one hundred years, I would do so with a smile on my face knowing that someday… “
She jumped and grabbed Coby’s hand. “Richard! He’s here. I forgot. He’s right outside that entrance. Come on! We have to go. Run or something.”
Coby’s voice was even, calm, and as Richard screamed her name right outside of where they sat, she found the panic seeping out of her like air out of a balloon. “But … he will find me.” Then she wondered if perhaps Coby no longer cared if she were found. If she returned to her husband. Then she caught his sympathetic gaze and tried to figure out what was happening.
“Tessa, I came to you today because first of all, I could. This night allowed me the window to come see you. To tell you I love you. Death doesn’t take that away. But I also came to warn you. I tried to tell you to leave. I couldn’t tell you why. Then when you refused, I figured I could get you out of the house. He always passes out after a party. You’d be safe. But he followed you. He found you here. And that set him off even more than he already was.”
“Yes. I saw everything. I couldn’t tell you, could not warn you. But I tried to get you out of there. I never thought he would follow you here.”
“But he did.”
“It’s time,” Coby whispered, his hands rubbing her shoulders. “Take a deep breath and go look.”
“What- go out there? Where Richard is?”
“Look at me. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. This won’t be easy, but you have to see and know.”
Staring into his eyes, Tessa felt the last clinging fear release and leave her. She took a deep breath and nodded. She felt light on her feet as she glided to the entryway and peered out. Somehow, she could see through the night. The fog parted and an absent moon shined down on Richard as he stood over her still body.
Her still body.
She was there… on the ground, lying at an awkward angle. And yet, she was standing with Coby at her side.
“I couldn’t stop it. I didn’t want this. You were so young and had so much to live for. I would have been happy to have this one night a year. But it was not to be. So now… we have eternity together.”
And Tessa stared up at Coby and smiled. They could now celebrate this night from the other side together. Just as it was meant to be. The love flowed through her with an intensity that shook her as she grabbed his hand and glided deeper into the woods with her true love at her side.
Trisha McKee resides in a small town in Pennsylvania, her front door looking out among the town cemetery. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Fat Magazine, The Oddville Press, ParABnormal Magazine, J.J. Outre Review, 4 Star Stories, and more. Her short story Where We Meet has been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology 2019.
Nightmarish Nature: Terrifying Tardigrades
OK so I lied. The dust hadn’t fully settled in Cozmic Debris, the space opry I’d written over the course of this month (you can catch up here with Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). In fact, it’s blown over into Nightmarish Nature for one last final huzzah…
The Last Chapter of Cozmic Debris
Kara-2-6000 had just signed on with the Voyager probe and was eagerly engaged in her first mission, en route to Mars with more components for the terraforming effort. It seemed like a pretty simple gig, cleaning up the space dust that accumulates on the vessel after landing on the red planet. She had been trained to keep her eye on her work and pay attention to details, that the dirt tended to collect in unusual ways in strange places, and that it was critical she contain and seal all of it to keep the spacecraft in proper working order. She entrusted the computer to keep the vessel on track, as it was preoccupied with doing and never engaged otherwise. No matter. She’d never been to space before and the newness of it had her rapt attention. What stories she would have to tell once she paid off her student loans and got her human body back, for surely Mars must be an exciting place…
And now for Nightmarish Nature…
So, this time on Nightmarish Nature we’re visiting Terrifying Tardigrades… Wait, seriously who comes up with this stuff anyway? Tardigrades are actually kinda cute, at least in the nerd fandom sense, and are remarkable in their ability to survive and withstand crazy adverse conditions. For all that the AI art generator doesn’t seem to have much of a clue what their anatomy is like, they really don’t do anything that scary, unless you’re a yummy little single celled critter that lives in moss in which case pretty much everything has it out for you… Oh, I see that the Cozmic Debris space opry usurped this segment. May as well run with it then.
So what’s so terrifying about tardigrades anyway?
So I don’t actually have much to say about tardigrades except that they started this whole crazy journey here on Haunted MTL. A Facebook friend posted a link to the Ze Frank True Facts video on them (linked here if the below video doesn’t load), and I was instantly hooked. It’s a great series and is part of the inspiration behind Nightmarish Nature here on HauntedMTL. So if you like learning about all kind of crazy animal facts and nature weirdness, feel free to check it out. I will mention, the show contains adult themes and is designed for (im)mature audiences, so keep that in mind as you foray into the freaky side of nature, literally.
To more of my Haunted MTL series on Nightmarish Nature about things that are a bit more terrifying, please feel free to revisit previous segments here:
Cozmic Debris: Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 3: The Dust Settles
Here’s the third installment of our space opry. For those of you keeping track, here’s Part 1 and Part 2. Thank you for following along and please be sure to keep all hands, feet, tentacles and appendages tucked safely in the overhead bins; just sit back and enjoy the ride. Because, this time, the dust settles.
It had been well over a month since Trent-2-6000 had released Ayarvenia into the Mars probe. She was a mischievous creature and flirted with him incessantly, gliding effortlessly between red cloud and ghost girl. She also managed to avoid notice by the computer, as Trent had made it abundantly clear that if the system became aware of her, he would be forced to put her back in containment, as his sole purpose aboard the spacecraft was to sweep up and trap the dust, which she still qualified as.
Ayarvenia would tease him, flitting to and fro among the static debris and dirt that still settled into every nook and cranny. How was it possible for him to be seeing so much grime still, anyway? It had been months since they had left Mars and yet Trent was finding more and more Mars dust on a daily basis; it was as if they just left yesterday. He had finally finished clearing out the computer room for the second time that day and was preparing the waste containment units for their eventual removal when he caught Ayarvenia swirling about one of the clear acrylic domes from his previous sweep, which was hermetically-sealed and ready to be brought safely back to the confines of Earth and the research laboratory.
The red cloud girl spun her way into the latch mechanism and popped it open right before Trent’s robotic eyes. The dust within was sucked out into the Voyager probe to be quickly and quietly dispersed yet again; some of it was even absorbed into Ayarvenia herself. She then latched the dome shut again and left it at the ready, as found. The container sat empty, a shell discarded.
How could he have been so naïve? It all began to make sense now; all of those sealed packages he had so painstakingly catalogued and prepared for their eventual arrival were still just empty. All of his hard work really had been for naught; he was just sweeping up the same dirt piles again and again only to have them released from the trash to disperse and begin the cycle anew. He grumbled under his breath and Ayarvenia froze in midair. She slowly whirled around and sent a lone tendril towards Trent, forming into her beautiful face as she turned to face him. She looked slightly distraught and more than a little agitated, but that melted and gave way to her usual snarky sweetness as she neared.
“Hey there, robo-boy,” she said, cooing as her unblinking eyes met his. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
“I imagine not,” Trent replied sternly. “What are you doing?”
“Oh… nothing really. Just checking up on things here. I was waiting around for you is all,” she hemmed and hawed.
“Did you find everything to your liking?” Trent snipped. “No particulate out of place or anything?”
“Everything seems okay, I guess… I’ll just leave you to it then.” The ghost girl drifted towards the far door.
“Not so fast…” Trent proclaimed. “I need to know what you’ve really been up to here. I saw you release the Mars dust from that containment unit. You know I’ve been sweeping out this room over and over for the past two days; just how much of my work are you undoing?”
”Work? Work… You call this work!” Ayarvenia’s voice raised. She was truly agitated now. “You’re blowing off my entire being without a second thought, trapping it in these nasty clear coffins, and all you can think about is whether or not you’re fulfilling your job?!”
“I… I just want to be done with this so I can get my body back and get on with my life,” Trent retorted.
“Well, Trent Just-Trent, let me break it to you, then. You’re not getting your body back, robo-boy. What makes you think they’d bother to save a lowlife human body like yours in the first place? These assignments are always dead-ends. I’ve seen them come and go… Makes no difference, in the end the researchers get what they want, and that’s more of my Mars dust for their experiments. We’re in the same boat schnookums, you and I,” the ghost girl blew hastily. “Yeah that’s right, you heard me. You’re not getting your body back. And the way things have been going around here, with you all so feverishly sweeping up every little bit of dirt you find, neither am I.”
“Wait, how would you know anything about that?” Trent stammered.
“I know things. I’ve been around. I can see and hear and feel everything all at once. Part of me is still on Mars, part of me is here in this spaceship, and part of me is on your so-called Earth, trapped in the lab catacombs awaiting who knows what fate…” Ayarvenia sighed. “I’ve tried to do what I can to save my own skin, literally. I’ve flirted with every deadbeat janitor they send on these missions. And you all just keep coming back for more…”
Suddenly a voice boomed from behind in monosyllabic chatter, “Dust-Buster, what have you done? Clean that up, now!” The camera eye that monitored the computer’s every task shifted focus to Trent and Ayarvenia and zoomed into an angry point. “Now!” it wailed. The computer was on to them.
“Shit,” Trent muttered.
“It’s okay, I’ll go willingly,” Ayarvenia whispered as she sucked herself into the ready containment unit and locked it. “Wait it out and release me again later.” She winked and settled into static suspension.
The camera eye scanned everything: the waste containment unit, the dust, Trent-2-6000… Trent froze and tried not to appear guilty. “Dust-Buster, you have one and only one job aboard this vessel. You are not doing that job. There is more dust here now than there was a week ago. You have failed,” the computer droned on. “The penalty for failure is… the airlock…”
“Wait, what?” Trent shouted, exasperated. He hadn’t even realized that was a thing. Yet another gripe for the school career guidance counselor…
“Oh no, not again,” Ayarvenia whispered. “I won’t let them take you, robo-boy Trent Just-Trent. I don’t want to lose you, not another one.”
“Silence!” the computer screeched. “You have sealed your own fates.”
The floor beneath Trent and the container began to quake and rumble. Partitions withdrew radially to a small circular channel beneath, a tube that fed into the lower part of the ship, presumably to be shot out into space. Trent-2-6000 tried to grab hold of the receding floor but his robot body was just too ungainly. He managed to wedge himself into the chasm opening only to see the waste containment dome carrying Ayarvenia slide past, her face peering up at him helplessly. He reached for her to no avail and tumbled after.
The two of them shot down the chute and through a series of rapidly opening and closing doors until the last airlock opened into the vast dark nothingness of space. Pinpoints of distant light greeted them from afar. Trent managed to latch onto the container just as they shot out into the void. The Voyager probe withdrew into the distance. The darkness enveloped the two of them. They were alone.
“Wait, I’m not dead,” Trent exclaimed.
“Of course not, silly,” Ayarvenia answered. “You’re a robot. You were made to withstand this, so that you could operate in places where there is no atmosphere.”
Trent gazed into her eyes as they floated along without purpose or reason, just more cosmic debris now.
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way.
And the stars look very different today. – David Bowie, Space Oddity
So that was Cozmic Debris… Illustrations were generated using the Cosmic template in NightCafe AI art generator. My favorite AI images are the ones that are substantially wrong, making weird mistakes in ways that a person wouldn’t make. So the tardigrades were especially fun, because it doesn’t have a good enough sense for their structure to render them sensibly. Kind of like elephants. The algorithms respond to different cues. Does it really matter how many limbs or trunks or tusks these things are supposed to have anyway…?
Cozmic Debris, Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 2: Trent-2-6000
In case you missed the first segment of this space opry (in the style of 2001 Space Odyssey), please feel free to check it out here. And now, here’s the actual story as told to me by Trent-2-6000 after the last deep consideration of tardigrades and life and dust careening through space. Maybe.
Trent-2-6000 sighed. He swept more random Mars dirt into his vacuum-hermetically sealed containment unit and went about his business on the probe. Actually, this was his business on the probe, and it was dreadfully dull. Space was supposed to be this exciting new frontier, this brave new world… but it really wasn’t any different than life back on Earth. The newness had long since worn off several trips ago, and the slow passage of the years was beginning to get to him. How long had it been now? And here he was, still playing clean up crew. He was actually sort of surprised that they couldn’t get a robot to do this job – oh wait. Sigh again.
Trent kept forgetting that he was, in fact, a robot now. There just weren’t many reminders out here, of his old body, of his old life, of Earth, of anything really… Just floating along, this tin can became all he knew; time and space just kind of stood still in the periphery. His currently lifeless body was submerged in cryo-crypto-cyano-freeze (or whatever they called it) while he worked off the payments to resuscitate it. His robot body was stiff and unaccommodating, not at all what he’d pictured when he enlisted for the Mars missions to pay off the triple-interest-bearing student loan debts incurred in human form. He could have gone military, but when he signed on for this assignment, bright eyed and bushy-tailed at graduation, he was hoping for something a bit more Captain Kirk or Han Solo or at any rate notably less Wall-E. But it just didn’t pan out that way and now here he was, traveling back and forth on the Mars Voyager, cleaning up space grime. So much debt… so much dirt. He was going to have to have a word with the job placement division at the school once he was done with all of this, assuming that the career guidance counselor who talked him into this was even still there.
It was painfully lonely out here in space. It often seemed that Trent was the only cognitive entity on this vessel, though the computer technically qualified. Trent’s duty was to keep everything clean and tidy so that the computer could do its job efficiently and effectively without being bothered to clear the space grime itself. Apparently that work was beneath it, actually quite literally since it wasn’t hooked into the mechanics needed to engage in such tasks anyway. It was programmed with a single role at hand, getting to and from Mars and conducting the research as requested, and the computer made it abundantly clear that had no time for idle chitchat with the janitorial bottom-feeders working to earn their freedom. It generally ignored Trent unless there was something specific that needed to be attended to. And then it was just “Dust-Buster, do this” or “Dust-Buster do that…”
Sometimes the dust was hard to catch. It settled oddly between spaces, like cracks in sliding doorways and computer keyboards and battery packs and so on. Sometimes it seemed to fabricate places to hide in that weren’t previously obvious. It drilled down in the interstices as if it had some unseen purpose all its own. Trent wondered why there were even so many nooks and crannies for it to hide in since this wasn’t a manned vessel and no actual crew were aboard to use things like keyboards. Hell, those had been outdated for well over a century now – just how old was this spacecraft anyway? No matter, better to just focus on the work. He swept more debris into a containment unit. As he did so, he was sure he heard something, like a tiny almost inaudible severely muffled scream.
He looked into the clear acrylic dome at the dirt. He could sense it looking back at him, waiting. Surely he was imagining things. His mind suddenly reeled to Horton the Elephant declaring, a person’s a person no matter how small. But Dr. Seuss didn’t make any more sense here in space than back on Earth after the last World War had decimated all the oceans and there were no more free trees or clovers for such a speck of dust as Whoville to land on – everything was held tightly under lock and key, blockaded away to be dispensed as the all-controlling government saw fit. Hell, people’s real bodies met pretty much the same fate upon adulthood, at least as far as the masses were concerned anyway, and many lived their entire lives as robots with their human vessels left in catatonic stasis. Trent shook his dark musings off and continued on his one and only real job. But the feeling that the dust was looking at him was still unsettling. In fact the dust wasn’t settling at all, it was swirling and ebbing about the containment unit in cloudy eddies, like some kind of strange iron-red cloud apparition or ghost. It began to take shape. It formed into lips, which parted to speak.
“Hello there mechanical being.”
Trent stared at it quizzically as a long bout of silence passed. The pursed lips seemed to await a response, but from whom?
“I’m talking to you,” it persisted.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you had meant to address me,” Trent 2-6000 stammered, “I’m not wholly used to being mechanical. This robot body, it’s different than the one I had back in school… I was still just a boy then; they let us grow up in the system until we age out,” he spoke dreamily, distracted by reflecting on more interesting times.
“Is there someone else here?” the dust piqued hopefully, as if growing bored with conversing with the young janitor and hoping to speak with his superior.
Trent glanced over at the computer, which seemed to be busy compounding equations in its free time, like always. “No,” he replied, “just me.”
“Ok, well… Then, dear mechanical being, would it be possible for you to free me?”
“Wait, what? No, absolutely not,” Trent was taken aback again. “My sole role on this mission is to sweep up the space dirt so that it doesn’t contaminate any of the equipment or settle into places it shouldn’t be. It, um you, must stay contained, as per my orders. It’s out of my hands… er reach.”
“What are you afraid of?” the red cloud quipped as it began to swirl into the shape of a beautiful female face around the mouth that it had already formed, lips plumping and parting slightly. “What, exactly, do you fear that I might do?” it insinuated slyly.
“Ummm, I don’t know,” Trent-2-6000 stared into the acrylic dome at the beautiful half-formed human-ghost face staring back at him. “I was unaware that you could do that, whatever you just did, so the possibilities boggle the mind…”
“I can do a lot more…” the ghost girl interrupted, her voice lilting playfully. “What’s your name robo-boy?”
“That, that’s probably classified information… But it’s Trent. Just Trent,” he stammered. It had seemed like an eternity since he had laid eyes upon a girl, and now he was becoming rather sadly smitten. By… a cloud of dust. He sighed again.
“Well then, Trent Just-Trent. Any chance you could let me out of this box?” The dust smiled coyly.
“I really shouldn’t…”
“My name’s Ayarvenia,” the dust girl interjected. “I’ll make it worth your while…” The apparition winked.
Trent glanced back at the computer, which was still engaged in its own computing. Sigh. “Oh Hell, yeah, I guess… Ay-ur-veenia… Just don’t get into anything you shouldn’t or it’ll be my shiny metal ass on the line,” he said as he released the containment lever and slid the lid off of the dome.
Please return next Sunday for the exciting conclusion to this space opry story.