I ran into my ex in the grocery store. He's been dead for seven years. - Chap 1
It was seven years after his death, in Autumn of 2019, that I saw him again, assessing the ripeness of an avocado with a cart full of organic groceries, looking just the same as he did in the weeks before we buried his body behind the old mill.
At first glance, I was more surprised than frightened, sure that this man was nothing more than a coincidental doppelganger. But… it looked so much like him. The same sunny complexion, the same black hair slicked-back with just a little too much product. The same unconscious slouch; hell, even the same v-neck tee under an opened flannel. It was uncanny.
I felt a dagger of ice in my chest when he turned to look right at me.
“Hey babe,” Alan grinned, casually scratching the back of his head, “Been a while.” That word, ‘babe’, erased any doubt of who he was; it was like he was taunting me, falling so casually into our old routine.
He used to look at me with that same smile whenever I’d shared a secret – a smile that assures you he’s delighted to be in on the conspiracy. Today’s conspiracy: seven years ago I put a shovel through Alan’s head and used the same shovel to cover him in dirt.
Something about the cocky glint in his eye told me burying him this time around would be far more difficult. I froze as he sauntered up to me and put a hand on each of my shoulders, whispering in my ear, “I’ll be seeing you.”
Then he was gone, his trundling cart lost behind a family of six all vying to look at the apples at the same time. I forgot the rest of my shopping list and went straight to the check-out, where my hands shook and everything I loaded onto the belt felt cold.
Alan Patel was back. Over the years I had wished I’d live to see this day. Hell, I’d even prayed for it, and I don’t subscribe to religion. But now that it was here… nothing could terrify me more.
Lana was the first I told.
“You’re not serious,” she gawked. Her eyes, already slightly too large and vibrantly olive, widened even more. She’d been twisting at a strand of her curly hair nervously as I’d told her, and when I was done she just gripped and yanked.
The two of us were nestled into the back of the second floor of a Peet’s coffee, which we never went to, but that was the point.
“I am. I don’t know how, but it was Alan. Either that, or I’m actually insane.”
“Oh my sweet baby Dave, you’re not insane,” Lana cooed. “I’d believe zombies were real or Alan really didn’t know how to break up with you and played some dastardly good long-con before I’d believe you were insane. Have… have you told Alice yet?”
I shook my head. I’d ordered an iced coffee, but I haven’t felt much like eating or drinking since this morning at the grocery store, and my constant state of fear and adrenaline has been keeping me alert.
“I called her to invite her here, but she didn’t reply. You know how she is sometimes.”
“You’d think she was allergic to her phone,” Lana laughed. I laughed too, though honestly I could sympathize.
“I… I just don’t know what to make of this. I mean, all I did was just see him in the grocery store, we didn’t even exchange contact information, and I have no idea where he’s staying, or even what he really is. But I haven’t moved since he died, so he knows where I live, and he told me he’d be seeing me, whatever that means. What do I even do?”
“Well,” Lana had on a bashful grin that she always wore whenever she was proud of herself for thinking something she thought was clever. It sometimes was. “I have an idea of where we could start.” She wiggled her eyebrows mischievously and took a long sip from her espresso to build up the suspense. “We could dig up the body.”
We called Alice again, but she was officially off the grid. Lana mentioned that she’d said a thing about a Vermont getaway a while back, maybe that was this weekend. It’s just as well anyways; the whole business with Alan seven years ago had freaked her out more than me or Lana. It might be better if we knew a bit more before looping Alice in.
At 11 o’clock, we were standing in the woods behind the old mill, except it wasn’t a mill anymore. A couple of years ago they’d knocked it down and put up series of luxury apartments with a rustic motif. It had been a nerve-wracking few months before we were confident they weren’t going to be doing any digging where we’d buried Alan.
Still, now, as we worked up the nerve to dig the first shovelful, we kept glancing at the yellow streetlights and window-lights that glimmered through the trees to the East. Clouds covered the moon, dimming and diffusing its light.
Lana went in first. I followed a moment later without comment. We listened to the scrape of our shovels against the stone-dense soil, to the messy thud of the dirt as we tossed it aside. It smelled a little like frost, and a lot like pine. The bugs were quiet tonight, even though we hadn’t had our first freeze of the season. The wind creaked through the old, crooked trees past us near the bog.
We dug until my hands burned and I felt blisters swell up. Then we dug some more. It was three-fifteen when Lana finally paused and said,
“Are you sure this is the right spot?”
I wanted to punch her. Instead, I said,
“…Yes? We put these nails into this tree, they point right at it. Remember?”
Lana didn’t react to the exasperation in my tone. She looked grim, which was difficult on a face as kindly as hers.
“Then we should stop,” she said, “He’s not here.” She fixed me with that unblinking stare again, the stare I’m starting to wonder means she’s only barely keeping it together. If it were, I wouldn’t blame her. I’d already gnawed at my cuticles until they bled. “He’s- he’s really not here.”
“We should put the dirt back before the sun comes up,” I suggested. Lana nodded emphatically. The time we’d spent talking and staring into an empty grave had allowed my hands to begin to swell up, so putting the dirt back was twice as painful. Mercifully, it was also twice as fast, and we were back in my car by five.
“Thanks,” I told her when we pulled up outside of her place. “I would have already gone off the deep end if it were just me. I know it was fruitless, but I really appreciate you staying up all night digging with me.”
“It wasn’t fruitless,” she assured me, ruffling her fingers through my hair. “Now we know, it’s really Alan, somehow.” She sighed, the adrenaline of our clandestine excursion wearing off at last, her exhaustion manifesting as bruise-dark splotches under her eyes. “Let me know if you find out anything else. I’ll brainstorm too.”
The orange early sunrise illuminated Lana’s silhouette as she stepped out onto the sidewalk.
I’m not sure how I slept that day, but I did.
(To be continued)