I ran into my ex in the grocery store. He's been dead for seven years. - Chap 2
I nearly slid off my bed.
I tossed my old clothes into the laundry, took a second to admire my (lack of) muscles in the mirror, then hopped into the shower. I kept it quick, just the basics. I thought about shaving, but I had the perfect amount of beard shadow. Afterwards I threw on some kakhis and a lavender polo shirt. Then, after briefly considering a suit, I doffed those in favor of crisp new jeans and a maroon button-down. I even combed my hair. What? I was about to talk with my ex again for the first time in seven years.
My ex who I’d murdered and buried in the woods.
I called Lana.
“He wants to meet.”“Wait, what? When?”
“In like two hours, down at the bookstore. He said you could come too, if you want, and Alice. Has she texted you back yet, by the way?”
“Okay, if we don’t hear from her by the end of the day, I’m calling her mom.”
“Smart call. Can you pick me up?”
“Sure. Should I text him back?”
“Hmmm… no. Let’s leave him guessing.”
At six-thirty, Lana hopped into the passenger’s seat of my Focus. She gawked.
“Bounce your eyes, weirdo.” I shifted into drive and pulled out onto the street.
“Did you dress nice for Alan?” Lana burst out into giggles, which turned into a sneeze, which turned back into giggles.
“I think,” I explained as I drove, “that we need to come into this with as strong a position of power as we can. Dressing nice is powerful.”
“Whatever you say, Jeff Winger.”
I scoffed as she laughed. She’d taken the opposite tactic: while usually in a tasteful dress with a sweater-vest, Lana had opted to wear leggings, a teal hoodie, and dark brown UGGs. I’d seen this before: sometimes, because of stress, Lana would stop putting effort into her daily rituals.
The four of us used to hang out at the New Canaan bookstore most weekends. It was a place to browse what people were writing about these days, and for a while every one of us but Alan was cranking through one book every couple of weeks. We’d also go to see authors speak. Alice, ever the fan of twisted tales that bend the mind, had dragged us there to see Danielewski speak, which was about what you’d expect it to be. Alan and I got to see Celeste Ng before Everything I Never Told You took off. And some days, we’d just browse titles and read back-covers to each other. Those conversations always tumbled down some tangent or another, and before we’d realized it, we’d killed a couple of hours.
Lana and I made it before Alan. Lana would usually head straight for science-fiction, but today she swerved left into cookbooks. I followed her with my hands in my pockets, my heart up in my mouth with dreadful anticipation.
“No sci-fi?” I asked, my tongue feeling dry and swollen.
“You have to go past horror first,” Lana trilled a pitch too high, “and I’m not in the mood for that.”
“Oh good,” came a voice from behind us. I nearly jumped a foot, and maybe I would have if Alan hadn’t put one hand on my shoulder and another on Lana’s. “We’re all here. Why don’t we take a seat in the reading area? I got everyone a coffee.”
Alan guided us to the reading space, where he’d left us each a hot coffee from Zumbach’s. I took mine and sipped it – it was already lukewarm. I drank it anyway; my sleep routine was already getting fucked up, so why not. I saw Lana’s hand trembling as she reached for her drink.
Alan was dressed in another flannel, this one a blue and white checkerboard. I recognized it specifically. I’d kept it after he died, as something to remember him by. Then I’d lost it just over two years ago. But now, here it is, back on the shoulders of its rightful owner.
“So…” I began. Alan fixed me with expectant eyes, but I came up empty.
“How are you still alive?” Lana blurted out, then covered her mouth when she realized how loud she’d been. Nobody in the store turned a head; we’d heard stranger things here over the years.
“That’s what you want to start with? It’s so good to see you again, Lana. And babe? Not even a hello, from you?”
“Sorry,” I stuttered, “Still in shock.”
“I know,” Alan grinned, running his hand through his hair, “I look gooood, right? I mean, it’s 2019 and I look as good as I did back in 2012. How about that?”
“How about that exactly?”
Alan leaned forwards, steepling his fingers and fixing me with that same inviting look of conspiracy from the grocery store. In my two relationships before Alan, I’d always felt like there was something I didn’t get, or something my partners knew all about but that I was locked out of. With Alan it was different. Right from the start, it always felt like we were in on it together. Even then, in the bookstore, I was drawn in by the same feeling – but there was still so much I didn’t get.
“It’s the end of times,” Alan explained, like he’d just told me there was a sale on grass-fed beef. “The dead are rising from their final rest.” He shrugged, all matter of fact. “And I am among one of the first to rise.” He took a long pull from his coffee.
Lana and I exchanged a glance of shock. I had spent hours last night with a shovel in my hands poring over the same question, and I still hadn’t expected that answer. I don’t think Lana had either.
“You’re telling us…” Lana began slowly, “it’s the end of the world, book of Revelation style.”
“But Alan,” I protested, “You’re an atheist. We… we all are. You were never even pretending to be Catholic, like me and Alice. The book of Revelation was a guidebook that allowed a persecuted people communicate covertly during the Roman Empire. Nothing in it is… real.”
“But I have died,” Alan shrugged, “and here I am.”
“How long have you been back?” I asked.
He thought for a moment.
“Three months, give or take. I didn’t want to reach out until I was more… settled, you know? Until I’d figure more out. I hadn’t even meant to reach out this early, but we bumped into each other in the grocery store!”
Something about that threw up a red flag in my head, but I’m not sure exactly what.
“I’m sorry we killed you.” Lana exclaimed, then cupped her hands on her mouth again.
“Lana,” I hissed, “what if he didn’t remember that part?”
“I remember that part,” Alan snapped. Then his voice softened and he held his hands up in apology. “But that was seven years ago for both of you, isn’t it? Distant memory. I’d hate to open an old wound. No, today was about building bridges. Think about what I’ve said, won’t you?”
Alan downed the rest of his coffee and stood.
“I’d suggest we hang out here a while, for old times sake,” he sighed, “but I can see this is all very awkward for you. I’ll be in touch. Or maybe you could let me know if you want to talk more. You have my number, so… save it to your phone.”
As he shimmied out of the corner and past my chair, he leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. I wanted to scream. I wanted to laugh. Instead, I just clutched the arm-rests of my chair really hard and did nothing. Said nothing.
“See you later, babe.” He took a few steps away and turned to look at us again. “See you later, Lana.”
Lana launched out of her chair and into Alan’s arms. She squeezed him so tightly he was gasping for breath. His cheeks went scarlet, and his eyes popped with shock. A moment later he smiled and hugged Lana back. I couldn’t see the expression on her face, but it looked like she was rubbing his back comfortingly. Alan’s so recently affronted expression melted into a look of warm happiness.
I honestly felt kinda betrayed, but I didn’t have time to unpack all of that baggage.
After Lana pulled away, Alan gave me one final nod of the head and then disappeared into the stacks. I realized I was clenching my teeth, so I relaxed my jaw and prepared to let Lana have it for what she’d just pulled once I was confident Alan was out the door. Before I could, Lana whirled around and held something up to my face.
It was his driver’s license, clean and freshly printed.
* * *
It was Lana who met Alan first, actually. They were out at a bar in Providence and got to talking when Lana’s boyfriend (now ex) was in the bathroom. They were both pretty drunk and had an immediate connection over how their first names were anagrams. Alan hit on her pretty fiercely and – Lana maintains – quite smoothly, but since she was in a relationship at the time she’d turned him down. Lana invited Alan to sit with them, and over the course of the conversation it became known that Alan played for both teams.
This was great news to Lana, who’d insisted it was great news for me. I’d been out of my last relationship just long enough that something new could be considered not-a-rebound. And Alan was really sweet. Lana arranged for us to meet the next night, insisting that I would absolutely fall in love with him. And you know what? She was right.
For almost three years, things were good. I mean good. I mean spend a whole week speaking to no-one except Alan and not once feeling lonely good. I mean making breakfast together and trading off dinner while the other washed dishes good. I mean bingeing 7 hours of television in bed with a whole box of pizza good. I mean so good I’d even been considering coming out to my parents for him.
I had this one memory that’s vivid enough I came back to it once a week, even after the greater part of a decade. It was from one of the last nights before everything went bad. We were on our way to Alan’s house after a night at Dave & Buster’s with Lana, Alice, and Lana’s now-ex Rick. Alan had moved back in with his parents after college, but there was still a lot of friction between them. He was open about his lifestyle choices, but they were very traditional people and vehemently disapproved.
They also disapproved of me coming over and especially staying over, although they never said a mean word to me or treated me unkindly. It was part of their code to be always be kind and hospitable to guests. When I was gone, Alan would tell me, they’d let him have it. I was envious of Alan, in a way. Yes, he didn’t have a good relationship with his parents, but they hadn’t kicked him out, and he was open with them about who he was, while I lived in a peaceful harmony teetering on top of a lie.
On that particular night, Alan’s parents had already gone to bed when we arrived. When Alan threw open the door to his bedroom, I gasped audibly. Apparently, he’d gotten high alone one night the week before and gone on an online shopping spree.
Before me, arranged artfully on his bed, was a cornucopia of snacks you’d find on a Buzzfeed article about “Snack Foods that would Fill any True 90’s Kid with Nostalgia.” Gushers, Fruit-by-the-Foot, Zebra Cakes, Ring Pops, Dunkaroos, hell, even a couple of Lunchables. The Lunchables ended up being a disappointment, but the night wasn’t. We watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and gawked at how poorly it held up in the new decade.
The reason that night has stuck with me is that I remember, for the first time in a long while, feeling like I was at home. Between moving for college, moving back to my parents’ (who I lived a daily lie with), and then moving out again for a job, I hadn’t felt fully at home for a long while. That night, eating sugar-dense snacks that I’d regret the next day and watching Indiana Jones, I felt like I belonged.
Alan Patel made me feel like I belonged; when I killed him, I never felt more alienated.
* * *
The sun was setting, so, with Lana sitting next to me on the sidewalk outside of my apartment, I called Alice’s mom. She spent the first few minutes saying how tremendously happy she was to hear from me and asking questions about how I was (I lied) and what I was up to these days (I told the truth, with one glaring omission). When she’d finally run through all the standard pleasantries, I asked her if Alice was home and if I could talk to her.
“Oh, no, David,” she informed me, “Alice is up in Vermont until next Friday! She said she’d told you and Lana all about it.”
I thanked her for her time and hung up before telling Lana what I’d learned.
“I hope nothing’s happened to her,” Lana fretted. As if on cue, my cell began blasting Misery Business, my ringtone for Alice.
“You called my fucking mom?!” Alice hissed into my ear. I held the phone away and put her on speaker.
“I told you this was a fucking nature retreat. Nothing to tie you to the outside world? Just you, the Earth, and your thoughts? I thought I explained this, Dave.”
“Can’t I get one week? Can’t I get just one fucking week, Dave? I told my mom only to call me if her life was in danger, Dave. I thought my mom’s life was in danger.”
“Alice, we wouldn’t be-”
Click. She hung up. I looked over at Lana in dismay. Her phone buzzed: a text from Alice.
“Don’t you go getting any ideas either,” Lana read out loud. “I’m not going to answer my phone.” Lana sighed, blowing strands of curly hair out of her face. “What now?”
“We go ahead without her,” I shrugged, “She made her choice.” I was feeling bitter. Alice had been uncharacteristically petty, and it had pissed me off. I actually felt a little glad that she wouldn’t be in on this with me and Lana, and it felt bad to feel that way. I tried to push Alice out of mind, which was clearly where she wanted to be.
So it was decided: we would go ahead with the plan later that night, just the two of us.
* * *
The first time I noticed something was wrong was early in the morning, on a workday. Alan had stayed over my place that night, and I awoke to notice that he was already awake, but just lying motionlessly on the bed next to me, close to touching but not quite.
“Do you know how it feels,” he asked me when he noticed I’d just woken up, “to wake up next to a coward every morning?”
Hurt and confused, I reached out to touch him and ask him what he meant. Instead, he stood up, said nothing to me, and refused to look me in the eye as he got ready for work and left. I was so devastated I called in sick. He’d known just what to say to me to throw me off kilter. I admit it – I don’t like real conflict. I often lie to avoid it, and that’s dug me deeper and deeper into holes that sometimes feel impossible to get out of. Even to this day I struggle with that, and Alan knew I did. Like I said: he knew just what to say.
The evening was more normal. I didn’t bring up what he’d said in the morning, and neither did he. We did the things we normally do to pass the time in the evening, and I smiled, but I didn’t mean it.
It got worse, and not just with me. He started making cruel, offhand comments about Lana’s weight; she wasn’t overweight, not even close, but she had been when she was growing up, and she’d put in a lot of effort adjusting to a healthier lifestyle and level of self-esteem. She’d always been the energy of our group, the impetus for hanging out altogether, the one with the good ideas of how to pass the time. Every time Alan made one of his comments, you could see her energy fizzle just a little bit.
What he said to Alice was the harshest, and the least understandable. We’d all met up at a J.P. Licks. I was already tense because Alan had been in one of his moods on the drive up. We were all sitting around a table eating ice cream and Alice was going off on a rant about the new season of… American Horror Story, I think, when Alan looked right at her and cut her off, saying,
“Your obsession with the horror genre stems from the fact that it glamourizes monsters, so if anyone ever found out what goes on under that pretty skin of yours, they might be more accepting of what they see. You give thanks that mind-readers aren’t real, because if they were and someone else saw your thoughts, they’d try and lock you up or even kill you. You’ve put together a friendly and quite frankly stunningly well-put-together outer shell, but really you’re monstrous, something not even close to human.”
Everyone stared at him in stunned silence. Alice knocked her ice cream onto Alan’s shoes and ran out without saying anything.
Lana and I both tried really hard to convince Alan to seek therapy. He insisted that he was perfectly lucid, and that in fact, he felt saner than he’d ever felt since he hit puberty. He said he felt happy, even. It was true – despite all his casual cruelty, he always carried himself in high spirits. Sometimes, there were even good days, days when he was the old Alan and we could talk and laugh like I’d become accustomed to, even dependent on.
The first day like that was an oasis: a hope that things could return to normal and that Alan might get better. After that, those days became even worse torture, a taste of what I had lost and what I wanted back so badly, knowing full well that tomorrow would turn once again into a nightmare.
After about two months of this, Alan texted Alice telling her to meet him in the woods behind the old mill. He promised he’d tell her everything. She was terrified.
She showed the text to me and Lana, and we agreed to go with her and hide out of sight, just in case.
* * *
Lana and I staked out the address on Alan’s driver’s license. It was a two-story, multi-family home. Alan’s license said that his apartment was the bottom floor. Peering in through the windows, we could tell that it was a nice place, not inexpensive, with quality furniture, granite countertops, and a sleek, modern design.
We confirmed he lived there when we spotted him cooking and eating dinner while Netflix played in the background – The Haunting of Hill House, I guessed, from the look of it, even though I’d never seen it. After a few hours, Alan washed his dishes, shut off the TV, and headed out to his car. He’d obviously not noticed his missing license, as he drove off without a second thought. The car was nice too – I didn’t catch the specific make, but I could tell it also wasn’t cheap. We didn’t see him set an alarm system on his way out, so that at least was one hurdle we didn’t have to worry about.
Lana crept ahead with a set of lockpicks she’d used to mess with her college roommates. She’d told me that lockpicking was disturbingly easy to figure out. The first time she’d use them, she’d picked the lock to her own dorm room in under thirty seconds. She bypassed Alan’s locks with just as much ease. The door clicked open and we crept inside.
Our goal was to find anything that might help explain what was going on with Alan, or how he’d crawled out of his grave. It had been hard to tell at the bookshop whether the Alan who’d returned was the one I had loved, the one I had killed, or a third, different Alan entirely. He’d seemed so familiar, but the entire situation was so not.
I headed for the study. Lana headed for the bedroom.
His computer was obviously password protected, and none of his old passwords did the trick. It was funny what I still remembered. The drawers to the desk were locked, and I couldn’t find the key with a cursory glance around, so I just yanked at the drawer with the locking mechanism on it, and the lock broke. Easy.
There was a lot of paperwork in the desk – the kind of paperwork it’s smart to keep around: his car registration, and a photocopy of his license and passport. W-2 forms. Mounds of pay stubs. A handful of receipts, and a copy of his lease – I’d been right. This place didn’t come cheap.
The more I looked through his papers, the more things didn’t add up. He told Lana and I that he’d only been back for three months, but his lease began six months ago; he’d had the car for just over a year. He had W-2’s going two years back, and pay stubs going back even further. The earliest date I could find was in early 2016. I remembered the missing flannel – what if I hadn’t lost it? What if Alan had snuck in and taken it back, years ago?
And yet – the Alan we saw earlier in the day didn’t look a day older than either Lana or I remembered him. It just… none of it made sense. I was missing a big piece of this puzzle.
I looked at a pay stub more closely. Apparently, Alan worked for Novartis, just outside of Hartford. I’d heard of Novartis before, in passing – they were a big deal in pharma, I think – but for some reason I felt like Novartis meant more than just that. I’d had conversations about Novartis not that long ago, with someone I couldn’t recall, and they felt like important conversations.
I didn’t have any more time to ponder, because Lana screamed.
I ran to the bedroom.
Lana was standing in the doorway; she’d opened the closet door and immediately leaped back across the room as a large object tumbled out.
It was the grotesque, worm-eaten corpse of Alan Patel, zipped up in a large plastic bag.