A Hundred Year Love Story
Henry was over a hundred years dead when the redheaded woman visited his grave. From his weathered headstone under the oak tree on the hill, he watched her arrival with the usual disinterest of lingering spirits, lazily acknowledging the dust her car kicked up on the dirt road until she stopped a short distance away at the very edge of the old section. It wasn't until she came closer, slowly reading her way through the rows of headstones, that he paid her any mind.
A couple other lingering souls in the old section peeked out from their graves, intrigued as Henry was that anyone was headed their way. Here the ghosts of the past were few and far between, most having long ago moved on to the next life, their last desires fulfilled or given up; their graves had likewise been abandoned by the living as none remained to remember their occupants. The afterlife in this corner of the cemetery was thus a quiet affair, most days, so it was no large surprise that a living visitor in the old section was a cause of a relative uproar for its inhabitants.
The woman spent a quarter of an hour perusing the headstones, squinting her eyes and tilting her head to make out some of the names, nearly illegible as they were with growing moss. She paused, looking thoughtful, at his neighbor's marker (Alice Thorne, Born Dec 1870, Died Jan 1890) before stopping completely to study his headstone (Henry Johnson, Born Jan 1871, Died Jan 1890).
Henry studied her in return.
Something about her fascinated him. She was a complete stranger to him, of course, so her presence alone was intriguing. Beyond that, she was pretty, with red curls the breeze blew around her face in a way that reminded him of a woman he'd loved while he was alive. Her gaze in particular held his attention. Green eyes looked through him, but when they stared at his headstone, they were friendly and warm, crinkled with fond familiarity as if she had known him.
The woman sat down next to his grave. She closed her eyes, tilting her head up towards the sun and the oak tree. The breeze played with her hair and the branches above murmured their objections, bringing a smile to her face. She opened her eyes and absentmindedly pulled a few weeds away from his headstone. He wondered what she was thinking. Henry sat beside her, captivated.
But as suddenly as she'd arrived, she was leaving him. The woman glanced at her watch and quickly stood up, alarmed by what it told her. She brushed the dirt and grass off her pants and walked back to her car. Henry followed as far as the edge of the road, longing to get in the car with her, to go wherever she went, to see what she did with her life. He wanted so much to know who she was.
In the end, curiosity won out over his fear of leaving the cemetery. Henry got in the car with her and they drove home together.
She lived in a townhouse on the other side of town, farther than Henry had ever wandered since his death. While he certainly noticed the many changes that had happened in that time, his focus remained on the redheaded woman. She hurried to her door, nearly dropping her keys as she sorted through them to find the right one; Henry didn't need to worry about the door and waited for her inside.
He found the place neat and clean, but full of cardboard boxes as if she had only recently moved there. As the key clicked in the door, a small dog and a large cat came running to greet her. The dog ignored him but the cat stared at Henry and scurried to hide under the couch. Its eerie green eyes watched him warily.
The woman didn't notice, since the moment she opened the door the dog bounced up onto her leg, dancing frantically around her. "Okay, okay," she told it, smiling, "I know I'm late! Let me get in the door!" No sooner had she said those words than she'd thrown down her things next to the door, grabbed a leash off the table, and the two of them were gone.
And then it was just Henry and the cat.
It hissed at him when he came closer, and backed further under the couch. Henry crouched down to its level and met its eyes. He stared, the cat stared back; neither one dared to blink. Eventually, the cat's eyes went blank, mesmerized by his own. Reaching out slowly so he didn't break the connection, Henry touched the cat, then reached further and pulled himself toward it. There was a feeling of pressure, of the room closing in around him, and he finally blinked, but this time he blinked with the eyes of the cat.
Henry stretched his cat muscles and slunk out from under the couch. Only once in the past hundred years had he possessed an animal and that had been a squirrel from the oak tree over his grave, nothing like this. He chased his tail, he ran around the room, he leapt on the mantle, he balanced on the back of a dining chair, getting used to a real body again. When he'd had his fun, he searched her home.
There didn't seem to be anything particularly unique about her life. Pawing his way into her closet, he found her clothes and a man's clothes hanging neatly on opposite sides. There was no clutter, little dust, and a pleasant lingering smell of fruity soap emitting from the bathroom and on things she touched regularly, like a chair in the living room he suspected was her favorite, and a photo album on the coffee table. He jumped up next to the photo album, peering down at the page with cat eyes, discovering she'd recently looked at her wedding pictures, standing beside a dark-haired man with glasses.
Henry couldn't find any clues why she fascinated him the way she did. And he was no closer to discovering why she'd visited his grave. Giving up, he decided to curl up in a sunny spot on the carpet and take a nap until she came back.
It was late autumn, 1889, and Alice Thorne's slender arm looped around his as they strolled down the lane. In his memory, the church bells tolled, but he was no longer sure if it had been a Sunday or a special day or if he just imagined the bells were tolling, that they should have been tolling at that particular moment.
Alice closed her eyes and smiled as the sun warmed her face and the wind made her dark brown curls caress her skin. "I think this is a sign, Henry, don't you?"
"I do if you do," he replied, then paused. "What sort of sign do you think it is?"
"The sort that says we should announce our engagement," she said, her hazel eyes looking up to meet his. "We should announce it today and be married when I return from Aunt Pearl's in the fall."
Henry pulled her close, inhaling the sweet scent of her, like ripe strawberries in the sun, and he said, "My dearest, I think you're right. It is definitely a sign."
He woke with a start and had to suppress a feline urge to run around the room in a catlike frenzy. When he'd gotten a grip on himself and shook off the disorienting dream, Henry cursed himself for getting so attached to his temporary body. Spirits had no need for sleep and it had been a century since he'd last dreamed at all; it was foolish of him to forget why he was there in the first place. He spent the rest of his alone time peering up at pictures on the wall, showing the woman's life with her dark-haired husband and the little dog and large cat.
The redheaded woman and the bouncy little dog returned a short time later, crashing into the apartment with the jingle of the dog's tags and clomp of her shoes on the linoleum, cutting through the silence he'd previously enjoyed. The dog ran off into the kitchen and she came over to pet him. Henry told himself he didn't enjoy the sensation, that it was just the cat's residual personality leaking through his possession, but he was quite certain he was purring by the time the dog came back into the room with a ball in its mouth. She stopped paying attention to him and he felt oddly disappointed the moment she turned away.
Henry perched on the back of the sofa, observing the woman and her dog as they played with the ball. She'd throw the ball and the little dog darted after it. When she faked it out, pretending to throw and laughing as the little dog gave chase, he studied the way her whole face lit up, and her hair bounced and shone in the sunlight coming in through the window. There seemed to be no maliciousness in her tricks, just playfulness, and Henry found himself wanting to join in the chase, not because of the cat but of his own accord, because her mood spread to him so quickly.
Without a second thought, Henry launched himself after the ball the next time she threw it, and her sweet laughter followed him, cheering him on.
Later that evening, after she made a quick dinner for herself and settled down on the couch with a thick book, Henry cuddled up close beside her. He wasn't sure what made him so bold, to worm himself into such a position with a woman he barely knew, but he knew he couldn't blame it all on the cat's mind again. She made him feel alive again and he felt drawn to her somehow.
She stroked his fur again, softer now, more laid back than their greeting that afternoon, and he felt the purring start before he even considered suppressing it. Henry didn't bother to object; he just lay back and basked in the attention.
They arrived at her door when the sun was low in the sky, casting golden light all around them and making their shadows reach the threshold long before they did. Alice rested her head on his shoulder as he opened the gate and they both knew their time together was at an end. "It's all come too soon," she murmured. "It hardly seems fair that time goes by so fast when we're together and plods along when we're apart."
"Don't think of it like that," he said, and kissed the top of her head. "Time goes the same pace everywhere, no matter what. Before you know it, winter will be over and you'll be back here, with me."
Alice stood in the doorway, not wanting to go inside her home, to say goodbye for the next few months. "Do you promise? Time won't stop at Aunt Pearl's and we'll be married in the church as soon as I come back?"
Henry nodded and pointed to the oak tree in the front yard. "I'll be standing by that oak tree all day when you come back, just to see you again." He grinned. "And from there…"
"Straight to the church."
Henry jerked awake with a grunting meow. The redheaded woman chuckled. "Bad dreams, kitty?" she asked, and ran her hand from behind his ears, down his spine, all the way to the base of his tail. Henry couldn't help but like her, and settled back into her arms. He opened his senses to her, listening closely to her heartbeat and steady inhale and exhale of her breath. His ghostly senses also reached out to her, feeling the warmth of her soul so close and bright next to his was an unusual sensation that he loved. Touching the spirits of a living person was so much more intoxicating than sensing another ghost. Her body in particular seemed so full of life…Henry wondered if perhaps that was the real reason he was drawn to her.
A key clicked in the door. The little dog bolted from its bed to bounce on the dark-haired man from the pictures. The redheaded woman gently picked Henry up and set him on the floor so she could go over and kiss her husband. Henry stretched his cat muscles as he tried to ignore their affectionate greetings.
"And how was your day?" the man asked her, as they walked into the kitchen, Henry following nonchalantly at their heels.
She leaned against the counter as he dug through the refrigerator. A look of wonder came to her face. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. It was so strange."
The man stopped rummaging around in the fridge and looked at her, eyebrow raised almost comically, as though he were faking surprise at the statement. "Try me."
"Remember those dreams I was telling you about?"
"The dream guy you were cheating on me with? Who you were going to marry because he was just so sweet and charming? Harry or something?" He grinned.
"It was Henry," she corrected, crossing her arms. "And it wasn't me who was marrying him, it was a woman named Alice."
Henry's cat ears perked up and he leapt up onto the counter to sit between them, listening in on the conversation.
The woman continued. "Turns out they might've existed. At least, she definitely did. I stopped by the old cemetery on Grove Street after work today and found Alice Thorne next to a Henry, Henry Johnson."
The man looked at her with an odd expression on his face like he didn't know what to make of this revelation. "So," he began, after a long silence, "they weren't married. I take it there was no happy ending?"
She shook her head, long curls bouncing around her face. "No, they died pretty young. The same month, too. January, 1890."
Henry stared at the woman, his tail flicking in agitation. He'd heard of living people who could see the spirits of the dead, seers and mediums, but he'd never met one before. The woman didn't seem the type (she certainly hadn't seen him before now) so how could she be seeing these parts of his life? Why did she have memories only Henry and Alice had shared?
Henry suppressed a violent cough as he read and reread the letter Aunt Pearl had sent him. He didn't want to believe the words it contained.
'The doctor says Alice has the pneumonia now,' the letter said. 'He doesn't know if she will be strong enough to recover.'
Henry hoped the doctor was wrong. All around him, other people in town had this flu, and many had already died. He'd caught it himself but seemed to be fighting it off. He prayed Alice would too.
Two days later, the news came that she hadn't.
The redheaded woman and the dark-haired man stared at him, or rather at the cat he inhabited who Henry supposed must look very much distressed about something. She reached out to stroke him but that didn't seem to help. Henry couldn't suppress the memories and hurts he'd pushed away for decades.
He'd kept his promise. The day she returned to town, Henry stood by the oak tree all day, in the cold and the mud, just to be the first to welcome her back. It was foolish with how ill he'd recently been, as Alice's mother halfheartedly tried to tell him as he waited in the lightly misting rain, but it all felt worthwhile when the wagon bearing Alice's father and her coffin came over the hill and he finally got to walk with her to the church. It was not like they'd imagined but it felt like enough.
His illness returned not so long after, to no one's great surprise. Henry had lost much of his desire to recover, having buried his dreams in a muddy grave on the hill. In fact, he went almost willingly. The people of the cemetery welcomed him, somberly accepting him to their ranks along with a number of men and women the epidemic had claimed.
But his Alice was not one of them. She never came back.
Henry jumped down off the counter and darted away to be alone. He settled in the dark corner of the closet, curling the cat's tail around him and sulking like a petulant child. Sensing his need for comfort, the cat's primitive mind reared up over his, pushing him away for a moment to purr and clean itself, its little secret to relaxation. Henry surrendered to its actions, willing to do whatever he could to forget.
Late that night, when the redheaded woman and her husband had gone to bed for the night and Henry had adequately composed himself, he left the comforting dark cocoon of the closet into the wide-open space of the bedroom. He knew it was time to go home to the cemetery.
Henry released his hold on the cat. It flopped over as if in a dream, yawning. When it saw him again its tail puffed up and it sprinted out of the room. Henry let it go. In the darkness, lit only by the moonlight creeping through the slats of the blinds, he watched the rise and fall of the woman's chest. Her arm was draped over her husband's and Henry immediately wished he could be that man and feel a woman's arms around him once more.
Before he could leave, Henry went to her side again to feel her spirit one last time. Without the cat's body numbing the experience, she practically burned him with the intensity of her life energy, inflaming his soul to the point that he almost felt alive. But he opened himself to her even more, sensing something he hadn't before: another life near her spirit.
It took a moment for him to realize what that might mean and then he had to reach out and examine the other life, the little glow of a spirit barely entering into this life: the spirit of the woman's unborn child. Henry's spirit touched the very edges of the little one.
Alice followed her body all the way home, her father at her side. She saw him weeping at the sight of her casket and screamed in frustration that she could no longer reach out to comfort him. This was not what she had expected to happen when she died, lingering on like this. But somehow it felt right, like there was something she still needed to do.
Coming down the lane, past houses and yards she'd played in as a child, Alice looked at everything with disinterest. It didn't seem fair that she couldn't see all those people again. She couldn't see Henry again and live the life they'd dreamed of.
But as they came over the rise, and drove over the top of the hill, she saw him. He was just where he'd promised to be, standing by the old oak tree in the front yard. Her heart went out to him, her soul reaching for his as he came alongside the wagon and escorted her body to the church.
Alice jumped off the wagon at the church gate. She watched the processional make their way up the hill to a grave that had been prepared for her. Some part of her thought she needed to follow her body into that cemetery. But just as before, she felt a different calling. 'You've done what you wanted to,' it whispered to her. 'Your time in this life is complete. You need time to prepare for the next life.'
So Alice turned away from the gate. She released her hold on this world, hoping with her last thought that things would go right in the next life.
Henry jumped back as though he'd just been struck by lightning. Here she was, after all this time! Alice had moved on over a century before, feeling the call of the afterlife before he'd even died. Now she would have her second chance.
He stood there for a long moment, watching the way Alice's tiny spirit mingled with the redheaded woman's. Henry understood now why the woman had known things she could not, somehow sensing the memories of his Alice. She probably didn't even know yet that she was going to have a child, let alone one so special to him.
Like Alice in the stolen memory, Henry felt a calm completeness settle upon him. 'You've done what you wanted to," the little voice told him, though he already knew it to be true. "It's time to go to the next life."
Henry smiled as he looked at little Alice, peeking her way into this world again, and he let himself go. As he felt his spirit dissipate and fall away from that life, somehow he knew that this time things would go right.