"I just wanted you to know,” Marla
said.“It’s not too late for you to
change your mind.”
We were in the back room of the
church, just having finished the rehearsal.Most of the wedding party was hanging out in the foyer, waiting for us,
but Marla had whispered something to the priest and then pulled me down the
hallway to the back room.
“I just don’t understand,” I
said.“You . . . it doesn’t make sense.”
She had those big brown puppy-dog
eyes staring at me as she pursed her lips.She took a deep breath and said again, “I faked my own death.”
“You’re not kidding?”
Of course she wasn’t.I could see that as clear as the candles
surrounding us.She lowered her head a
bit, and pushed her hair back.Tomorrow,
she’d have some new hair style for the wedding, but I liked it just hanging
long and straight, like she always wore it.
“It was two years ago.I was married to a monster in Boston.He just hit me one too many times, I guess.We’d been married almost three years, and
every one of those thousand days was worse than the one before.He abused me in every possible way. Yelling, belittling me, hitting me so often I
felt like a punching bag . . . ”
Marla started to shake and I
pulled her to me.“You don’t have to --
“And he’d rape me after hitting me.Fuck me just to hear me scream.Sometimes, though, my mind just went blank.”
She pulled back and looked up into
my eyes.I didn’t know what to say, so I
“You wouldn’t recognize me,
Andy.I was a lifeless zombie, not
caring if I lived or died.”
She stopped talking, continuing to
look at my eyes.I tried to imagine this
vivacious, beautiful, strong woman in a marriage like she described.I couldn’t see it.
Marla tried to smile, but it was
forced.Even so, her smile always hit me
like a hammer, and I kissed her forehead, still amazed that she would agree to
marry me.She was definitely out of my
There was a knock on the
door.We both turned to look as Michele
poked her head through.“We’re getting
hungry, guys . . . ”
“We’ll be a while,” I said.
“We’re ready now,” said Marla.She whispered to me, “The rest can wait.I just had to tell you the hard part.”
Now her smile was genuine.
The wedding was perfect.
I thought I’d seen Marla in her
best form many times before, but when she walked down the aisle with her
sister, I knew that I was marrying the most beautiful woman in the world.
We’d known each other for a couple
of years, but our first date was exactly one year ago, on her 32nd
birthday.It seemed only appropriate to
marry on the same day a year later; I wanted the day to be devoted to her.For that matter, I wanted my whole friggin’ life
to be devoted to her.
It sounds terribly hokey, but I was head over heels in
love, and I knew my sole purpose in the future would be to make Marla happy.That’s God’s honest truth.Marla was on my mind every waking minute, and
my feelings were even stronger knowing now what she’d been through in Boston.
I wanted her forever.It all seemed guaranteed, until we were alone
in our suite and somebody knocked on the door.
We hadn’t even had time to change
out of our wedding clothes.The
reception was underway, dinner was over, and the speeches were all done.We were just getting changed into casual
clothes to go for one last dance before . . . well, before my fantasies would
end and I would make love to her for the first time as my wife.
“Probably Janice,” said Marla.“Not sure what she’d want, though.”
Marla’s sister was the only person
who knew our hotel room number.I
She flipped the lock on the door
and pulled it open.I heard her gasp and
turned to see her try to push the door closed.“Ricky?No, it can’t be -- ”
And then she was blown back, blood
splashing out on her peach wedding gown.The gunshot wasn’t loud, but it was very powerful.Blood covered everything, and Marla flew off
her feet, landing a few feet behind.
She never moved.
I think I went a little crazy for
a while.It was impossible to believe my
whole life would be stretching forward without Marla.
I couldn’t cry at her
funeral.It was like I was looking at a
jigsaw puzzle all broken apart with the pieces mixed up.The picture wouldn’t come to me.It was simply not possible that the casket
being lowered into the ground carried my Marla.
For a week after, I ignored the
phone calls, the knocks on the door, even the cards that came in the mail from
All I knew was that I needed her
back.And, yes, maybe I was more than a little crazy, because the
only idea I came up with was to follow her.I had to follow Marla beyond death.
Before I did, I needed to talk to
her sister, Janice.She opened the door
at my knock and gave me a hug.She was a
big woman, so different from my petite Marla that it was hard to believe they
“I’m so sorry, Andy.”
“Would you like a drink?”
Marla always drank Chardonnay.“Do you have any white wine?”
She smiled and poured the
I touched glasses with her and
took a sip.
“How’d she fake her death before?”
Janice looked at me and seemed to
be thinking back.“It was so hard on
her.She knew if she just left Ricky,
he’d hunt her down.He was nutso crazy,
but the cops could never do anything.One night we cooked up this plan.It took eighteen months to work.”
“Why so long?”
“Insurance.She took out an insurance policy on herself
with me as the beneficiary.Ricky was so
stupid, he believed he was the one who would get the money, and that scared Marla
even more.We didn’t want it to ring any
alarm bells at the insurance company, so we waited a long time before . . . ”
She stopped and took a sip of her
“It’s okay.She wanted to tell me.We just ran out of time.”
“I know.Anyhow, the two of us hired a friend who owned
a fishing boat.The story was that we
all went out on the ocean for a day, and Marla fell overboard.We couldn’t save her and her body was never
found.Of course, Marla wasn’t really
there that day. She was on a train to Topeka.Eventually the insurance company paid me $250,000.I gave part to Billy, who owned the boat, and
sent the rest to Marla.She used it to
buy a new identity.A couple years
later, I followed her here.”
The house was silent except for a
quiet song coming from a radio in another room.I think it was a song by theBare
A tear rolled down Janice’s
cheek.“Ricky must have followed
me.Somehow he must have known she
wasn’t really dead.”
We finished the drinks, toasting
my Marla one more time before I left.
I thought of having another drink
or two, just to give me the courage I’d need, but no.I needed to be clear-headed if I was to
follow Marla beyond death.
had many different knives.Marla brought a complete carving set when she
moved in.They were some kind of novelty
knives with long emerald-colored handles. There was a copper design snaking through
them.Marla thought they were funny
looking.I didn’t much like them but the
knives were long and sharp.The handles
were firm and the blades serrated.
I took the longest one and placed
it on our coffee table, staring at it from my easy chair.
“My name’s Marla.Who are you?”
She nodded and shook my hand.That first day, she gave me that gorgeous
smile.She was short, couldn’t have
topped five feet, but that smile shone through the whole room, making her the
tallest person in the room.
“Do I know you?”
I’d come to the party with my
room-mate, just wanting to kill a couple hours.
Marla moved closer to me, staring
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“No, no of course not.”
We kept our eyes locked.It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of
thing.Finding somebody you didn’t even
know you were looking for.
Ten minutes later, I held her
hand.I didn’t let go until I left her
at three the next morning.I knew I’d
found the woman I needed to be with.
The knife was in my hand.Thinking back to when we first met confirmed
my decision.I couldn’t let her go.
I used the blade to find a soft
spot between some ribs and held the handle with both hands.
if I can’t find her?)
I shook my worries away.I damned well had to find her.
My hands were shaking.I blinked and looked up at the ceiling,
biting my teeth together.
And I slammed the knife into my
chest as hard as I could.
Pain roared through me and pushed
me down into the chair.I couldn’t
breathe.Somehow I’d let go of the knife
but my hands tried to find it again, to pull the fucker out to stop the pain
and to . . . to rest . . . and to rest . . . and . . . Marla! . . .
I wanted to blink but I didn’t
seem to have the muscles to do that.I no
longer felt the knife and I looked down to my chest.
There was no knife, no blood.I was wearing the tuxedo I’d worn to our
Around me was a light purple fog
swirling on the ground.
My nickname for Marla when we’d
first met was Purple.She’d worn a
purple dress to her birthday party and I mentioned an old poem I’d heard about
a woman who promised to wear purple when she grew old.
My voice didn’t make any sound,
but I could tell what I was saying.I called
for her again.
“She’s not here.”
The voice came from
everywhere.Or nowhere.I turned to see an old man in a
wheelchair.I think he was black, but I
wasn’t sure.There wasn’t much light.
“Who’re you?Where’s Marla?”
“Marla’s dead.So are you.I’m the gatekeeper.”
“Gatekeeper to what?”
He didn’t answer, but wheeled
around me.“You don’t belong here.”
“I had to follow her.”
He didn’t seem satisfied.“You shouldn’t be here yet.”
“Then let me find Marla and go
“Oh, if it were only that easy.”
“You know who she is?”
“Everyone knows everyone here.”
Here?I still didn’t know where I was.Heaven?Hell?Purgatory?Were those even useful concepts for people
who are really dead?
“I came to take her back.”
The man just stared at me.Somehow I knew what he was thinking even
though he didn’t say it: You’re not the
first to try.
The purple mist floated around my ankles,
my mind turning the swirling fog into cloud-like shapes.I watched for a few minutes, waiting to see
what would happen next.
My Marla.Sometimes I seemed to catch a glimpse of her
face in the mist, but it was gone before I could truly see her.
“We don’t just send people back
I looked back to the black man,
who now was younger with long brown hair.His face seemed Oriental but he didn’t have an accent.
He still sat in the same
“How do I get her back?”
He smiled and spun around.“You can push me.”
What I wanted to do was to spin the damned chair around and grab the guy by
the throat.I wanted him to tell how the fuck I could get Marla back.I wanted
him to just let me love her.
I pushed his wheelchair forward,
not knowing where we were going.The
chair didn’t need much pressure to move, and I was pretty sure that my pushing
was an illusion.
“Why her?” he asked.
I almost answered “I love her”
almost as a reflex, but I stopped myself.He knew I loved her.But
why?What made this girl so special?
In my mind I ran through some random
thoughts about her.She was pretty, she
was smart, she was funny, sex with her was inventive, funny, and magic, she
liked the same books and movies I did, she appreciated me, she worked hard, she
played hard, she wanted to have two children like I did, she had simple tastes
(preferring fried pork chops to filet mignon), she told me every morning that
she loved me and every night, she rarely wore cosmetics, she loved to hear me
compliment her, she had a gentle voice and a loud laugh, she would lay her head
on my lap letting me stroke her hair while we watched movies on TV, she had
that alarmingly beautiful smile, she taught me to play Sudoku, I taught her to
play chess, she always held my hand while we were walking together . . .
And a million other things about
her ran through my mind.
I stopped and turned the guy
around in the wheelchair.
“All my life I’ve built up an
image in my mind of what my perfect life-companion would be.No woman ever came close.One would have the looks but no sense of
humor.Another might be funny but a flake.I never found any one girl that ever came
close to what I really wanted.I’d
pretty much resigned myself to being alone, because there was never a woman
that could meet my ideal.
“Then, a year ago, I found Marla.She didn’t match any of my ideals.She’s
short.She’s not blonde.So many things aren’t what I thought I
wanted, but I knew right away she was it.
“And it seemed I was equally her it.
“We were just meant to be
together, and I am not going to fucking well give up on that now.”
I’m not sure when the guy’s hair
had changed to white.He looked
Scandinavian, I think.Long cheeks, blue
“Being without her isn’t worth
living,” I added.
“You must prove that you truly
will do anything for her.”
I almost gasped.The first hint of a chance.“Anything,” I repeated.“I’ll do anything.”
“We’ll see.You must succeed at three challenges.One is physical, one emotional, and one
spiritual.On my watch, there have been
more than 10,000 people who’ve come to me as you have.Only 382 succeeded at the physical
“How many of them -- ?”
“13 succeeded at the emotional
I couldn’t ask.
“And of the 13 . . . well, maybe
you’ll be the first to pass all three challenges.I keep thinking there has to be a first time.What will you do to have her return?”
“I’ll do whatever I have to.”
“Who are you?”
There was no answer.He turned his wheelchair around and started
to roll away.“Your first challenge is
to walk to the light.”
I started to follow behind him.
“Not this way.Go to the light.”
I didn’t know what he meant until
I looked around and in the distance I could see a bright flash.It might have been a spotlight or a
flashlight or something.Or a star.There was nothing else to see except the
purple haze, so I couldn’t tell how far away it was.100 feet?500?A mile?
When I looked back to the
wheelchair, it was gone.I was alone in
I started walking toward the
light, wondering if something in the mist would try to stop me.My watch had frozen at when
I’d committed suicide, so I tried counting my steps.What else was there to do?
When I hit 2,000 steps I
stopped.Had to be a mile, and I
couldn’t really tell if the light was any closer.
“Keep going if you want her.”
I spun around, but there was
nobody there.I wondered if I was being
timed and if I didn’t get to the light in time, would I forfeit Marla?
I started again, faster.
After another 3,000 paces my leg
muscles were starting to hurt, but I didn’t stop.I was almost sure the light was a bit
If anything, I walked faster,
breathing heavily and really starting to notice the cramping in my leg.
I started to get discouraged after
another 10,000 steps.Five miles?More?
And then somewhere after that, I
lost track of how long I’d marched.The
landscape was all the same rolling purple mist and the damned light never
really seemed to get any closer.
“It’s moving away from me,” I
said.When I realized that, I stopped.
Could I see the light move?No.But it had to be moving away, likely as fast as I was walking.How else could I not have reached it yet?
A wheelchair rolled around from
behind me.A bald woman sat in it
now.She had a lilting voice.“You don’t seem to want her very badly.You’ve got a very long way to go.”
“It’s moving away from me, isn’t
She shrugged.“What does it matter?It takes as long as it takes, and if you keep
going, you’ll get there.”
“But, I’ve got to know how long
“No, you just have to know you
want to do it.”
She rolled back into the mist and
“How long has it been,” I asked.
Could it be?I’d walked for two days?
I stared at the guy.He was Chinese.“You shitting me?”
My legs were cruel tortures all
the time.They hated me.I didn’t need to eat, sleep, drink water, or
anything else I should have wanted.I
was dead.But, my legs cried out in pain
with every step.
I walked again.
Marla and I worked together at
City Hall.I worked on computer problems
and she was down the hall and around the corner.I saw her sometimes at our shared printer or
in the cafeteria.I never had the
courage to talk to her.
Besides, I thought I’d heard she
was dating somebody.
But . . . from a distance, I saw
her.Saw her when she changed her
hairstyle to wear pigtails, saw how she loved to pop a peanut M&M into her
mouth as an afternoon snack.
For two years, I slowly fell in
love with her, barely ever saying a word.
At her 32nd birthday,
she originally seemed surprised to see me.I’d found a way to tag along with Dan, and when I saw her there . . . I
could see she was glad to see me.Some
barrier just melted away that day; we became inseparable.
“Almost a year.Now you’re making progress.”
A year?I’d been walking for a fucking year, and the light wasn’t any closer?
“Shit, this isn’t working,” I
said.“There’s got to be another way.”
“Don’t you want her badly enough?”
I hesitated for the first
time.A year?But then in my mind, I saw her again, as
clear as ever, that wonderful smile breaking me into little pieces.
“How much farther?” I asked.
And I finally got my answer.“Another ninety-nine years.”
And I walked again.
When I asked how long I’d been
searching for Marla, it seemed impossible to believe the numbers.Two years, Ten years . . .
And she was still fresh in my
mind.I still needed to walk, to save
I loved her too much to let her
One hundred years.
The light grew brighter.It was a lighthouse after all.I reached the base where a naked woman in the
wheelchair met me.She was missing an
“You made it.”
“Where is she?”
For the first time in a century I
fell to the ground.My legs were jelly
and it was hard to not just die.Except
I’d already done that.
The ground was slightly inclined
at the lighthouse and large rocks were scattered around.The weird purple haze didn’t climb the small
hill and so it looked like we were in the eye of a hurricane, only this was the
eye of the fog.
“Do you want to stop yet?”
Stop?How could I stop?I’d just spent a hundred fucking years following the woman I love.I wanted to hit the woman, but I had no
“No.I won’t stop until I save her.”
She nodded.“You may rest.”
I don’t have any idea how long I
slept, or even if sleep was the right word.In any case my legs relaxed, my eyes closed, and I thought of Marla
At some point, the guy in the wheelchair
used his walking stick to poke me in the ribs.“Get up, you lazy bastid.”
He was dressed in a tuxedo like me,
with his hair slicked back.He frowned,
as if he was just wasting his time with me.
I stood, my legs still wobbly.
“Ready t’ give up?”His face had deep lines etched into them, as
if he’d spent his whole life frowning.
“I’ve come this far to bring Marla
home.Nothing can stop me now.”
“Second challenge.Somebody’s comin’ out that lighthouse.You kill them.”
“Kill them?Like with a gun?”
“Strangle.Don’t piss around.Just do it.No matter what.”
I looked at my hands.Could I actually kill somebody in cold
blood?Maybe if it was Marla’s
ex-husband, Ricky.Anybody else?A stranger?
Of course I could.After walking about a million miles, this
would be easy.
“When -- ?”
The wheelchair and its occupant
It was a week after her birthday
party that Marla and I decided we were going to marry.Just seven days.We’d spent those seven days together, almost
every minute.We found we agreed on everything
we talked about.We both loved frog’s
legs and escargot, but we also both liked a Big Mac with fries and a coke.
I liked that she wanted to dance
even if there was no music.We just made
our own.We hummed Billy Joel’s song,
“Just the Way You Are,” to each other as we waltzed.
We knew we’d be together forever.
I don’t know how long I stood
there.I thought of lying down, but what
if some guy came storming out of the lighthouse and attacked me when I wasn’t
So I watched and waited.I have no idea how much time passed.It could have been a day or another hundred
years.I just knew I had to stay focused
on the lighthouse.
Then the door opened.
I had developed a new
understanding of patience and a sense of purpose like nobody else ever
had.Time will do that.
A few minutes passed, and I
wondered if another infinity would go by, but no, this time, only a few minutes
passed and through the door toward me came Marla.
She hesitated and looked behind
her as she moved out to me.I’m not sure
she knew I was there.She seemed to
startle when she noticed me. “Oh, my God . . . Andy!”
We stared at each other and then
she smiled.I hadn’t forgotten that
smile, and it melted my heart the same way it had more than a century earlier.
“Marla . . . ”
She rushed into my arms and we
kissed, a long deep kiss, and this time I didn’t care how much time it
took.I ran my hands through her hair
and smelled her and pulled her to me and stared into those amazing brown eyes.
“I can’t believe you found me,”
she said.“I’ve been locked here so
“I know.I’ve been following you.”
“But what do we do now?”
And then I remembered what the guy
in the wheelchair said.Somebody’s comin’ out that lighthouse.You kill them.
She kissed me again and I kissed
her back.I licked her lips and sucked
I couldn’t . . .
As I kissed her, my hands trickled
down her hair and held onto her neck.I
rubbed her throat as tears filled my eyes.
“Andy?What -- ?”
I pressed my hands harder and
squeezed her neck.Her beautiful neck.
Marla realized what I was
doing.She couldn’t talk, but I could
see the pleading in her eyes.Stop.
I didn’t stop.I squeezed harder, even though every ounce of
my being shouted at me to stop.I could
barely see Marla through the tears, and I couldn’t help but think I was
betraying her.I just prayed that I was
right, that this wasn’t the real Marla, that I needed to kill this fake in
order to save my Marla.
Her eyes continued to stare at me,
begging me to stop.I wanted to stop so
very much.She tried to fight me off,
but nothing could loosen my grip after all I’d been through.
Eventually, her beautiful eyes
glazed over and her arms fell to her side.She felt like a bag of raw meat.I lay her on the ground, but I kept squeezing her neck.I wasn’t going to take any chances.
I think she was Japanese, but I’m
not sure.I was still covered in
tears.“Tell me it wasn’t really her.”
The wheelchair moved around so the
girl could face me.“I won’t tell you
any such thing.”
“Go into the lighthouse.”She rolled into the door that Marla had come
I looked down.Marla’s body was gone.
Her lips had felt so soft on
mine.I had to believe I’d done the
right thing, and I followed the girl into the lighthouse.
There was an auditorium
inside.I’d long ago given up any pretence
at trying to understand how things worked here, so I just accepted that more than
a thousand wheelchairs were all lined up with a thousand faces staring down at
me.Maybe ten thousand.Or a million.
Behind me, on a table lay my Marla.There were no marks on her neck.She wore her peach wedding dress.
“Do not go to her.She is sleeping.”
I turned back to the crowd.None of them had spoken; all of them had
“I need to take her back.She doesn’t belong here.”
Their voice was in my mind.“You’ve completed the first two
challenges.Now the third waits for
“Just tell me what the fuck it is
and let us go!”
A short pause.One of the wheelchairs came forward.In the chair was my mother.She’d died of Alzheimer’s disease a decade before
“Andy, this isn’t easy.”
“My God . . . Mom?”I went to her and hugged her.The last time I saw her was in the hospital
and she had no idea who I was.
“You have a decision to make,
“Mom, what is this place?”
“It just is.We may be able to chat later.Now you need to make your choice.”
I stood back from her.Her dark eyes were as clear as they were when
I was a teenager.She nodded as if
listening to me tell her my grades.
“You can’t both go back.Only you or only her.You need to decide which it’ll be.”
I turned to face Marla, moved a
couple of steps toward her.She looked
at peace.After all this time, we
couldn’t be together?
“That’s not right,” I said.
A murmur of laughter came from the
people behind Mom.
“You should go back, son.Look at her.She’s already dead and doesn’t know you’ve come for her.She’ll wake in her own wheelchair and she’ll
fit right in.You should just go
back.Go live your own life.”
“I need to help her.”
I looked around.If one of us had to stay with the dead . . .
“It won’t work that way, son,” Mom
said.She reached out a hand and touched
my arm.“You interfered.If you stay, you won’t be with us.You’ll be in an endless mist alone forever.”
“Exiled.For all eternity.No chair for you.”
Marla’s hand was cold, but I loved
holding it anyhow.She was what I had
wanted my whole life.Would she forgive
me in time if I left her dead?My Marla
. . .
I stared into her face forever,
touched her cold cheeks and put my hand on her breast for the last time.
When I turned back to my mother
and told her my decision, my voice cracked.
We were just getting changed into
casual clothes to go down for one last dance before . . . well, before my
fantasies would end and I would make love to her for the first time as my wife.
“Probably Janice,” said Marla.“Not sure what she’d want, though.”
Marla’s sister was the only person
who knew our hotel room number.I
nodded, but inside me I felt panic.Something was very wrong.
“Marla, no!”I grabbed one of our emerald-colored knives
and ran toward her.
Marla had flipped the lock on the
door and pulled it open.I heard her
gasp and turned to see her try to push the door closed.“Ricky?No, it can’t be -- ”
I jumped and pushed her aside as
the gun exploded and my guts fell out all around me.I gasped as I slammed the knife into Ricky’s
chest, and then I had no energy.I fell
to the floor.
Marla was lifting my head from the
floor and screaming.I tried to touch
her face one last time, but I couldn’t lift my arm.I couldn’t even say good-bye.A strange purple haze seemed to roll through the
room, taking me away from my Marla.