Tom and Val were once happy. Against all odds, they have a chance to be again.
|A light rain fell softly, making the ground muddy and slippery. Thirty year-old Valerie Craven didn’t even notice the weather as she walked slowly up the slight hill of the cemetery.
Upon reaching the top of the hill, Val closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She turned to her left and gazed down at the seemingly lonely grave and headstone at her feet. Her eyes filled with tears as she read the words on the marker:
In loving remembrance of Thomas Craven;
January 12th, 1969 – March 29th, 2000
His life was short, but he will live on in our hearts forever.
Hot tears fell quickly down her cheek and Val didn’t even make an effort to brush them away. The action would be futile; the tears never seemed to stop coming.
Val’s husband, Tom, had died six months ago that day, but the pain Val felt hadn’t lessened in the intervening time. If anything, she felt even worse than at the beginning. Val had been told that she should begin the healing process, but she made very few efforts to lessen her pain or go on with her life.
She thought of Tom every day.
At times, Val felt as if Tom were still with her, looking over her shoulder as she cooked, or sneaking up behind her to tickle her and kiss her into oblivion. Every now and then she turned her head expecting to glimpse his quick smile or gaze into his loving eyes.
They had shared true love- that rare kind of companionship that few couples experience and fewer relationships survive. Val and Tom had accepted that they were meant to be together and hadn’t been afraid of how right they were for each other. Not many people can accept that kind of dedication to another person without fear, but Val and Tom had felt no qualms.
Unfortunately, their fairy-tale life was cut short when a drunk driver ran the curb and stole Tom’s life. Val had been sick with the flu that week and Tom had gone shopping to pick up her medication and a few bottles of ginger ale. Since it was such a beautiful day, he’d decided to take his mountain bike out of storage and ride to the pharmacy. He’d been within a mile of their home when the middle-aged man, drunk at three o'clock in the afternoon, had hopped the curb and hit him.
It was no consolation to Val that the man had received seven years in jail for his crime. It would never bring Tom back to her. As these thoughts floated through her brain Val was oblivious to her surroundings. All she could see were flashes of her former life with Tom when she had been blissfully happy. Her tears continued to fall.
Tom gazed sorrowfully over at Val as he leaned against a headstone. Her long, thick, brown hair fanned out over her back and her chestnut brown eyes glistened with tears. He couldn’t believe how beautiful she looked, even as she mourned for him.
Once again, Tom railed against the powers that be- the ones who had stranded him here, between worlds. He couldn’t experience the joy and peace of whatever came next and he couldn’t reach out to the people in the living world. Every day that he hung in this limbo was another day of torture. He understood the rules: Tom had to find peace and help Val continue on with her life knowing that he would be okay, and he only had a short time in which to accomplish this monumental task. He had to let go of this existence and cross into the next one. So far, he hadn’t been able to do that. Tom couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing Val again, or never being able to tell her that he loved her. He could not imagine feeling peace or well being without her near him.
He had followed and watched over her these last months since his death and Tom knew how much she was hurting. He longed to be able to return to her, hold her in his arms, and tell her he loved her over and over again.
Regardless of these thoughts, Tom couldn’t seem to be able to make his presence known to Val. Whenever he tried to become visible to her or make it so she could hear his voice, she didn’t seem to notice. Tom was afraid that Val’s grief was impeding his ability to reach her.
The only times that he had any success were just before Val fell asleep, just before she woke up, and at times when she seemed to be grieving the most. At those times her guard was down, allowing him to capture her attention for a few precious moments. Unfortunately, Val only thought that it was her mind playing tricks on her when she heard his voice or saw him out of the corner of her eye.
Tom knew that since his death Val had stopped believing in anything mystical. She had even packed away her angel statues, telling to her worried friends that she didn’t believe in a God or fate that would take her soulmate away from her. Val’s disbelief made it impossible to make contact with her.
Thinking of Val’s friends brought a thoughtful expression to Tom’s face. He was grateful for the fact that he and Val had so many friends ready and willing to help Val out at any time. He had observed people calling Val on the phone, bringing her flowers and cooking food for her even this long after his death. The two people he saw most frequently were Val’s longtime friends Juliana Hart, a thirty year-old nurse practitioner, and Theresa Scapelli, a thirty year-old cardiac surgeon.
Julie, Tess, and Val had kept in touch since high school and had stayed close in the years since they had graduated. Since Tom had been a year ahead of the three women in school, he hadn’t really gotten to know Tess and Julie until he had renewed his relationship with Val after college. Julie and Tess had been bridesmaids at Tom and Val’s wedding, and Tom and Val had planned on asking them to be godmothers to their children.
At the thought of a future that would never be, Tom returned his thoughts to how to get Val to recognize his continued existence. As he went over past instances when he’d tried to appear to Val, he came up with an idea. Val’s friend Julie seemed to be extremely sensitive to matters that were considered by most people to be “out of the ordinary”. Val always joked about how Julie often had a sense of déjà vu and made uncannily correct guesses. Whenever he’d been present when Val, Julie and Tess had gotten together, Tom had gotten the feeling that Julie had been able to sense his presence. As he recalled these instances Tom remembered the times when Julie had rubbed the back of her neck and looked around the room as if searching for something. She had also turned her head often as if seeing him out of the corner of her eye and trying to catch him out in the open. Whenever Tess or Val had commented on her actions Julie had brushed it off and made a joke. Tom knew that Julie wasn’t sure of what she was experiencing and didn’t want to cause Val further pain by bringing the matter to her attention.
Tom was determined to make Julie notice him so that she could tell Val about him. Maybe then he could finally talk to the woman who was the love of his life.
Julie and Tess had respected Val’s desire for privacy on the 6th month anniversary of Tom’s death, but the next day they were determined to spend time with Val and help in any way they could. Tom was happy that he could put his plan into action so soon, but he was afraid too. If he couldn’t get through to Julie, Tess, and Val he didn’t know what he would do next. Time was running out.
In general Tom had given the three women their privacy as they talked, feeling uncomfortably like a spy if he overheard them talking about private matters. Also, Julie had been in Scotland with her husband, Rich Hart, for the last two and a half months, so she hadn’t been able to visit in a while. She had entrusted Tess with the task of making sure Val took good care of herself as she grieved. When the three women finally returned from the dinner that Tess had insisted on, Tom was pacing with impatience to begin trying to make contact with his wife and her friends.
Val grinned as she unlocked the door of the white townhouse with dark green trim that she had shared with Tom since they had first gotten married. She turned and chattered with Tess and Julie about Tess’ approaching wedding to her longtime fiancé Jared Baker.
Tom knew that Julie and especially Tess had a gift for making Val forget her worries for a few hours and allow her to have fun, but he saw the sadness on her face as they spoke with enthusiasm about the upcoming event.
The three women walked into the living room and began to unzip their warm coats. Julie glanced around the room as if searching for the ever-present feeling of being watched, but discovered nothing.
“Still seeing spirits Julie?” Asked Tess with a laugh, her blue eyes sparkling mischievously. She had no idea how right she was.
“Ha ha Tess, go ahead and tease. I can’t help it.” Julie smiled at her friends and let her coat slip off her shoulders and onto the couch. Tom saw that her stomach was rounded with pregnancy, and his suspicion was confirmed when she put a hand to her belly. “My goodness! This little one is going to be a kickboxer when he grows up!”
Julie must have been a few months along when he last saw her, but not enough to be showing. He hadn’t known because of her trip overseas. That must have been why Julie had been able to sense his presence so easily the last few times she’d visited Val’s house. Tom could have jumped for joy. He knew that this was a sign that he would finally get through to Val soon through Julie. Pregnant women were especially sensitive to “ghosts” and other mystical occurrences. Added to Julie’s natural abilities and Tom knew that he would make progress.
Tom was running out of patience quickly. The only sign that he was making any progress was in the tightening of Julie’s lips and her uncharacteristically subdued expression. She kept twirling a piece of her long, light brown hair around her finger in a nervous gesture, and continually rested her hand on her stomach as if reassuring the baby, but she made no move to address the problem directly. Finally, with a sigh of frustration, he placed one hand directly on Julie’s forehead and another on Val’s.
“Listen to me!” He shouted.
The response was quick. Both Julie and Val shot out of their seats with a terrified scream. Julie overbalanced and nearly fell over. Tom reached out and steadied her before she fell and hurt herself or her child. He would never forgive himself if he caused them harm.
When Julie felt the invisible hands supporting her she began to calm down but her green eyes remained wide open with shock. With the brief connection she could tell that whatever was in the room with them did not intend to hurt them but she was still immensely surprised at the unseen touch.
Val, still overcome by the jolt, sank back down onto the couch as Tess frantically demanded to know what had happened.
Julie and Val made eye contact and said at the same time, “Tom.”
Tess looked perplexed. “What are you talking about?”
Val was on the verge of tears, “I heard him… He was right there…” Val’s voice trailed off as she tried to assimilate what was happening.
Tom tried again to make Val hear him but she didn’t react to him at all. Finally he returned to Julie and placed his hand on her shoulder. Immediately she stiffened and turned slightly as if to search him out, even though he wasn’t visible.
“Val,” called Julie. “Tess, both of you come here.” When Julie saw they weren’t quick to respond her voice took on a commanding air. “Now!”
Slowly Tess and Val walked over to Julie, who was frozen, in place. Julie held out her hands and Val took one, Tom saw her look in his general direction but she couldn’t make eye contact with him yet. When Tess took Julie’s hand too, it seemed as if the whole world snapped in focus. Tess was obviously a catalyst. Once that contact was established they all jumped slightly at the feeling of an otherworldly connection.
“Val…” Tom’s voice was soft and desperately hopeful.
Val looked around frantically for the origin of the voice.
“He’s got his hand on my shoulder,” said Julie quietly, causing Val to look that direction. She didn't move towards Julie however, as if afraid that Tom would leave her once again if she did.
Tom released Julie’s shoulder and walked over to Val. Julie felt the loss of his presence and knew instinctively where he was going. As she looked closer, Julie thought that she could see a faint outline of a man’s body, Tom’s tall frame.
Tom stopped in front of Val, who still couldn’t see him. He slowly reached up his hand and cupped her cheek. Allowing his fingers to touch her soft skin.
Val drew in a sharp breath and looked straight onto Tom’s eyes and he knew that he had finally broken through the barrier between them. Val could now see, feel, and hear him.
Later that night, after Tess and Julie had left, Val walked around her house in a daze. She was still in shock from what was happening. She stopped in the family room and stared at the large wedding photo of her and Tom that rested on the mantle. She and Tom were both smiling so widely that one tended to wonder what kind of secret they shared. Val’s hair hung loose down her back but was held off of her face with two small clips. Her beautiful floor-length dress complimented her figure. Tom stood nearly a head taller than Val and looked devastatingly handsome in his black tuxedo with his neatly groomed light brown hair flopping over onto his forehead. The memory of that day deeply cut into Val’s heart
One part of her was overjoyed that Tom was with her, in any form. The other part of her was sad because she knew that Tom couldn’t fully come back to her. She knew that he was still a…ghost. As that thought went through Val’s mind she shuddered and wrapped her arms around her body as if trying to warm up.
Tom saw her actions and knew what she was thinking about. He went over to her and carefully wrapped his strong arms around her trembling body. Val was gradually getting used to the feeling of invisible arms and hands touching her, and she only stiffened for a moment before relaxing slightly and settling back into Tom’s arms with a sigh.
“I missed you so much,” Val’s voice broke and her tears began to fall once again. “I still do.”
“I know, baby. I know.” Tom felt a surge of emotion that nearly brought him to his knees. He missed Val. What was happening wasn’t fair. Dangling happiness right in front of his nose when he knew he couldn’t grasp it…
Val turned around in his arms and searched for his face with her fingers. With a tired sigh Tom made himself visible so that he could look into Val eyes and she could look back.
Val carefully pulled his head down closer to hers and kissed his cheek gently. Even though she could see him and feel him in her arms, there was still an ethereal quality about him that made her afraid he would disappear if she even blinked. Even the kiss she gave him did not feel like a true kiss. It was almost as if she wasn’t really making contact with him - her lips seemed to slide off of his cheek.
Tom didn’t know what they were doing, or even what they could do. All he knew was that this was like sweet torture, being near Val but not being able to go on with their lives.
He pulled her as close to himself as he possibly could and deepened the kiss. Finally with a gasp, Val pulled away, looking at him and breathing heavily. She opened her mouth as if to speak but closed it again. Tears threatened to fall once again as she looked at the husband she had lost half a year ago; the husband that in many ways was still lost to her.
“Val I’m sorry, I…” Tom tried to speak, but found that he couldn’t form a single coherent sentence. Val turned and nearly ran down the hallway to the master bedroom where she collapsed on the bed and hid her head in her arms, shaking slightly.
Tom followed her and laid a hand on her arm as she shook with her sobs. Val flinched away from his touch and looked at him with tears in her eyes. “Please, don’t… I can’t handle this right now. I don’t know what to do.”
“I understand,” responded Tom quietly. He did understand, but that didn’t keep him from being hurt. He faded from view, but stayed in the room with Val. He wouldn’t let her see him, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave altogether. He stayed with her all night and watched as she hugged a pillow in hers arms and eventually fell asleep, her tears leaving wet tracks on her cheeks.
The next morning Val awoke to the feeling of someone tugging softly on her hair. It wasn’t a painful pull; more like someone was playing with the silky tendrils of her hair. She turned over and saw that no one was in the room with her. She glanced around the room several times before remembering the events of the day before and calling out, “Tom...”
Suddenly, Tom appeared before her, lying on his side in the bed next to her. She noted absently that the bed didn’t sag under his weight. That’s probably because ghosts don’t have “weight”. At this thought, Val’s mood sobered and a slight frown tugged at the corners of her mouth.
Tom had been staring distractedly at her lips, but upon seeing her expression, Tom leaned over to her and kissed her longingly, effectively erasing the upset look from her face. This time however, Val didn’t pull away from Tom, and the kiss lasted for a long time.
Finally they both pulled back and looking into Val’s eyes, Tom saw a brightly burning passion hidden in their depths. He remembered how many times he had seen that look in her eyes and immediately carried her off to bed.
Val saw the wistful look on his face and knew that he was thinking about the past, but before she could open her mouth to ask, Tom spoke.
“I’m thinking of that time at our first anniversary party. Remember? I finally got to the point where I picked you up and carried you upstairs in front of all the guests.” Val blushed at the memory of all the hoots and whistles they’d received as Tom turned into a caveman and carried her from the room. “That was the time when Lisa got plastered and began making out with John wasn’t it?
“I remember,” Val smiled. “They’re married now. I think they’re on a cruise to Alaska.”
Tom smiled. “I’m glad she’s happy.”
“Me too, Lisa adores him, and he adores her. Also, it doesn’t hurt that he looks just like JC from ‘NSync. Lisa was ecstatic about that.” Val smiled as she remembered her friend’s antics in high school and all her celebrity crushes.
After several minutes of silence, Val looked up into Tom’s eyes with a questioning look on her face, almost as if she wanted to ask him something, but was afraid to.
“What?” He asked.
Val took a deep breath. “I don’t want this to sound as if I’m ungrateful that you’re here… that I have this chance to be near you again… but what are you doing here? Why didn’t you come back sooner?
Tom was very quiet for several minutes and he stared blankly over Val’s shoulder all the while. Just as Val was beginning to think that he wouldn’t answer her, Tom heaved a long sigh and once again looked into Val’s eyes.
“I have to prepare both of us for the time when I have to leave for good.”
Val stared at him, open-mouthed, in horror. “But I just got you back. Tom no!” Val tried to grab at his shoulders and on her first few attempts her hands passed right through him.
Tom looked both sheepish and sad. “Sorry.”
The next time Val tried to touch him she could feel his skin beneath her fingertips. She pressed her hand against his cheek, savoring the contact between them. “I can’t lose you again.”
“I know how you feel, believe me I do. But we don’t have a choice. There are powers out there greater than you or me… greater than any of us. We can’t change what was meant to be.
“But I love you… Tom…” Val began to cry, sobs shaking her fragile shoulders. Tom cradled her delicate frame against his body and rocked her gently.
“I love you too, more than anything in the world.”
They lay there in each other’s arms for a long time, each raging against fate and their helplessness, and nearly drowning in their love.
Over the next few days, between visits from Julie and Tess, Val and Tom talked and reminisced. They spoke often about their wedding and their life together. They had been married for a little over six years when Tom had died, so they had many stories to retell and pictures to go through. Amazingly, Val could feel a little part of her heart return and begin the healing process. These sessions almost always left them feeling a strange sense of freedom as well as a deep sense of sadness. These were years they could never recapture, but would always remember.
Tom and Val had also talked about what he was meant to do. All Tom knew was that they both had to reconcile themselves to the fact that they would have to part once again, and this time for good. Tom didn’t know when it would finally happen, but he could feel something pulling at him, and each week it got stronger and stronger. He knew that they didn’t have much time left.
Even when Val couldn’t see him, she could feel where Tom was whenever he was near her, which was often. He went with her nearly everywhere, giving her a sense of peace and a new confidence, which wasn’t lost on her coworkers. Val was a dentist at a prestigious practice not far from her home. Her friends and coworkers often mentioned her changed attitude, which for the most part was good.
The only downside was that one particularly horrible secretary who had lusted after Valerie for months caught on to her new attitude and assumed that she was finally coming out of mourning. This led to several unwanted come-ons from this man, which disgusted Val and angered Tom. By the end of the next week the man had all but quit after claiming at the top of his lungs that the office was haunted. He had finally agreed to an extended vacation to “regain his mental composure” before returning to work – in another office.
The night after that episode Val questioned Tom at length. His shoulders slumped with fatigue and his voice gave away his weariness.
“Tom, are you all right?” Val put her hand on Tom’s arm. She could touch him nearly all the time now, when he was visible, without her hand going through him.
“I’m just tired. Manipulating objects is extremely difficult.” Several times during the day Tom had made the lights flicker around Val’s offensive coworker. He had also caused objects to fly at him and get “lost” when Tom had moved them from where the man had put them.”
“Has it always been this hard? Is that why you didn’t use it to get my attention before?”
Tom sighed and lay down on the bed. “It’s difficult to master, but I don’t think it’s ever been this hard. I didn’t use it before because you had no idea that I was there and it would only scare you and make you think you were crazy. If you thought that… well, even if I had appeared to you, you would have thought you were hallucinating.”
Val looked at him for a long moment. “You’re going to have to leave soon won’t you? That’s why today was so tiring for you.” Tom didn’t answer. I’m right, aren’t I?”
Tom sighed. “I don’t know… but you’re probably right.
Val closed her eyes and tried to fight back her tears. “How long?”
“Valerie, honey. I don’t…”
Val cut him off swiftly. “How long?”
Quietly, Tom replied, “Maybe a few days, a week at most.”
Val looked at him, looking so handsome reclining on their bed and tried to imagine her life without him, but permanently this time. She didn’t think she could bear it.
“Tess’ wedding is tomorrow. Do you think you’ll be able to make it?”
“Of course, I wouldn’t miss it. I want to spend as much time with you as possible. Save the memories up.”
Val wondered if he would even have memories in heaven, or the afterlife, or whatever, but she didn’t voice her thoughts.
“No tricks.” She looked at him sternly. "Tess is nervous enough as it is without you creating havoc at her wedding."
“Cross my heart, I’ll be the perfect gentleman.”
“Are you sure?” Tess looked slightly wild-eyed as she spoke in a harsh whisper to Val the next day.
“Tess don’t worry. He’d never do anything to upset your special day. Everything will be fine, I promise.” Val had told both Tess and Julie about Tom’s actions at her office. Julie had thought it hilarious and even now she still smiled at random times as she thought of what the poor secretary’s reaction must have been. She felt sorry for him even though she knew he deserved it. Unfortunately, after her initial enjoyment of the story, Tess realized that if Tom could do it once, then maybe he could do it again. Tess was nervous enough as it was without having to worry about a playful ghost.
Julie added the final touches to Tess’ gorgeous hairstyle and gave it one last pat. She had swept all of Tess’ hair up into a sophisticated twist and added tiny white flowers made out of ribbon to add a slightly Victorian look.
Tess stood up and looked into the full-length mirror that stood along one wall of Julie’s bedroom. At the moment she was wearing a simple white slip and her nylons. Julie and Val went over to the bed where Tess fancy wedding dress was carefully laid out and ready to be put on. As the two women helped a very fidgety bride dress for her wedding, they began to speak to each other in French. Tess was too lost in her own thoughts to notice.
“Val, what’s wrong?” Julie asked worriedly.
“What makes you think something’s wrong?” Val knew what kind of conversation was coming and hoped that she would be able to keep from breaking down in front of Tess, she didn’t want to cast a sad fog over Tess’ big day by telling her what would be happening to Tom soon.
“Val, I’ve known you for years, please, tell me what’s going on.”
Val took a deep breath and as she helped Julie fasten the numerous ties of Tess’ dress and fluff out the skirt, she told Julie what she had learned from Tom.
Julie’s somber face spoke volumes about her feelings, and Val knew that her friend would be there for her, no matter what.
Finally, the preparations were finished. Julie and Val switched back over to English to tell Tess how beautiful she looked as she twirled slowly in front of the mirror. Tess looked at her best friends with tears in her eyes. “Thank you all so much. You’ve been so great, I just want you to know how important you guys are to me.”
Julie and Val smiled with pleasure at the praise before handing Tess a tissue to dab her eyes and telling her not to cry and mess up her makeup that Val had painstakingly applied.
As Tess crinkled the tissue in her white-gloved hand nervously, she saw Julie rub the back of her neck and look around the room.
“Is Tom here?”
Near the door to Julie’s bedroom Tom began to materialize, but both Julie and Val could see how long it was taking him to come fully into focus.
“How long have you been standing there?” Tess demanded in a no-nonsense tone of voice.
“Not long. Lovely garter you chose Tess. The ribbon is especially…” Upon seeing Tess’ slightly murderous expression and the panic in her eyes Tom decided to stop teasing her – he didn’t want to find out if he could die again. “Don’t worry Tess, I didn’t see anything I shouldn’t. You’re stunning!”
Only slightly mollified, Tess gave Tom a black look and turned around to accept the bouquet of flowers that Val handed to her. “Tom, be nice, Tess is nervous enough as it is without you making it worse,” admonished Val.
Tom looked contrite. “I’m sorry Tess. I just came to say that everything looks great outside. Everyone’s ready to begin and your fiancé looks like he’s about to run up here and bring you down himself. Having the ceremony here was a great idea.”
Julie had offered to host Tess wedding at her house. In her large expanse of backyard Julie had a charming gazebo that her husband had built for her as a wedding present. Many types of flowers that were bursting with color surrounded the gazebo, but roses and lilies could be found in the greatest number. Thinking that it had the perfect romantic atmosphere, Tess had gleefully accepted the offer and hadn’t regretted it since.
“Okay, looks like we should get this show on the road.” Tess smiled and suddenly she looked calmer than she had all week. She gave Val a huge bear hug and looked at Tom askance.
“Don’t worry, you won’t walk through me,” he said with a smile. Tess gave him a quick hug too. Finally she walked over to Julie with her arms outstretched.
“No problem, anything for my friends.” Tess had to adjust her position thanks to Julie’s protruding abdomen, but managed to give her a hug anyway. Just as she was about to release her friend, Julie stepped backwards quickly with a sharp intake of breath. She put one hand on her back and the other on her stomach.
Tom, Val, and Tess rushed to her side and helped her sit down on the bed asking her if she was all right.
“I’m fine,” she said slowly as she breathed deeply and rubbed her belly. Seeing the looks on her friends’ faces she rushed to reassure them. “Don’t worry, I really am alright. It’s just one of those Braxton-Hicks contractions. It happens all the time.
“Julie, you’re not due for another six weeks, isn’t it too early to be experiencing those?” Val asked worriedly.
Shaking her head Julie said, “No, they can begin occurring anytime now, there’s nothing to worry about. Now, let’s get going; we’ve got a wedding to go to.”
After Tess and Jared had said their vows and walked back down the aisle, Tess turned around and told everyone to watch out for the bouquet. She faced away from the throng of people and with a great heave she sent the beautiful bouquet hurtling towards the back of the crowd.
“Quite an arm you’ve got there,” said her new husband with a chuckle.
Tom saw the flowers heading straight for him and since he was caught up in the moment he managed to catch them before they hit the ground. He felt a curious tugging in his heart when he touched the flowers, a symbol of a whole new life for Tess and Jared. He wished that he and Val could feel the same hope and happiness that radiated out from the newly married couple, but he knew that he was only causing himself more heartache. Slowly he let the bundle of flowers fall from his fingers.
Val watched as the flowers soared through the air and headed straight for the barely visible form of Tom. As a reflex he reached out his hand and caught the bouquet in midair. It seemed as if the world snapped into sharp focus when he touched the flowers and she could see Tom clearly. She looked around quickly to see if anyone noticed but since there were no looks of surprise or startled exclamations she assumed that she was the only one who could see Tom clearly.
Val turned back around to look at him and she saw a look of extreme sadness cross his face. That emotion touched to the core and she felt a strange kind of emptiness fill her heart. Tom let the flowers fall to earth to lay alone and scattered.
Later on after the ceremony, Tess and Jared danced slowly on the hardwood dance floor that had been installed near the gazebo for their wedding guests. Tess sighed happily. The ceremony had been a dream come true and she couldn’t be more content. She looked around at all of her friends and relatives. Most of them were dancing or chatting with smiles on their faces, enjoying the fun, party-like atmosphere. She spied Julie sitting down at one of the tables with her husband, Rich. They’d danced a little bit earlier in the evening, but Tess could see that Julie was getting tired. After Val told Rich about what had happened earlier he had suggested that Julie go lay down right after the ceremony - Julie, however, had different plans. They had finally agreed that she would stay for a while at the party, but that she would take it easy.
Now Julie was smiling in Tess’ direction and leaning back in the strong arms of her tall, handsome husband. Rich's face radiated peace as his arms stretched around Julie’s body to rest on her stomach as if to give their child a reassuring caress.
Tess hoped that she and Jared would be expanding their little family soon too, and she was glad that she had her close friends around to be there for her when it happened. Thinking of Val sent her eyes roving around the yard, but Tess couldn’t spot her other friend. Tess had seen Val’s face shortly after the ceremony and the look on Val’s face nearly put tears in Tess’ eyes. After a few minutes when Val still didn’t appear, Tess was about to go looking for her when Jared looked into her eyes.
“She’s fine, I saw her going inside earlier. She’s probably just resting.” His smiling eyes sparkled as he took in the look of surprise Tess sent him. “I can read your mind, remember?”
Tess ran her hand through her husband’s short blond hair. “I don’t think you can see everything in my mind, because if you did you’d be blushing right down to your toes.” Tess sent him a mischievous smile as he twirled her once, twice, three times before he finally swept her into his arms for a low dip, where he kissed her deeply on the lips. When he pulled her up and into his arms once again Tess was gasping slightly and their audience gave a hearty round of applause.
“I can’t wait,” said Jared, and once again, the happy couple kissed.
In the moonlight, around the corner of Julie and Alex’s house, Tom and Val danced slowly with each other to music that only they could hear. They both knew that this wouldn’t last, and that Tom would be forced to leave soon, but neither wanted to admit it. They just danced in silence, holding on to each other as if the fate of the world depended on their getting as close as possible… and maybe it did.
Two days later Val awoke to the sound of the phone ringing shrilly in her ear. She fumbled around looking for it with one hand as she rubbed the blurriness’ from her eyes with the other.
“Hello,” she said, her voice sounding like a hoarse croak.
“Val, its Tess.”
“Tess? What the hell are you doing? It’s…” Val looked at the clock, “…two fifty-four in the morning!”
“Valerie…” Tess’ voice trailed off helplessly.
The tone in her normally bubbly friend’s voice clued Val in that something wasn’t right. “Tess what is it? What’s wrong?” When Tess didn’t answer immediately Val’s voice rose to a shrill, exasperated tone. “My God Tess! Tell me!”
Tom suddenly appeared at Val’s side and she tilted the phone so that he could listen too.
Tess took a deep breath and the words finally spilled out in a rush. “Julie and the baby are in trouble. She went into labor late last night. It’s too early and they couldn’t stop the contractions. They’re performing an emergency C-section right now. Val, I’m at the hospital right now, you have to get down here. Please, we need you.”
Throughout Tess’ speech a feeling of dread spread through Val. “Tess, I’ll be right there, I promise.” She hung up the phone and looked around frantically for some clothes to throw on. Tom was ready with a pair of jeans and a T-shirt for her. Looking at him she asked, “Will you come with me?”
“Of course I will.” He looked at Val’s panicked expression. “Everything will be alright, love.” He gathered Val into his embrace quickly to try and calm her. They stayed that way for several seconds before Val pulled away and nearly sprinted downstairs in her rush to get to the hospital.
Val walked into the waiting room and looked around for Tess. She spotted her friend sitting on one of the couches holding Jared’s hand for comfort. Tess was white-faced and Val could see that her eyes were red from crying. “Oh God, no…”
Seeing Val coming towards her Tess jumped up and jogged over to her. Enveloping Val in a huge hug Tess squeezed her so tightly Val had to gasp for a few seconds before she could breathe again.
“Is she…?” Val asked with dread.
“No word yet about her or the baby. All I know is that she’s out of surgery and I had to twist a few arms to get that much information. We don’t even know if it’s a boy or a girl yet. Rich is in there with her.”
Tom thought for a moment and then said to Val, “I can go in without being seen, I’ll see what I can find out.” He jogged off and before he faded out Val had the uncomfortable chance to see him pass through the bodies of several people, who didn’t even bat and eyelash.
Seeing Val staring off into space Tess whispered, “Is Tom here too?”
Val nodded, he’s going to see what he can find out.”
“Hmmm, having a ghost around isn’t so bad after all.” Tess’ feeble joke fell flat at the sight of Val’s forlorn look. “What is it.”
Seeing no reason to lie to her friend Val told Tess about Tom’s impending departure from her life, this time forever. She also added her observations from the previous day about Tom’s weakening abilities and his inability to materialize fully, even to her.
Tom returned a short while later with a deep frown etched on his face. He motioned for Val to remain seated but to scoot over to one side so that he could sit between Tess and Val. Jared had left to get coffee for the three of them. Tom took both Val’s and Tess’ hands, and although Val could see him faintly Tess had the bizarre sensation of holding an invisible hand. Speaking softly so that only the two women could hear him Tom told what he knew.
“Julie is going to be okay. After the operation she was in trouble and they couldn’t stop the bleeding. At first the doctors thought that they would have to perform a hysterectomy.”
Both Val and Tess gasped. Removing Julie’s uterus would make it impossible for her to have any more children. She would be devastated.
“They didn’t have to though,” Tom rushed on to say after seeing the looks on their faces. “She’s unconscious now but she can expect to make a full recovery.”
“What about the baby?” Tess asked with a note of panic in her voice.
Tom was quiet for several moments before he began to speak. “I heard the doctors say that some babies born six weeks premature can do fine on their own, but…” His voice trailed off, but Val and Tess could already see where this was going.
“The baby didn’t make it.” Val’s comment was a statement, not a question. The dead tone of voice she used cut Tom to the core.
“It’s a boy. He’s still alive, but it doesn’t look good.”
Tess sat down and buried her head in her hands. Jared returned in time to dump the coffee cups on the table and then try to reassure his sobbing wife.
Val’s face had been wiped clean of all expression, but Tom could see that tears were threatening to fall. He took her hand and gently guided her to a solitary corner. Turning his wife to face him, Tom put his finger under her chin and tilted her head up to look him in the eye.
“I think I can help.”
Val’s eyes widened and now the tears did spill out. “How?”
“It would mean that I left you now. We wouldn’t even have a few more hours together.”
“Oh Tom, I don’t want to lose you again, but…” She looked into his eyes with a forlorn expression.
Tom’s eyes crinkled and his lips curled up into a smile. “That’s the Val I know. Sweetheart, this is for the best.” She threw her arms around him and held on for dear life.
“I love you.”
“And I love you, more than life itself. Be strong for me Valerie, and never forget how much you mean to me.” He gave her a long kiss. Val closed her eyes and she could almost imagine that her husband was back with her again in the flesh.
All too soon the kiss ended and after one last brief hug, Tom strode off towards the Neonatal ICU where the tiny baby was waiting. Val’s last sight was of her husband walking through the doors in the hallway turning around and flashing her one of his trademark grins. After that, Val’s world was plunged into blackness. A passing orderly was barely able to catch her before she hit the ground in a dead faint.
Late that day Val returned home to her large, empty house. She went around turning on as many lights as possible to try to dispel the shadows. After making a cup of herbal tea that wasn’t as soothing as the label proclaimed, Val went upstairs to take a shower.
As she dried off in the bathroom and prepared for bed Val glanced through the window and thought she saw the headlights of a car pulling up in her driveway. After a few seconds the car pulled away. “Must be a lost driver,” she thought before hanging up her soft yellow towel and climbing slowly into bed. She grabbed the pillow from the side of the bed that Tom used to sleep on and curled up around it in the middle of the bed. She began to weep softly, but that soon led to loud sobs that shook her entire body.
After a few minutes of crying she began to settle down slightly. She clutched the tearstained pillow to her and heaved a great sigh, missing Tom more then she could believe.
Julie’s son had taken an amazing upward turn and the nurses were now calling him the miracle baby. He had begun to breathe on his own and by his cries, one could tell that his lungs were healthier than the doctors had first believed. The doctor’s expected to be able to move him out of the incubator in the NICU to the regular maternity ward nursery in the next few days. As it was, Julie spent as much time as she was allowed in the nursery with the tiny boy she and Rich had named Benjamin Thomas. The doctor had given her permission to begin breastfeeding him, which, as the nurses joked, made him very happy since he had a voracious appetite for a little fellow just under five pounds. Julie joked that he ate with the same enthusiasm as his father, and since Val had invited them over for dinner more than once, she could believe it.
Suddenly, a warm hand caressed Val’s face. The touch was so soft and hesitant that Val thought she was just dreaming it. “Oh Tom…”
“I’m right here baby.”
Val turned over so fast that she nearly fell out of bed. Her eyes widened with astonishment at the sight of her husband, alive and well, standing by her bedside. “Oh my God…”
Tom grabbed her hands and pulled her up to a standing position. Val’s mouth was hanging open and he put his hand on her cheek and softly kissed her lips. At first she didn’t respond, but eventually Valerie was kissing him with a fervor that soon spread to him. After several minutes Val pulled away violently and stepped back several paces.
“Tom…How did you…?” Val couldn’t understand what was going on and she was frightened of getting her hopes up, only to have them destroyed yet again.
“Valerie, my love, I’m here. I’m alive. He stretched out his hand to her and after a moment’s contemplation she extended hers as well. He grasped her fingers and pulled her to him. Settled against his chest she could hear the strong thump of his heartbeat. She welcomed the sound as if it were a fanfare signaling the return of a hero after a long journey.
“I don’t understand, Tom…”
Tom rested his chin on the top of Val’s head and spoke softly, “When I went into the room, I intended to try to help little Ben and maybe give him a chance to live. I saw Rich standing by the incubator and this little tiny baby sleeping in there. He’s perfect Val, and so small... It was amazing, but the look on Rich’s face nearly stopped me in my tracks. He wasn’t even able to touch his son. I reached in to touch the baby’s hand and as soon as I did…” Tom trailed off and shrugged. “I don’t known what happened. The next thing I knew I was standing in the hallway again. A nurse stopped near me and asked me if I was okay. She could actually see me.” Tom ran his hand through his hair. “She must think that I’m crazy because I just stood there staring at her like an idiot.”
“But you’re here, now, for good?” Val’s voice and eyes betrayed the anxiety she felt.
“Yeah, I think so. This must be a kind of reward, for the sacrifice we were going to make for that little boy.”
“It was your sacrifice, I didn’t do anything.” Val tried to deny his statement.
“No, it was yours too, Val. I was willing to go in there and use up whatever power I had left, but you were willing to let me. We could have had a few more days together, but we decided that the life of an innocent child was more important. The fates look kindly on that type of sacrifice I guess.”
Val was about to open her mouth again but Tom stopped her by placing a finger over her lips. “No more questions.” He leaned down to kiss her, and then he swept her off her feet and they both dropped down on the bed. “I love you.”
Val looked into her husband’s eyes, her face radiating her happiness.