Hayden’s feet glide over the dark wood floor as he moves about his home. He runs his hands over the painted walls, over the suede couch they had bought together, over the keys she discarded on the marble counter.
Each of these objects brings a flash of the life he and Hailey shared, moments never to be relieved. The two of them cuddled up on the couch, watching another episode of the reality television she loves, but he hates, that he bore because he loved watching how wrapped up she got in the lives of the people on-screen. Painting their hall a sage green, listening to the songs of their college days, and busting out dance moves to “Single Ladies” as she laughed.
Hailey coming home from work, talking about her patients at the speed of sound—sometimes even faster, because he swears at times words were missing—throwing her keys on the counter, and kissing him.
But he can’t. Because that’s not the way death works. Death ends one forever to start another one.
Upstairs, their baby squeals, and he walks up the steps to the room that is their daughter’s, the one that has the name “Piper” stenciled on the door with flowers. The sounds have stopped.
Hayden goes inside the lavender room to see his wife, Hailey, putting Piper into her pajamas, babbling back and forth with her, blowing raspberries on her tummy. Once her jammies are on, Hailey moves to the white upholstered rocking chair near the crib and begins nursing. He remembers the struggle she had at first getting Piper to feed and the look of satisfaction and joy when Piper finally took from her. Hayden can still see the look in her eyes when Piper begins to eat right away, but not as much.
When Hayden was younger, before Hailey, before college, one of his teachers had once posed a question to the class through a quote. “’If death meant just leaving the stage long enough to change costume and come back as a new character… would you slow down, or speed up?’”
Back then, when all he wanted was to grow up, to get out of high school, to get out of town, and be comfortable in his own skin, Hayden wanted to speed up. There were times when he struggled in college, times when finding a job seemed impossible that he said the same thing; but now, as he stands there watching them, he wishes he would’ve said slow down, because all he wants is more time in those moments.
Because he can’t go back. He can’t change telling Hailey he’ll pick up more diapers after work. He can’t change stopping to get gas since he’s on that side of town and it’s a lower price than he’s seen anywhere else. He can’t stop walking into the gas station mid-robbery. He can’t stop a bullet. He can’t stop it from hitting his heart and killing him instantly. He’s tried.
When he figured out he was gone, he didn’t want to accept it. He pled to be given a second chance. He complained that it was unfair and such poor timing for him and his family. Hayden was only 28. He had a wife waiting at home for diapers for their 6-week old baby.
That’s how these tragedies work, though. The Fates, those cruel demigods, had stopped weaving. The thread had been cut, and there was nothing they could do. Hayden’s tapestry was finished, on a pile with the billions that had passed before him. It was best if he just accepted it.
So, he spent a good deal of his time observing the lives of those he left behind. His parents. His siblings. His friends. And of course, his Hailey and Piper. His girls, his future, his life. Letting go of them was the hardest.
Hailey blamed herself for asking him to pick up the diapers and there were days when the only time she left bed was to feed their daughter. At night, when Piper cried, he watched his wife mumble in her sleep, “Hayd, it’s your turn.” Their daughter’s wails continued. “Hayden, she’s crying.”
Hailey opened her eyes, rolled over, and looked into the spot where he used to lay. He could see the realization hit her, that this was actually real, that she was in it alone now. He watched her deflate, all the air leaving her, and her lip quiver as she stared at the empty space beside her. For a minute, both his girls cried, but then Hailey bit her lip, wiped her face, and got up, going to Piper’s room.
On her way, she once took his pillow and threw it across the room, screaming “Dammit Hayden!” Most times, she just went quietly, taking steadying breaths. Each time, it felt like he was learning he was dead all over again.
When Hailey feeds Piper, she talks to her, and every night, she tells her a story. “So Baby Girl, what Daddy story should we do tonight? Hmm… oh, I have a great one. You’ll like it,” she says, stroking her finger along the soft baby down along Hailey’s hairline.
“So, when your Daddy and I had been dating for a couple months, he wanted to be all gentleman-like and make me an amazing dinner. He was going to make spaghetti and meatballs and garlic bread and salad. But he also wanted to make a chocolate cake, since he knew how much I loved chocolate. He was doing it all in the dorm kitchen. Personally, I thought he was doing the spaghetti because he had a Lady and the Tramp fantasy, but he always denied it.” She chuckles and immediately, he feels the smile on his face get even larger.
“Anyways, his friends kept making fun of him, because he was doing it all for me, and somehow—I still don’t understand how—he burnt the spaghetti, and there was smoke all over the kitchen. The fire alarms went off and everyone had to evacuate. I was in the shower when it happened so I had to go outside in a towel and my slippers. I was very mad at whoever had done something so stupid, and I went over to your dad and I was talking about what happened and his face kept getting redder and redder. Then finally, he told me it was him and the meal he had been making us. Obviously, I couldn’t be mad anymore. Everyone else was, though! His floor shunned him, but that’s when I started falling in love with him. And that night, we didn’t have the meal we had planned, but we got Spaghetti O’s and a piece of chocolate cake from the grocery store. It is still my favorite meal to date.”
Once Hailey burps the baby, she kisses Piper’s head and lays her in the crib, telling her she loves her, that her daddy does too. She turns on the night light, the monitor, and the sound soother and leaves the room, walking right past him, never noticing how close he is. He follows her to their room and sits on their bed as she changes and then slips in next to him. For a while she just looks at the ceiling and spins her rings on her finger. She whispers words to him about how much she loves him and misses him, and although she can’t hear him, he whispers back the same.
The light turns off. She rolls onto her side and looks directly at him. Her hand goes over the sheet, right through him, and takes the pillow out from under his head. She clutches it and her sobs get muffled in the dense material. Even though she can’t feel it and he can’t either, he moves closer to her and tries to hold her.
But he’ll never stop doing it, because it’s the nearest he ever gets to what once was.
People have told him that death is like a veil, that the going and the gone are only separated by a thin membrane. Hayden doesn’t see it that way. He sees death like a one-way glass. He can observe those living, but he can never interact, he can never make them know he’s with them. He’s just there, a detective trying to put together the puzzle that is life without him.
It’s the worst destiny Hayden could’ve ever been given. And even though they tell him he made it there, he questions if there really is a heaven. Heaven’s supposed to be a place of happiness, of rest. And even if there are pearly gates, St. Peter, and angels, beneath the façade is a lot of sadness, at least for him. He has found nothing to enjoy, nothing to help him pass eternity peacefully.
Hayden just grieves and wonders if it’s all a joke, the ultimate version of one of the reality shows Hailey loves. St. Peter’s really an actor. The pearly gates and angels are cheap Hollywood props. There’s a hidden door somewhere and behind it is the director watching and laughing as he and The Fates stage more difficulties and struggles for him in this counterfeit paradise. If only Hayden could find a way out, get past the sets, and break down the fourth wall, he would see he’s been in hell the entire time.