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These Great Fields Stretching

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Tailor won't you make me
The finest suit so dark and black and grey
And old John won't you lend me
The finest gun your eyes have ever laid

The fastest bullet flying
So quick nobody ever feel no pain
Cause the plains they took my baby
And I'm gonna take her to the funeral beds to lay

And I'm struggling, and I'm stumbling
And I need to start
I'm struggling, and I'm stumbling
I need you in my heart
I hate to say I love you
But oh goddamn I love you
You know I do
But you're gone away, gone away, gone away

  • “Funeral Beds”, The Districts

——-

 

It starts at her graveside, at the moment Andy’s certain he’s about to topple over, right onto the white casket as it’s lowered into the ground.

The familiar press of soft skin against his fingers is enough of a shock to send sharp, fresh air into his lungs. With it comes an awareness he didn’t want. He screws his eyes shut against the sun-bright cemetery, the black suits, dark dresses, midnight-tone uniforms. He curls the folded flag against his chest. Every cell within him zeroes in on the gentle grip on his hand.

The distraction of it all is enough to let his body take back over on the breathing.

 

———

 

Once Ricky and Emily fly back to their worlds, Andy tries to pull some sense from the mocking remnants of his own. For too long, he fails. Every passing moment brings a reminder. Every element of him is missing its center. It’s too easy to let the emptiness overshadow what remains.

Rest is an ungranted wish. When exhaustion grips him into submission, he’ll go horizontal on the couch for a few turbulent hours at a time. Rinse and repeat. The pattern sprawls on for weeks, at least, muddling days and nights together into one long, gray line.

In one of his moments of surrender, he fluffs a couple flat-centered old pillows against the couch’s armrest. Two in the morning is as good a time as any to collapse, he figures. The dead quiet around him might allow for something like sleep.

It’s in this silence that Sharon’s voice carries to him, clear as day despite her exasperated sigh. “Why are you doing this?”

If not for the half-waking-nightmare fog he’s living in, he would’ve flinched.

As it is, this sound is the only one capable of slicing through the screaming void that’s taken up residence in Andy’s chest. His eyes pull toward its source. For whatever reason, he isn’t shocked to find her standing on the other side of the coffee table, hands on hips, head cocked just so.

His attention is a surprise to her, though, given the way her eyes widen ever so subtly.

Maybe I stroked out , he thinks, a glint of hope shining through.

She nods toward their room. “Why don’t you go to bed?”

He mumbles, “Are you crazy?” But, after considering that point and the person he’s talking to, he edits that to, “No, I’m the one who’s crazy, obviously.”

Another sigh. “You’re not crazy . You’re being self- destructive . And I cannot just stand by and watch you grind yourself down , no matter how upset you are.” She’s doing that thing where she strings together a near-ceaseless combination of emphases — head-tipping and shoulder-raising and brow-lifting and pointed redirections of her gaze — gestured testimonies to her flawless logic, which she clearly can’t believe she has to explain to him.

The perfection of her attitude in this moment is breathtaking. Literally.

Still, she steamrolls onward. “ You have to keep going, Andy, so I suggest you start acting like it.”

Keeping his voice low, he says, “And what if I don’t want to?”

The force of her eye roll lifts her face toward the ceiling. “Oh my God . This isn’t a matter of want . It’s a matter of must . You have work to do.”

“Bullshit.”

Her eyes narrow. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me.” He stretches his legs along the couch’s stiff cushions. It’s releasing, in a way, arguing against her ghost. Or his inner self masquerading behind her form. Or whatever the hell this is. Why wouldn’t he resist her orders, now?

She’s the one who left him behind, after all.

It’s that part of the equation that sticks in his chest. In a rasping whisper, he says, “I don’t have any fucking higher purpose, Sharon. I’m just here,” he rubs at his eyes, failing to fight off a shake across the words, “stringing one day after another for some stupid fucking reason.”

He sinks into lying, letting his feet dangle over the far armrest. When he drops his hand, she’s standing over him. Even up close, the image of her is perfect. Right down to the faint tremor across her lips when she repeats her earlier point. “Why aren’t you in bed?”

Regardless of how she got here, he’s gripped with a fear that she’ll disappear in the time it takes him to look at their closed bedroom door. “I don’t go in there.”

She nods toward his chest, indicating the shirt and slacks he still wears. “So where’d you get those?”

He falters in the lie he’s tempted to fire back. He’d speed-walked into the closet this morning, just long enough to pull down the makings of an outfit — mismatched, as it turned out. He might as well have had blinders on, for as little attention he paid to anything else.

Still, he concedes, “The closet.”

“The closet in our room .”

“Fine, whatever. I don’t spend any more time in there than I need to, okay?”

She sinks to perch on the coffee table as a concentrated line forms between her brows. “You want me to go with you?”

His eyes widen at her hand, where it flattens onto his chest. The warm pressure of it is as natural as the sunrise. His eyes trace from her soft pink lacquered nails, up her slender fingers, her delicate wrist, a faint constellation of freckles below the sky blue blouse rolled at her elbow. Flawless. Her palm presses a line along the buttons of his shirt as her brows knit further together.

“What is this?” he whispers,

“I don’t know.”

He could let the lack of explanation send him spinning. It’s what the investigator in him would do.

Instead, he drifts to sleep with her hand smoothing along his chest.

In the morning, she’s gone.

 

———

 

Exhaustion eventually sends Andy back into the bedroom.

He comes home from PAB at two in the morning, following a near-endless day of investigating the murder of Emma Rios. Emotionally and physically worn-out, he trudges into the room without thinking. He strips off his clothes and crawls under the covers.

He doesn’t realize the difference until he wakes up to sunlight, crushingly alone in their bed.

 

———

 

It’s an odd thing, being haunted.

Or whatever this is.

The morning after Philip Stroh is booted off the mortal coil, Andy walks into the kitchen for coffee and is rewarded by a sharp something slicing into his foot.

After a swift string of curses and a not-so-swift hobble to turn up the lights, he finds ceramic fragments littering the floor. Above, the cabinet holding their mugs stands open, with several empty spaces on the second shelf. The remnants lay where they landed, the chaotic pattern mixed now with his bloody footprints as accents.

He brushes the debris off as the result of his shoddy stacking and some rogue earthquake that hadn’t made the news.

But at work he finds his burgundy-marbled Major Crimes mug in pieces on the office floor. It is, again, the only sign of damage. With eyes fixed upward — because where else is there to look — he mumbles, “Is this some kind of sign?”

The pattern repeats itself across the office all day. His computer monitor flickers off over and over. His favorite pen goes AWOL. At one point, the door to Electronics slams closed, spooking the entire squad.

After having what feels like an enraged shadow tracing his movements all day, Andy takes his time getting home. When he finally pushes open the front door, he finds his Dodgers hat lying on the entryway tile. The kitchen is free of glass shards, but across the condo he finds stuff scattered from its rightful places: throw pillows leaning up against the door to the balcony, a criminal procedure textbook splayed on the floor, frames arranged face-down on Sharon’s desk.

It’d all be simple enough to explain away by his and Rusty’s somewhat looser housekeeping standards. More rational. It’d be easy enough to accept, if his intuition wasn’t screaming differently.

He steps into the bedroom, bracing against what he might find. But the path to his nightstand is free of debris. He slips his watch off, and a glance around the space finds it intact and unbothered. Physically, at least.

The rest is harder to describe. A queasy wave rolls through him. Hairs prick at the base of his neck. As he changes out of his work clothes, the weight of a glare settles onto his back.

Fighting against the surreal absurdity of what he’s about to do, he braces his hands on the dresser and says, “Okay. Let’s hear it.”

Within seconds, an impact lands between his shoulders, followed by a metallic clatter against the floor. He looks down to find his watch lying behind him, between his feet, its inscription glinting in the lamplight.

On the other side of the bed, Sharon’s lip lifts into a snarl. “What the fuck , Andy?”

What does it say about his stability, that he’s more shocked by the profanity than her appearance? Either way, surprise is overwhelmed by concern as she stalks toward him.

“YOU!” Her hand plants in something between a shove and a shake against his shoulder. “You LET RUSTY go to that marina!”

This, he’s expected. It’s what he would’ve gotten, were she still here.

“You let him KILL,” the impact from the curled side of her hand echoes through his chest, “STROH!”

It explains the mugs, at least.

“And you COVERED,” thud , “IT,” thud , “UP,” thud .

At least he can argue this point.  “You’d rather we let him get caught up.”

“No,” she growls. Her fingertips bite into his arms. “I’d rather you KEPT HIM OUT OF IT! He had NO BUSINESS being there!”

He’s never seen her this angry. Ever.

She pushes him away and sets to pacing. “Oh, I could just… I could strangle you, I swear.”

“Could you, please?”

She pauses in her path just long enough to jab her finger in his direction. “That’s not funny.”

“I wasn’t joking.”

“You do not want me to get into this conversation again today, Andrew.” She parts her fingers and thumb over her forehead, pushing and pulling pressure at her hairline as she walks. “My God, Rusty is too young for this. He’s going to carry it forever. Why couldn’t you have just… kept him calm and out of sight?”

“I don’t think he really cares what I have to say, Sharon.”

She stops and fixes him with another glare. “Too bad. You’re the only parent he has left. Time for you to act like it.”

He’s about to bring up the other Sharon, the kid’s bio-mom, but knows better than to argue. It’s not the same, anyway. The woman’s never had any care to spare for Rusty, and now she’s occupied with her fresh, unscathed daughter.

Instead, he says, “I’m not sure I know how.”

Her anger falters for a blink, then rebounds with full force. “Figure it out!” Her finger jabs into his chest. “You promised, remember?”

This cut outperforms the yelling by a mile. Guilt surges through him. “You’re right. I did.” He rubs his hands over his face. “I’m thinking about going to confession.”

Though her eyes widen, she doesn’t hesitate to fire back with, “You’d better.”

With that, she turns heel. Out of genuine curiosity, he wants to ask where she’s going. But he bites his tongue as the door near-slams closed.

He spends the night tossing and turning, alone.

 

———

 

He forgets-but-not-really to swallow his prescriptions, staring down the sealed orange bottles as he takes a gulp of steaming, bracing, full-octane French roast. Carrying a brown-bagged sandwich in one hand and his travel mug in the other, he strides out the door and toward PAB.

When he sits down to eat lunch, though, his day-size pill carrier clatters onto his desk along with the sandwich. Mocking him. Shaming him.

He tosses the tablets to the back of his tongue one-by-one, chasing each with a gulp of water.

There. Happy?

 

———

 

A long stretch of flat, colorless days leave Andy in a shattered state. On a brisk, full-mooned spring night, he derails his usual path between home and the PAB. From the backseat of his Explorer, settled high on a ridge in Elephant Hill park with the glimmering city stretched across the windshield, a few sharp truths settle onto him.

He knows too much about death, for starters.

He knows, roughly, how much blood thrums through the human body; he can identify a fatal bleed-out based on the size of the resulting puddle. He knows the destruction a 50-cal cartridge inflicts on a chest cavity. He knows people can die with terror in their eyes, fixed there for good. He knows parents kill their children, children kill their parents, siblings kill one another. Husbands, wives. No one’s free of the risk.

He knows, all too well, that a relatively healthy woman in her early 60s can literally drop dead, out of nowhere, her heart falling still before she hits the ground. The printout lying on the driver’s seat says as much.

He knows a person can’t just will himself to stop breathing.

He also knows that a bullet up through the top of the mouth leads to almost-certain fatality. Effective, but messy.

But effective . Hard to fuck up, unlike the temple shot.

Besides, he knows the LAPD has a special unit whose lone purpose is cleaning up bloody messes.

He knows he’s carried his Beretta for 37 years now, longer than his kids have existed. He’s kept it meticulously cleaned and oiled, ready for anything. It glints in the moonlight, balanced on his knee.

It’d be fitting, yeah? Like seppuku, in a way. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

In fact, he knows samurais’ widows would slit their own bellies, after their spouses did the same.

What else is there to do, when your place in the world shrivels into nothing?

Stroh’s dead; that biggest of cases is over. Rusty’s working with Hobbs, preparing for law school, safe and sound; he and Ricky and Emily are taken care of, financially, thanks to their mother’s flawless foresight. Meanwhile, the squad — that unofficial family —  is breaking apart in turns, with Julio and Amy taking promotions, Mike talking toward a working retirement, Wes lateraling into Intelligence. Before long, it’s gonna be Andy and Provenza, sitting around doing God-knows-what all day with the department dangling retirement before their noses.

Retire? He could spit at the idea. Retire to what ?

The only time he’d felt he could leave the job behind was when…

Sharon .

She’d brought it up, between her diagnosis and the wedding.

It’s been months. The thought of her is still enough to make his eyes water. His wife, the person he was supposed to spend the rest of his life with… she’s gone. Forever. His plans no longer exist.

And, so, the cool weight of the muzzle against his lips forms the only clear path he has left.

“Oh no, no. No no no no.” From nowhere, Sharon’s hand curls in. She guides his fist downward, into her lap, where she neatly pries the gun from his grip. It thumps onto the passenger seat. She wraps herself around him, as fully and tightly as he’s sure she can manage.

Her voice becomes a fluttering string of reassurances as he breaks, sobbing into the memory of her shoulder, gripping at her like the drowning man he is. It’s an ugly, primal thing, his grief. With the numb of shock faded away, it has settled its elephant weight on his chest, scooping at his gut, whispering this is your life, now .

It’s agonizing. Suffocating. Inescapable. Having broken through him, he howls it into her skin.

“Oh, Andy, no,” she murmurs, once he’s run dry. “It’s going to be okay. You’ll be fine, my love. You’ll get through this.”

“I won’t.”

“Yes, you will. You have to.”

“No.”

Her nose nudges into the hair at the top of his head, so her voice seems to echo through him when she says, “Stubborn.”

In his exhaustion, he can’t argue the point. If he’s stubborn for wanting to get this over with, so be it.

“Trust me, there are days ahead you’ll want to see.”

“Like what ?”

“I’m not sure, exactly.” Her fingers trail across his scalp; the familiar, soothing pattern pushes him further toward sleep. “What I do know is that you can’t take a short-cut. That isn’t how it works.”

He’s half-hoarse, but manages to croak out, “You gonna tell me about the rules ?”

“Yes,” she draws out the word. “Someone apparently needs to.”

He closes his eyes with her hands still combing through his hair, her soft voice encircling him, “I’d like to see you taking care of yourself. Is that too much to ask?”

When his awareness returns, it’s to find pink light filtering through the back window. His spine protests the twisted traction he’d settled into overnight. He lifts his cheek off the seat and pushes the door open into a swift, dry breeze.

He’s alone on the hill. Up ahead, LA has yet to rise. Behind him, another day dawns. Apparently he’s meant to see it.

For whatever reason.

A near-trafficless drive spirits Andy back to Los Feliz. He’s two steps into the condo when his alarm sets to beeping from the other side of the bedroom door, breaking through what’s been a timeless, floating night. He switches the clock off and drops his jacket onto the bed, taking a moment to let his lungs fill with still, silent air.

The suffocating emptiness sends him back to the living room. There, in the faint morning light, his attention fixes on a paperback lying folded open on the coffee table. Mothlike curiosity pushes him forward, finds a poem arranged on the page. The last line and a half of it is underlined in red ink:

‘It says the most obvious shit, i.e. Put down that gun, you need a sandwich.’

An icy stream rushes down his spine. His eyes dart to the top of the page, where the poem’s title blares in bold print: “Wisdom: The Voice of God.”

“The voice of God,” Andy mouths, carrying the book to the kitchen. He upends it to read the cover. Sinners Welcome . Emily bought it, if his memory holds, tucked a Nordstrom gift card into its middle pages, and sent it in a FedEx pouch that arrived with perfect promptness just before Sharon’s birthday last year.

Rusty rounds the corner, moving in a too-familiar, turtlelike way.

“Hey, morning.” Despite his fear of getting a negative answer, Andy holds up the book. “You reading this?”

His eyes are pink and swollen. “I pulled it out last night. Couldn’t sleep.” He reaches over to run his finger over the red line. “It just seemed so like her, y’know. To do that.”

“Yeah. I know.” Andy takes a chance, drapes his arm across the kid’s shoulders as he folds the book back onto the counter. “You okay?”

“I dunno.” He rubs his wrist over the side of his face, but doesn’t try to duck away. “You?”

“Not really.”

After a long nod, Rusty says, “Sounds about where I am.”

And if they were at the same place last night? Who would’ve saved Rusty? Andy shakes his head against the thought, tallying up another fuck-up on the parenting scorecard. “How about some breakfast? It’ll help.”

He doesn’t wait for an answer, turning to pull eggs from the fridge, bread from the counter. Rusty follows suit, silently scooping grounds into the coffee maker and filling the carafe at the sink.

Andy slides him a sideways glance as he sets a pan to heat on the stove. “Hey, how ‘bout we use the gun safe for a while?” When Rusty opens his mouth to argue, he adds, “For both of us.”

A moment ticks by before he says, “Yeah. Okay.”

“Okay.”

Whisking the eggs, Andy’s eyes drift to the book again. A string of italics catch his attention.

‘(Tenderly, the monks chant, embrace the suffering.)

 

———

 

The priest taking confession is a younger guy, new to the parish. He does a decent enough job, offering reassurances and philosophical soundbites throughout Andy’s laundry list of sins. But the experience must hit a high water mark for him, given the way he stammers through assigning a penance.

Even so, Andy steps from the booth with absolution. A little freer, maybe. Less bogged down with guilt. He sidles onto a pew in the near-empty sanctuary, prepared to roll out several sets of prayers. A certain calm familiarity settles onto his shoulders as he draws his old rosary from his pocket.

The ancient flow of words holds his concentration. Or it does until an approaching set of footsteps steal his attention in the middle of a Hail Mary. A sideways glance finds Father Stan drawing to a stop next to his pew.

“Ah, Andy. I thought that was you I saw coming up the steps.”

“Yeah. I, uh,” he casts his hand toward the confessional, “had some amends to make. A little overdue.”

“It’s never too late, from where I stand.” He raps his knuckles against the wood before moving to continue down the aisle.

“Oh, Father,” Andy says, recapturing the other man’s attention. “ I’m pretty far removed from catechism—”

He breaks in on a laugh. “Aren’t we all?”

“Well, yeah. Definitely. But I was wondering… would you be able to give me a refresher on guardian angels?”

“Hm. Big topic.” Stan points at the empty space next to Andy. “You mind if I…”

“No, please. Go ahead.”

He settles with his palms on his knees, staring to the altar as he gathers his thoughts. After a few seconds, he says, “Generally, I like what Pope Francis said on the matter. ‘No one journeys alone and no one should think that they are alone.’ I find myself pulling up those words often.”

A jolt of recognition fires through Andy, but he smothers his reaction into a level, “Right.”

“Guardian angels...they’re treated as trivial in secular culture, but the concept is theologically firm. God assigns angels to watch over each of us at the start of our lives, to help keep us on the straight-and-narrow, so to speak, as we make our ways through the dangerous world.”

At the start of our lives. Andy sighs. It doesn’t fit.

“The trick,” Father Stan continues, “for so many of us, is learning to hear the voice of our angel. It isn’t always what we expect.”

With this opening to explain that the voice of his would-be angel is exactly what he’d expect, Andy says, “Not always, maybe… ” But, despite the priest’s open interest, he loses nerve and bobs away from the truth. “It’s just… Sharon had a… well, a thing about angels.”

This observation earns a chuckle. “Yes she did.”

It’s good, talking to someone who knew her deeply and who still has the ability to laugh. Although Andy’s own sense of humor is missing, presumed deceased, he finds his mouth turning upward. “I guess… I guess I’m looking for a way to honor her, in a way.”

“Of course.” Father Stan goes thoughtful again. “You could always take steps to become more familiar with your own guardian angel. Meditate on its presence, request that it continue to protect you from evil and harm. Offer it thanks for getting you this far.”

Andy nods, but the suggestion summons nothing beyond the memory of Sharon prying his gun from his hand. And who do I thank for that?

“I can’t imagine how difficult this is for you. But your faith can provide you comfort in these times, if you let it.” He nods toward the altar. “After all, you have the sacrament of matrimony on your side.”

“Thank God,” Andy says, without a hint of irony.

“Yes. Thank God.” Stan claps him on the shoulder as he stands to leave. “You know where to find me, if you want to talk.”

“Sure thing, Father.” In the now-silent space, he stills for a moment, head bowed as he rolls a rosary bead between two fingers. Thank God.

When his eyes lift, Sharon is beside him, raising a brow. “The mystery deepens,” she says.

“I don’t need to understand it,” he answers, deciding in the moment.

Her eyes crinkle with a grin as she settles her head onto his shoulder. He continues his prescribed prayers with an extra intention woven through them.

Thank you, for whatever this is.

 

———

 

After mass the following week, Father Stan flags Andy down to hand over a pamphlet and a handwritten note. The glossy trifold’s significance is easy enough to figure out, with its cover reading, “A Novena to Our Guardian Angels.” But the scrawled print on the sticky note shows nothing more than, “Tuesday, 8pm.”

“Grief support group, meets in the parish office,” the priest explains. He adds an inspiring, “Free donuts!” before hurrying toward a deacon waving for his attention.

 

———

 

Following his black night at Elephant Hill, Andy sees more of Sharon. She shows up in their bedroom at night, sometimes waiting when he gets home, sometimes lifting the covers and crawling into bed while he lies sleepless. He figures it’s a reward, of sorts, for him staying alive. Or maybe she’s luring him into using the bedroom instead of the couch.

Either way: it’s effective.

In the dark, her voice is an excited whisper. “Emily’s going to be in a new ballet. Contemporary. Something different for her. It looks… oh, it looks so fantastic.” She pokes his shoulder, and it feels as real as anything. As real as her body weighing along his arm. “You should think about going.”

Setting aside that the news of this show is a product of something other than reality, he says, “I’m clueless on ballet, Sharon.” She knows this.

“But you can appreciate beauty. And you can support your step-daughter. Right?”

He stares at the ceiling, figuring a trip to New York is as hypothetical as anything else in these conversations. “Right.”

“Good.” Her lips graze his jaw, and he drifts to sleep with her breath puffing against his collarbone.

The next day, his check-in call with Emily yields a shock that nearly sends his scalding coffee splashing across the floor. Having renewed his grip just in time, he settles the mug onto his desk before asking her to clarify.

“We have a new choreographer doing a residency. She’s pretty avant-garde, pulls together movements I don’t think I’ve ever seen. I’ve been offered the lead in her limited run show this fall, and I think I’m gonna take it.”

From the corner of his desk, Sharon beams up from a framed snapshot. Swallowing past his parched mouth, he says, “I can’t wait to see it, Em.”

 

———

 

After a few weeks, he begins to internally refer to his new group as Widowers Anonymous, if only because the nickname is easier to swallow than its actual title, Love Beyond the Veil or something equally evasive and sappy.

The official title is nothing the group deserves. There’s no prettying up the pain that builds in the room where they gather. It’s wrenching, shameless. Bottomless, thanks to a steady stream of newcomers. Unlike with AA, levity is in short supply and wins are few and far between. Faces come and go, and Andy can’t help but wonder whether any of the brief visitors succumb to the dark pull he’d resisted — or had been goaded into resisting — out in the park.

But the group gives him a model for continuing, helps him understand grief as a normal state of being. In the other attendees, there are stories that mirror his own experience: the wavelike peak-and-valley roll of emotions, the mundane dreams leading to crushing wake-ups, the expectation that the person you most want to see is waiting, always, around a corner you can’t reach.

This last experience, relayed again and again, leaves an odd guilt weighing on Andy’s shoulders. How can he belong on the side of the widowed, how can he comfort these people, when his metaphorical corner doesn’t exist?

But, still, he shows up. A youngish woman, Cassandra, makes a point to take the chair next to him at the start of each meeting. It could be his imagination, but her skirts seem to get shorter with each week; her tops dip into lower and lower cuts. Andy’s nature fights against his intentions, here. He finds his eyes drifting sideways before conscious thought can right him.

At first, he trades polite chit chat with her after the meetings. But he starts making quick excuses toward the door after she spends a session sharing the story of her 85-year-old husband’s “tragic” tumble down the steps last winter. While she dabbed under her eyes with a dry kleenex, Andy weighed whether he should call in a tip to Hollywood Division.

After that, their small talk dries up and blows away. No amount of nonchalant weather talk could erase that suspicion.

 

———-

 

He blurts the obvious question one night as he’s getting changed for bed. “Babe, you don’t have anything more important to do, other than hanging out with me?”

Her hair is longer than it was when…

His brain practically slams into reverse, avoiding the darkness down that road.

Anyway. Her hair hangs in big, loose curls below her shoulders, the way it hasn’t in years, tumbling onto her fuzzy sweater. The color in her cheeks uplifts him, a reminder that, whatever else is going on, she isn’t listless and exhausted anymore. She doesn’t suffer.

Her eyes go round at his question. Her gaze fixes on a snag he’s managed to put in her duvet. She flicks at the loose thread. “Do you want me to go away?”

“God, no.” He settles onto the bed, reaching for her hand. It’s warm, soft. As perfect as ever, how it fits in his. Her engagement ring rasps against his skin. With a gentle pull, he guides her to lay beside him. Their closeness lets him lift her palm to his lips, press a long kiss there. “I don’t think I was meant to live without you.”

“You lived without me for sixty-some years.” There’s no tease in her point. It’s the truth.

“But that was before.”

Before he knew her, at least as anything more than a self-assured, vaguely scary, fellow cop and, later, as an unyielding IA investigator. Before she filled out his heart, made him recognize the bright hues painted across his life. Before she became his closest friend, the person he could talk to for days on end.

“You’re not finished, Andy.” Sharon’s fingers rake through his hair. “And you’re not without me, are you? Hm?” Her sigh puffs against his temple, leaves a chill racing down his spine. Her next words double it: “Truthfully, I don’t think I’m meant to be without you, either.” Her voice drops into a whisper. “I think that’s why I’m here.”

 

———

 

After a few months, it becomes Andy’s turn to offer himself up as the verbal sacrifice of the week at Widowers Anonymous.

It was bound to happen eventually. His strategic silence and leather jacket armor could only keep him invisible on the fringes for so long, slouching and rolling a toothpick between his lips as young Cassandra grasps for his attention. But the request strikes him between the eyes, anyway.

“Would you like to share your story?” is what the facilitator — Bob, if he remembers correctly — asks.

Would you like to slice yourself open for these people? Let them see the ugliest parts of yourself? Explain how you’re nowhere close to being over what happened to Sharon, even after all this time?

The instant clutch of dread around his gut is nearly enough to send Andy from the room. The vacuum clearing his mind plays second fiddle, daring him to say, No thanks.

But guilt sneaks in right behind. He’s taken these people’s stories, used them for his own comfort. Even if he has nothing helpful or pretty to add, he should at least lift his weight.

“Okay.” Andy straightens in his chair, tugs the toothpick from the corner of his mouth. “Sure.”

From there, his memory scrambles to catch up. What’s there to say? How can he possibly filter the complexity of Sharon, what she represented to so many, everything she did, the enormity of the hole she left behind, into an acquaintance-friendly blurb?

How can words possibly shape what it’s meant for him, to be loved by her?

Nevermind that most everyone else in this room has done it. They’re not him. Their people weren’t Sharon.

But, as if he’s delivering a case briefing to the Chief, Andy starts with facts. “It’s coming up on a year now. Our one year wedding anniversary, and then…”

And then , another one year mark. This one more unfathomable. How the hell did I make it this far?

He pushes the question away, keeping resolute eye contact with the wall beyond Bob’s head. Facts. “Sharon, my wife,” he starts, before digging his fingers into his palm, forcing the tense out: “was a force of nature. She was sharp, tough, caring, funny...beautiful, of course. Everything you could ask for in a person. And a hell of a cop, too. I couldn’t believe…” he shakes his head, “still can’t believe, really, that she agreed to have anything to do with me. She was just…light years beyond where I’ll ever be, as a person.”

Andy shrugs toward nothing in particular. “It was quick. I know that could be a blessing, listening to some of the stories here.” He rubs his palm over his mouth, studying the worn carpet at his feet as he focuses on containing the emotion squeezing at his throat. Once he’s pressed it down, he continues, “But it was too quick. Way too quick. We found out she was sick a week before the wedding. Three weeks later—”

He jerks his head to the side, fending off those memories as something nastier rises from him. “What pisses me off is that it should’ve been me, really. I’m the one on three different blood pressure medications. I’m the one who had a heart attack. I’m the one who squandered so much of my life being miserable while Sharon was doing good in the world — raising her kids, coming to church, keeping the entire damned LAPD in line.”

This is where most other members would balance out the sad explanation of how they found themselves in a grief support group, pulling out tear-stained remembrances picked from decades’ worth of togetherness.

Andy doesn’t have the benefit of decades. He has a handful of years — half of which he spent trying to convince himself, and everyone else, that he and Sharon had nothing more than a close friendship. Wasted fucking time , he knows now, all those hours he’d almost kill to have back.

No, he doesn’t have what the others have. But he has something more: a certainty of where Sharon is, her mostly unburdened existence. She’s better now.

“But…then again, when I picture her sitting in this room, I think maybe things worked out the way they were meant to. I wouldn’t want her to be in my position.” He swipes his hands along the tops of his legs, letting his jeans absorb his palms’ dampness as he finishes, “That’s all I got.”    

Bob’s bushy brows gather low over his eyes. “Okay…” Without bothering to look around, Andy senses pointed glances being traded around the circle. “That’s...okay.” He’s gone and broken some unspoken rule of mourning, given Bob’s tight smile. “I think this is a good point for a break. Let’s take ten.”

Andy plants his elbows on his knees and leans forward to rub at his eyes. Most of the chairs empty around him. If that wasn’t the worst, least accepting story they’ve heard, it’s gotta be close. Bob’s probably calling Kaiser for a psych hold while everyone else raids the donuts.

Well, almost everyone else. From the next chair, Cassandra leans close enough for Andy to smell her sharp perfume. “That was so... “ Her palm wraps around his elbow. “It was so touching, what you said about your wife.”

He forces a rough exhale, “Thanks, I guess.”

“I know what you mean, about not wanting your positions to be reversed.”

Dragging his eyes to her, letting his annoyance soak through his response, he asks, “Do you?”

“Oh, sure!” Cassandra’s blue eyes go round. “Wilbur would be just crushed, if he was here instead of me.” Every inch of her face constricts, no doubt in an attempt to squeeze out a few tears. When that fails, she starts “sobbing,” gasping and moaning, drawing stares from across the room. She presses her face into Andy’s shoulder. And, maybe unsurprisingly, her hand “slips” from his elbow to the vicinity of his crotch.

He stands, ignoring Cassandra’s hateful glare as he jostles her aside, and leaves the room without so much as a backward glance.

Andy spends the drive home cursing gold diggers and his own pride. He should’ve told Bob that he wasn’t ready to share his experience, that, sorry, he probably never would be, and that they should just leave him in his sulky, quiet corner with the woman who’d never get enough ammunition to make her move on him. Instead, he opened his mouth, became the resident angry asshole— as per usual — and captured all of Cassandra’s attention in the process.

He’s weighed down by the time he steps into the condo. He turns from dropping his keys on the entry table to find Sharon standing behind the couch, seemingly waiting for him.

“She seems nice .”

And then, there’s this .

Sharon sniffs, crossing her arms into a tight knot across her chest. “Might as well go all-out if you’re going to go. Right?”

Who wouldn’t want to follow up the night he’s had with an argument like this? Amazing. Andy peers down the hallway, checking for a light under Rusty’s bedroom door.

“He isn’t here,” she snaps.

He rubs at his temple, keeping his voice low when he says, “Can’t you, like, see what happened? It’s not like I hit on her or anything.”

“No, but you didn’t exactly dissuade her, either, did you?” When he doesn’t argue, she adds, “You made it an entire year, great job.”

“What did you want me to do?” he bites out. “Tell her I’m taken, on account of my dead wife?”

The words turn his stomach as soon as they’re out of his mouth. The acid sting of them crawls up the back of his throat. He has to hold his breath and clench the countertop to fight back a gag.

When he looks up, Sharon’s gone.

He buries his face in his palms, rubbing stars into his eyes. “Fuck.”

That night, he sleeps on the couch.

 

———

 

Two days without seeing her is enough to send him on his first post-funeral visit to the cemetery. He makes Provenza print him a map and directions to the plot — their plot — in preparation. Damned if he’d stop at the front gate to look Sharon up in some death catalogue.

He places a bouquet of tulips against the polished black granite, on her side. His entire body clenches with the effort of not seeking out his own name, of fighting his desire to sink into the ground at his designated spot, etching 2018 as his own endpoint, getting this empty charade over with. Instead, he stays crouched, leaning his head against the cool stone.

He mumbles, “I’m not sure how this is supposed to work, babe. But I’m sorry.”

His weakness is a flashing neon sign, leaving him needing so badly to see whatever version of her that’s he’s conjured up since…

He closes his eyes and swallows hard. No. It is her. Regardless of the laws of physics or whatever other logic might explain away her existence. It’s Sharon he’s been talking to, all these months. It couldn’t be anyone, any thing else.

“I miss you so much, Sharon. I need you.”

A breeze kicks up around him, sending browned leaves skittering over the ground and across the nearby pavement. As the cool air brushes over his skin, he swears he feels her hand skim across his shoulders, the same idle line she’d draw on the path from her office out into the Murder Room.

But when he cranes his neck, he finds nothing but trees and grass and slab stones jutting up from the ground. A sure emptiness, stretching across this field. Certainty creeps up his spine.

She was never here, anyway. Not even that first time. Not really.

She was with him .

 

———

 

In the midst of the paranormal drama his life has become, Andy transfers to the identity theft task force. It’d long ago become unhealthy for him to stay in the Murder Room, primed for Sharon to click into the office at any time. And, beyond the scenery change, the white collar squad gives him a chance to get into the grit of a case the way he no longer can with the running-and-gunning divisions.

Now, rather than slog through the shit together, Andy and Provenza grab breakfast to trade work updates.

“It’s good,” Andy says of his new gig. “I don’t have to worry about the squad getting nixed in a fire sale. No shortage of work Regular hours.”

“Uh-huh.” Provenza scoops the last of his bacon-ham-sausage omelet onto his fork. “And when was the last time you left that condo after getting home at a decent time, Flynn?”

He opens his mouth to respond, only to find he doesn’t know the answer. “Okay,” he concedes, “so maybe I need to get out more.”

“Wait, though. Haven’t you been going to that group over at the church?”

“Yeah. But it’s getting weird. There’s this lady there, screams gold digger. Forty-something, supposedly mourning the loss of her decrepit husband.” Andy grimaces at the memory of their last “conversation”, and the one with Sharon that followed. “Anyway, she’s coming on pretty strong.”

“Ah. Sniffing out that trust money.”

“She’s gonna be disappointed. It all went to the kids.”

“Well, still…” When Andy doesn’t catch onto the meaning behind his words, Provenza explains, “I mean, it could be good for you, you know. Have a little fun,” he waggles his brows, “burn off a little steam, huh?”

Disgust twists his gut. “What? No!”

“Flynn, I’m just—”

“You think Sharon is any less real to me just because she’s…” He shakes his head, still unable to revisit the d-word. To him, she isn’t. Not really.

Not even if he told her so, in a moment of annoyance.

“She isn’t gone, for me, okay? She never will be.”

“Of course, of course.” Provenza holds up a palm. “I’m sorry.”

Andy stares down at his hand, gripping hard onto the handle of his mug. He curls his thumb inward to turn his wedding band. The warm, ever-so-slight weight of it calms him.

He’ll never take it off, that much he knows. Its meaning is still as valid as the day Sharon slipped it onto his finger. That should be enough for Cassandra or Provenza or any of the rest of them to understand. He is taken, even if no one understands the bond he shares with Sharon these days.

When he looks up to scan the room for their server, wanting to get on with his day, he catches sight of Sharon. Finally. She leans against the dessert case, crushing every inch of the blue dress she’d worn on their first date. The rush of relief flooding him pairs nicely with the irony of her placement. A little obvious, babe. She lifts a brow and shoots him a wry smile before sauntering out of sight.

 

———

 

During his Christmas Break, Rusty wades into a conversation he’s obviously planned for. Fanning a handful of sheened, glitzy law school booklets on the dining room table after dinner one night, he takes a deep breath.

“I’m thinking of transferring.”

“Oh,” Andy says. “Okay.”

It’d be a lie to say it doesn’t send a pang through him, seeing the kid so ready to flee. Especially since it’s felt like they’re getting along, pushing through this bog together. But Rusty’s done his research. He rattles off a list of clinics and journals for each of his choices, along with scholarships he could get based on his grades and LSATs.

Once he’s finished his spiel, he fixes Andy with a long, searching look. “It isn’t that I want to take off, you know…”

Andy holds up his palm. “No, I get it. You’ve been in California your whole life. Time to go see what else is out there.”

“Right.” Rusty’s chin dips in a resolute nod. “And, like, I might not even get in, you know. These are all really good schools, so…”

The doubt in the fade of his words is unjustified. He aced his first semester at UCLA Law — no slouch of a program, either. Any number of top-shelf schools would be glad to have him, Andy’s sure.

Eight months later, they board a flight to O’Hare with four overstuffed suitcases and a couple carry-ons between them. Rusty’s leg taps in a ceaseless rhythm as he stares out the cab window, taking in the sights from the clogged freeway headed into Chicago. But if he has any second thoughts about Northwestern, about being half a continent away from the only home he’s ever had, he keeps them to himself.

Andy doesn’t ask, doesn’t so much as talk around the topic. At least not until they’re saying goodbye outside the dorm three days later, staring out onto at the sapphire expanse of Lake Michigan while they wait for a cab.

“You call me if you need anything, okay? And I mean anything .”

“I will.”

“There’s no shame in being homesick. I’ve been there. Just let me know if you want to come for a visit before Christmas.”

A smile curls Rusty’s mouth. “Okay.”

“And I left you with a post-it with the address of the nearest church. I know you’re still iffy on the whole Catholic thing, but—”

The rest of his well-rehearsed line about faith and community is lost to a bear hug, which Andy returns in kind.

“I’ll definitely keep that in mind,” Rusty says, before pulling back. “Thank you, for everything. Really. I know…” His eyes flit away before he lifts his shoulders. “I know I wouldn’t be here without you, Dad.”

Dad.

Wow.

They’ve come far from the days when Rusty wouldn’t back off the ‘Lieutenant’ angle, even at home.

Grinning, Andy claps him on the shoulder as a car finally pulls up beside them. “You’re gonna do great, kid. I know it.”

“I hope so…”

“Hey, no.” After throwing his bag into the cab’s backseat, he turns back around, meeting Rusty’s eyes. “No matter what, okay? It doesn’t matter what grades you get or what journal you’re on, or whatever. As long as you do the right thing, be brave without being stupid, push yourself to do your best...you’ll make us proud, okay?”

Biting his lip, Rusty nods. Andy pulls him into another hug before stepping off the curb. “And don’t forget to get your CTA pass tomorrow.”

“Have a safe flight, okay? Can you call when you get home?”

“Yep, I will.” After pulling the door closed behind him, Andy offers a wave as they pull away.

He doesn’t see Sharon as much as sense her. “You did great.” She sniffs. “Really, really great.”

“Thanks,” he mumbles, low enough for the driver to miss.

“Oh, I hope... I hope he has a great time.”

“Me too, babe. Me too.”

 

———

 

He’s dozing through a Dodgers postseason game when ten points of pressure dig into his shoulders.

Andy!

He doesn’t hear her voice, exactly, but the urgency of it has him wide-awake in the span of a second. His heart thrums. She’s nowhere in sight.

Once the rush of blood in his ears drains to a trickle, a string of shuffles and thuds carry from the hallway beyond the front door. He crosses to the gun safe and swiftly keys the combination, palms the reassuring weight of his weapon before approaching the peephole.

At the edge of the fish-eye view, a dark figure props itself against the wall, moving only ever so often to thump its head against the plaster. Andy grips his gun tighter as he eases the deadbolt open with the faintest click.

Giving himself an internal count to three, he pulls at the door and slides into the hallway, ready to confront the person before him.

Instead, a familiar face pops up from under a hood.

“Ricky. Jesus, you scared me.”

“Sorry, Andy. Just was gonna… I dunno…” The words bleed into one another on a gummy-tongued mumble.  He’s drunk. “Say hi.”

“It’s a little late for ‘hi,” but—” He breaks off as Ricky peels himself off the wall, making like he’s gonna stumble back down the hall and out into the night.

“Mkay, no worries.”

“No, no, no.” Andy grasps his elbow. “Hey, why don’t you come in? Let’s get you some water, maybe something to eat?”

“I, um… It’s not a problem?”

“Nope, not at all. C’mon.”

After getting Ricky arranged at the dining room table, Andy sets to rummaging through the cupboards for some easy eating. Maybe something that’ll bring on a sugar rush, punch down the booze overwhelming his system. A group of blue boxes catches his eye from the top shelf.

“How about some Pop-Tarts, huh?

“Sure.”

“I’ve got caramel apple, cinnamon roll, wild berry, uh…” He pushes to the back of the cabinet, “and strawberry.”

“Wow. Quite the selection.”

“They’re good in a pinch.”

After a moment of contemplation, Ricky says, “Gotta go with strawberry. Old school.”

“You want ‘em toasted?”

“Nah. Raw. Like a man.”

“Okay then.” Andy plants the box on the table.

“Thanks.” Ricky draws out a metallic pouch with a half-smile. “Mom’d kick your ass if she saw you bringing these in here.”

“You’re probably right about that.” Andy has to fight to keep his eyes from drifting off Ricky, to where Sharon now sits at his side, in her rightful place at the head of the table. She fixes her son with a sad stare.

“We’d only get them as a treat…” He shakes his head in a jerky line, fighting off the emotion of some long-past memory. After breaking off a pastry corner and popping it into his mouth, he adds, “‘Nutritionally bankrupt,’ she’d say.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“Damn good, though.”

“Well, hey, I made ‘em special.” When Ricky chuckles, Andy steps back to the fridge. “I hope sparkling water is okay, because that’s about all we’ve got.”

“Lime?”

He pulls out three cans of the requested flavor, laying two next to the Pop-Tarts and keeping one for himself. With a show of nonchalance he’s sure he isn’t selling, he settles into the chair across from Ricky.

“So…” He cracks his can open. “What brings you down to the big, dirty city?”

Ricky’s brow drops as he frees the second pastry from its wrapper. “I didn’t mean to come to LA.” He methodically breaks off the crust edges. “Not exactly.”

“No?”

He’s quiet for a long moment as his eyes fix on the table. His voice is rough when he answers, “I was out at the Morongo.”

“The casino?”

Andy’s question is less about a confirmation — the resort makes for a solid chunk of the ads during Dodgers radio games, after all — and more of a request for an explanation as to why he’d visit the place. Ricky takes it as such.

“A couple weeks ago, a bunch of friends from high school were getting together out there.” He shrugged. “I figured, why not? I needed some fun…” His gaze fixes out the window. “I dunno. It went okay. Maybe too okay.”

“So you’ve been gambling.”

Ricky sniffs, rearranging the now bite-sized chunks of Pop-Tart into some kind of pyramid. His shoulder lifts before he explains, “Beam and Blackjack.” A humorless laugh pushes from his nose as he settles his forehead into his hands. “I’m not good at either, turns out.”

Sharon leans in, resting her ear against his shoulder. The sight drives a spike of worry into Andy’s gut. “Your inheritance?”

“I mean, I put that away. Dropped it into a CD, so I knew I couldn’t get my hands on it.” Andy holds back a relieved sigh as Ricky continues, “But now, I guess I need to take it out to cover rent, food…” he runs his hands back through his hair, ducking his face toward the table as his voice wavers. “I told myself I’d never do this, turn into my dad , and now…” a single exhausted, wracking sob shudders through him.

“Oh.” Andy’s brows lift as he lets a a sigh puff through his lips. “I know that one.”

Sharon lifts her head and, even through the tears filling her eyes, Andy reads her stare as clearly as ever. You see? You see now why you needed to stay?

He reaches across the table, squeezes Ricky’s free shoulder. “Hey, this isn’t the end of the world, okay?”

“Everything is so fucked up .”

“That’s just today. Tomorrow’s a new one.”

“God,” he sits up, slamming his fists into the table. “Nothing will be magically fixed tomorrow!”

“Yeah, but you’ll be better. Clearer. I promise. That’s when you start tackling the rest. Alright?”

“Probably not.”

“Just trust me.” When Ricky’s face doesn’t so much as flinch, he adds, “Hey, you came here for a reason, yeah?”

After a long stretch of silence, he says, “Yeah.”

“The bed’s made up in Rusty’s room. Let me get you a couple ibuprofen.” As he pushes up from the table, Andy palms Ricky’s discarded hoodie, fishing his keys from the pocket. This earns him a dark, level stare that has to be inherited.

He meets it with a dry laugh. “If you think I’m letting you drive anywhere else tonight, buddy…”

“Yeah, okay, champ .”

The quickfire response is, no doubt, meant to shame Andy for having the nerve to use a nickname on him. Instead, it leaves him chuckling. “You’re something else.”

 

———

 

Over diner omelets and hash browns the next morning, Ricky — with sunglasses pulled over his bleary eyes — admits he showed up at the condo because he believes he’s wrestling with the opening stages of addiction. Andy talks him into crashing for a while, putting most of his stuff in storage, working from his computer and sleeping in Rusty’s old room, saving the cash he now so badly needs. They’ll hit 90 meetings in 90 days, getting him through the opening gauntlet of recovery.

A week of close quarters and knotty conversations leave Andy with a realization. It strengthens as Sharon slips under the covers one night, curling up to him as he tries to read The Four Agreements for what must be the twentieth time. Her presence overwhelms his attention, leaves him abandoning the book facedown on his nightstand.

He angles into her warmth and snakes his arm around her waist. “So he can’t see you? Ever?”

“He doesn’t need to see me. Children spend years preparing, on some level, to lose their parents.”

Andy frowns. “Husbands don’t prepare to lose their wives?”

Her matter-of-fact response comes quick: “You didn’t.”

He fires back, “I didn’t have much of a chance.”

In the long stretch of quiet that follows, Sharon’s chin sets to trembling. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” She focuses on sandwiching his free hand between hers, threading her fingers between his. “I know you’re still angry at me.”

“Not… angry. Not exactly.” His chest tightens with the memory of her final, conscious moments, the coarseness of her fall. “I just… I don’t know what you were thinking.”

“I wasn’t thinking.” Her breath hitches, she sniffles, her face crumples. Andy can do nothing but pull her closer. “If I’d known what was going to happen…”

Somewhere, he’s always known this to be the truth. Even as he’s tried to keep hold onto a sliver of resentment toward her, as if keeping it could somehow keep him from collapsing into an endless pit of grief. As if that isn’t where he lived for months, regardless.

With a long exhale, he releases it for good.

“I know, babe.”

Still, her voice quivers. “I never would’ve chosen to put you through this.”

“Shh. I know.”

 

———

 

In the three months Ricky crashes at the condo, he makes several glancing comments about the decor. On the 85th day — crossed off on the calendar they’d hung to mark his recovery — he goes head-on.

“Doesn’t it bother you, keeping so much of Mom’s stuff around?”

“Not really. Why?”

“It just feels a little… mausoleum-y?”

Over the top of his mug, Andy looks over the main space. He’d replaced one of the orange side-chairs with a sleek, minimalist recliner. The coffee table’s more scattered than she ever would’ve left it, her dainty desk is similarly stacked with more books and old mail than it should be able to hold. But it’s otherwise unchanged.

He’s turned into one of those old guys who lives in a temple to his departed — or, in Andy’s particular case, partially non-departed — wife.

Even viewed from this angle, he doesn’t hate it. It works.

“Doesn’t bother me.” Andy manages to work some finality into the line.

“No, c’mon, let me help you clear some of this stuff out, before I get into my new place.” Ricky’s arranged to rent a one-bed in East Hollywood, within walking distance of a church they’ve been hitting for meetings. A smart choice. “It’s only fair you put your own mark here, right?”

“I don’t have much of a mark to put.” His own house had been a bachelor pad writ large. His furniture was nice enough, sure, but the place lacked charm. Warmth. It wasn’t much more than the shelter where he laid his head at night.

Ricky stands and walks to the accent wall, gesturing toward the ballet-themed prints gridded across it. “This doesn’t exactly say ‘Andy Flynn’ to me.” At the shrugged response, he continues. “Hear me out: paint a few coats of deep blue over this red and put up one of those random arrangements. A nice shot of Dodger Stadium, a few cityscapes, some beach art…” He trails off, letting silence fall before adding, “Maybe one of those wedding photos you’ve tucked away.”

Despite the clench in his chest at the last suggestion, Andy can’t disagree on the appeal of the update. And it wouldn’t be changing that much, really.

Just the most glaring thing.

After a sip of tea, he says, “Maybe your sister would want to have the ballet stuff.”

Ricky’s eyes light up. “Yeah, you’re right. Let me text her.”

It’s hard to fault him. He thinks he’s being helpful, ushering out the sense of loss, bringing in something new. Maybe it’s overdue.

As his phone chimes, Ricky grins. “She says yeah, she’d love to have them.” He backs away from the wall, taking it in. “Getting them to her might be a trick, but…” He shrugs, turns to Andy. “I’ll take them down, see what i can do about getting them packed up.”

“Okay.”

“There anything else you want to tackle?”

“Um…” Andy rubs at the back of his head. “I dunno. I use most of this stuff.”

Ricky tips his head toward the bedroom. “Clothes?”

Right . Save for a few pieces Emily wanted, Andy’s left Sharon’s half of the closet untouched. It isn’t like there’s been any rush to clear it out. Until now.

But he nods, says, “Valid point,” lifts his mug toward the door. “I’ll pack up a few things before I head to bed.”

“Cool.” A satisfied smile stretches across Ricky’s face. “I think it’ll be good.”

Good is relative. When Andy pulls the closet open a half hour later, with boxes assembled and waiting on the bed, the magnitude of the task leaves him loitering in the doorway.

Every blouse, each pair of heels, every blazer...they summon memories, most involving the slow, careful construction of his relationship with Sharon. As stupid as it is, he fears losing those small moments if he gives away their corresponding clothes.

Beyond the hangers holding what was her everyday rotation, a black garment bag at the far side of the rail catches his attention. He shuffles to it and, without stopping to think, pulls the long zipper down. When the slider hits bottom, he releases a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. A faint, flowery scent floats from the clothes inside, an undeniable reminder of Sharon.

With his pulse thrumming through his ears, he reaches out to sort through the bag’s contents.

Dresses. Not just any dresses. The black lace dress from their awkward night at The Nutcracker . The navy blue dress from their dinner at Serve. The lavender sundress from their trip to New York. The ivory dress from their rehearsal dinner.

These, he’ll never forget.

So, before he loses nerve, he reaches out and pulls the black one down, takes care in folding it before dropping it into the box. The blue one follows, then the lavender. His almost robotic motions only slow when he reaches the last one. The unique, uneven texture of its silky fabric and beaded ridges pulls back the briefest glimpse of their happiness, that night. Everything was perfect, as far as they knew.

It was better that way .

As Andy shakes out the dress, a particular note wafts to his nose. If only he could bottle it, concentrate it, keep her scent around forever. It’s the only element of her that doesn’t make it back here and, as greedy as it makes him, he wants it.

If not her singular early-morning muted shampoo and night cream air, then at least the perfume she wore on dates. Anything.

Actually, I could probably find a bottle of that, lying around somewhere...

“It’s the Coco Noir, Andy, but isn’t that a little... weird ?”

He doesn’t look up from doubling the dress over into something like a square. “You’re telling me about weird?”

Her answering silence has him checking to make sure she’s still around. Sure enough, leaned against the closet door jamb, she lifts a shoulder. Her mouth follows suit. “Do what you want.” After a beat, she adds, “But I can’t promise I’ll stick around if you start wearing it.”

The picture, so absurd, leaves him truly laughing for the first time in recent memory.

“You don’t have to worry about that.”

“Good.”

As he bends to settle the folded cloth into the box at his feet, he asks, “Does this bother you?”

“Not really. Why?”

Even across death, their personalities melt together. If only Provenza could see us now.

“This is your home, Sharon.”

“It’s your home, Andy.”

He sighs, pulling a length of tape across the box’s flaps. Nearly two years have passed with her gone. How can he explain that this cluster of rooms on the 11th floor has only ever been his home because she was here?

And yet, leaving would be as good as cutting off his legs. Debilitating.

From behind him, her hands clasp around his chest. She leans into his back. “They’re just things .”

Even so, he never moves the packed-up boxes from the closet.

 

———

 

Andy’s life falls into a regular sort of rhythm. He wakes up, goes to work, puts in his eight hours, maybe arrests some rich assholes, comes home, eats dinner, goes to bed. Some days, he’s wholly alone. Other days, Ricky might hit a meeting with him and then come over for dinner. Once Rusty gets his JD and moves back to LA, he pops into the condo more or less at will, pulls Andy out for breakfasts, conspires with his brother on baseball outings and football tailgates.

Amazingly, Andy finds himself on the receiving end of more than one nervous boyfriend introduction. He does what he thinks Sharon would do: smile, but assess. Ask plenty of questions, but reserve judgment. Overall, be kind until another approach is needed.

Through most of it, Sharon is around. Andy catches sight of her, here and there, during his days. In the evenings, she often finds him on the couch or in bed. She’s as tenacious as ever; she still doesn’t abide any of his shit. But, mostly, she’s happy with his life. She’s glad the boys are around. She still frets over Emily, but less than she used to.

The best times are the rare mornings Andy blinks awake to find Sharon’s hair splayed across her pillow, her deep breaths sounding through the room. He’ll curl around her, amazed at the warmth of her skin under his, the shine of her hair in the sunlight sneaking through the blinds.

He’ll fall asleep with her filling his senses, only to wake up alone.

That’s when it all rushes back in, like another, smaller death. Every time.

He’ll never take her to another fancy restaurant. He’ll never surprise her with a trip up the coast. He’ll never splurge on another birthday present or throw an over-the-top surprise party for her. He won’t get the privilege of watching her grow old, of watching her watch her kids walk down the aisle, of helping her spoil the hell out of their grandkids.

These moments, these visions or whatever, they’re all he has of her.

They’re more than most get. They have to be enough.

 

———

 

Even Widowers Anonymous turns out okay.

By the time Andy gains standing as one of the longest tenured members, humor sneaks into the circle. Bob bows out in favor of a clinical psychology student seeking volunteer hours. She believes there’s no right or wrong ways to grieve.

Andy manages to strike up a friendship with a small group of guys. They’re close enough that he can be real with them, get down into the crevices of his mindset. They do the same in turn.

Sometimes, at their Friday breakfasts or Sunday football gatherings, he’s tempted to ask whether any of them have connections like his own. But, as it turns out, there’s no good way to ask whether his friends have seen or talked to their dead spouses.

Moreover, there’s no sane way to answer.

In the end, he’s satisfied keeping it their own personal miracle, his and Sharon’s.

 

——-

 

With Nicole heavily pregnant and exhausted, Andy takes his step-grandsons — now on the verge of teenagerdom — to Venice one Saturday afternoon to give her a breather. The boys get a kick out of the trip — the beach, bikini-clad women pulling kickflips, flamboyant head shops, tie-dye everything, buskers, street artists, and a meal involving both burgers and ice cream. It ticks off pretty much every box on the boy to-do list, as far as Andy remembers. After lunch, they set off on a mission to win a stuffed dragon from one of the carnival game stands.

Andy trails behind them on their trek, joined by Sharon. She hangs back here and there, admiring painted silk scarves and delicate wire jewelry, angling her face toward the sun when the breeze picks up. He has to fight the urge to stare, as flawless as she is. But he can’t resist sneaking looks.

Up ahead, the boys spare a glance toward a turbaned woman hawking ‘angel card’ readings as they make their way to the neighboring stall. They’ve found the dragon, hanging between rows of balloons primed to be popped. As he watches them handing over cash in exchange for darts, the card reader’s piercing gaze bores into Andy.

He ignores her at first. But, after a good ten seconds, he meets her with a glare. She’s unbothered, holding his eyes through several slow blinks, only breaking the contact to bend under her table.

She’s probably high , he thinks. But, drugged-up or not, she resumes her attention to him when she straightens, then stands. Against his initial instinct, Andy stays rooted in place. He watches as she steps around her table and approaches him, holding out a card. “For your wife.”

A foreign kind of fear courses through him as he takes it. His eyes track her as she passes, keeping sight of her as she offers Sharon a nod several planks away. The gesture sends his heart slamming into his ribcage.

Under the brim of her hat, Sharon brings her chin to her shoulder with a pursed smile. “Well, that’s new.” As she draws closer to him, her smile goes wide. “What is it?”

Through his dry mouth, Andy says, “A prayer card.”

She leans into him, squinting at the text. “Saint John of God.” She snorts. “Patron saint of heart disease.”

“What the—” Andy stares down the crowded walk, trying to catch sight of the turbaned woman.

“A mystic, maybe.” Sharon pulls the card from his grip and slips it into her back pocket. “It’s a little late, but a nice sentiment, anyway.”

She tangles her fingers with his, tugging him toward the boys and their still-unpopped balloons.

 

———

 

Within weeks, their granddaughter arrives.

Her name is Mackenzie Sharon, and she is absolutely perfect.

The first time he holds her, sitting in a vinyl hospital chair while Nicole dozes nearby, he gleans a new appreciation for the filmy divide between life and the rest.

“Oh my goodness. What a cutie.” Sharon reaches out, brushing her fingers along the baby’s pink, chubby cheek.

Mackenzie’s pale eyes widen at the touch. After a glance finds Nicole snoring away, Andy says, “You feel that, baby girl?”

As if answering, she reaches up and curls her miniscule fingers around Sharon’s pinky. Thoroughly charmed, Sharon muffles what could only be described as a squeal into Andy’s shoulder.

 

———

 

The girl occupies a solid chunk of Andy’s time after he finally throws in the towel with the LAPD. Forty years is enough. This truth doubles down when he weighs the trudge of his work against the prospect of missing out on another kid’s childhood.

Being around her, time presses on him in a way it hasn’t in years. So he spins out stories she’s too young to understand, twisting real-life horrors into fairy tales that might plant a seed of memory in her, to bloom down the line. For Kenzie, the good guys always win, the bad guys always go away, everyone goes home whole, and Grandma keeps everyone in line.

By the time she’s old enough to toddle around the condo while her parents work, he figures out she’s also the only person he can share Sharon with.

“Gamaw! Pweece car!” She vrooms the chunky plastic toy around her play mat, keeping it to the drawn roads pretty well for a two-year-old. She pushes the car just short of the wood floor and looks up expectantly.

“I see it!” Sharon rakes her fingers through the girl’s silky chestnut locks. “Where next, Officer?”

“Um…” Kenzie’s head swivels back and forth across the map. After a solid deliberation, she points to the far corner and shouts, “Bad guy! The store!” She does an impressive siren wail as she scampers away.

Andy cracks up at this, of course, because what could be more adorable? Sharon slaps at his hand where it rests on her hip, and mutters, “You’ve talked this poor girl into being a cop.”

“Whaddya mean, poor ? It was good enough for us.”

Mostly .”

“Who even knows what it’s gonna look like by the time she gets old enough to apply?” At her sharp look, he amends, “If she wants to, I mean.” He nudges his nose into her hair. “And you laid a pretty good foundation for girls like her, huh?”

Sharon lifts a shoulder and sniffs, letting him know he’s hit his mark. He adds, “Besides, I wanted her to think we were cool.”

On a snort, she says, “Yes, let’s focus on the important things.”

Having pushed the car to the corner of the mat, Kenzie sits back on her heels and yells, “You! Stop!”

Yeah, this kid’s gonna be just fine.

 

———

 

His fairy tale crime stories light a fire, of sorts, in Andy. So, when Kenzie’s down for a nap, he’ll sit on the couch with his laptop, typing up memories big and small.

She’ll learn, eventually, that evil is real. And when that happens, she should know that the victories he made into stories were also real. She should know that good exists, that wins weren’t always as certain as he made them sound, but they happened. Kenzie will know that Sharon was real, of course, and as fierce as Andy’s stories made her out to be. But she should also know that Provenza was real. Mike and Julio were real, Amy was real. Long-suffering Buzz was real. Wes and Irene and Gabriel were real. Chiefs Johnson and Taylor and Pope and Mason were real.

And she’ll know that real people can be heroes just as well as any fairy tale princess.

 

———

 

The end comes up on him fast, once he stops looking for it.

 

———

 

Father Stan has retired from normal parish duties at Saint Joseph’s. But he still takes Andy’s call, still makes the trip to Los Feliz when he hears the diagnosis. Acute liver failure, thanks to a rogue and stubborn virus; wholly unrelated to cirrhosis, since God apparently loves a strong dose of irony.

Stan administers the last rites with the ease of the lifelong practitioner he is. His voice is still strong and authoritative as he reads the prayers, his movements are still crisp as he offers the eucharist. With the ritual, peace settles over Andy like a heavy blanket. He understands, finally, why Sharon chose the same sacramental route. Get it early, get it often, if you can.

Afterward, the men settle into conversation in the living room. “I have to admit, I was both sad and surprised to get your call.”

“It’s not that I’m eager to go,” Andy explains. “Not like before, anyway. But I’ve accepted that it’s gonna happen, regardless.”

Stan leans forward, as if preparing to share one of the Church’s deepest secrets. “You know, it’s a well-documented phenomenon that as we get closer to death, we’re more likely to hear from those we’ve lost.” He offers a single, significant nod.

With a spike of guilt driving through him, Andy gives up the con. “I’ve seen Sharon for years, Father. She never left me.”

To his shock, the priest settles back, a satisfied grin turning his mouth. “I figured as much.”

Andy’s mouth drops open. “Really?”

“You gained a certain level of peace, I noticed. Not long after her funeral.” He shrugs. “I wasn’t going to make you uncomfortable by pointing it out.”

“Probably for the best.”

After a moment, Stan’s curiosity gets the best of him. “So…how is she?”

“Well, she’s good. She has a great relationship with our granddaughter.”

Sharon swats at Andy’s arm, but he’s rewarded when Stan nearly spits his mouthful of tea onto the couch. Letting a chuckle fill what could be an awkward silence, he says, “He works in mysterious ways, Father.”

“You’re right about that.”

 

———

 

In a final sprint against time, Andy types out what he can remember of the Stroh case. Many of the details are lost to the murky grief he’d been near-drowning in. But he manages to tie it together well enough to be coherent, while still skimming over enough to keep everyone in the clear. With a few stories from his stint on the white collar squad, the document is complete.

He saves the files onto a thumb drive, which he, in turn, tucks into the bottom of a polished walnut box. This is where he’s long kept his so-called treasures. Scattered across the bed, now, its former contents are little more than things, at least without their context. And, so, he sets to wrapping the box’s new cargo with short notes before dropping them in.

“Sorry, Kenz,” he murmurs to the air, “I’ve never been one to leave stuff up for interpretation.”

“Isn’t that the truth,” Sharon mumbles from the nearby chair.

He ignores the jab, focused on writing and folding.

A blue-and-white button: The Dodgers won the Series in ‘88, got this working crowd control at the parade.

A delicate ivory crucifix hanging on a silvery chain: This was my mom’s, your Great Grandma Cecilia’s. She bought it in Rome.

His one-year sobriety chip: Remember, there’s no shame in asking for help, no matter how big your problems feel.

A handwritten index card, flecked with stains, carrying the family ragout recipe: Your mom was never much for cooking, but maybe you and Uncle Rusty can tackle this one.

A time-faded photo of Andy and his siblings as kids, lined up by height on a sandy white beach: You may be a California kid, but try to get out to the Jersey Shore at least once. Your history runs through that place.

“Okay,” he asks Sharon, “what else?”

She pulls open her nightstand drawer, and Andy bites back a tease about the appropriateness of some of the stuff she used to keep in there. But she produces a pair of white gold and teardrop pearl earrings, along with a matching necklace.

“Ah.” Recognition washes over him. He holds his palm out for the delicate jewelry.

“I think she should have them,” Sharon says.

“Me too.”

On a larger piece of paper, he writes, These were gifts to your Grandma Sharon on the morning of our wedding. She wore them to the reception, so I guess I did okay in picking them out. He creases the paper into a package, placing the jewelry in its center and securing it with a scrap of tape before settling it into the box.

Next, she hands over a half-battered palm sized notebook, full up to the last few pages with crime scene scribbles and administrative to-do lists. In old-school fashion, Sharon’s name and serial are printed in her neat block print across the front. Here’s a glimpse at what real police work is like, from the best.

She passes the prayer card a strange woman handed to Andy at the Venice boardwalk. You never know where you might find a miracle.

Shyly, Sharon lifts a plum-edged notecard from Andy’s remaining mementos on the duvet. He doesn’t need to open it for a reminder of what it says. In the years since Rusty handed it — along with a gift box holding his watch — to Andy on the morning of their wedding, he’d committed the words to memory.

Still, the sight of her neat, swooped writing lifts his heart.

Andy,

Have I ever told you how much I cherish your persistence and your spontaneity? If not, this is the time to say it. I never could have planned for my life to end up as incredible as it is today.

For too long, I held onto an idea of myself concerned more with rules (yes...I know...) and expectations than what I wanted, or what would make me happy. That changed as we grew close, as I fell in love with you. In ways both obvious and not, I wouldn’t have found myself here, in this most beautiful circumstance, if not for you.  

I’m so incredibly grateful for everything you are, and I’ll be proud to call you my husband. As you said, this is only the beginning.

All my love, Sharon

He turns the card in his hand before resting it inside the box.

“No note on that one?” Sharon’s tease softens with a sniffle.

“Nope.” He presses his lips to the top of her head. “I can’t possibly make it better.”

The top layer of items also need no explanation: a commander’s badge and a lieutenant’s, the shields shined into a perfect, reflective gleam. Two dried-out pages from a yellow legal pad — half-puckered thanks to Provenza’s careless coffee pouring skills, covered in Andy’s handwriting, and criss-crossed with creases from hundreds of foldings. The picture of himself, Sharon, and Rusty that he’d kept on his desk at work. A snapshot of Kenzie lifting a forkful of cake into his mouth at her third birthday party.

Andy closes the box’s lid with a clunk and swings the latch closed.

On another sheet of paper, he writes: To Mackenzie Sharon Butler, on her 18th birthday. With steady hands, he lines each edge with packing tape, fixing the final note in place. Stepping back to take in their work, he asks Sharon, “What’re the chances it stays sealed that long?”

With a thoughtful sigh, she wraps her arms around his waist. “Pretty good, I think.”

 

———

 

Andy’s picking through apples at the grocery store when everything goes sideways. Literally.

The next thing he knows, he’s on his back in a bed, feeling like absolute hell. A steady beep sounds nearby. Voices — some amplified, some not — float around him. A hospital.

He opens his eyes, but nothing changes. He holds his hand to his nose. Nothing. Panic seizes his chest.

From his side comes the only voice he wants to hear. “Everything’s okay, darling.”

“Sharon.”

“Shh.” She grips his wrist. “Just a second.”

At almost the same time, another voice — this one a man’s — answers, “What’s that, sir?”

Andy tenses. “Where am I?”

“Mr. Flynn, you’re at Hollywood Presbyterian. Sounds like you blacked out at the store.”

“I—” He’d been at Ralphs...then what? His memory is as blank as his vision. “Okay.”

“We’re working on getting your files here, but it looks like you might have some liver issues, huh?”

“I have the liver issue.”

“What’s that?”

“Liver failure. Acute.”

“Ah, okay…” The guy — probably a nurse of some sort — falters. “Well, we’ll see what we can do—”

“I can’t see anything.” Despite his plan to play it cool, Andy’s voice shakes. “All of the sudden, my eyes...I’m blind.”

“Let me get the doctor, okay? Maybe he can help with that.”

The nurse’s voice fades away on a trail of squeaky steps, before Andy can so much as ask for his name. But his frustration eases at the fingers tracing gentle little patterns on the inside of his wrist.

Sharon says, “It’s all scary, I know. But it’s going to be fine, in the end.”

“I’m done.” Andy musters as much volume as he can. “For real, this time. You can’t talk me out of it.”

“I’m not going to try.” Her words don’t cut like he expects them to. They’re rough, sad. “Not anymore.”

In the gap where he’d expected an argument, he asks, “So. What’s it like?”

“It’s like…” She trails off before letting a dry laugh fill the quiet. “You’re going to hate this.”

Andy frowns. “I’m gonna hate what?”

“No, no, I mean my description. It’s cliche.”

“I don’t hate anything about you, Sharon.”

She laughs again, the sound full of warmth this time. “Always with the lines.”

“‘S not a line.”

Ignoring his rebuttal, she says, “It’s like… release. Like shedding off every ounce of weight you’ve ever carried.” Her fingers are cool, pushing hair back from his forehead. “Easing pain you didn’t even know you had.”

“Sounds...good.”

“It’s incredible. And more beautiful than you can imagine.”

“I’m ready to see it.”

A warm hum fills the space between them. “Just about.”

 

———

 

He wakes to the most difficult sound.

“Oh my God...how did this…” Nicole’s voice breaks into a sob. “H-how is he?”

“I have to be honest with you.” The same guy from earlier explains, “It isn’t looking good. The pressure in his brain has increased, and it’s affecting his sight.” After a long, quiet moment, he adds, “You should know, he’s been talking to someone named Sharon...” The nurse turns this observation into a question.

“That’s—” Nicole draws a quick breath. “Sharon’s his wife. She’s…w-well, she…”

The nurse’s gentle voice intrudes into the quiet. “I assumed as much. It’s not uncommon, you know.”

Andy clears his throat. “I can hear you, over there arguing my sanity.”

Quick, short steps cross to him. “Dad, oh my God, I’m sorry.” Nicole gasps. “I should’ve gotten here earlier.”

“No...don’t be sorry.” He holds up his hand, which Nicole takes. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for. You’re a great daughter. Always have been.”

“I just—” Whatever else she means to say is lost to a string of weeping. The sound shatters Andy’s heart.

From near his shoulder, Sharon offers a soothing point. “She’ll get past this.”

“Hey, you’ll get past this,” he echoes to his daughter.

Sharon’s voice wavers, but carries a hint of humor when she says, “Now you’re just cheating.”

“Can’t help it.”

Nicole’s hand tightens around his. “C-can’t help w-what, Dad?”

He rolls his head back and forth, skipping to more important issues. “Nic, Sharon’s rosary.”

“It’s r-right here.” She shifts, presses the beads into his palm.

“Make sure Emily gets it, okay?”

“I will.”

“And my watch…”

“It’s Rusty’s,” she coughs out a thick laugh. “Y-you’ve only told us about a d-dozen times.”

“Okay.” The sound is little more than a rush of breath.

After a few deep inhales, Nicole is steadier when she asks, “How are you feeling?”

“Tired.”

“Yeah.” Both of her hands close around his. Her voice wobbles as she says, “Just rest, Dad. It’s okay.”

From there, Andy bobs in and out of consciousness. Before long, every inch of him is heavy, burning. His head feels like it’s trapped in a vise being tightened by the second. His chest is little better.

Andy knows a person can’t just will himself to stop breathing, but the body is its own master.

Time, meanwhile, is beyond his grasp, seconds stretching into hours. It all seems to take forever.

Every now and then, Sharon offers encouragement. “Just a little longer, darling.”

Finally, from the thick haze, a jumble of voices finds his ear. The bed sags at his side, and one sound comes through clearly. “Dad.”

Rusty. Andy wants to ask about his deposition, whether his nerves flared up. He wants to tell him, again, how proud Sharon would be, how proud he is. But no amount of effort will move his mouth.

“Hey, Andy,” Ricky says, just before a hand squeezes his shoulder. “Thanks for everything, champ.” As Rusty pulls in a sharp breath, the bed faintly shaking beneath him, Ricky adds, “It’s okay, little bro.”

“D-do you think we should call Father Stan again?”

“I don’t think we’re gonna have time, Nic.”

“No. What about Emily?” Rusty asks. “I’m sure her plane will be landing soon, and—”

“Guys,” Ricky’s voice is heavy, but even. The rest of them will be safe in his hands. His steadiness is the last, best reassurance. “I think this is it.”

The kids fade away, like he’s driving off with the windows down.

Gaining speed, wind rushes past his ears. He’s weightless, without a care.

He’s headed home.

 

———

 

When Andy comes back to himself, he’s standing on rock-steady legs. The pressure that’d been racking his body is gone. His hands…

Oh.

His hands are supported by another pair of hands. Very specific hands, slight, but stable. Solid. But still, he keeps his eyes squeezed shut, afraid of what he’ll see — or, more truthfully, what he won’t.

“You know,” Sharon’s voice is smooth and sweet, somehow more than what he’s been hearing, all these years. “For someone who was so anxious to get here, you’re sure taking your time in coming around.” The true nearness of her is almost enough to make Andy weep.

Instead, he swallows hard and tries to place himself. “I’m…” What does it say, that Andy most fears finding himself back in that hospital room, surrounded by his kids? “I don’t wanna see…”

“We’re not there anymore, Andy. You’re okay.” He opens his eyes to perfect sight, finding near-darkness and Sharon beaming up at him. “See?”

He scans the space. Where they are is Kenzie’s room, at Nicole and Dean’s house. White moonlight streams through the windows, just enough to make out the pink-and-white striped walls, the big silver ‘M’ hanging by the door, the girl curled under her princess comforter with her breaths flowing slow and even.

Andy fixes Sharon with a silent question. “I thought…” Her eyes shine in the faint light. She looks upward, rolls her lips together before trying again, “I thought you’d want to say goodbye.”

He nods, once again taking in Kenzie’s sleeping form. Who would’ve guessed he’d have so much to miss? “Do you think she’ll remember us?”

“I…” Sharon’s mouth falls closed as she shakes her head. “I think we can hope so. Her mom, her uncles and aunt, they’ll have so many stories for her. And you left her with a lot, too.”

“But she can still see us, for now.”

“As far as I know.” At his frown, she says, “I’m not the expert you think I am, Andy.”

“She sees you.”

“I don’t know how it works.” Sharon’s eyes trace the path her hand smooths over his chest. “With most people, it’s like a one-way mirror. It’s very rare when anyone can see me, here,” her voice falters. “Let alone hear or feel me.”

Andy pulls her into his arms, holding her tight. Her fingers scrabble up his back, then ease back downward as she adds, “You see, I needed you as much as you needed me.”

Cold dread flows through him. “I had no idea you were...trapped like that, Sharon. I never would’ve wanted—”

“No, no, I’m not trapped .” She pulls back, letting him see her watery smile. “I can go wherever I want. But knowing I could be with you, then Kenzie…” she shrugs, letting her fingers trace along his jaw. “Well, it was too tempting not to keep coming back. It felt…” She shakes her head. “It felt intended, I guess.”

Keeping Sharon close, Andy nods at their granddaughter. “Kids grow out of it, I read. Seeing…” He still can’t bring himself to say ‘dead people,’ and ‘spirits’ sounds too hokey, so he finishes with, “Y’know.”

“Well, and if she doesn’t — if she ends up like that mystic at the beach — she’ll make a great detective.”

With a chuckle, he echoes her constant line. “If she wants to be.”

“Exactly.”

With a sigh, Andy closes the distance to Kenzie’s bed on quiet steps. When he crouches at her side, he’s amazed that his knees don’t creak or protest.

“Bye-bye, baby girl,” he whispers. After pressing his lips to the crown of her head, he adds, “Get lots of bad guys for me, okay?”

Sharon follows his path, taking a moment to whisper something in Kenzie’s ear. Then she stands, holds her hand out to Andy. He’s all too happy to take it.

In a flash, they’re outside, under the moon. Sharon laughs as he practically does a 360, trying to get his bearings. “It’ll take some getting used to,” she says.

Ahead of them, the light-drawn grid of Los Angeles spreads to the horizon. They’re in Griffith Park, high above the city, at a lookout they’d once snuck off to after a dull dinner party in Burbank. Andy can just make out the condo, their favorite coffee shop, the park where he’d take Kenzie in the afternoons. The sight fills him with an absolute contentment, as promised. He draws Sharon against his side, soaking the moment in with her.

“Well, babe,” He lifts her palm to his lips. “I don’t know about you, but I could use a vacation.”

“Hmm.” Her smile is as radiant as he’s ever seen. “I happen to know just the place.”