John imagined it was how
it might feel if someone performed the Heimlich on him without his choking first…an unpleasant lack of air and a hard
jerking sensation around his solar plexus that completely disoriented him. Then, a sudden weightlessness, not like what he
was accustomed to in a space walk, but an unnerving buoyancy that prevented him feeling his fingers or toes or anything in
between. He tried to move and found that he could do so with apparent ease…and that was when he looked down.
He’d read about this sort of thing, had seen people discussing it on television. He was above his own
body, how far away he couldn’t tell. There was no pain. He could see Helena beside him, trying to revive him. He could
see her crying, he could feel her grief and terror, and he could do nothing about it. He tried to get close enough to touch
her, to give reassurance, but it didn’t work.
Instead, something began pulling at him, not in a physical sense but more of a strong urge to relax and float
on air currents and see where they took him. It was an irresistible force, whatever it was. After the storm on the planet’s
surface and half the hillside falling on him, and now having no body in which to seek refuge, he didn’t have the energy
to fight it.
He took one look back and saw with a storm of emotions that Lee Russell had reappeared from somewhere and was
speaking to Helena…and now he was embracing her. John felt a surge of jealous anger, fading to disquiet, then relief.
She was all alone down there; she would need someone. He had clearly failed to protect her. Perhaps Russell would do a better
He closed his eyes and drifted on the persuasive wafts of air. If this was all there was, at least it was peaceful.
The gliding phenomenon continued for what seemed a long time, then slowly receded to the background and his
awareness inched forward as though he was emerging from particularly deep sleep. Sensation returned to his body and John intuited
where he was before he opened his eyes. The glorious scents of aspen, spruce and fir mingled together and formed a graceful
undertone to the soaring top note of ponderosa pine. Nearby, he heard water trickling soothingly into itself and somewhere
the irregular tapping of a Downey woodpecker. From overhead, came the exultant cry of a bald eagle on the hunt.
A slight breeze caressed his face, fanning more of that unforgettable ponderosa aroma in his direction. He shifted
his legs, precipitating a gentle rocking motion and, for a moment, all he wanted to do was go to sleep and dream pleasant
dreams. But his curiosity of how any of this could be here and seemingly so real overcame his short-lived wish for slumber,
and he roused himself from the cozy nest of the hammock.
Opening his eyes and looking down, he was unsurprised to discover his uniform vanished and replaced by a pair
of worn khakis, a comfortable old denim shirt and his favorite hiking boots. Rolling out of the hammock, he saw with satisfaction
the little mountain stream off to his left, playing over rocks and pebbles and as it went tripping into the lake. The lake,
he knew, would be full of trout this time of year and he toyed with the thought of getting into the small blue rowboat tied
to the dock and rowing out to the middle, just to look down into the chilled depths.
As he stood, another sound reached his ears. A joyful bark and suddenly ninety pounds of black fur and slobbering
tongue came barreling straight into him, big furry paws slamming hard into the middle of his chest and nearly knocking him
Knowing this couldn’t be happening but unable to curb his delight, John threw both arms around the squirming,
leaping animal, laughing and exclaiming, “Gus! How are you?! Hey, boy!” The big tongue lolled out and caught him
square in one eye and he laughed again. “Yes, oh yeah, I missed you, too!”
Then remembering it just wasn’t possible for the dog to be here, his thoughts turned melancholy and he carefully shoved
the big paws back down to the ground. “I’ve missed you, too,” he repeated quietly.
Gus refused to accept his dejected mood and began to bound and dance around on all four feet, energetically
directing in canine fashion for John to follow him up the mountain path off to the right. Patting Gus on the head, he set
off. Led by the dog, he quickly reached the homey cabin he knew was waiting at the top of the easy path.
He didn’t enter the house but stood on the deck with the dog, arms leaning on the rail and observing with
muted pleasure that Pike’s Peak and its accompanying ranges off in the distance looked the same as he remembered. A
cold beer would be good right about now, but the desired green bottle refused to materialize. He heard footsteps approaching
behind him, light and unhurried. He didn’t bother turning; he didn’t need to see.
“You always did like it up here.” Sure enough, her voice, sultry and mildly suggestive. Not unlike
Helena’s, but more consistently sarcastic than Helena’s normal delivery.
“You did, too. It’s one of the few things we had in common at the end.” He still didn’t
turn to look at her.
She laughed then, mocking but not unkind. “Let’s be honest, John. It was one of the few things we
ever had in common.” She came closer, leaning her own arms on the railing and looking up at him sideways through her
lashes. “You don’t seem surprised to see me.” It was an observation, not a question.
He chuckled, but not with humor. “Well, this was the last place
I saw you. Gus was kind of the giveaway.”
She seemed to accept his response as logical and made no answer. He looked at her finally as she looked wordlessly
back at him.
Despite the restful setting he held so dear in his heart, he was starting to feel aggravated. “So this
is it? This is how it all ends up? I’m just dead? And stuck here?”
Her expression was bland. “Why would you think that?”
John rolled his eyes. “That I’m dead? Gee, I don’t know, let me think…because I saw
my own body and…maybe because…you are?”
“Oh, certainly I’m dead,” she acknowledged his point. “After a fashion. So is Gus. He
and I were together that day.”
“I remember.” He turned away from her again, staring out at the gorgeous scenery, seeking comfort.
“You look tired, John.” Not sarcastic this time, she even had a trace of caring in her voice. “Older,
“I’ve had a lot going on since we last spoke.” He tried not to sound too cynical or pathetic.
“You look good…considering,” he observed, but he didn’t turn toward her. She did look good; wearing
a light pink sundress he remembered from somewhere, her blonde hair shone in the early afternoon sun. Her fair skin was unmarked
by the blast that had taken her life. It occurred to him that he’d really never thought about how similar in physical
type she and Helena were…except that Jean’s eyes were a coppery brown, and she wore her satirical personality
like armor plating. She didn’t have Helena’s incredible cheekbones, either, her face less Slavic, more square
and Germanic. But they were both strikingly beautiful women.
“Considering I’ve been dead for years, you mean? One does what one can,” she said flirtatiously.
“But to reassure you…you’re not dead, John…not quite anyway…not in the truest final sense for
this particular lifetime. Very soon though, you will need to go back where you belong.”
“If I’m not dead, then why am I here? With you?” That sounded considerably less civil than
he’d meant it to and he inwardly braced for her retort.
“Is that what’s upsetting you most? Not the location, but the company? You show up for your presumed
afterlife and you’re stuck with me?”
He sighed tiredly. “That sounded…I didn’t mean for it to come out that way.”
Amazingly, she let the matter drop. “As to why you’re here, I don’t pretend to be an expert
in these things, but I would guess that you and I have some sort of unfinished business between us…or at least you think
“I don’t know what that would be. We seemed to have pretty well ended everything, I thought. It
was very neat and clean, wasn’t it? Just the way you wanted it. No battles, no ugly scenes. I took what was mine, you
took what was yours and we were done.” ‘Great,’ he thought. ‘Good job, Koenig.’ Now
he not only sounded resentful, he sounded whiny, too.
She laughed at him as he’d known she would. “Oh please…surely you’re not going to try
and tell me you wanted us to continue as we were. Everything was neat and clean because we both realized it was the right
thing to do. I didn’t love you anymore and you didn’t love me. If you had, you would have put up more of a fight.
One thing about you, John…if you really want something, you go after it and fight for it. You didn’t fight for
me. You didn’t want me anymore.”
She was hitting too close to home with things he didn’t want to admit. “Of course we couldn’t
have gone on as we were…but maybe if we’d fought a little harder for each other, fought for our marriage…”
“We still would have gotten a divorce,” she said matter-of-factly.
“We were ill-suited from the beginning. We would never have had a happy ending, John. Don’t try to tell
me you’ve convinced yourself we would have.”
“I know that, dammit!” His voice was bitter, but also confused. This was wonderful. She might claim
he wasn’t dead, but all signs pointed in that direction within his brain…So presumably he was going to get to
spend eternity bickering with his dead ex-wife. He needed to speak to someone in charge, this was just too much. He forcibly
calmed himself and looked back out across the lake. “All I’m saying is that maybe if we’d made some sort
of an effort, something besides coming up here one last time as though one weekend could have cured what was wrong, maybe
things would have gone…just differently enough.”
“Different enough for what, John?” she asked flatly. “Different enough so that we could have
made each other miserable for another couple of years?”
“Different enough so that maybe you wouldn’t have been there that day, God dammit!” Why was
he doing this? What was the point of hashing this out now? It wasn’t as though he could bring her back or undo what
“Oh my God!” Her voice was scathing. “Don’t tell me you’ve been thinking all this
time that you could have changed that day for me somehow?…You have, haven’t you?” She was incredulous and
getting more livid every moment. “John, I was there that day because I was supposed to be. It was just my day; Gus’,
too, apparently. There was nothing you could have done to change that.” She crossed her arms in front of her and took
a few irate steps away from him. “Get over yourself, John. You don’t possess that kind of power.” She wheeled back around to face him, still fuming. “Is that really what you wanted
to tell me all this time…that you’ve been wallowing around in pointless guilt? We were already divorced when it
happened. But, oh, if John had just tried harder all would have been well, and now poor John, he feels so guilty.” She
laughed mirthlessly. “That is so typical of you…making my death about you somehow, even though we weren’t together.”
He wanted to shout at her, but found her words had struck a sensitive nerve. He glanced at Gus. The dog looked
back at him with deeply comprehending eyes and uttered a low, snorting growl; not a menacing growl or a warning growl, but
a canine editorial comment that seemed to say, ‘Boy, you still know how to screw up, don’t you?’
John looked out across the lake and exhaled most of his anger. “I did do that to you, didn’t I?”
His voice abruptly went quiet. “There was a lot of my notable career, my valuable time. Even when we came here that last weekend to try and patch things
up, you were supposed to appreciate how generous I was being with my important
A weighty silence fell and they watched an eagle dive toward the lake, seizing up a fish in its talons. “Bad
day for the fish,” she murmured.
“Good day for the eagle,” he completed. It was an old routine between them.
There was a long pause and she finally softened a little from his last admission. “Your career was notable,
John. Your time was valuable.” Her tone stayed in the critical range, but not as serious as it had been. “You
just didn’t want to make time for anything else.”
He nodded, accepting. Taking a deep breath he said, “Jean, I am sorry I never figured out that you might
want more in your life than the infinite joys of being married to me…That wasn’t fair.”
She snickered. “Wow…I’m impressed. Even if you only discovered this posthumously, it’s
still a change for the better.” She wasn’t ready to clear him of blame just yet.
“I didn’t know we were miserable.” He admitted. “At least not until the end.”
“You probably weren’t. I always made an effort, till the last year or so anyway, to show up for
you when and where I was supposed to, looking dutifully sparkling on your arm.” She didn’t sound angry anymore,
she was just hammering home her point.
Smiling faintly, he allowed a couple of fond memories to enter his mind. “You did always sparkle well.”
She returned the smile, albeit a bit grudgingly. “You always scrubbed up pretty good yourself.”
He sighed again, but his posture relaxed. “You’re right that we wouldn’t have lasted. But
I’m sorry I didn’t treat you better.”
She sighed, too, relenting. He always could charm her out of most of her bad moods when he tried; he’d
just long ago reached the stage where he’d stopped trying. “You didn’t mistreat me. And you might want to
remember, I was there, too. I made my own choices. I thought it would be glamorous to be married to this famous astronaut.
We got to meet world leaders and movie stars and I thought we’d be this fashionable power couple, have our pictures
in magazines…I didn’t know you were going to miss practically every gallery opening I ever had…and,”
she held up a conciliatory hand, “I’m not saying that to make you feel bad. I’m trying to highlight the
fact that I had misplaced expectations of my own.”
Gingerly, he placed a hand over one of hers where it rested on the railing. To his surprise it felt real…and
warm. “I still feel awful about what happened to you.”
She rotated her hand in his and lightly squeezed his fingers in a companionable gesture. “It happened
for a reason. I’m not saying I know what that was, but I know there was a reason. And Gus and I were happy just before…Really,”
she told his doubtful look. “It was a beautiful day. We had breakfast, we were out for his morning walk, I was thinking
about the gallery opening I had the next week in New York…and if it makes you feel any better, we never knew what hit
us…didn’t feel a thing. We were there, and then we weren’t.”
A shudder passed through him as he remembered the phone call that had wakened him before dawn, details relayed
soberly with an infinitely polite, indeterminate European accent. No, there was no
reason for him to come. Official identification would be made via dental records. He’d be notified when he could retrieve
the remains since there was no other family. Yes, they would hold the dog’s remains as well until formalities were concluded.
They were very sorry for his loss…His eyes closed in gratitude at her words now. The worst thing had always been
imagining that they’d suffered, no one familiar nearby at the end. “That does make me feel better. A helluva lot
She leaned into him and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and he pulled her into a strong, one-armed hug. There
was no desire, but it was nice to feel real affection for her again after so many years.
She hugged him back for a long moment, then pulled slowly away and propped herself coyly upon the deck rail,
changing the subject. “So…tell me…was I the one that started you on this penchant for tall, leggy blondes
or has that always been your natural affinity?”
“Excuse me?” he frowned good-naturedly.
“This Helena of yours…she seems nice. She’s pretty, too.” Her voice had regained the
engaging, flirty note it always held when she was in good spirits.
“I don’t think I want to discuss her with you.” But he looked amused.
“Aw, come on, John…,” she kicked at him teasingly with the toes of one bare foot, “it’s
not like you’re being unfaithful to me…Is she anything like me besides in looks?”
“She’s not as moody as you,” he said sarcastically.
She laughed out loud in heartfelt merriment. “Oh, if ever the pot called the kettle black! I happen to
be an archetype of stable moods compared to you!” She continued to laugh.
John laughed, too, unnerved by her new direction. “She’s not like either of us in that regard,”
“She really seems to get you blood racing.” Jean smirked suggestively at him.
“I definitely do not want to discuss this with you…But since you seem to think you know so much,
perhaps you’ve noticed that she’s not with me right now. The last time I saw her, as a matter of fact, she was
with her husband!” John found his good humor evaporating fast.
“And that worries you?” She shrugged. “I guess I can understand that.” She sounded unconvinced.
“Did you hear me? With…her…husband,” he emphasized his words. “The husband she
thought was dead…and they weren’t divorced at the time…and it
turns out he’s not dead after all, he’s…whatever the hell he is….and I’m here…wherever
the hell this is.”
She pursed her lips together. “Are you willing to trust me?” Her expression was playful, but she
“About what?” he was positively…uncertain.
“If I tell you that, just as surely as you moved on from me years ago, she moved on from him. She may
not have gone out of her way to find someone else…but she was over him. She is
over him…at least in the sense of being able to freely give her heart to you.” Jean hopped off the railing
and took both his hands in hers. “And you have to get back. Soon. Your
people need you. She needs you. You don’t have a lot of time.”
“Will I see you again?” He realized he was going to feel sad if the answer was no.
“I don’t know, but I doubt it. Gus and I have moved on, too. You’re seeing us like this in
a way you can understand…but we don’t really look like this anymore. And eventually, when it is your time to be
here, I’m not going to be waiting for you. Helena’s the one you’re meant to be with. She was always the
one for you.”
“So you’re telling me you and I were nothing but an aberration?” It seemed a poignant notion
even if it also rang true.
“I’m telling you we taught each other what we were supposed to teach; hopefully, we also learned
what we were supposed to learn. Finally.” She smiled at him openly, no trace of sarcasm or hostility or even teasing.
“And so now…?”
“Now we let each other go.” She still held his hands. She leaned forward and kissed him gently on
John felt a nudge against his thigh. He knelt down and put both arms around Gus’ neck, burying his face
in the thick, black fur. He inhaled the inherent ‘dogginess’, knowing it was a smell he’d likely never encounter
again in this lifetime. Gus slurped his tongue up the side of his face and as John pulled back, he tried, but failed to stop
the tears that sprang to his eyes as the dog solemnly offered his paw to shake.
Slowly, he stood and saw there were tears glimmering in her eyes, too. “Be honest,” she said. “You’re
going to miss him more than me.”
He licked his lips and chose the diplomatic answer. “I think I’m going to miss you both.”
She snickered and kissed him once more. “Have a good life, John.” Her voice was warm, kind. She
traced a hand softly over his cheek while the other hand strayed to his back. Without warning, she pushed him over the railing
and off the deck.