It’s 6pm. She’s chopping peppers in the kitchen and pretending that she isn’t paying attention to the time. Chop. Tick. Chop. Tick. Chop. Tick. Tick. Tick. The months had passed slowly in the monotony of mundane existence. The momentary forgetfulness of waking. The noise of the radio on the way to work. The humourlessly laughter at her colleague’s jokes. Smiling without her eyes. Saying goodbye as distantly as a ghost. Then home. To the silence. For the first couple of months, her sister had come round every day, temporarily slotting into the space I used to fill. She had cried, of course, and had allowed herself to be comforted, but time still turned, and people still had their lives to live. She couldn’t let them stop for her anymore, even as time had stopped for her. So, her sister’s visits had trickled to a stop, and the phone rang less frequently too. It was so easy to convince them she was fine. Surprisingly, ambivalently, easy. It eviscerated her, angered her so irrationally, how cars still drove, birds still sang, and people still had husbands to come home to while I wasn’t there anymore. How I was buried underground, when just a few months ago I would have been here listening to her chatter about the stupid, ridiculous, inconsequential events of every day. How I would’ve looked for any reason to touch her and be close to her. To kiss her neck as she chopped peppers, as time passed unchecked in a small inconsequential kitchen in a small inconsequential town.
She barely paused in her chopping to push a tear away from her eye. Chop. Tick. Chop. Tick. Chop. Tick. Chop. Tick. Tick. Tick. She swore as the knife glanced her finger, and immediately put it into her mouth. Her eyes swept to the clock. Three minutes past six. Nine months and three minutes had past, and here she was, cutting peppers and still missing me. She knew she shouldn’t, but temptation swallowed her as she dropped the knife and turned out of the kitchen, chased by a ticking clock. After barely a heartbeat of hesitation at the door, she opened it and gazed out. The gravel there was stained dark by the drizzle of an autumn evening. The humid air rushed to press against her face, and for a second it was hard to breathe. A single drop of blood fell from her finger. A single tear fell down her cheek. Then the sky heaved and suddenly everything was lost from view in a wall of rain.
She closed the door and the house stood staring at her. Without thought, she said my name as though she’d just come home. Then again, louder. The sound died against the wooden floor and the furniture. In the rush of the rain, and the dimming, expectant light of the early evening, the house had never felt so empty. Steadying herself against the door, she slid to the ground. Cradling her hands together, she watched with quiet sorrow as the blood from her finger threaded around her wedding ring. Softly, the tears came.
I was drenched in the intimacy of the moment as she came undone all at once, letting herself fall and weep, and sob, and shredding everything that I was into ribbons. Yet, somehow it was putting her back together. Allowing her to be remade. She had denied herself her grief, sedating herself in the belief that the crash has never happened. That I was still here. I’d seen her staring at the clock, at the door, as 6pm came around day after day. Watching her barely move, yet crumpling up inside as the minutes ticked by. As my car never pulled in, as the gravel remained still and as I never cursed as once again I fumbled with the key in the door. I felt her smile, as she remembered me coming in calling her name. And suddenly, for a moment, everything was ok again. Everything was whole. Everything was perfect. Everything was dissolving. She’d fallen onto her side, curling up as though trying to hold herself together even as she sobbed louder. Would everyone know this misery? Could anyone really survive it? This wretched, resonating heartache that swelled in her chest, its jagged ache tearing at her throat and ripping sobs from her very soul. That bitter sense of hopelessness. She wanted to scream, but she was choking on the grief she thought was gone. She wanted my arms around her, and the hard, reassuring feel of my chest on her back. She wanted the scratch of my stubble on her cheek, but no words, because me being there was enough. It would have been enough. Her wedding ring pressed gently against her mouth. The ferric tang of blood was so strangely familiar.
‘I miss you,’ I said. Soundless. ‘I love you,’ I said. ‘But…’ I started. Her voice caught, as though she knew what I was going to say. Not now, I thought. She’s not ready. I wasn’t ready, not truly. We could wait. But the inevitable could only be delayed.
It was a few weeks later that she stood at the mantelpiece again, appraising our photo. The memories were still there. Not demanding to be felt, but there all the same. Absently, her fingers played with her wedding ring. That’s how I knew she was remembering me now. She was my anchor; why I was still here. Yet I was hers as well, weighing her down because I couldn’t move on.
‘I miss you,’ I thought. ‘I love you,’ I breathed. ‘But I can’t leave you,’ I said.
Her eyes jerked to the mirror.
“But you must,” she said.
For a second I thought she actually saw me, actually heard me, and that she wasn’t musing to herself. Yet she wasn’t staring at me. My face fell, and I willed myself to move in front of her. Now aligned with her it was almost as though she was talking to me.
“I miss you,” she whispered. “I love you,” she said. Her voice cracked. “And you’re gone, and I’m still here.”
Her lips pressed tight and her nose wrinkled slightly as she built herself up to say, “I must let you go.”
So firm, with so much certainty to match the affirmation she needed by her own spoken word. To make it real. To make it true. Perhaps, so I could hear. I saw doubt flicker in her eyes, but she stared defiantly back at herself.
“But I will never forget you and I will never stop loving you.”
With that, the doubt smoothed over, because that was the truth as well. And I understood. I couldn’t stay with her forever. I would not haunt her, and she could not allow herself to be haunted by the ghost of what I was now. We hadn’t shared a lifetime together, yet those six years were the happiest she had ever remembered. That would have to be enough. She would make it enough. My memory would be a reminder of all the great things started by a simple raised hand. Of years in a home filled with warmth and love that was and always would be possible. And as she continued staring into the mirror, with that photo faint in her vision, she knew that, even as she was no longer looking at me, I would never truly be gone.
This is the second part of the short story ‘Gone’. Follow Rachael on Instagram @rachiebeasley