The Days You've Been Gone

The calm blue sky, dotted with tufts of wafer-thin clouds, smiled down on the quiet garden. I shirked along the pathway, mind caught up among the mess of weeds poking through the cobble. Someone ought to pluck those.

I inhaled the honeyed aroma of flowers, a refreshing change from the stench of bleach that seemed to cling to every wall in the cottage. Out here, I didn’t have the stray eyes of my neighbours watching me—not that I knew of, anyway.

A crow cried out from the high branches of an elm. The buzz of a bee whirred around my right ear. I thought about Erika and the kids. What was taking them so long? The funeral had been almost a month ago. They should’ve returned by now.

The shadow of a wall crossed my path. A patch of ivy had been cleared from the faded grey stone, now occupied by the scrawls of my friend Lucas, though I hesitated to call him a friend. He was more like my only option, with Erika and the kids still gone.

His shaggy black hair dangled in front of his eyes. Smoke drifted between his teeth as he sucked on a cigarette. My nostrils curled from the odour.

“How many now?” I asked.

Lucas took a step back. He held a chipped stone in his hand. On the wall in front of him, rows of crude markings lined the masonry. “Twenty-seven,” he answered.

“Should I send a letter?”

Lucas grinned, as if the question amused him. “You told me she’s probably staying with her mother. Do you know the address?”

I shook my head. “Damned if I could remember my own.”

“You’re a simpleton,” Lucas said with a quiet chuckle. He pulled a carton from his shirt pocket. “Cigarette?”

I held up a hand in refusal. “I hate the smell of cigarette smoke.”

Lucas murmured. He took a final puff of his own, tossed the butt to the ground, then lit another. “You told me you love the smell of smoke.”

“Wood smoke. The smell of a fire on a cold winter night.”

Lucas took a deep breath. The tip of his cigarette glowed. “I bet you’d burn your own house down for a quick whiff.”

My cheeks flushed. “You’re trying to upset me again. Who would set fire to his own house?”

“Lots of people do it. Some say it’s an impulse—like an addiction.”

He turned from the wall and began to stroll down the garden path. I hurried to his side, somewhat agitated by his current mood. “That’s nonsense. You just make up stories to get a reaction.”

Lucas shrugged. “It’s not my responsibility if it offends people.” He glanced over his shoulder and pointed behind him. “What do you think of her? She’s renting one of the cottages alone, isn’t she? Quite a looker.”

My eyes followed his finger, to a distant figure at the far end of the wall. I grimaced at the sight. “Her again. I hate her.”

Lucas arched his eyebrows. “Why? You’ve never spoken to her.”

“Doesn’t matter. The first time you marked the wall for me—the day Erika had left with the kids—I saw her watching. She’s been there every day since, too far to talk to, too close to ignore. Do you know why? She’s trying to seduce me.”

Lucas let out a long, incredulous laugh. “There are plenty of eligible men renting these cottages. You’re not one of them. You’re an unsightly fellow. There are always purple rings around your eyes.”

“That’s beside the point!” I argued, somewhat insulted by the remark. “She watches me because she’s wicked. She knows my wife is away, and she wants to tempt me for no other reason than to lead a married man into sin.”

“I commend her for that,” said Lucas. “Infidelity is fascinating. Besides, why latch to a single person your whole life?”

“You’re horrible,” I grumbled.

We fell silent. Lucas offered a cigarette again, but I declined. I checked over my shoulder. The woman seemed to be staring at us, though it was hard to tell for certain.

“Answer this for me,” Lucas said after a stretch of time. “Why stay loyal to Erika? If she loved you, she would’ve come back—or at least written you a letter.”

“She’s with her mother,” I snapped. My temper was waning quick. “Would you not stay to comfort your mother if your father passed away?”

“But you’re so certain that’s what she’s doing…” Lucas paused. A shadow fell over his face. “…Tell me, would you kill someone?”

I almost froze from the suddenness of the question. “Why would you ask me such a terrible thing?”

“Morbid curiosity. I wonder, do crimes like that haunt a person?”

“If they had a conscience, it would.”

“I don’t know if you have a conscience,” said Lucas with a smile. “But I think a crime like that would still torment you.”

I scowled at him. “Of course it would. That’s because I do have a conscience.”

“Or maybe you’re just insane. How do you know you’re not talking to yourself right now?”

I stopped walking and stared into Lucas’s hazel eyes. They shimmered with delight. Before he could react, I snatched the cigarette from his mouth and tossed it to the ground. Small flakes of ash bounced across the path. “Who was smoking that, if you’re not really here?”

Lucas’s gaze fell to the half-finished cigarette. He pulled a new one from his shirt and lit it. “Can you smell the smoke?”

I cast him a wary look. “Of course I can. I already told you I hate how it smells.”

“Then why let me smoke so often if it bothers you?”

“I’m a polite person. I can’t force you to do what I want.”

Lucas hummed to himself. He craned his neck left and right, as if searching for a change of topic. “What do you think of this community? So many cottages crammed around one ugly, secluded forest.”

I scanned the rows of pruned hedges and raised flower gardens. The public park, a mere five minute walk from my own cottage, was speckled with a collection of characters. They all seemed to keep a distance from one another, as if they had come for privacy, only to find the place teeming with unwanted company.

“I don’t like how many people there are,” I admitted. “They must be looking for gossip.”

Lucas clicked his feet together, as if he were about to recite a poem. “I have some ready: Man commits adultery at a remote cottage during his wife’s absence.”

His belligerent tone broke the remaining threads of my patience. “You’re worse than that woman who’s watching me! Some friend you are.”

Lucas made an indifferent gesture. He continued walking. “Maybe I’m not your friend at all.”

“Maybe you’re not,” I murmured. “Sometimes I wonder if you’re here just to annoy me.”

“I’m not sentimental enough for that,” said Lucas with a wry expression. “You can’t get attached to people. They always let you down.”

We walked a while longer under the shade of the trees. The conversation dried up, partly due to my souring mood. As we turned a corner, we crossed a lone man sitting on a bench, knees tucked to his chest, whimpering something nonsensical. I steered wide of him.

Lucas motioned to the fellow with his thumb. “Maybe he’d be a better friend.”

I curled my lips. “I’m not looking for friends. This was supposed to be a family holiday. If only Erika’s father had lasted another month. Of all times to die.”

Lucas tossed his cigarette butt into the grass. “Perhaps it’s for the better. You could use some time for self-reflection.” He bowed his head, as if mulling over the words. “Though loneliness can drive you mad sometimes. I imagine that even Jesus was relieved to have the devil visit him in the desert.”

“Jesus was never lonely,” I argued.

Lucas gave a mischievous grin. “What makes you say that? Did he not cry out, ‘My God, why hath you forsaken me?’”

“Not in the desert.”

“Aren’t you a scholar,” Lucas snorted. “Tell me, if God would forsake his only son, why do you think Erika would never abandon you?”

A sudden wrath overtook me. I stomped my foot, startling the man curled on the bench. “She will be back! I know my own wife! Will you stop tormenting me?”

“I’m not tormenting you. I’m merely observing.”

“Can we talk of something else? Why not baseball?”

Lucas laughed. “Any brute can talk about baseball.”

We had rounded the garden’s loop, and neared the wall where we first met this morning. Beside the cleared portion of ivy, where Lucas kept tallies for me, the same woman stood, transfixed on the etchings. She held a clipboard in her hands.

Lucas’s eyes lit up. He cried out in an excited tone. “Look! There she is now. She’s checking the marks on the wall.”

The sight ignited an uncontrollable loathing. I felt my mind grow hazy with indignation. “I told you! She is plotting something!”

“It’d be best to confront her.”

I barely needed the encouragement to propel my feet forward. I blazed across the path to where the woman stood. “Leave me alone!” I roared. “I want nothing to do with you!”

The woman gave a yelp. She dropped her clipboard and stuttered backwards. Her trembling limbs did nothing to quell my rage.

“Why are you always watching me?”

My question drew more screams. She wailed for help.

“Don’t let her get away!” called Lucas.

As if driven by another force, I flung myself at her. We crashed into the cobble with myself on top. I wrapped my fingers around her throat.

“You can’t tempt me! I won’t betray Erika!”

She seized my wrist, but her frail little fingers couldn’t pry me away. Her cries, however, must’ve attracted the attention of other cottagers. A group of men and women, all dressed in matching clothes, raced towards me. They took me by every limb and jerked me off the woman.

She gave an airy wheeze once my fingers had been loosed. Tears welled up in her eyes. “He attacked me for no reason!” she bawled. “I hadn’t even spoken to him!”

I tried breaking free, but a burly man with the strength of an ape kept my arms behind my back. I could smell whiskey oozing from his breath.

“She’s been stalking me!” I proclaimed. “She won’t leave me alone.”

I protested some more, but the strangers bound together to force me to the ground. My face scraped against the cobble, neck bent in an awkward position.

“I just want to see my wife!” I shouted, suddenly terrified by my lack of power. “I’m just trying to get by until she returns!”

“She’s not coming back,” said the burly man. “It’s been three years.”

“Three years? It hasn’t been a month yet. I’ve been keeping count. Look!”

I pointed a finger to the wall. My stomach dropped. The parted ivy was there, but not a single line marked the brick. Someone had removed them.

The sight sent me into another fury. I writhed against the strangers pressing my face into the ground. “She erased it! She’s sabotaging me! Where’d my marks go?”

“There are no marks,” said the man. “You have no wife. It’s been three years.”

“You’re lying!” I cried. “Her father just passed away. She’s with her mother. She’s coming back!”

I craned my neck as much as I could and shouted for my only ally. “Lucas! Help me! Explain what’s going on!”

My eyes darted from one end of the garden to the other, but I couldn’t find him. Even the cigarette butt he had discarded by the tallies had disappeared.

“Lucas!” I screamed. “Where’d you go? Help me!”

A deep, agitated voice sounded from behind. “Take him inside. He needs to be treated.”

They lurched me onto my feet. I met eyes with the woman who was stalking me. Sniffling and rubbing at her throat, she cowered behind three other women, all of whom fixed me with cold, indifferent stares.

I jabbed my finger at her, quavering with rage. “I just want her to leave me alone! That’s all!”

The burly man drove an elbow into my back. I lost my breath. My feet gave out, so they dragged me like a limp carcass into the closest cottage. It, too, reeked of bleach. Clusters of dreary faces greeted me in the dimly lit room. It must’ve been a gathering hall rather than a cottage, though nobody looked pleased to be there.

“Has anyone seen Lucas?” I asked. “He’s got dark hair, hazel eyes, a thin stubble—”

Someone swore at me. The other onlookers backed away. More women, dressed in identical fashion, watched from a distance. Murmurs filled every hall they dragged me through, until they reached a room occupied by three lone men.

The burly fellow tossed me into a chair. I tried to leap away, but he pinned me in place, and the others fastened belts around my arms, feet, and head. The buckles dug into my skin. A swell of panic consumed me.

“What are you doing to me?” I wailed.

Nobody answered. The same familiar woman stood beside a tall, lanky figure with a drooping nose and sodden cheeks. “Name?” he asked while scribbling on a clipboard.

“Sidney Hall,” answered the woman.

“How do you know my name?” I barked.

She didn’t acknowledge me. The man with the clipboard questioned her further. “Condition?”

“Psychoses. He was admitted three years ago after burning down his home with his wife and four children inside.”

“That’s a lie!” I shouted. “My family went back home for a funeral. I’m waiting for them to come back.”

“Recently,” continued the woman, “he’s been standing by the garden wall and speaking to himself. He believes he has a friend who’s tallying the days his wife’s been away.”

“And there are no marks?” asked the man.

The woman shook her head. “No, but he’s certain there is, and it seems to be incredibly important.”

“Where are the police?” I demanded, growing more and more desperate each second. “You can’t treat me like this. She’s spreading lies! She’s been following me ever since my wife left. She’s gone mad with spite because I won’t pay her attention. This is a plot for revenge!”

The man leaned forward. His tired eyes met my own. “Sidney Hall?”

“What is it?” I growled.

“You have no wife. We’ve been caring for you for three years, but you continue to attack our nurses. This is unacceptable.”

I bore my teeth in a scowl. “You’ve lost your mind! You all have! I’m on summer holidays. Let me go back to my cottage!”

I shook my confines, rattling the entire chair and its straps, but unable to break free. Two men sprang forward to contain me. Then a woman took a gag and jammed it between my teeth. Someone dabbed a cold liquid against my forehead. I tried to scream, but they placed a hard metal object on my temples, and something like a bolt of lightning exploded through my body.

It felt as if my innards had caught on fire. The heat reminded me of the blaze coming from my home that bleak winter night. The screams of Erika and the children resonated in my ears. Were they never coming back?