by Audrey T. Carroll
The scurrying upstairs sounds strange now, like a million things it isn’t. There are squirrels for certain—I’ve seen them escaping onto our roof like they’re emerging from some portal to another world. There are heavier creatures, too. Our best guess has always been racoons, but how they get in and out I couldn’t say. No matter how much they all skitter and thump around, no matter how many times they make me jump in the middle of the night when I think I’m utterly alone, I haven’t got the heart to call an exterminator. Or maybe that’s just another story I tell myself. Maybe I’m just afraid—afraid of the weight of silence, afraid of hearing the ghosts that linger.
It was not always silent. Oliver and I shared a bed, and he would either creak it by flopping around like a fish on a boat, or else breathe through his mouth in half-snores. When he didn’t come home from work one night without warning, I texted him, joking that I wanted to make sure he hadn’t been abducted by aliens. I stared out the kitchen window as the street lamps flickered on, imagining one of those classic beams of light depositing him in our driveway. His hair would be unkempt and his suit jacket would be missing; neither of us would ask questions about where the latter had ended up. He would be standing there in his dress pants, his button-down shirt wrinkled and his tie slightly askew. I decided that he would still have his briefcase, though what aliens would want with a suit jacket more than a briefcase was the part of the story that I couldn’t quite figure out.
When I woke up at midnight, the scurrying symphony up above already in full gear, he wasn’t home yet. His keys were not hanging up by the door—a measure against his forgetfulness that meant we’d already needed to re-do the locks five times. His car was not in the driveway, so I wondered it if was broken down again and his phone was dead and he’d spent the night half-snoring as he sat upright in some stiff and stained plastic chair at the closest emergency mechanic’s shop. I supposed it must be surreal to be in such a place in the dead of night. Between the exhaustion of the ordeal and your mind trying to pull you into dreams, the place must have seemed strange, too bright, like some kind of nexus for a phenomenon that you never really understood, a place of entrapment and possibility all at once, as though you could believe anything that you witnessed there at midnight. I could swear I’d heard a story like that once, though it might have been in a garden or a library instead.
As I started up the fancy tea kettle that Oliver had gotten me for some anniversary or another, I was sure I was being silly and anxious. Still, as the chamomile flowers steeped, I texted one of his casual friends from work who I’d met at a Christmas party. The co-worker had seen him leave and swore he’d mentioned something about stopping at the grocery store for some pine nuts on the way home. I thought this was strange—something so specific, for one thing, but I was absolutely certain, too, that Oliver was allergic to pine nuts. If we were speaking over the phone, I may have thought I misheard, that what the co-worker had really said was peanuts. It was just slightly too distant a word from pine nuts for me to believe the phone had corrected his typing for him, though the possibility that he was simply misremembering still remained. In the time it took to finish my tea, I amused myself by thinking that we were in some thriller mini-series where someone was trying to kill Oliver, but he was on the run and he hadn’t contacted me out of some misguided patriarchal notion of keeping me safe. It was his co-worker trying to kill him, I decided as I rinsed my mug, and Oliver had told him pine nuts to leave me a clue. It was all, of course, over the matter of who got the best parking spot at work.
Oliver liked to tease me about how I was always listening to some audiobook or watching Netflix, that I let the stories get carried away with me. It was a way to pass the time. My eyes lost focus on the blue mug as I cleaned it in the sink. The thing was plain except for the script on the side that read “Beach Babe.” It had been some generic gift from Oliver’s mother. When I felt something rough scratch up against my thumb, I discovered a chip in the handle, the coarse insides exposed; I had no idea where the damage had come from. It brewed a strange reaction in my body, my heart racing as though I’d shattered the thing, a kind of sinking feeling in my gut that was either a pang of fear—the kind that you get in the split second when you think you’ve crashed your car into a metal pole—or guilt, but I wasn’t sure why, in that moment, either of those were making me feel as though I had to vomit.
When the strange reaction passed, I drove to Light, Laugh, Love like I did almost every morning, and, while I was there, I tried to focus on facing candles or whether to recommend energizing citrus-based scents or soothing lavender ones to particular customers. When I got home, our driveway was empty again. The red flowers out front were dark and dropping. Oliver always had an easier time with them; he’d always known how to make things thrive. As I pulled out a packaged salad and washed it, I tried to reason that he got stuck in traffic. I rooted around in the fridge for the leftover chicken to mix in with the lettuce, and I couldn’t help but wonder why we’d never gotten a dog or a cat, something warm to come home to. As I ate with one dim light on, I searched for any sign of Oliver—texts, missed calls, even Instagram posts. His most recent photo was from five days earlier, a gift box with a bow on top. The caption gave nothing away, as it was an emoji that echoed the picture itself, but I remembered this—some antique necklace that he’d brought home for me. I’d teased him, asking if he’d found it by some old train tracks or something. As ridiculous a notion as it sounded, I could imagine it as the kind of thing that he’d stumble upon while lost in thought, and he trusted the world so much that he never would have wondered about its origins.
I speculated, briefly, if this was like some detective story. The pine nuts were the first clue; maybe he’d left others, and if I’d follow them, I could see what was so important that he’d disappear. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wouldn’t be in the detective in that story; I’d be The Wife, and therefore Suspect #1.
I panicked. I’m not proud.
When I looked at the time, I realized that it had been over twenty-four hours since Oliver had last been seen at work. I ran through what I’d done since—texted him about alien abduction, talked to his co-worker, had tea, went to work like normal, and made a half-hearted salad. Would my manager say I’d been distracted? Could they put together a case that I was after insurance money? I called and left Oliver a detailed message about how I missed him and we should break out some cheap wine when he got home. I texted everyone from Oliver’s mother to Alice, the woman who, through uncomfortable serendipity, had broken up with me two years before her notoriously horrendous first date with Oliver.
Even if I had done something so awful that Oliver didn’t want to speak to me, I figured that he would at least call someone else. Still, I could think of no huge thing between us that would have caused Oliver to not only avoid having a conversation with me, but also avoid coming home altogether. He was a distinctly let’s have an adult conversation because communication is the key to any relationship kind of person, reasonable and mature in a way that could sometimes drive a person up a wall if they were having a particularly rotten, human, foible-tastic kind of day. When I ran through a list of things that would justify silence from him, the best I could come up with was that I’d have to set the house on fire, or maybe have run over the dog we never adopted. I gave it exactly to hour twenty-five before calling the cops to file a missing persons report, but since he hadn’t been threatened and I had no evidence of his disappearance, they said I would have to wait until the seventy-two-hour mark.
I forgot to throw away my salad, which I would regret the next morning. A thing like that can rot more quickly than I realized. Dragging myself upstairs, I was the kind of exhausted where I knew I wouldn’t sleep. I took some melatonin, brushed my teeth, and lit a lavender and sage candle as I nested under the covers. I heard the scurrying in the quiet dead of night. The pipes settling in the walls came first. When I heard the squirrels after, I thought it was someone—something—outside. It sounded like screaming, like distress distilled. I checked the windows; I thought about making sure that the doors downstairs were locked, but the idea of going down alone in the dark was not worth it. I was not about to become the girl you shouted at in a horror movie. Instead, I blew out the candle and let myself doze off in bed—after I turned the light on, to be sure that I could see anything coming.
I was off of work the next day. I stood at the kitchen window, fingers curled around the handle of a cooling cup of tea. I felt like I had woken up standing there. I couldn’t even remember if I brushed my teeth. My hair was dripping, so I assumed that I must have showered, at least. But there I was, staring at my ancient station wagon alone in the driveway, my attention drawn every so often to the wilting flowers. I was consumed with a kind of impending dread that could give Cassandra a run for her money. Oliver never did anything like this. If he so much as stopped for gas on the way home, he texted to ask me to preheat the oven. Something was deeply wrong; I knew that, but what was I supposed to do about it? I couldn’t figure out how to spin our story so it moved toward a happy ending; I knew enough stories with bitter endings to recognize that a happy resolution was never guaranteed. Deciding that I couldn’t spend my whole day in the house that had fallen silent, I drove until I got lost, and then somehow, I found my way home again. I could imagine the way my day would look in a show: some filter with low saturation so that everything seemed gray and blue, the world passing me by in every surface of glass as a dreary folk song played in the background. The show would have some dramatic title with everlasting in it somewhere.
Two messages came through as I unlocked the front door—Alice had not, she informed me, heard from Oliver. The other message was from my manager about the new sale starting the next week. I did not bother with dinner. I checked the locks on the front and back doors twice each before heading directly to bed. I immediately began to drift off, and as my mind relaxed, I listened to the sound coming from upstairs, like a dozen feet trying to run into a portal to some fantasy land where everything was better, easier, safer. I dreamed of this portal land, full of light, but I remembered so little of it when I woke. No matter how much I tried, I could neither get back to sleep nor return to the fantasy.
The next day was a blur; nothing broke through. It was as though I had been told the barest details of an average day for me and could vaguely imagine it. I could feel nothing more than the pit in my stomach, the one that told me something had happened to Oliver, the one that told me for certain that I would never see him again. When I came to bed that night, I stared up at the ceiling. I could still smell Oliver’s shampoo on the pillow next to me, and if I closed my eyes, I could pretend that we were in a romance novel, that nothing could ever separate us, that we’d always find our way back. And, with my imagination running wild and hopeful, the merriment upstairs began to sound like laughter.
Audrey T. Carroll is a Best of the Net nominee, the author of Queen of Pentacles (Choose the Sword Press, 2016), and the editor of Musing the Margins: Essays on Craft (Human/Kind Press, 2020). Her work has been published or is forthcoming in (mac)ro(mic), Miracle Monocle, The Broken Plate, Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, So to Speak, and others. She is a bisexual and disabled/chronically ill writer who serves as a Diversity & Inclusion Editor for the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. She can be found at http://audreytcarrollwrites.weebly.com and @AudreyTCarroll on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.