Absence

by Laura Stout
Kate stared at where the rug had been. The one with the burgundy and green geometrical shapes she’d bought just last week to place beneath Ollie’s bowls. Ollie, her sweet, stubborn, terrier-mix. He’d been found in an alley of rotting trash bins and doors with metal bars, whimpering and shivering, fending off an onslaught of black hooded kids hurling beer bottles at his emaciated body. That’s what she’d been told and the story had gripped at her heart, left her weeping.  She’d brought him straight home. And now the rug was gone. She’d stacked the bowls, as usual, in the dishwasher last night. But who’d have moved the rug? Kate glanced over to where Ollie usually lay beneath her desk, but he wasn’t there.

The night before, Kate had gone to move Ollie from the couch and the dog had suddenly turned its head and bit her. She’d whipped her hand back, brought it to her chest and watched small pinpoints of blood seep from the skin of her palm. Unfortunately, it hadn't been the first time. Ollie had been displaying bursts of aggression over the last few weeks. Something he'd never done before.

She switched on the coffee maker, and it came to life with soft churns and steam rising. She pulled a clean yellow mug from the dishwasher, held the cool ceramic against her chin, and thought how she’d have to do something about Ollie’s nipping before it worsened. A dog that bit would not be tolerated.

As Kate turned from the dishwasher, Alex appeared without warning, cell phone in one hand, the other shoved into a pocket, greasy hair raked off his forehead. He would do that. Kate would be alone in a room and suddenly, Alex would be at her shoulder, reaching into a drawer, or at her back, hovering, asking for money. He carried black moods and resentment on his shoulders like a precious weight. Not unusual for a fifteen-year-old boy. But Alex could pull her into that darkness like quicksand if she let him. He slumped into a chair and began madly texting into his phone.

“Good morning,” Kate said brightly. She struggled every day to work her way around his sullenness. But she was growing more and more weary of trying. She poured some milk and cereal into a bowl and pushed it in front of him. She regretted the action immediately. For that was the problem, after all. The spoiling of him, the giving in, always capitulating to what he wanted, until there was no turning back.

“Have you seen Ollie?” Kate asked. Alex ignored her.

“Alex.” She repeated.

“What?” He couldn’t keep the annoyance out of his voice anymore it seemed, and Kate still flinched at his tone.

“Ollie. Have you seen him?”

“Who the hell is Ollie?”

His eyes never leave his damn phone, Kate thought. “It’s not funny, Alex.”

Alex looked up at Kate and squinted. “What is wrong with you this morning?” Alex snapped his phone shut, pushed the cereal bowl away and left the room.

“You have a nice day too,” she called after him.

Kate began to go through the house, room by room, searching under beds, behind couches and chairs. She stopped when she reached the closed door to Stan’s office. Stan worked commercial real estate, not successfully as of late, and, therefore, was inclined to bad moods and hypertension. She rarely knocked on that door. She couldn’t ask Stan if he’d seen him. Stan hated the dog. He’d be glad it had gone missing. But there was still no sign of Ollie and she’d have to leave now or be late for yoga.

She pressed her ear to the oak panels and heard Stan’s voice, flat and hard, giving instructions, recognized the demeaning tone. She brought her hand up to knock, then paused. The dog could have gotten out of the house somehow. Alex had come in late and might not have noticed Ollie slipping past him. He could be wandering the streets as she stood there and it might be better if she looked for him first. She pressed her hands to her eyes till silver flecks exploded in the blackness. Goddammit, she thought to herself. Twenty years had brought her to this childish hesitation. She was done with being afraid of her own husband. She knocked and opened the door.

Stan looked at her with fury brimming from his eyes. “Hold on, Jeff,” he said into the phone. “I’ll call you right back.” He clicked the phone off. “What the fuck, Kate. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“I’m sorry. But have you seen Ollie?”

“Seriously, Kate. Is this important?”

Kate stared for a moment. She told herself to just walk away. It would do no good to further antagonize Stan now. But a churning anger, long coming, building up inside her like gathering storm clouds, was begging to be let loose. Shockingly, Kate put her hand against Stan’s chest and pushed him hard, back into his office, then slammed the door shut. She froze waiting for Stan to burst out the door, but nothing happened. She leaned against the wall suddenly overwhelmed with fatigue. She hadn’t slept well the night before. Usually her dog slept beside her, in between her and Stan. She’d reach down and scratch his downy fur and his leg would kick incessantly and she would smile. But last night she’d left him on the couch, and in the middle of the night, she’d touched the empty place on the bed.

It hadn’t always been this way. In the early years of their marriage, a trust had formed between them. She could tell him her secrets and he’d hold them close, protect them, like rare gems. He’d pull her into him and kiss her forehead, breathe her in.  She’d felt his love pulse like heartbeats inside her chest. The loss of him was gradual. A thousand days would pass and she’d feel a thin layer of familiarity gone, like grains of sand shifting under her feet.

As she drove to yoga class, she glanced about the neighborhood looking for Ollie. She began taking detours down dead-ends and alleyways, and soon abandoned both the yoga class and her car. She walked through neighbors’ yards, unlatching gates and stepping over sprinklers and discarded jump ropes, lightly calling Ollie’s name. Roaming through a vacant lot, she stopped and kicked at a pile of lumber and a blaze of black fur darted out from under the boards. She watched the cat slink across the street and disappear.  

Returning to her car, the sidewalks filled with children spilling out from morning kindergarten, skipping alongside young mothers, colorful backpacks sagging off their shoulders. For a moment, Kate felt Alex's tiny fingers tangled within her own. It was impossible to remember when it had all begun to change.  

When Alex was six, they'd made a rare visit to Stan's parents’ house. They’d always been strict and unappreciative of the charms of small children, and so Alex had been placed in the care of the housekeeper so the adults could dine alone. Just as the appetizers were placed on the table, she’d heard gentle sobs escaping from upstairs. Kate excused herself as her in-laws scowled at her. She found Alex at the top of the stairs, his little body curled and shaking, knees pressed into his chest. She picked him up and he gripped her arms and clung to her like tendrils of ivy, and she rocked him to sleep, singing softly, never returning to the table downstairs.  

In the afternoon, Kate stopped by the dry cleaners, picked up items from the market, pulled cash out at the bank. It was four o’clock by the time she settled in at her desk.

Their home was a jumble of shabby, leftover furniture from Stan's first failed marriage, and a few of Kate’s own pieces from long ago. She tried to keep the rooms organized and neat, forever trailing after Stan and Alex, picking up stray shoes and glassware, straightening pillows and pushing in chairs. But at least her desk was kept ordered, laptop squarely centered, surrounded by wedding photos and Alex’s latest school portrait. She was thinking about tacking up flyers around the neighborhood with her phone number and a picture of Ollie when she noticed it was missing. The silver framed shot of Ollie as a puppy was gone. Something heavy descended beneath her rib cage and began to ripple and ache. Was Alex playing a practical joke? These days she couldn’t put anything past him. But surely not this.

She clicked on iPhoto, scrolling through pictures of last summer’s trip to the Grand Canyon, Stan’s birthday dinner one month ago, searching for her recent photos of Ollie. She’d need one for the flyer. But they were gone. Every last one. There had to have been a glitch, some sort of error in her hard drive. She’d lost files before. But why only Ollie’s photos?

She jumped up and hurried to the dishwasher, flipped it open and pulled out the racks. Ollie’s bowls were not there. She scoured the kitchen, flinging open every cabinet and rummaging through Tupperware and pots and skillets and glassware. They were nowhere.

Looking out the window, onto the street, Kate thought she might see other things missing as well. But across the street, Bruce, the orange tomcat belonging to the Millers sat on their front porch. She watched as a man in blue jeans and a red baseball cap walked his German shepherd past her driveway.

Kate wanted to laugh. The alternative was to acknowledge the impossible. Or worse, acknowledge what Alex could be capable of doing. Could he have watched Ollie escape out the door as he came in last night and done nothing? Or had he taken Ollie and dumped him outside in the street, deleted her photos, hidden the dog’s bowls?

At the front door, she noticed Ollie’s leash was not on its hook. Instead, one of Alex’s thin faded hoodies hung there like empty skin. She pressed her fists into her temples and squeezed her eyes shut, wanted to believe that her son was not capable of such an awful prank. She left the house and walked the neighborhood, calling Ollie’s name, walking in circles until she sunk to a curb and wiped at the sudden tears with the back of her hand.

A breeze began collecting along the streets and alleyways. Kate returned home. She dragged herself up the porch steps, her legs like lead, her temples pulsing with a tender pain. The potted geraniums Alex had planted so many summers ago sat by the front door. She ran her hand across the petals. The plant flourished, always had, the flowers pulsing bright red, the stems reaching up and over the mailbox, like a manic weed. Inside, she kept waiting for Ollie’s high, sharp yelp and the skitter of his nails against the hardwood floors. She envisioned his curled black body at the foot of the stove, his eyes tracking her every move around the kitchen.

She heard the garage door rumble open. Stan’s Volvo pulled inside. Kate took chicken from the refrigerator and placed it in a glass-baking dish, plugged in the rice cooker, rinsed vegetables in the sink, each movement compelling her into the next.

Later, as they sat at the kitchen table. Alex drummed one hand against the wood and poked at his food with the other. Stan ate with vigor, skimming through his newspaper. Outside, the daylight tapered off into a darkness that cradled the three of them in a brooding silence.

"Can we talk about the dog?" Kate suddenly asked.

Alex looked up as if there were finally something interesting about to happen. "What dog?" He snickered, stared at Kate.

Kate looked at Stan. His lips were forming the words as he read. He ignored both Kate and Alex. But then, he never wanted to talk about the dog.

“By the way, the chicken sucks tonight,” Alex complained.

“Watch it, Alex,” Stan said without moving his eyes from the newsprint.

“It’s a little tough,” Alex said as his speared his chicken breast with his fork and held it up like an indictment.

“That’s enough.” Stan peered at Alex from behind the paper.

Alex shoved away from the table and left the room.

She wondered how this family had become so brittle, so tenuously made. All during dinner, they hadn’t noticed how quiet she had been, she, the one who always moved the conversation forward, always grilled them about their day, lapped up whatever they gave her, gave them uninteresting details about her own, anything to keep the lines of communication open. She thought their apathy might be worse than the missing dog. She pushed her food around her plate and held one hand limp in her lap. It was as if she’d been extinguished.

Kate gathered dishes and took them to the sink. She turned on the little TV that sat on the counter top and tried to listen to the words of a newscaster. But they disintegrated and turned into a caustic hum and she let her brain go numb.

After dinner, Kate took a large crystal tumbler of vodka and a sleeping pill to bed with her. She fingered the polished beads of the rosary she kept on her bedside table. She’d given up on getting the boys to church, and most Sundays it didn’t seem worth the effort to go herself. But within Kate, in some corner, solemn and quiet as a grave, a memory of her faith still beat alongside her heart. She held the rosary and studied it. Having been touched almost nightly for years, the beads were now the luminescent blue of winter twilight. She let them wrap around her fingers, let the burnished silver cross lay lightly against her palm. Then she squeezed it tight inside her fist and slid her arm under the pillow. She drank from the glass, yielded to the forward motion of time, and let the world fall away.

                                                    ****

Gauzy light filtered through the curtains next to Kate’s bed. She climbed out of a deep sleep and immediately she knew. The clarity stunned her, washed over her like a cold wave. But it wasn’t just the fact of a missing pet. It was the absolute removal of an element of her life and the role Alex may have played in it all.

The bedside clock read nine o’clock. The house would be empty. As Kate rose from bed, she looked down and saw the blue rosary beads spilling from her fist and a ripple ran along her skin. She gathered laundry and carried it down the hall, sorted socks and towels and T-shirts, measured detergent in a plastic measuring cup. Small familiar acts, each one vital to ensuring her sanity, containing her in a state of required denial.

As she left the laundry room, Kate noticed Alex’s door was ajar. His door was never ajar. His door was always shut tight. Sometimes locked. She went to the door and gently pushed it open.

A bed covered in a bright floral quilt filled the center of the room, and sheer green curtains hung from an open window. The curtains lifted and settled in the breeze like the rise and repose of mist. By the window, on a gleaming cherry wood dresser, yellow silk flowers spilled over the top of a thick glass vase. Everything that had been Alex’s was gone. No messy bureau stuffed with books and bike locks and loose money. No computer desk with dusty keyboards, old soda cans and plates of pizza crusts. No grimy piles of T-shirts and wet towels piled in the corners. No bed where Alex had slept last night.

The bed, the curtains, the dresser, they were all wrong. Kate’s mind was jumping tracks, careening wildly between a diminishing past and a wildly shifting present. This was impossible. This room could not exist this way. Her whole body trembled as she fled the room.

She hurried down the softly carpeted hallway, past the window at the top of the stairs where the warm light of summer seeped inside, through her bedroom with the unmade bed and crumpled jeans tossed on the floor the night before. She’d been too distraught to throw them in the hamper as she usually did.

In the bathroom, she closed the door and sunk into a corner on the cold tile floor. She closed her mind to the thought of the room she had just seen, focused on how Alex’s room really looked, how it had always irritated her, the musty smell of it, the muffled music. She listened to the drip of the shower faucet. She had been asking Stan to fix it, was going to call a plumber this week out of impatience, and, of course not tell him. Eventually, her breathing evened out and she became light headed, almost unsure why she was sitting there. Looking around at the still damp towels, the combs and brushes scattered around the sink, the open medicine cabinet displaying pill bottles and shaving cream, the world seemed normal. But she knew it wasn’t.

She waited until her legs would not give out on her and they allowed her to walk into her room and dig her cell phone from her purse. If she could talk to Stan, he would make it all right, put things back together again. That’s what he did. Although, he’d been so abrupt with her lately. What if he didn’t believe her? What if he grew angry and said she was crazy? What if he said she was crazy for thinking that anything was wrong?

She tapped the cell’s screen and Stan’s phone rang and rang until it went to voicemail. There was nothing she could think of to say that wouldn’t sound completely insane. So she clicked off.

She thought of Isabel. They’d met ten years ago. It had been a warm September morning, the first day of kindergarten for Alex and Isabel’s son Jeremy. A cerulean sky soared and stretched over the assembly of excited children and nervous mothers. The boys had immediately run off together to play. She and Isabel spoke together for a while under the shade of a wide and towering sycamore tree. It was the beginning of a friendship in which their lives slowly melded together like braids of textured ribbons.

She dialed Isabel’s number.

“Hello?” Kate heard Isabel’s sweet, patient voice.

“Isabel. It’s me, Kate.” Her voice splintered and she drew in a deep breath to keep from sobbing.

“I’m sorry. Who is it?”

“Kate. It’s me, Kate.”

“Kate who?”

“Isabel, this is no time for jokes. Please. Just talk to me. Please. Something horrible is going on.” Kate’s hand shook as it held the receiver.  A low fissure of anger was forming in her belly, chasing away some of the fear.

“I’m sorry, but you must have the wrong number.” The line went dead.

Kate leaned against her bedroom wall, let the cell phone clatter against the dresser as it dropped to the floor.

A tight fear was descending into Kate, gripping her insides, spreading through her limbs like a paralyzing drug. Yet her mind strained to find a way out, tried to insist, as a mother would to a child, that no monsters lingered under the bed. That the creeping shadows were not ghosts. Kate told herself the missing dog, the strange room, were an aberration, a mental lapse. She told the child that hid somewhere inside her that it was all a bad dream.

Kate grabbed her cell phone and pushed herself up against the wall till her legs locked, filled her lungs with air. If she went back to Alex’s room now, it would all be there, all of his things, right where they belonged. Determined, she walked unsteadily back down the hallway. But the floral quilt, the curtains, the silk flowers, were all still there, taunting her with a sort of placid irony, as if to say ‘isn’t this what you wanted?’ She crumpled and sat with her back against the bed, pulled her knees into her chest and tried to breathe.

Outside, car doors slammed, an engine came to life. People were still going to dentist appointments and soccer practice. Outside, a child wailed, laughter echoed. Outside, she imagined dark, simmering clouds hovering near the ground, and a crack, like a thin crooked line, widening, pulling things inside of it. They’d slip into the darkness, like terrified insects.

Inside, here in this room, Kate felt she was becoming unfastened from what was real, her world dissolving in a mist of confusion and fear. Inside, a mocking calm possessed the room, crushing against her until she thought she would scream. The clock on the dresser ticked off the seconds like locks clicking into place. She closed her eyes and waited.

Throughout the afternoon, Kate dipped in out of an unstable consciousness. At times, the room around her lost all focus, turned black. When she was lucid, she remembered the stale closed –up smell of Alex’s room. The smell she should be breathing in, but instead there was cinnamon and fresh linen and nothing having to do with a surly teenage boy. She thought about how she could be in shock. Wasn’t there shivering and a departure from your surroundings? She’d seen it on TV and movies and she welcomed it now. Wanted it to wash over and entomb her. Because how she would ever pull herself from this place and the absence of what had been, what should be there still, Kate could not guess. The walls of the room circled and spun, drawing Kate into a downward arc until she slipped beneath the floor. And the world went black.

When the light coming through the window paled, Stan’s voice echoed through the house, calling her name. When he finally found her, she was curled into a ball with her back to the bed.

“ Jesus Christ, Kate. I’ve been calling your name for ten minutes.” Stan paused. Kate didn’t move.

“Kate?” Stan knelt down and put a hand on Kate’s shoulder, lifted her chin with a finger. At first, she looked right through him with red, hollowed out eyes. Her skin had become ashen. Suddenly, she tracked him with a fierce gaze.

“Kate, for God sakes. What is it?”

“We have a son.” Kate choked out the words. “Don’t you dare tell me we don’t. We have a son.” Kate grabbed Stan’s arms as if she were falling from a ledge. “Don’t tell me you don’t know who Alex is.”

Stan lifted Kate from the floor and sat her on the edge of the bed. “Kate. Calm down and tell me what this is all about.”

“Don’t tell me to calm down,” Kate screamed. “We have a son. This is his room. What’s happening to me?”

“I don’t know.” Stan kneeled in front of Kate and took her hands in his. He looked closely at her and she could see naked fear in his eyes.

“I’m calling Marcus. I’ll have him come right over.” Stan pulled out his cell and left the room.

Kate heard Stan’s distraught voice outside the door. “Jesus, Marcus, she’s talking crazy. Something about a son. She actually thinks we have a son. Yesterday, she’s completely normal and now this. You must have dealt with something like this before. It’s scaring me, Marcus. She’s scaring me.”

An hour later, Marcus inserted a needle into her arm as she lay in bed. Pushed in the medicine that would take her away, allow her to fall into oblivion. The last thing Kate heard was Stan and Marcus’ muffled voices discussing immediate tests. “Bring her into my office tomorrow morning, first thing.” She’d heard Marcus say.

                                                         ****

Kate opened her eyes and made sure to breathe; in and out, in and out. The horror of yesterday left her paralyzed, nailed to the bed, unwilling to move even a finger, an arm, adjust a leg. Her mouth was dry, her throat parched, probably from the medicine Marcus had given her the night before. She turned her head to the nightstand. Stan had left a glass of water for her last night, but it was gone. He must have cleared it. She’d have to move.

She took the stairs slowly, each step guarded, her limbs like rubber. In the hallway, she stretched her arm out and laid her hand against the wall, closed her eyes, listened for the soft knock of cabinets opening or closing, footsteps traveling across a room. But the house swelled with an unfamiliar silence. Dread coiled around her chest and squeezed so she opened the front door and stepped outside.

Everything looked the same. The leafy elms, the front walkway, the wide street in front of their house. There was a newspaper on the lawn. Stan usually retrieved it, but her body moved forward as if on autopilot, to do this one thing. This one ordinary thing. As she bent to pick it up, a young girl rode by on a bicycle.

“Good morning, Miss Connor.” The girl, little Elsie from down the street.

Kate froze. Miss Connor? She hadn’t been Miss Connor for twenty years.

She turned to go back inside and the world spun in crazy little circles. The green lawn seemed to sink beneath either side of the walkway, the star Jasmine that pressed itself against the front of the house let go, and floated up over the door. She quickly grabbed the banister and steadied herself, closed her eyes until the spinning subsided. Back inside, something made her look for all the things she knew she wouldn’t see.

Just inside the front door, her black pumps and brown suede boots were lined up, toes and heels touching. But there were no scuffed leather dress shoes or filthy sneakers strewn around them as there had been last night.

In the living room, the brown lazy boy, along with the messy stack of newspapers that sat next to it, was gone. She walked to where they had sat and ran her hand along the shiny green fronds of the palm tree. They danced lightly in the breeze coming through an open window. On the mantelpiece, sat a lovely framed picture of Kate and her sister by a glimmering pool, smiling, arms wrapped around each other. She touched the glass with her finger, just to make sure it was real. A faint memory of that moment with her sister was pushing its way to the surface, like a dream slowly remembered after waking.

Gone was the photograph that had been there yesterday. Stan with his hands resting lightly on Kate’s waist, his chin just above her shoulder, his expression bound, anxious to get on with whatever he’d been doing. She could no longer recall with precision the day it had been taken, but there was a fleeting memory of the heat of studio lights and, as the years fell forward from that day, a heavy, flat feeling in her chest each time she looked at the image.

Throughout the house, Kate’s presence flourished. Pastel landscapes spread across the walls where there had been nothing but a few family photos just yesterday. Delicate porcelain figurines graced shelves where there had been old magazines. In the kitchen, a single wine glass was washed and carefully placed in the dish rack. No other dish, no other glass, no other utensil.

She opened the door to Stan’s office and it was wholly changed, bore no resemblance to what she’d always known to be behind that door. Still, something familiar breathed out from every piece of furniture, from the whitewashed walls and the soft carpet. His scarred oak desk had been replaced by a honey colored, glass-topped table. A blue silk settee sat where his pull-out couch had been. Kate found a wet bar stocked with cold bottles of Chardonnay and vodka and tonic water. There was no Kentucky bourbon. Stan had liked Kentucky bourbon. She had found it harsh and bitter.

She drank straight from a bottle of Stoli, tipped her head back, felt a few drops dribble down her chin. Her memories were losing that crisp, absolute quality, like sunlight striking asphalt. Already, certain images, like the slope of Alex’s hunched back, the strands of unwashed hair across his forehead, were becoming vague and dull. What was left of him, what Kate felt mostly, was an impression of anger stamped upon her skin and bones.

She thought about the three of them, the dog, the boy, the man. Pictured them as prisoners somewhere, locked up together, forced to endure each other, their dark moods, their anger, all mixing together like a volatile cocktail, and Ollie chasing them around and around, nipping at their ankles, drops of blood pooling on the floor.

Kate didn’t weep, didn’t cry out for her lost son and husband. Instead, she drifted through the house, noticed the air felt lighter, windswept, like air after a heavy rain. She went out to the backyard. For a moment, things seemed normal, the house and yard as familiar as her own body. The blades of grass seemed to hold their breath; the wooden shingles stared at her, waiting. She listened to the soft green noise of pale leaves rustling on the branches. Breaths. The gentle pull of wind breathing against the trees. She fell onto the weathered lawn furniture, stretched her neck back, lay her head against the aluminum chair. The furrow above her brows softened and smoothed. She ran her tongue across her lips and smiled.
Laura Stout lives in sunny Manhattan Beach with her very patient husband and two, sometimes bewildering, but awesome teenage children. She shed the life of numbers and calculators and now spends her days pursuing the magical order of letters and words. Her stories have been published in numerous on-line journals and she won for best short story of 2013 at “Writers Type.”

© 2014, Laura Stout