Coming home, darling?
A cool hand on his cheek—her hand. She smiles and her eyes crease together pleasantly, the wisps of her hair falling in just the right way; frame her face like a sun-kissed photograph that has never known the walls.
He always seems to remember her with a bundle of laundry clasped in her arms, with the ends tumbling out like enormous luminous mushrooms, the ends flapping out like the wings of clipped doves as she pins them to the clothesline. He always seems to remember her with a bright blue sky behind and long green grass up to her knees, waving and shimmering as the wind blows lightly, merrily, as the sunlight dances in and out, and as the clouds puff up like puffin's breasts, white and fluffy and full.
Don't be late, she chides, and the ring of her voice is soft and lilting.
He wishes he could promise that he'd be home early, but that would only be lying; and he knows that lying would only be worse in the long run. He hates to see her disappointed, though.
So he smiles, or at least tries to, and she keeps pinning up the sheets as they billow out, making the sounds of a ship's sails as they tug, pull for an impossible freedom. He remembers how when they were little they used to play hide and seek in between the ghostly aisles of white sheets as they hung to dry, used to laugh and shriek together when one found the other and then collapse in a big fit of giggling until Mother came and brought them inside, scolded them for being so noisy. But Mother always gave them a nice warm bowl of porridge afterwards that settled so snugly in their stomachs, and they knew that she wasn't really mad.
Don't forget, she reminds him in that maternal way of hers that is always so frustrating; but at the same time he cannot refuse.
He pulls a wry grin and turns towards the motorcycle parked by the winding roadside. It's funny, how incongruous it is: a small quaint cottage and a shining metal monster sleeping beside it. It's odd how beautifully they fit, something he'll never really understand. He climbs onto it and starts the engine, feels it purr into a mechanical life, pulls on his leather gloves, eases the sunglasses up the bridge of his nose, and the world turns a shade darker, the sky deep indigo.
The metal beast beneath him rumbles and shudders in repressed anticipation and his hands reach to the grip tightly at the handlebars.
He wants to look back at her, glance over his shoulder and see if she is watching him. He doesn't, though. He doesn't need to look to see.
When he comes home, she is not there. The metal beast on which he sits is exhausted and dies abruptly, blissfully, as he cuts the engine. He finds that the roof of the house is caving in and the grass is a dirty yellow, the mud squelching beneath his feet as he dismounts.
The sheets are gone, and his stomach turns suddenly with the memory of hide and seek and two small children and warm, good porridge—
His heart quickens but he does not call out her name, for fear of how it will sound on his tongue, how it will strike the air in horrible uncertainty. Everything is quiet as death.
Creak goes the door as he pushes it open. Dust crawls on the ceiling and cobwebs with spiders string all around. It is dark and musty, smells like mildew and decay.
So soon?, he thinks.
He sees a twitch of movement, breathes sharply, and sees her face in the blur of nothing. The mouse squeaks guiltily from behind the cupboard; he exhales and the sick feeling deepens. She is not there.
Coming home, darling?
He starts at how surprisingly clear the voice is, when it is only a memory, a recollection.
So sweet and clear.
Don't be late. Don't forget.
He runs suddenly out of the door and back into the muddy yard, where the clotheslines used to be. It is so empty without the sheets. It is so empty without her.
Where are you?, he wonders to himself and the grey sky. The wind blows across and ruffles the trampled, dying grass.
You're late. You forgot, it sings, and it's scary how it knows.
She's not coming home.
He was a lifetime too late.