~ 2 ~

Maybe this was the day. In a service station car park, Ethan Cole tried to put the thought out of his mind. Since receiving the call, all he’d been doing was try to put the thought out of his mind. An unholy amount of effort had gone into putting the thought out of his mind. And yet it remained the only thing he could think about.

The steam rushed out as he took the lid off his coffee. He’d planned on drinking it inside the motorway services, if only to get out of the car for half an hour. Once inside the sterile mall of forced consumerism, however, he’d felt only an impulse to run away.

The headlines of the newspapers and celebrity gossip magazines, the overpriced special offers; each one was offensive in its smallness. Faced with the task ahead, they were no more than inane chatter, idle clutter with which to sully his world. No longer able to stomach their triviality, he’d returned to his car.

Catching sight of his reflection in the wing mirror, Ethan recoiled. It was the same face he’d seen that morning, when he’d looked in the bathroom mirror and seen a ghost staring back. In those dark, dead eyes he could detect the anticipation and fear their numb grief was hiding. It was hidden so well he doubted anyone else would see it. All anyone else saw was a stressed man, whose short fuse burned ever shorter.

Maybe, just maybe, this was the day he’d spent the past five years dreading. Maybe today he would get an answer to some of those questions accrued over the last half decade. It was hardly how he’d planned to spend his holidays when he booked the time off.

This was the first day of a fortnight’s leave and, under normal circumstances, he would have had no need to set his alarm. But these were not normal circumstances, and this morning his alarm rang out at five thirty, its call unnaturally loud against the eerie silence of the hour.

There hadn’t been any need to set it in the end; by five thirty Ethan was already out of bed. He’d woken from a troubled dream almost an hour earlier, then lain in the darkness trying to get back to sleep. When sleep refused to come, he got up.

In the bathroom, he’d lathered his face with shaving cream, leaving the tap running until the water ran warm. Plugging the sink, he’d let it fill before dipping his razor into the liquid. He’d tapped the blade against the side of the basin to shake off the excess water, then run it across his cheek to remove a strip of stubble. Then another, and another, until his face was freshly shaven. Ethan wiped the condensation from the mirror, then washed the last smudges of shaving foam from his neck. No nicks, no scratches, no need to apply any unsightly buds of tissue paper.

Most mornings he plucked the stray greying hairs from his scalp and vowed to get some hair dye. This morning he hadn’t noticed the grey hairs at all. They were still there, but today they didn’t register. He was only a few months shy of 27, and no longer cared if anyone thought he was ten years older.

Reaching down, he’d picked his shirt off the floor and buttoned all but the top button. Then he’d splashed cologne on his face and run his hands under the water. His wet fingers had slipped against the faucet as he turned the tap off.

Rubbing his reddened eyes, he’d looked once more in the mirror. He should have got more rest. If he fell asleep on the motorway…

He wouldn’t fall asleep on the motorway. Not when he couldn’t sleep at all. His bag had already been packed and left by the front door. He’d been ready to leave. Ethan looked at his watch. Five twenty-nine. It was too early to be awake, let alone leave.

From his bedroom, he’d heard his alarm sound. The noise had taken him by surprise. It shouldn’t have. It was simply one more wake-up call he should have been expecting.

He hadn’t expected the call when it came through, but it was now some time since his life had been lived in expectation of a phone call. When Sophia first disappeared he’d suffered palpitations each time the phone rang, in case she might be the one calling.

In five years, that call never came. When his phone rang now, he just assumed the caller was trying to sell him something. They nearly always were, and it was some time since he’d last been polite in his refusal to buy. Yet they still kept calling.

No, he didn’t want to change his energy supplier, insulate his loft or take out a new phone contract. Had he thought about installing solar panels on the roof? No he hadn’t, and he wasn’t going to start thinking about it on the advice of some over-eager salesman. Would he be free to identify a dead body?

A dead body? Yes, he would be free to identify a dead body. He was always free for that.

Maybe this was the day.

In the kitchen, Ethan had dropped two slices of bread into the toaster and filled a bowl with cereal. All would remain untouched. By the time he left, the cereal had turned to mush, and the abandoned toast was joined by a cold cup of black coffee. Ethan didn’t even take his coffee black, but this morning he’d had such little enthusiasm for it that it never occurred to him to add milk or sugar.

It was a three hour drive. At least it would be, as long as his car didn’t give any trouble. In the first two years of ownership, the car had run smoothly. It had only started to play up in the last month, the small judder it gave on acceleration growing to an erratic sputter. He would take it to a garage before his holiday was over. In the meantime, he just hoped it could get him to Bridgelands Cross and back.

He’d added an extra hour to the journey when planning the drive to allow for any mechanical trouble he might face. There had been no problems so far, and this extra hour now gave him time to stop for something to eat, regardless of whether or not he was hungry.

The only thing to fear is fear itself.

Ethan remembered the words from a fortune cookie he’d opened as a teenager. If he hadn’t known it was nonsense then, he had no doubt it was nonsense now. Even the wisest of men feared the unknown.

A brave man might conquer his fear, but only a fool faced uncertainty unafraid. Though Ethan knew he was not a fool, he could no longer say with any conviction that he was brave.

He’d felt the fear again when the call came through; the creeping sickness in his stomach, the slow metallic taste rising in the back of his throat. When he’d put the receiver down, all he remembered was that final argument. It was always easiest to argue with the people who were closest. They were the ones who were there when tempers flared, frustrations boiled over and careless words were spoken.

He’d tried to remain calm, but sometimes the most hurtful words were spoken in the softest voice, and what he’d said must have hurt like hell. What hurt even more was knowing that he’d meant every last one. That argument had marked the point from which there was no return.

What would he do if he could live through those moments again? What would he do if he could turn back time? He knew it was no way to be thinking. His guilt could only make him a martyr. And making himself a martyr was no good for anyone. If the body he saw today turned out to be Sophia’s, nailing himself to a cross would not bring her back to life.

There was nothing he could’ve done. He’d told himself this many times before. Friends and counsellors had told him the same thing. There was nothing he could’ve done. They said it over and over again. Once repeated enough times, the lie became the truth.

But Ethan knew what he could have done. And deep down he suspected he’d known it all along. And then Sophia was gone.

Of course there had been sightings, false hopes and false alarms. As the years went by, the reported sightings had been usurped by requests for Ethan to view unidentified bodies.

Over time he’d become hardened to the whole circus of dormant grief. When someone dies, their family bury them, mourn their passing and, slowly, start to move on. When someone disappears, they leave no body to bury, no passing to mourn and no hope of moving on.

Since Sophia’s disappearance, Ethan had kept everything he felt inside. When any emotion did surface, it was not the weeping sorrow that would engender sympathy, but a confused anger eliciting only hostility in others.

He’d felt his aggravation rising in the service station and needed to get away. Drinking the last of his coffee, Ethan supposed it was time to get back on the road. He checked his watch. He’d started earlier than planned and time was still on his side. Even if nothing else was.

After crushing the empty coffee cup and throwing it onto the passenger seat, he turned the key in the ignition and put the car into gear.

‘This is the day,’ he told himself. ‘This is the day.’

The only thing he didn’t know was whether it would be the day the pieces fell into place or the day everything fell apart.

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