Five Months Before
Sam knows he is too late even as he sprints back from the station. He runs the whole way, phone clenched in his fist, the early afternoon sun at his back. His lungs are seizing in his chest by the time he crashes into the stairwell. He takes the stairs two at a time and, panting loudly, calls Efe’s name as he staggers into the flat. Nothing is out of place. Maybe he’s overreacting. She has to be here somewhere, he thinks as he moves from room to room, peers around corners, behind the bathroom door. He throws open the utility closet and stares at the hoover and dust-covered pots of paint. The last room he checks is their bedroom. The door sits open and ominous at the end of the hall. Here he finds gaps everywhere: bare hangers, three pairs of shoes gone, a drawer cracked open as if she’d left in a hurry, her favorite necklace glinting on the dresser.
Sam doubles over. Suddenly the air is warm and sludgy. The room swims. He feels like a small child waking up groggy and alone in a ghost-filled house. He checks his phone again, scans through the stream of messages he’s fired out, but there’s still no reply from Efe. All his calls go to voicemail. The £1,300 payment to British Airways is still pending. Then he thinks of Olivia and panic floods his system anew. He fumbles with his mobile, calls the babysitter, and mutters “Pick up, pick up, pick up” until she does.
“Is Olivia there?” Sam says.
“Of course. Is everything o—?”
“Let me speak to her,” he interrupts. There’s a brief scuffling sound as the phone changes hands; then Sam hears Liv on the line. His legs soften as he listens to the toddler sway to her words, the soft p sounds and the wobbly t’s. He sinks to the floor. Unaware, Liv chats happily about Bear-Bear, seamlessly picking up their conversation from hours earlier. Sam lets his eyes close and smiles. “See you soon. I love you. Be a good girl,” he says, then adds, “I’m coming to pick you up, okay? Put Miss Bea back on the phone.” After the call, Sam lowers his face into his hands. He waits for the ringing in his ears to stop and the flecks of dancing light to scatter; then he summons up all the energy he has, to face the aftermath.
Later, when Sam returns to the flat with Liv, he holds his breath as she pauses in the hallway, looks both ways, first into the living room, then into the kitchen. Even in her absence, Efe is everywhere. Olivia gives him a curious look. “Where’s Mummy?” she asks.
“Out. She’ll be back soon,” Sam says. He too believes these words. No need to worry Liv. No matter what happens between him and Efe, they always find their way back to each other. He just needs to give her time. All he has to do is wait.
Sam settles Liv in the living room, glances at the clock and sees it’s early, not quite three. “Want some juice?” he asks and returns with juice and buttered crackers.
In the quiet of the kitchen he listens to the voicemail again. It was hard to make out at first because of the cars hurtling past in the background. Sam had listened to it three times, struggling to make sense of the words, before he’d finally understood that she’d gone. She’d told no one, only called her sister minutes before she’d boarded the plane, and her sister had called him. After the beep there’s a three-second pause before Serwaa realizes it’s recording and speaks. “Hey, Sam, it’s me,” she says. “Can you let Efe know I got her message? Her phone’s going to voicemail, so if you’re with her, just tell her it’s fine. I’ll be there when she lands. I hope things are good.”
All afternoon Sam makes phone calls. Most are to Efe, even though he knows she’s somewhere high above Europe or the Sahara, more miles threading between them with each passing second. He calls Serwaa too. His movements are mechanical. He hangs up, waits a few minutes, and redials. He doesn’t let himself think or stop.
“Daddy?” Sam turns to find Olivia standing in the doorway. She looks at him warily, his brave and curious four-year-old, and Sam’s sure she can tell something is off. He takes a deep breath and fills his voice with false cheer.
“I’m hungry,” Liv says, a half second before her stomach rumbles.
“Oh.” Sam’s eyes move to the clock. Hours have passed. Outside the sky is a dim gray. “Let’s get you some dinner,” Sam says and digs around in the fridge. He finds rice but no stew, pulls out a bag of fish sticks and frozen peas iced to the back of the freezer but can’t find fries. In the end, he feeds Liv cheese on toast and nudges her back in the direction of the TV.
Just before ten the shrill sound of the buzzer pierces the flat. Sam lowers Liv into her bed, still dressed, teeth unbrushed, and races back into the hallway.
“Efe?” he says into the intercom.
Sam doesn’t remember calling his sister but is relieved to hear her voice over the static-filled line. He buzzes her in. A minute later she’s standing on the welcome mat, pulling him into a hug. The tan blazer and the faint scent of rum on her skin tell him she’s come straight from a work event.
“I got your message,” she says. “Have you heard anything?”
“Nothing.” Sam steps to the side as she strides into the living room, dumps her blazer on the nearest armchair.
“But her plane landed, right?”
“Two hours ago, according to Google. I’m pretty sure her phone was on around nine, but now it’s going straight to voicemail.” Sam pushes past the clamminess in his throat, tries to play it down. “But that could be anything. Maybe the battery died or she lost it or something.”
Phoebe gives him a look. “Do you actually believe that?”
Sam doesn’t answer. He flicks his phone screen on. Still nothing. Another part of his mind is combing through memories of the last few months. He thinks back to how happy they were on New Year’s Eve: somehow separated at a party at 11:59 but making a mad dash to find each other just before the clock struck midnight; how nothing was amiss at last month’s family dinner, everyone gathered around the table at Sam’s dad’s place, trading stories over takeout as usual. Maybe she had been quieter than usual during their day trip to Brighton, staring out the window as they crawled back to the city in holiday traffic. Sam hadn’t thought much of it at the time. They’d all been tired. Liv had slept for most of the drive. He needs to think harder and see something he missed. Something they all missed.
Across the room, Phoebe sighs loudly and begins pacing. “I can’t believe you’re not more freaked out.”
“I know where she is. I don’t know why she won’t talk to me, but at least I know she’s . . . safe.”
“How could she leave the country and not say anything? Are you sure she wasn’t mad about something?”
“No,” Sam says softly, despite the thought that bubbles to the surface. “We’re good. Really good.”
Phoebe shakes her head. “Who does that? Who books a flight and leaves?”
Sam groans, and puddles into the sofa and puts a hand to his throbbing temples. He sits there for a few moments, his face cupped in his hands, before he hears Phoebe’s footsteps nearing, feels her hand squeeze his shoulder.
His voice comes out quiet, shaky. “I just want to talk to her—figure out what’s going on. I don’t know what she’s thinking.”
Above him, Phoebe replies, “Then you have to do something. Go after her or something.”
“This isn’t a movie, Pheebs. I thought you were here to help.”
“I am helping,” she says. “Do you really think sitting here like this is working?”
Sam comes to with his face buried in the musty sofa, head hidden beneath a cushion, his first thought of Efe. Five days have passed since he last saw his wife. He thinks back to the last time he saw her: straight-backed at the dining table, one knee pulled up under her chin, her gaze fixed on the middle distance. He’d watched long ribbons of steam curl up from her mug and peter out into nothing. Her face was dewy with heat, her twists pulled back by a satin headscarf. Sam had paused, palming a warm cup of coffee and just stood there, looking at her. A long, drawn-out moment passed before she lifted the mug to her lips and drank.