When someone dies there is an end, closure. Sadness, or at least a sense of loss, but also a full stop. If someone storms out, smashing plates and banging doors it’s an unequivocal exit. But when they disappear, the film reel keeps playing even though the star is absent. Without a mental road map, you treat them like a lost cat. Perhaps they are having a better time in someone else’s house and will be home soon. Then as the days pass and there is no contact you start to wonder if they have been run over by a truck.
I dream of a bloody blanket filled with remains being delivered by the neighbours. “I’m so sorry,” they say. “We found this by the side of the road. We’re pretty sure he’s yours.” They drag the heavy soaked bundle up the front path and I try to hold it without letting the edges fall open. The squelching disconnected body parts are hard to balance. “At least it was quick.” Well we don’t know that for certain, do we? But better to think it. They hurry away in case a stray bone falls out.
But is it him? Many men, like cats, look similar. I gingerly open the blanket. Soon after he disappeared, I would wake up screaming at that point, but as the weeks turned into months, I was only too happy to recognise the disfigured bloody face.
On the anniversary of his disappearance I mentally buried him in the garden. In my mind I slowly dug a shallow grave. I hoped that when I looked into the blanket, I would somehow see him there whole again. But when I dragged the blanket to the hole and let it fall open, only pieces tumbled out. I laid the blanket over the mess and slowly tossed the soil back in.
Even then he would occasionally visit. The doorbell would ring in my dreams and I would see him standing on my front porch, his hair sprinkled with soil and the bloody blanket wrapped across his shoulders. I would joyously open the door and hug him until his arms came loose, his knees buckled, and his head fell backwards off his neck.
He had served with Andy. Two years managing operations from a tin can in the desert whilst the locals used them for target practice. We were married, but I felt like the mistress whereas Andy was his wife. It was clear Andy adored Mike, idolised him. They ate together, slept together. In a world without social media you share your secrets manually, unfiltered. And why not, when every day might be your last? Every time they came home, they seemed to have morphed more one into the other.
It was a shock when they both suddenly returned for good. But things weren’t good. Mike’s hand now trembled when he picked up a teacup: Andy flew into unpredictable rages. It was hard to imagine either of them ever holding a gun again. An investigation was ongoing and until it was resolved they were imprisoned in suburbia. They argued. But at least they could share their secrets. I had not taken the oath so would always be out of the gang.
I thought it might be a good time for us to start a family. A positive distraction. A different way for Mike to feel valued. But the mere mention of children caused him to shut down. I would wake up at night, come downstairs and find him staring out of the living room window. “Come back to bed,” I called.
His response was toneless. “In the desert creatures hunt at night. It’s too hot during the day.” I didn’t argue. He was the expert.
As the months passed he would frequently be gone, out fighting imaginary demons. One day he left and did not come back.
It had made sense to save space in their tin can by sharing, and since they had always shared everything, it seemed only natural that when Mike left, Andy would take possession of me.
After six months Andy and I managed our first proper weekend away together. We went to a costal holiday village, and stayed, just the two of us, in another tin can in a desert. Memories are hard to erase but they can be replaced, overlaid. New and more positive associations created. At least that’s what the psychiatrist said.
“Can I trust you? I turned to Andy, serious and earnest.
“Of course! You mean everything to me! I will be here for you, always.”
“You’ll never leave me?” My eyes were wet.
We hugged and I buried my face in his chest. Andy held me very tight and I realised then how much we both missed Mike. What he didn’t know was that I had asked Mike the same question. I’d learned that a statement about the future is only a prediction, an intention, not a guarantee. I knew that Mike would go. I would make sure that Andy stayed.
We went for a long walk on the dunes and lay down exhausted in a hollow to watch white fluffy clouds chasing each other across the sky, gently dozing off together under the hot afternoon sun. I woke to the sound of a whinnying of a horse and the gentle stamping of hooves on the sand. It was late afternoon. Andy was still fast asleep.
I sat up and looked over the top of the dunes to see an old-style gypsy caravan parked a short distance away. I walked towards the caravan and read the sign, “Palms read, futures told” scrawled on a blackboard propped up against one of the wheels.
I pushed through the beaded curtains at the back of the wagon and an old woman who reminded me of my mother, beckoned me inside.
“Hey!” I felt myself being shaken from behind. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”
I turned around and looked into Andy’s concerned face. I was sitting on the sea wall watching the tide go in and out.
“You were asleep. I went to the fortune teller. Didn’t you see the caravan? She must have left.”
“No.” He started to calm down. “So what did she tell you?”
“I got the ten of swords.”
He looked at me blankly.
“The ultimate betrayal.” I paused then looked at him sadly. “You’re going to leave me, aren’t you?”
We walked backed to our tin can in silence.
We went back to our lives. Me to my mundane administrative job. Andy to his weekly appointments with the shrink. “It’s such a waste of time and money,” He complained. “All she does is listen to me talk. She predicts I will get well but she never offers any real solutions.”
“Did Mike ever talk to you?”
“About what?” He answered carefully because he knew what I was asking.
“About what happened.”
I was desperate for Andy to say yes. Yes, he told me everything, then he could tell me too, without guilt. Shame was eating him up, hollowing him out like a worm on the inside.
“No.” And he turned away.
Later that day I got a visit from a girl called welfare. She had pretty blonde hair and a vacant expression. She wrote in military issue notebook.
“What’s your predication for Andy’s future?” I asked.
She looked down into her lap perhaps hoping to find a crystal ball there.
“The doctor says he’s making good progress.”
Non-committal, as usual. At our next meeting Dumb Blonde was accompanied by Old Brass. He looked like he had been dug up and stuffed back into the last civilian suit he owned before he donned a uniform. Circa 1975.
“Did either of them said anything to you about what happened?” He scanned my pupils for a reaction.
But if they had, perhaps I could have helped. Perhaps Mike would be sitting with me now. Perhaps Andy could sleep though one night. Perhaps I might have a family.
“Good. We’re still looking for him.”
Good luck, I thought. You trained him well. He could go to ground for years. For a lifetime.
He paused and took a breath. “We’re thinking of re-deploying Andy.”
This was a shock. “What about the investigation?”
A pained expression crossed his face. “We can’t afford to keep paying a fit man to stay at home. I’m sorry to put it so bluntly.”
“He’s not fit, there are still…issues.”
He looked at me with pity. “I know it’s been hard for you. But you also need to start thinking about your own life. It may be that we can find a job better suited to your skills.”
“Are you going to tell him?”
“Yes, but we wanted to tell you first. We’ll leave it a few days.” Another pause. “He needs your support.”
He put his hand on my arm and looked at me without expression. “We need your support.”
When I got home the house was in darkness. I saw Andy sitting on the sofa. There was a strange smell in the room.
“There’s something I have to tell you.”
Then I saw the glass and bottle. Liquor that Mike always brought back. It smelled like the desert.
“Why are you drinking that stuff? We’ve got good whiskey.”
“Because you left it out for me.”
“What, no!” I thought that Mike had drunk the last bottle before he left.
“It was on the table when I got in.” His voice was slurred.
“You’re being redeployed.” No response. “I’m serious. They told me at the welfare meeting today. They were going to tell you in a few days, but I thought it was kinder for you to hear it from me.”
“Did you ask them to re-deploy me?”
“No, of course not!”
“Yes, you did, you bitch. I can’t be what you want so now you just want to get rid of me.” He was angry but mostly afraid.
“No!” I was shouting.
“You always loved him more than me!”
“Yes, and I stayed for you. And this how you treat me.” He lurched to his feet and grabbed me, his hands suddenly tightening around my neck. He pulled me in to him and brought his mouth very close to my ear, whispering. “I shot them. Three unarmed children from the village. They came to us for help at night because they didn’t want their elders to see them coming to us in the day. They triggered the perimeter warning around our trailer. Mike gave the order and I shot them.”
I tried to say, “you couldn’t have known, it’s not your fault,” but I couldn’t speak. The room grew darker as the pressure around my neck increased.
My hand fell on the bottle and I grasped the neck. It was light, not much liquor remaining. I swung it behind me then brought it down with all my strength onto the back of his head. There was a sickening crack and suddenly the whole room smelled of the desert.
In the morning he was gone.
“We’re glad you called us straightaway.”
“Yes. It looks like he has taken a minimal amount of stuff.”
“What was his mood last night when you told him?”
“Better than I expected.” It was the one answer I gave them that was the truth.
“OK. We’re sorry that this has happened to you again. We really didn’t expect it.”
“Thanks for your sympathy, but I predict he will be back soon. I’m sure it was just the shock of the news.” I put the phone down and stared at the bloody bulging blanket in the corner of the room.
I predicted he would be back soon, and he was. The first night, in my dreams, Andy came alone, the second with Mike. It was a relief to know they had found each other again. They were never meant to be apart.