He wakes up in their bed—still on his side, as always—and for a moment, as always, he is the way he was before. He stretches, mutters to himself about the alarm not going off, and begins to turn toward her, only to realize an instant too late that the bed is empty. For him, that is the cruelest moment of the day: the moment when he realizes, once again, that Sarah isn't there.
He sits up, takes a moment to steady himself, and notices he's shivering. He set the thermostat too low again. He's overcome, for a moment, with the desire to get back into bed and stay there a while, to stay cocooned in his covers and body heat and go back to sleep, maybe dream about a time when Sarah wasn't missing and his life made sense. Instead he gets up, ignores the slippers on the side of the bed, and winces as bare feet touch down on cold, hardwood floor.
January winters can be brutal. They've been especially nasty the last few weeks: it seems like big snowstorms have been rolling in with regularity, stopping only long enough to give everyone a chance to dig out, and then rolling in again just when life starts returning to normal. Today everything is quiet—no wind, no sound of snow falling—and Elijah sees sunlight stream through the blinds.
He stands. He wobbles a bit. His body isn't happy that he's standing, his head still feels a little fuzzy from the day before. He stopped drinking around five yesterday, to make sure he'd be sober for everything today, and while he isn't exactly hung over he feels like his body is stuck somewhere between sobriety and resentment.
He grabs his bathrobe and tugs it on as he heads down the hall to the bathroom, ignoring the dull ache in his feet from the cold, cold floor. He stops when he reaches their office. He never bothered replacing the door, so it's always open, and he always shivers when he looks in. The gouge marks on the floor are still there, clear as day. The window has been replaced, and the glass is cleaner than the others—and he never bothered to put up blinds—so light floods into the room. The room is clean now, except for a faint stain where the blood used to be—but it's not an office any more. It's just full of boxes, packed full of things he doesn't know what to do with, or isn't willing to do anything with.
He stares into the room, and once again he tries to imagine what could have happened, and once again he can't think of anything except that Sarah must have been terrified. And once again he tells himself that there was nothing he could have done, and once again he feels like a liar.
“There's nothing you could have done,” the detective tells him. “Anyone who could break through a door like that… there's nothing you could have done.”
Intellectually he believes it. But that's not the point.
He trudges to the bathroom, closes the door carefully to keep the suit and shirt he'd chosen the day before from falling off the hook onto the tile floor. The tiles are, if anything, colder than the wood. He takes his time in the shower, hoping the steam will do something to smooth out the wrinkles in the suit—it's been a while since he wore it. He gets out, dries off, and notices the steam did not, in fact, appear to help.
He dresses quickly and mechanically. He goes back to their room—stopping again at the office to stare, and to wonder—then searches for his shoes and a pair of dress socks. When he's completely dressed he feels a bit warmer.
He stares into his cereal bowl for an hour. He's not interested in food.
He wants a drink. He's impressed by how quickly he managed to turn into an alcoholic—he always assumed it was the kind of thing that crept up on someone unawares, but here's no denying that his body and at least three quarters of his mind is craving alcohol. His hands shake a little, forcing him to put them palms down on the cold kitchen table until the tremors pass.
It's just nerves, he thinks. You're nervous about today. That's understandable. Today is an important day.
He walks to the landing, stops in front of the thermostat and stares at it for a few minutes while he wrestles with himself over whether or not to turn it up a little. The house is cold. It's uncomfortably cold. Sarah would have turned it up months ago.
He doesn't turn it up.
He grabs his jacket and heads out the door.
The door opens easily, which is unnerving. It's supposed to be stronger than the old one, but it opens like it's nothing. It doesn't feel right, and it made Elijah so nervous he added another deadbolt after it was installed. He feels like it could fly open at any time without a deadbolt. It's irrational, he knows it, but he can't make the feeling go away.
He steps outside to discover that his next door neighbor has just finished clearing his walk of snow. Charles Reilly is a short, lean, wiry man with a thick reddish-brown beard. He nods at Elijah from the end of the walkway. Elijah pulls a pair of cheap plastic sunglasses out of his jacket pocket and puts them on in order to cut against the glare, then raises his hand in return.
Chuck plants a wide snow shovel in a nearby bank and waits as Elijah makes his way down the walkway.
“Thanks,” Elijah says. “I'm sorry you went to the trouble.”
Chuck shakes his head. “No trouble today, Eli. I was already doing mine, and I knew you were going out.”
Chuck lives in the house to Eli's left. His family was close to Eli and Sarah before everything happened. They were still friends, as far as things went, though Elijah knows he hasn't been much of one in the last few months. He feels guilty about that. He also feels incapable of doing much about it. But he makes it a point to actually talk to Chuck, and his other neighbors, as much as he can. His therapist says it's important, and having been something of a counselor himself once upon a time he agrees with her. So Chuck and the others who live around him are pretty familiar with his routine—and they know, for example, that he usually goes to see his therapist on Wednesdays.
Chuck also knows something else—something Elijah told him, and then immediately worried that it made him sound like a lunatic.
“You planning on doing both things today?” Chuck asks. There's no judgment in his expression—not really—just wariness.
“Yeah,” Elijah says. “I have it in my pocket.”
“Well good luck,” Chuck says. “I hope it helps.”
“So do I,” Elijah says. He heads to his car—which Chuck has also cleared off—and fumbles for his keys. “So do I...”
* * *
Marcia Lopez runs the most successful counseling practice in Fullerton Heights. She’s the complete package: a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a licensed therapist, and she’s genuinely good at her job. She’s a middle-aged woman, with long dark graying in long, solid streaks that gives her a distinguished air. Her dark eyes are large and radiate compassion—but Elijah has never mistaken that compassion for gullibility. She’d have made a great cop, if she’d wanted.
He suspects therapy pays better.
The room is sparsely but comfortably furnished—a couch, two thickly-padded chairs, a coffee table with a few generic fashion magazines. Elijah sits at the end of the couch, Marcia sits on the closest chair. She doesn’t carry a notepad, the way you’d expect a shrink to. Elijah can’t remember her ever taking notes.
Marcia stares at him, her expression a mix of compassion and concern. “I’m… concerned about this plan of yours.”
“I know,” Elijah says. “You've mentioned that before. You bring it up every time I bring it up.”
“I don’t know if it’s a healthy way to deal with your grief.”
They’ve been friends for years. Elijah regularly sent people in his church in her direction if he suspected the problems they were wrestling with went beyond the spiritual. She was initially reluctant to take him on as a patient because of that friendship, but there really wasn’t anyone else he felt he could talk to.
“Maybe not,” Elijah says, and shrugs slightly.
“Part of recovering from emotional trauma is to get to a point where you have some control over your fears surrounding the trauma,” Marcia says. “There’s no real escape from those fears, of course—not for a long time—but being able to anticipate the fear and proactively work against, work through it… that’s where we want you to be. Facing it, instead of being at it’s beck and call. I’m concerned this plan will undo the actual progress you’ve been making.”
Elijah snorts. “I haven’t been making any progress.”
“I disagree,” Marcia says. “Your progress has slowed, but—”
“My progress has been non-existent since my first day,” Elijah says. He props his head up with his hand, elbow resting on the couch arm, and closes his eyes, exhausted. “It’s not your fault—you’re great. But maybe you were right about us being friends making this harder than it should be. You have to admit, I haven’t been able to move forward.”
“Us being friends has nothing to do with whether or not you can recover,” Marcia says, voice firm. “Being your friend and your therapist makes our professional and personal relationship complicated. That hasn’t really been an issue so far, what with you becoming a scandalous recluse.”
“Your progress has slowed,” Marcia repeats. “You have made progress. But there’s still a long way to go, and you have to accept that what happened to your wife wasn’t your fault to move forward.”
“That’s irrelevant,” Elijah says.
“It isn’t irrelevant. Blaming yourself for what happened to her won’t do anything but harm yourself. It’s harming you now. I assume you did your usual ‘start drying out at five o’clock the day before’ ritual to make sure you could drive here safely?”
Elijah stares down at the floor. “Yes.”
Marcia sighs. “Well, you might be able to pass a breathalyzer but you still look like a drunk. It’s taking a physical toll on you, Eli. And it’s your grief that put you on that habit.”
“Grief,” Elijah repeats. “Yes. I’m with you on that. I have all kinds of problems with grief. But it has nothing to do with me blaming myself.”
“Self-blame is natural,” Marcia says. “It’s what we do when we’re not in a position to help people who are suffering, especially people we love. It’s a sign of empathy. In a way, to a degree, the ability of a human to self-blame is good. But you have to move past it.”
“I have,” Elijah insists. “I blamed myself plenty in the beginning. I’m not arguing that. I felt like I’d let her down. I told myself ‘if I’d only driven faster,’ then I told myself ‘if I’d only worked from home that day,’ and then I told myself twenty other things I could have done differently. But that stuff isn’t static, you know? Eventually you start working out whether you’re a horrible person, or if there was nothing you could have done, or some point in between. And I worked out that I wasn’t there, and there was no reason to believe I should have been. It was just another Thursday night… until it wasn’t.”
“That’s good,” Marcia says, leaning forward. “Now you need to transfer that—”
“It doesn’t matter.” Elijah shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter because my grief doesn’t come from my inability to protect her. It’s from constantly wondering where she is now. If she’s… anywhere. It’s from wondering if she’s still alive, and if she is, if she’s in pain… or if she’s frightened… or if she’s given up hope. Is she alive, believing we’ve forgotten about her? Did she die, hoping against hope we’d find her? Those are the questions that keep going around and around my head, and I can’t move past it because all I’ve done so far is passively wait for someone else to tell me they figured it out. Which they can’t seem to do.”
“Which brings us back to this plan of yours.”
“Yes it does,” Elijah says. “I can’t… I can’t. Letting someone else drive is killing me.”
It’s a question he’s asked himself often. He has a few well-rehearsed answers on hand, ready to deploy, but when he considers each in turn they fall away.
“Because,” he says finally, “I have more at stake in the outcome than they do.”
He opens his eyes, looks at Marcia, and shrugs helplessly. “I’m not saying nobody else cares. But Sarah… God, Marcia, we were… I’m supposed to stand aside and let other people figure out what happened to her. And I don’t think they can. And when they finally close the case, I’m supposed to do… what? Accept that I’ll never know?”
“Maybe,” Marcia says. “It’s not an answer people want to hear, but… maybe that is what you need to do.”
“I can’t,” Elijah says. “I just can’t.”
“Do you think you can find the answer on your own?”
“Well…” Elijah frowns, considering. “No. Probably not.”
“Then why do this?” There’s more than a little exasperation in her voice—probably not a tone she’d take with most of her patients.
“Because I need to,” Elijah says. “I need to focus on something other than drinking myself to death.”
“Let’s talk about that,” Marcia says. “How are you doing with your drinking?”
“I’m doing great with my drinking. The sobriety needs work…”
Marcia snorts. “Do you think this project of yours will help you with that?”
“Maybe,” Elijah says. “I think I’ll need a clear head to do it right.”
“Even if you don’t learn anything new.”
“Eli, what about your faith?” He can hear the tension in Marcia’s voice—it’s not a topic she’s comfortable with.
Even shrinks have issues, he thinks. Even the good ones.
“What about it?” Elijah asks. “I still have it, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Well shouldn’t you have faith that it will all work out for the best?”
Elijah stares at her in surprise. “No.”
Marcia blinks. “No?”
“I guess I’m not sure what you were expecting,” Elijah says. “It doesn’t work that way. It’s not a magic spell that wards off suffering.”
“It seems to be a source of strength,” Marcia says.
“It doesn’t matter how strong you are, if you break your kneecap it’s still broken. Strength helps you recover, but you still need to recover. And faith requires expression. In a broad sense, if faith is strength, it doesn’t matter how strong you are: if you never exert force, the strength is nothing but unused potential.”
Marcia nods slowly, seeing a bit of it but not all of it. “So this project of yours…”
“… is an act of faith,” Elijah finishes.
She frowns slightly, turning the thought over in her mind.
“That’s an interesting perspective.”