James leapt out of the stream of water as it suddenly scorched him. He took refuge around the edge of the shower, his pale backside pressed up against the glass door, waiting for it to cool again. It didn’t. Cursing the outdated plumbing, he turned off the water and stepped out into the steam-filled bathroom. He could hear a faint rumbling and whirring down the hall, and crept out to investigate.
His feet cooled quickly on the concrete floor of the laundry room, and left warm wet footprints steaming behind him. The washing machine had been turned on; his hamper lay carelessly beside it with a forgotten sock draped disconsolately over the handle. His dirty t-shirts were jumbling cheerfully around in the soapsuds. He shivered. “Karen!” he called weakly. “I was in the shower, why did you…” He trailed off, listening. The only sound in the house was the rhythmic churning of the laundry. He hadn’t expected her to answer.
He walked back to the bathroom, dripping. His breath caught in his throat when he saw her writing traced in the fading steam on the mirror, “Sorry!” with a little heart traced underneath. He collapsed into a sitting position on the linoleum floor, and tried to hold himself together with his arms around his knees. He began to cry softly.
It had been mostly small things, at first. She would leave the door to the patio open, or the newspaper scattered over the kitchen table. Once he had found her coffee cup empty on a side table, with a ring of lipstick around the edge. He had gotten up the courage to mention these incidents to his sister, who had looked a little uneasy about it all. “Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of what you’re doing,” she said warily, “when you’ve had a shock.” He had expected this, and did not bring it up to her again.
He knew he ought to excuse these hiccups in his daily life, even cherish them as the charming idiosyncrasies of the woman he loved. He waited a week and then washed the mug. Karen had never really noticed messes, he reasoned. It wasn’t done maliciously. All the same, it was difficult to deal with.
Sometimes he awoke in the middle of the night and heard her quiet breathing beside him. He would lie perfectly still, trying to keep his own breathing as soft and even as possible, resisting the terrible temptation to reach over. She must need the rest, after everything that had happened. He would try to remain awake for as long as possible, listening to this peaceful sound. But in the morning, instead of her angular form curled in the sheets, he would find her side of the bed smooth and undisturbed. Sometimes the bedroom door was slightly ajar, as though she had slipped out while he slept.
The first time had been quite unexpected. It had been about a month after that flight went down in the Indian Ocean, and he had been following the story closely. He was reading an article on the ongoing investigations, and the funds that had been sunk into the search for the plane. She had obviously been reading over his shoulder, a favourite habit of hers. She put her hand on the back of his chair and tutted impatiently. “What a waste of money,” she lamented. “Everyone’s drowned. It’s not worth that many millions to recover bodies.”
He made some kind of noncommittal response, and then, in a sudden rush of adrenaline, turned around. But she wasn’t there any more. His heart raced furiously in the empty kitchen.
She had wanted to take the job so badly, and he hadn’t had the heart to stop her. She had always wanted to live abroad somewhere, always wanted to help. There was a huge demand for native English speakers in China, and she had gotten work easily as an English teacher, even with her Australian accent. Room and board were included, and the salary was very generous. They would even have paid a small stipend for him to join her. But he couldn’t move so far away, not when his mother needed so much help.
Maybe he could join her later, she had suggested half-heartedly, trying not to imply, when your mother is dead. And anyway, she added brightly, it wasn’t like they would never see each other again. It wasn’t really that far, she said. She’d come back for Christmas. And they could go on vacations together, meet in the middle — her flight connected through Kuala Lumpur, for example; she could get back there for cheap and they could tour Southeast Asia together. She chattered on about all the ways they could stay in contact, trying to fill a new, silent void.
She had lied about the date of the flight, said she just wanted to have everything ready a day early. He should have known — she had always hated goodbyes. He had been taking a shower when he heard the door creak open a little. “Karen?” “Just grabbing my toothbrush,” she called over the rush of the water. He heard the muted squeal of her finger on the mirror. By the time he got out, he could just barely read her message. “Sorry!” with a little heart drawn underneath. Her taxi was already halfway to the airport.