The house is perfectly still. Post pokes through the letter box and a single pair of shoes is missing from the rack by the front door. There’s a breakfast bowl and a half-drunk mug of coffee next to the sink. Everything else is tidy.
“Where are you, Mummy?” calls Jacob from his bedroom.
While the rest of the world is at work, I’m in the living room, curled up on the sofa with a blanket over my legs. Until a month ago, my job was to interpret the data outputs from the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. I can still remember the look on my boss’s face when I told him I wasn’t coming back.
“What will you do?” he asked. It was an impossible question.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Science isn’t the solution it used to be.”
Upstairs, Jacob calls for me again. I remember, fondly, the chaos of his hair first thing in the morning. The soft skin of his hand when it slipped unexpectedly into mine. The way I felt when he said, “Love you, Mummy.” I want to go up to his room but I’m afraid of what I might find.
In the living room, I search for distractions — anything for a moment’s respite — but the television is off and there’s a spider on the opposite wall that’s been there so long I’ve named it. I’m distantly aware of keys turning in a lock and the front door opening. My husband, Mark, arrives in his pin-stripe suit with a rucksack slung over his shoulder.
“Honey?” he says.
I stare at the wall, clinging to it like the motionless spider. I wonder: when spiders die, do they fall off? Or do they linger like a stain from the past?
“How’s your day been?” asks Mark. Ordinary words, casual interest. I’m quite sure he’s talking to me as if I’m one of his patients. Somewhere, deep inside, I know he’s moving on.
It was snowing when we took Jacob to the hospital. The sky swarmed with puffs of white and I couldn’t walk without slipping on the pavement. I wanted to hold Jacob’s hand but I didn’t dare in case I fell and pulled him over. And I did fall over, more than once, landing on my bum in the slush at the edge of the road. Jacob laughed so hard he got hiccups, and I suppose I laughed too. In those moments, I forgot he was sick. An hour later, the oncologist said it was only a matter of time.
I should have been there at the end but a faulty connection in the collider caused several tonnes of liquid helium to vent in an explosion that was heard for miles. Governments around the world met to discuss worst-case scenarios. My boss left a dozen messages for me, increasingly frantic, urging me to come to work. In the hospital carpark, Mark pleaded with me as I climbed into my car, asking “What’s more important than our son?” The answer, of course, was nothing. Somehow, I’d convinced myself that Jacob would wait, that he wouldn’t die if I wasn’t there. I drove away, the windscreen wipers useless against my tears.
In the living room, I retreat behind a wall of resentment.
“You don’t hear him,” I say. “You don’t hear his suffering. His loneliness. He doesn’t even call to you.”
I know I’m not being reasonable. Mark was there when Jacob died and I wasn’t. There’s no logic to my hostility but this isn’t a matter of science anymore. Yes, science is capable of cruelty, it’s fundamental for food chains and evolution. Stars die to make life possible. But science is impartial; wherever there is cruelty, there is purpose. What’s happening to me, in my home, can’t be explained by dark matter or superstring theory.
It’s just mean.
“Laura?” says Mark. His tone is more urgent now. He rushes across the room, drops to his knees and presses his fingers against the side of my neck.
Jacob was waiting for me when I arrived home from his funeral, his little voice bouncing down the stairs like a lost ball. I sent Mark up to investigate, saying I thought I’d heard a bird or a cat, but of course he found nothing.
“It’s an old house,” he said. “There are always noises.”
Days passed before I was brave enough to enter Jacob’s room and, when I did, I was met with silence. The room was thick with dust and memories. I wept into my sleeves and begged my son to come back to me. He didn’t answer until I was downstairs again.
Determined to prove he was still in the house, I returned to what I knew best. I installed video monitors, motion sensors, thermometers, and a full spectrum HD camcorder so I could monitor his room throughout the day. With every negative result, I felt more certain he was there, hiding from me. The absence of evidence was evidence in itself. And then I captured an audio recording of his voice. I listened to it on repeat while I waited for Mark to return home. When I played it for him, he said he couldn’t hear anything. The wave data was inconclusive.
There was only one experiment left to try. I emptied the bottle of sleeping pills onto the kitchen worktop and poured myself a large glass of vodka.
I thought I’d be braver in death. For hours now, I’ve been sitting on the sofa, watching dust particles collide without consequence and trying to find the will to move.
Mark’s sobbing into my lap. I want to run my fingers through his hair, to reassure him that it’s okay, that I’m going to see our precious little boy again just as soon as I go upstairs.
But I can’t.
I can’t go upstairs.
Because what if I’m wrong?
Christopher Stanley lives on a hill in England with three sons who share a birthday but aren’t triplets. His stories have been published by Unnerving Magazine, The Molotov Cocktail and in The Third Corona Book of Horror Stories. His novelette, The Forest is Hungry, was published by Demain Publishing in April 2019. Follow him on Twitter @allthosestrings