The Long Way
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Liz pulled her car onto the driveway and turned off the engine. She sat in the driver’s seat, her vision fixed on the windscreen. Outside the rain was falling in sheets, a solid wall of water that promised to render anyone caught in its path soaking wet within thirty seconds. A thick mist hung in the air, shrouding the security light’s beam and giving her front yard an eerie, ethereal glow. Liz stared glumly around as she took in the scene, the landscape perfectly matching her mood. An important phone call had meant she had spent an extra two hours at her offices, trying to keep her voice even as she explained over and over to her client that despite all his posturing and denial that the order he was complaining about was correct. Even after she had emailed him a copy of the request he originally sent her he continued to remonstrate with her, and all in all she had been in a foul mood by the time she hung up the phone. And things didn’t seem to be improving too much, she thought moodily, as she stared out at the sheets of rain now tumbling from the heavens. She sighed deeply and grabbed her bag from the seat next to her, then scrambled out of the car. She paused only when she was safely inside her front door.

Inside she hung up her jacket and headed straight to her bedroom, where a long, hot shower and a warm set of clothes helped to improve her mood slightly. She was beginning to feel more like her old self when she had poured herself a glass of wine and collapsed onto her sofa. As she sat in the warmth of her living room, sipping her wine and listening to the rain hit the windows, she found herself staring out of the large bay windows directly in front of her. In the distance she could see the horizon was covered in jet black clouds, completely obscuring the landscape beyond them. Every so often she saw a flash of light, followed a few seconds later by a distant rumble of thunder. As she watched the horizon her thoughts drifted back to her childhood, when she and her younger sister Becci would sit with their duvets over their heads watching the lightening and taking it in turns to tell ghost stories. Inevitably Liz would tell a tale that would scare Becci so badly that she would start screaming, bringing their mother into scold them and order them to sleep. Liz smiled lazily, the tensions of the day beginning to drain away, when a crash from the kitchen snapped her back to reality.

She placed the wine glass back on the table and got slowly to her feet, her eyes fixed on the dark doorway as her mind raced. She knew it was highly unlikely to be an intruder of any kind, as the top end security system had been reactivated not long after she stepped out of the shower, and the first hint of any attempted entry would have brought a shrill alarm and a visit from the local police. Unless, came a small voice from deep inside her brain, whoever it is got in before you reset the alarm. At this Liz felt her heart start to pound a little faster and she fought to keep her breathing even as she inched towards the darkened doorway, straining her vision for any hint of movement. She reached the threshold of the kitchen and stretched her arm into the darkness, her hand scrambling for the light switch, when suddenly a dark shape bolted out of the doorway. Liz let out a small scream as she stumbled backwards, banging her elbow painfully on a bookcase as she fell onto the floor. As she looked around frantically she located the source of the movement and felt her body immediately relax. Her ginger tomcat Todd was now staring up at her, having given up pursuit of whatever he had come haring from the kitchen after moments before. Liz gave a shaky laugh as she reached down and scratched the cat’s slender head, silently chastising herself for being so foolish. She had not thought to check where he was when she had come in earlier, assuming he would come and say hello when his need for attention had outweighed the comfort of his basket. As Liz lent down to rub Todd’s stomach, a loud buzzing caused her to scream for a second time in as many minutes. For a split second her brain registered only shock, rooting her to the spot, before common sense kicked in. The noise she was hearing was not the alarm system, heralding the arrival of a pack of screaming axe murders, but her telephone.

 

•••••

 

Liz frowned, glancing at the clock as she walked towards the ringing handset. The display told her it was 10.34pm, far too late for anyone from work to be calling. She thought briefly of her sister before remembering Becci was in Poland at the moment visiting friends. She leaned forward and lifted the phone from the receiver. In the sudden silence that followed, she hesitated for a moment before bringing the receiver to her ear.

‘Hello?’

‘Lizzie? It’s me. Jack.’

Liz’s breath caught in her throat, her eyes widening slightly in shock. She recognised the voice from the very first syllable he had utter, and yet the sound could not have been more alien to her. She had not spoken to her ex husband in over 12 months, since their divorce had been completed. Temporarily stunned to silence, Liz was unable to bring herself to respond and Jack spoke again, taking her silence as a cue to proceed.

‘Lizzie, are you still there? I need your help…….. I think you’re the only one who can help me.’

At these words, Liz snapped out of her temporary reprieve.  She felt heat begin to rush to her face as surprise was replaced with anger. She gripped the phone harder than necessary as she brought the mouthpiece closer to her mouth, as if closing the physical distance would give her words more weight.

‘Don’t call me Jack. Don’t ever call me! I have nothing to say to you!’

‘But Lizzie, please. I need your help. I’m lost somewhere.’ His voice was pleading, which only made her angrier. Liz felt her own lip curl into a snarl as she spoke, throwing venom into every syllable.

‘You should have thought of that before then shouldn’t you!?’

Jack made to speak again but Liz had already ended the call. She threw the phone onto the sofa with enough force to make it bounce back off and land on the floor with a crash. Todd jumped at the noise and ran out of the room, his tail disappearing into one of the bedrooms. Liz stood rooted to the spot, anger crashing over her in waves. Her hands were shaking and she balled them into fists to keep them still. She strode over to the table and snatched her glass from the table, then stormed in the direction of the kitchen. The thought and fear of any intruder in the darkness was long forgotten as she flicked on the light switch and walked over to the fridge. She wrenched it open and pulled out the bottle of Chardonnay, topped up her glass and dropped it back into the tray on the door. Slamming the fridge closed she took a long drink from the glass, finishing half of it in two deep gulps, and sat down on a stool on the island in the middle of the kitchen. She took a couple of deep breaths, willing her heart rate to slow as she tried to calm down. But no sooner had she managed to gain some measure of physiological control she was back on her feet, wine glass in hand as she paced the kitchen. The bastard, she thought bitterly as she took another drink from the glass. How dare he call her and ask for help? Every chance he’d had of ever getting help from her had gone the second he stuck his dick in that whore! At this thought Liz felt her heart skip a beat and she thought for one terrible moment that she might be sick. Fighting back the urge, she walked over to one of the cupboards and pulled it open. She stood on her tiptoes and reached up towards the back of the shelf, her fingers searching for a few seconds before they closed on a small cardboard package. She pulled the packet open, extracted a cigarette and placed it in her mouth. She flicked on the gas hob and leaned forward, careful to angle her head away from the heat as she lit the cancer stick, taking a deep drag and blowing the smoke towards the extractor fan as she pulled her head back. Grabbing a plate from the drainer to use as an ashtray she sat back down and composed herself.

The nicotine had done what no amount of controlled breathing could do for her, and she felt her heart rate slow. She took another deep pull from the cigarette and leant forward slightly, her free hand propping up her head. It had been eighteen months since Jack had confessed that he was having an affair, causing Liz to kick him out in a whirlwind of thrown clothing and bitter recriminations to live with his new girlfriend. And it was twelve months since their divorce had been finalised, leaving Liz with the house and deep distrust of all men. Since then, she hadn’t heard from him, not once. Not one single phone call or email, not a shred of contact. Not that she’d objected of course. As far as Liz was concerned if she’d have never spoken to Jack Hill again she’d be a happy woman. But the fact he choose now to call her, drunk and in the middle of nowhere, made her even angrier at him that she had previously thought possible.

And yet, as she stubbed out her cigarette and reached across the table for another, a small thought was nagging at the back of her mind. Jack hadn’t sounded drunk on the phone. She’d known the man for seven years all told, and had seen him drunk on quite a few occasions. And on every single one of those occasions his speech was always the first thing to go, as if his vocal chords were three drinks ahead of him. Liz replayed the conversation in her head, noting the details. Jack had sounded relatively sober on the phone, sober and a little afraid. The line had been bad, all static and distortion, as if he had been somewhere with poor reception. Maybe he had broken down somewhere and was trying to get home, Liz thought as she took another sip of her wine. But even if he had been stranded, why had he called her? And why had he sounded so worried? Liz leaned forward and stubbed her other cigarette out on the saucer, watching as the last strands of smoke were released into the air.

 

 

•••••

 

Liz could still remember it, the details as vivid as if they had happened that same day. She saw herself walking in through the front door, the sunshine from outside catching the mirror in the hallway and dazzling her. She heard her footsteps on the hardwood steps as she made her way upstairs, each impact echoing with a hollowness that still haunted her. She remembered the feel of the door as she pushed it open, and the stink of sex and cheap perfume that engulfed her as she entered the room. The frantic flurry of movement that followed was always in slow motion, and gave her recollections an almost whimsical lilt. She saw Jack leap from the bed, pulling the sheet to himself as if he had some modesty left to protect. In doing this he uncovered his crime, the twenty one year old personal assistant he had taken on not eight months earlier. She was led in the bed, her hands grasping in an attempt to secure her dignity. Not she needed to bother of course, for Liz’s eyes were focused not on her but on the face of the man she once loved. His eyes were widened, almost comically, in surprise, but Liz could see that what passed across his face in that split second before she turned around was not anger, annoyance or even shame. It was grief. The breaking realisation that in that split second of betrayal he had lost her forever. They saw each other a few times after that, and although the whole saga of the break up and divorce went on for weeks after, Jack never once looked her in the face again.

Liz stirred awake, her dreams tinged with the half reality of recollection, and wiped the back of her hand across her tear stained cheeks. She pulled herself upright and looked around for a second, puzzled as to where she was. Her gaze landed on the 2 bottles of wine on the table, one finished and the other half empty, and the packet of cigarettes, and her memory fell back into place. As she tried to get her head together the ringing of the telephone once again caused her to jump. She reached down onto the floor and picked it up, pressing the button to answer before she had really considered the consequences.

‘Hello?’ She answered, her voice roughen by sleep and cigarettes.

‘Liz. It’s Jack. I need your help.’

Liz lent back into her sofa, tiredness and alcohol robbing her of any real internal fire. She held the handset to her chest, then lifted her head towards the TV and read the time display on her DVD player. The neon readout told her it was 2.15am, far too late to be talking phone calls from ex partners. She lifted the handset back to her ear.

‘Jack. Are you still there?’

‘Yes! Thank god, Lizzie, I really need your help. I think I’m lost somewhere.’ He replied, his voice still distant and tinny. Wherever he is, Liz thought, the reception is terrible.

‘Jack, listen to me.’ Liz sighed into the handset. ‘Have you been drinking tonight? Are you near a pub?’

‘No, I haven’t been drinking! I went for a drive; I must have taken the wrong road. I don’t know how to get back.’

Liz frowned, sensing the rising panic in Jack’s voice.  She racked her brains to think of his old haunts, places he might have gone and how he could have ended up wandering around lost.

‘Lizzie?’ Jack’s voice came from the handset, startling her. ‘Are you still there?’

‘Yeah, I’m here.’ She replied. ‘Jack, are you with the car? Is the sat nav still working?’

‘I left the car and tried walking back the way I came. Now I can’t find the car either. Liz, I’m sorry.’

‘It’s alright, Jack.’ She replied, sensing a shift in his tone that she wasn’t entirely comfortable with. ‘I’ll help you get home.’

‘It’s not just that, Liz. I’m sorry for everything.’ Jack’s voice dropped lower, and Liz had to strain to hear.  ‘For…. what I did, for hurting you. I know how much I fucked up. I’m sorry.’

Liz could feel her eyes filling up as she listened; her voice strangled with tears as she told him she had to go and hung up. The phone slipped from her hand as she pulled her knees to her chest and dropped her head, the room now silent except for her choked sobs.

Eventually Liz disentangled herself from the sofa and went to bed, praying that sleep would offer some respite from the flow of emotion she was feeling. But after thirty minutes of staring at the ceiling in the dark she admitted defeat and sat up, reaching over to turn on the bedside lamp. She leaned out of the bed and reached underneath, emerging a few seconds later with a large photo album. She sat up and held the book in front of her, contemplating the cover as if the contents were somehow illegal. In many ways they were, although admitting she had it would lead not to incarceration by the police but to condemnation from her friends and family. A day of purging by those closest to her had stripped the house bare of any photo or reminder of her relationship with Jack, an exercise that was meant to help her ‘move on’, but this book had been hidden away long before the emotional bailiffs came. Even as she had hidden it away she doubted that she would ever look at it again, but she felt she needed something to remember him by. Even if it was only to substantiate the pain and anger she had felt, to give reason to her hatred.

But looking at the book now she felt no anger or hatred, just an emptiness that seemed to permeate her whole body. Taking a breath to steady her nerves she opened the first page and stared down at the first photo, a blushing bride and grinning groom who smiled back up at her with the naivety of love. She reached out a trembling finger and touched the page, marvelling at how young she looked, how completely at peace with the tall figure stood next to her. She began to turn the pages, her mind wandering to how their relationship had been in those early years. She could trace the decline of things, how increased working hours had placed them under so much stress, how she had shut herself off from him as things gotten slowly worse. In the darkest hours of the initial break up these thoughts had fluttered around her head before being buried under the weight of her indignation, but here and now she realised that she had not been an innocent party in this situation, and while there was no justification for what Jack did she had to at least accept that it wasn’t all on him. She felt tears welling in her eyes again and marvelled that, even after all this time, he could still make her cry like this. She placed the photo album onto the empty side of the bed, as if to fill the empty space next to her, then reached over and turned the lamp off.

 

•••••

 

Liz had been drifting in and out of sleep when she heard the front door bell ring. The sun had started to peek up over the horizon, filling her room with a watery twilight that threw up odd shadows all around the room. She rolled to her side and propped herself up with one elbow. The bedside clock showed it was a little after five and, while she silently marvelled at Jack’s persistence, she jumped from the bed with the intention of killing him if he was ringing her front door bell at this hour.

She got to the bottom of the stairs and walked quietly to the front door. She peered through the peephole and was shocked to see not Jack but two policemen stood on her front door step. She cautiously opened the door.

‘Hello, are you Miss Liz Howard?’ said the taller of the two officers, a large sergeant whose deep voice reverberated within Liz’s chest.

‘Yes. Can I ask what this is about?’ Liz replied, her voice an octave higher than usual.

‘I’m calling to ask you to come down to the station. You’re listed as an emergency contact for a Mr Jack Hill.’

‘Oh god, what’s he done? Don’t tell me he’s been arrested?!’ Liz moved as she spoke, taking another step out of the front door.

‘Not exactly’ the sergeant’s voice was suddenly hesitant. ‘Unfortunately Mr Hill was in a car accident earlier this evening. A lorry jack knifed on the dual carriageway and slid onto the other side of the road.’

‘Jesus, is he OK?’ Liz raised her hand to her mouth.

There was silence for the briefest of moments, and the sergeant glanced down at his feet for a second as he steeled himself.

‘Unfortunately not’ the sergeant sighed. ‘Mr Hill died as a result of his injuries.’

The sergeant continued to speak, but Liz could no longer hear him. She saw the darkness closing in around the periphery of her vision, and the last sensation she felt was someone grabbing her arms to step her falling.

A few days later Liz stood in a cemetery, watching Jack’s coffin being lowered down. The sun was shining and there was hardly a breath of wind in the air, which Liz felt was rather contradictory to the situation. She was a little way away from the main party; for despite the instances of Jack’s family she thought it best she let them mourn for him alone. She’d seen his girlfriend there, the personal assistant who had caused their marriage to end, but felt no great anger towards her. In truth, all Liz could think was that she was too young to be a widow, and she pitied her for it. The fact that Jack still had Liz listed as his emergency contact had apparently been a source of great distress to the girl, although Liz secretly thought it was more likely to be due to Jack’s lack of organisation in such matters as opposed to a calculated attempt to keep his ex wife in his life.

After a few minutes the ceremony finished, and as the coffin was lowered down Liz turned and walked away, coming to rest a couple of minutes later under the shade of a large tree. She sat against the trunk and inhaled deeply, catching the scent of nearby azaleas on the air.  She watched as the group left the cemetery, one by one, until the only people other than Liz were the grave diggers. She sat there, enveloped in the quiet as her mind ticked over. After she had been revived by the police they had taken her to identify Jack’s body, a task that she would not wish on her worse enemy. As the police explained the details of the accident Liz spoke only once, when they mentioned the time of death. The coroner’s report said that Jack died on impact, which occurred at 10.05pm. Liz tried to explain that this was impossible, as she had received two calls from Jack after that time, but one of the first people on the scene had been an off duty paramedic who was adamant that Jack died instantaneously. When Liz left the station later that afternoon she called her phone provider, who was equally adamant when they told her that she had not received a phone call on that line during these hours.

After a while Liz stood up and walked towards the gates of the cemetery, pausing only to glance once more towards Jack’s grave. The diggers had finished their work and the headstone was now fronted by a smooth mount of earth. She briefly considered going over there to say goodbye, but in her heart she knew there was no need. Jack had already said good bye to her and moved on. Now she knew she had to as well.