Disappearance is a short story set in Liverpool. Patsy must cope when one of her friends, Russell leaves abruptly. Her unrequited feelings are questioned by her flatmate, Henry. But when she receives a mysterious call from Russell, will she agree to meet him?
‘You can’t just be happy by restarting your life every single time something goes wrong.’
‘I can and you will watch me do it.’
Patsy threw her hands into the air and paced around the cramped bedroom. Russell meanwhile was stuffing clothes into a large holdall bag and rummaging around his drawers. Her stomach was twisting, her chest tight as she watched him pack. Could she let him leave her again? He’d made it clear, there was nothing between them. He didn’t feel the same way.
‘What are you going to tell your parents?’ She asked as he barged past her and disappeared into the bathroom. She followed stubbornly and leaned against the door frame. He paused, staring at his reflection in the mirror before reaching for the cabinet door and started to pluck things out.
‘I don’t know, I’m visiting friends or something,’ he said, holding his toothbrush and razor. He grabbed the bottles next to the sink and pushed past her. She stumbled and sighed as they went back into the bedroom.
‘They’re not going to believe that,’ she said as he continued to shove things into his bag. ‘They know you only have a couple of mates around here, what did you expect me to do? Create someone out of thin air and insist you’ve known them all of your life?’
‘That was the idea, yeah,’ Russell muttered as he zipped the bag up. Reaching for his duffle coat hanging on the wardrobe door, he draped it over the bag. ‘I don’t ask for a lot, but I need to do this. I need some space.’
‘Don’t ask for a lot, he says!’ She said and shook her head. ‘Just because Violet hasn’t replied to your message, doesn’t mean you can disappear at the drop of a hat. Russell, stop!’
Russell met her eye for the first time since she barrelled into the flat. ‘Why not? It’s worked for me in the past.’
‘That doesn’t mean you can keep doing it! You’re needed here, what about your classes? Are you going to tell your lecturers that you’ve decided to get the first train out of here and you have no idea when you’re going to be back?’
‘I’ll probably just tell them I’m ill or something,’ Russell said, picking the bag handles up and slinging the bag over his shoulder. ‘Just cover for me for a little bit, okay?’
He grabbed his phone and moved around the bed towards the door. She stepped backwards, hands on the doorframe. He raised his eyebrows at her but made no effort to push her out of the way.
‘You can’t keep doing this, Russ. It’s not good for you. Please,’ she said, her voice soft. She could feel her heart in her mouth. She couldn’t let him leave. Not again.
He shook his head and hoisted the bag further on his shoulder. ‘I know, but I just need some time to get my head together, get my priorities in order. You can understand that, can’t you?’
Patsy bit her lip, her eyes on the floor. She could understand but that didn’t mean she was happy with it. This happened time and time again, each time Russell would come back happy, rejuvenated and with a purpose in life. Be it writing, creating films, cooking or inventing. But as soon as the tiniest thing went wrong, he’d be gone.
‘Hey, I’ll be back before you know it,’ he said, tilting her chin up so their eyes met once more. ‘I’ll be fine, I never go out of the country. You’ll be able to ring or text me.’
‘It was two months until you came back the last time. Please don’t go,’ she said, tears welled in her eyes. She blinked and quickly brushed them away by rubbing her forehead. Russell clasped her wrist and pulled her close. He hugged her tightly, a hand on the back of her head. She screwed her eyes shut and tried to fight the urge to sob and beg him to stay.
‘I’ll be back before you can blink,’ he whispered as they pulled apart. She gripped his forearms. ‘I’ll be careful, I always am.’
And with that, he planted a kiss on her hairline and slipped past her. Her hands fell from his arms. She remained in place until she heard the click of the front door and sat down heavily on Russell’s bed. The tears now falling freely down her cheeks as she stared numbly at the door. Pulling her legs to her chest, she wrapped her arms around her legs and buried her face into her knees.
‘And what? He just left? Again?’
Patsy nodded as they moved along the cue at the canteen, the hustle and bustle of twenty thousand students was deafening as they all converged into the dining hall in search of food. Naomi elbowed her as she stopped in front of the desserts. She hadn’t even realised that she had stopped moving. Heat rose to her cheeks as she moved, the chatter from students behind was like white noise.
‘Did he say where he was going this time?’ Naomi asked as she paid for her food. She waited until they had made their way through the crowds and perched on a window seat overlooking the playing field to speak.
Placing the tray on her lap, her stomach lurched at the sight of the food. A sandwich, apple and cookie weren’t much, but it brought nausea to the back of her throat. She picked up her water bottle, the cool plastic grounding her.
‘He never says where he’s going, said he was staying in the country so at least that’s something,’ she said, opening the bottle and taking a sip of water.
‘Did he take his coat with him?’ She asked. Patsy nodded and continued to stare out of the window. ‘He’s probably gone up north then, it’s colder in Scotland, isn’t it?’
‘I suppose,’ she replied, suppressing a sigh.
Naomi elbowed her. She jerked and almost knocked the tray off her lap. She glanced out of the corner of her eye at a group of girls laughing a few feet away. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled as she met Naomi’s eye.
‘He’ll be fine, nothing’s going to happen to him,’ she said, taking a bite of her sandwich.
She rubbed her forehead. ‘I know that. I’m just worried about what his parents are going to think. The last time Russell went off, they wouldn’t stop phoning me, asking where he was or if I’d heard from him. Every single day,’ she said, closing her eyes.
‘It’s got nothing to do with them. You said you tried to stop him leaving, that’s more than they’ve ever done for him,’ Naomi said around a mouthful of food. Patsy winced and took another sip of water. ‘Try not to think about it. There’s nothing else you can do.’
‘I know, but I just want him to be safe,’ she murmured.
‘He will be, he’s always careful. Come on, we’ve got a lecture to get to,’ Naomi said, shoving the last of her sandwich in her mouth and putting the unopened packet of crisps in her bag. She nodded at Patsy’s untouched food. ‘You still need to eat, Patsy. I know it’s hard sometimes, but you need to.’
Heat rushed up her neck and spattered across her cheeks. She quickly shoved the sandwich in her bag and picked up the cookie. Slowly, she forced herself to take a bite. Naomi said nothing as she took the tray from her and put it to one side. She chewed land tried to swallow the tasteless lump with a gulp of water. She flashed a smile at the redhead next to her and pocketed her apple.
She got to her feet shakily, swung her bag over her shoulder and picked up her water bottle. ‘Come on then, we don’t want to be late,’ she said, walking a couple of steps ahead. She heard Naomi follow and move past her to squeeze past a group of students. She quickly put the half-eaten cookie in the bin as she passed and took another swig of water to cool the burning in her threat.
It wasn’t until she got back to her student accommodation that she stared at her phone for what seemed like two seconds but was an hour and a half. She kept typing a message to Russell then deleting the entire thing. She was about to ring him but decided not to. Would he even answer if she rang? Maybe a text would be a better way to go about it. But what would she even say? Ask how things were going? If he found somewhere to stay? Would she ask him where the hell he was? If he heard from his parents yet?
She groaned and threw the phone down on the bed. Getting to her feet, she left the room in search of something to eat and a much-needed cup of tea. Russell had done this so many times before, why was she so worked up?
Stepping into the communal kitchen, she suppressed another groan as she clapped eyes on one of her flatmates. Henry was stood at the sink, his back towards her. He was humming under his breath and moving along with the pop music that was drifting from the radio on the counter. She contemplated turning around and fleeing back into her room. But Henry turned around and smiled at her.
‘Hello, Patricia,’ he said brightly. ‘Not seen you around for a while, where have you been?’
‘Busy,’ she muttered, making a beeline for her cupboard. Thank God she chose the one that was the furthest away from everyone else. ‘And don’t call me Patricia.’
Henry turned around to look at her, his eyebrow raised. ‘It’s your name,’ he said. From this angle, she could see what he was doing, washing up with a pair of marigolds on his hands, his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Her flatmate was the same age as her and yet chose to speak and dress like he was at Oxford University. She couldn’t get her head around how he managed to have friends on his Economics course.
‘My name’s Patsy,’ she spat, shooting daggers at his legs. She reached into the cupboard and pulled out a pot noodle. Shoving it on the counter, she got her cutlery and mug for a cup of tea. Henry didn’t comment, just watched her as he continued washing up. She flicked the kettle on and stepped over to the fridge for milk. Hopefully, they had some in. She really didn’t want to go to the shops.
‘What have you been busy with?’ Henry asked after a peaceful moment of silence.
‘Stuff,’ she snapped, shutting the fridge door with a bit more force than was necessary. The bottles on top clinked together. Henry must have finished his washing up because he pulled the plug out of the sink and began drying his pots with a tea towel. He leaned against the counter, watching her as she waited impatiently for the kettle the boil.
‘What kind of stuff?’ Henry asked. She stared at him for a moment, he smiled in return, the annoying glint in his eye was infuriating.
Patsy sighed heavily. ‘Why do you care?’ She spat, crossing her arms over her chest. She jutted her chin out. ‘You spent half the year not speaking to me. What’s changed?’
‘He stopped his drying and took a step towards her. She glanced down at his rubber gloves and frowned. Thankfully, he didn’t move more than a couple of feet.
‘I worry about you,’ he said, his voice an octave lower, something flickered in his eye. Sincerity? Caring? Whatever it was, she didn’t like it.
‘Why? We don’t even know each other well,’ she replied. The kettle clicked and she turned towards it. Pouring water into her pot noodle and mug, she set it back on the stand.
Henry chuckled. ‘And who’s fault is that? You were either locked in your room, at lectures or out with your other friends,’ he paused as she stabbed the noodles. ‘How is Russell?’
She snapped her eyes to meet his gaze. Her jaw clenched as she gripped the counter. ‘How do you know who he is?’
‘I have my sources. Things trickle through the grapevine, it’s amazing how news can spread around a university,’ Henry said carefully, peeling the rubber gloves off his hands. He set them on the draining board.
‘Like what?’ She snapped, pouring milk into the mug ad taking the teabag out.
‘Like you want a relationship with him, and he is not interested in you,’ Henry took a step closer, his eyes glinting in the weak light. ‘At. All.’
She took a step back instinctively and found herself trapped between the counter and Henry. Her heart thumped hard against her chest as she maintained eye contact.
‘That’s no one’s business,’ she whispered, her voice wavering. She tried to hide the trembling in her fingers. ‘Now, if you could move, I’d like to finish prepping my meal.’
‘Is that all you’re having?’ He gestured to the pot noodle. ‘Not much is it? I guess those rumours are also true.’
‘No rumours are true about me, so I suggest you find better news sources,’ she said, reaching for her pot noodle. Henry grabbed her hand, his skin was warm against her own. She tried to pull away, but he tightened his grip. Not too tight that she would panic, he couldn’t do anything to her. She’d fight back. ‘Let me go.’
‘You know I’d be a better boyfriend than Russell. You can’t deny it, there’s something between us, Patricia. It’s foolish to keep ignoring our feelings,’ Henry’s voice was soft. His thumb rubbed along the back of her hand.
‘I don’t even know you,’ she hissed, pulling her arm out of his grip. He let go but remained in place, only inches away from her.
‘You could,’ he said, putting his hands in his pockets. ‘If you really tried.’
‘Get out of my way,’ she snatched her mug and pot noodle from the counter and elbowed him out of the way. He let her go, but his voice made her pause at the door.
‘All I’m asking for is a chance. Nothing more. I’m sorry for grabbing you,’ he said, his voice drifting around the kitchen. She remembered about the radio, she couldn’t hear it before. Some love song was playing. ‘Just one chance, Patsy.’
Swallowing past the lump in her throat, she left the kitchen and hurried back to her room. Shutting the door behind her, she locked it and let out a shuddering breath. Did the entire campus know about her feelings? It couldn’t be possible.
Her phone rang suddenly, she’d recognise that ringtone anywhere. She rushed across the room, shoving her meagre dinner on the desk and snatched up her phone. She accepted the call with shaking fingers.
‘Russell, are you alright?’ She asked, gripping the phone and holding it to her ear. She heard static on the other end. It felt like the bottom of her stomach had disappeared. She sat down heavily on her bed. ‘Russell?’
‘Can you come and meet me?’
‘Russ? I can’t hear you properly. Are you ok? Has something happened?’ Her heart was thumping against her chest as the static continued. It didn’t sound right, his voice was too low. Was it the connection? Low signal or something?
‘Can you meet me?’
‘Where?’ She frowned at her duvet cover. ‘What’s going on? Russell?’
‘Lime Street station. Half an hour.’
And the line went dead.
‘Russell?’ She was shouting now, holding the phone at arm’s length and staring at the blank screen. She tried to ring him back. Straight to voicemail. She tried again. Nothing. After the fourth missed call. She threw her phone on the bed and buried her fingers in her hair.
What the hell was she going to do?