Hey guys. I’m delighted to be able to present to you a short story from a very talented (and lovely) author by the name of Emma Newman. Emma’s previous work can be found here and here. Emma herself can be found here.
Anyway, to the story. Hope you enjoy (clue: you will*). Over to you, Em…
This is the fifteenth tale in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds. If you would like me to read it to you instead, you can listen here. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here.
Sue watched the photo of her husband appearing again and again in the printer tray as she waited to be connected. The room stank of toner and her head ached.
“Mrs Walker? Sorry to keep you waiting. How are you bearing up?”
The police officer’s voice was softer than her husband’s. “Is there any news?” She was bored of describing how she felt.
“None I’m afraid. We’ve sent your husband’s details to all the relevant departments, and I understand you’ve contacted the local press.”
“I didn’t know what else to do. I’m printing posters. I’m going to take them round town later.”
“Good idea. I’ll let you know the moment anything comes in.”
“Thanks.” She put the phone down, looking at the printed sheets, reminded of the countless missing cat posters she’d seen in recent months. Her husband would soon be just another face pinned to trees and fading in shop windows, ignored.
Her son squealed next door, then her daughter cackled. Sue hunched forwards, resting her head in her hands, waiting for the inevitable as their footsteps came to the doorway.
“Mum! Jen put the toad in my bed!”
“I didn’t, he just hopped in there by himself. He must’ve wanted to be with someone else small and warty.”
“Shut up, both of you!” Sue didn’t turn to face them. “For God’s sake Jen, leave him alone and get rid of that bloody frog.”
“It’s a toad.”
“I don’t-” a loud splosh and a spray of tea interrupted her.
“Did you see that?!” Jen cheered as Sue leaped out of her chair and away from the desk. “He landed right in the cup!”
The mug wobbled and then tipped over, spilling tea dregs and toad onto the desk. It croaked. “Get that thing out of my office!” Sue yelled, repulsed by its warty sliminess.
Jen collected it with the theatrical sigh perfected by fourteen year olds and stomped out of the room. Matthew lingered in the doorway, looking at the posters. “Are you okay Mum?”
“I’ve got to make a phone call,” she said, not wanting to show him how upset she was.
He nodded and shut the door as she reluctantly picked up the phone. The number was the last on the list for a reason.
It rang enough times for her to hope that no-one was home before being picked up. “Hello?”
Sue cleared her throat. “Is this Kim?”
“This is Sue… Gary’s wife.”
There was silence, then the scrape of a chair. “What do you want? I got the solicitor’s letter, I thought it was all supposed to go through them now.”
“It’s about Gary.”
“Oh my God, has-”
“He’s missing,” Sue said it quickly, dreading the words she’d spoken so many times. “This is the fourth day and I wondered if you’ve seen him, whether he came to visit… um… Natalie.”
“No. He hasn’t seen her for months. What do you mean by missing?”
From anyone else it would have been a stupid question, but Sue understood the subtext; she was asking if he’d abandoned them, like he had his first family. “He didn’t turn up at work, all his things are still here, his credit cards and bank account haven’t been used. The car’s still on the drive.”
“God. Are the police-”
“They know. He wasn’t in contact with you… directly, in the last few days?”
“I’m sorry things have got difficult with the child maintenance payments. We didn’t want it to be like this. The fallout from divorce is messy.”
“Gone through it have you?”
“Yes, actually, I have.” There was a yell from the kitchen and then the sound of running up the stairs. “I’ve got to go.”
“Let me know if anything… if he…”
“I will.” She ended the call. So many sentences had been unfinished in the last few days, so many sympathetic looks given, so many empty expressions of support. A thousand times she’d imagined him lying dead in a nearby ditch, or slumped in a drunken heap down an alleyway or even on a plane to a foreign land and a new life. None of those made any sense.
The kids were climbing the second set of stairs into the converted attic. Gary finished it two days before he disappeared, the garden was the next project, they’d talked about a holiday too, hardly topics a man about to run away would discuss. There were no signs of a struggle, his car keys, wallet and a pile of his clothes were left by the bed, converting the house into a modern day Mary Celeste.
The kids were chasing each other by the sound of it. They’d been running riot since she’d been obsessed with finding him. The last of the missing person posters landed in the printer tray as the doorbell rang. She gathered them up, ran down the stairs and opened the door to find a man dressed in a suit and raincoat, his face was the ugliest she’d ever seen.
“Sorry to disturb you,” he said, no smile, no warmth in his manner. “I’m an environmental officer from the local council.” He waved an ID card at her, but she was too distracted by his strange lumpy nose to take it in. “Have you had any problems with local wildlife in the past few days, amphibians in particular?”
“Any problems with frogs or toads? We’ve had a couple of reports of them coming into people’s houses.” He noticed the posters. “Someone’s missing?”
He extended a hand. “I could put one up in my office if you wish?”
She gave one to him. “Thank you. About the toad problem, we found one in the house a few days ago. Where are they coming from?”
“Population spike,” he said flatly. Everything he said was flat, there was a complete absence of emotion. “When did you find it?”
“Four days ago. It-”
A scream high up in the house stopped her, something streaked down from the sky and landed with a terrible splut less than a metre from the man.
It was the toad.
The kids were hammering down the stairs, Sue stepped out to look at the poor creature, its guts spilling out onto the driveway. The visitor peered down at it.
“This is the toad you mentioned, the one found in your house four days ago?”
“It was,” Sue replied as Matthew and Jen pushed past her.
“Matthew threw him out of the skylight!” Jen sobbed and promptly punched her younger brother on the arm.
“She was putting him down my shirt!” Matthew said, staring at the dead creature. “I didn’t mean to do it.”
“I’ll be off now,” the man said. “Nothing to be done here.”
Sue watched him go as the kids squabbled. He paused at the end of the drive, screwed the poster into a tight ball and dropped it in his coat pocket without glancing back. She looked down at the toad and somehow knew, with a certainty she couldn’t explain, that she would never see her husband again.
Thanks for hosting Jack!
I hope you enjoyed the story. If you would like to find out more about the Split Worlds project, it’s all here: www.splitworlds.com – you can also sign up to get an extra story and get each new story delivered to your inbox every week. If you would like to host a story over the coming year, either let me know in the comments or contact me through the Split Worlds site. Em x