There was the click of heels on the floor, preceded by the creak of a unhappily yielding lock and the echoes of timid knocking. In the silence of the house, there was just the clicking of the clock hand and the scrape of shoes on tile. James followed the dark footprints on the cream carpet, his heart beating wildly, unsure of the emotions but riding the surging adrenaline. The tip-tapping coming from the kitchen was the staccato of impatience.
James turned the corner and stood, his beefy arms folded and head tilted with an attitude of disbelief.
“Well look what the cat dragged in…”
Liesel brushed back the long strands of her blonde hair, resurrecting the warm smile she’d been practicing for the last hour.
“How did you get in here?”
This was not the welcome she’d been expecting. Flippantly, she gestured at the key sitting in crumbs of dirt on the tabletop. “The spare. In the place we always left it.”
James grunted. He always forgot that damn key. He looked away, swallowing the rising upset, or the rising anger, he wasn’t sure which was winning the battle at this moment.
He turned back as Liesel, who at that moment wrapped her arms around him. He narrowly dodged a kiss aimed at his lips, and Liesel planted a kiss on the upsweep of his bristly cheek. A little miffed, Liesel stood back, crossing her arms defensively.
James stood looking back at her. She looked well, kempt and healthy. Not like she’d been living rough. Someone had cared for her. He was both gladdened and angered by that.
“Where have you been Liesel? We’ve been out of our minds.” Muscles reflexively twitched in his arms. James was thinking of all of the tearful phone calls he’d shared with Liesel’s mother, Jane; the way his heart rent every time, Jane could have been his own mother. Useless frustration at being unable to find her. Police officers who remained unhelpful and distant. What could they do with no leads and a history of disappearances?
“I can’t really talk about it,” Liesel cast her eyes down, a flash of silver and blue against her neck. “Didn’t you get my note?”
“Fat lot of good that note did.” His words were spat from his mouth with a violence that scared them both. Shaking, James backed away, balling his fists by his side. He could smell the musk of his own sweat.
“You were gone for three years Liesel.” The dull thud of his hand on the wall made her jump. The fever pitch of his voice . “Three years and not a word. We thought you were dead.”
Liesel’s eyes were big and blue looking back at him, like she always did in the situation where she’d done wrong. A child who never knew that her actions hurt other people. James was trying to breathe slowly, to stop the jittering of his nerves.
“But I couldn’t James. If I could show you what I’d seen. There are places in this universe—”
Harsh laughter caught her off guard. James’ expression was not sympathetic or engaged by her story. He was bordering on hysteria and his face was mottled with red spots. “Spare me your fairytales, Lis. I am done with your versions of truth.”
It was the odd ring in his voice, the bright hardness in his dark brown eyes that held her. This was not the man she had left. He was sharper this time, his bitterness honed on the years he’d wondered at her fate. All the time, she’d been gazing at all the wondrous beauty of the galaxy, of quasars and stars burning for thousands of years, of little green men and the ponderous shapes races took in worlds beyond their immediate solar system.
She had been chosen, and answered the call, not really counting on the personal toll of gallivanting across space. She had thought her James, with his seemingly endless patience and vast love for her, she had thought he would get it. And he’d been here. With all of the questions, and none of the answers.
“James, I am sorry.” Matching the sincerity of her feelings by attempting to connect with him, she lowered her head, tried to reach his eyes. “I didn’t think about you in this.”
His head shook sadly; this admission was far too late to make any difference to him.
“But you have to believe me,” she pleaded. “This was crucial, and beyond us as two little people.”
“It wasn’t to me.”
A slight tilt of his head. Liesel turned to see what he was looking at and James began to scoop up her items from the table, swiftly, angrily. “I need you to leave.”
As he loaded them into Liesel’s arms, she scrabbled to catch falling loose bits. “We need to talk.”
He spun on his heel and looked directly at her. “Yes. We do. Not today.”
His hand large and warm on her shoulder as she remembered, he guided her towards the door. Plaintive sounds came from her, but they weren’t forming coherent sentences, and Liesel was getting really frustrated with the way this was going. She wasn’t expecting the greatest homecoming, but she thought it would be better than this.
With a creak, the key turned in the lock, and Liesel looked up, catching the slump of James’ shoulders and his hissing sigh. For a brief moment, it was just a woman’s silhouette in the doorway, bright light from the outside flooding in. A soft click of the door lock and the three faced off in the dim, deathly quiet hallway.
“James?” Her voice was rich and questioning.
“Ella,” his reply was wary, “this is Liesel.”
The curls bounced as her head tipped to the side. “Ah. Liesel. A pleasure.” Her hand, encased in an elegant suit jacket, extended in a gesture of warmth.
“And you are?” Liesel’s smile held, perplexed, as she returned the warm shake.
James cleared his throat, shifting uncomfortably. “Ella is my wife, Liesel.”