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The Year of Days by Annelle Neel

If Molly had been in charge of my funeral, it would have ended up a party. She would have made all our friends comfortable with wine, laughed and cried with them while she showed photos of me growing up, told funny stories about our honeymoon, bragged about how smart I was.

But I was the one in charge, and it was my wife’s funeral, not mine. I pared the ritual down to a private graveside send-off. Running back to my car before I could hear dirt hit her casket, I fled the cemetery and its flood of mocking sunlight.

I’d developed a cocoon of withdrawal since I’d lost my job. I used to design gaming software. It was solitary work, just me and a computer in a dark room building fantasy worlds real enough to scare, but not real enough to matter. The whole company exploded like a 3-D fireball when the owner of our tiny firm bailed out and moved to Thailand. I wanted to mow him down like the fanged web-fingered beast I was working on when the server shut down.

That was last year. At first I hit the job hunt full-force. Then rejection after rejection began to take its toll. Every other kid who graduated from college wanted to design games, and they’d work for pennies. I did a little freelance, some of it for the university where Molly worked. Molly wanted me to get a permanent job in the school’s IT department. That frightened me as a world fraught with fiends of its own, crawling with tiny insects of bureaucracy, slowly eating away my artistic soul.

I told Molly I was submitting résumés, but in reality I spent my time playing kid-and old-lady games. Poker and Angry Birds and solitaire. When Molly left in the mornings, I was at the computer. When she came in at night, I was still there. I pined for what I’d lost. Depression became my full-time work.

I couldn’t leave the house. I ate so many boiled eggs that Molly gagged when she smelled them. I took to wearing earmuffs and headsets to keep noises from launching me into panic attacks. She had to beg me to shower, and my clothes soon hung on me like sheets on a pole. She paid all the bills, and all talk of starting a family flew into the air like the delicate spikes of a dandelion gone to seed.

Then she was dead.

After the funeral, I cruised by our house three times to make sure no one was waiting for me.

We hadn’t had social contact with friends for months, but I knew people wanted to, I don’t know, give me their condolences. I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing anyone or witnessing their tears.

All I wanted was to wallow in grief. But after I opened a beer, I couldn’t think what to do next. It was just like the first day of not going to work. All that empty time, and no clue how to spend it. Only this was worse, much worse. Circling the house, I began to touch everything Molly had touched.

Her makeup drawer was a colorful mess of powders and smears. Her clothes smelled of lavender, except for the wet towels in the washer. They were beginning to sour with mildew, and even now I couldn’t bring myself to put them in the dryer. Round and round I went, grazing my fingers over framed photos, discovering a hole burned into her lab coat, smelling the chamomile tea she drank every night.

In the garage, I sat in the driver’s seat of her car and I gripped the steering wheel at 10 and 4 on the clock face the way she did. A glimpse of Molly’s friend from work passing by the garage window jolted me back to reality, the place I hated most. She headed to my front door, casserole in hand. Molly once said Sasha had a crush on me, but I think Molly made that up to boost my morale. Sasha rang the doorbell for at least ten minutes, but I waited in the car until I saw her leave, casserole still in hand.

Inside the kitchen, a tone sounded like the ringing of vesper bells. I recognized it as one of the many reminders and alarms Molly set on her phone. A package on the counter vibrated as it sounded again—her personal belongings the policeman had given me, bundled and gathered from the car where they found her. I pulled the items out: a light scarf, a small purse mostly empty except for her wallet, and her phone.

The reminder on the phone’s display came from a camera app called “Daily.” When I touched it, today’s date came up with the camera ready to shoot, showing nothing but the scarf on the countertop. I tapped back through the previous days’ photos. They were blank until the morning of her death three days before. Then, one by one, day by day, the small square photos went back through time, the last photo taken exactly one year prior to her death.

Scrolling through them, I recognized nothing. Some photos had trees not seen around here. One was from such height it made my skin crawl. I could feel my face grow clammy as I downloaded the phone’s photos onto her computer. Some were fuzzy, several were macro shots of details, others half obscured by over exposure or shadows. Checking the metadata on each photo, I sorted them by place. Some were local, taken around our Tennessee landscape. But when I was through, 366 photos were literally all over the U.S. map.

My psyche hadn’t been in the best of health the last year, but I didn’t realize I was so out of touch that Molly had left town and I didn’t even notice. I sorted the photos again by date and compared them to her calendar. Two locations coincided with seminars she’d attended, one in Arizona and one in the northeast. But others were taken in places that baffled me, places she’d never mentioned.

A knock sounded on the kitchen door. My heart pounded. Out the kitchen window, a full moon crept up behind the trees to lay shadows across the kitchen’s countertops. I kept still, trying to count how many hours had passed since I’d been in Molly’s car. Six or seven? Sasha’s shadow fell through the kitchen door as she hunched over, peering inside. She was the peeper, but I felt like the guilty one when our eyes met. She held up the casserole like it was the Hope Diamond. The thought of eating, even boiled eggs, made me want to vomit. But Sasha wasn’t giving up.

She tested the handle and knocked on the glass. At first, I resolved to remain a statue until she left. But then I changed my mind and flung the door open.

“You can drive,” I said.

Molly must have been right about Sasha having a crush on me, because she threw the casserole out and packed some of Molly’s clothes so she could leave with me right then and there. She said she didn’t mind missing her job at the lab for a few days.

We had 366 locations to find. I demanded we do it in chronological order, but shots were flung so far and wide we had to modify the plan. Starting with the photo locations farthest away, the strategy was to cover each site oldest to newest as we came to them. I sat in the passenger seat, a map with a route that started in Tennessee, went west and down the California coast line, back through the southwest, then to New England before heading home.

It looked like a shot list for a movie, the photos bundled by location and out of sequence for whatever plot Molly had constructed. I’d built a database for tracking the photos, keeping it on her laptop and referring to it every second I wasn’t driving or sleeping.

We took Molly’s car, another way to check the locations. I scrolled through the car’s GPS history, matching some of the sites but not all. The California sites weren’t listed. Sasha offered me a granola bar, and I waved it away.

“We could fly,” Sasha said. “Molly must have flown to California if it’s not in her GPS.”

I shook my head and pointed to the road ahead. “No way. No control over our itinerary if we fly. Besides, I don’t have the money for plane tickets. Some of these places are so remote we’d have to take a car anyway.”

Thirty-six hours of driving from Tennessee took us to the Santa Monica Pier. Not that you could tell it from the photo. It was a shot of a lug nut and bolt on the boat trailer for the Santa Monica Police Harbor Unit.

“All that way to take a photo of a lug nut?” Sasha asked.

That night, Sasha refused to get back into the car. There was an awkward moment when she suggested a room at the Day’s Inn on Venice Beach. I told her I’d sleep in the car, but I hoped to spend as many hours as possible on the sand outside. It was a winter different from Tennessee’s, the nighttime temp dipping into the fifties from a brilliant sunny day. It was funny, but I felt closer to Molly at that moment than I had since I’d lost my job. It didn’t last. A flicker of suspicion pulled me from that close feeling and lowered me into the ground with Molly’s casket. 

The photos were details, macro shots of mundane subjects. The swing through Arizona showed cactus needles, something I knew already from the photo. But why cactus, why that piece of desert? Each photo was less disclosing, less amusing than before.

I could tell Sasha was growing weary of the adventure. She tapped her nails on the steering wheel in time to nothing.

“She couldn’t have taken all these shots,” she said.

“Yes, she did.” I’d said it a bit too quickly and loudly. “Every shot has her phone’s serial number on it.”

She glanced at me sideways. “She downloaded them, then fiddled with the serial number. You’re not the only brilliant one in the family, you know.”

I shook my head. “She took them.”

“Why no foreign countries?” Sasha asked.

“Molly didn’t have a passport.”

More tapping. I looked up from the map and glared at the highway.

“Molly was having an affair, wasn’t she? That’s why there are no people in the photos. Only things. So if I picked the phone up, I wouldn’t suspect anything.”

We were pulling into Cape Giraudeau, Missouri. The road overlooked the Mississippi, muddy, brown, and churning. The tapping had stopped.

“I checked the flights from this airport,” Sasha said. “I can make it home by nine tonight.”

Nothing had happened between us, and maybe that’s why she wanted to leave. Except for the casserole part, she hadn’t been pushy. I sensed the silences on the long drives between photo sites pained her, though she’d kept her thoughts quiet. When I dropped her off at the airport, she gave me a peck on the cheek. As she walked away, Molly’s flirty dress with the flared hem looked defeated on Sasha.

Missouri told me nothing about Molly’s secret life. A barn door matching the photo was from a deserted farm. It was awaiting demolition, the pasture surrounding it making way for a subdivision. The house we shared was on land that had been farmed at one time. But I could find no other connection. The lug nut from California, the cactus needle from Arizona, all the other small items of life she’d photographed had no connection for me. At least not to our life together.

The trail of photos took me northeast to a landscape more crowded and fussy than the country’s vast middle and western parts. Water became the subject of her photos. The ocean, lakes, rivers, bridges, ferries. And beaches. More sand. She always seemed to find the sand.

When I disembarked the ferry from Massachusetts to Nantucket, something else hit me. Something that should have hit me first day out. These trips were expensive. A place to stay on Nantucket, even in the off-season, was outrageously priced. Truth be known, I didn’t know what condition our finances were in, but I knew they’d been tight. Too tight.

After hours of searching, I collapsed on the stretch of beach where she’d taken a shot of a lighthouse. My exhaustion welcomed oblivion, and I slept to the sound of water rippling the gravely beach.

I awoke when I heard a voice and felt a jolt to my leg. The foghorn sounded, and my eyes opened to creeping dawn light. The voice spoke again.

“No sleeping on the beach,” he said.

My clothes were damp and my muscles were sore. I rubbed my eyes and sat up. The cop towered over me, and I saw his bike resting on the gate that led to the lighthouse. He was black, very proper and still much taller than me when I stood. He asked to see my ID. I handed him my wallet and checked Molly’s phone. It was dead.

In a way that hadn’t hit me until now, I felt my connection with Molly gone. It was as if I’d been banished from her presence like a criminal. I bent over with grief, tears falling and my voice sobbing. The cop put a hand on my shoulder.

“Been drinking?” he asked gently.

I held out the phone to him. He waited until I could breathe and speak.

“No way to charge Molly’s phone. My car.” I pointed to the ocean, busy with the ferry, sailboats, and fishing trawlers. “My car is on the mainland, and I left the charger in it.”

He walked his bike beside me as we headed to the small police station in the middle of town. He found a charger for me, and I plugged in Molly’s phone while he looked me up on the computer. The dispatcher brought me a cup of coffee and a brownie. By now the cop knew my story, and his looks had become less severe and more pitying. He’d lost his sister two weeks earlier.

Molly’s phone began to wake up. The red bar said nine percent.

“How did she die?” I asked.

“Car wreck,” he said. His pause was short enough that I almost didn’t catch the hitch of sadness in his throat. “One of these days, we’ll ban private vehicles on this island. Tourists bring their cars and SUVs with them. It gets crazy.”

“My wife died in her car,” I said. I didn’t remember eating the brownie, but all that was left were some crumbs on the paper towel in front of me. “It wasn’t a wreck. She just died. They found her in her car in the parking lot at work. She had an undetected heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. And then I found out she had this secret life.”

“We all have secret lives,” the cop said. “In our heads or in our hearts.”

The red bar on the phone changed to green. Twenty percent charged.

“Or on our phones,” I said.

There was a geographical gap in the photos after New England, and the list of locations took me back home.

In the military cemetery in our town, I stood at a headstone bearing her name, Molly Greene. It wasn’t her, of course. My Molly never served as a private in the U.S. Army, and she was born long after this woman died in 1977. But here was her namesake, the letters carved in granite. The simple stone was eerily similar to the one I’d ordered for her grave.

My mind seized with panic. My fingers chilled with terror, and my legs trembled with uncontrollable fear. It took this journey, all this way, to come to this panic. A delayed reaction. Without the quest Molly had left me, it would have come my first night alone in our home. She didn’t know she was going to die. But this photo told me she thought she was dead to me. She'd been close to giving up.

Daily #365 took me to Molly’s lab at the university. Sasha was alone, everyone else on a lunch break. She munched on some sort of salad thing wrapped in rice paper, bits of shredded carrot landing on the keyboard beside her workstation.

“Don’t the rabbits drool when they see that kind of food?” I asked.

The room smelled like a veterinarian’s office. Small black bunnies nibbled from glass containers in their cages or napped in jerky motions. On Sasha’s computer’s home screen, the name of the lab floated across in filmy aqua neon caps: The Institute of Neurological Sensory Processes and Perception.

“Wow,” she said. “You’re looking better. You smell better. Taking regular showers now?”

I nodded, my face hot with embarrassment.

“Did you make it through all the photos?” she asked.

“Just a couple more to go,” I said.

I pulled Molly’s rolling chair from her workstation and sat beside Sasha. She was smiling, but a tear made its way down the outside of her cheek and dropped onto her lab coat.

“I miss her,” Sasha said.

I set a photo on the table, small and square with a thin white border. I’d printed this one because I wanted to leave it with her. It was Molly and Sasha, their temples touching.

“This is the only photo she took with people in it,” I said.

Sasha fingered the photo. Her eyes reddened with more tears.

“She once told me you had a crush on me,” I said. “But that wasn’t true, was it?”

She pulled a tissue from her pocket and tried to corral the mascara pooling in the dark circles under her eyes. “I like you, Peter. I tried to like you more. On the trip, I tried.”

Sasha reached toward my hand and grazed her thumb across my knuckles.

“It would never work between us,” she said.

I nodded, unable to return her gesture, her gaze. She pulled back, tapping her fingers again the way she did on the trip.

“Besides,” she said, “you hate casseroles.”

The last photo was taken somewhere inside my house. Our house. At least that’s what the metadata said. I didn’t recognize where it was, but by now I had figured out how Molly’s mind was working. At least I knew where to start.

In the kitchen, I passed her scarf and purse still laying on the kitchen countertop where I’d left them. I gripped her phone, glancing between the photo and the detritus in her tiny pantry/office. It was another macro shot that looked like a flower in black and white. But she’d become quite skilled with optical illusions during the last year. Knowing that made it easier. She’d taught me that much.

The subject of the photo was my avatar, a three dimensional figure I’d created long ago when ideas and imagination poured from me like tears from a baby. She’d taken the portrait of the tiny figure, then sliced and arranged it kaleidoscope-style using the phone camera’s software.

She’d done the hard work for me, found the idea for a new game. The black and white image was an eerie logo she’d devised from the avatar. Even as I looked at the image, I began working out the rounds of strife, setting out roads to safety, devising setbacks and rogue desperados. The main character would follow a journey to save his wife. No. The main character would follow a journey to save her husband.

The day I lost my job, she began taking photos. I’d made the last year of her precious life joyless and lonely. Her experiment to breach my cocoon of sensory processes and perception, along with everything else she tried, failed.

Until now. Now, I was set free.

I picked up her scarf from the kitchen countertop. It still held the slightest smell of lavender. 

Annelle Neel lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. She holds an MA with a Writing Option from the University of Tennessee where she served for 16 years as a writer in development and alumni affairs. She is a member of the Knoxville Writers Guild. Her work has appeared in Willow Review, Colere, Hardboiled, Caliban, Forge, The MacGuffin and The Storyteller.