Josh and Sarah Are Still Missing
by Will Mountain Cox
Our authorities told us we had to be alone. Our authorities told us not to go toward the screaming. Or the crying. Our authorities told us to be worried. About one another. About what we were capable of doing. But beyond the masks, all we could notice was smiling. But we couldn’t help noticing so many people helping. But we couldn’t stop ourselves from admitting to seeing people giving up food to those who had none. But, people carrying bags of food for those who couldn’t lift the bags. People who usually bumped one another in hurry, making room for each other’s bodies and bags. It was uplifting, the intelligent flouting of our authorities’ recommended worry. We went bold. Our hands went raw from repetitive washing, all for the sake of intelligent flouting. All for the sake of remaining a clean part of community. We all noticed our hands rotting a little from the helping, and then we all commented on noticing. But after a month, things changed. Our authorities got to saying nothing would be the same. That we should accept that. No matter how much we’d noticed, we couldn’t stop ourselves from frightening. They told us we really had to stop helping. That it was unsafe. That it was, or else. One of our friends got the most afraid and listened harder. She went out only alone, to places with fewer and fewer people. She didn’t help, because she was good. People screamed and she didn’t help. She was a blessing. On one of her walks, out in the danger, she was stopped by the police. For her, it should have felt like a blessing in return. The cop said she was being unsafe, demanded her address and her number. We’d been promised those were normal questions. The cop said for her to message when she got home safely. It was for her safety. It seemed to make sense in the context. She said for herself to feel safe about it. She did what she was told. An hour later the cop messaged asking if he could come over later. At night. To check on her safety. And for a drink, obviously. He knew where she lived. He knew it for her safety. He reminded her of that. She messaged us, begging we come to protect her. But she was far away. Far enough that it was illegal now to go. Our authorities told us it was too dangerous to be legal. They said it was unsafe to help. We didn’t know what to do. We kept telling ourselves that we didn’t know what to do. We kept telling ourselves that everyone was acting so friendly. The authorities kept telling us that nothing would be the same. Only, we kept learning that nothing was ever different.
Josh and Sarah are still missing
What are you thinking?
What are you thinking?
It’s just that…
Come on. What?
Want to take a walk?
Sure. Sure you’re alright?
Yeah. I’m fine. It was nothing.
Josh and Sarah owned the rougher land beyond their garden fence. The land was property that looked like no one owned it. Trees, bushes, ferns, and in the spring, tiny flowers. Josh and Sarah had walked there for almost two years, so their feet knew the land and tried to claim it. Where they’d walked their feet cut paths like streets into the countryside, where nothing grew now except weeds, which made their walking easier if a little less natural. They could take lefts if they wanted, at the big tree, or rights sometimes. Or they could just keep going straight, and they couldn’t miss it.
The land had trees on it, so many trees, whose names and species Josh and Sarah had never known. Sarah had put something on her phone to learn about the trees, but she always forgot about it on their walks, and so they’d never learned to name the trees correctly. The trees were tall. As tall as buildings. They were building trees. And Josh and Sarah had cut their paths to pass in front of them, like the trees were buildings on a road. Josh and Sarah would lean back on their walks sometimes, trying to see into the lights in the trees, but they could never see in, because the lights were always moonlights or setting sunbeams behind them.
The end to their land, on the back side, was a portion of lake shore. The lake was small enough that it didn’t lap, but sometimes it rippled, from fish jumping or from someone throwing a rock in. When they’d first moved to the land, Josh and Sarah would get naked at night and jump into the lake, and they would swim out, far enough into the lake that they didn’t own it any more, and there they would touch and feel the big and small things of their bodies touching, and back on the shore, which they owned, the water would ripple. They didn’t really do that sort of thing anymore. Only sometimes.
It was mid-spring, not warm enough to swim, and both Josh and Sarah felt relieved by the temperature. At that moment, Josh and Sarah knew their friends would be drinking, at the usual bar on the traffic circle, a few turns and a forty minute train ride away. Instead of walking down to the water, Josh and Sarah took to the left at the big tree, deeper into the woods where it was darker, but where they knew there was a clearing. It was too dark to see, but Sarah knew exactly where she was going and Josh followed, worryingly, though knowing too, exactly where he was going. In the clearing, they looked up at the black outlines of trees against the lighter black background of sky. There were stars. Josh pointed them out. He’d pointed them out every night for two years. Sarah tried to keep her breath from sounding exasperated.
This is called a ‘copse’, apparently.
This. A circle of trees.
Josh thought about the word ‘copse’, and then let the thought pass quickly, to focus on what Sarah was thinking. Sarah tried to hold on to the word ‘copse’, but struggled. They got quiet and looked around for eyes. Eyes were there, watching, and Josh and Sarah could see them watching, but the eyes were disappointing. The eyes were only animals. The eyes of animals were not friends. They were just the eyes of meat to be eaten. Sarah pretended the copse was like a traffic circle, wrapped around with buildings. And without knowing it, Josh pretended too; the exact same thing. As part of the act, Josh and Sarah held hands and swung them lightly, pretending like people were watching. The pretending felt good for a second.
I’ve been thinking.
Do you think they would all come and live with us? Out here?
What do you mean?
If they could, do you think everyone would move out here?
I don’t understand?
I don’t know. I was just thinking, if there was somehow the space, would they come?
How would that work? Where would they actually live? We only have two bedrooms.
I know. I don’t mean in our house. I just mean out here. On our property.
The trees sat still. Sarah felt like they were listening.
Like, what if everyone had a little cabin or something? With a little bedroom and maybe a living room, and a toilet. And then, what if there was a main building that was communal, with a kitchen and a big dining room and a huge living room with lots of sofas? Like, what if we put an addition onto the house and made that the social space?
Where would we live? In the house still?
I don’t know. Maybe we’d have our own cabin.
I don’t know.
We have all that money for renovations. We could technically do it.
You mean your mom’s money?
You said you didn’t want to touch that money for a few years. Until we knew what we wanted to do.
Yeah, but if we get that money your Dad is supposed to give you, then we’d have more than we knew what to do with.
Sarah, I told you, I really don’t know if he’ll give me any more.
I know. Sorry, I’m not being serious. Not really. I was just thinking.
The wind licked at the copse, at the small trees with their new buds, and Sarah tried hard not to think seriously.
Jude and Leah would probably love it, I guess. Maybe Matt too. I’m not sure though, about Lydia or Eli. Or Rachel.
Come on, they would love it. They’re always talking about coming out and staying for a while. They always say it would be like a little vacation.
They’ve only ever come out here what, twice?
Think how peaceful it would be, to have them all here. If everyone had their little space. We could be together sometimes, and alone. We have so much space back here, everyone could be pretty far apart.
It would be nice to see Jude and Matt more often.
Yeah. And everyone’s life would be so much less stressful, not having to deal with Paris all the time. It would be cheaper. Fewer people. Less pollution. And the lake.
Sarah winked at Josh and Josh smiled a little. Or, at least, he tried to.
It would make sense, since we’re getting older.
We’re not old.
I know, but we’re almost thirty. Either way. Think how pragmatic it would be, in terms of time. Like, we would split costs on everything, so life would be cheaper for everyone. We’d all have some responsibilities, so we wouldn’t have to do all the work. And when people had kids, we could all help take care of them. Think about it. One person could care for all the kids one day. And then they’d have like, six days off, to do their own thing. And we could make the garden bigger, and grow stuff all year. We could almost turn it into a farm or something.
Being a farmer would be pretty funny.
It would be safer too, to sort of, build our own community out here, with them. There wouldn’t be so many people involved. We’d know exactly who was affecting us, so we’d be safe. Like how Jude and Leah are always talking about not trusting people they’d thought they trusted.
Jude and Leah are a bit too much, about that.
I know. But I’m not sure we can really understand it. Also, I think it would be more interesting to raise kids like that, where they had siblings, but in a different way. In a new way. A new kind of family, sort of.
Yeah. Kids I guess. I don’t know. It sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Sarah imagined herself wearing good, ankle-high boots, and thick, white-faded blue jeans. She pictured herself stomping through the trees, slightly clown-footed, and heard the sound of stones and dirt crunching under her good boots. She knocked on the door to a cabin, smoke leaking out of it from a chimney pipe, and the door opened and Sarah saw the future. The future was dressed in a plump, flowing dress made of functional material and printed over with vegetal pattern, like the land. Lydia and Rachel were standing there, in the doorway, inside the functional dresses. They invited her in.
Josh imagined himself fishing, something he didn’t know how to do. He said to Matt and Jude, ‘look at the sky. Today’s gonna be goooood fishing.’ The sky was kind of teal, and clouded over, and Josh told Matt and Jude a joke he wouldn’t want Sarah to hear. It felt good to say the joke, and not to have repercussions. And it felt better to throw a fishing rod into his imagination, the red and white ball on the line floating in the dream wake, and to pull back two fish on the same throw, or cast, or whatever you call it.
Think how nice dinners would be. We’d have a big wooden table. Like the ones that look like they’re made out of trees. And it would be big enough for all our families to sit around. And we’d have those plates that look like they’re made of raw clay.
Yeah and all the food would be on big platters, so it sort of felt like a feast every night, with huge piles of steaming food, or something like that.
You mean a banquet.
The dinners the group had now were usually at Leah and Jude’s. Their apartment was too small, even for a single family, and the group would sit on mismatched furniture, plates on their laps, spilling food down their shirts. It wasn’t a way to live. Beyond the space, the dinners had become frustrating in content. Since Jude and Leah had had their kid, they’d become a couple that only went to the organic shops. They talked about being responsible with their food, for their kid, and to the world. They didn’t allow meat in their house. And what they did serve was usually raw and not enough. There’d been the night of kale salad with quinoa and no dressing. That dinner had become privately infamous. And there’d been the night with satan marinated in milk with no salt added or offered. Sarah and Josh, and the rest of the group, would always leave the dinners complaining. And they would go to a kebab shop to fill up and imitate Leah and Jude’s constant contemplations on the pros and cons of going fully vegan.
And really, think how much more we could afford, with everyone pitching in. Like nice kitchen stuff.
Good knives and stuff, yeah.
And a van we could all fit in and go camping. One of those vans with a kitchen in them.
Yeah. It’s something Lydia and Rachel and I have always talked about. Like, tents set up around a cool old van, and we would have coffee and everyone would be all sleepy and lazy in their big wooly jumpers. And then we’d go on a hike and come back relaxed and sit around a fire.
That could be cool.
If everyone gets a real job in the next few years, it would be crazy. We could do so much. Like, everyone would have to put a portion of their salary towards the group.
The group had gone on vacation together, once a year, for the last three. Josh and Sarah always paid the up-front costs: the house, the liquor, the week-worth of groceries. The two of them liked arriving at the house early, before everyone, filling the fridge with everything possible, laying out the cases of wine and beer on the floor next to the fridge, and then appreciating the need to consume or to waste. Like it was a challenge. The group consumed, and cleaned up, and laid by the pool, and went to bed, and did the same thing again and again for a week. At the end, Sarah would total up the costs, split them evenly and ask everyone to transfer their share to her bank. Two years ago, Matt had been out of a job but had still come on vacation. He’d had fun, and the group had been happy for him, since it felt like he’d achieved some distraction. He’d ate and drank like the rest of them, too much, and to the point of getting drunk. But at the end of the week, when Sarah sent out the expenses, Matt claimed he’d ate and drank less than anyone else. That he hadn’t had the meat or the champagne or the good cheeses. He said he should owe less, and because it felt awkward and they said, ‘Matt doesn’t have a job, so,’ the group had agreed and covered some of his costs. But the next year, when Matt was working, he’d done it again, refusing the balance. The first time the group was together without Matt, they’d talked about it first thing. They were mad. And Eli even suggested that Matt not be invited next year, so he’d learn. But the mad relented to the awkward, and the rest of the group, again, paid more than their share and knew they would always invite Matt again.
And we could also split up the responsibilities. Everyone could have their little skill that they contributed.
I don’t know. You’re pretty good at building stuff. So you could build stuff for the farm. Chicken coops, or things like that.
What would you do?
Gardening, I guess. Maybe.
Rachel had that phase where she was making clothes and learning to knit, didn’t she?
Yeah, exactly. And Lydia is good with kids, so she could be, like, the teacher or something.
Jude has started learning to do some investing, on the side.
Right. And Leah works in production, so she could manage the overall planning and schedules and whatever.
Yeah. It would be sort of like a commune. Matt’s always going on about that sort of thing.
What would Eli do?
What would Eli do?
I don’t know, chop wood?
He’s got the body for it.
And the facial hair.
Eli was becoming increasingly late to everything, beyond the accepted fifteen minutes. He was constantly showing up at the late-middle or the end of things, flopping down on a chair or couch, not even apologizing. He would complain that he was tired. That he hadn’t slept, and then he would take over the conversation with his complaints, like he was trying to get sympathy. Last year, on Jude’s birthday, Leah had given him the keys to their apartment so the group could prepare a surprise dinner party. Leah was going to meet Jude after work, distract him for a while with a drink at the bar, and tell him that all his friends were busy that night, sorry. The group had shown up to the apartment on time. Everyone except Eli. They waited in the building courtyard, in the cold, as their prep time shrunk. They called Eli and he didn’t answer. They called again. And when they heard the door to the courtyard open, they thought it was finally him. It wasn’t. It was Jude and Leah and their kid. And Jude looked surprised, but not in a good way. Leah looked sad. And the kid laughed and giggled like it normally did, without knowing. Jude said, ‘sorry guys, I have a really early morning at work tomorrow, so I’ve got to get to bed soon.’ The group had a quick drink together, barely even taking off their coats. And Eli showed up, right as they were getting ready to leave, looking like he was right on time.
And you’re always talking about being worried that we’re both only children and that…
You’re worried too.
I am, yeah. And this would be a way to have a bigger family. It would be like getting free aunts and uncles.
For our kids.
Yeah, and siblings for us.
And then we’d be sort of connected to the families of everyone else.
Like Matt’s dad.
Matt’s dad! Jesus, he’s nice, isn’t he? And Rachel’s parents.
Yeah. Rachel’s parents.
Nothing. Do you think they’d understand?
Why not? They’d be like, great aunts and uncles, or something.
That would be pretty nice.
There’d been a time, when everyone first met, that Lydia still lived at home with her parents. Josh and Sarah had noticed the pain in her living situation before Lydia had ever told them. Before they’d moved to the countryside, Sarah and Josh had been living in a big apartment, which Sarah had inherited from her Grandmother. It had extra rooms. Josh had suggested that Sarah offer one of the rooms to Lydia, even just for a little while, and Sarah said she’d been thinking the same. They offered. And Lydia accepted. And for a while the situation was nice, having a roommate who contributed new energy, who made new recipes from the Internet, and who made Josh and Sarah feel better about their excesses. But then Lydia’s parents found out where she was living. And they showed up. At the door, or outside the windows yelling in accented French. They weren’t like Rachel’s parents, who performed their tortures in private. Lydia’s parents said terrible things to Lydia far above a whisper. The words flew down the stairs of the building and into neighbors’ entryways, out the windows of the building and into neighbors’ living rooms. The neighbors returned the screaming to Josh and Sarah in the form of complaints. Sarah and Josh told the neighbors it was only temporary, even though they wanted Lydia to stay. But Lydia heard them sushing the neighbors at the door and told them it was probably time she find somewhere else to go. She did. And in the years after, Josh and Sarah had started to hear her parent’s violence in the tone of Lydia’s dialogue.
But I think the best part about it would be the good conversations all the time.
No I mean like, I think that if we had everyone around, we’d have more people to have good conversations with, and then our conversations would be nicer too.
Don’t worry. I understand.
Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.
No, no. I agree.
Yeah like, just think how nice it would be to have little debates every night. Like we have at the bar. That sort of knowledge sharing would be really cool.
And I guess, new people would be around a lot. Like boyfriends and girlfriends, or whatever.
Yeah, until people settled down with a partner.
Rachel was dating a new boy, who wasn’t much different than any of the boys she’d dated already. His name wasn’t Maxime, again. Or Jean-Baptiste, again. But it easily could have been. Whatever his name was, he reminded Rachel of the same person each time, maybe her father, maybe her first, maybe a total stranger, but a person she would never admit to. He spoke over her. He laughed at her points but not at her jokes. He thought he dominated her, which Rachel observed, contemplated, and allowed him to go on thinking. He talked about her male friends a lot, when they were alone. And he tried to dominate the other boys in the group, intellectually, when everyone was together. He’d say, ‘come on,’ a lot, and, ‘you can’t honestly believe that.’ Matt would scoff and flex at these sentences. Jude and Josh would just get real quiet. He didn’t try to dominate the other girls, and there was a lot to be said in that, too. A lot that had been said, again and again by the group and the world already. Only when he’d been so abrasive that the group was stunned into silence did he then get cute, or nice enough. And he could be very cute and nice enough when he wanted, which was the worst part about it. Rachel used those moments against the group, saying that he was cute and nice most of the time, and that the group just didn’t see everything. But the group did see. They’d seen by repetition. Repetition of character. The sort of repetition of self-surrounding that makes the emotionally interested miss the truth as a form of self-protection and self-avoidance. The sort of repetition that makes the days go faster and feel shorter, hoping for a new day, the next day, with something new in it, someone better in it, a subconsciously better self, until the next days merge to make a pattern. The pattern making a life.
Do you think they would actually do it?
I don’t know, maybe.
It isn’t like we’re that far from Paris. The train’s only forty minutes.
Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty perfect, to be removed but not fully disconnected.
In the copse, in the traffic circle, Josh and Sarah’s imaginations became set against time, and the time made everything real. Time drew their friends’ faces from the traffic circle to the forest, their lives to the countryside. The reality made wrinkles. Faces in time took on crows feet and laugh lines. Their friend’s faces became majestic. Five years and twenty years and fifty of turning, morphing the faces into stone-honorable busts. In the time, cabins went up. And so did additions. The faces went greyer and the cabins went browner. Lovers were taken up, and babies were made and put to playing. New paths were cut by feet into the nature. The paths became streets and earned traffic. Commotions were made towards the growing and chopping and knitting. Fishes were caught, vacuum-sealed and distributed. Cakes got baked and portioned and games got won and done over. Knowledge was spread beyond heirs. There was fairness in the rewards and the punishment. There was fairness in the further additions. Neighborhoods were born and known for their uniqueness. Hiding-places were found and given legend. Dinners were cooked and given platters. Salt and pepper were passed and thanked for politely. Storms came and leaks were created and hands came together to plug them. There were dances. There were stagings. There became unspoken codes of good conduct. There was laughter heard, and feet that ran to it. There were nicknames lost and refound. There became places of honor. And trees around which celebrations congregated. Nick-nacks were nailed to trees that became memorials. Memorials were visited on determined days. Hot summers emptied glass cupboards and set the glasses to clinking. Cold winters emptied mug cupboards that waited for steam. Time became a government to manage the turning and its changing. Time was unanimously elected mayor.
City infected the countryside with its glory. But also with its failure. Each day reduced the quantity of escape. Each day brought the inescapable arguments of progress. Of time, and its corruption. And of maybes. Maybe Lydia became her family, incapable of stopping herself from yelling down on those around her. Maybe Matt couldn’t pay for his presence and felt entitled to that distinction. Maybe Jude and Leah became jaded by their rightness. Maybe Rachel found another partner who everyone hated. Maybe Eli got fed up with expectations. Maybe the city became unequal, and violent, like they always do. Maybe some streets in the nature became safer than others. Maybe those issues were accepted, like they often are, because time and its poverty force acceptance. And maybe, in time, those maybes got bigger. Maybe Lydia’s violence turned physical. Maybe Matt slept with Rachel, though he lived in a cabin with Lydia. Maybe Jude and Leah stopped coming to dinner and taught their kid not to trust. Maybe Eli stayed up too late, too many times, and turned into a woodlands reclusive. Maybe, in the end, Josh and Sarah felt stifled a second time and decided to move further away. The maybes of time were terrifying. They made a ghost town in and of themselves. The traffic circle bucked its nature and stopped turning. Nature returned, looked around, and continued. The circle grew mosses and ivys. It covered corners and bore holes. Like the traffic circle, nature reclaimed space until it found its beginning, until it turned back on itself and ended where it began. The traffic circle became a copse. The copse Josh and Sarah were stuck in.
Josh looked at Sarah and saw the privilege he’d never criticized. Her freedom to think utopic. He saw the funding, which allowed her to think ridiculously. He loved it, but maybe he could hate her for it. Maybe, in time. Maybe one day, when he was old, he would wake to find her building something beautifully unsustainable for them, the good life they’d dreamed up, that she’d pushed him to achieve, and hate her more for her success. Sarah looked at Josh and saw the failings she’d never questioned. The chance he’d taken to live his zen. She perceived the risk he’d taken to find the average pointless. She loved it, and maybe it would ruin him for her. Maybe one day, when she was old, the relaxation she’d always wanted to adopt from him would reveal itself an atrophy. Maybe she’d learn the love she felt for him was just as useless as everything else. Josh and Sarah looked at one another, got angry, and wondered what the other was thinking. They each tried to start a sentence and failed. Rachel, Matt, Lydia, Jude, Leah and Eli left the bar and stepped into the traffic circle. They were far away, but close enough. They could sense the fighting coming, and asked Josh and Sarah to wait until tomorrow.
Sarah and Josh looked up at the circle space of sky made by the copse. They listened. They agreed. They breathed in the warm spring turning to summer. The lake shore was too far from where they were standing, so they took off their clothes where they stood. They both giggled. Their bodies were young again, tight in the cold, hard in the present. They were alone, and distracted from it by being so. They looked at one another without touching. They giggled more. They laid down on their damp patch of nature. They spread their arms and felt the wet against their backs. The wet felt good. The cold from the wet felt refreshing. They looked at one another and smiled.
What are you thinking?
It would never work, would it?
No, I don’t think it would.
It might though, no?
It would be cool if it could.
Will Mountain Cox lives in Paris, France. His first book, With Paris in Mind, was published by Relegation Books and named a Favourite Book of the Year by Shakespeare & Company Paris. His writing has appeared in Zero Point Fiction, Profound Experience of Earth and the alei journal. He has been a featured reader at New York University and Goldsmiths University and he co-founded the magazine Belleville Park Pages.
Image: Alex Wigan/Unsplash