He tries to remember the last time he was happy.
He remembers running up and down alleys, leaping across the rooftops. Giggling in the stairwell. Excitement, a kind of incredulous joy. Like being a child again.
There was that day in the lab. Afghanistan or Iraq? Curiosity, the puzzle that his daily life became.
Quiet evenings, companionable silence, cups of tea. Two chairs, facing one another.
Something knotted in his stomach unfurls at the thought.
One of these might have been happiness. Or all of them. He just hadn’t recognised it at the time.
There had been many days, long and grey, when he saw no end to the misery his life had become. His gun, quietly reassuring, in the drawer. Yes, he had thought of that.
Keep marching, soldier. Don’t look back. And don't look too far ahead.
Those days in the bedsit were empty. Safe, predictable, but meaningless. Nothing ever happens.
The way his days now stretch before him.
Mary is nearly perfect. He isn't sure why that doesn’t excite him, why he doesn't love her.
But it has been long enough, nearly two years. He has grieved, and been angry, and asked himself why a thousand times. He finally can (must) accept it. He is dead (don’t say his name, don’t think it, still too painful).
Say it. Sherlock is dead.
And Mary Morstan is very much alive (funny, sweet, pretty, sharp as a tack). He likes her. Those big blue eyes, those smirkily smiling lips. She has a way of bullying him for his own good, cheekily telling him what he doesn’t want to hear, and making him heed common sense. Sherlock is dead. She is alive. She is lovable, worthy of love.
Maybe he's forgotten how to love. Maybe he never knew.
He buys a ring. It stays in the drawer of his desk for weeks. He thinks about what once held him back, and wishes it hadn’t. He imagines placing a ring on long fingers, looking into pale grey-green eyes, and kissing those lips. He imagines other things, things he can't say, even to himself.
He’s not ashamed of what he’s imagined. He is ashamed that he never said.
Maybe the ring will let him forget. He will take Mary out to a nice restaurant, hold her hand, and ask her. Then he will slide the ring onto her finger. And his life will change for the better. No more dwelling on the past, now that he will have a future. He will have a wife, maybe children, and forget the careless year and odd months he’d spent with Sherlock Holmes.
The ring is in his drawer. He will bring it tomorrow, when he has dinner with Mary.
They agree to meet at the restaurant. While he waits for her, he wonders if he should spend the night at her place. That's become a thing now. Sort of.
Why does it feel like he's cheating?
The ring is heavy in his pocket.
She leans over and kisses him, then slides into the booth, smiling.
They chat about work, then discuss seeing a movie. “Something funny, romantic,” she suggests.
He laughs. “A chick flick? You want me to take you to a chick flick?” Movies are safe. Holding hands in the dark, no need to talk.
He sees her home after the movie. Will he come up? He doesn’t work tomorrow, has no reason not to stay.
Her body fits his perfectly. She loves him. He feels like he’s cheating.
He falls asleep promptly, hoping to dream of a normal life. If he imagines it, he might begin to believe it is happiness that he feels. It might take practice, but he can do it.
He wakes in the darkness, gets out of bed and makes tea. Mary finds him at the table in the morning. He leaves after breakfast, the ring still in his pocket.
All he wants if for the pain to stop. He visited the grave, said his piece, and left. But still, the pain continues.
(Or maybe he actually needs the pain. Pain is, finally, the only thing tethering him to happiness. If he lets go of the pain, he loses everything he once had.)
As a doctor, he has always understood pain as something physical, a condition that can be medicated into submission. When he asks patients to put a number to their pain, they always frown, working out the equation in their joints or vertebrae or guts. How long? is what they are thinking.
This pain floats free. Some days he wakes and it’s in his neck. Other days, he limps. Most days his gut clenches at the smell of food. How long? In his gut, he knows the answer: forever.
He sleeps, and he wakes. He does not dream of a normal life. He might dream, but it’s only shadows that leave no joy behind. The ring stays in his drawer, next to the gun.
His ears are good. Soldier’s ears, trained to hear small sounds and visualise their sources. He’s used to sifting through the clutter of usual noise, hearing what is different.
Something is different now, but he didn’t hear it coming.
He lies in his bed, staring at the ceiling. He closes his eyes and listens.
A voice speaks. When?
He wonders how he has managed to create a voice out of nothing. Insane people can do that, he knows. Auditory hallucinations. Like hearing your own voice, outside of your head. But it’s not your voice. You didn’t make those words.
When will you give her the ring?
He knows this voice. That silky baritone has been inside his head for months. The only surprise is that it has taken so long for it to move out of his brain and into the air.
“I don’t know,” he says, abandoning the presumption that he is sane. In a way, it’s comforting, having an external focus for the ache that won’t let him sleep. “I haven’t decided.”
You should wait.
“I am waiting,” he replies. “I’ve been waiting for months.”
Wait a bit longer.
“How much longer?” He tries to think how many days it will take before he has to open the drawer and decide. Ring or gun?
“What will happen then?”
There is a long silence. He wants to open his eyes, turn on the light, and see him (the lanky body, the dark curls, the piercing eyes, the sardonic curl of those lips), but thinks that might be demanding a bit much from his imagination. Sometimes, when he tries to bring up that image in his mind, it shifts unaccountably, leaving his memory uncertain. He wants to see, but that, he thinks, would be pushing it. Hearing voices is a rather common occurrence; there are many reasons a person might experience that. Visual hallucinations are much less likely. Better to keep the light off.
“Are you here?” he asks finally. “Really here?”
Soon. Thirty days.
He tries to think what that might mean. Thirty days until he loses his last marble, goes over the deep end, cuts his last ties to reality?
Wait, the voice says. You’ll see.
His eyes fill. “Why did you leave me?”
There is no reply.
He goes to work at the clinic, smiles at the nurses, winks at Mary. He’s not sure why. It feels cheeky, familiar.
The name’s Sherlock Holmes.
He remembers that moment clearly: the half-smile, the swoosh of the coat through the door. Was he flirting with me?
He withstands all the runny noses, the rashes, the sore throats, the ear infections. All day, he wonders, What did the wink mean?
As he prepares to leave, Mary looks at him, her forehead crinkled. “Are you all right?”
He’s never all right, but that’s not something he can explain. There is no cure for what’s wrong with him. “Coming down with something,” he says. “Might stay home tomorrow.”
All evening, he sits, facing the empty chair. He conjures Sherlock in his mind, but it’s like trying to catch smoke. He has some scotch, thinks about going to bed.
When he’s had enough, he lies in bed, staring at the ceiling, listening.
You didn’t do it, the voice says.
“I’m waiting,” he replies. “I promised.”
The voice hums, pleased.
“I haven’t forgiven you,” he tells the voice.
He doesn’t know what to say to this. He doesn’t understand what would make a man jump four storeys to his death. While his best friend watches from below.
“I’m angry,” he whispers.
He waits, feeling his anger soften into something more pliable. “Don’t lie to me,” he says.
I won’t, the voice responds. I won’t lie again.
“Why?” he asks. “Why did you do it?”
There is only silence.
He calls in sick and stays home for a few days. He talks to Mary, tells her not to come over. Just a cold. There’s nothing to be done but wait it out.
“Seven days if you treat it, a week if you don’t,” she says. He can hear her smile.
She texts him each day. How are you feeling? Anything you need? She’s a very good girlfriend. He doesn’t deserve her.
You’re not sick, the voice says.
“Two years,” he says. “Two years you’ve been gone.”
It was necessary.
“Did I mean anything to you?” he asks.
You mean everything to me.
“Two years I’ve grieved. Was that truly necessary?”
Are you going to keep the moustache?
“What the hell does it matter?” he says more loudly than he’d intended. “It’s just a bloody moustache.”
Shave it off, the voice says.
“I don’t shave for Sherlock Holmes,” he replies stiffly.
After a few minutes, he adds, “Or anybody.”
The voice is silent.
He shaves off his moustache. The receptionist at the surgery notices. “You know,” she says, “I think I like you better without it.” The nurses take a vote: moustache, zero.
He walks around in what passes for a normal life. He hears voices, but all of them have visible bodies. He goes to the surgery, sees patients, chats with the nurses and the receptionist, eats lunch with Mary, and does not reveal that he may possibly have lost his mind.
The only time he hears the voice is when it’s midnight and he is alone in bed.
He’s dozing in his chair after a long day a the clinic. After his fake illness, everybody else seems to have fallen sick. Today it was his turn to pick up the slack.
Half asleep, he imagines Sherlock in the other chair.
Eyes closed, he speaks to him. “What do you mean by everything?”
If you had died, my heart would be broken.
“Do ghosts have hearts?” he asks.
Ghosts are not a real phenomenon.
“Maybe not, but I can hear you.”
The voice chuckles. Indeed.
“You didn't trust me,” he says. “That's why you didn't tell me.”
I trust you more than anyone. I couldn't afford to lose you.
“Will you keep your promise, then?”
Yes. You will see.
He’s just returned from work when Lestrade stops by. He hasn’t seen him in over a year.
Lestrade tells him his wife has finally left him. He hums sympathetically. Sherlock had predicted it a long time ago. He was always good at telling people things they didn’t want to hear. And he was right often enough that it annoyed everyone.
“You’re looking good,” Lestrade says. “How have you been?”
He shrugs. He is aware that he doesn’t look good at all. He has lost nearly a stone and aged ten years. At least that’s what the mirror tells him. The lifeless eyes that gaze back at him every morning are not wearing rose-coloured lenses.
“Fine,” he says. “Just fine.”
Lestrade nods and fidgets. “You know, I found something the other day. When I was packing up stuff at the house, you know. It was a video from your birthday, the surprise party.” He pulls a small envelope out of his pocket. In it there is a DVD. “I made him record a birthday message since he refused to come to the party. These are the outtakes. Pretty funny, actually. Thought you might want to see it.”
Taking the envelope, he smiles, shrugs. “Yeah, I might take a look.”
“Sherlock being Sherlock,” Lestrade says. At once he looks like he regrets it, and John wonders what emotion the other man saw in his face.
He remembers to smile again. “Thanks.”
“We’ll have to stop for a drink some time,” Lestrade says. “No excuses, now. I’ll call you.”
“Yeah,” he replied. “That’ll be good.”
The envelope sits on the telly. He looks at it, thinks about popping it into the DVD player, but doesn’t.
A week after receiving it, he finally loads it up, pours himself a glass of scotch, and pushes play.
He wishes he hadn’t, but can’t stop watching. In the video Sherlock is a bit manic, both self-conscious and joking around. He apologises, insults John, winks at the camera, and acts like an endearing berk, reminding John both how easily and often he lost his temper at Sherlock, and how much he misses him.
He ejects the disk before it ends, slips it into its sleeve, and tosses it into the drawer, behind the gun and the ring.
His heart hammers in his chest. Anger and grief. Another scotch and he’s lying on the bed. “How could you?” he says. The tears pour from his eyes, run into his ears. A ridiculous problem to have, wet ears.
And even drunk as he is, he recognises the wishful thinking behind all the auditory hallucinations. The voice he’s been hearing is his own imagination. And he knows Sherlock is not coming back.
“I’m an idiot,” he says, thinking about the ring. He thinks about the gun. “I miss you so much.”
Soon. You’ll see.
“Stop talking to me,” he says. “You left me. I hate you.”
He takes Mary dancing. They come back to her place, make love and fall asleep. There are no voices in her flat, just the sounds and smells of a normal life.
Normal is boring.
He sits up in bed. Before he remembers that he’s not at home, he says, “Sherlock?”
Mary stirs and turns over to face him. She is warm and sleepy and smells like freesia. “Dream?” she asks.
“Hm,” he says and rubs his eyes.
“What did you dream? Something about Sherlock? You said his name.”
“Already forgot,” he says.
She reaches for him, winds her arms around him, kisses him. “Go back to sleep, love.”
He lies awake for a long time, thinking about the dream.
Sarah sends him home from the surgery when he shows up hungover, tells him he needs to talk to his counsellor. He hasn’t talked to Ella in weeks, maybe months. He hasn’t told her about the voice.
He hasn’t heard the voice in two days. He knows what day it is, how many days are left. But he doesn’t know what he will do when nothing happens.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t hate you.”
I know. You’re still angry.
“No, I’m not angry any more. I forgive you,” he says. “I only wish…” He sighs. “I wish you’d told me. I would have gone with you.”
He calls Mary and asks if she’d like to go to dinner with him on Friday. Somewhere nice. She’ll wear something sexy, and he’ll wear his blue suit, and they’ll try the most expensive thing on the menu. I’ll order champagne, he thinks.
She sounds happy, relieved.
I’ll give her the ring, he thinks. I’ll ask her.
Thirty days are over.
He dresses for dinner, willing himself to be happy. He’s made his choice, the only reasonable one. Obviously, he can’t have a relationship with a disembodied voice that only talks to him at night. He doesn’t need Ella to tell him what it means.
He does his tie three times before it looks straight. He stands up straight and studies himself.
If something was going to happen today, he would know. All he feels now is resignation. He’ll get used to it.
“Goodbye, Sherlock,” he says softly. “I’m sorry, but I have to do this. If I don’t, I’m afraid of what I’ll become. I miss you so much.” He feels tears prick his eyes and sighs. “I love you.”
He slips the ring into his pocket and leaves.
Mary sits across from him at the restaurant. She looks beautiful, but sad. She reaches across the table and takes his hand.
“John,” she says. “Are you all right?”
He smiles bravely. “I’m fine. I’m sorry I’ve been so… distracted lately.”
She returns his smile, but still looks sad. “I need to ask you something.”
That’s my line, he thinks. “All right.”
“Do you love me?”
It’s not what he expected. “Do I— Mary, you know that I—”
“Listen,” she says. “If you say that you love me, I’ll believe you. But I don’t want you to say it just because I’m filling some empty place in your heart. We both deserve more than that.”
He looks down at their hands. She is beautiful and funny and smart, the kind of woman who would be a great mother, a wonderful wife. She loves him— he knows that she does. And she should have a man who loves her and wants her, who will be best friend, husband, father to their children. She deserves it. And he knows that it’s more than he can give her.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
She sniffs and wipes her eyes. Letting go of his hand, she hunts for a handkerchief. She smiles at him. “Thank you for being honest,” she says. “You’re a wonderful man, John. I’ve loved being with you, but I think we’ve come as far as we can together.” A tear runs down her face. She laughs. “Well, let’s order some champagne. We can at least drink to friendship.”
Relief is what he feels, and sadness. He wishes something different had happened. Oh, how he wishes that many things had been different. But she’s a strong woman. She’ll be all right. He wonders whether he will be.
She laughs. “Look at me— I’m a mess! I’m going to have to make a trip to the ladies’ room and put myself back together.”
He reaches out and squeezes her hand. “I’ll order the champagne,” he says.
When she’s left, he stares at the wine menu, not reading it. She’s right, he thinks. He was using her as a placeholder. Now it’s time for him to figure out what comes next. Maybe…
He senses a presence at his elbow.
“Can I ‘elp you with anything, sir?”
“I’m looking for a good champagne,” he says without looking up. “What do you suggest?”
“The last one on the list, sir, is quite special. It is like a face from ze past,” the waiter says. “It is familiar, but with the quality of surprise!”
It doesn’t really matter, he thinks. There’s nothing to celebrate tonight. He’ll go home to his empty flat, lie in his bed and talk to an auditory hallucination. Unless— perhaps the voice has said all that it needed to tell him. Maybe it’s too late. The thirty days are over, and his subconscious will have to deal with his grief some other way.
“Well, surprise me,” he says.
“I’m certainly endeavouring to, sir.”
Something in the waiter’s voice catches his attention. He looks up.
He’s a bit thinner, but his eyes are bright. Stolen glasses. The the ridiculous drawn-on moustache quirks as he grins crookedly, and a bit sadly.
John rises to his feet. He gapes at him for a moment before putting his arms around his friend. Thinner, for sure. As he pulls him into a hug, he flinches a bit, and John can almost feel his pain. “Sherlock.”
“Not dead,” he whispers hoarsely. “I heard you.”