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Author's note: S'basically a Wizard of Oz spoof, you know how it is.
I sat there, crossed legged and nervous, as they smiled at me, tears in their eyes. After years of waiting, years of disappointment and pain, it was all going to come to an end; this was the first day of the rest of my life, the day that everything else had been leading up to. It felt so different to how I imagined it; I’d envisioned happiness and celebrating but now, now there was just a nervous knot settling in my stomach and the anxious faces around me. The waiting was unbearable, I was fed up of the waiting and the moaning and grumbling; I felt like a child at Christmas, desperate to see what was under the tree. I done everything they needed me to do, they had taken my blood, I’d swallowed pill after pill after pill, I’d urinated in a pot for them for God’s sake, and yet they still kept me waiting...
People were constantly fussing around me, fluffing up pillows and squeezing my hand reassuringly. I was sick and tired of the attention. I wanted to blend in again; I wanted to be normal. I’d never liked this morbid place centre stage, people staring, wide-eyed and mournful, prodding and poking as they saw fit. I was a person too but they just couldn’t see past the label.
Softly, my mother took my hand in hers and cradled it as though she were cradling an infant, her eyes wet with tears. ”Oh son, today it ends... one way or another...“
”Mom!“ I whipped my hand from her grip, frowning in frustration. She’d picked out my plot in the cemetery; my own mother, the woman who’d been there since the start. She’d been through it all with me, sharing the pain, halving the burden, caring for me ever since. She always knew what to say and when, but not this time. ”I can’t believe that’s how you feel.“
”Nora.“ My dad growled, warily, squeezing her shoulder carefully. ”Please love, we’ve been through this. He’s going to be f-“
”Fine?“ snapped my mother, bitterly. ”Say it, Norman. Look at me and say it because you know as well as me that you can’t promise that. No one can. He doesn’t even know it himself, look at him; he’s a flipping wreck, not even the drugs can mask that.“
I looked at my hands, unnaturally pale and thin, my knuckles sticking out from under my waxy skin, long bony fingers resting on the sheets. Frowning, I caught my reflection in a window; I froze, shocked. Mum was right, I looked a mess. My face was as pale as my hands, my eyes dark and sunken. Carefully, I stroked my cheekbones, protruding from the skin that stretched over them. I looked half dead but I didn’t feel it. My heart thumped angrily, throbbing in my chest as I saw the flicker of doubt in dad’s eyes. ”What’s wrong; what’s happened?“ I huffed.
”No dad, don’t. If you don’t want to be here, just say. It’s awkward, it’s weird and it’s hard, I get that but I can do this by myself; come back later, that’s all I’m asking; I just thought you’d want to be here, that’s all.“
Mum began to sob. ”Please, Daniel...“
”Nah, mom; just get the hell out.“ I spat, bitterly, struggling not to lash out as my father shook his head disappointedly.
Slowly, they shuffled out of the room, my mum sobbing and my dad muttering under his breath, his arm around her shoulders comfortingly. They’d been there for me, my mum and my dad, both supporting me. Through thick and thin, they’d stood by me, sometimes literally, holding my hand through it all. It felt wrong for them to not be here now but it felt even more wrong for them to be here and not want to be.
I felt a stab of guilt in my chest as I remembered when I first found out I was going to die. I’d come home, still in my school uniform, and flung myself down on the sofa, head in my hands; sobbing my eyes out, but they knew exactly what to do, even then. I’ll always remember the hurried whispers in the hallway as they tried to explain to my brothers and sister, still too young to understand; how I envied their sweet naivety. ‘He’s going to be a little bit unwell for a little while.‘ Then, when I’d calmed down, exhausted and despondent, mum had come in, mug of tea in hand, and pulled me close, hugging me as I cried, stroking my hair, soothing me.
That was the day that today became a dream.
I longed for today; this was my chance to go back to the days when I’d had nothing to worry about, no pills, no tests, no hospitals and no time limit; I’d been free and I would be again, when today was through. I felt like a prisoner, held captive by my own body, unable to do anything without permission from myself. I was running out of time, they said I’d be lucky if I celebrated my eighteenth birthday and my twenty-first was just on the horizon, getting closer with every ticking of the clock; I was living on borrowed time and I knew that, sooner or later, I’d have to give it back.
I had too much to lose and too much to leave behind to go now though... but what if today didn’t work? What if my parents were right and I was just seeing life through my rose-tinted glasses? I’d sent them away when they were just doing what I had asked of them for since that fateful day six years ago; being honest with me. I could feel the tears welling up within me, stinging my eyes and blurring my vision.
”Hey, you alright?“ The familiar voice asked, concerned.
I looked up, smiling as I saw her face, shaking off all feelings of fear and anxiety. The sight of her was comforting, she was like a light in the darkness; exactly what you were looking for. I nodded, patting the mattress next to me and shifting along to make room. ”You don’t know how glad I am to see you.“ I grinned, putting my arm around her shoulders as she rested her head on my chest, holding her tightly.
We sat like that for a while, just her and I, talking about anything and everything, trivial things that we talked about every day, acting as though nothing was happening. It felt so natural, just what I had needed; she’d been like that since the first day we met, sidestepping the taboo but, not pretending that it wasn’t there as such, she was always ready to tackle it head on if need be; she was that essence of normality that I needed to stop myself from going insane and being cordoned off from the real world.
It’s time, I thought, excusing myself and rolling off the bed.
”What are you doing?“ she asked, turning onto her stomach, half-hanging off the bed to see what I was searching for.
I rummaged through the bedside cupboard, full of well-thumbed books and cards, until I found it, a small, black box. Beaming, I spun to face her, kneeling on one knee. ”I love you so much. You would not believe how glad I am that you said that you’d stand by me, and have over the years. I don’t want that to end; ever. So, Miss Charlotte Myers, would you please do me the honour of being my wife?“ I babbled, opening the box, a ring lying inside, sparkling in the dull light.
She gawped at me, her hand clasped over her mouth, blinking as though it was some kind of dream. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, harder with every second of silence between us. My palms were clammy and I could feel little beads of sweat forming on my brow. I swallowed nervously; this was torturous.
”Yes.“ She took my hands in hers, holding them to her heart as she wiped tears from her eyes. ”Oh my God, Daniel, yes. Yes, yes, yes!“ She pulled me back onto the bed, kissing me as we tumbled into the sheets, entwined forever. I savoured the sweet taste of her lips, the way her hands instinctively brushed through my hair and the soft feel of her skin.
I stopped as she guided my hand to her shirt buttons. ”Charlotte, we’re in a hospital...“
We looked at each other, flushing bright red simultaneously before laughing loudly, tears in our eyes. I sighed as she fell into my arms, her bright eyes still laughing silently.
She placed a hand on my cheek. ”Don’t leave. Please.“
”I’ve got to, but I’ll be back before you know it.“ I smiled sadly, stroking her hair.
As if to illustrate my point, a nurse appeared at the door, a shocked look on her face as she saw the two of us entangled in the bed sheets. ”We’re ready.“
I nodded, kissing Charlotte goodbye through our tears.
I lay on the operating table, my heart pounding in my chest as the surgeons loomed over me, making me feel smaller than I did already. I swallowed, suddenly doubting myself, why had I been so excited only minutes earlier? I could feel my stomach churning, I felt more ill than I ever had before. Everything was so intimidating. The walls were a clinically clean white, the silver surfaces reflecting the light and the ceiling tiles were, ironically, the same pale, sickly green as the surgeons’ scrubs. I looked around, next to me was a tray covered in all kinds of scary looking instruments. I saw scalpels; I saw strange saws and tubes. I’d seen them all before, I’d been here many times after all, but they suddenly seemed so much more sinister...
I remembered my first time in hospital, just after I found out why I was so ill all the time, the horrible moment when I had woken up, clutching at my throat as I choked on the tube down my trachea, writing in pain as I clawed at my neck. I thought I was going to die there and then; it didn’t matter about the future, or that I was dying anyway, I was going to die in a hospital bed with no one else there. They’d given me some warning, sitting me down and telling me that this time, when I woke up, there’d be a tube again, to help me breathe, but still I shuddered at the thought; I could feel my the back of my throat aching again just at the memory. This was all too much.
”I can’t do this.“
The surgeon stopped and stared at my face, sensing the anxiety in my voice. ”Whatever do you mean?“
”I can’t do this, I can’t go through with it again; I can’t, I’m...“ I stopped myself, I didn’t want to say it, I’d never said it before, even though I’d wanted to, and I wasn’t going to start now.“
”Yes, you’re right to be scared but we’re positive that you have an excellent chance of survival, if you didn’t you wouldn’t be here; that’s the way things work around here.“
I chewed my lip, anxiously. ”Okay.“ I whispered.
The anesthetist turned to the shiny, silver tray. She pulled the mask down over my nose and mouth, I breathed in, the strange smell filled my lungs as I breathed, causing me to feel light-headed. ”Count backward from ten for me.“
I sighed, aware of the ways that they lulled people to sleep; I didn’t want to close my eyes, I may never open them again. ”Ten, nine, eight, seven, six...“ Suddenly, my eyelids grew heavy and I fought to continue. ”Five... f-fou-“
”Relax, let it take over.“ She cooed, tightening the strap.
My head, suddenly too heavy for my neck to support, flopped uselessly to one side and I felt the whole room begin to spin, darkening until I could just see a dark silhouette above me. I whimpered sadly. There were mumbles around me as the room was engulfed in shadow.
The gentle breeze blew through the branches, rustling the dying autumn leaves. Birds sang sweetly from its branches and swooped in the sky, dancing amongst the fluffy white clouds. Beneath me the cool blades of grass rippled in the wind. Somewhere the sound of laughing children could be hears as they played- as children should.
Then I woke up.
Groaning, I woke up, face down in what felt like a pool in my own vomit, my head banging angrily. Slowly but surely, the darkness cleared from my vision and the scenery unfurled itself.
The beautiful crisp autumn day from my dream was gone; instead a desolate landscape lay in front of me. I stood alone in the grey that surrounded; everywhere was so grey that I felt that I was living in a monochrome movie. The wilted grass at my feet, the gnarled and twisted trees, the dark towering clouds, even the sun, were all a different hue of grey...
Cautiously, I looked down at my feet and, to my surprise, I saw hope; hope lay at my feet. A small, delicate daisy grew, alone in the sea of despair, its bright yellow centre a beacon of joy, calling me. Gently, I plucked it from the ground, cupping it in my hands. I smiled, bringing it to my lips. It smelt of home.
Of safety and warmth.
But then it turned sour. I watched on, helplessly, as my hope vanished, dying in the palms of my hands; the daisy shrivelled up slowly, wailing silently, turning into an ugly, grey dust.
Frightened, I shook nervously; it dawned on me that I was next. The only thing alive for miles was me, although not for long – I was next. It was all over, this was me dying, lying dead on the operating table, no one able to save me; this was me passing away, I could feel it. I swallowed, sinking to the ground, hugging my knees to my chest, tears in my eyes. I wanted it to end, this was Hell, more waiting only this time there could only be one outcome. I wasn’t waiting to live anymore; I was waiting to die, for a sense of relief and finality, something I should have prepared for from the start. I wanted to die, as sick and defeatist as it may sound, I’d known from the start it would end sooner than it should. Even if I’d survived the operation, I wouldn’t be sat in my rocking chair with a grey beard, surrounded by my smiling grandchildren, someone else’s heart in my chest; it was a dream, a far off fantasy. I’d been wrong to ask Charlotte to marry me, it was wrong of me to assume I’d be around; I should have waited. This would break her heart and it was my entire fault for giving her that glimmer of hope. My parents had been right. I’d hurt them for being honest and I wouldn’t even get to apologise. Angrily, I slammed my hand against the floor, again and again. Why wouldn’t I die?
The dusty ashes of the daisy still lay in my fist; I stared at them, wondering if the same thing would happen to me. Suddenly, it began to glow, radiating a violent heat. Shocked, I jumped back, throwing it to the breeze, watching in awe as it was carried higher and higher. The dust sparkled and danced, swirling as the wind fluttered by. Slowly but surely, it began to multiply; what had once been just one handful became two, then four, then eight... eventually, I lost count, millions of sparkling particles of dust surrounded me.
What the hell was this?
Reluctantly, the grains of dust began to slow as the breeze began to work them as a potter would clay. Mystified, I was drawn to my feet, watching the shape take form. At first there seemed to be no pattern, no mould or plan, but soon I could see the outline was complete. Moments later, the sculpture was finished.
Dressed in a black cloak, their back to me, stood a figure; a human. Judging by the figure’s petite frame and delicate features, it was a girl, perhaps not too much younger than me.
”Hello.“ I whispered, nervously.
The figure turned, drawing back their hood ominously, revealing a shockingly beautiful face framed by her wavy brown locks flowing down past her shoulders. Her dark eyes stared at me knowingly as I gawped at her; her pale skin looked as icy as snow and her full, red lips were set in the perfect pout, practically begging for me to-
I swallowed guiltily, breathless as I remembered that I’d forgotten. I was getting married to the woman who’d stood by me through thick and thin, who was this woman to make me forget?
Shaking my head in frustration, I blinked my eyes, infatuated.
”Our hero arrives,“ the girl smiled sweetly, ”but can he leave?“
I froze, captured by the sinister tone in her voice. ”What do you mean? This is a dream; I wake up when I want. I wake up with a heart.“ I know longer doubted myself, this woman wasn’t who I had thought, she wasn’t my Grim Reaper, she couldn’t be, she was a guide surely, here to wake me up; here to save me.
Elegantly, she stepped toward me. ”Exactly, but can you find it?“ She was so close to me now, I could feel her breath on my cheek as she circled around me, stalking me like a predator.
I opened my mouth to argue but, before I could form a sentence in my head, a wildfire spread across my chest, searing pain engulfed me, blurring my vision; I fell to my knees, my legs buckling beneath me, panting, I clutched at my chest, massaging my heart as I would but... it wasn’t there. I looked down, clearly mistaken but I was right. My heart was missing. I my chest, where flesh, bone and muscle had once lain, there was a hole. A perfect, heart shaped hole. Hypnotised by the mystery, I gently fingered the tattered and torn edges of my skin. ”What...? I mean, why-how?“ I blinked disbelievingly as the severed flesh began to ripple and warp beneath my hand, sewing itself together. The pain subsided but there was still a hole in my chest, loose threads hung down, ready to reattach my borrowed heart.
I felt sick. I knew, deep down, that this was wrong, as fake as any nightmare could possibly be but why, if this was make-believe, did everything feel so real?
The girl giggled, falling to her knees beside me. Carefully, watching for my reaction, she poked her fist through the hole and I gagged at the sensation.
It felt like that moment when you poke your finger too far into belly button and you feel as though you’re going to vomit, your immediate reaction is to take the finger away and never do it again but she held her fist there, unwavering, laughing as I continued to scream.
Finally, she withdrew, getting to her feet and towering over me. ”Your heart, you say you know where it is but the point of you being here it to find it.“
Doubled over and holding my stomach, I swallowed. ”I do know where it is.“ I growled through gritted teeth. ”It’s with me, in the operating room. This is just some twisted anaesthesia induced dream.“
She nodded, feigning listening to me. ”But who’s to say you’ll ever wake up unless you find a heart to take with you?“ She spat, vindictively.
Closing my eyes, I moaned desperately. ”Fine. I’ll play; what do I need to do?“
She cackled. ”Finally. It’s simple really, if you think about it, all you’ve got to do is follow the footpath.“ Waving a hand toward the horizon, it was as though the earth beneath us had heard her call as a deep rumble echoed out and, brick by brick, a pathway appeared; dark as the night and shimmering in the light.
I frowned. ”You’re kidding, right? What’s at the end, a wizard with a hot air balloon? Because this sure as hell ain’t Kansas anymore!“
”Be warned, you’re laughing now but this isn’t Oz either, there are worse things lurking beyond the sunset than Munchkins, Tinman.“
I nodded, intimidated by the serious look on her face. I turned away, facing the black path that snaked its way into the horizon.
”Good luck.“ she whispered.
I looked over my shoulder, a thank you upon my lips, but she’d gone, replaced by a pile of glittering grey dust that danced upon the breeze.
Cautiously, I stumbled along the path, one foot in front of the other, plodding along, my head throbbing. This was messed up; I was following orders from a hallucination in a dream, all because I was... scared. After all these years pretending that I was fine, refusing to admit my fear even though it looked as though I wouldn’t make it, I’d finally said the word I’d privately tabooed and just because I couldn’t explain the feeling that haunted me. What if I really didn’t wake up, what if I was trapped here forever? I’d have let them down, I didn’t even say goodbye properly because of my own stubbornness, but if I let go now, if I let my dream slip away, I could imagine their disappointment in me, going down without a proper fight. This was all so stupid – I just wanted to wake up. I needed to wake up; I wasn’t even meant to be dreaming, I was meant to be unconscious. There was just meant to be this black section of my life between surgery and waking up that I couldn’t remember because I didn’t experience anything but, I didn’t care if it was too soon, I couldn’t stay here any longer; I was more frightened than I ever had been before.
I had to wake up.
I wandered absentmindedly through the grey wasteland, taking in the desolate scenery. Everywhere I looked there was a sense of death and destruction. On both sides of the path loomed huge, intimidating trees – aged and twisted, reaching out to grab me, to take me away. Continuously searching for any sign of colour, any sign of life, I found myself getting more and more depressed; I couldn’t be the only one here, could I? There had to be something, anything, here with me – even a snail was company. I was lonely, I was tired and I could feel myself getting even more agitated with every step; what had once felt like an adventure was beginning to feel like an endless task – not made any easier by the infinite winding road in front of me. It was impossible to see a solution.
Preoccupied by my thoughts and worries, I failed to notice where I was going, simply assuming that putting one foot in front of the other was enough, my brain simply switched off but now, suddenly, I realised I found myself lying face down in the dirt, sprawled out in the mud. Moaning, I pushed myself up onto my knees, sighing as I dusted myself. I stretched, loosening my tight muscles. ”I’m sorry.“ I mumbled, holding my head, running my hands through my hair. I looked up, intrigued as to what had sent me flying.
Gingerly, a figure sat up, wiping tears from her eyes. ”S’alright, I suppose.“ she sniffed, brushing the dust and dirt from her dress.
I smiled, offering my hand to help her up. She was only young, perhaps no older than six or seven. She was wrapped in layers of clothes, protection against the sudden, violent winds. She waved my hand away, thanking me all the same, as she bent over to collect her things, strewn along the pathway, knocked from her hands as we collided.
Bending down to help her, I chuckled light-heartedly. ”I’m really sorry; I should look where I’m going, right?“
She nodded, grinning. ”I’m sorry too.“
I held my hand out again. ”I’m Daniel.“
She looked at my hand suspiciously and then my face, her wide brown eyes sparkling in the muted sunlight. ”I’m Astrid.“ She shook my outstretched hand, smiling.
As I gathered some things from the ground, I noticed a worn photograph. Curious, I picked it up by the corners, careful not to blemish the picture with my fingerprints. Inspecting, I smiled sadly; it reminded me of everything I would leave behind if I didn’t succeed. It was a spontaneous picture, one of those that really captured a moment, not too posed and fake. The little girl was laughing happily, surrounded by people looking at her fondly; people that I assumed were her family. I could feel tears welling up behind my eyes; this touching scene looked so familiar to me, so much like every birthday, Christmas and holiday I’d lived through. I stroked the little girl’s face in the picture, wishing myself back to those days. ”Are these your parents? You look really happy, don’t you?“
Frowning, she swallowed, grabbing the photograph and folding it, stuffing it into the pocket of her pinafore, tears in her eyes. ”Yeah... well.“
Thrown by her reaction, I continued to help her but then, as our hands met, I realised she hadn’t moved; that she was simply staring at me, well, not at me as such, but at my chest. My chest! Kicking myself, I looked down and, sure enough, the hole was still there. I bit my lip uneasily, unsure of what to do - I didn’t know how people would react, I mean, this young girl had been the first person I’d met; I didn’t know what was normal here and what wasn’t. Finally, I took her hand in mine and guided it to my chest, watching as her fingers skimmed the frayed edges of my skin. Amazed, she gasped; I winced slightly as her tiny fist slipped into the cavity, fighting my gut reaction to push her away.
I sat down, cross-legged, so I was looking at her eye-to-eye. ”Astrid, I need your help. I’ve been told to walk to the very end of this of this road.“ I paused, pointing to the horizon. ”Do you know what’s at the end?“
Her eyes wide with excitement, she nodded. ”The magic-man.“
”Yeah, he grants wishes for all the good little boys and girls.“
”Really? Wow!“ I gasped on cue but my heart wasn’t really in it; I’d been sent looking for a fairytale – a bedtime story to help make life easier for tired parents. I couldn’t believe I had trusted that two-faced cow; she’d sent me off on a wild goose chase for her own entertainment. The thought left a bitter taste in my mouth; I clenched my fists angrily.
”So, what are you gonna wish for?“
The girl’s voice shook me back to the twisted reality I was in; I blinked, shocked. ”Sorry?“
”The magic-man; what are you going to wish for?“
I smiled. ”Isn’t it obvious?“ Running my hand over my chest, I winked at her cheerfully. Getting to my feet, I ruffled her hair, saying my goodbyes as I strode away, grinning to myself.
Suddenly, I felt a chubby hand slide into mine. Shocked, I looked down, an innocent face looking up at me, young and full of expectation. ”I want to see the magic-man too!“
”But Astrid, what about mummy and daddy, won’t they be sad when you don’t go home?“ I asked kindly, touched by the sweet gesture. I watched as her lip began to tremble, her eyes filling with tears again and I bit my lip nervously; what had I said? It had been a perfectly valid question.
”Mummy and daddy aren’t there; I need the magic-man’s help.“ she whispered, sniffing, wiping her eyes with her grubby sleeve.
I squeezed her hand reassuringly, unsure of what to say. ”Then you’re coming with me, okay? Ready?“
She nodded, smiling through her tears.
I returned her half smile. ”Off we go.“
The grey sun’s final lingering rays were just beginning to scamper off past the horizon when we stopped to rest. Astrid yawned loudly, wrapping her arms even tighter around my neck as I dragged our weary bodies off the path. We’d walked for hours, one foot in front of the other, just going through the motions, our bellies protesting with every step as we went, nagging because we had nothing to fill the bottomless pits in our stomachs.
I admired Astrid’s determination though; not once had she complained or moaned, she’d just kept walking, her hand hanging on tightly to mine. Only once she had begun to stumble and stagger did she finally surrender as I hoisted her up onto my back, too exhausted to argue. She, just like the rest of this curious world, may not be, strictly speaking, real, but I could feel myself growing to love her as though she were the realest thing I’d ever known and there was nothing I could do to stop myself. She was unbelievably sweet, chatting away, to herself mostly, about anything she could, from the shoes on my feet to a passing butterfly but, when I’d try to ask about her missing parents, she would fall woefully silent until I gave up, unable to stand the awful quiet that ensued – she had me wrapped around her little finger and I think I liked it.
Carefully, I set her down at the foot of a tree, her thumb in her mouth as she slept peacefully. I smiled, sliding my body next to hers, her head resting on my chest. Stroking her hair, I looked up at the stars and, not for the first time that day, I thought of home; were they the same stars that could be seen there? Of course not, I scolded myself sternly, it had only been midmorning when I’d gone into the operating room, surely time wasn’t passing at the same rate and it was evening there too?
Exhausted, sore and starving, I closed my eyes, unsure of what to expect when I woke up. ”Goodnight Astrid, sleep tight.“ I whispered, kissing her forehead lightly.
I woke suddenly, a cold sweat on my brow, panting breathlessly, my mind swimming in pure fear. I swallowed. Clutching at my chest disappointedly, I sighed; the hole was still there. ”Damn.“ I cursed, looking around. ”Damn!“ I couldn’t see her.
Astrid was gone.
I could feel myself panicking, my breath quickening again when I saw that she wasn’t at my side, as she had been last night. She couldn’t have gone far, I told myself, noting the sun just peaking up on the hillside; she can’t have been awake too long, she can’t have gone far. Still, no matter how often I said it, I just got more and more worked up; I’d just found her, I’d just found someone to share this weird adventure with, and I’d lost her already. Anxiously, I stood up, searching high and low for her, determined not to leave until I’d got her back. ”Astrid?“ I called nervously. ”You there?“
”Shuttup.“ came her scolding reply from above me. ”There’s someone else here!“
I frowned, looking up into the branches of the tree, relieved to see her face looking down into mine. ”Get down from there, you might fall.“ I grimaced, aware of how much I sounded like a typical parent; I felt like one too, my stomach twisting nervously as she jumped from her branch, landing elegantly at my feet. I shook my head. ”Honest to God, kid-“ I stopped, smiling at her, desperate to feel relaxed again. ”Hungry?“ I laughed as she nodded, holding her stomach, eyes wide with anticipation. ”Me too – now come on, there has to be some food somewhere round here.“
”But, there’s someone over there.“ she pointed to the bushes, her lip trembling.
I stopped and looked into her eyes, full of concern. ”You seen them?“
”No but they have to be there – I heard them!“
I sighed. ”It was probably just the wind now, please, can we try and find some food?“
Crossing her arms, she defiantly stamped her foot, storming off into the densely packed trees, muttering angrily.
I shook my head sadly, wandering over to some bushes, my stomach growling ferociously. I grumbled too; I’d never been so hungry in my life, let alone in a dream, I was so hungry I felt weak, a crippling pain filling my belly. I thought of Astrid and I felt a stab of guilt; I’d promised her I’d look after her and here we were, sleeping rough on the roadside and scavenging for food, starving. She no parents, at least, not for now, and she was trusting me to look out for her, to protect her and, to some extent I think, help her find a home; a safe, loving home and, if I didn’t do that, I’d have not only let her down but also her parents, where ever they may be.
Shocked, I looked up, frozen with fear. ”Astrid?“
”Astrid, what’s wrong?“
I swore, panic setting in yet again; she’d said she’d heard someone else but I’d ignored her, thought she was just joking, messing around but, what if she’d been right? She could be in danger. I spun round suddenly, speeding through the trees toward the spot that I’d last seen her before she’d stormed off, fearing the worst. I was responsible for this, I thought, I made her mad. My feet pounded the forest floor violently, sending a flurry of decaying pine needles spiralling through the air as I nimbly leaped over a fallen log. I charged on desperately, calling Astrid’s name repeatedly, my hope dying. I winced as I stumbled, my legs turning to jelly; I crumpled in on myself, clutching at my ankle bitterly. ”Astrid, where the hell are you?“ I stood up carefully, a fresh burst of pain erupting – I gritted my teeth, dragging my body through the trees.
”Daniel!“ Astrid’s scream pierced the silence. ”Daniel!“
I could hear her voice clearer now, louder with every step I took. ”I’m coming; hold on, Astrid.“ Please be okay, I prayed to myself as I plunged through the barrier of thick foliage, fighting my way through the bombardment of leaves.
Her back against the thick trunk of a tree, eyes squeezed tightly shut, her body shaking as she sobbed, stood Astrid, her face hidden by the shadow of the giant figure that loomed over her.
A feral growl slipped from my lips, new anger rising up in my throat. ”Leave her alone.“ I breathed, stomping over to her, ignoring the fresh pain each footstep brought, my fists clenched.
The man-mountain stopped; he turned to toward me, blocking my path to Astrid, his tall, muscular body dominating my view.
I’d had enough; without thinking, I swung my left fist at the man’s chest with all the force I could muster, connecting with an almighty thwack. I groaned with disappointment, cradling my swollen hand sadly.
The man chuckled slightly, amused at my pathetic attempt.
I bit my lip, something inside of me feeling as though it had snapped – my tiredness and fatigue taking over the last remaining part of my brain that had been speaking any sense; my mind switched off, too exhausted to think logically anymore, handing the reins over instead to recklessness and stupidity.
Forgetting about the severe difference in size and, consequently, strength, I began to lunge for the man, hands outstretched, teeth bared, screaming bloody murder – annoyed that this stranger had not only made me look like a fool, but also because he’s cornered Astrid, scaring her. Desperate to protect her, to keep her safe again, my arms began to flail wildly as though they had a mind of their own, thrashing around fiercely.
The man blinked questioningly, confused by my spontaneous action. He punched me. His fist swung toward me and, effortlessly, I was rocketed across the clearing.
Dazed and disorientated, I landed in a bush. I lay there for a while, my head spinning as my mind cleared. Sheepishly, I sat up, my body aching – protesting my own stupidity. Something warm trickled down my cheek and into my mouth, tasting vaguely metallic as it hit my tongue. Mumbling various profanities, I gingerly prodded my tender nose, wincing as a jolt of pain shot through me like someone was stabbing at my brain with a white hot iron rod, burning into my skull. Blood. Swearing fiercely, I tried to stand, stumbling slightly, and my ankle still throbbing. ”I said leave her alone; can’t you see that you’re scaring her?“
The man laughed again, a hearty roar. ”She doesn’t seem all that scared to me – look.“ He stepped aside and Astrid beamed at me, her body shaking with her giggles.
I frowned at her, wiping my bloody nose on my sleeve. ”Never do that again; it’s not funny, I really thought you were in trouble.“ I scowled, bitterly.
She pointed at the man. ”B-but he said... he told me too! He said you’d laugh.“
I could see the tears filling up in her eyes and I was hit with yet another wave of guilt. I bent down, embracing her tightly. ”You’ve got a mind of your own though, haven’t you?“ I smiled as she threw her arms around my neck, burying my face in her hair; I’d missed her. Looking up at the man from over her shoulder, I lowered my voice to a whisper, unwilling to share her with an audience. ”Who is he anyway?“
For the first time since I’d actually found Astrid again, I stopped to think, taking in what stood before me, studying him. He was a tall man, very tall, but perhaps no older than me, it was hard to tell; he had youthful eyes and a wrinkle-free forehead but his wiry, ginger beard aged him, making him look like a sailor just back from a long voyage. He was clearly as tired as I felt, dark circles surrounded his eyes, a tell tale sign of insomnia. He had a very athletic physique – broad and muscular, his clothes straining to contain him. I took a closer look at his attire – a little surprised. It seemed to be some kind of military uniform, he looked exactly like the little tin soldier I used to play with when I was younger; he had shiny boots, dark trousers and a crimson jacket, complete with polished brass buttons.
Astrid jumped from my arms, eager to introduce her new friend. ”Daniel! Daniel this is Nathaniel – he’s a soldier! He said he’d look after me.“ She ran to him, wrapping her arms around his leg as though she never wanted to leave.
He smiled sheepishly, blushing with embarrassment. ”I’m sorry, mate; that was before I knew she was with someone. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.“ Holding out his hand in front of me, he ran his other hand through his tousled ginger hair. ”Yeah, I’m Nathaniel; call me Nate.“
I shook his hand, screaming out silently as he clamped me in his crippling vice-like grip. I wondered if he knew his own strength – his punch before had almost knocked me out, but it had looked less like a retaliating strike and more like a timid old man batting at an annoying fly. He was so big that, to him, I probably seemed like a fly; I felt like one – so small and insignificant – it looked as though Astrid didn’t need me anymore, she had her precious bodyguard now.
At least she’s safe; a little voice chirped in the back of my head, you did say that you wanted her to be safe.
”So, Azzy says you’re both hungry and I’m pretty sure I’ve got more than enough food for just me; I’d be happy to share, if you want?“
My belly moaned on cue, my mouth watering with the thought of food, desperate to be satisfied, but my mind was racing and I wasn’t thinking about that; I only had one thing on my mind.
The three of us sat around the campfire – Astrid in Nate’s arms and me alone, licking my wounds, the smell of the wood smoke filling my lungs. I rubbed my stomach happily, full to burst, feeling drowsy and nostalgic, and the pains of starvation easing. The warm glow of the fire bathing my face, I yawned, it wasn’t even late yet; the midday sun was just hidden, sliding behind thunderous grey storm clouds as they marched across the sky.
I could hear Astrid’s light breathing as she slept peacefully, watching the gentle rise and fall of her chest; she looked so calm and angelic. I wanted so much to reach out and stroke her baby-soft cheek, to feel her skin against mine. I couldn’t explain it but I felt drawn to her, there was something about her, something she practically radiated, that made me feel better. She made me want to smile. With her cheeky smile and wide, innocent eyes, she looked exactly like the person I missed the most; Charlotte.
I lay back, trying to look casual, but the tears were already flowing down my cheeks as I remembered every second of my time with her. I closed my eyes, picturing her face when I’d asked her to spend the rest of her life with me; unwavering and ecstatic, she’d accepted almost immediately. The thought that, perhaps, I might never see her again scared me; not just like that moment when you’ve lost your brother’s CD and he wants it back, it wasn’t that kind of fear at all, it was a genuinely petrifying thought. She’d been there through it all, letting me confide in her and hold her hand all the while, never complaining and always smiling; I loved her and she loved me. That’s all I needed.
Rolling onto my stomach and propping myself up on my elbows, I glanced over at Nate and Astrid, silently asleep in his arms. I could feel my own eyelids begin to droop too; I didn’t want to sleep though – I’d promised myself that I’d never take my eyes off her again, even for a minute, and I took my promises pretty damn seriously.
Trying to distract myself from my tiredness, I prodded at the dancing flames with the toe of my boot, hypnotised.
”Hey,“ Nate whispered nervously, ”can I ask you something?“
I bit my lip, thinking. I knew what he’d ask; it was fairly obvious and I was surprised he hadn’t asked earlier. ”Only if I can ask you something too.“ I nodded finally.
He smiled kindly. ”I suppose it’s only fair.“
I could feel myself falter-I hated him, Astrid was forgetting all about me because of him, I knew it, but he was making it remarkably hard for me to remain bitter. He was so charismatic, it was probably his polite Southern charm; with every smile, with every kind word and nod, I could feel a little bit of the anger and jealousy melt away and I didn’t like it.
”You go first.“ I offered, managing a wry smile, trying to swallow my feelings.
Carefully, he leant in toward me, lowering his voice to a whisper. ”What’s with well, you know well... the hole?“ He pointed at the left side of his chest to mine, nervously.
I grimaced, taken aback by such a painfully obvious question, and it struck that I didn’t really know what to say; I hadn’t actually explained anything to Astrid, all she’d needed was to touch my woven skin and she’d been satisfied to take that as an answer. This was southing else though – this was an adult, someone old enough to see past the initial magic and wonder, and question it; I didn’t have answers but, I supposed, I owed him one.
I chewed it over thoughtfully. ”My heart was... stolen, I suppose you could say, by someone I thought was going to help me; turns out, she was just out to make my life a little more difficult. I’m not so well and, until I get my heart back, I’m pretty sure I’m never going to get better; it’s so stupid.“
He shook his head. ”Not stupid as such, more...“ he paused, searching for the right word. ”It feels more poetic, I suppose.“ He looked at me, a soppy grin on his face, and, at the same time, we both burst out laughing – muffling our guffaws so as not to wake Astrid, so tired that we found every little thing hilarious.
He smiled. ”Your turn then.“
”What’s with the uniform?“ I gestured to his immaculate jacket.
Frozen, he swallowed, suddenly a little jittery. ”Well,“ he swallowed, ”I am, well, I was, in the army – I ran away- it was all too much.“ His face darkened slightly, his eyes glazing over as he pushed his spectacles up his nose. ”They made me watch my brother die; they made me stand there, watching as they blew his brains out, and as I saw the life drain from his body, I also saw a little bit of me die too – the part of me that had been willing to give up everything for my country. It was that day that I turned and ran and, you know what?“ he wiped a solitary tear from his cheek. ”It wasn’t the right thing to do; it was the coward’s way out. Edward didn’t run, even when they pointed the gun to his head; he didn’t run. He was brave, my brother, but I’m just a rotten coward. I’m pathetic.“
Carefully, I shuffled around the fire, placing a supportive hand on his shoulder. ”I don’t think you’re a coward and I’m pretty damn sure your brother wouldn’t think that either. I mean, it took guts to leave the army, right? You did the right thing – not necessarily the easy thing.“
He sniffed, trying to hide his tears. ”Thanks.“ He smiled weakly.
Grinning back at him, I stifled a yawn.
He chuckled softly. ”Go to sleep; I’ll wake you up in an hour or so, how’s that?“
Nodding, I let my eyes droop slightly as I twisted onto my side. ”Hey, why don’t you come with us? We’re going to the end of the road – Astrid says there’s some kind of wizard there but all I know is that my heart is there – then I can go home.“ I stretched lazily. ”Astrid’d miss you if you left.“
Softly, he stroked her hair. ”I’ll think about it...“
A few hours later, fresh and energised, we wound our way through the trees and back to the path. The hideous grey thunderclouds had passed, thankfully, and now the sun shone down on us, leaving me feeling so much better than before. My mind feeling lighter now, almost as fluffy as a cloud – whereas earlier, it had been clogged up with worry and concerns, weighed down with pointless fears.
Thanks to Nate though, it had all gone.
Once I’d talked to him, once I’d seen what was inside, I understood why Astrid was so drawn to him like a moth to a flame; there was a was a gentle honesty that ran through his veins - perhaps that’s what made him seem so angelic. Everything about him felt so natural that he was as organic as the earth beneath our feet; he and Astrid had clicked so quickly because, inside, they were practically identical; their souls were just mirror images of each other.
I was so grateful though, for both of them their peaceful banter took me out of my mind, stopping me from over-thinking and panicking. Nate was an excellent distraction for Astrid too.
Still exhausted from the long day yesterday, she soon fell behind but Nate, with his bountiful energy, would soon spur her on again, leaving me to limp on behind them, roaring with laughter as they skipped away.
I knew we were getting closer – each step taking me home, inch by inch. The scenery was starting to change. The desolate, dilapidated wasteland had long gone and instead huge tree full of twittering birds began to pop up gradually and, to my disbelief, I was certain we’d just passed a flowing stream, teaming with shiny fish.
How I longed to stop and soak my wary feet, but I knew that, if we halted for even a minute, we wouldn’t move again for at least another day and I was determined to eat up as much of the journey as was physically possible.
I was desperate to see the end of the road – I’d imagined it so many times over the last twenty four hours that it was beginning to feel like less of a dream and more of a memory. I pictured it in my mind and, suddenly, I was there again.
Standing on the very top step, my stomach churning as I wrung my hands nervously, I stared up vacantly. Awed by the magnificent columns and delicate stone carvings, I gawped, unsure of what to do now. Spurred on by some mysterious gut feeling, I cautiously knocked on the monumental oak-wood door, savouring the sweet sound of the echo. I stood, waiting. Suddenly, the door swung open and I was drawn inside – sucked into the ominous darkness.
I shuddered as I plunged back into reality, shaken by the ramblings of my tired mind; why did it always end like that, so sinister and foreboding?
Willing myself to forget, I jogged to the others who had paused, waiting expectantly and slipped my hand into Astrid’s, smiling at Nate warmly, casting away all my doubts.
I was nearly home; I could feel it.
It was getting late again but we still hadn’t stopped – I wasn’t willing to give up quite yet. Astrid yawned sleepily as I passed her from my shoulders to Nate’s. I had that guilty feeling yet again; it wasn’t fair on them. We’d been walking for hours and they were beginning to suffer because of my stubbornness.
The moon was bright and full in the sky, casting a milky-dull glow on the Earth below; my feet and muscles were aching fiercely, annoyed that I denied them respite. Nate dawdled beside me, slowing ever so slightly but still with a smile on his face. Astrid had given in to her body’s needs a little while ago, proving yet again she was as determined and narrow minded as the rest of us as she crudely protested out help; Nate had literally had to throw her over his shoulder at one point, Astrid thrashing around defiantly in protest. I smiled fondly at the memory.
Then, suddenly, I could see something on the horizon; rising higher with every step, a dark silhouette set against the silvery moon, hanging suspended like a Christmas bauble. I could see tall, menacing battlements, pointy towers and well-crafted walls, seemingly indestructible; I could feel myself shaking with excitement as I stared at it, mystified.
”Is that-?“ I whispered, speeding up quickly, a sudden burst of energy surging through my veins.
”I-I think so.“
I laughed, whooping happily, giggling as Astrid stirred. ”Let’s stop for tonight; I reckon we’ve earned it.“ I beamed at him, my mind racing at a million miles an hour as the realisation that we’d nearly finished set in.
I’d done it; we’d done it.
I lay there tiredly chasing sleep, watching as it slipped through my fingers time after time. I watched the stars again; counting them, hoping the menial task would let me drift off but to no avail. Tracing shapes in the myriad of tiny bulbs, I carefully listened to the light sound of Astrid’s breathing mixing with Nate’s violent snores, stifling a laugh.
It sounded like my mom and dad.
The sound took me back, immersing me in my childhood memories, full of fondness and love.
I remembered one night I’d felt as rough as sandpaper but my parents insisted that, despite my protests and shouts of dismay, I would be sleeping in my own bed. Little three-year-old-me couldn’t believe it but, grumpily, I obeyed, climbing into bed, grumbling. Feverishly, I’d tossed and turned that night, haunted by something that I couldn’t quite see but could feel. I’d awoken suddenly, sobbing, tear stains covering my pillow and duvet. I could recall lying there for what felt like forever before, finally, dragging my blanket behind me, sneaking through the creaky wooden door silently. Calmed by the presence of my parents, I drifted off to sleepy, carried away by the reassuring sounds of them comatose, and curled up in the endless folds of my blanket.
I wiped a tear from my eye.
They’d always been there for me – sometimes without knowing it – but I’d still sent them away. God, I regretted that now.
”Nice night, isn’t it?“
I blinked, nonplussed. Sitting up, I looked around but no, Astrid and Nate were still sound asleep, peacefully muttering themselves. Slowly, a figure emerged from the trees, elegant and graceful.
I gasped. ”Charlotte?“
The woman cocked her head to one side. ”Do I know you?“
If I’d had a heart right then, it would have shattered, broken by the dismissive tone of her voice as though she’d stamped on it; she didn’t recognise me – she hadn’t even acknowledged me. My head started trying to convince me that I was wrong, that this wasn’t the real Charlotte, that she was safely back in the real world but, as my eyes began to fill with tears, I’d stopped listening; all I could think about was her. It didn’t matter to me if she was ‘real’ or not, all I longed for was to hold her, to feel her in my arms once more; it felt like an eternity since my skin had been introduced to hers. I ached for that familiar electricity.
I sat there for a few minutes, frozen, thinking of an excuse for my faux pas. ”Ummm... no, sorry; trick of the light, I thought you were someone else.“ I crossed my legs, just as I did every single time I was nervous.
”But you know my name?“ she questioned, sitting next to me, peering into my face, her eyes burning into mine.
”She’s called Charlotte too; what a coincidence, right?“ I looked away, blushing, kicking myself for being so stupid.
The imposter touched my elbow gently and I could feel it – that burst of energy that sent shivers down my spine.
We sat there for a while, just watching the stars, whilst I stole glances – worried she was going to disappear again; I didn’t care if she was a false puppet brought her to torment me, all that mattered was that she was here, with me, and it felt as though we had never been apart. It felt amazing; I’d missed the sound of her voice, the feeling of her body next to mine. The very thought of her hand brushing against mine made me breathless.
”She must be really special.“
”Hmmm...“ I asked, sleepily. ”Who must be special?“ I turned to look at her, swallowing nervously as her eyes met mine, sparkling in the muted starlight.
”That girl; Charlotte - the one who looks like me? She must mean a lot to you; you’ve barely said a word.“ She smiled at me, that same familiar smile that I’d seen countless times before. ”Tell me about her, please; I wanna know what kind of girl makes a guy like you so fidgety.“
I gulped anxiously but I saw an opportunity here; maybe, if I told her enough, I could make her remember – I might be able to jolt her memory and let her see who I was, what she meant to me; all I wanted was for her to recognise me – to look at me the way that my Charlotte did.
She stared at me, expectantly.
I sighed, uneasily digging at the dirt by my feet with a twig. ”I’ve known her all my life – we’ve watched each other grow up and I can’t think of a single time when I would’ve wished it any other way. Her smile, her laugh, her eyes and the way she always seems to know what I’m thinking; it’s like she’s been the little piece of me that I’ve felt like I was missing. She’s always felt like the centre of my universe, she’s always been that important to me, but for a lot of my life, I barely existed to her; she only noticed me I suppose when we were fifteen. She saved my life and, since then, I suppose she’s been saving it everyday...“
I trailed off, looking up optimistically but there was nothing, not even a flicker of acknowledgement or sign that she knew I was talking about her. Determined, I pressed on. ”I came into school one day and I saw something that made my blood boil, my best mate sat there with her on his knee. He’d known how much I loved her, how much I wanted her to notice and accept me but he’d gone and asked her out anyway.
”Every day, I sat with them, watching as he kissed her, flirted with her, rubbed in the fact that he’d got to her before I could work up the courage and I found myself resenting him for his confidence. They were some of the weirdest months of my life, I spent all my time with her but, although that was supposed to feel like a dream, it was a nightmare; there was nothing I wanted more than to kiss her and tell her exactly how I felt but I knew I couldn’t. That wasn’t my place, my place was to compliment my friend and make her fall in love with him even more; so I had her attention but I had to share her, it was horrendous. I just watched, hardly daring to talk to her.
”One day, we all went down to the lake, a big group of us but I was still the outsider, everyone else had someone to talk to, someone to spend the day with and have fun with; I didn’t. I was alone, just sat by myself by the water’s edge when I thought I may as well go for a walk. No one was going to miss me and I told myself that I’d be back well before everyone left. I was getting a lift back to town with some friends and I knew they wouldn’t leave without me; at least, I hoped they wouldn’t.
”I followed the water as it ploughed its way through the landscape, appreciating the way the sun warmed my skin. I didn’t notice anything unusual; I didn’t realise that I might die. As I was walking, I could feel a weird sort of pain in my chest but it didn’t bother me; I thought it was just a bit of heart-burn, maybe indigestion because I’d eaten that burger a bit too quickly.
”The next think I knew, I was waking up in the back of an ambulance with her by my side, squeezing my hand supportively, and tears running down her face.
”I’d had a bloody heart attack and she was the only person there on that day who’d even noticed that I’d been gone - she saved my life. Without her, even if I hadn’t died there by the water, I’d have died pretty soon after – I was a ticking time bomb.
”It was then that I think that we both realised exactly how much we cared for each other and we’ve never stopped. Ever.“ I croaked, my voice cracking like fragile glass, tears flowing down my cheek.
She put her hand in mine. ”You’re so lucky to have each other.“ she smiled sadly.
I sobbed loudly, crying out for her to remember and listen to me. I could feel myself falling, my grip on reality loosening; was this real, did I maybe really mean this little to her, to my Charlotte? Was I just some sad sob story worth a little sympathy?
She wrapped her arms around me, cradling me as I wept, holding me together like she always did. ”You’ll find her again soon, if you love each other as much as you say, then you’re meant to be together.“ Holding me close, she stroked my hair softly, soothing me, and, for just a fraction of a second, I felt as though nothing had changed; it felt like always did and always had and I didn’t want it to change but this wasn’t Charlotte; this wasn’t the woman I was to spend the rest of my life with.
”I’m sorry; I just miss her, you know?“ I smiled sadly.
”Like I said,“ she repeated, her mouth downturned and upset, ”at least you’ve got someone.“
I pulled away from her gently, reluctant to let my moment of togetherness with her end, a concerned frown on my face. ”What, you don’t?“
She shook her head. ”I don’t think I do.“ Chewing her lip carefully, she thought it over. ”I can’t remember.“
I could feel my spirits soar as the words left her lips and I fought to hide my joy; she had amnesia and that was why she couldn’t remember me, that was the reason my face meant nothing to her. It wasn’t that she didn’t care; it simply was that she couldn’t remember she cared. ”Wha-what do you mean?“ I asked quizzically, feigning interest as I fought the giddy smile that threatened to break through.
She pulled at her fingers and I smiled, spotting her nervous trait and remembering how frustrated she would get when she noticed what she was doing; laughing, I’d hold her close and kiss her, promising it was the cutest thing I’d ever seen. I missed that.
”I can’t remember anything; I barely know my own name. I found myself here but I don’t know why... to be honest, all I know is that I know nothing. It’s pathetic.“ her lip quivered as she wrestled back the tears, she hated crying in front of people she didn’t know; shame that she didn’t know that she knew me.
This time, it was my turn to be supportive; I held out my arms, enveloping her, holding her to my chest just as she began to shake, sobs racking her body.
”I just want to know who I am, is that too much to ask?“ she wailed.
”No, I’d say that’s the perfect amount to ask.“ I cringed, soothing her; had I really just said that? She made me nervous; I didn’t know how to act in front of her anymore. ”Come with us!“ I said suddenly, realising that that was why she’d appeared out of the blue in the first place. ”Come with us; you never know, you might find out who you are.“
”I don’t even know who you are though...“ she blinked, taken aback by my shocking outburst.
”I’m Daniel.“ I grinned. ”Hey.“
I smiled hopefully as I thought I saw a flash of recognition sprint across her face, her eyes dancing as though she’d remembered something but, as quickly as it had appeared, it vanished.
”That’s a nice name.“
”Yeah, I think so too.“
We fell asleep side by side, her head resting on my chest – I woke up the next morning blushing and feeling a little flustered. Usually, I’d have hardly batted an eyelid but, somehow, for some reason, now it felt as though I was taking advantage of her; she didn’t know who I was, she didn’t even know who she was, but she was still the same person and I found myself confused; should I treat her the same or keep my distance? I couldn’t decide, part of me never wanted me to let her leave my sight ever again, she was so precious to me, however, another part of me wanted me to walk away, leave her and stop torturing myself, leaving all my love for the Charlotte that was back in the ‘real’ world; the one I was ready to spend the rest of my life with.
I was awake first, clearly the most excited to see the end of our journey. I was that little boy on Christmas morning again, waiting desperately for my parents to wake up so I could open my presents and the day could begin.
I lay there in the silence, thinking, my mind appreciating the quiet moment as I mulled over my journey so far; why’d I brought these people with me? This had been our quest, my tedious battle for life, they needn’t have even been involved and yet, when Astrid had clung onto my leg determinedly, I couldn’t turn her away; I’d invited Nate, even when I couldn’t stand him, I’d found myself voluntarily offering to spend more time with him because, for some unknown reason, the words had slipped out of my mouth without me noticing. Even now, so close to the end, I couldn’t stop myself; I’d seen Charlotte and been unable to leave her side, not again, so I’d asked her to come along with us.
I didn’t need them. I’d been doing well enough without them. Admittedly, I’d been a little lonely but I’d known that, eventually, I’d be safely home again, back with friends and family. I hadn’t needed them at all.
Or, had I? Maybe that was a lie...
I’d needed some company, someone to stop me from thinking too much about every single detail; I’d bumped into Astrid.
I’d needed someone to really talk to, to maybe share the weight of the world with; I’d stumbled across Nate.
I’d needed reminding exactly what I was missing out on, what I was fighting for; Charlotte had appeared as a familiar face in an unfamiliar world.
Without them, I don’t think I would have gotten this far – the chances are, I’d have lost it a good while back, driven insane by the loneliness and madness that the grey landscape brought with it.
I loved them all.
I loved Astrid as though she were my own child.
I loved Nate as though he were my brother.
I loved Charlotte in the only way I could love her; unconditionally.
Absentmindedly, I stroked her hair as she stirred beside me.
”Morning.“ she yawned, stretching.
”Good morning.“ I replied, cheerily, getting to my feet. I could just see the magnificent battlements of the castle rising above the tree tops.
I shivered excitedly.
Behind me, I could hear Astrid’s happy squeals of delight as she too woke up, seeing Charlotte got the first time, whilst Nate grunted his introductions sleepily.
”Let’s go.“ I whispered sadly.
Each footstep dragged on forever – the castle just seemed to get further and further away. I wasn’t completely devastated by that, to be honest, I was a little reluctant to leave them; I hadn’t told them what would happen when we arrived, mainly because I wasn’t too sure myself. What if I was walking that straight into danger? If they got hurt, I knew I’d never forgive myself – they were quickly becoming the closest friends I’d ever had; they may have even known me better than I knew myself and I’d only known them for a few short hours.
Happily, I watched Charlotte as she breezily wandered along the path, floating like a serene feather, hardly a care in the world.
Someone dug me in the ribs, leaving me gasping for breath.
”You really like her, don’t you?“ Nate asked; Astrid perched on his shoulders, listening carefully.
I stopped, dumb founded, and then I shrugged. ”We’re engaged.“
They laughed loudly and uncontrollably – Nate’s loud and hearty roar mixing with Astrid’s chiming giggles; I smiled to myself.
”Not but, seriously.“ Nate pressed on. ”You’ve not taken your eyes off her yet.“
”And neither have you but who can blame us?“ I winked playfully. What is Nate did like her though? It may have only be a dream but that didn’t make the emotions felt any less real; could I maybe lose her to an illusion made by my own mind?
Deciding I was just being paranoid, the accumulating pressure had simply become too much; I’d been very jittery since Charlotte arrival, desperate to protect her from whatever dangers may lurk ahead, and my incredible excitement was starting to get to me.
We all stopped, frozen fearfully, as Astrid screamed. Cautiously, we all turned to where she had pointed, just up ahead.
”This must be it.“ Nate breathed, turning to me, his eyes wide.
I nodded, nervously. ”Yeah.“
Carefully, Nate set Astrid down on the ground, clasping her left hand tightly. She slipped her other hand into mine, squeezing it excitedly. Anxiously, Charlotte took my hand too, sending tingles of electricity through my body.
”Ready?“ I asked.
”No.“ came a chorus of replies.
And, with that, we took our final steps on the journey, watching as the dark onyx path slowly disappeared, giving way to sparkling, transparent crystal glass brick, reflecting our shadows.
We stood on the very top step, my stomach churning as I wrung my hands nervously. Awed by the magnificent columns and delicate stone carvings, I gawped, unsure of what to do. Spurred on by a mysterious gut feeling and the three pairs of eyes glaring at me expectantly, I cautiously knocked on the sturdy oak wood door, savouring the sweet sound of the echo.
We stood impatiently, anticipating.
Suddenly, without warning, the doors flung open, knocking us back before sucking us into its open jaws, nothingness awaiting us.
Astrid screamed, wailing petrified as Nate grabbed her by the wrist, holding onto her frantically but it was no use; instinctively, I’d thrown myself around Charlotte protectively as she stood there, terrified and unmoving; the pull was too strong as we were slowly dragged into the depths of the beast, kicking and screaming.
”It’s too late.“ a voice shot out of the shadows, piercing through our minds like an arrow.
Simultaneously, our legs crumpled beneath us like paper, falling to the messy heap, our strings cut, as the darkness enveloped us ominously.
Yes, it’s too late...
My head pounding furiously, I opened my eyes slowly, squinting to see in the dim light. I looked around, glumly. The cracks in the walls had been shoddily hidden, sloshed over with paint, crumbling and decayed, but it was still obvious that they were there, sprawling the width of the wall like crinkled lines on a map. Beneath me, I could feel the grimy concrete floor was damp, sodden with what I hoped was just water. Searching out the others, I could see the moon, shining through the barred windows. I tried to stand, but, instead, I just fell down again, weighed down by the heavy metal shackles around my wrists and ankles.
”I thought you said there was a wizard here, not a bunch of flaming psychos!“ spat Nate bitterly, sat hunched in one corner, Astrid curled up by his side, her eyes still closed tightly. ”You said this would be somewhere for her, somewhere for both of us; did you know this would happen?“ he glared at me, his anger burning into me.
I swallowed, disappointed. ”Why would I knowingly put you all through this? I was told to come here; she said it would be here.“ I could feel a lump rise up in my throat as I remembered the scheming, double-crossing temptress that I had first met.
”Who said you’d find what here?“ chirped up Charlotte, her face glistening with wet tears.
”Yeah,“ agreed Nate, ”what the heck is all this about?“
”You wouldn’t believe me if I told you...“
I leant back against the wall, sighing as they stared at me, waiting; they were right, of course, it was wrong for me to expect them to just follow me without any kind of explanation. I’d just thought that it would be too hard to tell them that they weren’t real and they were in my head. I’d have to try though; they deserved that much. ”You got me; you’ve figured out I’m not from round here, right? “ I paused, watching as they both nodded in agreement. ”Well, I come from somewhere I think is pretty far away, although, I’m not sure how far at all. Where I come from, none of this is real, I’m rather sure it’s all just in my head. I made this whole mixed up, messed up world and it’s just a really, really bad dream – none of this is real, none of you are real, apart from,“ I stopped for a moment, looking at Charlotte fondly, ”apart from you; back where I’m from, I’m engaged to you, we’re gonna get married and, you know what? It was you that I was talking about before - you’re the one that saved me. This is all my fault... you see, back where I came from, I’m ill; really ill, in fact I was told I was going to die unless they could find me a new heart.“ I could feel tears beginning to roll down my cheeks but I didn’t care anymore, I was fed up of crying, of feeling pathetic; this was me putting an end to all the bottled up anger and sadness, this was me taking a stand. ”I didn’t want to die so I went to the hospital and closed my eyes, knowing that when I opened them again I’d have a heart that worked, I’d be cured, but instead I woke up here and, apparently, my only way home was to come here... I’m sorry I dragged you all into this.“
We sat there for a while in a disbelieving silence, staring at each other, unable to conceive what this meant for all of us; even I was a little bit frightened by my revelation, in my head it had felt manageable, as though it was something I could control but, somehow, when I’d said it out loud, it became something wild and untameable; something that was no longer just my burden to carry, they now had some of that responsibility too, now that I had told them.
Finally, Charlotte spoke. ”We’re... engaged?“
I smiled softly, nodding. ”Well... yeah, I suppose we are.“ I sniffed, wiping my nose on my sleeve.
Carefully, she shuffled along the damp concrete to my side. She put a hand on my arm. ”Then you’ve got to go home.“
”I know, but how?“
”We’ll find a way.“ grunted Nate.
With those words, I knew that they both believed me and, honestly, I don’t think there’d been a point in my life up until then that I’d ever felt so unbelievably relieved.
We must have all fallen asleep, Astrid in Nate’s arms and Charlotte in mine, because, the next thing we knew, we were all yawning, wiping the sleep from our eyes. My eyelids protested as I opened them, blinded by the bright sunlight that streamed through the window. It felt normal, it felt like it had every morning since I’d arrived here, but then I tried to stretch, and I remembered that it wasn’t, it was as far from it as possible.
I froze, the voice snaking its way through the iron bars of the door. I swallowed nervously, frightened by the dark, menacing tone.
”I said, are you ready? This is what you’ve been waiting for, right kid? Well, it’s happening now and, whether you’re ready or not, it’s the only way you’re gonna get home.“
”How the heck do you know about that? Have you been-“
The voice chuckled. ”Please, you think we were eavesdropping on your little heart-to-heart session last night? Well, yeah we were but we knew anyway – we all knew. They told us and they really, really don’t want you to go so soon.“
”Who the hell are ‘they’?“ I frowned, not quite following what was going on.
”You’ll see; you’ll all see, soon enough.“
Then it all went deathly silent, all I could hear was the gentle tapping of shoes on concrete, growing quieter and quieter as they walked away, and Nate’s snores cutting through the tranquil dawn.
The sudden, unexpected strike across my face made me gasp, wobbling slightly from side to side and I fell to my knees.
She stood over me; the girl from the field, still as strikingly gorgeous as before, still as intoxicatingly beautiful, but with a bitter smile on her face, as though inflicting pain pleased her. ”You’re pathetic.“ she spat, stalking around me. ”You should have died years ago but, do you know why you haven’t?“
”Sheer persistence?“ I suggested, grinning, my teeth stained with the blood that welled up in my mouth.
Sending me falling to the floor, she kicked me in my stomach, howling in agony.
”You insolent fool; no. You’re so unbelievably wretched that even the Devil doesn’t want you.“
”Why, of course.“ I hissed through gritted teeth, rolling onto my back so I could see her face. ”It’s so obvious now that you mention it.“
She stomped on my face, my nose cracking loudly and blood gushing forth.
From somewhere behind us, I could hear the muffled sobs of Charlotte and Astrid with Nate, cursing at the top of his voice as I writhed around on the floor, clutching at my face, tears mixing with the blood.
”What the hell?“ boomed a voice from the doorway, loud and abrupt, exploding through the darkness like a bomb and about as half as subtle.
We all froze, even the girl, waiting – was this the end?
”I told you to keep him here, to keep him safe; we need him.“
She bowed her head in defeat. ”I’m sorry, I didn’t think; forgive me Cerberus.“
”No, you didn’t, did you Narcissi?“ I could hear the sound of footsteps growing louder and louder as they came closer and closer. ”Take him to the next room.“ the voice chuckled. ”And the girl; he might need some persuading.“
I frowned, swallowing as the shadows took hold of me, grabbing me by my wrists and ankles as they slowly dragged me along the floor, kicking and resisting all the way. Helplessly, I watched as Narcissi took hold of Charlotte by the arm, grinning menacingly.
The man cupped Charlotte’s face with his hands, his slender, bony fingers gently brushing her cheek bones.
She whimpered silently, closing her eyes tightly.
Disgusted, I spat at him, a generously-sized globule of my bloodied saliva landed on the many folds of his pristine cloak. ”Get off her.“
He turned to me, suddenly, the hood falling back and his eyes burning fiercely. Charging toward me, his smooth head glinting in the weak candle-light, he glared as me. ”You have no right to tell me what to do; you’re merely a tool that we shall use to rule this place.“ he hissed, gesturing to the girl. “”Take them away.“
”No!“ I protested, fighting uselessly as the shadows hauled me away. ”Nate,“ I begged, ”save Astrid – look after her.“ Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Charlotte wrestling with her captors and I felt reassured, knowing that, somehow, she wasn’t going to let either of us go down without a fight.
”It’s over!“ cackled Cerberus happily, his arms spread out wide as though to embrace victory. ”It’s over; we win.“
I fell backward into the chair, my back slamming against the wood, making me flinch slightly. Heavy manacles held me to the seat; nervously, I clenched and unclenched my fists constantly. What the hell could I do? How could I be of use? I didn’t even know how this place worked, what the people were like or even what there was here; I may have made it but I had no control over it. I felt helpless and confused – what would happen if they killed me? I’d heard that if you die in a dream (or a nightmare, I reminded myself, thinking of how badly this had turned out) you died in real life; was what was happening here in my head maybe affecting my body on the operating table? Did, maybe, every punch, slap and kick send me one step closer to falling off my mortal coil?
I shuddered. The thought of this version of me being separate from my body was a little creepy – I still hadn’t gotten my head around it; I probably never would – didn’t they say that you forgot your dreams within ten minutes of walking up? I didn’t want to forget this though, this was an experience that had changed me – made me realise who I was and why I couldn’t live without the people I loved. I’d really needed this journey – for years my future had felt like some kind of unreachable, untouchable dream but, once I woke up, it’d be a reality; our future would begin and I wasn’t willing to waste a single second.
Suddenly, I heard a scream.
”Charlotte!“ I yelled, yanking at my chairs angrily, furious that they’d hurt her. ”Charlotte!“
Calmly, Cerberus stalked his way through the doorway, prowling toward me, a smug smile on his lips. He was closely followed by Narcissi, dragging a petrified Charlotte along behind her. He stopped in front of me, leaning in so closely that I could smell the sulphurous odour of his rancid breath; I gagged. Pale and watery, his eyes fixed me with a look of disgust. ”You really are pathetic; did you know that?“
”Somebody had mentioned it, yes.“
Narcissi growled, annoyed by my sarcasm, but Cerberus held up his hand, silencing her. ”Now, boy,“ he spat, ”do you know where we are?“
I opened my mouth, ready for another quip, but none came; I was genuinely stumped. I shrugged.
”We’re in the castle of the great and all-powerful ruler of this godforsaken land.“ he mocked, grinning. ”Not so powerful now, is he though?“
He clicked his fingers, demandingly. Answering his call, one of the walls spun round – just like in those old detective movies. Shocked, I gasped, my eyes widening; hanging from the brickwork, his chains glinting, was a man. He looked tired and bedraggled, his clothes hung from his thin body in tatters and his thick, greying beard covered the lower portion of his face.
”Your majesty.“ bowed Cerberus, a sly grin on his face. ”How’re you enjoying your stay?“
Narcissi cackled happily.
In reply, the man just lifted his head slowly, his eyes meeting mine. I saw such pain and sorrow but also, more strangely, I saw embarrassment. Then he lowered his head again, allowing it to flop onto his chest, too weak to speak. He grunted.
For some reason, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from this man; he stirred something inside me, something deep down. ”What’s any of this got to do with me?“
They both turned to me, Cerberus and Narcissi, their eyes blazing passionately, both of them sneering menacingly. ”You’re going to kill him.“
I exchanged glances with Charlotte, my utter shock mirrored in the look on her face. She shook her head, warning me.
”I can’t do that; I don’t even know how I could do that.“
Cerberus squatted down in front of me, tilting my head up so I was looking into his eyes, and smiled. ”He’s the only thing stopping me from getting the crown, it’s my birthright, but Daddy’s dear favourite was given the title instead; I know what you can do, the power that you hold, you see I can’t cause him harm – some kind of ancient magic forbids it – but with you, I don’t need to. You’re my only hope.“
I swallowed nervously. ”You’ve got the wrong person; I’m not who you think I am.“
Delicately, he stroked my face. ”Have you noticed that you’re not bleeding anymore?“ He tweaked my nose playfully and I expected an intense shock of pain; none came. ”This is your power – you will for something to happen and it does.“
”Not buts, it’s true; you wanted company, you wanted companionship, you wanted love and then you met the child, the soldier and the girl. Coincidence, I think not.“ He stalked over to Charlotte, running a hand through her scraggly wavy hair. ”Admittedly, they were proto-types. A child with no family. A soldier with no courage. A fiancée with no recollection of her betrothed. But still, you seem to be getting to be quite the expert now.“
I sat there in shock; it made sense, everything he said made perfect sense. Before, when Nate had broken my nose, I’d healed then too, remarkably quickly. It was my mind, my dream, why couldn’t I be the one pulling all the strings? I clenched my fists, my knuckles whitening as my nails dug into my palms; did that mean I could’ve given myself my heart all along?
”I know what you’re thinking,“ Cerberus cooed sweetly, ”the answer’s no. You can’t do anything that would extend or preserve your own life; that would be selfish. Something of that magnitude, to grant that kind of wish, would be the King’s responsibility.“
I turned to the King, his eyes staring at me intensely again. ”Is it true?“ I asked. ”Could you help me? “
He nodded, feebly.
Astrid’s magic-man, I thought. Then a sudden realisation hit me, if I killed the King and the King was the only one who had the power to give me my heart... ”Why would I help you kill my only way home; if I kill the King, how will I ever wake up?“
”I would succeed my darling brother to the throne and, as I reward, I’d send you home; imagine it Daniel, your family around, Charlotte in your arms again and your whole future ahead of you. Don’t you want that?“
I nodded, choking back the salty tears. ”Yes,“ I spluttered, ”more than anything.“
”Then do it.“
”Okay.“ I whispered. ”Okay...“
Shocked, Charlotte gasped. ”Daniel, you can’t trust him, he’s-“
”Silence!“ barked Narcissi, striking her across the face. ”He’s made his choice; the right choice.“ She looked at me proudly.
”I know what I’m doing, Charlotte.“ I smiled at her, trying to ignore the look of disgust on her face. ”I promise, it’ll be okay.“
Breathing deeply, inhaling through my nose and exhaling through my mouth, I closed my eyes, trying my hardest to relax slightly, despite the manacles rubbing at my wrists. I sat there quietly, blocking out the muffled cries from Charlotte, the groans of pain of the King and the expectant wheezing of Cerberus, focusing on my own breathing instead. I tried to remember my first meeting with Narcissi, how the daisy, so perfectly formed and delicate, had suddenly began to break apart in my hands, crumbling into a sparkling dusty-ash and how that, moulded by the gentle breeze, had come to be Narcissi, so beautiful and enticing. I replayed it over and over in my head, watching it again and again, frame by frame, piece by piece, like I was studying a textbook. Once I’d done that, I began to rewind it, seeing everything backward and marvelling at a brand new transformation – from human to dust to flower once more. It looked magnificent; it looked as natural as a sculptor with a mound of clay; it felt impossible.
But I had to do it.
I screwed my eyes shut tightly, clenching my fists in frustration. Shaking uncontrollably, I imagined the scene – me sat in the chair, Charlotte and Narcissi, Cerberus standing over me desperately and the King hanging on the wall too faint to care. Five people, five faces, four heartbeats, five lives but then, suddenly, I would change all that. I needed to; I had to.
”What the hell-?“
”This isn’t right!“
Then someone screamed, high pitched and frightened – I wasn’t sure if it was Charlotte or Narcissi but I couldn’t dwell on it for long; I still had work to do.
My head was banging, a loud pounding echoing in my ears, my stomach was churning and I could feel the sweat trickling down my forehead. Exhausted, I could feel the room spinning; I felt as though I was on a round-a-bout, turning and turning and turning with no control over when I was going to stop. I panted, an excruciating pain shooting through my brain, and grimaced. This was harder – I wanted to give in; I wanted to quit but I knew I couldn’t, it wasn’t over yet. I’d come this far. I needed to... I had to. With one final push, I screamed out loudly, tears flowing down my cheek, all my energy leaving me; I fell to the floor, the chair disappearing from beneath me. I lay sprawled on the concrete, smiling, proud of my work.
”Daniel!“ Charlotte squealed, rushing over to my hunched over body, steadying me as I rolled onto my knees. ”You did it; you really did it!“ she kissed me tenderly, once for every syllable, tears streaming down her face, seemingly uncaring that I was dripping with sweat. ”I’m so proud of you.“
I paused, looking at her, seeing if there was anything different. ”You kissed me.“ I smiled. ”You really kissed me. Does this mean that you-?“
She put a finger to my lips and shook her head. ”I’m really sorry Daniel. I still don’t feel the way you do; I can’t remember anything.“
”I gettit; no problem.“ I could feel myself swaying absentmindedly, fatigued and drained. ”The King-?“ But I didn’t finish my sentence. I couldn’t, because suddenly, my body went slack and my eyelids drooped shut lazily, Charlotte’s face fading from my view.
The soft, plush cushions of the sofa were, unsurprisingly, inviting after days of relentless walking; I lay there, not wanting to move, aching and yawning. Everywhere was so lavishly decorated – so extravagant and expensive, that I didn’t want to touch anything for fear of marking it; everything was so pristine and new-looking.
In front of me, stood on the coffee table was a glass box – pellucid and shimmering. I stared at it disbelievingly, marvelling at my handiwork, material proof of my effort; it had taken so much time, so much energy and endeavour, but the fruits of my labour were there in front of me, ready to be paraded and displayed for the world. Draped atop of each other, caged by the glass walls, lay two flowers – one black and one white, both daisies – trapped forever.
Silently, I read the plaque.”My dear brother, Cerberus, and niece, Narcissi – may you rest here until you learn what true family means.“
I swallowed. Family meant forgiveness, it meant understanding and togetherness. Family meant never giving up on each other and holding your hand when you’re scared. Family never left your side, family wasn’t just about the blood that ran through your veins; it was more than that, it was about who you loved, who loved you and who you could tell anything to. My family were the greatest people I could ask for, they were always there, supporting me, talking to me, treating me with the respect I wanted, it didn’t matter to them that I was being a hassle or was always ill, they didn’t let it show; to them I wasn’t a burden, I was just me.
I touched my chest lightly. It was about time I saw them again, just to say thank you; it was time I went home.
Standing, I stretched out my knotted joints and made my way to the door stiffly.
I grunted, surprised, as Astrid zoomed into me, throwing herself into my arms. ”Hey, Azzy.“ I giggled, ruffling her hair. ”Where’s Nate and-?“
”Hey, I heard what you did Daniel, nice one.“
I smiled. ”Hey, thanks.“
All of a sudden, I was embraced by all of them, the four of us stood together, relieved to finally be done with all the struggle and heart-ache. We were finished; we had nothing left to do.
At least... they didn’t.
I was still owed something; something important.
”There’s someone that wants to see you, Daniel.“ Charlotte whispered, nervously. ”But you can’t meet him looking like that, we need to get you cleaned up.“
I nodded in agreement, looking down at my shirt and jeans, frayed, stained, covered in dirt and tears and crumpled like a piece of used paper.
We stopped in front of a huge door, one that stretched in a swooping arch from floor to ceiling. Charlotte took my hand, kissing my cheek softly. ”Ready?“
”Yeah, I think I am.“
”Good.“ she whispered, dragging me along behind her, throwing the door open.
It felt as though nothing had changed; as though, when she kissed me, when she put her hands in mine, she remembered – she remembered everything we’d ever been through together. I’d tried to help her, I’d tried to clear the fog shrouding her mind, but it was too dense; did it really matter if she didn’t really know who I was? All that mattered to me was that she cared about me and I cared about her.
The room was massive, easily as big as a stadium but it was empty, the only sound that could be heard was our footsteps tapping away on the marble flooring.
Confused, I turned to Charlotte but she just smiled at me coyly. Nate chuckled at my cluelessness, Astrid on his shoulders yet again. I stumbled along, both intrigued and worried; exactly what had happened since I blacked out?
”Your majesty.“ Suddenly, Charlotte stopped, bowing her head respectfully; Nate and Astrid followed suit so, still a little baffled, so did I. ”We brought him, as requested.“ she grabbed my sleeve, pulling me forward and presenting me proudly. She squeezed my clammy hand supportively. ”Go on.“ she mouthed silently.
”Ahhh yes, Daniel. Why thank you Charlotte, Nate, Miss Astrid.“
I looked up at the mention of my name, staring at the top of a tall flight of steps, and felt that same sensation I had the first time I’d laid eyes on him. ”Your majesty.“
He looked so different now; the pale, pasty figure I’d seen chained to the wall wasting away was gone and now, before me instead, was a jolly man, full of colour and life. His greying beard was gone, shaved off, leaving behind smooth, peachy skin, making it easy for me to see his wide smile. Clothed just as a king should be, he stood before me adorned in glorious fabrics that rippled and shimmered with every footstep, dripping in precious gems and jewellery. He held out a hand to me and I shook it warmly.
”I wanted to thank you personally my dear boy; you saved my life, my kingdom, my people, and took on my brother practically singlehandedly. Some of my guards don’t show that kind of loyalty and that’s what they’re employed to do; you hadn’t even met me but, for some reason, you were willing to risk your life in exchange for mine. I don’t know whether you’re extremely reckless or just incredibly gallant but I’m very grateful either way.“
”He’s both sir.“ winked Nate, nudging my shoulder playfully, and I blushed, not sure of how to react to being centre stage.
I’d been called brave before but never like this; apparently, I was brave for living the life I did as an invalid, but never before had I been called brave for something like this. Not for saving a life.
It felt good; really good.
”You’re more than welcome, sir – I didn’t even think about it; I trust you’re well now?“
The King chortled jollily, slapping me across my back. ”Never been better my boy; I’ve never been better but I do believe you’re not so well yourself?“
Scratching the back of my head, I swallowed. ”Well...“
He pointed to the hole in my chest. ”I know your story; I’ve got the heart you need, but do you want it?“
Looking back at the three expectant faces, Nate and Charlotte smiling encouragingly and Astrid nodding, I bit my lip. ”Yes, I want it; I’ve come too far to not to.“ Tears stung at my eyes again. ”I want to go home.“
”Follow me, all of you.“
My mouth suddenly dry, I grasped Charlotte’s hand tightly. ”Don’t let go, please.“ I whispered, knowing that those words didn’t mean the same to both of us. I meant it figuratively; don’t let go of me ever, I love you whether you know me or not. She thought I meant it literally; don’t let go of my hand, I’m frightened.
It would never mean the same to both of us; not now I was leaving but, for some reason, the thought that I had my Charlotte back home, the Charlotte I was to spend the rest of my life with, didn’t comfort me as much as I had hoped. Secretly, I wanted both; real or not, she was still Charlotte.
”Say your goodbyes.“ deadpanned the King, no emotion in his voice.
I, on the other hand, was on the other end of the spectrum, brimming with so many different emotions that I felt as though I could explode. He had me sat on the very edge of a slab of shining stone, my shirt laid on the floor by my bare feet and it all felt too familiar – as though this was a twisted retelling of things that had already happened; of course, it was. All of this, from the moment I woke up here until now, the moment it ended, was just one jokey re-enactment of my life and the seemingly endless journey to freedom. But it had arrived at last, the end, and a new chapter was going to begin. I had years ahead of me now, years I never thought I’d have; ever. What would I do with them now? How would I fill them? How would we fill them? I had Charlotte waiting for me and always would, how did she want to plan out our lived together? I’d never had dreams like this; I’d never planned more than a few months ahead for fear of disappointment. Even as a young child, when my friends had been planning to be astronauts and teachers, I’d just sat there, my head in the clouds, dreaming about things of wonder and adventure; I’d never been serious about anything. Now though, now I could start thinking about reality. I could go to college, maybe university, I’d have a job (something I had, personally, been looking forward to since I was seventeen), I’d have my own place to live, I didn’t need to rely on my parents anymore and maybe, just maybe, I could have children of my own.
Boy, did I have a bedtime story to tell them...
Charlotte was still next to me, holding my hand tightly, her knuckles as white as her face. Nate stood solemnly behind Astrid, hiding his tears whilst Astrid’s flowed freely down her face. There was that tension again, the same as last time, only now it was justified because I wasn’t coming back and we all knew it; there was no hiding it, no disguising it or denying it any longer – when I left, it was going to be permanently and , the chances were, once I left, everyone did.
This was my messed up drug haze dream, these people were my responsibility and I had grown to love them.
”Group hug?“ I asked quietly, holding my arms out wide in front of me, looking at everyone in turn.
They stood hesitantly at first, as though saying goodbye was the last thing they wanted, as though the very thought was repulsive to them, as though, by not saying goodbye, I would stay. Slowly though, Astrid and Nate shuffled forward.
”Why do you have to leave?“ cried Astrid, tears filling her eyes. ”I don’t want you to go...“
I held her to my chest tightly. ”I have to, there are some people back home that’ll miss me if I don’t.“
She locked her hands together behind my neck. ”There are people that’ll miss you here too though.“
I buried my face in her hair, soothing her as she sobbed. ”I know, I’ll miss you too.“
Charlotte hung onto my back, her tears dampening my skin, whimpering in my ear. ”I love you Daniel.“
Nate enveloped us all in his grasp silently, not knowing what to say so not saying anything at all.
I’d miss them, all of them, each of them had changed me and how I behaved here; I grew more empathetic for Astrid, I became more sympathetic for Nate and, for Charlotte, I tried to show her exactly who lived in my skin. I’d needed them, apparently I’d made them for God’s sake, and how could I not love them? For days they’d been my only company, my only comfort, hope and protection against insanity; they’d seen me at my best, they’d seen me at my worst and, to be honest, I couldn’t think of three people I would rather have spent those memories with. For all their imperfections, all their flaws caused by my own mistakes, I knew they would have a place in my heart forever – they were more than just characters in my imagination; they were people, real people, real feeling people who I loved immensely.
Always would, from the moment I met them until the moment I died; they were practically family now.
”Right, I’m sorry, but we’ve got to get on with this.“ apologised the King, cringing as he broke our peaceful silence of togetherness.
”Okay; yeah, sure.“ I mumbled. I looked at them sadly, glancing at Astrid in particular. ”I don’t want you guys to see this...“
Nate nodded, wiping at his eyes frantically. ”Yeah, sure of course.“ he fumbled, hurriedly, ushering Astrid out of the room. ”C’mon Azzy.“
She frowned, pouting but, upon seeing the expression on his face, softened, kissing me lightly on the cheek before shuffling off behind him. They both paused at the doorway, waving their goodbyes.
Nodding in acknowledgement, I waved back.
”I’m not going.“ stated Charlotte.
”I didn’t think you would.“
”You told me not to let go.“
I smiled. ”I did say that, didn’t I?“ Pulling her in closer, I kissed her, my lips pushing against hers passionately, savouring that moment of total oblivion, plunging into a deep pool of tranquillity and nothingness.
Surfacing, she stared at me as though she was seeing me in a whole new light. ”Someday, Daniel, someday, I’ll know exactly who you are and I’ll know exactly how that was meant to feel but, for now, it’s enough for me to know that I love you.“
I leant in to kiss her again but the King pulled me back, pinning me to the slab roughly. ”Easy, lover-boy.“ he huffed, winking. ”I’ve got work to do.“
I blushed, just like in the hospital with Charlotte before my operation; how could one girl cause me to lose my inhibitions so easily? It was mystifying...
The King stood over me, smiling, and I squeezed Charlotte’s hand instinctively. ”Thank you again for saving me, my boy; now, are you sure that this is what you want?“
I nodded. ”More than anything.“
”Then close my eyes for me.“
I did, almost gagging as he forced something into my mouth; small, square and chewy, it spread a foul chemical taste around my mouth, like when I swallowed some of my mom’s nail vanish remover when I was five, and everything went numb and I was seeing stars again, bright flashes of light against the shadow.
”Goodbye Daniel.“ whispered Charlotte, kissing my forehead softy.
I tried to reply but I couldn’t, my mouth was too tired to form the words that I wanted – she was the only one I couldn’t say goodbye to; I didn’t want to, I’d be saying hello again pretty soon.
I sat in the darkness, surrounded by noise – like fuzzy television static – staring at a screen, watching as pictures and footage flashed past. Sighing, I recognised every face, every place, door and smile, those were the memories of my childhood, of my teenage years and of my young adulthood. These were the places of safety and happiness, these were the memories that meant the most – they were memories of normality and security; they were memories without the hospitals and the tests and the pain. These were the memoires I held dear and never wanted to forget.
I saw pictures of my mum and I. I saw pictures of me and my dad. I saw myself riding my bike for the first time without training wheels. I saw my first date with Charlotte all over again. There were pictures of my best mates mucking around together. I saw myself playing football with my friends, covered in mud and grinning as my mom saw the mess. I saw Christmas’ with family, from when I was a baby until the December just gone, piles of wrapping paper and oversized novelty hats. I saw my pale, gaunt face at my little cousin’s birthday party, just hours before we’d gotten the call to the hospital; before I had hope.
So many memories in such a relatively small space of time; I had so many years ahead of me now, how many more would I make?
It was time to find out.
All around me I could hear the constant, persistent bleeping of monitors, the babbling of nurses and the squeaking of rubber soled shoes on immaculate lino. I smiled to myself in my head; I’d done it, I’d really done it. After all the pain, the uncertainty, the tears and the doubts, I’d come out the other side, defeated my demons and, finally, I was ready to live. All I had to do now was open my eyes and I’d have really truly done it; unbelievable.
Slowly, I forced my heavy eyelids open, my body burning tiredly as though it was feeling the strain of my journey across the wastelands of my mind.
Looking around, I started to take it all in. The dreaded tube was down my throat, I could feel it, but, unlike last time, it wasn’t uncomfortable; there were tubes everywhere though – from my arms, from my collarbone, my neck and my chest, pumping God knows what into my system. A messy cobweb of wires was entwined around my body, connected to various machines; monitoring my every move. Finally, hardly daring to breathe, I looked down at my chest, desperate to see the results. Across my breast bone lay a medical dressing, concealing my new stitches and protecting my new heart. Tears filled my eyes; I felt like jumping for joy, I wanted to skip down the corridors, I wanted to do anything to show how happy I was; I’d done it. I’d accomplished something that had seemed impossible.
A nurse walked in casually, shuffling over to my bedside, fiddling with some of the dials and machinery, not noticing that I was watching. I wanted to laugh or chuckle but I couldn’t, the tube stopping me, so I lay there patiently, waiting for someone to notice me, for someone to notice that I was awake.
It felt weird, being unable to talk or move, it was as though I was just a video recorder, an empty spectator.
The she turned to me and, seeing my eyes open wide, staring at her, she stifled a squeal. Composing herself, she smiled. ”Morning sleeping beauty.“
I returned her smile.
”Now, you’re going to feel really sleepy for a while okay? But that’s perfectly normal; you need your rest.“
I wanted to respond, to nod or acknowledge her kind words but I couldn’t. I just lay there, staring straight ahead as the room began to spin again, feeling groggy.
This is just getting stupid, I frowned, my eyes closing again.
Awkwardly, I lay in a tangle of tubes and wires, my hands grasping on tightly to my mother’s, my dad laying a hand on my arms, tears in our eyes. I wanted to tell them everything – about my adventure and how much I regretted everything I’d said to them; I didn’t though – they wouldn’t understand. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even understand and it had all been in my head. Instead, I just apologized constantly, a little annoyed that they forgave me so easily after everything I’d put them through.
”I’m so sorry – I –“
”Shhh, it’s okay, don’t worry about it, just rest.“
I twisted my body feebly, frustrated that I couldn’t get comfortable, every movement caused a tube or needle to pull and an immediate shock of pain would just ripple through my body, warning me not to push myself too far. I felt tired still, even though I’d not stayed awake with my eyes open for more than a good ten minutes; I was beginning to annoy myself. I slept for twelve hours straight yesterday for God’s sake, I complained to the nurse angrily before she tutted, telling me it was perfectly normal for a transplant patient to sleep excessively after surgery.
I hated that label now; transplant patient. Pfft… no sooner had I gotten rid of one label than I was marked with another.
”Mom…“ I mumbled, my eyes closing already, ”Dad…“
”I love you – never forget that, no matter what happens.“
She walked in uneasily, her arms clutching a bundle of books to her chest. Her eyes, red and puffy, brimming with tears, lit up when they fell on me. I smiled when I saw her; fiddling gingerly with the frayed hem of her summer dress (self-conscious of the way it exposed her legs), her hair cascading down her back like a copper waterfall, a ribbon pulling her fringe back off her face, her cheeks flushed red, her eyes sparkling, the engagement ring glinting on her finger.
I’d missed her so much.
I’d seen her, I know, but it hadn’t really been her; she hadn’t made me feel like this, no one could.
She sat by my bedside, immediately grabbing my hand and squeezing it tightly as though she’d never let go again. ”I missed you.“
”I missed you too.“ I whispered, knowing that she’d never understand exactly how much.
”I love you.“ I whispered, knowing that she’d never understand exactly how much.
Lovingly, she bent over me, her lips colliding with mine and I grinned as she pushed up against me; the heart rate monitor protesting in alarm.
”Wow,“ I chuckled as she pulled away, blushing, ”now that’s some welcome home; maybe I should have major surgery more often.“
I leant in to kiss her again but her face darkened. ”Don’t even joke about it Daniel; you’re never leaving me again. Ever.“
And, as I looked into her eyes, I knew I’d never need to; she was everything I’d ever wanted, ever needed, and I knew I’d never need anything else.