[November Breaks] NOW | 20 | Noah

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WEDNESDAY 9TH JANUARY 2019

You don’t know how many times I’ve come to sit by the place where he died, where someone died, anyone. His name was William Francis Wolf. I looked into it. Technically, he’s missing, not dead, but I know. It doesn’t matter that he was a stranger. I can still touch the last seconds of someone’s life and it’s almost enough. It’s a nicotine patch, satisfying only one small part of the craving but leaving no stains. There’s an itch from it, as if it’s possible to be allergic to the absence of something, to the unfulfilled need.

I walked around by the beach after you left for work, on grey compacted sand at low tide, the sea distant and fading into the horizon. If there’s a chill in the air, it doesn’t reach me. Days like this remind me of before. Before we lived here. Before I met you. Before I owned Alchemy and I used to buy coffee there and drink it sitting on the harbour wall, staring out at nothing and trying to make myself feel.

Sometimes the uncertainty creeps back in, the dislocation, the need for change. It’s only a remnant, though, a shadow. Change has already found me. It forced my lungs clean and put your breath in my hands. It showed me that a heartbeat can hold comfort without having to stop. So far.

My phone rings. Your office number. “Hey.”

“Noah Thurston?” It’s not your voice.

“Yes.”

“Brett Archer’s emergency contact.” It’s a statement, not a question.

There’s ice in my veins, but my tone gives nothing away. I know it doesn’t. I wear this voice like a shirt that doesn’t show the bloodstains. “Who is this?”

“Lucas Byron at Allegra Technologies. Mr Thurston, there’s been an accident.”

And my world is on the verge of collapse. Still, I sound calm, controlled, how I always sound. “Is he—”

“He’s a mess, but he’s alive. I should have led with that. He fell—”

Relief winds its way into my throat. Perhaps not relief. Perhaps more an acceptance of the delayed inevitable, and the internally sourced reassurance that it wouldn’t happen without my involvement anyway. “From the roof?”

“From the what? Why would you… no, in his office. It looks like he hit his head on the corner of his desk. There was a lot of blood. There was also an empty vodka bottle. And a letter with my name on it. A letter of resignation.”

“So he did it.”

“You were expecting at least part of this?”

“You weren’t?”

“I wasn’t. And given the situation, I’m happy to rip up the letter and pretend it never existed.”

“Don’t. If he wrote it, he meant it. He means it. And it isn’t the most important thing right now, or it shouldn’t be. Where is he?”

“In an ambulance on the way to the hospital, or possibly there already. He was unconscious, and then he was incoherent. No-one saw what happened and we don’t know how long he was out for. His assistant found him and called me. I called the ambulance and then I called you.”

“City Infirmary?”

“Yes. I’m about to head over there.”

“You don’t have to. I’ll get in touch later and let you know how he is.”

“Well, all right, but—”

“He isn’t going to sue you.”

“I wasn’t—”

“You were. Of course you were. Thank you for calling.”

WEDNESDAY 9TH JANUARY 2019

The normal thing would be to say that I hate hospitals, but I have no strong feelings about them beyond frustration at trying to find a space in the herniating multi-storey car park.

Automatic doors open to reception and the person behind the desk doesn’t look me in the eye. He can’t find your name on the intake records, so I wait while he goes to look for you.

An orderly built like a tank wheels a bed carrying a woman built like a bird along the corridor. He deposits her near me with a vague suggestion of a quick return. The proximity is coincidental and the orderly’s face floods with barely concealed suspicion as he walks a wide circle around me.

The woman, ill to the point of agelessness and wearing a green silk headscarf, smiles up at me with thin, dry lips and reaches a papery hand towards me. I take a step closer and she rests pale fingers on my arm. There’s a moment of something akin to recognition and her voice drifts like a prayer. “Is it time? Are you here for me?”

Time doesn’t share this responsibility with me, not today. “No, I’m here for—”

The receptionist barks his return. “Mr Thurston, please come with me.”

The woman whispers, “You’re so much more handsome than I expected. I don’t think I’ll be so scared anymore.” And she lets go of my arm, settling back serenely against a pile of pillows in starched cases.

You’re in a curtained cubicle, your clothes and skin stained with dried blood and your shoes tucked neatly under the bed. “You’re here.”

“Of course I’m here. And you’re in a better state than I thought you’d be.” I kiss you and something about the situation makes it feel wrong, which is more appealing than it ought to be.

“According to someone whose job it is to know these things, I am somehow remarkably undamaged. Those were her exact words.”

Remarkably undamaged and more articulate that you have any business being, having been found drunk in a pool of your own blood on your office floor at eleven o’clock in the morning. “You have staples in your head, Brett.”

“Apart from that. And the concussion. I take it Byron called you?”

“He did. He was going to come, but I told him not to. And he found your resignation letter.”

“Good, on all counts.”

“He said he was happy to rip it up and pretend it never existed.”

“But you told him not to do that either?”

“I did. In case you hadn’t noticed, that job isn’t good for you.”

“Of all the situations that have left me bleeding and concussed, that job is probably the least harmful.”

“It isn’t, but it’s been a more gradual harm,” I say, as one of the other sources of gradual harm in your life.

“True.”

“What happened?”

“I fell and hit my head. Apparently I was, and I quote, ‘dangerously intoxicated’. I possibly still am.”

“Do you remember anything?”

“I remember writing the letter and finishing the vodka. I don’t remember falling.”

That’s half an answer. “And?”

You raise an eyebrow and wince in pain. I’ve never seen you respond to pain with anything other than welcome and a desire for more. “The thing with my desk, smashing the glass and ripping my hands apart on the edges.”

“What? Wanting to do that? Trying to?”

“Yes. No.” You frown and inhale sharply. “Imagining it. No. Not that either. Seeing it.”

“A hallucination?”

“No. It’s more like an overlay. Virtual reality, but full sensory.” You blink hard and fade out for a moment. “It kept playing over and over, and I couldn’t get a breath, but not in a fun way.” You smirk and the clouds clear, just for a second. “It was too much, seeing everyone outside my office walking around and breathing like there was nothing wrong. So that’s what I remember. I couldn’t breathe, I hit the switch for the walls, they went opaque, I drank and that’s the last thing until the ambulance.”

“I take it you didn’t tell the doctor any of that.”

“Right.”

“How long has it been going on for?”

“In general, for as long as I can remember. It’s a thing my brain does. Always has. That specific version of it, with the desk, about a year or so. A bit longer, maybe. Since shortly before we met, I think. It comes and goes, but it’s been more and more often lately. I know it’s not actually happening, but there’s no room for anything else in my head when it’s there.”

“You never said anything before.”

“I’m saying something now.”

“You should tell someone.”

“I’m telling you.”

“I mean, you should tell a doctor.”

 “And when they ask if I’ve ever had a head injury before, where do I even start that list? And what about the drugs and all the other questionable parts of my life that most people would consider evidence of serious mental disturbance? Do I tell them about all that as well? It’s fine. It’s not an issue.”

“It is.”

“It only is right now. It’s never been an issue before. And it predates the rest anyway, but they won’t see it like that. They’ll latch onto what looks like the most obvious cause even though the timeline is totally skewed. I’m not prepared to deal with that.”

“It’s your choice.”

“Besides, they’ve already decided I have a drinking problem.”

“Brett, you do have a drinking problem.”

“Excuse me, but I’m extremely high-functioning.”

“Yeah, you seem extremely high-functioning right now, in hospital, covered in blood with bits of metal holding your scalp together.” Sarcasm aside, you actually do appear to be taking this whole thing in your stride. It’s unnerving. “You’re not invincible.”

“I have been so far.” You smile, dazed and hardly half human, and the world folds in on itself again with you at its centre. “That’s the thing, isn’t it? We’re all invincible until the moment we aren’t.”