Alex was grumpy when he woke. Sunday mornings were supposed to be for lying in and snoozing, and for getting up whenever the hell you like, but as the alarm disturbed him from an uneasy dream, he read the time and groaned. He rolled himself over, legs trailing behind him as they tangled and snagged in the duvet, and reached for his chair. He should have known it was going to be a bad day when he blearily lunged a hand for the seat and missed, nearly slithering out of bed as his body assumed his hand had caught the chair. “Wake up, Norwood,” he growled, shaking the sleep from his eyes.
His rough palms hardly let him feel the cool rims beneath the callouses as he pushed towards the bathroom and began his morning ritual. Pills, cath, then back to bedroom for skin checks and a bit of light range of motion exercises: always the same. It had to be the same.
Sounds started to come from the kitchen after a while, and Will’s voice called out, “Coffee?”
“Sure, thanks,” Alex muttered as he wrestled his legs into a pair of black tracksuit bottoms. No pressure sores, nothing to worry about; at least that made his morning feel a little better. Will had already been making a start on the antidote to Sunday mornings – rich black coffee, crispy bacon and fried eggs. Will’s hair was tidy, his checked shirt was almost creaseless, and he was smiling. “You’re perky this morning,” Alex said as he rolled in wearing an ancient t-shirt with holes and a fraying hem, scruffy tracksuit trousers, and with his hair tousled and sticking up all over the place.
“I actually slept well for once,” Will replied. “You don’t look so hot though…”
“Gee, thanks,” Alex mumbled sourly.
Will visibly bit back a retort, but practically flung the plate of food at his brother when it was ready.
“I’m sorry,” Alex said as he took his breakfast from him. “Thank you.”
Will didn’t reply as he poured himself a big mug of steaming tea and tucked into his own breakfast, leaning back against the counter, biting into the soft white roll, the bacon crunching mutely.
“I’m thinking of going to the gym this morning after I’ve written that code,” Alex said, trying to salvage the situation a bit.
“Cool,” Will said, by way of a boyish acceptance of Alex’s apology. “I’m planning to entomb myself in my room to sort this paper out once and for all for my supervisor.” The terse morning moment had drifted effortlessly away on the wind.
Wolfing down the last crumbs of his white bap, Alex pushed away to his room and booted up his computer, settling himself down to a couple of hours of dull but necessary coding. Eventually, just over three hours later, he was able to vent some of his Sunday morning grouchiness on the machines at the gym.
At first didn’t register the call that came over the top of the hissing of the rowing machines, or the pounding of feet on the treadmills. It was only as the newcomer appeared at his elbow and spoke his name right in his ear as he was lifting the barbell weights above his head, that he realised who it was.
Her blond hair slithered down over her shoulder in a golden stream, her face was flushed and pink, glistening with a delicate sheen of sweat, mascara darkening her eyelashes, drawing out the intense, dark blue of the irises behind. “Alex? Is that really you?”
He almost dropped the great barbell down on his chest. Her voice was exactly the same. Like a beloved piece of music, or a favourite blanket, it came rushing out of the past and wrapped itself around him in familiar folds. Her eyes were flitting over his entire body in disbelief, drinking him in with hungry, appreciative and unmasked fervour. “Rachel,” he croaked, setting the barbell back on the stand and raising himself up in a now-so-easy crunch.
“God, Alex,” she said, sitting down on the next bench along so that their eyes were level. Her prosthetic leg was hidden under the folds of her tracksuit, and it folded mysteriously as she sat. Her parents were loaded, and she had always had expensive hardware. “You look incredible,” she purred.
His throat was dry, and his heartbeat hammered against his eardrums. He wasn’t ready for this. Through no fault of her own, she represented everything he had been, everything he’d worked every day to leave behind. “I’m good,” he bleated meekly. She was as picture perfect as she was in that photograph, the one in his ‘blue five minutes’ album.
She was laughing, a bright silvery laugh that pierced the muffled, sweaty atmosphere of the gym with little difficulty. “You’re more than good, Alex! Look at you!” she leaned forward and touched him on the shoulder. “I’ve missed you. I always wondered what had become of you when we… you know, when we parted ways. When I got a text from James telling me you were a member at the gym where he works, and that you were looking incredible these days, so I had to come and see for myself.”
“You… you came here to see me? How did you know I’d be here?” he blustered, mentally scrambling to get a handle on the whole situation.
“James got me a month’s free trial membership. I’ve been coming every couple of days or so in the hopes of seeing you. We should have a proper catch up – when I’m not all sweaty and wearing possibly the most unflattering outfit ever…” she smiled and blushed.
“You never needed to dress up to impress me, Rachel,” he said, the words rushing impulsively over his lips. She laughed prettily. He felt himself returning to his senses, and he shuffled his weight on the bench with a shy lift. “How have you been anyway? You look well too.”
“Pretty good,” she said, “I’ve had my ups and downs.” And he noticed the way her eyes darted down to her hands where they lay in her lap, and then back to his face. “I’ve missed you though. Thought about you a lot, you know, wondered what you were up to, how you were…”
This was hard. Rachel was so angelically beautiful, so radiant, as she sat there opposite him, smiling that same smile that had told the skinny, wasted, weak, and fragile Alex that he was more than he felt he was. Now, he wasn’t sure quite what that smile was telling him. Sam flashed though his mind as he blinked into Rachel’s blue eyes – Sam was tough, rugged, complex and beautiful, but what was Rachel these days? He thought how much he himself had changed in the five years or so since he had last seen her, and he couldn’t help but wonder what that same window of time had done to her.
“So,” she prompted, jolting him out of his thoughts. “What are you up to now?”
He coughed, shuffled his weight again, keen to get back into the welcoming arms of his chair, and said, “I’m doing my PhD here, and I’m also doing a bit of teaching for the first years. What about you?”
Those sapphire eyes widened in obvious surprise, “Wow, impressive. I’m so glad you’re doing what you always wanted to do. Will must be pleased too.” She paused, and Alex smiled briefly, but said nothing. Instead he reached his hand over to his chair and smoothly and efficiently hoisted himself from the bench. His legs were calm, composed and quiet as he placed each one onto the footrest and stacked his spine neatly with a quick upward pump of his arms. He could feel his muscles cooling down and thought he should probably head to the showers soon. Rachel carried on talking, rabbiting away to fill the void left by his silent transfer. “I’m teaching English to foreign students. It’s not too bad, but it’s not the same as doing full time teaching in a school, which is what I was doing until recently. I just moved down from Nottingham, where I was living with my…” she faltered unexpectedly, tripping on the word like an unseen bump in the road. “With my fiancé, but we... well, that didn’t work out. Anyway, I’ve moved back down here with my parents for the time being.”
Fiancé. The word jarred like a note missed in a line of music. Obviously he had no right to her affections, and he didn’t even want them anyway anymore, but still, there was something intensely annoying, even hurtful, about hearing that word coming from her. “I’m sorry that didn’t work out,” he said, mechanically repeating her own words. If she had split from her fiancé, did that mean she was living here all the time now? Would they be flung together like two stray electrons or something now? “Are you… I mean… are you based here now or just passing through?” He hoped his question didn’t seem rude.
Her words filled him with dread. “Yeah, I’m based here for the, er, foreseeable future. I’m trying to get a more permanent teaching situation in London, but there just isn’t anything right now.” Her sentences gained momentum again and she was back to full-throttle in no time, “But it’s all come together perfectly – I mean when John and I split up, I thought that was it for me, but then I get a text out of the blue from James saying you’re here. It felt like, I don’t know, like a sign from the gods or something!” This babbling was so nervously excited that Alex couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Sam. “I mean, this is an Alex that I definitely want to reconnect with!” Again, she leaned forward and grabbed his solid shoulder appreciatively.
Anger flared in the pit of his stomach, and his consideration for her feelings went out the window.
“What?” she asked, confusion ballooning up her pretty face, lifting her eyebrows and widening her eyes. “What have I said?”
“Rach, you can’t just breeze back into my life and assume I’ll drop everything and get back with you. I actually have someone –” he stretched the truth a little, as Sam and he hadn’t actually made the leap and put the stamp of officialdom on things yet – “I’d love to catch up with you and hear about what you’ve been doing, don’t get me wrong, but don’t make assumptions about me. I’m not little crippled Alex anymore. I don’t need you to save me this time.”
He found he had swivelled away from her before she could formulate an answer, and he powered towards the lifts, wanting nothing more than a hot shower and to see Sam’s wildly beautiful face smiling at him. She was like a clear Hebridean morning - rare and uniquely beautiful; Rachel was a sunny, Californian beach – attractive, warm, but there were probably hundreds like her. “Alex, wait, that’s not what I –” He could hear her calling after him before he’d gone more than a few metres, and he hoped she knew him well enough not to follow. Apparently she did, as he reached the lift doors, pressed the call button, and rolled in without feeling her hand on his shoulder for a third time, or her sweet, summer voice ringing after him.
He was still so shaken by her turning up out of the blue and assuming he’d just be ready and waiting to leap back into her arms, figuratively speaking, that he nearly bulldozed straight into a cyclist while he was crossing the road to the apartment. He slammed the door behind him and tossed his keys into the wooden bowl that sat by the door on a delicate table.
“Alex?” he heard Will’s call.
“Who else would it be?” he snarled.
“What’s wrong?” Will’s answer was immediate, and he cursed his brother for knowing him as well as a fisherman knows the moods of the local tide. “Everything ok at the gym?” he asked, walking swiftly and calmly into the room. His eyes did a check of Alex’s legs, looking for spasms, before darting to his eyes, presumably to check for signs of stress.
“You’ll never guess who was there,” Alex said, the anger subsiding into a quiet kind of frustration as Will’s eyebrows buckled into a frown. “Rachel.” He let that one sink in before continuing. “Turns out James couldn’t resist telling her he’d seem me there, even though I said I was done with that part of my past, and she charmed a month’s free membership from him so she could casually ambush me there.”
“That’s rather duplicitous. Doesn’t sound much like her…” Will said, sinking onto the arm of the sofa while Alex hoiked his sweaty gym clothes from his rucksack and began bunging them into the washer. “How is she?”
“Oh she’s fine.” More than fine, considering, he thought, recalling her trilling laugh and healthy glow.
“Why is she back in Cambridge? Didn’t she go up north shortly after you both left rehab…”
“Yes. She and her fiancé split, so she’s moved back with her parents. She’s far too young to be getting married,” he spat sourly.
“She’s a couple of years older than you, Alex. Twenty six isn’t exactly ‘too young’ to be engaged.”
“Why are you defending her?” Alex blurted, straightening up from loading the washing machine.
“Does she need defending?” Will countered. “What happened? Why are you so angry? I thought you two were pretty tight back in the day. What’s changed?”
“What’s changed?” Alex’s voice was loud and incredulous. “What’s changed, Will? Five and a bit years of life has changed me for a start, and then there’s the small matter of her suggesting we get back together now that she’s in Cambridge, despite the other small matter that I’m just forging my first proper relationship with someone who isn’t disabled and who doesn’t seem to mind at all that I am…” His voice rang harshly around the living room, his eyes blazing angrily.
“Sam’s the real reason you’re so angry about all this?”
“What? No, I’m offended that Rachel just assumed I wouldn’t have anyone and that it’d be ok for her to swan back into my life, staking out the gym where I go and ambushing me like she did today! The fact that I have someone else is almost irrelevant here. She still expected me to be the same as I was five years ago. I told her in no uncertain terms that I don’t need saving any more.”
Will’s eyes were unnervingly calm. “Think about it from her point of view. Preparing to get married is a huge step, Alex, and for that to suddenly fall apart… she must be in a rough place, emotionally. No wonder she’s looking for support from a time in her life before all that… Maybe she needs saving this time.”
Alex’s mouth opened and closed and he felt like a suffocating carp. “I…” he floundered. “I…” A sigh swished gently from his lips and his shoulders slumped. Will had a point. He had never known Rachel to be deceptive. Like a Californian orange she was the same bright, honest colour through and through, despite the tough skin. “You’re right,” he said eventually. “I was so shocked to see her, and by the way she handled things, that I didn’t think. I just bolted.”
Will twitched a quick smile. “Don’t worry about it too much. When you see James again, you can give him a piece of your mind for blabbing on you like that, and then get him to give you her number. Drop her a text to say sorry or something.”
Suspicion ghosted across his mind, and his dark eyes narrowed. Did Will prefer Rachel over Sam?
As if he could read his brother’s thoughts, Will said quickly, “I’m not saying you should propose to Rachel instead, for heaven’s sake. I do think you probably owe it to her to listen at least.” Will smiled rather weakly, and then ducked out of the room to leave Alex alone with his churning thoughts.
Fuck, he thought. As things were deepening with Sam, he felt suddenly desperate not to ruin it. He and she could be so perfect for each other, and Rachel could be the kind of wrecking ball that could inadvertently swing in and do just that. He needed to know that Sam was there, that she wanted him, for him and not for his history, or because he owed her anything. He reached for his phone, cradling it for a moment in his palm. He felt he could almost grab the connection which ran from him to Sam and put his hands around it; if he could have done, it would feel like a great ship’s chain running to an anchor, not like the faint cotton thread, at the end of which dangled a slender, dangerous needle, like his link to Rachel.
Trying to keep the emotional turmoil of his day from his message, he texted Sam to ask how her busy day had been. Her reply gave him the mental image that chased Rachel’s golden face right out of his mind – her kicking ass in a taekwondo class was one of the hottest things he could possibly imagine. He had not had a “good day” as she had asked, but he made sure he didn’t sound too troubled. Nobody wants a pity parade from a cripple, he thought sourly. Before he hit ‘send’ however, the house phone rang, and he reached across from where he sat to answer it.
“Alex? It’s James, from Cambridge Fitness…”
“Oh yeah,” he said, restraining his ballooning anger behind a wall of cool politeness.
James was sheepish. “Yeah, so, I’ve just seen Rachel, and she told me what happened. Said it didn’t go down too well…”
“Why did you let her ambush me like that?” he asked flatly. “A bit of warning would have been nice. I thought counsellors were supposed to be tactful…”
He could almost feel James cringing in the short silence that hung between them. “In my defence, I was only a physical therapist…” Alex’s answering silence spoke volumes. “But yeah, I should have known better. I didn’t think it through. I just remembered how close you two were, and I thought you’d like it, that’s all. She told me she’d buggered things up by trying to jump straight back in. She really regrets the way she handled it…” he trailed off into an expectant silence this time.
Alex was unimpressed. “Is this her way of apologising?”
James coughed. “She wanted me to give you her number, and asked if I’d pass on her apology…”
“What does she want me to do with her number?”
“She said she was hoping you guys could meet up and talk things through. Have a ‘proper catch up’, starting, in her words, with ‘hello and proceeding from there’…”
That didn’t sound too terrible to Alex. “Why couldn’t we have just done that in the first place?” he muttered. “Fine, give me her number, and I’ll think about it. But stop playing cupid, James. I’ve got a girlfriend, and I’m not interested in rekindling things with Rachel. We drifted apart after I left rehab and we parted amicably, so it would be a shame to lose the chance to have her back as a friend, but only as that, James.”
“I understand.” He sounded contrite, and he gave her number to him.
After a curt goodbye, Alex hung up and wheeled unthinkingly straight past his phone, heading for the bathroom. His knee had started to jump, and he thought about cathing. One distraction led to another, and it was a good hour before he went back to his phone and realised he’d still not hit ‘send’.
Her reply was immediate, and relief replaced all the doubt and annoyance that had been building in him since the gym. It felt good to have a normal conversation, with a normal girl, treating him as if he were just a normal guy. As his courage grew, and her flirting reassured him, he asked her for dinner, and drinks at the pub, and he realised with a broad grin on his face, that he’d never had this kind of real, honest fun with Rachel; she’d either been consoling him, or distracting him. But, like a spider in the corner of a pristine white room, or a fingerprint on a crystal glass, there was the underlying, nagging truth that Rachel knew him in a way that Sam never would. She knew what it was like to lose a part of your body, a part of yourself, and never to get that back. She knew what it was like to be disabled, and to have to come to terms with that, to watch the world warp sideways and never return to how it was before. She knew a shard of his soul that Sam would never understand.
He closed his eyes, the scar stretching slightly, and let their two faces swim freely before his eyes. His heart skipped joyfully when he found that Sam’s returned again and again, shoving Rachel’s smile into the surrounding foggy blackness.
He whispered her name aloud, loving the feel of it on his tongue. “Sam. It’s you,” he murmured into the silence.