“What the actual hell?” Will thundered as he re entered the apartment, red-faced and sweating after attempting to keep up with Alex’s, presumably now ‘ex’, girlfriend who was also apparently a ninja or maybe even a ghost. She’d vanished into the crowd in a matter of minutes, and despite searching for her for ten minutes or more, he knew he'd really lost her the moment she'd fled the front door. "Seriously, will you please explain to me why the fuck you've just thrown away the best fucking thing that was ever going come your way?" It was so rare for Will to get properly angry that it even surprised himself, but Alex was sitting in his chair by the kitchen counter, his phone pressed to his ear, apparently oblivious to the rage of words directed at him. There was a weird, wild look to his eyes as well, and Will knelt down in front of him, his outrage softening into confusion.
Alex didn't even appear to have seen him, and proceeded to leave what sounded like an answer phone message for Sam in a semi-frantic voice. "Sam, please, if you're there, pick up. I need to talk to you, please... I know how it must have looked, but it wasn't... I promise. Please, let me explain." He hung up and cradled the phone in his lap for a moment. His right knee was bobbing like a crack addict's in withdrawal, but he didn't really seem to notice. "Fuck," he swore under his breath as his phone rested gently on his lap between his fingers. “Fuck,” he repeated, an echo of the first.
Will turned his eyes up to his brother's face. His voice was gentle but full of reproach, "What were you thinking, Alex?"
"It wasn't... I had no idea she'd be here early!" he fired.
Will shook his head and stood, walking away with a sigh, "That want what I asked." As a parting shot in the doorway, he added, "Bit of advice... Stop calling her. She won't answer."
Feeling returned to Sam’s chest slowly as the day dawned. She’d sat numbly in the bath until the water went cold and then, as she’d dried herself off, all the hurt from the first time she’d been betrayed bubbled up to the present moment. It all seemed even more bleak and hurtful this time, and she’d cried herself hysterical into her pillow. The sound, though muffled by the soft cotton weave, had drawn Dan in, and he had sat by her until she’d had no more tears in her and she had slumped, exhausted into the pillows and fell into an uneasy sleep.
Sometime around nine o’clock, feeling like her chest was slowly filling with molten lead, she heard the door of Dan's bedroom open and felt his soft, tentative hand on her shoulder. She rolled over.
“Sam?” he asked gently. “You want some breakfast? I made eggs and bacon.”
“You cooked?” she asked, surprised to find that she still had a sense of humour somewhere in there.
Dan expressed a similar sentiment before adding, "And I made tea. Come on."
He left the room, but she didn't want to get up. She didn't want to do anything. Even his bacon and eggs held no allure for her. Eating, the thought of the effort involved in cutting, chewing and swallowing filled her with dread and a heavy sickness. She rolled over, pulled the duvet up around her ears, and prayed for sleep to take her away. Her Alex had betrayed her and she no longer wanted to feel anything.
Two days later, her phone had run its battery down, and she had ignored every single call from him in the mean time. She hoped he wouldn’t try and find her; he had only walked her back to Dan's flat once, and that had been a while ago, so she hoped he wouldn't remember where it was, but she couldn't guarantee that he wouldn't. She couldn't face hearing his voice either, so she left her phone off when it had died. She had spent all of those two days curled up in bed, hurting, and hating Alex. Dan tried to get her to eat, but she hadn't touched food, and was now past the point of feeling hungry.
Dan finally lost his patience with her and marched back into his bedroom and said firmly, "Sam, you know I love you, but you've got to shake yourself out of this. You're sleeping in my bed; I'm currently in my parents' room while they're away, and this cannot go on. You're having a shower and you're getting up today. We're going for a walk."
It took more effort than she thought she had to get up, and once the headrush had cleared and the world had stopped spinning, and when Dan had presented her with a mug of tea and the kind of plain biscuit that aunties offer the children of relatives rare visits, she felt ready to breathe fresh air again. Though opening the window might have done just as well, she thought.
The door to the sun-flooded world outside opened just as an ice cream van rumbled past with its music-box jingle sounding to Sam more like a sinister horror movie than the soundtrack to a summer’s day. They headed along the busy main road towards the park, but the background noise of the traffic barely registered.
The first sound to hit her senses properly was that of children laughing. As she and Dan crossed the park, their high, sharp happiness suddenly felt jarring and out of place, cutting right through her ribcage to the place where her heart had been beating until a few days ago. Dan steered her carefully down along the towpath by the river, and she, obedient as a child, followed wherever he led her. She wore jeans, despite the summer sun, and barely noticed the small spectacle of a family of swans which marched along the rough path in front of them, seeking the cool, murky waters of the River Cam on such a hot day.
When they reached a little wild patch called Paradise Nature Reserve, which was more of a forgotten corner of the river than a ‘reserve’, Dan stopped beside a lolling willow tree and his green eyes were hesitant and curious as he said, “Sam, I have to ask you this: what did he actually do? It’s been two days now, and you’ve hardly spoken a word, you’ve hardly eaten, and I’m starting to worry for you.”
His face was so kind, so gentle, that it instantly reminded her of the way he’d looked at her as she’d lain in that hospital bed after Laurence had raped her and left her for dead. Alex hadn’t betrayed her nearly so violently, but the deception hurt her almost as deeply. She sighed. “He's never even mentioned female friends to me, so I have no idea who she was.” It sounded kind of petty when she voiced it. Like she could have misread the situation somehow, but the look of utter relaxation on his face when she’d first walked in and seen her hands all over his perfect, sculpted, bare chest soon banished that thought. He’d loved it. He’d been truly relaxed in a way that Sam had never seen. When they’d had their closest moment, beginning in the bathroom, he’d been tense, nervous, apprehensive, almost like a young teen. “The thing is," she added, "I’m more upset about him turning out not to be what I thought he was than I am about the actual act of being with someone else…”
“How do you mean ‘with’?” he asked, obviously treading on metaphorical eggshells as he imagined Sam stumbling in on her boyfriend having sex with someone else.
Pain flashed across her mind and she turned away, mumbling, “He was half naked on the sofa and she was standing behind him, running her hands all over him.”
“Half naked? Which half?”
Her gaze was steady and dark. “Top,” she clarified, continuing along the path, scuffing small stones under her feet.
“So it wasn’t anything explicitly sexual…” he pressed.
Tears welled up in her eyes. “Stop defending him, Dan!” She stopped suddenly and stared fiercely at him. “He cheated on me with some tall willowy blonde, and he kept it from me. I have no idea how long it’s been going on, or who she is, or how he met her, but he seemed to have no problem opening up to her.” She paused, smearing a little runaway tear across her cheek. Dan looked contrite, backing off in the face of her pain. “He made such a big deal of getting close to me, like his disability was a major ‘thing’ he had to deal with in a relationship, and yet there he is ‘connecting’ with this girl. I mean, he didn’t seem to want me to see him naked, or even really without his top on, and when I did, it was like a it was a massive deal.” She felt drained and very weak all of a sudden, her knees beginning to turning to water. “It’s like I’ve just found out that don’t know him at all.”
“I’m sorry,” Dan said, resting his hand on her shoulder in a protective, older brother kind of way. “I didn’t mean to open the flood-gates. I just wanted to know what happened. You’re going to be ok though. You’re tough.”
“Am I?” she asked, her eyes wide and frightened. “Going to be ok?”
He stood square-on, his shoulders parallel with hers, and took both her tiny hands in his. “Of course you are, Sam. He’s just a guy. You’re going to hurt, and be angry and confused, and then you’re going to decide that it doesn’t matter and you’re going to move on.”
She blinked. “I am?”
“Of course you are. Come on,” he said, offering his arm for her to lean on like a gentleman in a costume drama. “Let’s get you home and try and get you to eat something, shall we?”
“Ok,” she muttered, becoming that docile child again.
There were two entrances to Dan’s block of flats, one from the main road, and another from the garage area at the back. They had left by the front entrance, but now, coming back from their looping walk, Dan pressed his key fob up to the sensor and the back door popped open. He pushed it and ushered Sam inside. As she began to climb the stairs, she heard Dan call, “I’m just going to put the bin back – they collected the rubbish this morning. Here, take my keys,” he added, handing a big bunch to her.
“Ok,” she said emotionlessly as she put one foot on the first stair and began to walk numbly up, completely unaware of her surroundings. As she got to the top, she saw a figure sitting slumped on the floor at the top of the stairs, back pressed against the wall. It was Alex.
Suddenly the haze of grief and betrayal descended on her like red mist, and she swayed on the spot, perilously close to falling down the stairs.
“Sam!” His voice was sharp with alarm, then suddenly gentler again. “Sam?”
She couldn’t form words, but her thoughts ran wildly and her feet kept walking towards him like a train without a driver. What is he doing here? How the hell did he get up here? Did he drag himself up three flights of stairs? Where’s his chair?
“Sam,” he said again. This time his voice was not a question. There were enormous purple shadows under his eyes and he looked about as bad as she felt. Still, that didn’t soften her much, because when she looked into those black, glittering eyes, all she saw was her while he tipped his head back and exhaled in pleasure. She felt sick just looking at him.
When she was only a few steps away from where he sat on the stairs, her world warped badly and she thought she was going to hurl. There was a ringing in her ears and points of light danced before her eyes. She forced herself to keep going, and tried to run past him, darting through the tiny gap like she was dodging an approaching freight train at the last minute. The quick movement made everything go fuzzy and her world slipped sideways. Too much exertion on a stomach that had been empty for nearly three days. She fumbled the key into the lock, and somehow turned it, pushing the heavy door back.
“Sam!” she heard him shout as she staggered sideways into the wall. Then he was crawling towards her, his useless, unbraced legs trailing behind him as he moved, desperate to get to her in time, seeing that she was about to faint. He inched forwards while she tried to steady herself on the door, but its sheer surface offered no grip and she slithered along it, and it banged back against the inner wall of Dan’s apartment.
All she’d heard from him was her name. No sorry, no explanation, just ‘Sam’, over and over. Her knees threatened to buckle as his figure, maybe a yard or so from her now, blurred vaguely into shadow, she just managed to whisper, “I hate you,” before the stars danced again on a gathering black curtain, and she turned around into the hallway and slammed the door in his face.
Three words. Three words can lift the soul to great heights, and exchanging the middle word for its antithesis can shred that soul to pieces in as many seconds. Sam had switched love for hate, and Alex felt something snap inside him as he heard her tell him she hated him. Dan came charging up the stairs and saw Alex on the floor, eyes trained on the door in front of him like a sentry. “You! Stay away from her. What did you do to her now?” he asked, hammering on the door. “Sam? Sam, can you hear me?”
“Dan,” he croaked. “I… I only came to talk to her. She wouldn’t pick up when I called, she wouldn’t answer my texts. I had to come here…”
“You bastard!” he snarled. “Of course she wasn't going to answer. You broke her!”
A muffled murmur from inside followed by a jangling at the door announced that it was on the latch. Dan turned the handle and the door opened. He paused in the doorway and looked back at Alex and said, “I thought Laurence had broken her when he raped her and left her to die. I was wrong. What you did to her, betraying her trust like that… that broke her.”
Alex couldn’t breathe. “Sam,” he croaked as the door was slammed for a second time, kicked shut by Dan’s retreating heel, and he was left alone in the empty, echoing hallway. No words came to him to describe what he felt in that moment. Anything he tried to think got blurred and distorted like a drop of dark ink in water. Only one word, one concept, remained clear. “Sam,” he said again, as though she would somehow hear him.
He hadn’t cried since Olivia left him, but that had mostly been from a mix of shock and drugs. He had soon realised, talking to the residents of The Laurels, that it was common for a relationship not to survive an SCI, so it was hardly surprising that a couple of naïve eighteen year olds had not survived something like that. Just when he’d needed one thing to remain the same though, in the swirling aftermath of the accident and his mother’s death, Olivia had come to him in hospital and said that it was probably best if he “had some space from their relationship” to “deal with getting better”. Bullshit. Three weeks later the captain of the rugby team was fucking her brains out and she’d forgotten him completely. The deceit of it all had been what had cut him to the quick, and now he had done the same thing to Sam.
From somewhere in his fuddled pain he heard his phone ringing and he fumbled through his pockets to answer it. He thought he saw Will’s name on the screen before he answered, but he couldn’t be sure.
“Alex? Where are you?” It was Will, and he was frantic. He had good reason to be – Alex had been a state of manic and uncontrollable depression since the incident. He’d managed to explain to Will what had really been going on that day, and that had changed Will’s mind about trying to talk to Sam. He had said to wait though. “I came back and you’d gone. Your braces and crutches are here, but the car is gone. Where are you?”
“I…” his breath was shallow and so very painful, “I’m at Sam’s.”
“No, I’m at Dan’s. I guessed she’d come here. Sam’s here. She… I…” and suddenly he found himself in tears. Guilt and frustration overwhelmed him, and great wracking sobs tore at his chest, and he gulped and gasped uncontrollably. The phone almost slipped from his grasp.
“Alex, what’s the address? Let me come and get you.”
He had no idea what the address was. He’d only been there once, to ‘walk’ Sam over to meet Dan one afternoon early in their relationship. He didn’t really even know where he was any more. All he knew was that Sam was on the other side of the door in front of him, he was lying on the ground, and she hated him.
Eventually Will’s coaxing voice managed to get the name of the block of flats from him and he began to calm down. In fact he calmed down so much that he found himself slipping into the disconnected kind of trance he’d found comfort in after waking up in the ICU. Some time later, his mildly hyperventilating and desperate brother, turned up in a taxi with the help of Google Maps no doubt.
Alex heard the sound of feet on the treads of the stairs, and heard an indistinct shout when Will reached the top. When he was kneeling by his brother’s side, Will said, “How the fuck did you get up here? Come on.”
“Sam,” he said hoarsely, his black, eerily dead eyes still locked on the closed door.
“Alex, come on,” he urged. “Come on. Leave her be. Give her time.”
“No,” he said. “No, she won’t forgive me. I loved her and I hurt her too. I always hurt the people I love.”
Will’s blue eyes widened. “Stop that. You’re not making sense, Alex. Come on.” And then he did something he’d not done since the early days after the accident. He hooked one arm beneath Alex’s and hoisted him onto his back. Alex had gained a lot of muscle weight since those early days, and Will staggered sideways into the banister, but he remained upright, with Alex draped over his shoulders like a sack of coal. Alex didn’t even protest.
Alex had no memory of how long it took to get down those stairs. Nor of being placed like a sedated lunatic into his chair at the bottom. Nor of being driven home. Somehow Will got him from car to chair, and chair to stair lift, and stair lift to chair, and chair to bed without his remembering any of it. When he woke the next morning, he had the shadow of a memory of Will doing other things for him which he should have done himself, and he was only slightly ashamed. His overriding feeling when he woke however was simply that he wished he hadn’t.
A week passed in a blur. He didn’t eat and he barely drank, and he didn’t get out of bed either. Will had begun to despair at the third set of wet sheets, and through the fog of his depression, Alex heard him slump against the wall and swear to himself. “Fuck, Alex, snap out of it. I don’t know what to do. I can’t do this any more.”
He hadn’t the energy to tell him not to.
About a week after Dan had discovered Alex at the top of the stairs, he heard the doorbell ring, and he left the sitting room reluctantly. Sam had been up and down since their walk, but was now in one of her spaced-out slumps; curled at the end of the sofa, huddled in his big beige blanket, staring into the depths of a mug of semi-cold tea, as though trying to divine some hope from its swirling patterns. He pressed his eye to the peep hole and saw someone he didn’t recognise. Opening the door, he said, “Yes?”
The man was older than him, but still pretty young, though his face carried all the weight and burden of a much older man. “My name is Will. I’m Alex’s brother,” was his opening line.
Anger flared in the pit of Dan’s stomach and he growled, “What, the coward sent you to parlay for him did he? Well you can both fuck off!” and he made to slam the door in the other man’s face.
“Please,” Will gasped, his hand shooting out to catch the door before it was rammed shut.
The depth of feeling in that one word halted Dan’s hand and he demanded, “What?”
“Please,” he said again, more calmly this time. “May I come in? May I talk with Sam?”
“No you may not,” Dan snapped. “She’s in no state to see anyone. And if Alex wanted to talk to her, he should bloody well have come himself.”
“He couldn’t have come,” Will began. “He’s…”
“What?” Dan asked, his anger melting slightly at the expression on the other man’s face. “Why not?”
Will took half a step towards him. “He’s in a terrible way. I’ve never seen him like this. Not even after the accident which took our mother and his legs. He’s just given up. He’s not eating, he’s barely sleeping… I… I’m worried he’s just going to waste away. That’s why I came. I need to talk to Sam. I need to tell her who Rachel is, what she meant to Alex, and then maybe she’ll understand enough to forgive him. I’m not saying they have to get back together or anything like that, I just… don’t know what else to do.”
“Rachel? That’s her name? Look, I don’t think that’s a good idea. She’s not… Sam’s not…” he couldn’t even finish.
Will spoke again. “We both want the best for the people we love,” he said. “We need to work out how we can help them.”
“I don’t know what to do either,” Dan said helplessly. “I was there when… before, but…” He didn’t finish, but instead stood back and opened the door to him.
Will stepped inside with a softly spoken, “Thank you.”
“This way.” Dan walked away down the corridor into a room at the far end of the flat. “Sam,” he said gently, like he was talking either to a Rottweiler on a chain or an old lady in a nursing home. Will couldn’t decide which. “Sam, there’s someone here for you.”
“I really don’t care.” Her voice was flat, dead, and eerily like Alex’s, Will noted as he rounded the corner into the living room and saw her on the end of a sofa.
She had shrunk, it seemed to him, her face thinner and gaunter than the last time he’d seen it, but maybe that was just the shadows under her eyes. “Sam,” he said quietly. “It’s Will.”
She blinked once, but didn’t take her eyes from the tea in front of her.
“I need to talk to you. Is that alright?”
“Whatever,” she croaked.
He looked at Dan, almost for permission, like he was her guardian, almost for reassurance that this was normal for her behaviour of late. He nodded. “Sam, I’m not here to excuse my brother or anything.”
Her eyes left the mug and wandered vaguely to his face, darting away as soon as they found his watery blue eyes.
“I… I’m sorry to have to come to you, but I honestly didn’t know who else to turn to. I…” he ploughed on, “I need your help.”
“With what?” she whispered, eyes now meandering around a pattern on the rug beside the table.
“Alex.” She winced at his name. Will continued. “I’ve never seen him the way he is now. Even after the accident. He’s… he’s given up, Sam.”
“What about her?” she said bitterly. “Can’t she comfort him?” Her tone cut him like a knife of ice.
“Alex was an idiot. He’s known Rachel since his days at the rehab centre, and they used to be really close but… he’s not like that. He’s not the kind of person to betray someone as good as you. I don’t know if it makes it better or worse that she’s not just some random girl, but they were good friends. He’s not seen her for years though. They got back into contact about a month ago.”
"Was she a patient there too then?" Will nodded. “She's disabled too?” Sam asked masochistically, her eyes still trying to burn a hole the size of a fifty pence piece in Dan’s parent’s nice rug.
Will swallowed. “Yes, she lost her leg to cancer about a year before Alex got hurt.”
“Did he do it because she’s disabled too, and I’m not? Because she knows what it’s like, and I don’t?” Her dark eyes blazed like magma for a second as she looked at him again, before her gaze melted to the floor again.
There was so much anger in her that Will took half a step backwards. Her rapid-fire questions stung, and as much as Will wanted to defend Alex and shield him from her fury, he didn’t know whether she was right or not. “Whatever it was, he’s regretting it to the point of giving up entirely. I don’t think he did anything… ‘serious’ with her… I think what you saw was all there was, if you follow.” He sighed. “Sam, I… he… he wouldn’t forgive me for telling you this, but he’s just lying in bed, not eating, hardly drinking, he’s not got up for anything –” he cut off, realising he was about to say something that would shame Alex.
Her gaze finally flicked up when she caught his meaning. Dan could see that she still felt for Alex, despite what he’d done to her. This was different from Laurence. Laurence had left her empty of everything but fear. She was not empty now though; her insides were clearly storming with a cocktail of emotions.
“He’s that bad?” she said.
Will nodded once. “He’s lucky not to be in hospital really, the way he's mistreating his body. Would… would you come to him? Would you let him see you?” Dan watched him go from faltering to frantic in only a few breaths. “Would you let him talk to you? You don’t have to forgive him or anything, I’m not asking that. I’m just asking for you to help me rescue my brother. He’s all I’ve got.” He stopped, realising the tide of sentiment he’d just let out.
Sam sat in silence, and Dan crossed to her. A tear rolled down her cheek. “I hate him,” she choked as the tears began to flow again. He put his arms around her tiny, frail, birdlike form, and said nothing. “I hate him. But I love him.”
Will’s ears pricked up at that. “He loves you too, Sam.”
Her tears became deep sobs, and she clung to Dan, arms reaching around his shoulders as she shed her tears into his shirt. “I hate him, I hate him, I hate him,” she repeated over and over until she had no more tears to cry.
“Come on,” Dan said. “Let’s get you up and dressed.”
“Why?” she asked.
“So you can go and talk things through.” He sounded more determined than he felt. “The only way either of you is going to get any better is if you talk about it. I’m not having you go off to Canada and leave all this unresolved.”
The flat was in a real state when they reached it: papers, items of clothing, all sorts of things that had been abandoned and not stowed away again were scattered across the floor and draped over pieces of furniture. “Sorry about all this,” Will muttered. “It’s kind of not been one of my priorities...” Sam was walking slowly and carefully by his side, as though she would pass out if she went over a certain speed.
Will led the way to Alex’s room, and with each step, Sam felt more and more acutely like she was going to be sick. She hadn’t dared look at that sofa as they’d passed.
The curtains were drawn shut, the air was horribly musty and close, and he was lying in bed. She saw through the gloom that he had no shirt on, and he was on his right hand side, facing away from them as they halted in the doorway. She looked up at Will uncertainly. He nodded once. Her heart was pounding. As angry as she was with him, and as raw and bleeding as her little heart was at that point, she couldn’t help but pity him.
There was no smell of ammonia in the air, as Will had subtly hinted there might be. “Alex,” she croaked softly, her voice barely carrying any further than her own lips. He didn’t stir, even when she repeated her call. For him to register her presence, she would have to go over to him and touch him. In a few small, solo steps, she was standing by his bed. She raised her hand and placed it on the bare skin of his shoulder; he was freezing and there was the dampness of a cold sweat beneath her touch. “Alex, wake up. It’s Sam.” Her voice sounded faint and husky to her ears.
There was a slight shuffle and movement, but he didn’t turn over. Will lost patience at that point and marched around to the other side of the bed, knelt down right in Alex’s face and hissed, “Alex, get a grip. The girl you hurt so badly has come all the way up here to speak to you. Man the fuck up and face her.”
Beneath her touch, she felt one dry, tearless sob push from his lungs, and then he began to breath in fast, shallow, nervous pants.
Her anger was melting from her like snow in fire-warmed hands, no matter how hard she tried to cling to it. Alex was so ashamed, he could hardly bear to face her. His eyes, she saw as he raised his head slightly, were bloodshot and unfocused, and his cheeks were actually kind of gaunt and sallow-looking after a days of not eating. He barely had the energy to roll over. He got half way, so that he lay on his back, but his legs were still facing the window, left behind like surplus cargo. He slumped into the pillow, sweat stippling his brow. Will eased his brother’s hips over to make him more comfortable, but Alex still looked like he was in a lot of pain. She didn’t know if it was physical or mental pain.
He didn’t, or wouldn’t, meet her eye. In fact, his gaze wandered almost blindly over the ceiling, and she felt a spark of worry inside her, despite herself. “Alex,” she said, her shaky voice growing in confidence. “I need to talk to you about what happened. But first… you need to come back to us.”
His head flopped in her direction and he blinked slowly. He still hadn’t spoken, though his dry, cracked lips were parted as if on the brink of words. He looked awful. He looked as awful as she felt inside. A low hiss came from him and she realised that he had tried to say her name.
“Yes, I’m here,” she said. “God knows why, but I’m here.”
Will interjected and said, “She came because I asked her to, Alex.” Alex’s dark eyes swam across to Will’s wrecked expression. A certain clarity seemed to be returning to his face, but he still said nothing. “She’s here because I don’t know what else to do. I didn’t know what else would bring you back to us.” Alex pressed his lips together slowly, swallowing painfully, and Will looked at the empty glass on the bedside table, adding, “I’ll get you some more water.”
Alex attempted to raise himself up on his elbows and flopped back, breaking out into a light sweat at the effort.
When Will returned, he saw Alex struggling again and supported him until he was upright. Sam instinctively pulled the pillows up against the headboard so he had something soft to lean against. Once it was in place, she pulled back away from him, shrinking away as he raised his left hand, fingers searching clumsily just above the surface of the duvet for her. Will handed him the glass and he reacted like a video clip played at 2500fps. It slipped a bit but his fingers remembered what to do, and he began to drink it gently. He wretched a little as the liquid hit his empty stomach, but he kept it down. With heavy, hooded eyes, he turned his gaze, finally, to Sam’s face. “Sam,” he whispered. His lip quivered and he stopped talking for a second. He seemed to be recovering slowly.
“Still waiting, Alex,” she fired testily, her anger returning now that he seemed a little revived.
It was as though his ribcage dissolved; he crumpled inwards, his shoulders folding as the air rushed from his lungs in a huge sigh. “I’m so sorry. I…” he faltered. “I don’t know where to begin.”
Will grabbed the glass.
Her voice was icy. “How about telling me why you did what you did.” She paused and added, “And how far it went.”
“I’ve not seen her for years,” he began. He swallowed, moistening his lips with a quick movement of his tongue. “She and I were… she… she helped me in rehab. Brought my self-esteem back after waking up paralysed and half blind, just by being kind to me, and patient. We just got closer after that, but it was really only while we were in rehab.” He took a breath. “We got back in touch a little while ago – she moved back to the area – we had a couple of coffees and lunches together, and then she just dropped by unexpectedly that day. My shoulders were killing me, so she offered to help. She trained as a physio for a bit –”
The room was oppressive. She felt sick. “I can’t do this,” she said, backing away.
“Wait, please,” Will and Alex both said together, Will adding second ‘please’ a heartbeat later.
Fighting the urge to scream, cry, hit both of them, faint and run from the room all at the same time, she sank into a chair beside the bed. It was covered in his t shirts and clothes, and as she sat down, that sharp sandalwood scent rose in a cloud and she felt hot tears on her face.
Alex lifted himself a little as he began to slip down the pillows, and said, “It’s killing me how much I hurt you. I made a huge mistake, and I don’t know how to make it right.”
“I don’t know either,” she said. “But,” she added, “But you can start by doing what Will says and stopping all this,” she gestured with her eyes around his dark room.
His eyes widened and he looked hurt and ashamed.
“Sam, I was a coward, and I’m sorry. Nothing happened – she was just getting the kinks out of my shoulder.”
It sounded like a thin excuse, and she demanded softly, “Tell me something?”
“Was it because she’s disabled too?”
Her question hung in the air for a moment. “What?” he asked utterly incredulous.
"Could you let yourself get so close to her because she's disabled too?"
“No, no it wasn’t because of that. You thought…?”
“Because she gets you on a level I never can.” Her voice was firm and full of hurt.
“Oh Sam,” he gasped, his hand twitching on the covers, trying to reach for her again. “Don’t take this on those shoulders of yours. This is my fault. I cracked and panicked – it was all going so well with you and me, but I was trying so damn hard not to let you see too much of ‘me’ all at once in case you couldn’t handle it, and I fell into an old and comfortable trap.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, feeling her eyebrows tugging upwards on her face, buckling and pulling all the tension in her head a little tighter. “I loved you.”
The innocence in her statement made his fingers contract, yanking the duvet into a tight ball in his palm. “I’m sorry. Being with you, I try so hard not to look so disabled. I use my crutches as much as I can, I cover my legs up when I can… I want so much to be whole for you, and I just cracked.”
“I still don’t understand. You are whole. I loved you for you. I didn’t need you to be anything more; you were everything already!” she found herself on her feet, and shouting.
She was going for the door as she heard Alex cry out, “Please, don’t leave. Don’t leave me. I love you.”
“Bullshit,” she stormed from where she’d come to a sudden stop in the doorway. “You don’t treat people you love like that. You don’t shut the people you love out, and let the people that you apparently don’t love in instead.” As she looked back she was shocked to see tears running down his face too. He was crying. Her big, tough, handsome, battle-scarred boy was crying.
“I love you,” he whispered. “I know we’ve only been together a few months, but I they're the happiest months I think I've ever had, before or since my accident. And I fucked it up. I fucked it all up.” His whole body shook with sobs and his deep voice cracked.
Those words had a real and profound affect on Sam. His behaviour with Rachel notwithstanding, he had only ever treated her with the greatest respect. She sighed, her anger ebbing again. “Alex.” He looked up, hope and despair battling each other in his pink eyes. “Alex, I can’t pretend that what you did isn’t a big deal, or that I’m ever going to forgive you for it…” Despair gained the upper hand and he lowered his head. “But I’m not saying it’s over.”
He blinked. Looked up. His eyes widened and his lips parted again. “Sam,” he breathed, her name all he seemed capable of saying.
She knew what he was really asking. “Yes,” she said. “That’s right.”
Alex watched the ghost of the girl he’d hurt, gaunt, and white, and distant, as she backed away from him. “Promise you’ll come back… promise me you won’t just… vanish? You won’t go to Canada without saying goodbye?”
She sighed, and he looked for an awful moment like he thought she was going to say no. Eventually she said, “I promise.” And fled from the room.
The silence which followed that promise felt immeasurably deep, and when days passed and she didn't call, he knew he would have to be the one to call her. On the evening she was due to go fly out, he picked up his phone. On third ring, she picked up. “Alex,” she said.
Damn, it was good to hear her voice. “Sam,” he said. “I didn’t hear from you. You fly out tomorrow. I... I had to…”
“I actually had the phone in my hand to call you. Just couldn’t work up the courage.”
Her voice was dead, numb, and it hurt almost more than her anger the last time he’d heard it. “How’ve you been?” he asked shyly.
“Better since I came to see you, if I’m honest” she said, some emotion returning.
“You were the brave one then… Thank you for doing that. I panicked after my disastrous visit to Dan’s. I was such a coward. I’m sorry.”
“Let’s just move on, shall we?” she said coldly.
Move on? That held a certain horror for him. “That sounds like you… you’ve decided don’t want anything more to do with me. Did I really fuck it up so badly?”
“You lied to me, Alex,” she said flatly. “I wouldn’t have minded you meeting up with her – hell, she represents a safety blanket from a really tough time, I get that – but you could have told me, and you didn’t. What do you think I’d feel after I walk in on you with a girl I’ve never seen before, you half naked on a sofa with her hands all over you…?”
“I know, I know,” he said, his eyes screwing up in hurt. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. Please tell me you won’t hold it against me for too long?” he knew he was being pathetic and whiny, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Don’t tell me I don’t have any hope?”
“Alex, I really don’t want anything more to do with you after the way you acted. I gave myself completely to you. For the first time since I was seventeen, I opened up to someone; I felt you were different, but you’re just like every other guy. I was right,” she said, now sounding alarmingly determined, “I’m better off alone.” She sighed.
“Sam, please –”
She interrupted him. “No, Alex. I wish you well, but Toronto is going to be a new start for me. I have eight months to dedicate myself to my studies, to a new culture, and I don’t have to think about guys, about dating, about relationships any more. I hope you find someone you can be as open with as you were with Rachel, but at the moment, I just don’t think that’s me.”
If she’d sliced him in half with Sephiroth’s Masamune, she could not have hurt him more. And he deserved it, which only made it worse. Fighting back tears, he said, “Very well. I wish you all the best. I hope you’ll be happy. You deserve that.”
“Goodbye Alex,” she said. “Take care of yourself, won’t you?” there was a brief pause, and then she added with gentle feeling, “Please, don’t contact me again.”
A shuddering sigh hissed from his chest and he slumped forwards in his chair, the phone sliding from his fingers and skittering away across the floor, with Sam probably still on the line. With his elbows on his knees, he just sat there while the light changed outside and the late afternoon light faded from bright gold to dusky rose.
Eventually he moved and went over to the window, looking up at the marching pinnacles of King’s College Chapel as the sun set behind it, setting every stone aflame with its rich, ochre light. He knew he wouldn’t see her again. He could just feel it in the pit of his stomach. “What do I do?” he said aloud. “What do I do?”
Heathrow airport departure lounge echoed anonymously. Sam felt just like a ghost as she drifted towards her gate and the plane that would take her to the next chapter in her life. Alex was a short chapter, a closed chapter, that had taken place after the end of Cambridge and before the beginning of Canada. But somehow, no matter how many times she told herself this, she missed him so much it felt like there was a gaping hole in her chest, and it only made the pain worse when she thought of his betrayal.
Still, she thought as the plane rumbled and roared, shooting down the runway, gathering speed and heading for the clouds, I can start all over again now; I can throw myself into my work, and make something of my time abroad. And I’ll be three and a half thousand miles from Cambridge.
To be continued...