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The Story of Us

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“Do you dream about it?” Ella is looking at me, waiting for my answer.

“I dream.” I say this as if it doesn't matter. Everyone dreams, whether they remember or not. Dreaming about things that have happened is—

“Not unusual,” she says. “You've been through a trauma, and your brain is still trying  to process it.”

She's a therapist, and it's her job to get me to process, to work through the moment my life changed. And all the moments since. I'm a doctor, so I can easily explain the damage that happened as that bullet tore through my shoulder. I can name the muscles and bones and nerves that will never heal completely, and explain why I will never be able to do surgery again. Nobody really wants to hear that, though.

The other isn't something I can explain, or even talk about. After it happened, when I woke up in hospital, the dreams had already started. They haven't stopped.

 

The story of us begins in a desert in Afghanistan. I am an army surgeon stationed at Camp Bastion. It’s my job to patch up soldiers so they can go back to fighting and eventually return home. A harrowing job, one I do well, one I both love and hate.

I remember kneeling, leaning over a man who’d been shot, trying to stop the bleeding so we could get him out of danger and fix him up properly. His name was Alan Davis, a fusilier from Blyth. As I applied pressure to the gut wound he’d received, knowing that it was futile, I felt myself abruptly shoved onto him, covering his body with mine. For some reason, the pain didn’t register. I thought someone had pushed me down because they saw an incoming shell. I didn’t hear an explosion, as expected, and then I realised that my patient was covered with blood. It was only when I saw the hole in my jacket that I realised it was my blood, soaking the left shoulder of my jacket. That was the last thing I knew.

People who have near-death experiences often report moving along a tunnel towards a light. Or seeing loved ones beckoning to them. I don’t remember anything like that. I was dead for seven minutes, but all I can remember is the smell of cardamom and gun powder.

 

I wake up in a hospital. I don’t know I’ve been dead, but I feel like I ought to be. Morphine drugs the pain away, and I drift in a grey haze. If you were to ask me how long I was in this Never-state, I couldn’t tell you. Nineteen days, they say when I open my eyes. I teetered between life and death and only knew that I was not going to die after nineteen days had passed. Private Davis was luckier, perhaps. He found the tunnel of light and went on to his reward.

I suppose I was dreaming during this time. I don’t remember. I only know that when I opened my eyes, I remembered things that hadn’t happened. Remembered is perhaps the wrong word; at the time they felt like dreams— vivid, but shadowy around the edges.

My first thoughts at that point, though, are mostly make the pain stop. By the time I’ve been shipped back to England with a wound that means I’m done with the army, I am aware that my dreams don’t reflect anything I’ve been through.

 

The first time I see you, we’re running down a street. For some reason, we're handcuffed together. Clearly, it isn't the first time. For handcuffs, maybe, but I already know you when I dream this.

You. Dark curls and eyes like glass, eyes that see straight into me. Tall and mysterious with your cheekbones and your coat collar up so you look cool.

I already love you when this happens, though I haven’t said anything. I’m in love with this thing— you and me against the world.

It feels right. You’re a madman, always running off, getting yourself drugged or shot or— I catch glimpses of those other dreams out of the corner of my eye. But now I have to focus. Here we are, manacled together, and I won’t let you get away, not this time.

We’re going to jump in front of that bus, you say.

I think, maybe this is how we die.

But no. People in dreams don’t die, I remind himself. That’s what I’ve heard, anyway.  And now I’m being dragged in another direction. I run.

Come on. We’ve got a flat to break into.

 

Every night, as soon as I close my eyes, I’m running after you, my heart pounding. I feel alive.

My real life is a grey bedsit, physical therapy, and staring at a blank page I’m supposed to write on. It feels like an unending dream. Only when I’m asleep, running towards danger, am I a real person.

“You haven’t written a word, have you?”

I shrug. Nothing to write about.

Ella writes in her notebook: Still has trust issues.

“There isn’t any wrong way to do this, John,” she says. “Just be patient with yourself. Give it time.”

Time. Something I have in abundance. Long hours, long days. Each day stretches before me like an endless road leading nowhere. At night I lie in bed, listening to the minutes tick by, waiting.

Just give it time. Why didn’t I think of that?

You're an idiot. No, don't look like that. Practically everyone is.

You’re rude, to be sure. But brilliant. I love you.

I don’t even know your name.

 

Harry comes to visit me. She gives me her phone, a gift from the girlfriend who’s just figured out that Harry Watson is never getting better, never going to stop disappointing her. There was screaming; things were thrown. And Harry was the one who packed her things and left. That’s Harry, all angry reaction, pinging from one situation to the next, no reflection, no forgiveness.

“Call me,” she says. We both know I won’t.

It’s a nice phone, expensive, if a bit scuffed. Harry Watson — From Clara XXX.

I remember you. I prefer to text.

Here, use mine.

The touch of your fingers as you hand it back to me. I’m not in love with you yet, but I’m intrigued. I’ve never met anyone like you, and I feel something. My life is going to change.

“John? Will you call me?” Harry’s at the door, about to leave.

“Yeah, sure,” I say.

 

That night I remember a murderous cab driver, a pink phone, and Rachel.

The pill is poison. I don’t know how I know this. It’s only a dream, but it feels truer than anything that happens in real life. The cabbie is a killer, and you’re about to take the pill.

I can’t question the logic that is making this happen; I can’t let it happen, either. I shoot the cabbie. It feels right.

Need to get the powder burns out of your fingers, you say, grinning.

Not a very nice man. And a bloody awful cabbie.

 

I wonder if something is wrong with my eyes, because everything is grey.

I sleep-walk to my appointments, feeling nothing but the weight of emptiness. It’s only when I’m in my narrow bed, dead to the world, that I feel awake. There are colours and music and the echoes of gunshots. A thrum of constant danger runs through my veins. In those dreams, I am a different person. I laugh, and run (no limp), and get angry with you, who are the worst flatmate ever, the best friend ever.

I like company when I go out, you say. The skull just attracts attention, so…

I look at the mantel, where something is missing. I’m filling in for the skull?

Relax, you’re doing fine.

You get off on this. I grab my coat from the rack, put it on. You like it.

You are already heading down the stairs. I said “danger,” and here you are.

 

It’s not really dreaming, you understand. My brain has nothing interesting to do, so it’s being creative. I don’t know where these moments come from, but it isn’t like anything I’ve ever felt. They happen not only when I’m asleep. These visions bleed into the daylight, ambushing me as I pass a shop or walk through the park.

When I head into the hospital for my appointment, I shudder.

Blood on the sidewalk.

 

There is physio twice a week, and a strong recommendation to visit the pool every Friday for hydrotherapy. It’s supposed to loosen up my tight shoulder, the trainer says. Maybe it will also get rid of the pain that makes me limp. I used to be a good swimmer, back when I was at school.

I stand in the middle of the pool, arthritic swimmers paddling in the lanes on either side. The light from the upper windows bounces off the water. The sounds of the instructor shouting encouragement echo.

It’s the chlorine, I think, that triggers me this time. I’m wearing a vest full of explosives, reading a script. The look on your face tells me that you did not expect this.

People have died.

I know that's what people do, eventually. I’ve seen more people die than the average person, in ways too horrible to describe. I know what happens when a soldier steps on a mine, have seen a shell make a crater where people once stood. I remember dying once, bleeding out in a desert.

And I wonder if that's where this gift comes from. Not a gift, exactly. Maybe a curse, to live a second life every night while I sleep and wake up dead tired to a world where nothing ever happens to me. To walk the streets of London every day, remembering things that have not happened.

Sometimes I think that I really did die in the desert, and this is some kind of bizarre afterlife. It figures.

 

“Violent dreams are normal,” Ella says. “You're reliving the event.”

I’m not normal, but I can't say that. I don't feel traumatised. At night, I feel like I could run forever.

It’s an escape. I know enough psychology to understand that. The problematic part is that I prefer the visions to my real life. When I’m running in your wake, I want to cross over into that world and never come back. I want to live there. This is not normal. Most of the time I feel minimally alive, barely human.

It's not a pleasant thought, John, you tell me, but I have this terrible feeling from time to time that we might all just be human.

Even you? I ask.

No, even you.

I stare into your eyes, memorising their colour. Does such a colour even exist?

I need to know. I’m afraid to ask. Are you real?

You smile.

 

The visions are pieces of a story. Like a jigsaw puzzle, they seem random, scattered in no particular order. I begin sorting them into piles.

There are vivid pieces, the sharp edges that fit together in improbable ways. A pink case, yellow ciphers, red fingernails, a fake painting with brushstrokes of blue and green. Some are dark and barely distinguishable. Is this part of the dark alley, or the dog with glowing eyes? There are two chairs, facing one another in a room with ugly wall paper. That is a skull, and this is a teacup, and these pieces might be part of a gun. And a few pieces are blinding white, a dark figure standing in contrast against a pale grey sky.

 

I leave my flat for physio, my shoulder aching. That, at least, is real. I force myself to smile and speak to receptionists and therapists, pretending to be a normal person who wants to get better. I go through my routine, pushing my reps and sets and reminding myself that the pain is tethering me to the real world.

On the way back, I stop at Tesco and collect my bread and butter and milk. Rationing out just three teabags a day, a large box of the cheapest brand can last for nearly two months. I count the bags left in the box in my cupboard, imagine myself drinking the last cup.

I count the bullets that fit in my gun, imagine my last moment of sanity. The last dream, that dark figure against the sky.

 

I buy the milk; you sit and think, sometimes play the violin. Other than buying milk, I’m not sure what my job is, other than to follow you around, looking at dead bodies and giving my opinion on the time of death. Are you with the police?

I don’t voice these thoughts. It’s always lucid dreaming, where I can think about what I’m seeing and try to figure it out. It’s all in my head, and I know it.

But you turn to me, frowning. No, I'm a consulting detective, you patiently explain, the only one in the world. I invented the job. Swirling your coat, you continue down the sidewalk, stop and hail a cab.

I follow, then stop, realising. This is something new. Before you were just an actor, a character in a dream. A script. But now you’ve just ad libbed, gone off-script, broken the fourth wall. Can I talk to you about the dream? Are you dreaming, too?

Wait, I say. I have a question. Is this real?

A cab pulls up to the kerb. You open the door. Before you duck inside the cab, you turn to me. Yes, you say. This is real.

 

In real life, I have few friends. Harry is drinking again and has lost her job, all Clara’s fault, she claims. The others have moved on with their lives, marrying, having children, taking holidays, shopping for cars and washing machines and smart phones. Once I had something in common with these people, finishing school, searching for direction. Now I’ve fallen off their radar.

 

I wake up, sobbing.

He’s my friend… No, he’s my friend… pushing through a crowd… my heart pounding… breaking… your head, broken… blood on the sidewalk…

 

I don’t have friends. I remember that. It hurts because what I feel is deeper.

And then: I have just one.

 

Sometimes we are more than friends. I haven’t found the pieces that explain how I, a straight man, have fallen in love with you, a mad bastard. It feels inevitable. In dream logic, no other outcome is possible.

Lying in bed next to you, I feel such love that tears come into my eyes. I had no idea, I say. I didn’t understand.

Arms enfold me. Now you do.

 

The black coat flutters in the wind. I look up, towards the rooftop.

 

In the four walls of my real life, I am sitting in my chair, trying to write a blog post. Ella said it would help me work through things. There is nothing to write. Nothing ever happens to me.

And then I remember. Not this grey flat, but another flat, another chair, a warm sitting room with two chairs. I am typing with two fingers.

You are sitting opposite me. I see you’ve written up the taxi driver case.

Yes, I reply. I don’t ask, but want to know, what did you think?

A Study in Pink. Nice.

Well, there was a lot of pink. Did you like it?

Erm. No.

I stop typing, look up. I see you, your damp, tousled curls, your pale eyes looking back at me.

Why? What didn't you like?

You lean forward, setting the newspaper aside. You write events as you see them, you tell me. But the time of a story only seems linear. Later, you might go back, change a few words, leave some things out and add others. A year from now, you will read it and won't recognise yourself because you will be a different you.

Lucid dream, I remind myself. What are you saying?

Your eyes are like mirrors, like the sea, reflecting a pale sky. I mean, you say, if you could see your whole life laid out like a story, start to finish, would you change anything?

I stare at my empty screen.

 

I don’t know where we are. It’s dark. An alley? No, a stairwell.

We’re at the door, both of us wearing suits. A funeral?

Remember what they told you, I say. Don’t try to be clever. Keep it simple and brief.

I’ll just be myself, you say.

I’m irritated. I’m scared. Are you listening to me?

You lead the way down the stairs, pause at the bottom and turn to look at me. It’s dark, but there’s a sliver of light from the window that catches your hair, turning it red-gold, like a halo in a medieval painting. I don’t know what you’re seeing, but your eyes are sad and luminous, full of something you need to say.

John. Your voice is tender. This is the way people talk when they’re about to break your heart.

I wait.

I will come back, you say.

Not what I expected. Where are you going?

Not important. Just remember. I will come back.

 

I’m sitting in my therapy appointment. I’m angry and don’t know why.

Ella asks me, “What are you angry about, John?”

“I don’t know.”

“Anger is sometimes the way other feelings manifest. Fear, grief…”

You machine, I say.

You turn away. Alone is what I have.

“I’m afraid,” I tell Ella.

“Can you tell me what you’re afraid of?”

It’s in here with me.

Keep talking. I’ll find you.

I can hear it.

“Alone,” I whisper. “A dark place.”

“Do you feel abandoned, John? Who has abandoned you?”

“I don’t know. Someone.”

“Are you angry that person has left you?”

Just for me. Just… stop this. Don’t be dead.

“If you could see your whole life, start to finish,” I ask her, “would you change anything?”

“What is it that you want to change, John?”

 

We argue sometimes.

I’m shouting at you. You never tell me things! You just run off without me!

You look sad, apologetic. You don’t understand why this angers me, probably think that my funny little brain is jealous.

But it isn’t jealousy. It’s fear. You might leave me and never come back. I can’t say this.

I always come back, John.

 

I close my eyes. Come back to me.

 

As I go into the hospital for my appointment, I involuntarily glance up, at the roof. I’m not sure what I’m looking for.

Black coat, grey sky. You are here, talking to me.

Keep your eyes fixed on me, you say. Will you do this for me?

Do what?

This is my note. It's what people do, don't they? Leave a note?

A note for what?

Goodbye, John.

 

Blood on the sidewalk.

Come back to me.

 

I’m lying with my arms around you, in a warm afterglow.

I ask, if you could see your whole life laid out like a story, start to finish, would you change anything?

I wouldn't wait so long, you say. I would be less afraid.

Afraid of what?

You. I would be less afraid to love you.

 

***

 

It’s January. I can't afford my awful grey flat much longer. Not only the expense of it, but also the emotional price of it. This weighs on me a bit, but no solution presents itself. I could leave London, but it feels like home. If I stay, I will need a flatmate who isn't a waking figment of my dreaming imagination.

I’m coming back from physio one day when I hear a voice calling my name. The face I recognise, but the name escapes me.

“Mike Stamford. We were at Bart's together.”

Chatting is painful these days. I don't have much to say about Afghanistan. But because it’s expected social behaviour  to complain— the weather, the job, the wife, the politics, the train— I grumble about how expensive London is, bemoan the difficulty of finding a flat-share.

“Who’d want me for a flatmate?” I give a short, bitter laugh.

“It's odd you should say that,” Stamford replies. “Just this morning someone else was saying the same thing to me.”

An introduction can be made. I follow Stamford to Barts, down to the morgue. I hope my potential flatmate is not a corpse.

At the door of the lab, I’m making a comment about how much the hospital has changed since my day, when my breath catches. A man is looking into a microscope. It's you.

At first, I think it’s another vision. Maybe I’ve finally left reality behind, stepped completely into the dream.

I think, is this real? I wait for you to answer.

“Afghanistan or Iraq?” you say.

 

I move into a flat that already feels more like home than the bedsit. You are yourself, a madman who leaves body parts in the refrigerator, sits for hours without talking, plays the violin when he’s thinking, and shoots holes in the wall when he’s bored.

The dream has become real. I decide that if I’ve lost my marbles, I’m not going to go looking for them.

But this lacks dream logic. Things make sense here. Events happen in a logical sequence. Conversations don’t float disjointedly from one topic to the next. Actions are followed by consequences, which beget more actions, more consequences. The milk is bought, consumed, and added to the list I keep tacked to the refrigerator with a magnet. The bullet holes are added to the rent. And you can’t read my mind.

It all reels by quickly, though. This is how life was once, I think. When I was a boy, there never seemed to be enough hours in the day to play. That’s what this feels like. The grey days lasted an eternity, but have ended. Now days are full of you.

The pink case makes sense now. I knows the password before you figure it out, but don’t say because if I do, I might wake up suddenly in a straight-jacket. I watch you unravel it, know the minute you’ve left that you’re in the cab with a murderer.

I shoot the cabbie. Of course I do. That’s what's supposed to happen, and I don’t regret it. As I stand by the police cars waiting for you, I am certain that this is the night when we will become more than friends.

But I hesitate. Not yet, I tell myself. We’re just beginning. There’s more that has to happen first.

 

Real Moriarty isn’t quite as scary as dream-Moriarty. At the pool, I wait for my opportunity, ready to die. If there had been an explosion, I would have remembered that, so I know that I will walk out of the pool in one piece, with you at my side.

I will wait for Moriarty to return.

 

The pieces of the puzzle begin coming together. My life settles into an erratic routine. There are days of chaos and frustration, you refusing to eat or sleep until you solve a case. And there are calm interludes where we sit at home, me reading or blogging, you puttering around with experiments or playing your violin. I have seen this all before, and the unpredictability doesn’t bother me.

You are just as I imagined you— exasperating, brilliant, fascinating. You have a brother, Mycroft, whom I don’t remember from the dreams, but as I get to know more about the man, I understand why. He’s the British government, and nobody dreams about that.

I get to know all of the other shadowy characters I don’t quite remember— the Scotland Yard inspector with the silver hair is Lestrade, and his sergeant is Sally Donovan. I remember dear Mrs Hudson quite well. And Molly is there at the lab, with her colourful jumpers and shy glances.

When Harry calls to ask me if I’ve moved, I know it’s not a dream. I would never dream about my sister. My life is real now.

 

I sleep in the second bedroom, a floor up. I do not dream, except in shadows, the way dreams used to be. Most mornings, I don’t remember what I dreamed. There is no time in dreams, but minutes, hours and days are the very essence of life. And in time, I realise that I’ve lived at 221B Baker Street an entire year.

 

The Woman appears. She was only peripheral in the visions, so I assume she doesn’t matter. You find her interesting, though, and this piques my jealousy. He’s mine, I growl internally when she is close to you. Well, you aren’t mine yet, but you will be.

“Somebody loves you,” she tells you when she sees the damage inflicted by my half-hearted attempt to hit those sculpted cheekbones.

I wonder. Was she sent by Moriarty? It makes some sense, I realise.

When she is gone, I sense something different in you.

She was right, I think. I do love you.

It isn’t a dream, of course, and you don’t reply.

 

What I remember most about Baskerville is my own fear. I feel it again when I’m locked in the lab. I don’t remember being mauled by demonic hounds, so I know that I’ll survive the experiment. But I’m running out of memories. Only a few remain, and I can’t sort them out.

 

If you could see your whole life laid out like a story, from beginning to end, would you change anything?

I see this life, bits and pieces of it, but don’t know what I can change. Or if I should change anything.

 

I took Latin in school. We had to read a long, fairly boring poem called the Aeneid. Most of it I don’t recall, not even the parts they made us memorise. All but one part: the Cumean sibyl writes her prophecies on oak leaves, sorts them into stacks, and stores them in her cave. You come to her for answers. But as soon as the door opens, before you can ask your question, the wind blows them all into confusion.

I am a prophet with a pile of leaves. I don’t understand what it means.

 

“Do you believe in predestination?” I ask.

You scoff. You may be a madman, but you’re a rational one. “There is no evidence that a divine hand is guiding our lives.”

“But everything we do— don’t we cause the future through our choices? Do you think that if a person knew how each choice played out, they might choose a particular result?”

You shrug. “You may be able to follow your own choices to specific ends, but it’s not possible to see the future without knowing what everyone else is going to do.”

What is Moriarty going to do?

I remember you, on the roof. 

 

Prophecies rarely include such helpful information as names, so when I first hear the name Richard Brook, it means nothing to me. I know you are not an imposter, but can begin see how you might end up standing on a roof, looking down at me.

Still, you anger me. “You machine,” I say, and leave.

It’s only when I find Mrs Hudson in perfect health that I realise, turn around, and catch a cab back to the hospital.

 

“Goodbye, John.”

I have seen this before, your dark coat flapping against a background of grey sky, you falling, falling…

What good is it to see the future, if you can’t change it?

 

***

I find myself in a new world, one where you are dead. Looking back, I can see how I failed, and the guilt nearly crushes me. You were right; I am an idiot.  I was given a gift, but was too dense to know how to use it. Prophecy no longer pours into me. The future has told me all I am going to know. You are dead. I knew it would happen, but I didn’t stop it from happening.

I go with Mrs Hudson to the cemetery. She tells me, “John, you know it isn’t your fault. Once he was set on something, his mind couldn’t be changed. He was just that stubborn.”

“I’m angry.”  I remember the anger, but never envisioned this conversation.

She smiles at me. “That’s the way he made everyone feel.”

After she leaves me alone at the grave, I don’t know what to say. I could make a speech, tell you that you were the best man, the most human… human being I’ve ever known. I could tell you how alone I was before, and how much I owe you. I could beg for a miracle, tell you to stop all this, to just not… be… dead.

“Come back to me,” is what I say.

 

I get on with my life because there is no choice. The minutes and hours and days pile up relentlessly, but I feel much older than all of them. I lie in bed at 221B Baker Street and think about what I might have changed.

My routine is all boredom now, no crazy chases, no exasperating arguments, no disgusting things in the fridge. The flat is all mine now. After the first month, Mrs Hudson wants to know if I’ll stay, and if I’ll be looking for a flatmate.

“I’ll stay.” I’m not sure why, but I’m not ready to go. “I’ll find a way to manage the rent.”

I’m waiting for something to happen, something I can't say.

I work to fill the time and pay the rent, double shifts whenever I can. I get by on scrambled eggs and toasted cheese sandwiches. I stop drinking beer, avoid putting extra things in the trolley at Tesco. When I’ve lost a stone, Mrs Hudson starts forcing biscuits and scones on me.

The people I’ve come to know avoid me, for the most part. I can’t afford pub nights, and have no interest in dating. Molly stops by a couple times, but the conversation is awkward.

I stop going into book stores; Instead I check books out of the library so I have something to pretend to do in the evenings. One night I’m watching crap telly, and hear your voice, deducing the plot and characters. She’s the murderer. So obvious. Ridiculous plot twists to make us think it’s interesting. I unplug the television, shove it into a closet.

I’ve miscalculated. Lying in my bed, I think about what I could have changed.

I might have told you that I love you. I’m not sure what would have happened next, or if it would have made any difference in the end. Feelings were never your area.

I remember lying together in bed. That never happened, but I remember it the same way I remembered all the other things before they happened. You told me the one thing you might have changed, if you could have seen your whole life, like a story.

I wouldn't wait so long. I would be less afraid to love you.

Out of all of my visions, the ones where we were lovers are the most poignant. I will never have a real memory of loving you, and that is the worst part. It’s the worst pain I have ever felt. We might have been more than friends if I hadn’t hesitated. If I hadn’t been afraid I’d mess it up.

I often wonder what all of it means. I used to think what I saw were just vivid imaginings coming from a part of my brain that craved excitement and romance. Those were just dreams; you were real. Perhaps I was trying to make you into the man of my dreams, but when I met you, I already knew you. I already loved you.

Miscalculation. We build a case out of facts, John. Speculation connects these, but without facts, speculation is just fantasy.

The visions came true. That is a fact.  The conversations I imagined actually happened. There were pieces of truth in those dreams, hard to see because I didn’t understand they were prophecies until it was too late. Until you were dead.

In Greek mythology, the sibyl always tells the truth. Knowing your future doesn’t set you free, though. Perhaps I couldn’t have saved you, but I wish I had understood.

I saw the future. I saw us meet, work cases together, live together, argue and laugh. And I saw you die.

But you never loved me. The you that lay beside me in those dreams never existed. Why this one piece? Was it one speculation too far? Did I see it because I wanted to see it?

I would have been less afraid.

I was afraid. I thought I’d lose you if I said how I felt.

It was a warning.

And it didn’t happen. You see, but you don’t observe.

And then I understand. It was a prophecy. It hasn’t happened yet, but it will. Those who seek the sibyl hear, but never understand her words. They think they know better.

Somehow, my wish will be granted. It will come true, like all the others, if I am patient. If I am wise enough to understand what I am shown.

Come back to me.

 

A year goes by. In the second year, a new nurse comes to work at the clinic. Her name is Mary. She is pretty, blond, and full of life. Just the kind of woman I would have dated before.

She flirts aggressively, chattering away, and I am trying to remember. That's what it feels like, you know, just looking for the trigger that will bring it all to mind— a smell, a word, a sense. For a moment, I catch a glimpse.

A wedding. Me, sitting next to this woman, you speaking to the guests. I see your face, the love in your eyes. I hear the love in your words, and the sorrow.

Me, hitting you. You're high, an absolute mess, and I have done this to you. And I'm hitting you.

A vacant building. An overheard confession.

He can never know that I lied to him. I would lose him forever.

Now talk, and sort it out. Do it quickly.

Is everyone I’ve ever met a psychopath?

It's like coming to a crosswalk on a busy street, cars from both directions. You look left, then right. You step into the street and a car you didn't see suddenly comes from the left. And you're dead.

Or maybe you look left again and see that car, and you stay on the kerb.

Understand what you are shown.

I stay, don't cross that street.

 

I am polite, decline Mary’s requests for coffee. I don’t dare believe that you will return, but I’m taking no chances. I avoid her. A woman who could shoot you is not someone I want to associate with.

After a month, she leaves the clinic. Months later, I hear co-workers whispering that she was killed in Morocco. A spy, they say. An assassin. Her name wasn’t even Mary. It was Rosamund.

As I fall asleep, I imagine you next to me, your voice rumbling in my ear.

I always come back, John.

 

It’s November, almost two years after you left me. On the street, boys are wheeling effigies around, begging for pennies.

Two small ruffians with dirty faces confront me. “Penny for the Guy?”

I reach into my pocket, give them the few coins I have.

Slowly, I climb the stairs to our flat and turn the key in the door.

What I see when I step inside is a miracle. For a full minute I cannot speak. The clock on the mantel ticks, and then I breathe again, melt into your arms.

You’re much thinner, and you cringe a bit when I press my hands against your back, but you hold on to me as if you will never let go. I hold you as if I’ve just awakened from a very long dream.

I say, “You came back.”

Your voice is a bit rough, but steady. “I always will, John.”

 

I won’t tell you any of this— not for a long time. By the time I do, we’ll be retired in Sussex, you with your bees, me with my writing, both of us old men, remembering.

When it was happening, I was still figuring it out, and— as you often remind me— it’s a capital mistake to theorise without all the facts. The Sibyl speaks the truth, but we rarely understand. Not unless we are both patient and wise.

 

This is where our story began, in a desert in Afghanistan. From the beginning, I think, I knew our destination. I knew the journey would be painful, but I could see the joy, too. I would choose it all again, even the pain, to have this moment, the two of us, lying tangled in your bed, our arms around one another in a warm afterglow.

“If you could see your whole life laid out start to finish,” I ask, “would you change anything?”

“I wouldn't wait so long,” you reply. “I would be less afraid.”

I raise my head and look at you, my madman, my lover. “Afraid of what?”

You sigh and kiss me deeply. “You. I would be less afraid to love you.”

Tears choke me. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long. “I had no idea. I didn’t understand.”

Your arms enfold me.Now you do.”