When she came to, the first thing she was aware of was Herc’s hand in hers, his head heavy on the bed as he dozed. He clearly hadn’t meant to fall asleep.
The second thing she was aware of was just how much everything hurt.
She tried to speak, but her mouth was dry and nothing came out except a pained breath. Herc stirred – clearly she’d shuffled enough to wake him. He looked up at her, his eyes red and tired and taut. Filled with worry.
“Carolyn,” he said, his voice watery. As he sat up properly and blinked himself back awake, he smiled. Didn’t let go of her hand.
She almost forgot she was meant to be angry with him.
“You look like shit,” she managed, hating how hoarse she sounded. Herc let out a laugh that sounded more like a sigh of relief, tears brimming in his eyes.
“We thought we’d lost you, Carolyn. We were so worried.” He squeezed her hand, his thumb brushing over her knuckles.
Everything hurt so much. All she wanted to do was go back to sleep, to close her eyes, safe in the knowledge that Herc was there, watching over her. She tried to smile at him, but her mouth was so dry and her lips so chapped that that hurt too. She winced, and Herc let go, panic flashing over his face as though he might have held on too tight. As though he had hurt her again.
She tried to shake her head. “Herc,” she said, fixing him with the best stare she could manage. She was aware that it wasn’t very good. “What happened?”
Cautiously, he took her hand again. “You were nearly badly beaten in a fight against a lorry. We’ve been here all week. They were worried you weren’t going to pull through, but I knew you would. I couldn’t – I knew you wouldn’t just give up.”
She squeezed his fingers. It was so hard to remember what was going on. Why had they been fighting? Why had she stormed away, ended up here? It had felt important, then, a statement, proving something to him, but here he was, red and tired eyes, shoulders hunched as they cramped. That smile he saved for her. If she had wanted to test him, wasn’t this passing with distinction? He’d been here all week, what more proof did she need?
Not that she’d been planning on ending up in hospital. That did seem a little dramatic.
“Where’s Arthur?” she asked. He had said we, hadn’t he? God, her head hurt.
“I sent him to lie down in the car. He didn’t want to leave. Douglas is looking after the dog because Arthur was worried about her being on her own.” A flicker of guilt flared inside her. Even if she had wanted to make Herc worry, the image of Arthur sleepless and afraid made her feel sick to her stomach.
She closed her eyes, half-nodding. It would be so easy to just go back to sleep, to let the nurse fill her to the brim with pain-relief and doze back off. To send them home and order them to stop worrying and fussing, to sleep themselves. To assure them that everything was okay.
But Herc was looking at her as if she were fragile, and even though he obviously didn’t want to let go, he seemed poised to, as though his touch was going to shatter her all over again. As though she was going to tell him she didn’t want him to stay.
Just fuck off why don’t you?
It would be so easy to just forgive him. To forgive him and smile and go back to sleep, holding his hand. What more proof did she need?
Why was she still afraid?
Herc was looking at her as though she was about to break any second, and she wondered just how much he had been blaming himself. He smiled at her again, and started “Carolyn, I’m so sorry-”
“Stop.” It wasn’t a demand, her voice wasn’t strong enough yet, but Herc obeyed nevertheless. He went to move away, drawing back to prepare for the inevitable. Before she could really think it through, she grabbed his hand, keeping him there because if she let him go now, he’d be gone and with sudden clarity she realised that she couldn’t bear that. She wanted him to be here. He had been here this whole time.
He had been ready to apologise, and he’d stayed. What more did she need?
He looked at her, puzzled, unable to hide what he was thinking, why are you letting me stay? I thought you’d want me to go. She could feel the tension in his hand, the way he was fighting himself not to hold her tightly, the way he was so desperate to do whatever she wanted regardless of his own happiness. If it hadn’t meant so much in that moment, it would have made her feel sick.
“I was on my way home,” she said, quietly. Deliberately. Herc bit his lip, eyes watering again. He bent down and kissed her hand. Breathed out.
Carolyn suspected he was trying to think of something to say from the way his eyebrows were quivering, his mouth hung slightly open. It didn’t matter if he couldn’t come up with the words, because he was here. And that was all she really wanted. She closed her eyes, and let herself sleep. Safe.