The Fear You Won't Fall
Charles wakes with a jerk, confused and a little bit wary. The room is not familiar to him, the air warm in the middle of winter. He is sweating and shaky, and frankly feels terrible. There's a fog in his ears that he can't shake, and a heaviness to his limbs that feels bone-deep.
He looks around, takes in the decor, the sheets beneath his palms; it's a bit eerie, and strange to him – certainly not where he's supposed to be - until, with sharp focus and a jolt of fear, he realises exactly where he is. The thought strikes him cold; has him sitting up so suddenly that his head spins a little. His heart immediately skips a beat and then begins a rapid staccato that leaves him prepped for a fight.
He's in his old room. The one he shared with Kris. The one in the future; before Laura, before Somerville; before his beautiful family in his beautiful country life, and everything that it represents and all the things he has worked so hard to make right since that day on the train almost two years ago.
His fear amps up to eleven as he desperately tries to understand what this means. How he came here, and how he can possibly get back home. He grapples with his own memory. Nothing seems in focus, though the smell of the farm lingers in his mind. He can't be too far from home, surely, and yet the answer sits just out of reach. Everything is a little bit hazy, like his brain is full of cotton balls.
The room around him is dark, the curtains drawn, though light glows under the closed door and around the window, framed as it is by heavy drapes. Daylight, though he must be ill if he's sleeping through it. The home back in Somerville doesn't have heavy drapes. Nobody on the farm ever sleeps late enough to warrant black-out curtains, and anyway, the fabric costs a fortune.
The door opens and he starts, taken aback. There under the threshold, framed by bright daylight, stands his ex-wife. Just as lovely as the last fateful time they saw each other, she is dressed in cream; soft linen pants and a loose jumper give the impression she is other-worldly – timeless – and Charles could laugh at the irony of that if he weren't terrified out of his mind.
She stops in the doorway, apparently not surprised to find him watching her, and not the least bit perturbed that he is clearly out of sorts. She is neither surprised nor relieved to see him alert; just calm.
"You're awake" she says. Her voice is softer than he remembers it to be, her tone airy. "I have tea waiting for you, when you're ready"
And then, as abruptly as she appeared, she's gone again, the door left ajar in her wake.
Charles sits there in awe for a moment. He is sure he must be dreaming - everything about this feels wrong and upsetting. He wants Laura to come walking through the door; wants to hear Mary singing as she does her chores, and feel the weight of his son - his beautiful baby boy - sitting on his knee as he tells him stories he's yet too young to understand. He wants to not be here. And yet he struggles to find a solution. His mind is muddled. His memories are out of sequence and all fragmented, as though his reality is comprised of the jagged fragments of a shattered mirror; the face staring back at him is his, but the nose is all wrong, the eyes out of alignment, the mouth cut in half.
He throws off the covers and stands up. In the dresser mirror across the room he can see that he is dressed in his own clothes - the jeans and top that travelled from the future to the past; that should be safely tucked away in his bottom draw back home. Nonetheless, the clothes are his, which is a surprising comfort.
Taking a deep breath, he prepares himself for whatever might be out there, and then walks to the door and steps through.
Voices are above him and below him all at once. His chest hurts; rattles when he breathes – he coughs and it burns through him. The concern and fatigue is palpable in the mutterings around him; the searing heat of his skin is briefly relieved by a cool cloth, and then returns just as ferociously. Despite his will to stay – to seek out the voices and speak – he can't. Oblivion takes him once more.
Everything is as it always was. Neat, sparse, clean. The upper landing of his old house looks exactly the same as the day he left it. The bizarre sculpture he made years ago sits in the corner, the door to the second bedroom is closed as it should be; devoid of children or guests, it lays to waste as a storage space, with unpacked boxes and old tax returns.
He proceeds to the stairs and looks down, and the rest of the house looks the same too. Just a normal house. Just as it should be.
At the bottom of the stairs he stops and listens. It's just a little quieter than he remembers it being, no traffic noise or dogs barking. It affords him the advantage of hearing Kris pottering in the kitchen preparing his tea. He doesn't seek her out; he's not sure he wants to make this place any more tangible than it already is, lest it prove that Somerville was an elaborate fantasy. For a brief moment he thinks he might just be schizophrenic – concocting outlandish worlds in another time to fulfil his dreams of home and family. Perhaps this is a moment of lucidity in an otherwise mad mind.
But no. It feels too real; it can't be. And wouldn't his mind have made it so much easier to live in a fantasy? For all its charms, living in the past has not been easy. It was literally a new world to learn; it was constant fear of disease that has been eradicated, and injury that is not easy to treat. It has been a learning curve so steep he didn't think he could manage it, and though he has never been happier then when he's with Laura, his marriage has not been simple either. Rewarding, yes, but not simple.
His own mind could not possibly dream up the situations he has lived.
Behind him Kris enters the room baring two steaming mugs, and places them on the coffee table as she settles next to him on the couch. Her movements are slow and graceful; ethereal in many ways. Her movements seem to move on the wind. He turns to face her fully, and she has a funny little smile on her face.
"Are you real?"
She laughs at him. "What kind of question is that?"
He asks again, "Are you?" Something tells him she might not be.
"Are you?" she counters. Her eyebrow lifts at him. After all, he is the one seemingly floating between two worlds. He smiles at her. Real or not, the looks she is giving him does feel familiar to him.
"Kris, how am I here?"
"What do you mean?" she asks, picking up her cup and sipping from the top.
"I mean... is this a dream? Am I here? Or was Somerville the dream? Please, I don't want to hurt you, but Kris please - tell me that I didn't make it up. Please tell me that it is real"
The look on her face is serene, almost all-knowing. This is certainly not his Kris, lounging around the house in soft pants, sipping tea, talking through his wild fantasies as through he doesn't sound like a madman. The look on her face seems indulgent; she gives the impression that she is humouring a child; frankly she gives off the aura of a therapist, which Charles finds particularly disturbing.
"Please" he whispers. If he sounds desperate it's because he is; his life in the past - it cannot be valued, cannot be explained in simple words. His need to get back there burns through him like a fever.
"Charlie" she says, the nickname familiar and yet distant, and foreign to his ears after so long without hearing it. It is another reminder of the future. Nobody in Somerville calls him that, not even Laura - it never felt right, not to the memory of Kris or for his new life – and though the bartender occasionally calls him 'Charlie Old Boy' to tease, he doesn't frequent the tavern often enough for it to stick. In Somerville he is simply Charles, and it was just a small part of his reinvention.
"I can't answer that for you" she says, cocking her head to the side. "Do you want it to be real?"
He can feel a lullaby. Strange, to feel something that should be heard, but he can't hear anything, and he can't speak. All he knows is that he feels a lullaby close by, and it's a port in the storm. He needs to get to it, but he doesn't know how. He needs to find the voice and stay close to it, but his ears aren't working and the ship is sailing away, and just as soon as the singing starts it stops again, and he is left floating in the void, rocking on a sea he cannot weather for long, in a ship too small to hold him.
It feels like days have passed, yet the tea on the coffee table is still warm and Kris is still sitting with him. He picks up his mug and takes a tentative sip. He can't identify what kind it is, but it's pleasant enough. Even so, he places it back on the table and promptly forgets about it.
"The garden is looking beautiful" says Kris, standing up and walking over to the big, wide windows that overlooked their backyard. They bought this place with the intention of one day having a family to fill it. The garden is big enough for a dog, and perhaps a soccer net at one end. Instead, the garden beds are perfectly maintained and the patch of grass gets mowed every fortnight by a hired gardener. It looks pruned and contained; it looks distinctly like a space that children have never occupied.
Charles never faulted Kris for not wanting children; he only lamented that it was one of the factors that lead to them drifting apart. The timing was never quite perfect, and she was more focused on a career; he couldn't blame her for that. And perhaps a ready-made family was a distinct draw-card of Somerville, for a man feeling the pressure of time and imminent regret. But regardless of that it doesn't change the fact that he had drawn Laura's profile well before he'd ever stepped off the train. He had known, somehow, that he was in love with her before he ever met her.
Standing up and joining Kris at the window, he tries to imagine them with children here, and can't. He and Kris would not have been the kind of parents he wanted to be. A baby would not have bridged the gap between them. He wouldn't want kids with a woman that wasn't committed to them. In a different life, on a different path, even perhaps with a different man, Kris may have been maternal. But it was not with him, and he would not have wanted the kind of home where they resented each other and inevitably took it out on the children.
And then he just as readily tries to imagine Mary playing on the grass, little Henry crawling towards the perfectly manicures flowerbeds, and he can't see that either. He cannot fathom Laura in jeans and tee-shirts; she had tried on his set back home and they had laughed in good fun. But he can't see her with her hair in a fashionable bob, sunglasses on, even a summer dress that falls to the knee. Laura is beyond her time, but not this far; his family are progressive, maybe, but they don't belong in this time. He belongs in theirs.
He sighs and turns away, wandering aimlessly around the room.
"What am I doing here?" he mutters, perhaps to Kris, perhaps to himself.
"I don't think I can answer that one for you, Charlie" she says. She clasps her hands behind her back and sways a little on the spot.
The lullaby returns and he tries to go towards it. It is broken by a cry. And then hush again. The sea is swaying, calmer than before, but also heavier, like it's bearing down on him. It's suffocating. The lullaby returns and he focusses on that – tries to follow it and not lose it again. But he is pulled under and can't stay afloat. He's not sure how many more times he can come up for air. He's not sure how strong he can be. He's not sure.
"Were we happy?" he asks.
Kris looks at him, her face betraying nothing. "I suppose so. As happy as two people can be when they aren't on the same path"
"Why was that, do you think? That we weren't on the same path?"
Kris walks slowly towards him, smiling again in that secretive way. He's learning not to be disarmed by it, though he wishes she would be more forthcoming with her explanations and less like a shrink.
"Why do you think?" she asks.
Charles barely stops himself from rolling his eyes.
"Charlie, you and I… we had a good run"
Her words echo, and he remembers that she told him that when she left him.
"We wanted the same things once. And then, somewhere along the way, we didn't. It's nobody's fault" she assures, placing a hand on his arm. "Sometimes love lasts fifty years and sometimes it lasts fifteen. But you can't honestly say you were content with our marriage at the end"
He sighs and looks down. He still feels shame, sometimes, that he never spoke up sooner. It was on him for not being honest. Kris was just the one brave enough to say it out loud. His cowardice almost cost him Laura; if there was one thing he would change it would be speaking up to Kris sooner.
"No. I wasn't"
"No. You weren't" she says. "And it doesn't make us bad people Charlie. Our marriage wasn't a total failure. It had just… run its course"
A sense of relief washes over him. He needed to hear that she was okay. She had left him, but he had fallen in love with another woman while he was still married. The fact that they never got to clear the air after he went back to Somerville weighed on his mind for a long time after.
"I don't belong here, Kris" he whispers, laying his hands gently on her shoulders.
They look each other in the eye, and she lightly takes his face in her hands, her thumbs stroking his cheeks. He is mindful of taking in every detail. This woman had been his best friend and his lover for a long time; he had loved her very deeply once, and still sometimes misses her. She knew him; her memory was impeccable. If there was ever a story he didn't know the end to, or a birthday he didn't remember, he could count on Kris to remind him. He misses his friend, and he wants to savour this moment – whatever it turns out to be – just in case it can't last.
"Are you happy now, Charlie?" she asks, tilting her head to the side just a fraction, sizing him up.
He nods gently, his hands still on her shoulders. "More than I think I've ever been"
She smiles at him, and then leans in and places a soft, chaste kiss on his lips; a parting, he thinks. The goodbye they didn't get.
"Good" she says, pulling away from him. She takes a step back and then smiles at him. He smiles back. Something feels settled. Fatigue overwhelms him suddenly, and he yawns.
"I'm so tired"
Kris takes his hand and leads him upstairs, quiet and reserved. They pass the closed door of the spare room and enter the master suite, and then she pulls him back over to the bed he woke up in.
"Sleep" she says. "Rest. I'm not going anywhere. We can talk some more when you wake up"
"If I wake up" he mutters, rolling his eyes at himself. Kris just gives him another ambiguous smile, but otherwise ignores him. She rests her hand on his shoulder, and then as his eyes are closing she leaves. She doesn't linger at the door, and in a moment he is asleep. And then the world starts to make more sense to him.
A moment later – a moment, or perhaps a day? a week? – he becomes aware of his surroundings again and he opens his eyes to see Kris walking towards him from the doorway of the room. He feels clammy and sweaty - claustrophobic in his own skin. His breathing is laboured and heavy, rasping in his ears and rattling in his chest; he wants to cough but nothing comes out. Kris leans over him, resting on the bed by his hip, smiling in that unearthly way. She settles on the bed next to him, not quite touching.
His forehead flushes hot and then suddenly very cold. In the moment before he closes his eyes Kris kisses her fingertips and then rests them on his lips. They feel cold too. He closes his eyes - everything feels so heavy.
"Laura" he whispers. He just wants Laura, no matter what is happening; he just wants to see her one more time. He feels an instinct – a gut feeling – that if he doesn't open his eyes and sees Laura one more time he will never see her again. He doesn't care that she's not in this house with him and Kris. He just needs her. The cotton in his ears lifts just a little. He can hear humming, and then slowly the humming turns into voices.
He opens his eyes. The weight is still there at his hip, the cool still flitting across his brow. But the shapes are different, the light dimmer. The woman's hair is brown. He blinks and she comes into sharper focus.
"Laura" he rasps again.
And then like a miracle her voice breaks through his fog, and he blinks again and there she sits, leaning over him, on their bed, in their room, back in Somerville.
"He's awake" she says to someone he can't see. She leans over him, and he can see her eyes are shining with love and intense worry. She gives him a broken smile, obviously struggling to keep it together.
"Laura" he says again, his fingers twitching towards her.
"I'm here, Charles" she says, taking hold of his hand. "I'm here"
A shudder runs through him; relief and fever and fatigue. He feels awful - figures out quickly that he must be ill. He remembers being taken with a cough, and sitting on the bed in a cold sweat, but he can't remember the details of how he got here or what ailment he contracted. His head is too jumbled to dwell on much beyond being home. But still, the memory of Kris, of the house, it sits in the back of his mind, begging to be analysed and understood.
For now, though, Laura's hand is running through his hair and his hand is held in hers. Another shudder runs through him; gratitude, he thinks.
"'s-happening?" he slurs, brow furrowed, eyes struggling to stay open. He wants them to - wants desperately to stay focused on Laura and never look away. But everything still feels heavy, and the heat which a moment ago threaten to boil him alive is slowly turning into a chill that sets deep in his bones.
"You've been very sick" she says softly. "We were afraid your fever would not break"
Her voice cracks and she squeezes his hand. Later he will remember how she lost her first husband; how she was once left with a young child and a business to run, and now she is eight years older and with two mouths to feed. He will assure her that he is okay and he will hold her tightly while she cries. For now he just wants to sleep, despite the need to see her.
"Tired" he mutters.
"Your body has been fighting" says another voice - Mrs Clarke, he thinks, from somewhere across the room. "But it can finally rest easy now. The fever broke. It is now time to mend"
Laura's hand runs over his hair again, and even with his eyes closed he can feel her watching him. He squeezes her hand a fraction, and she squeezes back. It is reassurance enough to know that he is home. There is no way that he can feel this terrible and still be in a dream. It was a nice state – relaxing while it lasted – but he will relish every moment of discomfort for the sake of being where he belongs.
"I will stay with him tonight" says Laura. He hears no argument, but then he doubts Laura has left his side since he was first taken ill, so that's no surprise. If it was contagious surely they would be sick by now. He briefly wonders where the children are – hopes that they were sent to stay in town, or at least barred from coming upstairs while he's been like this, especially little Henry – but he doesn't have the strength to ask. Laura and her mother would have seen to them. The children will be fine.
A shudder runs through him and his skin feels sticky, and immediately he feels the weight of the top blanket lifting off him. He is immediately relieved, overwhelmed by how warm he feels suddenly. The bed dips and then Laura settles against his side, her arm tentatively resting over his forearm. His fingers twitch again, and she takes his hand back and places a kiss against his shoulder, settling closer to him.
"Rest now, Charles" she whispers. Her voice sounds thick with tears. A door closes across the room; Mrs Clarke must have left for the night. "We'll both be here in the morning"
He hums at her and squeezes her hand, and sure enough the sleep immediately pulls at him. In his mind he sees Kris smiling at him in that understanding way. But it is Laura's breath he feels against his shoulder and her hand in his at his side. He allows sleep to take him knowing that he's back home where he belongs, and he knows that he is going to be okay.
They are all going to be okay, together.