Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ghostwalker - Chapter One

This is the opening to my novel Ghostwalker.

Friday October 24th

Dan Ryan awoke in darkness and pain.  For the first few seconds of the rest of his life, he was lost in the amnesia of deep sleep, unable to form a clear thought of where or when he was; then slowly, thoughts began to coalesce in his mind, dragging him towards a reality he was ill-prepared for.
He was lying in a bed, but it was not his own.  He looked from side to side, trying to find his bearings, but the room he was in was shrouded in darkness, and moving his head brought fresh waves of pain.  It took several minutes for him to make out the outline of a curtain surrounding his bed and a drip hanging beside him.  He knew then that he was in hospital, but he had no idea why.
What’s happened to me?
He wondered if he was experiencing the after-effects of being incredibly drunk, but the throbbing headache that had woken him felt like no hangover he had ever known.  As he lay there, he became aware that it wasn’t just his head that hurt; his entire body was aching.
What the hell happened to me?
He tried to sit up, but found he couldn’t; the effort too much for him.
“Help,” he said weakly, but no answer came. 
It was eerily quiet.  He couldn’t tell who or what was beyond the curtain that had closed him off from the world.  Morbid thoughts began to spill into his mind.
Maybe I’m in a morgue.  Maybe I’m dead.
He wiggled his fingers and toes, and turned his feet from side to side.  Even such small movements brought on a feeling a tremendous fatigue.  I’m probably not dead, he thought to himself. I’m not paralysed, either.
He had no sense of time.  He tried to estimate how long he had been awake but couldn’t tell if it had been two minutes or an hour.  Several more times he tried to sit up and failed, feeling as though he had been beaten to within an inch of his life.
“What the hell is going on?” he muttered to himself, breathless from his exertions.  He stared up at the ceiling, divided into squares of white polystyrene insulated tiles, and desperately searched his mind for the last memory that would explain what he was doing there.
Nothing came.  He went back to basics.
My name is Dan Ryan.  Daniel James Ryan.  Ten nine eight seven six five four three two one.  I am eighteen years old.  My birthday is July nineteenth.  Today’s date is...
“What is the date?” he said aloud, then added, “Never mind the date, what day is it?”  He shut his eyes, screwing up his face until all he could see was an explosion of stars and swirls of lights dancing before him.  He opened them, and the grid of tiles swam back into focus.
“Think, man, think,” he whispered to himself.  He searched back through his clouded thoughts, trying to grasp for the last tangible memory he could make sense of.
Rain.  Rain hammering heavily on his bedroom window.  It was a sound he loved, equally comforting and exciting.  It had been dark then as well; he has watched clouds illuminate with a sheet of lighting and had counted the seconds one two three until the heavy rumble of thunder caught up.  He had been lying in bed then too - his own bed.  But when was that?  Last night?  Last week?  Years ago?  He couldn’t remember.
“Dan – dinner’s ready in a minute.”  It was his mum’s voice, calling up the stairs.  He’d sighed heavily, annoyed just by the sound of her voice.  Why couldn’t she leave him in peace for just five minutes? No doubt she would want him to go and put the rubbish out, in the middle of the pouring rain, like she was incapable of doing it herself.  Why was it always him that ended up with the crappy jobs?  He hadn’t answered her, containing his resentment and frustration.  He hated being cooped up at home with his parents.  They drove him mad. 
These memories were filling his mind, but there was no context to them.  When had they happened?  They felt recent, but he couldn’t place them.
He fell back into a dreamless sleep and when he awoke, it was daylight.  Now there was the sound of activity on the other side of the curtain; the rustle of sheets; coughs forced out from dry, uncomfortable throats, and further into the background the sounds of a day coming to life – the distant murmur voices, doors opening and closing – the sounds of normality.
“Hello?” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper.  A few moments later the curtain was drawn back by a large black nurse in a royal blue uniform.  She smiled down at Dan.
“Good morning,” she beamed, artificially happily.  “How are you feeling today?”
“Where am I?” Dan croaked.  “What’s happened?  What’s going on?”  The confident smile on the nurse’s remained in place as she answered.
“You just rest for a minute, dear,” she said soothingly.  “You’ve had a bit of an accident.  Now you’re awake you need to see a doctor.”
“I don’t remember being in an accident?” asked a bewildered Dan.  The nurse picked up his chart and scribbled a note on it.
“We’ll soon fix that,” came the same soothing reply, as she clipped the chart back onto his bed before repeating her mantra: “Just rest for now.”  She stepped back and pulled the curtain shut again, shutting him off the rest of the ward.  He listened as she tended to the man in the next bed; Dan quickly discovered that his neighbour was an elderly man with a broken leg who had also been awake for half the night and wasn’t afraid to complain about the fact.  The nurse continued around the other beds, but Dan ceased paying attention and instead closed his eyes, focusing on  the vast black hole where his memory had once resided.  He tried to picture himself in the accident that had apparently landed him in hospital, but there was nothing there - no sounds of screeching brakes, no sense of falling, just a blank, black nothing.
This is bollocks, he thought to himself.
Shortly after he became aware of someone on the other side of the curtain, trying to be quiet and not disturb him.
“Who’s there?” he called out.
“Hey,” replied a soft, female voice.  “How are you feeling?”  It was a voice Dan recognised instantly, even though he hadn’t heard it for several years.
“Mel?” he asked, surprised.  There was a shadow of movement on the other side of the curtain, and then it was drawn back by Melanie Fisher.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.  He hadn’t seen Mel for over four years, when she’d left Cheshunt to go to Peterborough University.  She leant over the bed and looked down on him with concern on her face.  Dan couldn’t help but notice how beautiful she looked, and how much more curvaceous she seemed since he had last seen her, but her next words drove those thoughts from his mind.
“I’m here because of mum and dad.  They’re in here as well.”
“What?” Dan asked, alarmed.  “Why?  What the hell’s going on?”  Mel’s eyes widened slightly.
“Don’t you know?” she asked.  Dan looked at her pitifully.
“I can’t remember anything,” he said, before a chilling thought suddenly etched itself upon his mind.  If Mel's here, if her parents are here, then...
“Where’s Mum and Dad?”  Mel looked unsure what to say, and looked around the room as if some invisible person was going to provide her with an answer.
“I should get someone,” she said quietly.
“Mel, tell me what’s going on,” Dan pleaded.  “Are my Mum and Dad okay?”  Mel was still avoiding his gaze.  That was all the answer Dan needed.
“What happened to them?” he asked.  She looked at him and he saw tears in her eyes.
“Dan,” she answered, her voice wavering.  “I’m sorry, they’re dead.”  He stared at her with a waxwork expression.
“You what?”  There were a million screaming questions exploding in his head in that moment, but those were the only words he could force out.
“I really need to get someone,” she said, looking around the ward again.
“Don’t go,” he pleaded, suddenly afraid to be on his own.
“I’ll be right back, don’t worry,” she replied, stepping back and closing the curtain behind her.  Her sudden departure made Dan incredibly angry.
Don’t worry? he thought furiously.  You just told me my parents are dead and you say don’t worry?  What a stupid thing to tell me!
He lay staring at the ceiling, numb with shock.
Dead?  How?  What’s going on?  Why can’t I remember anything!
He balled his hands into tight fists, squeezing them until his knuckles were white.  Anger swept over him in waves.
How can this be happening?  Why them?  Why me?  What the hell is going on?
“Why can’t I remember?” he said out loud.  Nobody answered him.  “Sod this,” he muttered to himself.  He pushed back into the bed with his elbows and forced himself upright.  It felt like there was a tremendous pressure on his chest and seemed to take every ounce of strength in his body to move.  By the time he was half sat up he was sweating.  He looked down and saw that he had his arms on the bed sheet and that he was pinning himself down.  He moved his elbows back, clear of the sheet and immediately was able to move more freely.
“Dickhead,” he muttered to himself.  He  leant over to his left, grabbed for the curtain and pulled it back.  It slid back with a swish.  The old man on the next bed looked across at him with surprise.
“Hey, young ‘un,” he said.  “You don’t look like you should be up.”  Dan ignored him.  The old man looked about four hundred to Dan.   What did he know?  He looked past the old man to the window behind him.  He could see his reflection in it.
He didn’t recognise the face looking back at him.  It looked like something for a campaign poster for domestic violence.  He was used to seeing a handsome face with green eyes and dark blonde hair.  Now he was looking at two black eyes, decorated with a big cut over his left eye and topped off with scrapes and bruising all down the left hand side of his face.
“You look like shit,” he said to his reflection.  He studied himself, looking into his own eyes.   Behind them was the answer to his wreck of a face.
“What happened to you?” the old man in the next bed asked.
“I wish I knew,” Dan answered.
“What’s all this, then?” came a bossy voice.  It was the nurse, frowning heavily at Dan from a bed across the room.  “Get back in bed now, young man.”
“I don’t want to,” Dan said, but the truth was he didn’t feel in any state to go anywhere; he just didn’t like the idea of this woman telling him what to do just because she was wearing a uniform.
“I’d do what she says if I were you,” came a man’s voice from behind the curtain.  It was drawn back and Mel was stood there next to a tall, white haired man in a pale grey suit.  Dan recognised him instantly.
“Mr Decker?” Dan said, surprised to see his doctor standing there.  “What are you doing here?”
“I’m on call today,” Richard Decker answered.  “When I heard what had happened I came in.  Your lady friend let me know you’re awake.  I’m glad to see you.”  As he spoke he helped Dan back into the bed.  Mel and the nurse stood back as he swept the curtain back around the bed, leaving himself and Dan in the artificial isolation it provided.
“What’s happened?” Dan asked.  “Mel said Mum and Dad are dead?”
“I’m sorry, Dan,” Decker said, placing his hand on Dan’s shoulder.  The doctor’s voice had a rich, soothing voice.  “It appears that there was a gas explosion at your house last night.”  Dan reached up and touched the wound on his head.
That explains one or two things.
“How did I survive if they didn’t?”
“A stroke of luck, by all accounts,” Decker replied.  “From what I’m told, your house has been pretty much destroyed, and there’s damage to several of the other houses in the street.  Your friends’ parents are here too getting checked over but I think they’ll be fine.”  Decker looked Dan up and down, assessing him.
“You picked up a nasty cut on your head but that’s about the worst of your injuries.  It’s amazing there’s no broken bones.  They’ve already run blood tests and there’s no sign of carbon monoxide poisoning.  You really are incredibly lucky to have gotten away so lightly.”
“How can I be lucky when they’re dead?” Dan asked bitterly, and then added. “I can’t remember anything.”
“Don’t worry, that’s normal,” Decker reassured him.  “You’ve had a nasty whack on the head and suffered a major trauma.  Memory loss is associated with both.  It’s nothing to worry about right now.”
“I wish people would stop telling me not to worry and to relax and that everything will be okay,” Dan snapped.  Decker didn’t reply; instead he let Dan continue.  “I can’t believe what’s going on,” he murmured.  “Tell me this is a bad dream and I’m going to wake up in a minute.”
“I wish I could,” Decker said, then asked a little more firmly, “Do you know what day of the week it is?”
“It’s Thursday, isn’t it?” Dan answered quickly before frowning.  “No wait.  Maybe it’s... God, I don’t know.   I can’t even remember that.”
“What’s the last thing you do remember?”
“Rain,” Dan said.  “My mum calling me for dinner.  After that, waking up here.”
“It’s Friday morning,” Decker said.  “I’d say you have temporary amnesia, which is what I would expect for someone in your position.  You appear to only have lost a day, which is good news.”
“Will I get my memory back?” came the frightened response.
“Possibly,” Decker said gently.  “We’ll have to wait and see.”  He looked at Dan sympathetically.  He had known this young man for over five years, and his parents even longer.  It was hard to remain professional when he had to see someone he knew suffering.  He had seen too many people in similar situations for his liking, but the wave of emotions that he knew were coming did not always come in the same order or at same time. Grief, anger, guilt and resentment; each would take their turn in assaulting Dan’s senses.  Decker tried to find words to ease the young man’s anguish.
“They both died in their sleep.  They would’ve known nothing about it,” said Decker.  Dan took a long time to answer, and when he did his voice was bitter.
“That’s what you reckon,” he spat out in a quiet seething voice.  The truth was starting to swell up in him, like a distant scream.  They were dead, and nothing he could do or think or feel could change that unalterable fact.  He shook his head in disbelief. 
“How can they be dead when all I’ve got is a bump on my head?”  Dan found himself circling to the same question.  “How does that work out?”
 “I don’t know yet,” Decker replied.  “There’ll need to be an investigation.”  Dan looked at his doctor, the tears running down his cheeks, shaking his head in increasingly desperate denial.  Decker squeezed Dan’s shoulder in sympathy.  “I know what you must be feeling, but there was nothing that could have been done.  They wouldn’t have suffered.”  Dan shook his head.
“Why did it have to happen to them of all people?  It doesn’t make sense, they were always so careful!”  His tone of voice went from quiet reasoning to indignation as he spoke.  Decker replied in a calm manner.
“These things are never fair, Dan.”  Dan stared back at Decker.  He had to blink back tears to see the doctor.
“Can I see them?” he asked.
“We’ll see,” Decker replied non-commitally.  Now was not the time to tell Dan that he’d been brought to the hospital to formally identify his friends.  He preferred that Dan waited until they’d been examined and had been cleaned and dressed and made presentable.
Dan was already picturing their injuries, their, cold stark bodies lying side by side on mortuary slabs, probably in the same  hospital he was in.  He hated the thought, and forced himself to replace it with the happiest thoughts he could – snapshots of childhood, and his Mum and Dad’s laughter.
“Can I get you anything?” Decker asked quietly.  Dan shook his head. 
“I just want to be on my own,” he mumbled, his voice wavering.  Decker gave his shoulder another squeeze and let go.
“Okay,” he said.  “The nurse will be around if you need anything, but I’ll check in on you through the day.”  Dan didn’t reply.  Decker regarded him for a moment and then pulled the curtain back and stepped out, closing it behind him.  Dan heard Decker and Mel speaking in whispered voices for a moment, and then he heard their footsteps as they walked away and left him.

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