The four of them stepped from the warm car and out into a cold, clear night. Their breath hang in the air as they stretched their legs, grateful to be off the road.
Mel headed for the front door with her mum in tow, leaving Dan and Trevor to collect the bags that filled the boot. Dan watched Mel wistfully as she chatted with her mum. He wondered if she knew how gorgeous she was.
“How are you doing?” Trevor asked from the back of the car, noticing where Dan’s gaze was directed. Dan looked at him and gave a non-committal shrug.
“Okay, I guess,” he said.
“Do you want to give me a hand with the bags?” Trevor asked, gesturing to the boot.
“Yeah, sure,” Dan answered. Trevor passed him several carrier bags from their shopping spree, and then a suitcase. Dan realised that Mel must have been back to her parent’s house to pick stuff up that afternoon. She would have seen his house. That thought chilled him more than the cold night air.
“Come on, you two, it’s freezing,” Mel called from the front door. Trevor shut the car boot and they walked up to the house.
“We can put the stuff upstairs,” Mel said, letting them into the hallway and shutting the front door behind them.
The house was smartly decorated, belying the mundane exterior. The hallway was painted in pale tones with cherry flooring. There were pot plants by the front door and on the landing. Rising up the cream carpeted stairs were four black and white prints of the Manhattan skyline, two with the World Trade Centre intact. Dan liked the fresh, simple look, a million miles from the rustic idyll he had pictured.
Mel led the way up the stairs, followed by Dan and then Trevor. Dan tried to keep his eyes fixed on the small of Mel’s back and not any lower, although it was hard to ignore the tight jeans she had on; it was an awkward moment, not helped by a disapproving cough from Trevor.
They reached the landing and Mel pointed out the spare room where her mum and dad would sleep. Trevor took their bags in there, and then Mel led Dan down to the end of the landing. She opened the door and said in an apologetic tone, “Welcome to the penthouse.”
It was a tiny little box room. Half of it was filled with stacks of cardboard boxes and piles of old magazines. There was a folded up camping bed propped up against the wall. Dan reckoned that when he lay down he would have been able to touch the opposing walls with his head and his feet.
“It’s not much, I know,” said Mel, “but it’s the best I can do at short notice.”
“It’s more than I could ask for,” said Dan gratefully, as she opened a built in cupboard fitted above the stair well and pulled out some bedding. She smiled as she handed it to him.
“Anything for an old friend,” she told him as she pulled out the camp bed.
“Hey, we’re not old yet,” he replied, putting down the bedding and helping her flatten the bed. He picked up a couple of sheets and between them they made the bed as they talked.
“I’m older than you,” she pointed out.
“Not by much,” Dan reminded her.
“Four years, mister. They count.”
“No, you look really good.”
“For my age, you mean?”
“No, that’s not what I meant. What happened to the skinny girl I used to know?” She was still slim, but she had developed curves in the time she had lived away from home. She was seven inches shorter than him but her build made her look taller. Her long dark hair wasn’t straight like he remembered her as a child but now fell in soft curls.
Some things hadn’t changed though. She still had the same smile that could make his heart skip and the same dazzling green eyes that felt like they would burn into you if she looked at you for too long.
“She grew up, and out,” answered Mel. Dan nodded in agreement. It was strange; they hadn’t seen each other for so long, and yet they had slipped back into the old banter with such ease it was as though they had never been apart.
A couple of minutes later they had the bed made and Mel gave it a pat of approval.
“Come on,” she said, “let’s go and get you something to eat.”
“Can I get a quick shower first?” Dan asked.
“Yeah, of course,” Mel said. “The bathroom’s right there.” She pointed to the door at the opposite end of the hallway.
“Thanks,” said Dan gratefully, “I’ll be right down.”
Half an hour later, Dan was sat at the breakfast bar in the kitchen, holding a mug of tea that Maggie had just handed to him. He wore a clean sweater and sweatpants, courtesy of their detour into Tesco, and had cleaned up the cut on his head the best he could. His black eyes were starting to fade; he healed quickly and he knew in a couple more days they would be barely noticeable. Mel was sat opposite him.
“You don’t actually look that bad,” she said, looking at his forehead.
“I’m pretty sure I’m going to have a scar,” he answered.
“That’s kind of cool, though,” Mel said.
“Melanie!” snapped her mum, from behind Dan, but it didn’t bother him. Mel had a point.
The kitchen was small, but nicely decorated, in line with the rest of the house. It had been fitted with a cherry worktop and white units; the walls and floor were covered in matching slate tiles. Dan liked it, partly because it looked fresh and smart, but mainly because it was nothing like the kitchen at his parent’s. That was only other kitchen he had ever sat down in and drank tea. Maggie sat down next to Mel.
“Where’s Trevor?” Dan asked her.
“On the phone,” she replied. “Work.”
“Work?” Mel asked. “It’s Friday night and it’s nearly midnight. Who’s at work at this time?”
“Ah, that’s the price for marrying an accountant,” Maggie answered. “They never stop. There’s always something going on somewhere in the world. I think it’s helping him get along, you know, under the circumstances.” Dan knew Trevor was a little more than an accountant; he was a financial director for an engineering company. He had never struck Dan as the type to want to put his feet up.
“I do like what you’ve with the place,” Maggie went on.
“Thanks, mum,” Mel answered. “It was a bit of a dump when we got it, but I’ve done a lot to it, so I like it.”
“Who’s we?” asked Dan.
“Steve, my ex,” she said, with a hint of bitterness in her voice.
“Oh, right,” said Dan. “I didn’t realise.”
“It’s alright. Like I said – he’s the ex.”
“So you have this place to yourself? That can’t be cheap.”
“It’s not easy,” admitted Mel, “but Mum and Dad help, and I’m not going to be taken for a ride by anyone.” She smiled at her mum, who nodded appreciatively.
Maggie had said nothing throughout the little exchange; instead, she watched the two of them together. She didn’t share her husband’s apprehension about Dan. He seems too nice to be left to the wolves, she thought, and if he and Mel get on well, then so much the better. After all, nobody’s perfect. Dan continued the talking to Mel, oblivious to Maggie’s observations.
“I can see that,” he said to her appreciatively. Mel reached over and gave his arm a little squeeze. It was not much; hardly anything in fact, but it said more than any words could at that moment, especially as she left her hand in place. Dan turned to speak to Maggie, trying to ignore Mel’s warm touch on his arm.
“Is Trevor okay with me being here?” he asked her. She raised her eyebrows.
“Of course he is,” she said, slightly defensively.
“He just didn’t seem to be too happy about it at the hospital, that’s all. I don’t want to impose.” Mel snorted at the idea.
“It’s not him you’re imposing on, it’s me, and I don’t mind you being here one bit,” she said tartly. “Dad’s always worrying about something or other anyway.”
“Mel,” said Maggie, rebuking her.
“Well, it’s true,” Mel replied. “He won’t want me getting mixed up with trouble over here,” nodding at Dan. Dan felt his face flush.
“For God’s sake,” Maggie said, chiding her daughter, just as Trevor walked into the kitchen. They all looked at him, wearing the expressions of guilty children caught stealing biscuits.
“Have you been talking about me?” Trevor asked dryly. It wasn’t meant as a joke, no matter how lightly he tried to make it sound.
“Don’t be silly,” said Maggie, a little too quickly.
“Is there any news?” asked Mel, deftly moving things on. Dan gave her another appreciative glance. Trevor leant back against the kitchen side.
“There’s a couple of meetings I’ve managed to put back to later next week,” Trevor began, but Mel cut him off.
“Not about work,” she said, speaking to him like he was an idiot. “About… you know...” she stopped speaking, and instead tipped her head towards Dan a couple of times in a none too subtle gesture. Despite the sudden dread of what the reply might be, Dan couldn’t help but smile. Trevor caught on.
“Oh, right,” he said, clearing his throat a touch too melodramatically. “I called a couple of people down the street. There’s not much going on now as far as they can tell. They seem to be making what’s left of the house structurally safe, but no-one seems to know if they’ll wait until Monday before carrying on.”
“That makes sense,” Dan said. “I wouldn’t want anyone else getting hurt.”
“No, quite right,” agreed Trevor. “Apparently there’s still a lot of forensics people there.”
“Forensics?” Mel asked, frowning. “What are they doing there?” Trevor shrugged.
Trying to figure out what happened,” Dan answered.
“Looking for evidence, if you ask me,” said Trevor brusquely. There was something in his tone that sent a chill down Dan’s spine.
What are you thinking, Trevor?
“Hopefully they’ll get it sorted out quickly,” Mel said.
“Yes, then we can all get back home,” Trevor agreed.
“Most of us,” Dan said quietly.
“I’m sure you’ll find somewhere soon enough,” Trevor replied. There was no warmth in his voice.
“He can stay here as long as he needs to,” Mel answered.
“Is that such a good idea?” Trevor said. His question was answered by a pregnant pause.
What did you just say? Dan thought. Trevor’s tone of voice was making him angry. He stood up.
“Look Trevor, I know you don’t like me being here, so if it’s that much of an issue to you, I’ll just go, alright?”
“No, you will not,” Mel said to him, standing up as well.
“I know what this is about,” Dan continued, ignoring Mel. “I know you don’t want me near your daughter, and hey, who can blame you? But right now, I really do not need this.” His trembling voice rose as he spoke.
“That’s enough, Trevor,” Maggie warned. She looked furious. It was a fury Dan shared. All of a sudden he wanted to hit Trevor, hard. He wanted to hurt him. He took a step towards him. Trevor sensed the turmoil that was engulfing Dan.
“That’s quite a temper you’ve got on you, Dan,” Trevor remarked.
“Dad!” exclaimed Mel angrily. She knew exactly what he was doing; she just couldn’t see why.
“Trevor!” Maggie snapped. “What on earth are you thinking?”
Yeah, what are you thinking, Trev? Do you know what I’m thinking right now? Do you know I want to smash your stupid face right in?
“I’m sorry,” Trevor said to everyone, sounding anything but. Dan opened his mouth to speak, but Mel took his hand and spoke for him. “I don’t believe this,” she said furiously. “You’re totally out of order. Dad, I want you out of here right now. Dan, you come with me.” She stood up and rounded the breakfast bar, dragging him out of the room. Maggie turned angrily on Trevor as they left.
“What the hell are you thinking?” she lashed at him. “That boy’s just lost his parents.”
“I know,” he replied. “And the fact is he’s the obvious person who stands to gain from their deaths.”
In the living room, Dan was sat with Mel on the sofa. He was sat with his hands clutched together, head bowed, and she had her hand on his shoulder comforting him.
“Don’t take any notice of Dad,” she said softly. “He can be a bit of an idiot sometimes.”
“No wonder he didn’t want me to come here,” said Dan, staring at the floor. “Not if that’s how he feels about me.”
“Me and Mum don’t think like that,” said Mel, trying to encourage him.
“I should never have come here at all,” Dan replied. “I need to go back and see my doctor.”
“Not tonight,” said Mel gently. “It’d be too late by the time we got back to be of any use to anyone. You stay here tonight and I’ll take you to the station first thing tomorrow morning.” He looked at her.
“I’m about as welcome here as the plague,” he said.
“You are welcome in my house anytime, Dan Ryan,” she assured him. “You let me worry about everything else.” He considered her offer for a moment, and then nodded.
“Thanks, Mel,” he said. “You’re being really good to me, you know.” He was looking into her eyes as he spoke, and her gaze was fixed on him, full of compassion and tenderness, something he now knew he missed more than he realised. Maybe it was the circumstances, but he felt so open and vulnerable to her it was as though she could have swallowed him up with her gaze. Just at that moment, when Dan realised he was sitting there staring at her and saying nothing, there was a knock on the living room door and Maggie came in, followed by Trevor.
“Sorry to interrupt,” she said. “Trevor’s got something to say.” He shuffled awkwardly, glanced around and then he spoke to Dan.
“I just wanted to apologise for speaking to you like that just now,” he said to Dan.
“Okay. Forget it,” replied Dan quickly. He had no intention of getting into a conversation with the man.
“Yes, well… I’m sorry for thinking what I think.”
That’s a pretty weird apology.
“Dad…” Mel said. Dan knew she was thinking the same thing as him.
“No, come on, let’s be fair,” he said, cutting her off. “Why would you be want me anywhere near your daughter, given my track record? But I think you’re forgetting I’ve just lost my parents. No offense, but the last thing on my mind is Mel.” He looked at her. “Don’t take that the wrong way.”
“It’s fine,” she smiled, happy to see him barking at her dad.
“We know,” Maggie said, but Dan cut her off.
“Yeah, you do, and Mel does, but I don’t think Trevor here does. What do you reckon Trevor?”
“I reckon you’re right,” came the measured response.
Damn right I’m right. I know you think I’m not good enough for your daughter on any level. I know you’ve always thought that and I know you’ve made sure you kept her as far away from me as possible.
Mel reached over and put her hand across Dan’s shoulder, but her touch caused him to stand up, push her away and stride out of the room. Mel stood to follow him, but Maggie stopped him.
“Let him go, love,” said her mum. “Give him some space.”
“But he’s distraught,” said Mel, tears in her eyes.
“Yes, and no wonder,” said her mum, glaring at Trevor. “As if today wasn’t bad enough as it is.”
“Yeah, well done Dad,” snapped Mel. “Wading in with your size nines. Why can’t you just keep it zipped for once?”
“I’m only saying what everyone will be thinking,” answered Trevor defensively.
“God, no wonder I got out when I could,” Mel snapped, and stormed out of the room as well.
Dan shut himself in the bathroom and slumped to the floor, sobbing with his back against the bath. It was all too much for him. He wanted to get away from these people. Ignoring Decker’s advice had been a huge mistake. He had let a moment of ridiculous lust get in the way of grief and common sense and now he was trapped in an unbelievably awkward situation, a situation compounded by his lack of memory. He wanted to remember his mum and dad but all he could see in his head were fragments, nonsensical moments of white noise. He knew Decker had said that was normal, but it felt like it was slowly driving him insane.
He reached for a length of toilet roll and blew his nose noisily. The pain in his chest that had been sitting there all day was not subsiding. He gritted his teeth, banging his fist on the side of his head, as if it would somehow help unlock his forgotten memories. It did nothing but make his head hurt, and he slowly slid to his left, falling down onto his side, where he stayed laying curled on the floor, in a foetal position, clutching at the toilet paper.
There was a knock on the door. Dan ignored it, but a moment later it opened anyway.
“Hey,” Mel said softly. He didn’t answer her, so she stepped over him, shutting the door behind her, and sat down on the edge of the bath.
“Sorry about Dad, I really am,” she said, looking down at him. “He’s just… just… a dickhead, I suppose.” Dan snorted at that, and looked up at her. His eyes were swollen and red.
“What is happening to my life?” he asked, croakily. “It might have been shit before, but at least it made some sort of sense. I mean, I know what I had wasn’t exactly anything special, but compared to this…” He tailed off again. Mel tried to find something to say that would help.
“Why don’t you try and get some sleep?”
“You sure you’re just not trying to keep me out of the way of your Dad?”
“A bit, maybe,” she admitted. “But can you blame me? He’s not exactly behaving himself and you’re in no state to put up with his antics. I think he’s just feeling a bit protective.” Dan gave a little nod. She was probably right.
“Come on,” she said. “I’ll put you to bed.” She held out her hand and he sat up and took it a few seconds later, letting her help him to his feet. She led him out of the bathroom and down the landing to the box room. She had set a little lamp down beside the camp bed, giving the room a snug, cosy feel.
“Get yourself to bed,” she ordered.
“Thanks, Mel,” he said, genuinely grateful. “You’re being really good and you don’t have to be.”
“It’s nothing. It’s just nice to see you again, even if it is like this.” For a fleeting moment he thought about asking her to stay, but shot the idea down immediately. Instead, he said goodnight to her and then shut the bedroom door.
He lay down on the bed and turned off the lamp. The murmur of conversation rose up from beneath him. He couldn’t make out what was being said but it sounded like an argument, one he wanted no part of. He closed his eyes, wondering what the morning might hold in store for him. Quicker than he realised, the mental fatigue of the day swept over him, and within minutes he was asleep.
He was standing in his parent’s living room. It was exactly how he remembered it from his childhood, and his mum and dad were sat on the old sofa they had sold years before, the one he had ripped when he was eight. Both of them looked pale and gaunt, staring into the distance, not seeing him standing there.
“Mum? Dad?” he tried to say, but no sound came out of his mouth. It was like his voice was stuck in his throat, choking him. He tried to move towards them but found he couldn’t. Then, as he watched in increasing horror, flickering flames appeared in their laps, and rapidly spread across them, engulfing them both. Suddenly they were screaming, but they didn’t move, they just opened their mouths and screamed. He leapt forward, trying to help them, but the heat forced him back. He tried again, and this time the fire leapt to his sleeve, and spread at an uncontrollable rate up his arm. Almost instantly he was engulfed in flames, and the searing pain made him scream in agony. He could smell his skin and hair burning away as he desperately flapped at himself, falling to his knees. Through the orange flame, he looked up to his parents, still unmoving. His mum’s gaze flicked down, and for a brief moment she stared straight into his eyes.
He woke with a start. His heart was thudding against his ribcage. He was still lying on top of the camp bed, fully dressed.
It’s just a dream, it’s just a dream, it’s just a dream.
He took deep breaths, trying and failing to clear the remnants of the dream from his mind. He looked round the room. Mel had left an alarm clock next to the bed. The green numbers on it gave the room an eerie glow. He squinted down at the display. It was only one o’clock. He had been asleep for less than half an hour.
He sat up, thinking of what he had just seen in his dream. It had been horrible. His mum and dad had been burning in agony, and he had been powerless to help them. It made him worried.
Is this what sleep’s going to have in store for me from now on? Will I see them like that every time I close my eyes?
He shook his head. That wasn’t how he wanted to remember them.
For the next three hours he sat on the bed and tried to drill down into his forgotten memories. Time and again he tried to retrace his steps from the previous night, but he could remember no more than at the hospital. The gaping holes in his mind were frustrating him, but the more he tried to remember, the fuzzier everything became.
It’s a natural defense, that’s what Decker said.
Some defense. It protects me by sending me crazy.He tried to turn his thoughts to something else. The only good thing he could think of was Mel. As soon as he started to think about her though, he was racked with guilt, and pushed those thoughts out of his mind as well.
Eventually, fatigue moved in to attack him again and a little after four o’clock in the morning he drifted back to into a dreamless sleep. The last thought that crossed his mind before he passed out was that his parents had been dead for a little over twenty four hours and that he would never see them again.