His dreams had been random, mixed, drifting dangerously close to nightmares, but intense enough to seem safe.
He dragged himself out of his slumber, sitting up slowly and self-consciously, reaching for his glasses and the cigarettes on his nightstand – putting the first on and lighting the second as he swung his feet off the bed and onto the floor.
As usual, the dream had had a rhythm to it. A pulsing feeling, deep inside of him that he still couldn’t shake.
His phone buzzed. One message, three words:
“WHERE ARE YOU?”
Marching through town, his body still waking up, his brain demanded the extra kick caffeine gave that nicotine always failed to. But there was no time for that; even as he passed the cafe he’d always visited in the past, he knew that, with its door barred, he would have to wait.
It was still odd to see all of the shops closed, all of the doors locked and shuttered, closed against an enemy they couldn’t see, couldn’t fight. Years back the very same windows had been smashed, the shops set on fire, but that enemy had been real, physical, visible.
Now the deserted streets stood as testament to something nobody could fight, so the people shrunk back within themselves, within their homes, vulnerable and scared.
Life still had a part to play, of course, and quite literally “while the cat’s away, the mouse will play”. With no people on the streets, wildlife started to take a hold.
“Shit,” he cried out, jumping as a cat jumped out in front of him.
It was amazing to see birds, squirrels, foxes, badgers, deer on the streets, just not when he wasn’t expecting them to appear so suddenly.
The cat, seemingly pleased the success of its game, mewed and turned back down the alley, searching for some other foe to jump out on or play with.
His phone buzzed again.
“YOU’RE GOING TO BE LATE!!”
He begrudged the capital letters, but appreciated the sentiment. He had promised her this one thing, to be on time for this one single appointment, and he now ran the real risk of missing it.
She had begged his help with this. He’d failed his sister so many times before that he felt guilty at letting her down once again.
It was just an appointment, just an hour out of his day, but it meant going to the one place he wanted to avoid. The one place he dreaded. It was stupid, he knew, but he would often walk three or four streets out of his way to ensure he didn’t pass that place.
He didn’t know why he hated – or feared – it. Logically he had no reason to; the people there had only ever wanted to help him, but he saw that as a failure, even though it meant the bravest thing he would ever do.
And now, after all this time, he was heading there, straight into the lion’s den.
The first time was when he was barely more than a child. All ripped jeans and a mop of blonde hair, it had been the place he had sought sanctuary when their parents had died.
Within those four walls, he was no longer an orphan, he wasn’t pitied, coo-ed over, he was just, well, a normal teenager. His mates were there, and they talked and laughed and joked as they always had done. They listened to music, played games in the same way as everyone else, and that allowed his grief to be forgotten, if only for a few hours.
But then, on that June evening, it had changed. Changed irreparably. Forever and ever, amen.
It hadn’t been his fault, not really. Not that he could remember, anyway.
And that had been the problem. He couldn’t remember. Couldn’t recall how he had suddenly found himself with blood down his favourite tee-shirt, cradling his friend’s limp body in his arms.
When they found the two of them, crouched together in the alley behind that building, he genuinely couldn’t recollect how they had got there, what had happened to his best friend, best mate, best buddy. Couldn’t remember his own name.
Psychological trauma resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder was how they had described it. An event so devastating that his brain had shut down and hidden the incident from him.
His brain had placed that evening in a wooden box, locked it, and buried it deep within itself so that he could carry on as normal, move past it, heal physically and, eventually, get on with his life.
Mundane, ordinary things became his thing; school was all but out, so he didn’t return; chores became his routine instead, and he had gained so strong a focus for him that he shut everything else out.
He never went back there, of course, and his mates, who had been their mates, stayed away following their parents’ warnings, or simply dropped away after his constant refusal to interact with them.
He became a loner and avoided socialising wherever and whenever possible. He had no recollection of that night, but he knew deep down that he was safer on his own, and had a sense that other people were safer without him.
But, with the unswerving help and support of his sister, he moved on, slowly but surely, step by step.
Then the news he’d not anticipated. News of that place. That refuge that had become his dread. The demolition was close, and he was late for it.