The Man Who Lived at the End of the World

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Chapter 11

I sat at the large wooden dining table at the back of the house, looking through the large patio windows. The summer was slowly sinking in silence into autumn, inkblots of brown and gold now fading in, soaking into the once-bright green of distant farms and hillsides. Life was slowly being pulled out of everything colourful, even the colours of my own beautiful life. I remembered how I had felt like a hot-air balloon before, roped to the ground, and I felt a great weight holding me in place before I had even flown. My power-striped tie lay on the table's smooth wooden surface, cast off like the noose it had become, and I screwed my tired eyes shut and became gradually aware of a noise that had been hiding in the background of my thoughts.

My eyes springing open, I leaped up so fast that the dining chair fell backwards with a loud crack against the wooden floor, and splayed out my suit jacket that had hung on its back. Lucy was crying, and a horrible mixture of shame and panic swirled and curdled in my stomach as I rushed out of the dining room.

I burst into the living room just as Kate was rushing downstairs in her red dressing gown, bleary-eyed from trying to sleep.

“What were you doing?” she asked me, and the look she shot me was sharp enough to feel.

She went to Lucy's large downstairs cot, a complex folding framework of sturdy aluminium and black plastic, and scooped her out of the soft lining and into her arms.

“This is happening more and more,” she said, exasperated. “What's wrong with you?”

I merely stood and watched Lucy, dressed in a tiny pink sleeper, a dusting of dark hair now growing over the crown of her head. Her perfect eyes opened, her pupils ringed by a dark green so clear they put to shame the mighty stained glass that had mesmerised me before. She looked up at her mother with them as her cries died down, and Kate sat down on the sofa and held her close. Lucy hadn't been hungry or tired, she had merely wanted someone to hold her, and I had left her alone.

“I'm sorry,” was all I could say.

Kate was right. This was not the first time, and it was getting worse. I felt that with each passing day there were parts of me so desperate for escape that they were already leaving me, my soul an incomplete patchwork with puzzle pieces missing.

I walked quietly out, back to the dining room and back to the table, righting the fallen chair and leaning on it as I stared out the window. Here and there the specks of distant trees broke the fading green and encroaching browns of autumn, unveiling a new palette of reds and yellows that blended into one another like water. From nowhere, a frustrated burst of anger rose in me, and I picked up the heavy chair and heaved it into the air, but stopped myself in mid-swing. It would have gone through the window, and the noise and cold air would have upset Lucy and started her crying again.

For a moment I let myself feel the rage that I had never allowed myself to feel before, the disgust that I had let myself fall into a rut and become trapped by these two delicate creatures that needed looking after, needed warmth and comfort and closeness, while I yearned for the cold air of winter to whip against my skin and a boundless outdoors where walls and shelter meant nothing.

My hands shook as I carefully lowered the chair to the floor, and I sat heavily down on it with my head against the cold smoothness of the table and closed my eyes. I heard the quiet shuffle of Kate's footsteps behind me and wondered how much she had seen. I felt like a bomb aching to explode and blast into dust all the things that held me in, but soon it all settled and sank back down, like a mist, dulling everything.

The next day I was summoned by my manager, a man known only as Mister Smith who was round-faced, indeterminately middle-aged, and always wore a serious expression. His personal office adjoined the large open-plan space where I worked, and inside was a heavy desk made of real oak which, along with his pinstripe suit and thin, round glasses, lent an air of authority to his softly-spoken manner.

As I sat across from his shining, solid desk, he leaned forward, his clasped hands finding plenty of room amongst its neatly-ordered papers.

“Silas,” he began, his expression remaining as serious as it always did. “You've already been given a verbal warning.”

He stopped there, and I realised he was waiting for confirmation. “Yes,” I nodded, attempting to match his serious expression. I had to look like I appreciated the gravity of the situation.

“As I said back then,” he continued, “I understand that your accident had some bearing on your ability to perform. However...” he took a long pause to lean back in his chair. “There are some simple things I asked of you back then which you have not taken on board.”

“Oh?” I furrowed my brow to look extra-concerned.

“Your appearance,” he said with a gesture toward me. “Your hair is long and messy, you've let your beard grow out without so much as trimming it. You are supposed to be the face of this company. I can't let you continue to meet clients looking like this.”

I felt a sigh of relief inside, but kept it there where it could not be seen. “I understand,” I said, a smile escaping me.

Mister Smith paused and frowned at the appearance of my smile, but said nothing. “Your work is also suffering,” he persevered. “Your reports are hurried and lacking in important details.”

He stared at me for a moment, and I felt pressured to act disappointed and penitent, when in reality I felt nothing at all. “I am struggling,” I admitted.

“Well regardless of your reasons, I will regretfully have to move you to a more junior position.” Mister Smith spoke with an air of finality. “You have two weeks to finish up your work before you're moved down to the floor below.”

“Okay,” I said, and stood up. I remained standing for a few awkward moments. “Er, thanks,” I said, and I saw him shaking his head as I walked out of his office.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief and returned to my own desk. I sat slumped over it, looking out of the window at the distant water that was only visible by the sunlight shining on its surface, and I found myself thinking of Rachel.

“Your face is blank again,” said Joanna from the next desk, and I was brought back to the dullness of reality with an audible thud as I sat up too quickly and hit my knee on the drawers. Joanna laughed and swivelled on her chair to face me, smiling at me.

“Where are you?” she asked.

She was now the second person to ask me that question, and I merely smiled back at her. “A long way off,” I said.

“Where did you go?” she asked, quietly this time, leaning forward as if it would be our secret. “You know, when you drove off...” her words tailed off into creases of concern on her forehead.

I looked at her for a while, wondering how she could have known that I had escaped this world for another. “Somewhere beautiful,” I told her. “But I never found a way back.”

She regarded me quizzically, trying to work out what was going on inside me, as if I were a riddle worth solving. I turned back to the window with a quiet sigh and then looked inside the drawer that still held all of those fragments. I had never finished the poems. I never seemed to have the time anymore, and when I did, the things that so easily came to me before and let me write were no longer so ready. They were lying somewhere, reluctant and forgotten, sinking further out of sight with each passing day.

I didn't see Joanna again after I moved to the almost-identical floor below, and it took me several weeks to realise that I missed her. The biggest blow was no longer having the view from my old desk, my new one now facing the building's blank inside wall, like a prison. Less responsibility had merely meant less money, and as the months passed I began to feel even more trapped than before.

When Lucy was old enough to walk, she almost died.

It was January, and Kate came home and found her so cold she was almost blue. While I stood in the frozen garden and watched the winter sun setting, my own daughter almost died with it. My mind was such a maze, tangled beyond repair and no longer able to think, and I needed the cold outside to remind me that the simple, primal forces of the world still existed. I needed to feel something jolt me through the dull ache of my own life’s stilted haze, to wake me. I had left the patio doors wide open and all the house's heat had simply evaporated as quickly as a breath, and not even Lucy's cries had reached me as I felt my own heat seeping into the wind.

I knew then that I could not look after my family. I left straight away and slept for one restless, relentless and cold night in the car, a black Honda saloon which I had not been able to afford the payments for since my demotion.

The following day I went straight to work and was told by Mister Smith to leave, and not to come back. On my way out I took the drawer out of my desk and carried it with me, ignoring the protests of the other workers, walking down the stairs and back to my car that was parked illegally just outside. Placing the drawer on the passenger seat, I simply sat and looked out of the windscreen, my breath in the winter air spreading a slow mist across the inside.

From down here I could not see the water, but its bright light reflected from a low sun and lit up the sky. Starting the car's engine, I never took my eyes off that light as I drove around and through the town, navigating its narrow streets and emerging out from the other side into the country lanes that hid the horizon behind high hedges and low branches. Between them all I saw it, sparkling like a jewel, and I floored the accelerator and drove all the way to the water's edge.

There was no-one at the shore where I had once stood with Kate, and I stopped the car in the road. Tears began vying with the pure happiness I felt at the memory of that one unsullied moment. The icy moonlit image in all its intensity now overlaid itself onto the reality before me, but the water was no longer frozen, and it lapped the frost-covered shore gently. Somehow even the cold of winter was no longer as intense as it had been back then. Everything around me had gradually begun to sink into a monotone.

I drove further around the lake's wide crescent, and on the western shore at its far end, deep in the hills, there stood an old wooden pier. On the opposite side of the road was a gravel parking bay at the foot of a steep and treacherous rocky hill. I drove across its uneven surface and parked under the dead branches of an ancient tree. Here I could face the water and meet the sun head-on.

In the summertime families came here to picnic, and their children jumped from the pier and angered the old men who sat dangling their fishing lines from its edge, but now it was deserted and still. I switched off the car's engine and sat, eyes closed against the blinding glare as its warmth soaked in through the windscreen's thick glass. I opened my window wide, and on the fresh air I breathed I heard the sounds that only nature made and that cities drowned out.

I considered the enormity of my failure, the helpless inability I found in merely functioning. Then the silence overtook me, and I went blank.

It was only then, when I became nothing; that was when the spark of life returned. I knew that it had only fled and deserted me since the day I had seen that other place and had been held captive in this one. I opened my eyes into the sharp pain of direct sunlight and started the car, shifting it into gear, pressing down on the accelerator. The wheels span and I moved quickly away, bouncing faster and faster over the gravel and then the road, and soon so fast that the view from the side windows blurred and all I saw was the endless scene in front of me. The roar of the engine faded into nothing, the tyres hammering over the pier's wooden slats pounded a rhythm into silence, and there was nothing. There was nothing at all between the sun and the water, only empty sky, and I could drive on and on forever and carry on right between them, a bridge to make the world whole again, and no-one would ever have to be far away from anything ever again.

There was a moment when I felt my stomach rise, and the sky was suddenly swallowed up by water as the car hit it with an impact that seemed to happen in such slow motion it was almost restful. My head lurched back from the blow against the steering wheel and my sun-blinded vision melted softly into a dream. The freezing water rose sharply and took my breath, driving me further into the warmth deep inside, until I was sleeping it all away.

I never saw the desk drawer next to me hurling its contents outwards, all of those pieces of paper floating up and out of the window and away, fluttering and swaying in the currents while the ink faded and dissolved, everything that had stayed like a weight inside me now finally free.

Only the spark of life remained, and the water only pushed it deeper until it sat immovable in my bones.

I awoke in the hospital again, but this time I felt different. I was no longer lost and alone, no longer helpless or weak, and somehow I knew I had brought that other place with me. I felt my body immediately, aching and wounded but strong, and I felt Kate's hand in mine. When I opened my eyes I saw her, sitting next to my bed, her tired eyes filled with tears, but she said nothing. Her dark hair was tangled, frayed about the edges with sleepless nights, and she was covered with my long black overcoat, like a blanket. I could not see Lucy, and Kate remained silent until I drifted back into sleep.

I was placed in a small room with a window either side, and my bed in between. On my left I could look out and see a young tree growing in the small patch of grass before the busy comings and goings of the large car park, and on my right I saw only the corridor. I kept the blinds open on the outside window and closed on the other, shutting out the stream of nurses and doctors rushing or wandering past me.

I felt strong enough to leave, but they wanted to keep me in to test and assess me every which way. Each day Kate came in with Lucy to sit with me, and she looked exhausted and said very little. I felt restless and bursting full of words I wanted to say, just to tell her everything, but her withdrawn silences held them in check, until after a week she shocked me with words of her own.

“I can't take you back,” she said.

By now I was sitting upright and was desperate to go home, to tear all of the wires and tubes away and just run, but she stunned me into a motionless silence.

“I'm not like I was,” I told her. “My mind is clear now, I can do it now.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “You're ill. You can't work, you can't look after your daughter. You almost let her die.”

I glared at her, and felt as if I had been stabbed. Great swells of anger and disappointment wrestled like ocean waves, and my jaw tightened. “I'm not the same man,” I assured her, staring down at the tray of lukewarm and defeated-looking food before me.

“No you're not,” she replied sternly. “You've almost driven to your death twice, and had head injuries both times. You're nothing like the man you used to be.”

“This time's different,” I said quietly, my fists clenching. “I'm back now. I'm ready to take care of you and Lucy.”

Lucy sensed my swirling inner storms and began to cry in Kate's arms, and Kate stood up, flustered and exhausted. I knew I had done this to her, to both of them. She looked at me for a little while, as if trying to find me, and then she sighed.

“Goodbye, Silas,” she said.

Kate did not come back the next day, or any day after, but she came in a taxi to take me home when I was discharged. I slept on the sofa downstairs and there was a heavy silence between us for several days until Kate told me I had to leave.

“We need time,” she said, her eyes filling and glistening but not quite spilling over. I stared at her tears, quivering, bulging with surface tension. “I can't trust you around Lucy anymore. Just give us time.”

I said nothing in reply, and I left and caught the bus to the old flat where I used to live before Kate. It still had the same owner, and despite being snapped up after I had moved out, it had just become vacant again. I felt as if fate intended me to be alone now. I returned home and packed what few things were still important to me into a pair of suitcases, including my heavy old typewriter, and I went into Lucy's bedroom.

It was decorated to look like she slept in the sky, with light-blue walls covered in cotton-white clouds. Her luxurious wooden cot lay in the corner, near enough to the window for her to see the mighty columns of sunlight shine in each morning. I stepped quietly over the soft carpet, stooping to slowly and gently pick her up and hold her as she slept. She had on a white top and pink trousers, her tiny hands curled and occasionally moving with her dreams. She was one year old, and I felt overwhelmed by her, still flawless and new, a tiny human being, my daughter. Her growing mass of dark hair was soft against my skin as I cradled her in my arms, and I looked at her closed eyes and her mouth hanging open, knowing she would not remember me.

“I'll never forget you,” I told her. “I'll come back for you.”

Behind me, although I heard nothing, I knew Kate was standing in the doorway, looking at me, making sure I did nothing to hurt our child. The idea that she could think such a thing began to anger me, as did the realisation that she may be right. Without a further word I placed Lucy gently back down onto her bedding and left.

Kate was hanging back just beyond the bedroom door, and she hugged me as tight as she used to hold me when we were first in love. I held her tight, not letting my eyes well up, then I took a suitcase in each hand and went downstairs to the front door.

I heard Lucy begin to cry, perhaps sensing that she had suddenly awoken into a changed life. My heart broke, and I left.

When I arrived at my flat it was just the same as I remembered. It was cold and cramped, and the wall I had painted was now a plain white, showing through none of the colour that was buried deep beneath it. There was now a carpet covering the bare floorboards, but it was thin and worn, a faded light green with an even more faded swirling pattern. I felt a glimmer of satisfaction at seeing that my old desk was still here, now a permanent part of the furnishings.

I carried my things through into the bedroom and opened one of the suitcases, taking out my typewriter. It was old and falling apart, and I placed it on the bed and sat by it, looking down at it, somehow expecting it to give me all my answers and save me.

Silence weighed in heavily, and the sudden and unwelcome freedom of sitting with nothing to do eventually drove me to go and visit the car. It had been pulled out of the lake by a huge crane, and there had been pictures in the local paper. The water had poured out from the open window and, soaked and weighed down like a thick coat caught in a rainstorm, it had been strapped to the back of a truck and dumped in the same scrapyard where I had found so many of the things that had made up the inner workings of the boat.

I took the bus to the scrapyard and paid the owner out of my dwindling money to strap it back up and take it over to the garages near my flat. There, I spent the following weeks taking the car apart piece by piece, laying it out like a jigsaw on the gravel expanse in front of the garage doors, finding water that had seeped into places it should not have been able to reach. The skies were clear and the air cold, but the sun was my companion and shone down every day to dry what I had laid out.

I bought car maintenance books and visited the library to learn more, until it was spring and the sun grew closer and warmer. I felt my heart open with it, and three times a week I went to see Kate and baby Lucy, each time feeling stronger and more sure. Kate would not hug me, and only kissed me on the cheek when she was in a cheerful mood, but Lucy knew no different and would always accept me, her tiny hands reaching for the tangles of my hair, pure laughter gurgling up from her smile. Under Kate's watchful supervision I showed her that I could change Lucy’s nappies when she filled them, that I could feed and look after her, but Kate remained quietly suspicious, and I knew that I had shattered too much trust with my madness.

The day came during that summer when I turned the key in the ignition and the car started. Although the once-shining black body was now dull and eroding, everything beneath it was cleaned and in better condition than when I had bought it. Elated and covered in oil, I rejoiced with a cry that echoed back and forth between the concrete walls, and I drove over to see Kate and show her what I had done.

Her eyes were now full of the same amazement that I remembered seeing in her when we had first met, and I smiled at her as she walked around the car parked on the house's front driveway. She was speechless, tracing her fingers over each line and curve inside and out, inspecting it with wonder.

“You really rebuilt it all?” she asked me. “All by yourself?”

“All by myself,” I repeated with a measure of pride. “I don't give up so easily.”

She looked back up at me with a wry smile. “No, you really don't,” she said.

I laughed and felt the moment soaking into her, finally thawing the frozen barrier she had kept against me all of those months. She looked healthier now, her face pink and her eyes shining, and when she came over and kissed my cheek again, more softly this time, I was filled with hope.

“Oh by the way,” she added. “Guess who runs the old coffee shop now?”

“Our coffee shop?”

“Yes,” she laughed, “ours. Do you remember Steve?”

“I remember Steve,” I said with a smile as I remembered his urging me forward toward Kate. “He runs the place now?”

“Apparently he aced his business studies at uni,” she said, still looking surprised by the news. “He got a really good job down in London, but now he's back up here running that tiny place. Isn't that funny?”

“It's like the past coming back to close the loop,” I said, and I believed it too, and hoped that Kate did.

I felt new that year, as I witnessed Lucy learning to walk more confidently and then to run, and Kate flourishing without the strain of living in expectation of my instability. I would sometimes stay for dinner and put Lucy to sleep in the evening, warming up a tiny mugful of milk in a pan and stirring in a teaspoon of honey, just like my father had done for my bedtimes as a child. Just like me, Lucy would drink it all down and sleep like a log. I wanted to be good for her, and I wanted Kate to see it too.

I worked hard, fixing people's cars in return for cash, and I saw the owner of the scrapyard so often in my search for spares that he began to pay me to fix any of his salvageable cars so that he could sell them on. I felt as if I were clawing my way back into the world, healing the damaging spread of my reputation after the accident.

Sometimes I even felt like I was bringing a little of that other world and its expanses of peace with me, but in the quiet moments when I sat alone on the bed, I would pull the typewriter from underneath and sit with it, and nothing would wake inside me as it once had done. There was nothing bursting to be written, no uncontainable spark, and I felt like the wall in the main room that had been painted over. I was something different now, and whatever had been there before was long gone.

Lucy was growing to be like her mother, and I was relieved to see she didn't suffer the same restlessness that seemed to keep throwing me off course. Her hair grew and straightened out, like mine only calmer, but her eyes remained a bright green, and her self-conscious smile was the image of Kate's.

She became my everything, the sun at the centre of my system and the fulcrum that kept me in balance. I wondered if the meaning she held had soaked up the meaning from everything before, and I knew that if she was the reason I could no longer write then it was a sacrifice I would not change for anything. Without those things I turned instead to mastering the physical world, training my body and making it strong, finding out how things worked and learning to mend anything that had broken with the gentle touch of a father.

I began to run at night, when the streets were empty and there were no voices to invade my thoughts. At first I could only jog a few hundred yards before my lungs and heart held me back, but they slowly grew stronger along with all of my other muscles, and within another year I was running for miles each night. For each passing day that Lucy grew, I grew with her.

One day in July I came to see her, expecting to walk in and sit her on my knee for as long as she would tolerate being still, but Kate stood at the house's front doorway, and her eyes refused contact with mine.

“I want you to meet someone, Silas,” she said. “Come on in.”

I walked in, and Lucy was in her white dress with the butterflies on, sitting on the lap of a man whose face I knew. He was a little younger than me, and more fully built than the last time I had seen him many years ago, his body now designed to operate solidly down here on earth. He was entrenched comfortably in the sofa as if he owned it, and I felt the intensity return to my gaze as my stomach knotted up in some strange feeling that I could not identify.

He looked at me with pale blue eyes, bright and no longer shadowed by his hair now that it was cut short. I took a deep breath and felt like I was drowning.

Steve reached out an open hand. “Hi Silas,” he said.

I shook his hand silently, my stare shaking his smile into uncertainty. “Been a while,” I said simply as I sat on the nearby armchair.

“Yeah, how've you been?” he asked.

“Up and down,” I said. I was still staring at him as Kate walked in, and in my periphery I sensed her rolling her eyes as she sat next to Steve.

“Look at Lucy,” she said to break the silence that was just about to form. “Isn't that amazing? She never sits still for anyone normally.”

Lucy gurgled with laughter as I sat, and to my satisfaction she fidgeted her way off Steve's lap and ran over to me, arms held out. I lifted her and she sat on my knees, bouncing with excitement.

“Except Silas,” Kate laughed, as if by way of apology.

“She's great,” Steve enthused, and the look of genuine devotion already in his eyes softened my steely glare and the hardness inside me just a little. “She's so lively,” he said, “so curious. She's gonna grow up as smart as her mother.”

“So what's the deal with you two?” I asked, so suddenly it almost interrupted the end of his sentence. The abruptness of my question was offset by the smile on my face. “I mean are you together, or...?”

I watched Steve and Kate squirm and stiffen slightly. “Well,” Steve attempted, looking at Kate for direction. “Not really...”

“We're just friends,” Kate took over, visibly annoyed. “Now Steve runs the coffee place we see each other a lot.”

“I'm hoping to buy the place up,” Steve explained. “Expand it a little.”

“So I'm helping him build up business by drinking his coffee,” Kate smiled.

“Plus she brings Lucy,” Steve added. “The first time she brought her in she ran over and wanted me to pick her up. We all just seemed to click straight away.”

“So now Steve pops over to see Lucy once in a while,” Kate concluded, as if their being together alone in the house that I had bought was just a natural progression.

The look they then shared was only as brief as a flash of sunlight on a mirror, but it was the look of two people who were more than just good friends. On that afternoon it felt like everything but Lucy had dimmed just a little.

I ran and ran that night, hypnotised into emptiness by the jarring of my hard and rhythmic footfalls against the middle of the town's main road. I ran until I felt the agony of my body rise to overtake the afternoon’s pain, and for a few moments I was relieved.

When my legs gave way I fell to the road's hard surface, directly in the middle, defeated. Nothing existed now but the agony of overdriven muscles, a heart barely able to beat hard enough, and lungs that could not take in enough air to fuel it. The sharp pangs of my fall’s impact reverberated unbearably through my hands and knees, but in those moments I had outrun the weight that had settled inside and that could not be thrown off.

After that day, Steve was there more and more often, and he excused himself more and more often to go back to work when I arrived, while I felt Kate drifting farther away as she detached from my orbit and settled into his. Exactly what he did as owner of a coffee shop, I did not know, and it was not something that interested me. Even so, when he took me aside and said with a look of grave concern that he wanted to meet in the local pub that evening for drinks and a talk, I was at once both dreading and relishing a real meeting with him.

When he left Kate held my arm. “Be gentle with him,” she said, and that evening the sky darkened and clouds rolled in.

I could not remember the last time alcohol had passed my lips, and I had never had occasion to visit the pub before, despite its having been only a few minutes' walk from the house. Perhaps due to the old-fashioned plough bolted onto its roof above the front door, I had always envisioned it as a dim, fire-lit place filled with ageing farmers and the sticky scent of old ale. Once inside I was pleasantly surprised by its plush, dark-red carpet, and its tables and chairs which looked like larger and more sturdy copies of the ones in the coffee shop. Young, smartly-dressed staff wound silent paths around the murmuring customers that occupied at least half of the tables, and a large, U-shaped bar made of the same wood dominated the centre of the space. It was lined with hanging wine glasses, and regimented spirit bottles were lit by the ceiling lights until they sparkled.

I noticed the feather-light rush of summer rain brushing against the large windows as I spotted Steve at a small, round table in the far corner. He waved at me as I caught his eye, and I went over and sat opposite him, nervous at myself for how I might react. We exchanged pleasantries, and he bought me a pint of the same cloudy ale that he was drinking, but after a brief silence he met my gaze and held it, and I braced myself for what would come next. His blue eyes were made stern by the recess of his furrowed brow, lending them an intensity that he had never possessed before. He had changed so much since the coffee shop days.

“I'm in love with Kate,” he told me flatly. “I know this must be hard for you, and given that we used to be friends, it's the only reason this has taken me so long.”

He paused and looked down into the murky depths of his ale as the rain still whispered and struggled to make itself heard above the crowd of voices around us.

“I know you're a decent person,” he eventually continued, “but Kate's told me a lot about what's happened.”

I shifted uncomfortably as I felt my tension strip unexpectedly away into sudden honesty. “I don't feel like a decent person,” I confessed. “I've done a lot of things I can't take back.”

I paused, and Steve looked back up at me but kept quiet, expecting me to continue.

“I've always loved my wife and daughter,” I went on, obliging him. “The whole time, no matter how far gone I was. All I want for them both now is to be happy and safe.”

Steve smiled. “That's all I want too,” he said in agreement. “If that's what you really want then of course you're a good person. We're both good guys.” He laughed, perhaps with relief at finding common ground.

“Let's hope,” I said with a wry smile.

We drank our beer in silence for a few moments before Steve finally dropped what he had been building up to. “I'd like to marry Kate someday,” he said. “Maybe even buy the house from you. She loves that place so much.”

It was exactly what I had been expecting to hear but it still sent a shiver of goose-bumps through me to actually hear it. I took another deep gulp of my beer. Its flavour was bitter but was quickly growing on me.

“I'm not ready to give up on her,” I said. “Not yet.” It was like a mantra, a reminder to myself.

“I know how tough it is,” Steve said with a sigh. “Believe me, I've been there. But it's been how long? Nearly two years now?”

“It was winter,” I corrected him. “It hasn't been two years.”

“Well however long it's been, she hasn't changed her mind about you.”

“I don't care how long it's been.” I put my glass down hard, with a sharp bang. I was starting to tense. I was skirting the edges of a dangerous survival instinct that steeled inside. “I'm not ready to give up on her. She's still my wife, and Lucy will always be my daughter. They're my family.”

Steve drew a deep breath. He was starting to lose patience. “Look,” he said, leaning on the table. “I've spent a lot of time with Kate, and believe me we've talked this over and over. I'll be brutally honest. There was no chance she was going to take you back anyway.”

“Come on,” I said sharply, “you've had your eye on her from day one, you've just been waiting for your moment to pounce.”

“That's not how it is at all,” Steve sighed, sitting back and suddenly tired. “I was seeing someone back then and... look, never mind, the point is that Kate needs someone to look after her and Lucy, and she's not going to risk letting you be that person again.”

I felt a spike of pure rage leaping up like fire inside me, and before it had cooled I had stood up hard enough to push the table back into him.

“You listen to me,” I said loudly, pointing accusingly at him. “I don't know who you think I am but you've got me wrong, both of you.”

“I think you might be the one misunderstanding us,” Steve replied, keeping his calm, “we're trying to do what's best for Lucy too, not just for us.”

“You got everything wrong!” I shouted.

As the anger began to subside it left a terrible pain in its wake, an ache that made me feel hollow, and I sank back down into my chair, vaguely aware that Steve was still speaking, trying to calm me.

“Just go,” I said, interrupting him, rubbing my eyes hard as if trying to wake up. “Just go. Take the house, take my wife, just go.”

With my eyes still closed I felt him leave, and when I opened them and the haze resolved back into my surroundings, I saw his half-finished drink still sitting placidly upon the table. I reached over and took it, drinking it down quickly, then chased it with the rest of my own. Feeling the relief it gave me slowly settle in to soften the broiling turmoil, I laughed a laugh as sharp as my stare had been upon first meeting Steve, and I went to the bar and ordered whisky.

It was dark when I left, the rain now a cold torrent invisible in the black sky, and it immediately snapped me back into my skin as it slapped against me. I wrestled with the alcohol for control over my limbs as I found my car in the unlit and uneven car park, and climbed in, surrounded by the roar of rain against its metal. I drove out, bouncing along the gravel, and began slowly heading back home, but found myself driving instead to the house. I parked on the drive, facing the front door.

The headlights must have alerted Kate, and the door opened, the light from within silhouetting her like the frame of a picture for just a moment, and then she disappeared briefly. She reappeared with a long coat thrown around her shoulders, and she came running over, letting herself in and sitting hurriedly in the passenger seat.

“I'm sorry,” she said, looking over at me, and I sat staring at the huge droplets pushing waves down the windscreen. I was surprised that she should apologise, but I let nothing show.

“Don't be,” is all I said. “Just tell me something.”

“What is it?”

“Are you happy? Are you and Lucy happy?”

She looked at me a while longer then leaned over and hugged me, tight, like she used to.

“Look at you,” she sighed quietly as I held her loosely, no longer sure about anything. “You never drink,” she said.

She let go of me and sat back. “And yes. We're happy. Happier than we've been in a long time.”

I nodded, still looking out at the rain, the downpour highlighting the car's two headlight beams like they were solid. “Say sorry to Steve for me,” I eventually said.

She looked over at me in silence for so long I thought she had frozen still, but then she opened the door and climbed out. Pausing before closing the door, she leaned in and simply said, “Take care, Silas.” Then she gently shut me in, sealing me away from the world outside, and I watched her run back into the house and close herself in away from me.

I had nowhere left, nothing to build for anyone, only a false and unwanted self left to dismantle and erase. My own self-importance had made me angry. I had no right to be angry when the only two people I loved were finally happy and looked after because of someone else instead of me. I felt my soul evaporate as I drove back home, and I fell asleep, and that night I had no dreams at all.

Lucy was all that kept me coming back to what was otherwise a life shown on film, something I had stepped back to let wash by, and no matter how happy they all were and how much they feigned an uneasy friendliness to accept me as a part of it all, I remained only on the edges and retreated when not needed. I sat out of sight at the back of the church at the wedding that following April, churning inside at knowing it was in the graveyard just outside where I had proposed to her, less than seven years earlier. I saw Kate walk past me in her dress, looking just as stunning as the day I had married her. Lucy, now a toddler with a voice of her own, was heartbreakingly beautiful as the only bridesmaid, tailing behind her mother in a long, dark-green dress made of silk.

From the moment Steve kissed her, I felt myself welling up and then actually crying for the first time in years. They walked back down the aisle together, past me, neither of them even seeing me as I sat quietly.

Something seemed to leap up inside me at that moment, a desperation as strong as any feeling I'd ever felt, and I wanted more than anything to run after her, to spin her around and tell her I'd made the biggest mistake of my life and that nothing would ever be right without her. As I let them walk on past it surged inside me like the final war cry of a burning kamikaze at the end, before his atoms scatter in one last fireball.

I said nothing. I sat still, holding it inside, but I could not let her go. My atoms might have been ready to come apart and signal the end of who I was, but I held them together, just long enough to follow them, watch the photographs being taken, see how happy she was now someone was here to truly give her what she needed and wanted.

Afterwards, I drove back home and somehow my small flat seemed emptier than it ever had before. My small life, my nothing self. I felt the burning of earlier rise up inside me, a dark and destructive rage, and I suddenly hated everything around me, all the stupid and pointless things I had accumulated and stamped as mine, and I went to a drawer in the kitchen and found a large box of matches, then turned the gas up to full on the cooker. Its smell quickly filled the rooms and I left, hurrying back down to the car, my head swimming with a growing pain and blurring vision.

In the garage there were several small metal cans filled with petrol that I kept for the cars I worked on, and I grabbed one and stuffed some old rag into it, letting it soak before lighting it and watching it burn like a molotov. I took it to the front of the flat and held it over my head, heaving it as hard as I could toward the window. Burning petrol spilled onto me and dripped in patches of flame onto my coat and my hair as I watched in slow motion, the metal can sailing with a mane of fire trailing behind it, hitting the pristine reflection of glass and breaking it to a million pieces, falling out of sight, and then the most terrifying few moments of nothing as the shards fell like rain.

A deafening thud tore through my skull, a flash that lit the night sky, and I winced and ducked, throwing my hands up, feeling a blast of warm air and then the fireball hurling razor-sharp debris and glass outwards, and as I was burned and cut and thrown hard onto the concrete I felt the deepest satisfaction of my life.

I opened my eyes to see a flurry of burning debris floating to the earth all around me, and I lay and let it all leave me. My soul was cleansed.

I woke once more in hospital. My face and hands were bandaged, and again there was no more escapism with Rachel and softly blowing curtains, only reality. I had dispensed with all the fantasy and pointless lies that I had built into the mess I had thought of as me. There was only the base, the foundation with no reason to build again, only the real world in all its solid horror, and nothing else. I told everyone who came to my bedside not to contact Kate, and instead I lay feeling light and free and alone, with no-one left to get snagged on the tangles of a manufactured self.

They got to hear of it, of course. I was arrested, evaluated, medicated, watched by a patronising young helper who was taller than me and overweight, and who turned up every day at lunch time in my new flat, even smaller than the last, to make sure I took my pills. I tucked them in my cheek and spat them back out when he was gone.

They heard but they never came to see me. Kate phoned me and told me not to come and see Lucy again. She told me to stay out of all of their lives. The part of me that would have been devastated was now gone, but somewhere in the faded distance I still felt the pull, the same pull that had surged on Kate's wedding day.

Each night I ran past the house. It was no longer mine, and a large sum of money sat in my bank account, but I saw no use for it and wrote out a will leaving it to Lucy, and only her. Sometimes I would stop and stand outside, looking at the light seeping out from the edges of the curtains, or if they were all asleep, merely feeling the stillness that surrounded the house, and it felt like the warmth of a family, the warmth I’d never felt, never brought, and still could not honestly feel.

Once, in the summer months, I ran past and saw a tiny figure on the flat garage roof next to the house. I stopped and walked up the drive, looking up at Lucy in her thin white night-dress, sitting on the edge as if were just a chair, a huge plaything. I smiled up at her, and in that moment I realised that nothing had truly escaped, and my eyes spilled over at how beautiful she was.

My body was lighter and more agile than it had ever been, and I climbed onto Steve's car's bonnet as it sat parked on the drive in front of the garage door, a smart-looking shiny black BMW. I trod carelessly on it and then leaped easily to the edge of the roof, pulling myself up to sit next to Lucy. She smiled up at me, her dark hair now almost down to her waist, and her little legs dangling.

“Hello,” she whispered, and a frown furrowed her smooth forehead. “Who are you?” she asked. “I remember you.”

I smiled and put my arm around her, keeping her safe from falling. “I'm Silas,” I said. “I know who you are.”

She grinned. “Who am I?”

“You're Lucy.”

She gasped, then laughed, for a moment forgetting she had been whispering. She quickly put a hand over her mouth and looked back to the opened bedroom window that overlooked the roof. I wondered how someone so small had made her way undetected from her own room and into the spare bedroom, then climbed up and out. I felt a pride and love that I had almost forgotten, and I picked her up and held her on my lap, and talked to her until she started to fall asleep. Once she was sleeping so deeply that her body was no more than a limp and softly-snoring weight, I took her back to the window and very carefully climbed in, just enough to lower her gently onto the always-made spare bed.

Every night after that I ran to the house and waited for Lucy. Most nights she was not there, but when she was I would climb up onto the roof and talk to her. Sometimes we would look up at the stars together and she was overawed, her imagination taking her far away to play between them, and I would tell her stories about them that I made up as I went.

When she asked what the stars were made of I told her they were made of pure light. Light, I told her, takes time to get places, even though it moves too fast for us to see. Every star sends out a beam of light to earth, and even when it dies, the light still carries on until it's finished, and then the star winks out forever.

“Every star is like the sun,” I said to her as she looked up at me, completely taken and open-mouthed in amazement, “just far away. In the middle of each one is a tiny baby growing, and when the beam of light hits the earth then a new baby is born.”

“Can you tell which one a baby came from?” she asked me. “When you see the baby?”

“No, I can't,” I laughed. “But I think...” I pointed to a bright star in the middle of the sky. “I think you came from that one. And as long as the star is still alive and its beam is touching the earth, one day you might get to go back and visit.”

Her eyes were full of wonder as she looked up at the night sky. “How?” she whispered.

“You'll have to wait until you're bigger,” I told her. “Then when it's sunny you step on a cloud, and wait for the stars to come out, and then you can go back up.”

She was lost in her new dreams, the night reflected in her eyes, and when she became sleepy I once more picked her up and carried her to the open window. As I stooped to carry her inside Lucy awoke and cried out, “Daddy!”

I felt the adrenaline of terror and peered in to see Steve standing in the darkened bedroom.

“You!” he spat angrily. He leaned out and took Lucy from me so roughly that she began to cry. He impatiently ordered her back to her own bedroom and told her to sleep.

I stood up straight and went to the edge of the roof, lowering myself back down to the ground, and before I knew it the front door burst open and Steve shot out like he had been launched, carrying a baseball bat, his dark blue dressing gown billowing around him and revealing the baggy white pyjamas beneath. He marched over to me.

“You!” he repeated incredulously. “I knew it was you. You're the man on the roof she told us about...” He nodded, staring into my eyes like a challenge. “I thought my wife had made herself clear, you're to stay away from us.”

I heard Lucy's crying from the still-open window, and my stomach wrenched as I looked up toward her helplessly.

“Are you even listening?” he demanded, raising his voice. “This is my family now, and I won't have some nutcase like you putting them in danger. You stay away from my wife and my daughter.”

At that I snapped back and met his stare. That had ignited me, and for a moment he faltered and almost stepped back before catching himself and standing his ground. I grabbed the bat and pulled it out of his hands.

“Kate might be your wife but Lucy will always be my daughter,” I growled.

Anger creased his face, and as he sprang forward to grab his bat back from me I instinctively lashed out, my fist hitting his cheek and jaw with a painful thud. He recoiled with a cry, staggering back, and angered further he came at me again. I stepped forward to meet him and threw another punch, hitting his jaw so hard I heard a crack. His head jerked back and he collapsed limply to the ground.

He was knocked clean out, and I felt a pang of regret as I crouched down next to him to make sure he was going to be okay. My knuckles were throbbing and beginning to swell, but I managed to turn him onto his side to stop him choking.

Kate appeared at the door and froze in shock. I leaped back up and dropped the bat from my hand, letting it clatter onto the drive and roll away.

“You!” she screamed, running over to Steve where she knelt down and cradled him.

“Don't move him,” I said. “I'll call an...”

“You'll do nothing!” she screamed with a rage I had never seen in her before. “You'll leave us alone like I told you!”

“Look, he attacked me...”

“You knocked him out!” she cried. “I don't want you anywhere near us or Lucy, ever!”

I stood, looking down at them both, Lucy's cries now louder, and as lights flicked on in neighbouring windows I turned and left, my heart racing like the pounding of train carriages over tracks. I was swirling inside, and only by running as fast as I could did I drain it of its intensity.

Collapsing back home in my flat, I pulled a bottle of whisky from a cupboard in the kitchen and sat at the tiny table, filling a tumbler. I looked down at my hands, shaking, splashed with more tears. I had escaped nothing, cleansed nothing. I had wrestled no demons, faced no shadows, only thrown on more layers of denial. I was a coward, defending my cowardice to the last while hiding away as much as I ever had done, only now it was worse because I had convinced myself I had been winning. The weight returned to settle in my stomach, the weight that had been hiding with me in the wings, waiting to reveal itself, the weight of the past that was too heavy to move. It would never leave me.

The burning oblivion of the whisky slowly stripped away every layer of feeling until nothing mattered and I was numb, and I collapsed into a sleep so deep that I could have been dead.

I was awoken painfully the next morning by police officers at my door. As much as they questioned me I could not wake fully enough or remember with any distinction what had happened that night, and when I asked them why they were here, they told me that both Steve and Kate had been killed in their home.

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