Chapter 4: April
Max walked into the kitchen and switched on the kettle. He needed a caffeine boost. Two late nights in a row had left him exhausted. Sofia had gone along with him to the Electronic Expo on Thursday night. Although she had not really shared his enthusiasm, they’d had fun. It was impossible to not have fun in a flight simulator.
He had also taken her to an up-market bar last night to celebrate the launching of Bit-by-Bit’s new website. The board of directors were surprisingly happy with what they had come up with and their weeks of not-so-hard work had actually reaped some rewards. But it was there that their relationship had taken a very unexpected turn.
He had finally seen with his own eyes how alcohol can eradicate any and all inhibitions. Sofia had been giddy with excitement at first but after three martinis and eight tequilas she became very outspoken.
He’d made a comment about how tequila was the only exception to Danny’s strict no-drinking rule and Sofia’s mood had instantly changed.
“You’re in love with Danny, aren’t you?” she’d said.
Although Max tried to deny it, she had not believed a single word.
“I know it’s hard to love someone who doesn’t love you back,” she’d said, her tone sullen and dejected. “And I know how hard it is to le’ go and move on. I’m going through the same thing. I fell in love and…I thought things were going grea’. He said it was going too fas’ so we take a break and now…he’s getting married to someone else. That’s life. But, Max, if both of us are only willing to put half our hearts into this relationship, it’s never going to work. I really like you and I wan’ to see where this goes.”
Max had ended the conversation there as he thought it best to continue it when she was one hundred percent sober, but her words still troubled him. How could Sofia, someone who knew him for six weeks, see what Danny had not been able to see in six years? What troubled him even more was that Sofia could tell that Danny didn’t love him back. It was a fact he still could not wrap his head around after all this time.
“Hey,” Danny greeted softly from the entrance of the kitchen. “Can I get a cup too?”
Max noticed that she had already showered and changed and realized that he had been so lost in thought he had not even heard her.
“Sure.” Max walked to the cupboard, took out another mug and began making her a cup of coffee.
He noticed the way her eyes moved very discreetly over his bare chest and there was something almost appreciative in her gaze.
“Max, have you been working out?”
“Yeah, Charlie and I have been hitting the gym. I want to get into shape. Can’t be the skinny dork all my life.”
There was a part of him that felt flattered that she noticed but the other part of him felt awkward around her, vulnerable because people who barely knew him could see what he was hiding.
“So how was your night of celebration?” she asked. “You got in pretty late.”
He handed her a cup of steaming coffee. “It was...eventful. I discovered a whole new side to Sofia.” He saw the questions formulate in Danny’s eyes, but when he offered no further information, she looked away and began sipping her coffee. “What do you have planned for today?” he asked instead.
“Richard is taking me out today. He flew in last night. I told you about it, remember?”
He simply nodded, wishing that he had not asked the question. The silence dragged on for quite some time before Danny cleared her throat and looked up at him.
“Max…I wanna ask you something.”
He nodded. “Shoot. You know you can ask me anything.”
She toyed nervously with her fingers. “If you and I were dating...how long...how long would you be willing to wait before...we...you know...”
Max froze and tried not to read too much into what she was asking. “If you and I were dating...I would...I would wait as long as it took. I think...” He inhaled a deep breath. “I think a girl like you is worth waiting for.” He noticed that she was giving extensive thought to his words. “Why do you ask?”
“It’s just that Richard is in town and I...was thinking that maybe…tonight—”
“No!” Max roared.
He knew he had no right to tell her what to do or who to do it with, but he couldn’t stand the thought of her giving herself to arrogant playboy. Fuck no!
His heart rate went through the roof, anxiety gushing through him with every erratic beat. The thought of that asshole’s hands on her body was enough to drive him mad. Richard didn’t deserve her. He was only after one thing. Max knew that it was only the challenge of getting her into bed that had kept Richard interested for so many months.
Once he got what he wanted, he probably wouldn’t even wait for the sheets to cool before he moved on to the next woman. The time for sitting on the sidelines was over. He needed to voice what he really thought before she did something stupid, something she would regret for the rest of her life. “Danny, please think about this before you make any rash decisions.”
“I have thought about it. I’ve spent months thinking about it. Richard and I have been together for a long time now and I think I’m ready to—”
“Danny, sex should be shared between two people who love each other.”
“I do love him.”
“No, you don’t!” Max gritted his teeth and tried to get his temper under control. “You think you do but you barely know him. You’ve been dating him for months but how much time have you actually spent with him? I know this is hard for you to hear but… Richard doesn’t love you.”
“That isn’t true, Max. Richard does—” Her voice was rising; becoming more desperate.
“No, he doesn’t and as soon as he gets what he wants...”
“Danielle...” He reached over the counter and took her hand. “Please don’t do this. I know that since Jake died, you want to feel a sense of belonging, that feeling of having a family. Richard can’t give you that.”
Tears were streaming down her cheeks now. “Why are you saying these things to me?”
“Because I care about you.” His thumb went up to her face to wipe away her tears. “I just want you to be happy and—”
Both Danny’s and Max’s eyes flew towards the entrance of the kitchen. Max watched how the expression on Danny’s face changed from one emotion to another as her brain registered Sofia, standing in the doorway, wearing nothing but a white shirt. His white shirt. The white shirt Danny had bought him last Christmas.
The look on Danny’s face changed from hurt to anger. “Sex should be shared between two people who love each other, huh?”
She walked past Sofia and out the front door. Max raced after her. “Danny...Danny, wait!” He caught up to her outside at the top of the stairwell. The morning air chilled his bare skin, causing goose bumps. Maybe it wasn’t cold. Maybe it was just the panic enveloping him. He grabbed her arm and spun her around to face him. “Danny, just wait—”
She ripped her arm out of his grip and continued down the stairs. “No, Max. Leave me alone. You tell me that I need to think this through when I have been dating Richard for months yet you climb into bed with Sofia after just six weeks.”
He quickened his steps and got ahead of her. “Nothing happened,” he said almost desperately. “Just hear me out. We went out, we got drunk—”
“Spare me the sordid details,” she cut in, lifting her hand to silence him.
“There was nothing sordid. Sofia was too drunk to drive back home so we came here. I slept on the couch. Nothing happened!”
“You must think I’m the dumbest person in the world if you expect me to believe that crap.” She pushed past him and continued down the stairs. “So you keep thinking that I was born yesterday while I go and have wild, passionate sex with my boyfriend.”
“No!” Rushing down, he cut in front of her again. “Just wait! Don’t do this! You’re angry and upset. Please…please don’t do this.”
“What difference does it make to you, Max? What does it matter what I do?”
“Danny, after all these years…you must know…” Six years of yearning condensed into that single moment. “You have to know how I feel about you.”
She was silent for a long while, staring at him as a million thoughts raced through her mind, but then her eyes turned cold and hard. “Your feelings are irrelevant to me,” she said softly. “I’m in love with Richard.”
His heart sank to his stomach. She pushed past him again and this time he let her go, watching her until she disappeared down the stairwell. He felt hallow, empty. Her words were like venom, stinging to his very core. She had made it very clear. He meant nothing to her. He felt vulnerable and exposed and like a desperate, pathetic fool.
He looked up and saw Sofia at the top of the stairs. The look on her face told him that she had seen and heard everything. If there was some chance of their relationship working out last night, it was gone now. Max sighed heavily, realizing that he had just lost both the women in his life in one morning.
* * * * *
Danny marched along the sidewalk, heading towards the beach. It was only a few blocks away. She could hear the waves breaking and all she wanted to do was sit on her favorite rock and let the sound soothe her. When she was little girl, Jake used to lift her up on that rock so that she could see further out into the ocean and to this day it was the only place that she found solitude and solace at the same time. She needed that today. Her mind was still reeling.
Max was such a hypocrite. Did he honestly expect her to believe that he had a gorgeous, half-naked woman in his bed and he slept on the couch? He had told her that he discovered a whole new side to Sofia. She might be inexperienced but she was definitely not dumb. Of course he had sex with her and it troubled her so much. The thought of him kissing her and touching her was enough to make Danny sick to her stomach.
She had actively tried to get their friendship back on track. She had actively tried to not be selfish and allow their relationship to flourish but this was more than she could bear. She had thought that she was insecure about Sofia because she was taking away her best friend but what she was feeling was beyond insecurity, beyond jealousy. Her mind continued to replay their conversation. “You have to know how I feel about you.”
What did he mean? What did he feel? Her last words had been said in anger but now, as she remembered the longing in his eyes, she wanted to take it all back. Deep in the pit of her stomach, she felt something twist as she realized what he’d meant, what he felt. She remembered every look, every touch, every smile. It was there. It had always been there. How could she have been so blind to not have seen it for so long? Max was in love with her.
And with that revelation, her mind began to dissect everything she felt for him. She was supposedly in love with another man and yet the thought of Max sleeping with Sofia was grinding her nerves raw. What did that mean? Did she feel the same way he did? If she only thought of him as a friend, then it wouldn’t be hurting this much. If they were completely platonic, why was she wishing she could trade places with Sofia right now?
It was all too confusing. Richard. Max. Sofia. What a tangled web she was caught in. There were too many emotions stirring inside her, too many thoughts plaguing her mind. She needed to talk to Max. She needed to go home and—
Loud honking made her head snap up. Without realizing it, she had stepped off the sidewalk and onto the street, a black car zooming towards her. She froze, unable to move. She heard screeching tires and then a loud crash. The world spun around her. She landed with a heavy thump on the pavement, fragments of glass raining over her face. She smelled burnt rubber. She tasted blood in her mouth. She felt pain, lots of pain. She saw a crowd gather around her and then everything went black.
* * * * *
The silence was deafening. Empty. That’s how he felt. Empty. Danny had left and shortly after, Sofia had followed. He had been staring blankly at the walls for hours. Danny was probably with Richard right now, doing things that he forced himself not to think about. And here he was alone, as usual.
Everything had blown up in his face and he had no-one to blame but himself. He had always known that one day this would come. The truth had to come out eventually but somehow he had not expected her reaction to be so heartless.
“Your feelings are irrelevant to me.”
How could she say that? They had been friends for six years. Even if she didn’t feel the same way he did, how could she say that? Those words were cold and brutal. They cut deep and Max felt like there was no moving past it. She would probably come home tomorrow morning, after Richard had had his way with her and then what? How could he face again after what she said?
He admitted that he had feelings for her and she rejected it, rejected him for Richard. Somehow he knew that there was no going back after today. He couldn’t do this to himself anymore. He was done being the pathetic, lovelorn best friend who always came second. He had always been there, always making her his first priority, always putting her needs above his own.
He was the one who held her when Jake died and she had no-one to turn to. He was the one who stood up to Anthony Townsend after he made up those horrid rumors and everyone else just gossiped and giggled behind her back. He was the one who was there for her every time Richard stood her up, every time he missed a special occasion, every time she needed a shoulder to cry on. But no more. Today was the day he had to end his friendship with Danny because inevitably he was always the one who ended up getting his heart broken.
The ringing phone broke the silence. Max groaned his irritation. He just wanted to be alone. He left it to ring and it stopped after a while, but then a few minutes later, it rang again. Max sighed, stood up and walked to answer the phone.
“Hello. Is this Mister Shepard?”
“Yes,” Max replied warily.
“Mister Shepard, I’m afraid I have bad news.”
His blood ran cold, his hand tightening around the phone. “What happened?”
“There’s been an accident.”
* * * * *
Max sat in the waiting room of the ICU ward, tapping his foot incessantly. The chairs were hard and allowed for little maneuverability but his discomfort was his last concern. He had raced down there only to be told that Danny was in a critical condition and there was not much to report at this stage. All he knew was that she was hit by a car travelling at high speed and with no other information to set his mind at ease, he was envisaging the worst possible outcomes.
He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and looked up. “Lauren.”
Somehow seeing her made him feel a little better. He stood up and she pulled him into a tight hug. Max stayed in her embrace for a long while, allowing her gentleness to soothe him.
When he finally pulled away, she looked at him with worried eyes. “How is she doing?”
“I don’t know,” he replied, feeling his throat clog up. “No-one’s told me anything but she’s in ICU, Lauren…She must be hurt…What if—”
“We must not allow ourselves to think like that. Danielle is a fighter.”
Although Lauren was trying to be positive, Max could tell by her tone that she also had her doubts. They sat down and a short while later Amber arrived. She gave Max a quick hug before Lauren filled her in on the limited details.
Max found himself staring at the clock on the wall, watching the seconds tick by. Seconds turned to minutes. Minutes turned to hours. Amber seemed to hassle every nurse that walked by for information but no-one could report on Danny’s condition. Max was grateful to have them around. Lauren had taken over answering calls from his anxious family members and Amber did coffee runs every hour or so.
It was just a little after 1 a.m. when the doctor finally came through the glass doors. “I’m Doctor Coleman,” he announced. “I have been seeing to Danielle Peterson.”
Max stood up immediately.
“Are you Maximillian Shepard? He’s listed as the emergency contact on her medical records.”
“Yeah, that’s me. How is she, Doc?”
Lauren and Amber also crowded around him to hear the news.
“She’s stable but still unconscious,” he said. “I’m afraid Danielle has suffered severe head trauma. She also had several lacerations across her chest and back. One was quite deep and caused minor damage to her lungs so she is on a respirator.”
“Doc, what are you saying? Is she going to be okay or not?”
“Mister Shepard, I can’t answer you at this stage. Until she wakes up, we have no way of knowing the extent of the damage and because she isn’t breathing on her own I can’t make an assessment as to whether her brain is functioning normally. Folks, I’m afraid all you can do at this stage is wait…and pray.”
Max felt like someone had kicked him in the stomach. His throat felt tight. His body felt lame. “Can we see her?” he asked softly.
“We only allow immediate family to see our ICU patients.”
“She doesn’t have any family,” Max shouted. “We’re all she’s got.”
“Max is her fiancé,” Amber said quickly. She exchanged looks with Max before she went on. “They’re not married yet, but that’s gotta count for something.”
The doctor looked at them with suspicious eyes but did not argue. “You can go in,” he said to Max. “But ten minutes and that’s it.”
Max nodded and followed Doctor Coleman to room 307 of the ICU ward. “Ten minutes,” he repeated before he turned and walked away.
Max slowly walked into the room, feeling his chest closing in on him. Danny lay in the bed, looking so helpless. Her face was bruised and swollen. They had shaved the side of her head to stitch the wound and there was now a thick white bandage wrapped around her head. The plastic tube in her mouth and the shooshing sound in the background reminded Max that she was not breathing on her own.
How could this have happened? She was perfectly fine this morning and now she was just lying there. All he felt was guilt. It was his fault that she was there now. If he had not upset her so much, if he had made more of an effort to stop her, this would not have happened. Even if she had gone out with Richard and done what she had planned to do, it still would have been better than this.
He slowly moved towards the bed and took her hand in his. “Danny, I’m so sorry.” The tears he had kept at bay for so many hours came rolling down his cheeks. “I’m so sorry.”
He sat there for what seemed like an eternity, listening to the rhythmic sound of the respirator and the heart monitor but he realized it had only been ten minutes when he heard Doctor Coleman call him from the doorway. He stood up, kissed her forehead and lethargically made his way back to the waiting area.
Lauren took one look at him and tears welled in her eyes. “She will be alright,” she said, wrapping Max in a tight hug. “She is going to be just fine.”
Max felt his body becoming lame. His knees gave in. He dropped down on the chair and Lauren sat beside him, holding him tighter. “I can’t lose her, Lauren.” He held onto her as if he would never let go. “She looked so…I can’t lose her.”
He did not move from his chair for a few more hours, but when the faint rays of sunlight began peeping through the windows, Amber yawned and stood up.
She stretched her arms and looked at Lauren. “I have to get to the office. I’ll pop in at lunch time and come back after work.” She turned her attention to Max. “I know it’s probably not the right time or the right thing to say but…happy birthday, Max.”
He gave a weak smile and with that she left. Lauren also stood up a few minutes later. “You should go home and get some rest,” she said. “I am sure they will call you if anything changes.”
Max nodded but made no attempt to move from his spot. He watched Lauren leave and decided to make himself comfortable. As the doctor said, all he could do now was wait…and pray.
* * * * *
“Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.”
Max awoke to see Charlie hovering above him.
“You look awful, dude. Worse than yesterday. You need a shave…and a proper shower…and a clean set of clothes. Give me your keys and I’ll pick up some of your stuff.”
Max tried to sit up but his body ached everywhere. The hospital chairs were indeed the most uncomfortable thing to sleep on. He should be used to it by now. It had been twelve days since Danny was admitted and he still had not left, fearing that something might happen while he was away.
The nurses seemed to be fine with him taking up permanent residence there and were very accommodating. They brought him lunch when they served their patients and allowed him to use their bathrooms when he needed to freshen up. Rosie, in particular was a real gem. Despite the fact that Doctor Coleman had strictly said no visits for longer than thirty minutes, she snuck him into Danny’s room every night and snuck him out again before she changed shifts in the morning.
“So how is she doing?” Charlie asked, handing him a cup of coffee. Charlie came to see him every evening and that was always his first question.
“She’s off the respirator.” He gave a tired smile. “So she’s breathing on her own now. The swelling has gone down and the bruises don’t look so bad. They removed the stitches yesterday but she still hasn’t moved once. It’s not a good sign. What if she’s permanently brain damaged? What if she never wakes up?”
“She will. Just give it a few more days and she’s going to wake up and go back to her old devil self again.”
Max smiled, hoping that what Charlie said was true. “How are things at work?” he asked to distract himself.
“Okay, I guess. It’s work. The boss is getting a bit agro though. He says you can have the rest of this week but he wants you back next Monday.”
He let out a heavy sigh. “I kinda expected that.”
Max stood up and walked with Charlie down the corridor to the hospital canteen. They ate dinner together and Max had to admit that his friend always had a way of lifting his spirits. Even though Lauren and Amber came by every day, Charlie was the one he looked forward to seeing. He was a welcomed distraction to the worry and anxiety, but eventually Charlie went home and Max returned to his spot on the hospital chair.
His phone buzzed in his pocket as he sat down.
Jordan: How’s Danny?
Max: Still unconscious
Jordan: How are you?
Max: I feel so lost without her, Jo-jo
Jordan: Let’s not make this awkward by getting emotional. We both know that neither of us are good at comforting in a time of crisis.
Jordan: Legend has it that if you share too much of your feelings, your dick will fall off.
Jordan: And then you’ll start listening to boy bands because inevitably that’s what happens when your dick falls off. And I don’t want that for you.
Max: Never heard of that legend, but it’s too risky to take a chance so I’m gonna drink a cup of cement right now and harden the fuck up
Jordan: That’s better Love you.
Jordan: Shit! Now I’m doing it. Pass me that cup.
Max smiled and put his phone back in his pocket, relieved that something other than worry had occupied his mind for a few seconds.
By nine o’ clock, the hospital was quiet and that’s when Rosie came through the glass doors. She was a large woman, short and round with her frizzy black hair which was always neatly tied back. She had an abrupt way of speaking but Max had discovered very shortly after meeting her that she had a soft spot for him. It was definitely something he used to his advantage.
“Doctor Coleman is still on duty in the casualty ward,” she whispered. “So you can’t stay too long tonight. As soon as I knock, you need to leave.”
Max nodded and quietly slipped into Danny’s room. Rosie closed the door behind him as he moved across the room and sat down on the chair beside her bed. He sat there for a long while, staring at her. The bandage around her head had been removed and although the wound seemed to be healing, the scar along the side of her head was gruesome. The blackish-blue bruises on her cheek had also healed and there were now only faint traces of tiny cuts on her face.
He took her hand in his. “It’s not the same without you,” he said softly. “I keep wondering how I could have ever ended our friendship.” Although the conversation was one-sided, Max spoke to her every night, hoping it would bring her back to him. The guilt he felt escalated every time he saw her lying there so helplessly. “I would give anything to have it be me in that bed instead of you. Isn’t it strange? The man you claim to love hasn’t been here once and yet the man whose feelings are completely irrelevant, would trade places with you in a heartbeat.” He sighed deeply, feeling again the hurt her words had caused but that didn’t matter now. Her getting well was all that mattered.
A knock at the door jolted him and at the same time he felt her fingers twitch beneath his hand.
Rosie popped her head in. “Doctor Coleman is done for the night and he’ll probably come by to check on her before he leaves. You need to get out.”
“Rosie, I think I felt her fingers twitch.”
“That’s nothing to get excited about, Mister Shepard. Those things happen all the time.”
“I’ve been here for twelve days and that has never happened before.”
Max looked down and noticed the slightest movement of her eye. “There. Did you see that? I think she’s waking up.”
Rosie hurried into the room and grabbed his arm. “Mister Shepard, you really need to leave. I could get fired if he finds you in here.”
“Just give me a second.” Max leaned closer. Again her eyelids fluttered. “I’m not imagining this, Rosie.”
Rosie, too, stopped and looked over at Danny. Her eyelids fluttered a few more times before she eventually opened them. She looked around the room, dazed and disoriented.
“Where am I?” she asked, her voice sounding hoarse.
“You’re in the hospital.” Max replied, relief spilling through him. “You were in a bad accident.”
“An accident…I…I don’t remember…”
“You’ve been unconscious for about two weeks.” Max took her hand but she did not look comfortable with the gesture.
Her eyebrows furrowed together. “Are you…are you my doctor?”
His eyes widened at the question.
Rosie looked down at her with concern. “Don’t you know who this is?”
“No…I don’t…I don’t know. We haven’t met before…have we?”
Max looked up at the nurse, the only person who could offer some kind of explanation. “Rosie, what’s wrong with her?”
He noticed that Danny was becoming more panicked. Her breathing had elevated and her eyes were searching the room but not focusing on anything in particular. The heart rate monitor began beeping faster.
“Danny, are you alright?”
She looked at him then, completely confused, as if she did not recognize her own name.
“No…I…I don’t know who you are…or…where I am. I don’t know…I don’t remember.”
“I’ll get Doctor Coleman,” Rosie said, rushing out of the room.
“Just calm down,” he said reassuringly. “Everything’s going to be alright.”
Doctor Coleman came in a few moments later. He looked at Max and then at Rosie. “Mister Shepard, you should not be in here. Please leave.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Oh, yes you are,” Rosie said, grabbing his arm and pushing him to the door.
“I can’t remember,” he heard Danny say as Rosie ushered him out. “I can’t remember anything.”
Once outside the ward, Rosie released his arm. “Go home, Mister Shepard.”
“Rosie, I told you, I’m not going anywhere.”
“Your lady is awake now. You can’t see her looking the way you do. All dirty and scruffy and smelly. Doctor Coleman is probably going to be busy with her for a while so go home, have a shower, get cleaned up and, for God sakes, shave. Come back tomorrow morning. I’m sure the doctor will let you see her then.”
Max nodded, feeling slightly strange. He was so happy that she had woken up yet now he was worried in a different way. He hoped that maybe she was just confused after being unconscious for so long. He left the hospital, hoping that when he returned she would be back to her old self again.
* * * * *
Danny stood in the bathroom, staring at herself, not really recognizing her own face. It really was not a face she would want to remember. She looked horrid. She lifted her hand to touch the scar on the side of her head and cringed. She had the same thick, ugly scars across her chest and back. What a sight to wake up to.
After the series of tests the doctor had done, she still could not remember much of anything. No-one looked familiar. Her name was Danielle Peterson. That much had come back to her. She remembered that her biological parents were killed when she was just a baby. Other bits of her childhood were still a blur. She recalled certain foster homes, certain faces but it was all very vague.
Memories of Jake were a bit clearer. She remembered arriving at his two-bedroom cottage when she was eleven years old. She had been so nervous and afraid of being rejected again but it had turned out completely the opposite. He had raised her with so much love and had been the world’s greatest dad, but her last vivid memory was Jake dropping her off at school when she was fifteen years old.
She could not remember anything after that. She did not know what food she liked, where she lived, who her friends were. The man in her room earlier had known who she was and yet she could not remember ever meeting him. Danny. He had called her Danny.
“Danny,” she said to herself, hoping it would stir something inside her but there was still nothing.
There was a knock on the bathroom door. “Miss Peterson, are you in there?”
“I’ll be out in a sec.” She walked out of the bathroom and was greeted by the friendly nurse she had seen earlier.
“I’m Rosie,” she said. “I came to see if you need anything. My shift ended a few hours ago, but I wanted to make sure you’re alright before I go.”
“Thanks. That’s very kind of you but I’m fine.”
“You must be feeling all alone in this world, child. Not remembering a soul but don’t you worry. Your man will be back any second now and I am sure he can help you fill in the gaps.”
Danny looked up at her quizzically. “My man?”
“Yeah. Your fiancé.”
“I’m engaged...? To him?”
Rosie laughed. “I know he didn’t look like much when you saw him but that’s what happens when you’re worried out of your mind and spend twelve days loitering around a hospital.”
Danny was taken aback. “He never left?”
“Not until you woke up and it took a bit of convincing.”
Danny smiled to herself. She did not know this man, did not have a clue as to what type of person he was, but hearing that caused the slight flutter of butterflies in her tummy.
* * * * *
Max returned to the hospital feeling refreshed and energized. A hot shower had done him good. It was 5a.m. Lauren and Amber had already arrived and were waiting for him outside the ICU ward. Charlie was there, too.
“We are not allowed to see her yet,” Lauren said. “The doctor needs to speak to us first. I am not sure what is going on.”
“She was a bit dazed when she woke up,” Max explained. “She couldn’t really remember—” He stopped when he noticed Doctor Coleman walking towards them.
“How is she?” Max asked.
“She’s fine…physically.” Doctor Coleman let out a weighted breath. “She can walk. She can speak, but she still can’t remember much of anything. Danielle is suffering from retrograde amnesia. I think it was brought on by a few things. From the scans it looks like the damage to her temporal lobe was worse than I originally anticipated. That coupled with reduced oxygen to the brain because of her lung injury and it seems like a large chunk of her memory has been wiped out. She remembers bits of her childhood but that’s about it.”
“Is it permanent?” Amber asked.
“We can never say with these things. It may take ten days, ten years. She may never regain her memory. You can all go in and see her now but please bear her situation in mind. She doesn’t know who any of you are so don’t force it. Don’t bombard her with questions or information. Take it slow. Keep your conversations general and relaxed.”
Max’s stomach twisted into a tight ball. “When will she be able to go home?”
“We have to keep her here a few more days for tests. I’ve scheduled an appointment with a psychologist tomorrow. When she’s discharged, surround her with familiar things; photos, places she liked. All of those things could jog her memory.”
“Thanks, Doc.” Max nodded and began walking to Danny’s room with the rest of them in tow.
“Hey,” Max said to announce his presence.
Danny looked up and gave a nervous smile. “Hi.”
“May we come in? There’s a few people who are really excited to see you.”
Max walked in first. “This is Lauren, your boss. She’s like a mother to both of us.”
Lauren leaned over and hugged her. Amber did the same. Although Danny accepted the hugs, she did not look comfortable and pulled away first.
“This is Amber, your very good friend from college. And this is Charlie.” Max smiled. “He’s technically my friend ’cause you guys don’t…really…let’s leave it there.”
Charlie nodded a greeting but remained quiet.
“And you are?” Danny asked, her hazel eyes looking up at him expectantly.
“Oh, sorry. I’m Max.”
His eyes widened. “Well…we’re not really engaged,” he admitted sheepishly. “Amber just told the doctor that so he would let me see you.”
“But you guys are dating,” Charlie put in quickly.
“Charlie!” Max shot him a warning look.
“What?” Charlie asked innocently. “She’s living with you, Max. She would find out eventually.”
“We’re living together?” Danny asked, her body tensing.
“Yes…but don’t listen to Charlie…he—”
“He’s being insensitive again,” Amber added. “The doctor said we shouldn’t bombard you with information so Max wanted to wait until you were more comfortable around him before he told you all this, but Charlie can’t keep his big mouth shut.”
Max noticed the quick wink Amber gave Charlie and his temper flared.
“How are you feeling, dear?” Lauren asked, hoping to ease the tension that had settled in the room.
“I’m okay, I guess. Still in a bit of pain but it’s not too bad. It feels a bit strange, all of you in here. I’m not really sure what to say.” She smiled nervously. “So I work for you?”
“What exactly do I do?”
“Well, we work at Banners and Coopers, the biggest publishing house in California. You usually review and edit literary work before it’s published but we were looking into publishing certain self-help books and magazines. It’s not really our style but it seems quite lucrative. It was your idea, actually.”
Max waited for Danny to be engrossed in the conversation before he looked at Charlie and nodded towards the door. Charlie took the hint and walked outside. Amber followed and Max closed the door behind them.
“What the fuck are you two trying to pull?”
Charlie shrugged. “I saw an opportunity and I went for it.”
“You’ve been in love with Danny for years and now you have a chance to see what could happen. She doesn’t remember that you guys were just friends. You have to take advantage of this.”
Max’s hands immediately compressed into tight fists. “You’re telling me to take advantage of my best friend who is suffering from severe head trauma. Are you fucking kidding me? That’s sick! She has amnesia and you want me to lie to her and pretend to be her boyfriend. I see why she hates you now, Charlie. She has been through the worst experience of her entire life and the first thing you say to her, the first words that leave your mouth are a fucking lie!”
“Charlie’s right, Max.”
He shut his eyes. “No, Amber. Not you, too. Charlie I can understand, but Danny is your friend too. You can’t expect—”
Amber reached out and touched his arm. “Max, everyone knows how you feel about Danny. Everyone except Danny. You can spend the rest of your life wondering or you can take this opportunity and show her how great you guys could be together.”
“It’s not an opportunity!” Max bellowed. “This idea is so fucking twisted.”
“I was only trying to help,” Charlie said.
“Stop helping! Because it’s not helping! And there’s just two small details you guys are not taking into consideration. Number one on the list, Danny already has a boyfriend.”
“Richard?” Amber asked with disdain. “You mean the boyfriend who I called eight times and hasn’t been here to see her once, who hasn’t called once to see how she’s doing. He won’t even take my calls anymore. Trust me, Max, Richard is out of the picture.”
Charlie nodded, quite happy with Amber’s response. “Now that we got that out the way, what’s the second thing?”
Max sighed, the hurt showing plainly on his face. “Danny has never and will never feel the same way about me.”
“Never say never, Max.” Amber said, trying to reassure him. “Danny’s feelings for you run deeper than she is willing to admit. She’s stubborn and refuses to acknowledge it.”
Max remembered her words from the day of the accident. “I seriously doubt that. And this is wrong, guys. I can’t trick her into feeling something for me. As much as I want something to happen between us, it shouldn’t happen like this. If she regains her memory and finds out that I’ve been lying to her, she would never forgive me.”
Charlie tapped Max on the shoulder. “I completely understand how you feel, buddy, but ask yourself this. What would you regret more? Losing her, or never having her? Yeah, there’s a chance that she could remember and hate you forever, but there’s also a chance that she could fall in love with you and that love will still be there if she regains her memory. It’s the chance you’ve been waiting for. I agree, the circumstances are not…great, but you need to decide if this is a chance you wanna take.”
Charlie and Amber went back inside, leaving Max alone to consider his options. Charlie made a strong point. He would never get an opportunity like this again. Could he really let this slip by? But if he went through with this, would he be able to live this lie day in and day out? Doing this meant he would have to take advantage of his best friend. She did not remember anything, did not know anyone besides them. She trusted them and he was going to willingly abuse that trust. But if she never remembered, she would never know. The idea was as appealing as it was nerve-wracking.
Max only realized how long he had been out there when he noticed the nurses were already doing their mid-morning rounds. With his mind made up, he walked back into Danny’s room. Amber was talking to her now, filling her in on her college days.
“Wow, it sounds like we had a lot of fun that night.” Danny said with a giggle.
“We did,” Amber conceded. “We hit it off after that, became inseparable.”
Danny smiled and looked at Max. Amber noticed the looks that were exchanged and stood up. “C’mon, guys,” she said to Charlie and Lauren. “Let’s give them some time alone.”
After a few more awkward hugs and kisses, Max was completely alone with her and suddenly he felt tense. That was something he thought he would never feel around Danny but it was all so different and new. He felt like she was a different person and he had taken on a new look on life. The slate had been wiped clean and he had to start rebuilding their relationship from scratch, only this time he could shape it into whatever he wanted it to be.
* * * * *
Danny stared at the man in front of her. He seemed a bit apprehensive, bordering on awkward. She had not noticed how good looking he was earlier, but now with his clean-shaven jaw and his hair neatly combed, she could definitely see why she would have been attracted to him. He had a boyish sort of face which made him look approachable. Top that off with playful brown eyes and fleshy lips and overall he was very appealing to the eye. He had a demeanor about him that seemed almost shy.
“Hi,” Danny said when the silence had stretched on for too long.
He smiled and she noticed that he only had one dimple. It was situated on the perfect spot on his left cheek. Cute, she thought. He was very, very cute. High five, Danny. You have chosen well.
“Hi,” Max replied.
“How are you doing?”
His smile widened, but he still looked a bit uncomfortable. “I’m doing…a lot better than I was yesterday.” He sat down on the bed beside her. “How about you?”
“I’m doing a lot better than I was yesterday, too,” she teased.
He pulled an unimpressed face. “Funny.”
“Lauren and Amber seem nice.”
“They are. Amber takes a little bit of getting used to, but once you get past the rude exterior, she’s great.” He was quiet for a while before he said, “This feels weird. I know everything about you and you don’t know anything about me.”
“That’s not true. You think you know everything about me, but if I don’t really know the type of person I am, then neither do you. Things may happen that could make me completely different from the person you remember.”
Max nodded, looking rather enlightened by what she said. “I didn’t think about it like that. I guess…we have a chance to start over and we can make this into anything we want it to be.” He leaned closer and she felt her stomach tighten. “I know that you…don’t know me and you’re probably still trying to suss me out but…can I say something without you freaking out?”
She nodded even though she did not quite know what to expect.
“I really missed you.” He was quiet for a while, as if he was considering what to say next. “Is touching allowed?”
Her eyes widened and tension stiffened her shoulders. “What?”
“Am I allowed to touch you?”
Although she was a bit more nervous this time, Danny nodded yet again and with that Max gathered her into his arms. His embrace was gentle yet protective. Danny closed her eyes and exhaled a breath of relief. He knew just how to hold her. He felt so good. He smelled so good. For those few moments she lost herself and all her problems seemed to disappear. It all seemed so natural, like she had done this a thousand times before.
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” he whispered against her skin.
She held him tighter. The whole world was an unfamiliar place. She had woken up with no recollection of anything or anyone. She was trying not to panic, trying to stay calm but it was all too overwhelming. She had met people today who had told her stories about her life. Although the stories invoked images, they were not memories. It felt abstract, like she was watching a movie about someone else. But the man holding her seemed to make it just a little better. He did not change her circumstances but he made it easier to deal with. He made her feel comfortable and more importantly, in a world where everyone was a stranger, he made her feel like she belonged.
* * * * *
“Home sweet home,” Max said as he opened the door to the apartment.
Danny stepped in slowly and looked around. It was like a memory of a dream, faint and did not quite seem real. Everything from the curtains to the sofa to the oddly placed dining table seemed familiar yet as she searched her mind, she had no recollection of anything. The doctor had kept her in hospital for a few more days, but her situation had not improved. Even several appointments with a psychologist had not helped. She had been discharged this morning and she was terrified. The hospital was safe, neutral, but now she had to go back to a life she did not know.
Home? This wasn’t home. Home was the little two-bedroom cottage that Jake had raised her in. And Jake, the only person in the world she remembered, was not there anymore. She had cried for hours after Max told her what had happened. Her heart felt heavy. It was too much to deal with. She was alone and surrounded by strangers, living with a stranger.
To top it all off, she looked awful. The little cuts on her face had healed but the scars on her head and body were horrid and she could see that they were going to be permanent. Per her request, Max had shaved her entire head so she did not feel like a complete fool with her lopsided hair but she still felt self-conscious and insecure all the time, like everyone was staring at how ugly she was.
She slowly walked in, taking her time as she looked around. She moved past the dining table and into the living room. “That’s a pretty vase,” she said idly.
“What?” Max walked to the TV cabinet and peered inside. “When did you—”
He stopped himself but Danny could complete the sentence. “I put it in there?”
It was more of a statement than a question. He nodded and she turned away.
“You okay?” he asked.
She turned to face him and tears welled up in her eyes. “I feel so lost.”
He pulled her into his arms and allowed her to cry. That was a quality she really liked about him. He always knew when words were not enough and a simple hug was sufficient. Her brain did not remember, but her body did. Every time he held her, the comfort she felt was so deeply rooted that it was impossible to believe that he was actually a stranger. A gentle kiss was placed on the side of her head. It was something he did without realizing. She didn’t mind, though. It made her feel accepted, less alone.
He kept his arm over her shoulder and led her down the corridor. “This is your room.”
“My room, or…our room?” she asked apprehensively.
“We…uh…we don’t…sleep together. You wanted to take things slow and we…we haven’t been dating that long.”
Take things slow, she thought. That sounded familiar. She noticed him nip his lower lip and for some reason the gesture made her feel uneasy but she decided not to question it. She was grateful that they were not going to be sharing a room. She wanted her own space and she definitely was not ready to fulfil any type of girlfriend duties with her feeling and looking the way she was.
“I’ll give you some time alone...to get settled in. I’ll get dinner started and when you’re ready, come join me.”
He left her at the doorway of her bedroom and she stood there for a long while before she went in. She walked to the bed, sat down and looked around. Everything in there was hers and it all seemed strange to her. In the corner of the room she saw a large white and red teddy bear and on the night table was a small card. She lifted it and read it.
“I searched everywhere trying to find something as beautiful as you, but when I realized that such a thing doesn’t exist, I settled on the roses. Happy Valentine’s Day. Love Always.”
She smiled, wondering about her relationship with Max before the accident. He was a nice guy, so considerate and he always made sure she was taken care of. The Valentine’s Day card made her wish she knew more about him, about their lives together.
She had to start all over again, not just with him but with life in general. In a split second everything had been taken away from her. Her friends. Her career. Her life.
She found herself wondering how she going to piece everything together. Although she was frustrated and depressed, she realized the only way she would be able to do it was to take it one step at a time. Sitting around, crying about a situation that was out of her control would be stupid and pointless. She had to find some way of getting her life back.
She walked to her cupboard and was pleased with its contents. It was not great clothes but it definitely suited her taste and it made her feel a little more at ease. Rummaging through the shelves, she took out a set of baby blue pajamas, then she had a shower and went to the kitchen to meet Max.
“Don’t you look like a breath of fresh air,” he said as she entered.
She smiled, feeling shy all of sudden. He had a way of looking at her that made her feel beautiful despite the scars and her bald head. “I saw the Valentine’s Day gift you got for me.”
He seemed intrigued by her statement. “How do you know it’s from me? It could have been from a secret admirer. The card wasn’t signed.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know you very well, but everything about it is just so…Max.”
His eyes locked on hers and it was almost like her words had struck something inside him. “It’s amazing what a fresh pair of eyes can see,” he said softly.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing.” He turned his attention back to the food. “You hungry?”
“What’s for dinner?”
“Your favorite. Chicken-a-la-king,” he replied. “It’s almost ready.”
She moved to sit on the barstool near the island counter. “This is hard. I have so many questions I don’t know where to start.”
“Well, I don’t know all the details of your life but you can ask me what you want to know and I’ll answer whatever I can.”
“Okay…how long have we been dating?”
His body tensed. “Not long. We started this…very recently.”
“And we’re already living together?”
“We’ve been friends for six years and friendship turned into…what we have now.”
She noticed that he spoke slowly, as if he were choosing his words very carefully. “Why did it take you so long?”
Something about the way he smiled made her think that he was holding something back.
“You were too immature for me,” he said simply. “I just had to wait for the right time.”
She laughed, not having expected that response. “Just because you’re four months and twelve days older than me, it does not make you more mature.”
His eyes widened. “Danny, how do…do you remember?”
“Do you know when’s my birthday?”
“No. I don’t know what made me say that. It just—” Danny could not comprehend what had just happened. She had not been thinking. The words came from nowhere.
“It’s okay,” Max said, placing his hand over hers. “It’s probably force of habit. You used to say that to me all the time.”
“That was so weird,” she said, still feeling confused. “When is your birthday?”
“April sixth. I just turned twenty-six.”
She nodded. “That was just a few—” She stopped herself when she realized that his birthday had been the day after the accident. “Max, I’m so sorry. Spending your birthday in a hospital must have been awful.”
“Don’t apologize. It’s not your fault. It’s my—” A look came over his face that she could not quite read and again she felt like he was keeping something from her. He turned away and walked over to the pots. “Let’s eat.”
He dished up quite a considerable helping for her and a bit less for himself, then walked with her to living room. They both sat down and Danny was first to dig in.
“Oh, my God! This is delicious. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve only eaten hospital food but this is amazing. You’re a great cook.”
He chuckled. “Thanks.”
She devoured more than half before she looked up at him again. “How did we meet?”
“Now that’s a funny story. It was September twenty-second, my brother’s twenty-second birthday, and my parents were throwing him a party that weekend. He had been teasing me for weeks, saying that I was too much of a dork to get it right with a college girl and he was right.” He smiled to himself. “I was becoming desperate looking for a date and then…I saw you sitting under a tree, reading this massive textbook. I raced up to you and said: I’ll give you a hundred bucks if you come to my brother’s party with me.”
Danny giggled. “What did I say?”
“You threw your book at me.”
Her giggle turned into a laugh. “I did that?”
“That should have been the first clue that you had a violent streak. I eventually convinced you to come to Montana with me and managed to save face, but you didn’t want money out of the deal. In return, you wanted me to type out all your assignments for the rest of the semester. That’s how we got to know each other…so it was worth it.”
“And that’s how we became friends?”
Max shook his head, a disheartened expression on his face. “Not exactly. You…uh…you had your own friends at that time, the cool kids, the ones who bunked classes and smoked weed every day. One night you guys went down to the beach and you got so drunk that you passed out and they…ended up leaving you there. You called me at four in the morning to come get you.” She noticed the slightest twitch on his face as if there was more to this story than he was willing to divulge. “I carried you up three flights of stairs to your dorm room and when I put you to bed, you kissed me on the cheek and said: Every day you prove to me why we shouldn’t be friends. When I asked you why, you pouted your lips and said…I just don’t deserve you.” He smiled then. “After that I don’t think we spent a single day apart.”
“You must have been a really good friend for me to say that.” She looked at him, more questions formulating in her mind. Every small bit of information made her want to know more. “Was I a good friend to you?”
He gave her a slight nod. “The best,” he answered. “There was a time when I was a Harry Potter junkie. I mean, like a psycho crazed fanatic.”
“What’s Harry Potter?”
“It’s only the most amazing series of books ever written.” His voice rose to match his excitement. “Magic and wizards, it’s awesome. You bought me the movies too so we can watch it sometime. Anyway, when the last book was released, it sold out in seconds so I waited for the next batch and the next batch, but I never got there early enough. It must have been a year later, you heard they were bringing in another shipment and you drove three hours to that bookstore and you camped outside from midnight just to get me a copy. And maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but you don’t even like Harry Potter. You’ve done a lot for me, Danny. I was a nerdy, insecure kid, always trying to fit in and you showed me that…it’s okay to just be me. You were and still are my best friend.”
She simply nodded, allowing this new information to sink in. There was so much history between them and she was not sure exactly where it all slotted in. The last thing she could remember clearly was Jake dropping her off at school. He had walked her to the steps leading to the building and kissed her goodbye. “Have a great day,” he’d said.
Everything from that point to this was missing. But now she had a few more pieces to the puzzle. September twenty-second six years ago was the day she had met this man. The man who cooked and cleaned and liked Harry Potter. The man who had waited twelve days at the hospital. This man with his adorable little dimple. She did not know much about him, but she liked him, trusted him and she was excited to see where this would lead.
“I know you’re probably getting tired of the questions,” she said, breaking the silence. “But can I ask one more?”
“Don’t be silly. You can ask me anything.”
“When did you start…liking me…more than a friend, I mean?”
He didn’t answer immediately and Danny could tell that he was a bit unsure about revealing this to her. “It was…probably around…September twenty-third…yeah…about then.”
She felt her cheeks heat up and realized that she was blushing. “You’re an extremely patient man, Max. That was very long time to wait.”
“I’m Aries,” he said with a smile. “Patience isn’t one of my virtues. I just…I think a girl like you is worth waiting for.”
* * * * * *
Danny awoke the next morning and it took her eyes a little while to adjust to her surroundings. This was going to take some getting used to. This was not the bedroom she had grown up in. No butterfly mosaics on her dresser. No boy band posters on the wall. For the last few days she had woken up expecting to see those things and every day she was met with disappointment instead.
At least this morning she was not greeted by the dreary walls of a hospital room yet it was not without uneasiness. She heard rustling down the hall and was reminded that she was not alone in the apartment.
Uneasiness now seemed like an understatement and this whole arrangement was becoming more daunting. The last thing she wanted was to be living with a man she barely knew, but she had no other options. With no family, what other choice did she have?
One step at a time, she told herself. She walked to the bathroom, brushed her teeth and walked to the kitchen. Max was in there, already showered and ready for work.
He handed her a hot mug. “Coffee?”
She smiled, her mood lifting. “Thanks,” she said, taking it from him.
“I need to get going in a few minutes, but I want you to feel at home here. This is your home. Do whatever you like, okay?”
She nodded. “It feels a little weird. I’m not sure if I can—”
“You can. I know it’s all overwhelming right now, but it will get better, I promise. And I’m gonna be there every step of the way. Anything you need, I’ll be there.”
This was why she found it so easy to like him. He was just…Max. Thoughtful and caring without even really trying.
He walked around the island counter. “I’d better get going.”
She followed him to the door and he stepped outside. He did not leave immediately. Instead, he lingered at the door, chatting as if he were stalling for more time. “If you get too bored, maybe you should watch Harry Potter,” he suggested.
“I thought you said I don’t like Harry Potter.”
He smiled. “New beginnings, right?”
Slightly nervous, he reached out and lightly brushed his finger down the side of her hand. Holding her when she needed comfort was something he did naturally and she accepted easily, but he had never touched her unless it was necessary and now it almost seemed like he was asking for permission before he invaded her personal space. That earned him another point, because she understood then that he was not going to rush her into anything; that she was indeed worth the wait.
One step at a time, she told herself. And it all starts with step one.
She took hold of his hand and squeezed it tight, silently letting him know that mild touching was allowed. “Right,” she whispered.