I rolled over and brought my hand on the alarm clock with a thump. I wasn’t sure how long it had been going off. My head felt heavy, my legs were as stiff as posts, and a couple of blisters blazed sore and raw around one of my big toes. I could honestly say that for a good five minutes, I just didn’t want to get out of bed for fear of another shock to the system.
Thomas stirred in his bed. “What time is it?” he yawned.
“I don’t know,” I replied monotone, and stared up at the ceiling.
“What time did you set the alarm for?”
“Then it must be nine.”
“Must be,” I agreed. I took a moment to recollect the events of the previous night. We had gotten lost and had to ask for directions back to our hotel. And it had been so cold. So cold.
Thomas sat up and swung his legs out of the bed. “What time is our flight?”
I replied mechanically. “One o clock. We need to be at the airport for twelve.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’m just going to shower.”
I watched Thomas slip out from underneath the sheets and stroll naked into the bathroom. I made myself sit up and shifted back against the headboard for fear of going back to sleep.
Nobody had bothered us when we entered the hotel after midnight. I remembered passing by Myers’ room and the door was closed with a ‘Do not disturb’ sign hanging from the handle. I wondered if that was a subtle and hotel-friendly ‘police line – do not cross’ message.
I did not feel comfortable in the hotel, and was aware of a baseline of anxiety, buzzing and coursing through my limbs. I couldn’t avoid comparing my thoughts when I first entered the hotel room with where they were now. Being slightly ticked off by Thomas’ vandalism and worrying about saying the right things to Myers’ were trivial by comparison.
The room was also an exact replica of the room where Myers’ had been killed. I glanced down between our two beds and pictured the dead naked body. I still had no idea of how or why he’d been killed. There had been no blood and all of his body had appeared intact.
And then there was Thomas. There was always Thomas.
I glanced over at the closed bathroom door, and listened to the pattering of the shower water. I felt a profound and magnetic connection to Thomas, and I knew that without him the last few days would have been unbearable and not nearly as exciting. A part of me was even glad that he’d pushed Myers’ door open.
Still, I had seen a side to him that scared me. I thought of Diane and Roy, drinking tea in their living room. Would they ever find out what had happened to the two of us, or would Thomas want to keep it a secret? If they did find out, they’d certainly be able to go one better than the zoo story.
Everything the two of us did before our flight was done on autopilot and in silence. I was still in immediate survival mode, just focusing on all the little things that had to happen to get us on the plane. Make sure everything was packed. Eat a light snack and have something to drink. Passport, wallet, keys. Book taxi.
Thomas played his games and listened to music, much like he had on the journey over. Neither one of us wanted to talk, about anything. On the plane back to Newark, New Jersey, I stared out of the window at the blue sky, content to just admire the colour and the cloud formations for the duration. The connecting flight to London was delayed for three hours due to bad weather, but I was too tired to care and semi-napped until we boarded the plane.
I also slept for most of the flight across the Atlantic and awoke when we were just over the west coast of Britain. The time was six in the morning and we were due to land at seven. Thomas’ parents would be at the gate waiting for us, no doubt eager to hear all about it.
“Thomas?” I said, prodding his arm. He leaned over and pulled an earphone aside. “I’m going to get the train back to King’s Lynn.”
“I don’t blame you,” he said. “I’d get the train back too, if I could.”
“I just need some time to myself,” I continued. I felt guilty for leaving him, but I knew I needed my space.
“You don’t need to justify it, Matthew,” he said, soft and sad. “I’ll tell my parents you’ve got some things to do in London.”
When the plane landed we collected our bags together and I told Thomas that I would give him a call on Sunday. I saw a sign for the trains and pulled away from him, feeling an odd mix of liberation and loneliness. I didn’t look back and I didn’t intend to stop for anything. Getting home was my sole focus and I yearned to be confronted with the familiar again.
Once the train pulled out of King’s Cross station into the open and picked up some speed, I purchased a can of lager, had a couple of sips and felt the urge to call Rachel. I turned on my mobile phone, waited for it to register, and dialed.
She answered with a yawn. “Matthew?”
I smiled when I heard her voice. “Yeah, it’s me. Just landed. On my way back to Lynn.”
“Oh great! I assume everything went well? I expected you to call me, but you never did.”
“Yeaaah,” I said, stretching out an entire breath on the syllable. “You see, the thing about that is, it was a bit different as to what I was expecting.”
An awkward silence passed. “What do mean?” she said, her tone serious.
“Oh, don’t worry,” I continued. “Listen can you meet me down the Farmer’s Arms tonight at around eight?
“Well, I was going to go out, Matthew.”
I betrayed a sense of urgency. “Please, Rachel.”
“Matthew, are you okay? Is Thomas with you?”
A knot tightened in my throat and warm tears streamed down my face. “He’s getting a lift home with his parents,” I croaked.
Rachel’s voice softened into sympathy. “Why aren’t you coming back together?”
I wiped my face with the back of my hand. “I had some things to do in London.”
“Can you just meet me tonight at eight,” I repeated. The heads of a few passengers turned towards me.
“Of course,” said Rachel. “See you then.”
I clicked out the phone and stuck it inside my coat pocket. For the first time I noticed I was wearing Thomas’ green puffer jacket. I turned to the window to avoid making eye contact with the others on the train, and listened to the rhythmic clank of the train on the rails.
Once the train was thirty miles clear of London the scenery changed from rows and rows of red bricked houses, industrial estates, and flats, to empty fields and farmland. I reached across and pulled the jacket collar to my cheek and pressed it against my face. I had ridden the train home from London many times and so I spent the rest of the journey guessing the names of the next stations and predicting what I would see.
When I hopped off the train at Lynn station, I took a taxi straight back to my house. I stepped inside, leant with my back against the door and slid down to the floor. I had never been so happy to be home, and it felt like the house was giving me a big hug. I left my suitcase by the door and went into the kitchen and made a cup of tea. Every small action was magic. Every step and flick of my wrist had been made many times before within these walls, and with a tremendous sigh of satisfaction, I slid back onto my rails.
All recent experiences could now transition peacefully to memory, and from the comfort of my home I was now free to address my mental health concerns in my own time, and hide behind distractions and coping mechanisms if they were needed.
I took my tea to the armchair, ignited my log fire, and sat back to watch and doze to Saturday sports. Even scrolling through the channels felt magnificent. I knew the exact location of all the buttons on the remote and could go straight to the channels and shows that I wanted to see. Life was suddenly easy and the barriers that I had erected over the last few days could now fall away and I could relax.
With the aid of the familiar sights and sounds, coupled with the Matthew-shaped dip in my armchair, I allowed sleep to wash through my brain, and hoped that it would cleanse out all of the negativity that was splintered throughout.
The sun had almost set when I awoke, hours later. My body was stiff and sore, and I had to wipe some drool from the corner of my mouth with the back of my hand. I would’ve been quite content to spend the rest of the evening in front of the television, but I decided to shower and make good on my invitation to meet Rachel down the pub. I removed some clean clothes from my still packed suitcase and dragged myself upstairs to the bathroom.
In the shower, I thought about Thomas. Had he made it back safely? Was he currently immersed in a videogame? Were we ever to be intimates again? The last question stung. I wasn’t ready to face him. I didn’t have the strength.