Thomas didn’t show up for work on Monday.
I didn’t blame him. My mind was not on work at all, and it being so close to Christmas I didn’t feel that there was any point in coming in, anyway. Nobody’s mind was on their job. I made my morning coffee in the break room, a room that was about the size of a garage, with two rows of four tables, a sink, refrigerator, and a countertop. The walls were painted light blue and covered in company safety, fire, and evacuation procedures, and where you could spot them, engraved penises and testicles. Janine entered to get her coffee. She was wearing a knee-length black skirt and a fuzzy green sweater. She still smelled of CK One.
“Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “Matthew is that you?” Janine stepped precariously around my body, scrutinizing my shaved head. “Did you do it for a bet?”
“There may have been some drinking involved,” I lied to spare her the incomprehensible truth.
She chuckled and took out a clean cup from the cupboard. “Doesn’t look too bad,” she said. “So, how was America?”
Something about how she said it made me think I had been over there to secure an ally for an upcoming war. “It was fine,” I nodded. “Cold, though. Really cold.”
“Well, you were in the Rockies, weren’t you?” she said matter-of-factly.
“Yes, I suppose I was.”
Janine filled the kettle and flicked it on. She paused, and her brow creased. “Where’s Thomas? Isn’t he usually with you?”
I sipped my coffee. “He hasn’t come in today.”
She laughed. “You didn’t leave him over there, did you?” I smiled and shook my head. “How was he?” she asked, serious.
“We had a lot of fun,” I said, without thinking about it too much. “It was good.” I suddenly wished I had called him on Sunday. Pangs of guilt rose up into my throat. “I’ll be by later to drop off the credit card,” I said, stepping to the door.
“Okay,” she replied. “You know where I am.”
After lunch, Rachel called me in my cubicle to let me know she had spoken to Sophie. She hadn’t had too much time to talk, but was going to reach out to Daeva after Christmas and discuss the death of Myers. Sophie, too, supported the idea that Thomas and I should discuss what we had witnessed with the police, but was unsure if we should fly back out again and wanted to consult our legal department. I told Rachel that I would think about talking to the police over the phone, as I certainly wasn’t keen to fly back to Aspen anytime soon.
It was already dark by the time five o clock rolled around. I hadn’t really gotten anything done, and for the last couple of hours I had been fantasizing about going home and sleeping in my armchair. So far my sleep had been fairly normal and I hadn’t been affected by jetlag, just hour long stretches of extreme tiredness.
When I shut down my work laptop and tucked it away in my bag, my cell phone rang. It read ‘Thomas’. My heart jumped into my throat. I let it ring a few times while I psyched up to accept the call. “Hello?” I answered, determined.
It was a woman’s voice. “Hello, is this Matthew?” She sounded worried.
“Yes,” I answered, confused. “Who is this?”
“It’s Diane, Thomas’ mum.”
“Hi, Diane. What can I do for you?”
“It’s Thomas, Matthew,” she wept. “He’s in the A and E. He had an overdose of Paracetamol.”
I once again found myself terrified to the core and unable to process the immediate future. All that mattered was getting to Thomas, holding his hand, and doing all that was possible to get him well and out of the hospital. The thought of losing of him pushed its way into my mind numerous times, but I refused to indulge it in an act of defiance. Whatever issues Thomas had, we would work through them together.
I skidded into a parking space at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital on the compressed ice and did not stop to lock my car or check that I was within the lines. I could see the lights for the ambulance drop off and made them my sole focus as I ran, slipped, and edged along the path into the Accident and Emergency Room. The electronic door slid open and a mother in her thirties was busy checking in her little boy with a second degree burn on his wrist. The boy’s face was red and moist with sweat and tears, and his mother hurriedly gave the receptionist all the personal information that was required to create his chart. Six or seven other people sat in the waiting room, and two young children, a boy and a girl played at a pink Lego table.
I had only been there seconds, but the wait was already unbearable. I hopped from one foot to the other, impatient, and even though the little boy clearly needed attention, I had to restrain from talking over his mother and demanding to know where I would find Thomas.
Fortunately, Diane stepped out through one of the white doors, and upon seeing me, beckoned me over. There were bags under her eyes and little colour to her face, and it looked like the slightest of breezes would knock her over. She smiled, weak, and gave me a hug. “I’m glad you came, Matthew.”
“Is he alright?” I asked at once, and took her hands in my own.
She nodded. “He’s stable. But they’re going to keep him under observation for a few more hours.”
I took a breath to ask another question, but she raised her hand. “Just go through to him, Matthew. I don’t have any answers.”
I followed Diane between small treatment stations, some of which were partitioned off by green curtains. Tired nurses with kind faces wearing white tunics and navy blue trousers pushed shiny metal trolleys, and a cacophony of sorrowful moans rang out around the hallway. Diane took me all the way down to the end and stepped behind a curtain. I inched through the gap next to the wall and saw Thomas sitting up in bed, wearing a hospital gown. He had an IV hooked up to his left arm, and a clip was pinched to his finger with a wire that trailed off to a small monitor by the headrest.
Roy was sitting in a black plastic and metal armless chair in the corner, still wearing his thick dark blue anorak with a fur-lined hood. He stood up and shook my hand. “Thanks for coming, Matthew,” he said, his voice cracked. “Diane and I are going to find some coffee. We’ll leave you lads alone.” They stepped out into the hallway and were gone. I stood by Thomas’ side and reached over the guard rail to hold his hand.
Thomas eased his head around to see me. “I bet I look like a right plonker, don’t I?”
“Well, I don’t think a shaved head suits you, to be honest.” He managed a grin. “How are you feeling?”
Thomas’ sighed. “Like I’ve been thoroughly beaten up and had all my insides twisted and wrung out. I thought that tobacco was bad. They had me drink charcoal. Charcoal, Matthew! The stuff that’s left over after you burn something to a bledy crisp.”
I pointed to the IV feed. “What have they got you on there, whiskey?”
“I wish,” he said. “It’s something to help minimize any damage from the drug.”
I tried to keep the conversation light, but Thomas’ words brought home the harsh reality of what he had done. I felt my throat constrict. “Thomas?”
“What did Rachel have to say?” he cut in. “I bet she was confused when you told her what happened.” He chuckled. “She should’ve sent Moira and Philip.”
I pulled Roy’s chair around to the side of the bed and sat down. “That’s what she said, actually. She met with Sophie today, and said that she will reach out to Daeva and express our condolences. ”
“What about us? Are they mad that we didn’t have the business meeting?”
I leaned back in the chair with my hands behind my head. “No! How could they be? It wasn’t our fault what happened.”
Thomas dropped his gaze and brought his hands together over his stomach. “That’s good, because I wouldn’t want us to be held accountable in any way.”
I stuck my hands in my pockets and stretched my legs out underneath the bed. “Why would we be?”
“I guess we wouldn’t,” he replied. Thomas stole a glance at me and then retreated timidly to his bed sheet. “I guess I just feel guilty for having enjoyed myself.”
I reached over and rubbed his arm. “I enjoyed myself, too. Well, it was a pretty even split between enjoyment and terror.”
Thomas stared down at his hands and pinched and pulled at his fingers. He snorted a couple of times and chewed on his bottom lip. I sat silent and waited for him to speak again.
“I know what you’re thinking, Matthew,” he said, eventually. “You want to know why I did it.”
“Sure,” I said. “But to be fair, I want to know why you do a lot of things.”
He sighed again. “I just,” he stopped and started to bang his hands on his legs. “I just,” he repeated, his tone higher. He yelled. “I just can’t fucking take it!” I jumped to my feet and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s so painful, Matthew!”
“What is?” I implored, watching the tears stream down his cheeks.
“My life! I hate my life. I’m trapped in it.” Thomas thumped the mattress either side of his waist. “I didn’t realize how much I hated it until we came back. Then it was straight back to normal. In my parents’ car. The child in the back. Nothing ever happens. And I’m alone. I’m so alone. It’s just me and my fucking weirdness. Me and my broken sleep machine.”
“You’re not alone, Thomas,” I said, feeling my heart pound in my chest. “I’m here.”
“Yeah, you’re here,” he spat. “As soon as we came back, you couldn’t wait to be rid of me.”
“It’s not like that. I needed my space to get my bearings. We’ve both just been through hell. I’m not sure my feet have even found the ground yet. When I close my eyes, I can still remember being stuck in the boot of that car.” My face flushed and I could feel the sting of tears around my eyes.
Thomas frowned. “I guess I didn’t experience that as badly as you.”
“No, you were astounding,” I smiled. His eyes opened, surprised, and the frown was knocked clean from his face. “I’d have been screwed without you there, Thomas.”
“Yeah, but I can’t do anything for you here,” he said. “We’re back to normal. I go to work, play my games, and you visit from time to time.”
I rested my fingertips on my forehead in contemplation, and then opened them in declaration. “Why do you keep saying normal? After all that’s happened, nothing is normal anymore. We were kidnapped. We fell in a sewer and then had an amazing night together in a quaint little snowy town in the mountains. We rode in a huge truck and got to meet some great people.”
Thomas rested his cheek on my hand. “But now that we’re back, why would you want to be with me? None of that is going on anymore. It’s in the past.”
“Are you under the impression that my desire to be with you is just because of all the crazy things that happened to us?”
“Well, isn’t it? They made you act differently. They made me act differently. Now that we’re back, we’ll go back to doing the same things as before.”
I laughed with the realization that Thomas’ argument was floored and that I could win. I laughed because I knew it would work out between us. “No we won’t.”
“How can you tell?”
“Okay, before. Did you ever overdose on Paracetamol and end up in the hospital?”
“So, therefore, haven’t you already shown that you’re not stuck in the same routine as before?”
I bent down and kissed Thomas full on the lips. “Did I ever do that to you in King’s Lynn before?”
Thomas’ lips remained puckered. “No.”
“Do you still think nothing’s changed?”
Thomas closed his eyes and began to weep. I was at a loss, and my confidence momentarily waned. I glanced down at him and to my astonishment he was laughing. He kissed the back of my hand. “I think I do need you, Matthew. With you, I don’t want to die.”
Thomas’ words propelled me into a temporary stupor filled with profound joy. I felt ecstatically giddy, and for the briefest of moments I didn’t feel like I needed oxygen to live, just the love of this good man. When I snapped back to reality my face was drenched with tears and I was clutching Thomas’ hands. “When you get out of here,” I wept. “Why don’t you come and live with me? That way we can keep an eye on each other. And you can teach me Kung Fu.”
He lifted our hands up and then let them fall to the bed. “I’d like that. It would recreate meaning in my life.”
I paused, and screwed up my face in contemplation. “You mean create meaning?”
“No. Meaning comes from the things around you. When you recreate your surroundings, you recreate the meaning.”
“I thought meaning was just your own sense of purpose?”
Thomas inched back on his pillows. “It is, but it’s influenced from all the things you experience in your environment over time.”
I laughed. “Does recreating meaning have to be so stressful?”
“I suppose it has to be. Which is why you should do your best to enjoy it.” He paused. “The recreation of meaning!”
A nurse with blonde hair tied back in a bun pulled the curtain aside and stepped through. “How are you feeling?” she said to Thomas. I wiped my face with the back of my hand.
He glanced up at me with a sparkle in his eye. “Much better, thank you.” The nurse checked the needle in his arm and the fluid level in the bag. “You’re not going to make me drink anymore charcoal, are you?”
She checked his monitor and chuckled. “No. We don’t have to go through that again. But you might still feel some abdominal pain and nausea.”
“I don’t even know what’s going on down there,” he moaned. “It’s like a symphony of maladies.”
I grinned. “Drama queen.” The nurse caught my eye and smirked.
“What’s going to happen now?” Thomas asked the nurse.
“The doctor’s going to check-in on you once more, and then you’ll be transferred through to the hospital for one or two nights, just to keep an eye on you.” The nurse stepped through the curtain back into the hallway.
Thomas groaned. “I might be here over Christmas.”
“Ah, big deal,” I said, and sat back down. I reached over and put my hand on his arm. “If you’re going to be here for any length of time, I’ll come by and bring you some food. I can bring your laptop in so you can play some games and watch some movies.”
Diane and Roy pulled the curtain aside and saw us holding hands. Diane smiled and let her head fall onto Roy’s shoulder. “I got this coffee,” said Roy, holding up a white plastic cup. “But there’s sugar in it. Do you want it, Matthew?”
“Sure,” I replied and stood to take the cup from him. I gestured to the chair. “You want to sit down?”
“No. I think Diane and I are going to go home. We both need to get some rest.” Thomas’ parents kissed him goodbye and left to go home. I resumed my position in the chair, and waited patiently for the doctor to arrive.