The Nowhere Place

by Shiplizard [Reviews - 0]

  • Teen
  • None
  • Alternate Universe, Character Study, Hurt/Comfort, Vignette

Author's Notes:
Crossposted from AO3. This is how I imagine Creed of the Kromon in a universe where everyone is human, and the adventures of the doctors take place more or less in the modern day.

Content note - This is a story about a young man with strong suicidal tendencies and an abusive childhood-- it involves hospital stays, homelessness, suicidal planning, self harm, descriptions of audial hallucinations and panic attacks. You come before fiction; there's no shame in bailing if it bothers you too much.

“Do you want to use the shower?” It’s become a script at this point. They know he lives in his car, that unless he’s made something of a windfall at whatever labour he can scrounge up that week the hospital is the only place he can really get clean.

But acknowledging that would make it awkward. Making this a normal arrangement would be awkward. Him asking-- well, that would be positively sensible. And they’re too British for all of that.

“If I won’t be a bother. Thanks so much.” He smiles. The nurse smiles. Very polite. Very awkward.

“Visiting hours are over at eight. I’m afraid I can’t offer you a meal tray,” says the nurse, a tone of not-very-convincing regret smeared thickly over outright distrust.

I didn’t ask, you supercilious bastard Chris adds a bit more tooth to his smile. “Hadn’t crossed my mind.” There’s another couple nurses-- a short man with a dreamy pot-smoker stare but who’s always sober for work, a thin woman with tan lines on her fingers and a line of demure, empty holes in her ears who must gain a pound of steel when she’s not in hospital-- they feed him, without asking. As if it’s a mistake, bringing up a tray. He almost prefers the outright hostility of this clean-shaven upper-middle-class I-got-here-by-virtue-of-my-bootstraps nurse to their charity.

Almost. He’s starving.

He waits until the nurse leaves to shower, quick and thorough, concrete dust and the regular kind of dust clinging stubbornly under his fingernails. The industrial hospital soap has his skin dry and flaking, but it’s better than no soap and grease and dirt. He puts his trousers on over bare, damp skin and washes his pants and undershirt in the sink, hanging them carefully in the bathroom to dry.

He keeps himself from washing his hands one more time. He can picture himself scrubbing at the wrinkled skin until it gives, scouring his guilt off with his blood.

But he doesn’t do that anymore.

She’d be pleased.

“Small victories, right, love?” he asks the other room, and pretends the faint beep of the heart monitor is his answer.

They’ve brushed her hair again, left her headscarf on the table. Hopefully it was at least one of the female staff, as he’d requested-- as her family almost certainly had, and they’re the ones with the legal say in anything. He arranges the scarf carefully around her face with practiced little motions, uncomfortable even though he knows he’s on the right side of her personal line between faith and practicality.

Honestly, it’s half so I don’t have to bother with my hair, she laughs in his memory.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.” He kisses her forehead chastely. “My awful, terrible timing.”

It would all be so much more easy, legally speaking, if he’d managed to wait until after they were married to wreck the car and put the most important person in the world into a coma.


Ha, ha.

He wants to punch the walls until his fingers break. He wants to score new lines on his back, because pain absolves sin. A new tattoo, somewhere where the ache will linger. He can’t afford any of those. And he doesn’t do that anymore.

Old habits, is all. Old habits and home-schooling. His father’s comforting voice explaining so reasonably how sacrifice is sacrament and pain is holy and fire is cleansing. The needle buzzing and his heart racing and a halo of green and pink around the fluorescent light fixed to the ceiling as his cousin carefully inks GENESIS 22 in gothic letters onto his trembling neck.

And he doesn’t do that anymore.

What he does is goes and retrieves his damp underthings from the bathroom, wrapping them in a spare bin-bag from the janitor’s closet across the hall and jamming them deep in his pocket. What he does is settle down beside her and pick up the newest Express, glossy and tabloidy, and starts thumbing through for something he can read her. Well. The bit about UKIP getting council seats is out. Also the car crash near Deal. Also the man who murdered his wife, that’s well too close to home.

“Did you know,” he asks conversationally, finally turning up an article that’s not horrific, “that hay-fever season has begun in earnest?”

He reads everything except the bit about UKIP and the dead wife, even the adverts, and when he finishes that, he tells her about the work he’s found this week at the dock. When he runs out of words, he holds her hand and counts her breaths until he loses count. He doesn’t realize it’s gone eight until the nurse raps on the door and clears his throat just too sharply to be polite.

Chris lays her hand reverently over her chest, and kisses her forehead, and tells the nurse to have a good evening without a trace of sincerity.

He’s been a bit injudicious with his cash this month-- had a migraine come on, and actually bought himself a package of paracetamol and a pint to wash the pills down with. He’s still putting half of everything he earns in a fund to get the car properly fixed, and nevermind he’s got no-where to go, he can’t bear to dip into that fund yet. If the car’s fixed, somehow, in his mind, she’ll be awake again, they’ll be together and on their way again.

He’s got … six pounds, if he wants to do laundry this week and he absolutely must. The food at the Euro Chicken barely qualifies as such, but seen as calories-per-pence it’s his best bet.

There’s a single, battered VW in the lot, the occupants still inside, two heads bent over a map. The smattering of actual customers are locals who walked here, conserving petrol at the expense of their stomach linings. They know him, and he knows them, and they all know each other well enough not to acknowledge each other.

He orders the chicken sandwich he’s learned he can tolerate the best. No chips, water to drink. He lurks around the counter while the tired-eyed line cook assembles it, bags it, and thrusts it at him. He glances surreptitiously around, finds the most unoccupied corner, and tucks in.

He hears a car door slam outside without really paying it any mind, and vaguely notes that the two lost probably-tourists in the VW have decided to risk coming inside. One of them, male, is rambling at the cashier.

Chris takes a bite of his sandwich, then makes himself swallow and take another.

"Lard? Good British suet? Vegetable oil, bacon grease?"

Chris looks up cautiously from his meal-- not that he wants to pay it much attention, but the sandwich is a preferable alternative to being noticed by someone loud.

The cashier's distracted by the pair of absolute idiots at the counter, at least, the pair from the VW. A man and a woman, giggling and clinging to each other as if trying to stay upright, both shortish, both white, him with cheekbones and lean good looks and curly brown hair tied back into a roguish tail, her curving and plump and lovely with a blond bob.

They've got money, the attitude alone could tell him that, but their clothes look-- old. Old fashioned and old in age but of good quality. Vintage, his brain supplies, one of the dozens of new phrases he's learned in his year away from the farm. The man's green coat is too tailored to share, but they're trying anyway, smashed together under it with giddy honeymoon closeness.

"We've got chicken burgers," the cashier says dubiously. Chris ducks his head down quickly, as the couple look round.

"We'll take two," says the strange man, with the buoyant good cheer and volume and lack of self-consciousness of a drunk. "And if they came with a side of something... slippery... that would be a pleasant surprise, wouldn't it? I like surprises, don't you? How much will that be?"

"...Eight pounds fifty," the cashier says dubiously, but she's watching the drunk man's hand. It's resting on the counter, and there's a flash of purple under his fingers. Twenty-pound notes. At least two of them. Probably more.

After a moment, the cashier reaches out and takes the money. She puts a single note into the till, the others vanishing into her pocket, and counts out change, handing it to him cautiously.

"Be right up," she says, and steps backward to have a word with the line cook. The other woman's been watching suspiciously, too, but the cashier slips her a bill and mutters something, and the cook nods.

The drunks get their burgers in a bag and a drink-cup full of something from the back, and the man is all effusive thanks as he steers his female companion toward the door.

The pretty blond woman hasn't spoken a word yet; she's pale, sweating, and her eyes are glassy. Drunker than the man. If he's drunk at all, if he's not just shamming. Suspicion wells up in Chris.

Chris is rarely without rage anymore, but it's a welcome change to have it directed outward for once. He chews his burger, watching sideways and pretending to ignore the couple as they move away out of the dim parking lot lights. Not heading back for their car, heading towards the shore.

He wolfs the last bites of his dinner without tasting them-- a blessing in and of itself-- and starts for the door at a pace just shy of running.

They haven't got far at all-- he can see their odd, conjoined silhouette in the gloom, picking their way over the scrubby grass field to the edge of the rocky shore, disappearing behind a seawall.

He picks up a rock without thinking, feels the weight and shape of it in his hand as he creeps after them, slowly so that his heavy workboots don't send a stone rolling. Too slowly-- he strains his ears. If the woman cries out he won't waste time being discrete.

The foul smell of low tide wraps around him the closer he gets, and he hears the man's voice, murmuring something, not so round and cheerful anymore.

Close enough, now, and he can make out words.

"-have to keep your strength up."

A woman's voice-- her voice. Weak, but still clear, a finishing school accent as if she'd rather die than be so gauche as to slur: "I don't think I could eat that if I was feeling well, John."

"I agree, it's not the most appetizing thing, but it is calories," A grunt, a wet sound.

Chris realizes he's stopped moving and makes himself start again, creeping to the edge of the seawall and peering 'round.

The dark shapes have separated, now, though they still haven't gotten far from each other, and the dim moonlight gleams on a line of metal between them.

Cuffs. It's handcuffs. Solid, hinged handcuffs, linking his right hand to her left.

The man sloshes the cup over his wrist again, and the ghosts of chips long congealed mingle with the tide smell as the man grips the cuff with his free hand and tries to wrench his wrist out. Chris can't make out his face, but knows the sound of pain, the edge it puts on your breathing.

"John, stop--stop. Before you do yourself an injury."

"I'll try again."

"Give it a moment, please? Between the oil and the scenic coastline my stomach isn't quite- " she cuts off with a stifled sound, curling on herself.

The man, in silhouette, reaches out for her shoulder with his free hand and then pauses as he remembers it's filthy with oil.

"Oh, Charley. Charley, I'm so sorry," he groans, voice full of self-recrimination so stark it clangs against Chris' brain like a bell. Resonant.

"I wish Septimus were actually here, damn him. He'd know what to do. Always good at knots and cuffs and escapes."

"What did he say to do, on that phone call?" she asks, audibly controlling her breathing. “You spent a lot of time nodding.”

"Told me not to bother picking this kind of cuff. Suggested the oil. If the oil didn't work, suggested dislocating my thumb."

"No, absolutely not, I won't let you-"

"I don't know if I could. If you remember, I said so. To which he suggested I not be so stupid as to get handcuffed, then." The man hisses under his breath, something that might be 'work-shy, malingering Scotsman.'

Chris reluctantly abandons his hiding place at the edge of the wall and steps toward them, letting the stones roll under his feet now.

They look toward him-- the man moves as if to get in front of his companion, but is quickly foiled by the cuffs.

This close he can see them. The man is alarmed and defiant, a mask of calm slipping over his face but it is still visibly a mask. The woman's face is tight with nausea, but she watches him resolutely, chin up.

A few feet from them, he crouches.

"Look," he says, calmly. "You don't know me, and I don't know you, but I think I know where to get a hacksaw."


The strange man-- John, he gathers-- is intensively possessive of his little blue car. He looks at Chris for a long time before he passes over the keys.

“Gracious,” The woman, Charlotte-call-me-Charley says, weakly. “I’m not actually dying, you know.”

“Yes, but a rest in the back will do us good.” Still, John looks sick with entrusting the wheel to anyone else. Figuratively. Charlotte being so literally sick outweighs his possessiveness, obviously.

From what Chris can tell, they’ve been cuffed together several days now, mostly driving, away from-- whatever unspecified ‘misunderstanding’ left them chained together. Something of an adventure, that’s how they’ve decided to play it, except that what they took for hay fever at first was actually quite a bit more, and Charlotte needs to get to the doctor soonest.

“You could just go in this way,” Chris offers. “They’ve seen worse things, I promise. You could… say it was some sort of sex thing, and they’d get you out.”

“Can’t risk it,“ Charlotte says firmly, even as her partner in handcuffs looks conflicted. “They might report in or something. And we’d be in the computers, then, people would notice.”

He pauses. “Have you murdered someone?”

“No!” Charlotte says, affronted. “I’d never. Nor would John.”

John’s eyes shadow for a second, but he nods. “No, nobody’s been hurt except a few unlucky data servers.” He meets Chris’s eyes in the rearview. “What would you do if we had, I wonder?”

Chris shrugs, and starts the car.

He’s driven a stick before, though this is a bit different than the rattly old farm truck. The gearshift is reluctant under his hand, grinding a bit every time he tries to change gears, but he at least gets the three of them up the hill to the little residential plot where Mr. Katz lives. Chris has gotten short-notice work with him often enough to know that unless there’s an HVAC problem round the hospital he’s at home, and up nights by habit.

“Here. This place. I have a friend who lives here”

“I thought,” says the strange man, “That you might have more of a plan than this.”

“Mr. Katz is a good plan.”

“Risky,” John murmurs. “Does he have any security cameras?”


“Webcam? Digital camera conveniently plugged in and pointed toward the door?”

“You’re very paranoid. No. Nobody has much of that out here. There’s barely a phone signal, they say, and no -- “ he gestures vaguely. “Wires. It’s wires, isn’t it? It’s all dial-up.” Which people say in gloomy tones. He’s used to dial up. The farm’s only concession to the outside world was dial-up, and a computer in his father’s study. People put orders in for their produce.

“Wires, my word, yes. Usually fiber-optic,” Charlotte says fondly. Her breathing is worryingly shallow. She beams at him as if she’ll keep the illness at bay by maintaining a sufficiently stiff upper lip. “Where on earth are you from?”

“I grew up on a farm,” Chris says shortly. “You’ve heard of those? Farms? Your food comes from them?”

“Plenty of farmers have cell-phones. Loads of farms have excellent service and computers and things.” Charlotte adds, with a lofty certainty that somehow doesn’t lessen when she adds, “Probably.”

“Definitely,” John says quietly. “But yours doesn’t. Doesn’t have much of anything, does it? Except bibles, I’d say. And tattoo guns.”

“Yes. We had those.” Chris can feel his skin prickling, and his shoulders dig into the seat behind him. Most of the young men, his cousins and brothers, they’d all had at least some mark on them. Out in the rest of the world he’s conspicuous, and people notice him, and all he wants to do is melt into the nearest wall until they go away-

“Genesis 22,” John murmurs. “The binding of Isaac. Very old testament. Which is interesting, considering-”

“Yes, I have read Leviticus, I’m aware, do you want my father’s half-hour sermon on the age of law and the age of grace, or do you want me to borrow my friend’s hacksaw?” he snaps, anxiety flashing into anger, tension snapping inside him, the fire licking up through his nerves a relief.

John shuts his mouth, but his eyes burn into Chris’s in the mirror, too-knowing and too-calm. The fire in him damps, and the anxiety and embarrassment crawl back over his skin like a cold sweat.

Charlotte clears her throat, and then coughs-- it sounds wet and painful. “We’re being rude. I’m sorry, you’re being very kind.”

“Quite right, Charley.” John dips his head, breaking eye contact. “Thank you for your help, Chris.”

“Right.” He nods at them both, and clambers gracelessly out of John’s little car.

He stands outside for a moment, and a shiver goes through him. He’s doing something incredibly stupid. These two could have done anything. He could be helping them do anything.

He’s got no idea what else he could do. He can’t just leave them.

The windows of the house are dark, but there’s a strip of fluorescent light coming out from under the roll-down door to his garage, and the whine of a jigsaw going. He pounds on the wooden side door, as loud as he dares, and after a second the noise stops and is replaced with a waiting silence.

“Mr. Katz? Mr. Katz, it’s Chris. From out of town.”

“Chris? One moment, now.” There’s a wooden clatter, the sound of things shifting, a dusty shuffle; the door opens, drenching Chris in bright light. He winces, squinting down at the round-shouldered silhouette in the door.

“What’s wrong, Chris?” Mr. Katz asks, nudging his safety glasses up with a gnarled knuckle.

“I need some-- could I possibly ask for your help?” Chris nods back towards the car in the drive. “I have these friends. They aren’t my friends, I’ve only just met them tonight. But they’re in trouble, they’re stuck in handcuffs, could I borrow your hacksaw?”

“Hmm,” Katz says thoughtfully. “Handcuffs. What kind of handcuffs?”

He plods out to the car without waiting for an answer, rapping politely on the passenger side door. The window rolls slowly down.

“Hello,” John says, polite and immensely unruffled.

“Hello,” Katz responds, equally casual, and pulls a torch out of his tool belt. “Let me see your hands, now.”

Chris peers over his shoulder as Katz leans into the car, inspecting the strangers’ joined hands.

“Hinges,” the older man says thoughtfully. “A hacksaw won’t help here. No. You’d better come inside. I’ll make you some tea.”

“That’s lovely of you,” Charlotte says weakly, “But I’m not sure it’s necessary-”

“Tea’s always necessary. You learn that in our line of work.” John says. “We’d love some. Thank you.”

Ten minutes later, John and Charlotte are seated on an unfinished chest. Katz has produced two cups of tea, only slightly sawdusty, a pair of bolt cutters, thick leather gloves, and another set of safety glasses.

John and Charlotte each get a cup of tea; Chris gets the glasses and gloves.

“These shears could go through bone,” Katz explains conversationally. “Let alone skin. You’ll have to help keep their wrists out of the way.”

“Right,” Chris says dutifully, dropping to a knee.

“The young lady first, I think. Close your eyes, my dear,” Katz croons. “Metal shards do have a way of getting everywhere.”

“I’ll take care to inspect my tea after, thank you,” Charlotte says, and draws in a breath as Chris reaches out to press the tender flesh of her arm and wrist as far away from the metal of the cuffs as he can.

Katz braces the boltcutters on his shoulder: “Don’t move, Chris-” and nudges them carefully into position, the sharp tip of the blades just at the inner edge of the metal ring of the bracelets.

Chris doesn’t move as Katz slowly closes the blades. The round handle digs into his shoulder; he tenses his muscles and keeps still, keeping Charlotte’s oil-slick skin stretched taut and away from the bite. He may be new to the world, but he’s good at this-- bearing strain, staying still.

Charlotte’s doing an admirable job of that herself, just her chest rising and falling as she waits, eyes shut even as the steel of the handcuffs creaks loudly before starting to part. John is watching despite the warnings, face tense, eyes fixed on the distance between blades and skin.

It seems to take forever-- they can’t risk a jerk or a jump, so Katz has to lean his weight slowly into the handles, and into Chris, so the blades close slowly, evenly.

“There,” Katz says, and gently tugs the cutters away from the ragged bite in the cuffs. “Ah, not quite. Smaller shears, maybe, for that.”

There’s a thin strip of metal still holding stubbornly on, where the tip of the cutters didn’t quite part it. Strong, but thin.

“No need,” Chris decides, after a moment, and pulls off the gloves: “Sorry, Charlotte, this might be uncomfortable-” her eyes flash open in alarm as he grabs the hinge of the cuffs in one hand, digs his bare fingertips between the bracelet and her wrist with the other, and puts all his strength into a single sharp pull.

Charlotte gasps at the same time as the steel gives with a deceptively quiet ‘pop’, and then Chris swings the useless half of the bracelet open and gently pulls it off of Charlotte’s wrist.

“Oh,” she sighs, sagging back. “Oh, that’s so much better. I could kiss you both.”

“I advise against it, dear,” Katz says chivalrously. “You don’t know where I’ve been, and what’s been on me.”

“Nothing a good apricot scrub couldn’t put right, I’m sure,” she says, so matter-of-factly that Chris can’t decide if she’s joking for a moment.

Katz chuckles. “I like you, dear. You’re funny.”

“One of my many-- ugh.” A wave of nausea hits her, and she curls her newly freed arm around her stomach, “Oh, pardon me. I really don’t feel at all well.”

Chris takes the half-drunk tea from her shaking hand and sets it on the floor. “We’d better get John out as well.”

“Mm, yes,” Katz says, with a last worried look at Charlotte. “Brace up, Chris.”

John’s wrists are bonier and leaner, and there’s a little more room in the cuff-- Katz gets all the way through the bracelet in one go this time, and the useless cuffs clatter to the floor amidst the sawdust and stains of old furniture polish.

“I would offer you fresh tea, but I think the young lady should get to a doctor,” Katz says gravely.

John springs to his feet with a sudden energy. “I think you’re right. Charley, can you walk?”

“Of course-” she says, pushing herself up and immediately folding forward onto her knees. She gives a little moan of distress, panting, head drooping forward. She opens her eyes, unfocused, and then jams them shut again.

There’s the end of what Chris had thought was her endless composure, then. It makes his own stomach twist in sympathy.

“Never mind that,” he says firmly, stooping next to her before John or Katz can say anything. “Give me your arm. Your arm. Oh, fine,” he sighs, when she doesn’t uncurl, and scoots an arm under her knees and one against her back, standing up with a grunt. She’s a heavy, uncooperative bundle against his chest-- and worryingly hot, fever hot.

John’s taken a step toward him as if he thought Chris might -- who knows, put her in his pocket and make a break for it? Not likely. Chris is fit-- the farm saw to that, his work sees to that-- but he’s hungry and exhausted and not likely to move fast or far with about twelve stone of dead weight in his arms.

“Mr. Katz? Could you get the door, possibly? And John, is the car locked?” he asks, hurriedly, because his hand is still grimy with second-hand oil and his grip on Charlotte isn’t as secure as he’d like.

“I hope not, since you left the key in it.” A sigh. “I’ll go get her open.”

“Could you stand still for a moment?” comes the plaintive whine from the woman in his arms.

“I am standing still.”

“Ugh, I feel like I’m on a channel ferry.” She curls tighter and buries her face against his shoulder, a patch of heat-damp sweat.

“Let’s go,” John calls impatiently from outside.

“Yes, well,” Chris tells her, borrowing her own imperious tone. “You’re going to put up with it for another minute, and then if you can’t keep your dinner down at least I won’t be in the way. Right?”

A whimper. It’ll have to be as good as a yes. He carries her carefully out-- backs out through the side door to make sure he doesn’t hit any part of her on the doorframe-- and deposits her as carefully as he can in the passenger seat of the VW.

“Do you remember how we got here?” he asks John.

The man nods.

“Right. Go back the way we came. Past the restaurant. There’s a sign for the hospital. The A&E is around the back, park in one of the reserved spots nearest the door, the lot security doesn’t come around until three in the morning.”

“Thank you,” John says, eyes too-intent on him again. There’s a strange weight to the gratitude that Chris retreats from.

“Yes. Well. Go on,” he says, fumbling around the cautious goodbyes and idiot platitudes that are queued up waiting to humiliate him.

A nod, and then the car purrs to life, so much healthier sounding under John’s management than his own-- it handles so smoothly as to be unrecognizable as John pulls out, does a pretty three-point turn, and comes to a neat stop just at the top of the hill leading down Katz’s drive.

“Do you need a ride?” John calls back.

“I’ll walk, thanks,” Chris says, and then the strangers are gone and he can’t imagine that he’ll ever see them again. The night already feels like a fever dream, although he still smells like chicken grease and there are still red marks on his palm from pulling open Charlotte’s handcuff.

He lost his night vision in the workshop and it isn’t back yet; he stands in the dark and looks at trees he can’t see, towards white cliffs he can’t see; he knows the ocean is there because he can hear it, and there are the lights guiding the ships into the harbour, he can just make those out through the after-images of headlights and the workshop lights.

Things go just slightly darker, and he stands puzzling about that until the workshop door slams. Then he understands-- he’s lost that sliver of light under the roll-up door, that’s why everything is so black.

Heavy-footed, shuffling steps approach him,


“Yes, Mr. Katz?”

“Who were those people?””

“I have no idea.”

“Did they kill someone?”

“They say they didn’t.”


They stand and peer into the dark together.


“Yes, Mr. Katz?”

“You smell like the euro-chicken. It’s terrible. Come inside. Wash your hands. I’ll make a sandwich.”

“I don’t need a sandwich, I’m fine-”

“Come inside. Wash your hands. Sandwich,” Katz repeats, and reaches up to push Chris along with a hand on his back. He’s numb, directionless, lets himself be herded along like a sheep. (We like sheep, he thinks.)

He washes his hands as he’s told, and cleans up as best he can, and wants to argue when Mr. Katz brings out a blanket to the chesterfield, but can’t muster the energy.

He eats his sandwich, as he’s told, lies down, as he’s told, and it’s all too easy to just do that, so peaceful. He shuts his eyes and squirms his shoulder, bunching a throw pillow a little more comfortably under his cheek; he can feel a stretch in his neck that will hurt tomorrow. His hip has found a sagging spring; the chesterfield is old and lumpy, but warm and horizontal and wonderful.

Chris kicks one boot off and in the middle of trying to push off the second, falls asleep.


Chris comes awake on Mr. Katz's chesterfield; it's not an unfamiliar place, though it takes him a moment to remember why he's here this time.

The memories of the night come back, but at a distance. They look absurd from the outside, alien and irrelevant. His routine is real. Life, day after day, is real. There's a wonderful comfort to being able to slide back into the day-and-night hand-to-mouth cycle of his existence here.

Mr. Katz is sleeping, he knows, snoring softly behind a closed door. The old man keeps night hours. There's a box of cereal out on the table, and a clean bowl, which Chris recognizes as an order to eat. So he does; he eats the brick of cereal dry, tasting nothing, and washes the bowl, and leaves a 50p coin next to the empty cereal box.

His head is beautifully quiet; his self recrimination seems to be asleep as he walks down the hill towards town. He'll stop by the hospital, tell Lida good morning, and then go try to drum up work.

It's possible that the strangers might still be there, he supposes, but it's unlikely he'll run across them. More likely they got some pills, something, and they went on their way, running from whatever it is they're running from.

The hospital is very quiet today; no crying children, no talking families in the lobby. The silence rings in his ears and swallows his footsteps.

A sense of panic rises up but it's distant too, tinny and muffled outside the walls of his strange calm, even as the nurse who's manning reception looks up and her face goes blank.

"Good morning," he starts, and her hands-- striped with tan lines around the rings she doesn't wear to work-- lift to stop him, and then go flat.

"Please don't panic, it's not necessarily bad news," she says, and stands up, and comes around the reception desk. Her scrubs are a very intense lavender colour, saturated but not rich. Oddly flat, but vibrant. It leaves a chalky taste in his mouth, which is funny, he hasn’t tasted colours in a while. "She had a seizure last night and they decided to move her to London."

"I thought moving her could hurt her," he says distantly. He remembers that discussion. Her family had wanted her in London from the start but there had been concerns about her spine and they entrusted her to this place, only able to visit now and then. He'd only seen them from a distance. He didn't know if she hadn't had the chance to tell them about him-- that she'd decided to steal a backwoods fundamentalist Christian and take him home-- or if she had told them and they knew that he had been the one to destroy her car and leave her unconscious here. Either way. They ignore him, when they come. He doesn't approach them.

That's the routine. This is. Not the routine. The distant panic is rising to a scream, but it's still held at bay.

"She had a seizure," the nurse repeats gently. "And the night shift had to contact her family's representative, and they decided that it was better to risk moving her to specialized care. She had a difficult transition, but she's holding on. We'll tell you as soon as we have a status update, okay? Are you coming in this afternoon? I'll find out everything I can and make sure it gets to you. It's not bad news. Okay?"

"Okay," he says confidently, because this is direction, this is a new routine, this is not bad news. He can't hear himself speak. He can only hear a child's voice, a boy on the verge of tears, saying: "Okay."

The nurse takes his hand and squeezes it between both of hers. "Okay," she repeats. A couple of parrots, them. She smiles kindly at him.

"Some of her things are still in the room, I'm sure she'd be happier if you kept them for her. Let's go up and get them."

"Yes. Thank you." He follows. That's easy; he can follow.

It's not really anything important that they left; the chapstick he'd taken from her purse to keep her lips from cracking while she was unconscious, a paperback she'd been reading. He couldn't read the Farsi but he'd kept it by her bedside, hoping that the lure of something unfinished would help her find her way back.

There are a few strands of hair on the dark pillow. He brushes them into the trash. She would hate to leave a mess, so incredibly tidy.

It isn't bad news, the nurse says. He'll be back this afternoon.

There's someone in the room next to Lida's, the one that had been empty all the weeks he'd been here. Charlotte's face is relaxed in sleep, a slight frown on her face as if she finds her dream insufficiently interesting and wants to lodge a complaint. She's only sleeping; it's so obvious from the twist in the bedsheets on her and the disarray of her hair that she's been moving in her sleep.

Lida's sheet was only ever moved by the hospital staff, replaced neatly. Her IV cord was always straight, and Charlotte's is looped and curved with extra slack. She's pale, but not that pale.

Just asleep.

He stares at her for a moment and doesn't know why it's important, and then the nurse softly suggests that he move on and he does, obediently, away from the two rooms. One empty bed, one not empty bed, like it was yesterday, but backwards. The thought forms and sits there, going nowhere and aiding nothing.

The nurse catches his hand again as he drifts robotically toward the door.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes." Of course he is. Obviously.

"Can I get you a coffee? Something to eat?"

"No. No, thank you very much."

"Chin up," she says, and gives his hand a last hard squeeze. He can't imagine why she sounds so sorry, why her eyes are so red and damp. His are dry, so dry they ache, so dry he keeps expecting it to hurt when he blinks.

He leaves.

There's work at the docks today-- someone out sick and foul things that need scrubbing now-not-when-the-union-approved-replacement-comes, and he spends the day half on his knees, the rasp of his scrub-brush a pleasant counterpoint to the screaming static just outside the walls of his mind.

The foreman pays him in cash and says something to him with a kind expression; Chris can't hear it through the din but he smiles and nods reassuringly, which seems to satisfy the other man.

He counts his pay, and puts all of it in the bundle for car repair. Maybe he'll be able to sneak dinner at the hospital tonight. If not, he doesn't have to eat; he's not hungry at all. He knows he probably should, but there's no urgency to the knowledge.

He walks into the hospital, and it's not quiet. A couple are squabbling off to one side. He can hear a child having a tantrum off in the pediatrics wing. His shoes sound normal on the floor.

The pot-smoker nurse is helping out behind the desk. There's a woman standing across the counter from to him, makeup and clothing dark, pounds of steel on her fingers and in her ears, and it takes him a moment to recognize that this is the tan-line nurse off duty.

She reaches out when he approaches the desk, her eyes round and her mouth pulled down. "They called half an hour after you left, I'm so sorry, I didn't have a way to contact you, I'm so sorry-"

The on-duty nurse's face is calm and terribly kind, his eyes a bright red but it's from tears and not a surreptitious smoke, he's always sober on duty.

The stillness around Chris shatters like glass and the maelstrom is on him. They're speaking to him and he can't hear, can't see; he falls past the pierced-nurse's outstretched hand and lands on his knees with a jar, hands coming up to cover his face, fingernails scraping at his stubbled scalp. There's no barrier between him and the voices now and they shriek and gibber and accuse him and he sobs helplessly because he is guilty.

"She's dead," he confesses to the noise. "I killed her, she's dead-"

Hands on his wrist jar his eyes open. He realizes that the darkness and the screaming is only in his head, that he's still in the lobby. The pot-smoking nurse and an orderly each have one of his arms, pulling his hands away from his face. There are thin crescents of blood under each nail and his scalp and cheeks feel raw.

"Mate, nobody wants to have to sedate you," says the pot-smoker gently, and

"Shh, shh, it's all right to cry, you don't have to hurt yourself-" says the off-duty nurse with the piercings, and

"I'm going to let you go now, but if you try anything it's a needle in your ass," says the orderly, not unkindly




and he finds he can close the walls back around himself.

This time the noise is all on the inside of them.

"I'm sorry," he says, his voice raw. "I'm so sorry about this."

"Don't worry about that," piercing-nurse says gently, and produces a moist towelette from some leather pocket somewhere on her person and starts to dab at his torn skin. He smells alcohol, and feels it. The pain is sharp and brings a crystal clarity to him, the kind he remembers from worship on the farm.

He swallows-- his throat is tight and aching-- and makes himself take deep breaths as he's tended to.

"Do you have anyone who you can call? Family?" the pot-smoker asks him. "You can stay here and wait for someone to come get you. We'll make sure you have something to eat."

"No family." Gideon had made that very clear when he left. "It's all right. I'll be all right. Please don't worry yourselves."

Everything is becoming much clearer, now.

"Look, maybe you should stay the night," says pot-smoker. Chris should have learned their names; they're being immensely kind to him, taken better care of him than could be expected. They deserve better than this, even that snotty bootstraps nurse.

"No, it's all right."

"I really-- really have to strongly suggest. Look, come in as an informal, you can get some sleep, get a few good meals in you, talk to someone, they’ll let you discharge as soon as they’re sure you’re all right.”

“It is-- all right. I’ve got somewhere to go. I’ll stay tonight with Mr. Katz, you know Mr. Katz?”

“Yes,” says piercing-nurse. “All right. At least let us get you something to eat.”

“No. No, it’s all right, I’ve got some money today. I’m going to go get some dinner and give Mr. Katz a call.” He takes her hand, knowing from how often she’s taken his that it’s a gesture she finds reassuring, that it will help convince her everything’s all right. “If I need something, I’ll come here and ask. All right?”

“Are you sure?”

“Completely,” he promises, and squeezes gently around the silver rings. “Thank you.”

To the nurse at the desk, and the orderly. “Thank you. You’ve been-- very, very kind.”

“It’s the job,” says the pot-smoker, and reaches out for a handshake that he turns into a single-armed hug. Chris lets him, feels the warmth of the nurse’s arm around him and knows that the man does really wish him well, does really care for his well-being.

It’s a good feeling in a sea of misery. He doesn’t deserve it but it’s there, the warmth and the tears shed with him and the desperate kindness. He can about manage a smile, lopsided and painful, but it reassures them and they let him go.

With Lida gone it doesn’t matter if the car gets fixed; he heads to the pub, orders a pie and a pint and chips with gravy, breaking a twenty-pound note with only a small twinge of leftover shame. The pie is hot enough to burn when he gets it, and he takes two greedy mouthfuls before he stops himself.

He doesn’t do this anymore. She wouldn’t want this, a blistered mouth in her honour. He won’t do this.

The beer cools the fading burn, and he eats his chips slowly, not giving into the little temptations to harm himself, the nagging thoughts of penance and absolution. They’re selfish. That would be selfish.

He is selfish, but he’ll try not to be selfish over dinner.

The food is wonderful, tastes like the beef was once part of an actual cow, like hands touched the dough that made the crust. He catches himself reciting a prayer of thanks for the food, soothing and ritualistic, and decides there’s no harm in it. Thank you for our daily bread, amen.

He has much to be thankful for, and he lists it as the chews contemplatively, blinking a little sleepily as a full stomach and a full pint start to do their work. He barely notices the chair opposite him getting pulled out, too busy staring into the middle distance.

“Hello, Chris.”

He blinks back to the pub and out of his mind. Real noise and real voices intrude on the babble inside.

“Mr. Katz.”

“Julia called me. She said you would be my guest tonight.”

Who is Julia?

He realizes a second later that it’s the piercing nurse. Now he knows her name.

“I didn’t mean to presume-- I was going to ask.”

“Of course. Of course you can stay.” Mr. Katz nods sagely, “I thought I could give you a ride up the hill.”

“Oh, no, don’t put yourself out, please? I could really use the walk. Clear my head.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes. It’s-- it’s been a very bad day. I just want to be alone for a little. I’ll knock at the workshop when I come up, all right?”

“All right.”

“Can I buy you something to eat?”

“Yes,” Mr. Katz says pragmatically, and Chris counts out change to pay for Katz’s french onion soup, finishing his own food as he waits for it to be ready. He waves at Katz to stay in his chair when it comes up-- fetches it back himself, balancing the hot crock on a cool saucer carefully.

“I’m sorry to leave you while you’re eating. I think I’ll have that walk,” he says.

Katz squints at him. “You be careful, young Chris.”

He nods reassuringly-- that comes easier and easier the more he does it-- and slips out of the pub.

The day was all humidity and cloud cover and stink, but there’s a breeze off the water tonight; it’s pushed away the clouds and the stars are out. It’s quite beautiful, with twilight to soften the dirty and unkempt edges of the town, and Chris walks along the edge of the cobbled beach, past the pier and away from the lights of town, towards the path up over the chalk cliffs. He never did go up that way. It’s supposed to be very pretty.

He considers it, but-- no. That seems like too much; too showy. It’d get notice-- he cringes at the idea.

He turns onto the beach proper, away from the path, and starts to make his way over the round, rolling stones, stopping occasionally to pick one or another up; small ones for his less capacious trouser pockets, good fist-sized ones tucked quietly into his jacket. The weight steadies him, and the simple certainty in his choice is calming. The roar in his head is quieting, just a little, as he picks his way silently toward the surf.

He leans on the seawall for just a moment to get his balance, and a voice says:

“You know, we really have to stop meeting like this?”

His calm evaporates, and he turns quickly and bashes his knee painfully on the concrete.

The stranger John looks up at him from its shelter. He’s cross legged, apparently completely comfortable on the uneven surface. There’s a takeaway cup in his hands, steaming enough to be seen by moonlight.

“What are you doing here?” Chris asks-- barks, demands, and he’s taken aback at the edge on his own voice.

“Watching the sea. Isn’t that what you’re doing?”

“No. I was on a walk.” His peace of mind is curdling and sour in his head. Things are slipping away from him. His jacket feels too heavy and he’s suddenly so tired and so aware of the alcohol in him.

“Ah. Excellent for your health, that.” John sips his tea. “Charlotte’s staying overnight in hospital. She needs fluids in her. They said she’d be right as rain with some antibiotics and enough rest. I wish I knew I could give her that second one; even on a good day things are never really uneventful.”

“I saw her. I’m glad she’s doing well.”

“I heard about-” John stops. “The nurses were talking about a coma patient who’d-- left the hospital. They mentioned her family. And the man who visited her every day. A fiancee, I’m told.”

“That’s too bad.” His tongue feels like it’s made of sand.

“You’re a very identifiable man, Chris with no last name,” John chides him.

The noise is starting to get louder again, and this time there’s no certainty. Chris swallows, fighting his throat as it tries to constrict. “You don’t seem to have one either,” he points out instead.

“Very true. Ships in the night generally don’t. It’s easier that way, seeming not to be anyone. But I am. And you are.” John pushes his way to his feet, draining the last of whatever he’s drinking from the takeaway cup, crumpling it, and making it vanish somewhere into his velvet coat. “I should try to sleep. Not something I’m good at, on the whole, but no good staying up fretting.”

He looks at Chris. There’s an apology in his voice, this time, for knowing too much: “They tell me you’ve been sleeping in your car. The hotel room’s got two beds, and Charley isn’t using hers. Let me put you up?”

“No. No, I’m not going to sleep either.”

“Man after my own heart. Woop-” John stumbles in the dark, and Chris moves instinctively to catch him. John’s fist catches his jacket, and Chris sees the whites of his eyes in the dark as the other man registers the weight of his coat, the heavy bulk in the pockets.

There’s a moment of stillness so profound that even the voices stop for a bit, he and John standing frozen, John’s hand still clasping his jacket, his reaching out for John’s shoulder.

Then John slowly lets go.

“Could you give me a hand back? I’m going to sprain an ankle at this rate. These shoes are wonderfully comfortable, but maybe not the thing for a cobbled beach. Those boots of yours are sensible.”

“Of course,” Chris says helplessly, because he can’t refuse, and holds out an arm for John to cling to as they slide and wobble back toward the road.

“Walking’s good, of course. But it just goes to show that not all walking is healthy,” John says, so lightly that Chris could almost miss his meaning.

He pretends he does. “And that’s why you should wear sensible shoes.”

“Words to live by.” John takes the last step off the beach and into the scrubby grass with relief. “Are you sure I can’t put you up?”

“I was going to sleep at Mr. Katz’s house again,” Chris says, through gritted teeth, because he might as well at least only tell the same lie.

“Very sensible. I’ll give you a ride.”

“I can walk.”

“I’ll give you a ride,” John says, and his voice is lilting and his voice is unyielding steel. “You can walk tomorrow, if you still feel like exercise.”

“Fine,” Chris says bad-naturedly, and skulks along with him to the blue VW. Everything seems like an effort now; the almost spiritual peace has evaporated and he’s so tired now that even the voices are a dull buzz.

John flips on the radio-- soft classical music spills out, fuzzy, and that seems to be to his satisfaction. The night isn’t that cool, but he turns the heater on as well, mumbling to himself as he pulls out onto the road.

“Other direction,” Chris reminds him.

“Is it? Right, there’s a turn-around a few miles up the road, don’t worry, we’ll be there in two shakes.”

There’s a vent by his feet blowing hot air, a slowly building warmth he can feel through his bootst; something about the heat is compounding his exhaustion, making everything sluggish and heavy. John is muttering quietly to himself, and Chris’s eyes are drifting even as they reach the turn-around and head back in the right direction. He lets his eyes shut, just for a moment; he feels the vibration of the engine, the hum of the wheels, right into his bones.

“And there was our turn, can you believe it, lose my head if it weren’t screwed on, don’t worry, I’ll make a loop up this road here,” John says, and the patter of his words becomes one with the engine and the last droning voices in Chris’s head, and he’s so, so tired.

He wakes briefly when the car stops; his arms are thrown over two sets of shoulders and he’s half-walked half-dragged into a familiar-smelling room and a familiar-feeling couch. His jacket vanishes and a blanket materializes over him like magic and then he’s out again.

The next time he wakes up there’s thin shafts of daylight slanting through Mr. Katz’s heavy shutters. His head aches, and his face is sticky with dried salt.

Mr. Katz is still awake-- unusually late for him, but he has guests; sitting across from him at his lovely handmade dining table is John, and next John is a pale but healthier-looking Charlotte.

“Good morning,” John says brightly, and Chris digs the heels of his hands into his eyes to try to dislodge the twin spears of light and sound that are jammed directly into his brain.

John is merciless. “Toast?”

“I’m going to be sick,” he croaks, and a moment later he’s stumbling to his feet because he knows it’s true.

He bounces shoulder-first off the doorframe of the loo and collapses on his knees-- his aching, bruised knees-- and bends over the toilet, relieving himself of ten pounds sterling worth of chips, pie, and ale.

It isn’t just the beer. He’s had days like yesterday -- not quite like yesterday, but he’s had the howling in his brain before. He’s sobbed himself dry. It leaves his body like this. And on top of that, too much food after too little food, he’d known this would be the result, but then he hadn’t planned on that being a problem.

He hadn’t planned on being alive for it to be a problem.

The memory hits him with a chill; he shivers and wretches out his misery. It’s still the right thing to do, he knows that, he’s useless and homeless and there’s no point to him and he’s murdered the last light in his life, but he can’t feel the rightness of his death anymore. The grief and sickness overwhelm him, anchor him to his body and to the present and he knows he’s lost his chance to let go and drift away.

He scrabbles up to the sink for a handful of water to rinse the filth out of his mouth, and he splutters it back into the sink as a sob shakes through him without warning. It’s followed by another, his shoulders heaving, and now there’s no stopping it. He slides down the sink and curls up, fingernails pressed to his temples but not digging in (he will not do that anymore) as his body rattles apart.

He remembers her; he remembers the accident, his stubborn pride, they should have pulled over, he should have slept instead of pushing on, he remembers that the news came not ten minutes after he walked out of the hospital, he remembers how good she was and how little he deserved her and he would scream but he simply doesn’t have the breath or the control over his lungs and all he can do is cry.

Ages pass before he can get a grip on himself; every time he thinks he’s cried his last a fresh wave of guilt builds up and spills out of him. When it finally subsides and he can force himself to breathe more slowly, he feels hollow through and through. Even the inside of his skull feels scoured out.

He washes his face and tries to dry away the evidence of his tears with a hand towel and only moderate success.

They’re still chatting to each other when he finally makes his way out, after however long it’s been, Katz and John and Charlotte. He thinks they’re talking about bees of all things, a subject on which Charlotte seems ignorant but interested and Katz seems surprisingly well versed.

“Oh, hullo,” Charlotte says, and it’s almost natural and almost not obviously deliberate. “There you are. We’ve saved you some toast and a soft-boiled egg, if you can stomach it.”

“I don’t know if I can-” and then the sheer force of his hunger becomes clear to him and he abandons the sentence in favor of a seat at the table and voracious mouthfuls of lightly buttered toast.

The conversation goes on around him, skims over him-- Katz and John and Charlotte all conspiring somehow to ignore him, to let him eat in safety without seeming to be shutting him out. He’s as much part of the breakfast as the table; doing all he needs to do by sitting there and nothing else required of him.

A few tears roll down his cheeks; he ignores them angrily, and they are ignored by the rest of the table in turn.

After breakfast, he finds himself delegated to escorting Mr. Katz’s guests out while their host turns in for his much-delayed sleep. He’s all the way out to the car when he realizes the awkwardness of it. He has no right to be the proxy for their thanks, he can’t tell them they’re welcome back as he’s sure Katz would.

“Mr. Katz ran your jacket through the wash,” John says, instead of risking the usual pleasantries. He pulls it out of one of his pockets-- one of those oddly deep pockets-- and then reaches in after it and hands over Lida’s paperback. “Took this out of it; wouldn’t have wanted it wet.”

Chris had almost walked into the water with the book in his pocket. Shame slithers up his spine, and he drops his eyes.

“Maroufi. Heavy reading,” John muses. “Have you read it?”

“No, I don’t read. Much. Anything. And only English.” Chris clasps the book to his chest, furls his jacket over it. The pockets are empty, completely empty.

“Depressing. Beautiful, but depressing,” John concludes. “Nevermind. It’s a lovely morning, and that was an excellent breakfast. A shame Katz went to bed before I could thank him.”

“What a lovely man,” Charlotte adds, breaking the tension like an airy wrecking ball. There’s some pink in her cheeks that was missing when they met, and Chris thinks she’ll be positively unstoppable now, brute-force cheer and making the best of things or else.

“Kind people. Not my favourite town, you know, architecturally speaking, but some very nice people,” John muses.

“Thank you for everything Chris-- just Chris. We haven’t really been properly introduced, have we? Where are my manners.” Charlotte sticks out a hand. “Charlotte Pollard. Friends call me Charley.”

“Chris,” Chris says unnecessarily. “Union. Saint Christopher Union.”

“Patron saint of travellers,” John notes. “How fortunate. John Smith. John Octavius, among friends and family. Your lot go in for saints, then?”

“Yes. Sort of. It’s -- well, we’re considered a bit heretical. We were. I was. I’m not-” He stops, breathes, and marshalls his words. “I was excommunicated when I got engaged to Lida.”

“That’s awful,” Charlotte says, her sympathy almost overwhelming in its sincerity and depth. How can she be so indignant for him when she doesn't know him?

“Where are you heading now, then?” John asks.

Chris shakes his head. “I was going to go with her. Now I don’t have anywhere to go. I can’t go back to the Foundation of Christ, and I don’t really belong to her world either. Where is there to go? I’m only good at farming and liturgy.”

“You could-- John, couldn’t he come with us?”

“Where are you going? You never said,” Chris remembers.

“Because we’re not sure yet,” John says softly. “We’re running. It’s a risk. It might all end in disaster. You have a life here, you know, people who do care about you. You could build on that.”

He thinks of the nurses who took care of him while they took care of Lida, and kind Mr. Katz, and the thought of leaning on their kindness anymore makes his eyes sting.

“I could, I suppose,” he says, but there’s no conviction in him.

“If you still want to go on that walk, I won't stop you," John says, too-calm, eyes pleading. "Though I'd rather you didn't. You're welcome to come with us. It's not easy. It’s dangerous. We’re facing a deadly enemy. But you can come.”

It would hurt John badly if he took his walk to the sea. It would ease his pain if he didn't. He wants to help. He doesn't want to hurt the stranger. All he can do is try to help. So instead, he seeks clarity.

“An enemy? Really? Who?”

“More a what. Would you believe … a sentient computer virus?”

Chris’s blank stare is obviously not the response John Octavius expected. He looks thoughtfully at Chris, and asks: “Do you know what a computer virus is?”

“They’re-- bad, they ruin computers, and you get them by looking up images of vice and iniquity,” Chris offers. “I’m sorry, only father was ever allowed to use the computer?”

“Ah. Well, don’t worry. For a beginner you’re doing splendidly,” John says, and his tired, piercing eyes crease into a smile. “We’ll have you up to date in no time. I’ll explain while we drive.”

“John, how long do you expect this drive to be?” Charlotte asks, mock-horrified. “Chris, you should know, if we drive as long as this man can talk about computers we’re going to wind up in Australia.”

“Nonsense. You can’t drive to Australia. Mongolia, now, there’s a thought.”

“He’s ridiculous. You’ll learn not to worry,” Charlotte says conspiratorially, and punches Chris lightly in the shoulder. “You are coming, though, aren’t you?”

These two absurd people have a pull like gravity. He can’t not.

“Yes. I am.”

Charlotte actually squeals. “Shotgun!” she declares, and then throws her arms around him.

“That means she gets to ride-”

“I know what it means, I’m not that sheltered,” Chris grumbles, but Charlotte is warm and present against his front and John’s arm is steady around his shoulders and he feels that he could go on living today. He feels-- like he’s alive in a way he hasn’t since the accident.

His arms creep around Charlotte, too familiar for a woman he’s known for a collective six hours, but he can’t stop himself. She squeezes him-- quite a grip for a spoiled rich girl, perhaps she practiced on her pony. The pressure of it eases the pressure in his head, provides an inexplicable relief.

John reaches up, tips down his head, and gives Chris a firm kiss on the forehead. He can’t remember the last time anyone did that; it would stagger him if Charlotte weren’t holding him upright.

“All right, children. That’s enough. In the car.”

“No patience at all, that one,” Charlotte tells Chris in an undertone. "Everywhere at a rush. Never had a lie-in in his life."

“Do you complain all the time?” he asks, shocking himself, as he folds himself into the back of the little VW.

“She does,” John sighs, not scandalized by Chris’s rudeness. Charlotte punches him on the shoulder, less gently than she did Chris. “Ow. I need to drive, remember? ...Speaking of which, north or south today? Anyone got a coin?”

They flip a coin and head what is not so much south as west, on this part of the coast. Chris watches the borders of the town curve away with the sea, feeling untethered. That’s a chapter of his life vanishing. The all-consuming circle of day and night and work and sleep and constant waiting that seemed so inescapable, escaped by ten minutes of driving.

He’s going to cry again, and soon. There’s still a wound in his heart, the horror of Lida being gone. He wants to hurt himself, badly. (He won’t do that anymore.) (He’ll try so, so hard not to do that anymore.)

But he feels something else-- something that he hadn’t realized he’d lost, something small and fragile and bright.


He had nothing but guilt and now he has this: Charlotte and John and dangerous enemies and hope.