Curled up on the sofa after dinner, listening to Nat’s heart beating, was the most comfortable thing in the world. I reached for her hand and squeezed it. She smiled, eyes closed, in response.
I decided to throw caution to the wind.
“Nat,” I said gently, “do you really believe I’m from the 21st century or do you just think I’m mad?”
She exhaled deeply, let my hand go. I looked up nervously.
“I know you’re mad,” she said lazily. “Anyone could see that. You’re bonkers, love.”
“Nat, be serious.” I said petulantly.
“I don’t know. Anyone would think you were mad, the way you carry on about my-pods, and what was it? The intranet? Stuff like that.”
“Are you saying you believe me?” I asked hopefully. Nat shook her head firmly no.
“No, I’m not saying that at all,” she said. “I fully believe that all this stuff is still some kind of after-effect of the accident, so don’t ever get the idea that it isn’t.”
My stomach lurched.
“What I am saying,” Nat continued, “is that I love you, and I’m going to help you work through this.”
She sat me up, took my head in her hands, and forced me to look directly at her.
“What year is it?” she asked.
This was the easy part. “1963,” I said confidently.
“Very good,” Nat replied. “How old are you?”
“Right again. So, with that in mind, what year were you born?”
1996 jumped into my head before I could stop it. But that wasn’t right. I’d have to do the maths. If this was 1963, and I was 18 years old, then I’d have to take 18 years away from that date... I thought carefully, but the intensity of Nat’s gaze was putting me off. There was a long silence. Maths was never my strong point.
“Come on, you know this,” pleaded Nat.
“19…45?” I offered tentatively. It sounded like a far-off dark age that nobody still living could be born in.
“Yes!” Nat said enthusiastically. “Don’t sound so unsure, you do know it!”
I laughed awkwardly. 1945. I had absolutely no idea what a child growing up in the ‘50s might experience, and I didn’t even think I could blag it from what Nat had told me about her own teenage years.
“This is where you belong, OK? Remember that, Charlie,” she said kindly. My parents flashed into my mind, and my heart broke just a little bit.
The nightmares had returned with a vengeance. Hellish visions of gnarled fingers grabbing at me from behind; being lost and alone in my old school, with nobody there recognising me or even acknowledging my existence at all; my teeth falling out, one by one, and me either losing them or swallowing them. I could literally feel the warm, gummy hole where my tooth had once been, and could taste the blood, feel the fragments of bone as the tooth split.
Nat walking out on me, never to be seen again.
Then the worst nightmare came back, and I was in the back seat of the car in the dark, my parents in the front playing their golden oldies station on the radio and singing along. I was bored, and tired, and cold because the air con was broken, blasting cold air at me from all sides, and I just wished I could get home already. Did my parents really have to be so loud and obnoxious?
But it wasn’t a nightmare. I suddenly realised that it was a memory, and I knew how it ended.
Another car, driving the wrong way down the road. Probably drunk. My dad suddenly swerving as it careered towards us. Too late. A scream, possibly from me. The loudest crash you’ve ever heard, me screaming as I was catapulted forward and then snapped back by my seatbelt.
Drifting in and out of consciousness again. Broken glass. Sirens. Mumbling my name as someone lifted me out of the wreckage.
My parents dead in the front two seats.
I woke, in Nat’s house, crying and crying.
Everything was clear as crystal to me now. I hadn’t made that story up. My parents had died that night. I was lucky to make it out of that car myself.
How had I forgotten that? How had I forgotten running from my parents’ funeral as soon as the coffins were brought out, because I couldn’t bear to admit to myself that they were locked in those boxes? How had I forgotten the fact that I was going to be kicked out of my house, because I couldn’t afford to keep it and I didn’t have another living relative this side of the Atlantic that could help me? How had I forgotten my decision, in a state of dizziness and blurred vision, to step out in front of that car and end it once and for all?
Had I died? Had I somehow jumped through a goddamn wormhole? Was I lying comatose in a hospital somewhere, with this – 1963, the house, Natalie – all a figment of my goddamned imagination?
What am I going to do?