Epilogue: The Biggest Cliché of All
I woke up to find myself surrounded by the concerned faces of my friends. We were on the pile of bedding that we had assembled way back on the Friday night before everything had gone weird. The remains of cold pizza and empty plastic bottles of drink were littered around the room. I took in the surroundings for little more than a moment before my friends were pulling my shirt away from my chest.
"Shit, is he still injured?"
"Is there blood, can you see anything?"
"Fuck, Blake. Getting stabbed. Really fucking smart."
"What were you thinking! Blake if you weren't such a good friend, I'd hit you. No, fuck that. I'm fucking pissed at you, I'm hitting you anyway."
I managed to dodge the punch that was swung at me and somehow scrambled to my feet. "Hey! Hey! What happened to respecting the injured?" I demanded. Then I realised I was in no pain whatsoever and looked down to see a completely unharmed mid-section staring back at me. I turned back to face my friends. "Uh … I think I just had the weirdest dream."
Carly rolled her eyes. "Sure, Blake. Never mind the fact that we all seem to have experienced it too."
I swallowed. "You did?"
Matt laughed, but Kate slapped him lightly on the arm as she turned to me in annoyance. "Blake! Why else would we have woken you up by pulling your shirt off?"
"You can't resist my body?" I joked.
Keiran was across the room in a flash and slapped me upside the head. "We were checking for the stab wound you nonce." He turned back to the group at large and made an expansive gesture at the room at large. "How the fuck did we get here? Last I remember we were all sprawled on that plastic bench in the hospital."
Carly winced and rubbed at her neck. "My body sure seems to think that's how I spent the night." She gave me a glare that had no real venom in it. "How come we all have to wake up stiff and shit and the stab-victim wakes up fresh as a daisy?"
I held up my hands. "Back track a minute there. Hospital? The last thing I remember is passing out in Norrington's study."
Kate gently took hold of my hands and led me to a seat on the couch. "Oh sweetie, that was only the beginning of the evening."
I listened in a kind of daze. About how they'd tried to stop William and I from bleeding while waiting for the ambulances to arrive. How Norrington had been arrested and a shocked Naomi arrived to find her fiancé being wheeled into an ambulance for emergency surgery. About how I had also been taken at top speed to the hospital despite the deep wound and severe blood loss. Mainly because of Callum's insistence. He had apparently sat beside me in the ambulance for the whole ride, clutching my hand and telling me frantically that he would never forgive me if I died. It might have had some effect on me, for despite flat-lining more than once, I somehow held on long enough to be taken into the operating room. Then Callum, Naomi and my friends had had nothing else to do but wait and answer the police's inevitable questions.
In doing so, a lot of the details had been filled out. Keiran's talk with Callum had caused the Norrington heir to feel that perhaps he should have allowed me a chance to speak before jumping down my throat. Seeking further confirmation, he'd given Keiran the slip and gone to see Ree.
Ree had at first been reluctant to say anything, feeling that it was none of her business and something that should really be kept between Callum and myself. Callum hadn't been dissuaded and eventually, Ree had confessed as much of the story as she knew. The two then continued to speculate on the predicted crime and had both felt that they would lend their help to our ongoing surveillance operations. Ree had gone back to her house to let her parents know she was going to be staying over at Callum's while Callum himself headed back to the house to add his support and also talk to me.
On arriving at the house, Callum realised that the heart to heart he'd been planning on having with me would have to wait as events seemed to have moved ahead of themselves. He could hear raised voices from the direction of the study, which he identified as belonging to his father and brother. With the knowledge that Ree had given him foremost on his mind, Callum had raced towards the source of the noise in the hope of stopping what could be the murder.
From that point onwards I knew pretty much what had happened except for one thing. "So, did I survive or what?" I asked at last. "I mean, I know I'm alive now and everything, but back in the hospital in Callum's reality … did it look like I was going to make it?"
There was a long silence which told me all I needed to know. I sighed heavily and reflected that maybe it was for the best. Death had provided me with a neat severance from Callum, he was obviously not going to look for somebody who know longer lived and therefore would never discover that I had never truly existed in his world in the first place. Callum's world. The world of the book.
The thought must have occurred to us all at more or less the same moment for we all began to scramble for Keiran's notepad at the same moment, before breaking off to try and find the book amongst the debris produced in one night by five teenagers. None of us could remember where we had left the wretched thing and so the search became quite involved. I was halfway between the back of the sofa and the wall, searching blindly with my fingers for anything that felt remotely book-like when a yell from Kate caught my attention.
Kate was standing by the television, a sheaf of papers in one hand and a book in the other. Wordlessly, she waited until we had all emerged from the various corners we had been rummaging in before raising the book for us to see.
The book Kate held was not the trashy crime novel we had checked out of the library the previous evening. Instead, she held a copy of Conan Doyle's 'Sherlock Holmes'. I took one look at it and groaned. "Oh crap no. I do not want to spend our weekend analysing the thought processes of some drug addicted, irritatingly superior pompous git and his fawning side-kick."
"Why that book?" Carly complained. "Why couldn't it have been replaced with a novel of an equally trashy standard? Why make us work?"
"Especially after solving a bloody murder," Keiran added. "You think we would deserve a break or something. What better way to say 'thank you' than by leaving us to explore the motivations of lesbian vampires?"
Kate rolled her eyes. "Before you all get really worked up about this," she began calmly. 'I think you need to take a look at this." She waved the numerous sheets of paper at us.
Matt frowned and stepped forward to take them from his girlfriend. "What are they?" He flicked through the first few sheets and then turned to the rest of us in obvious confusion. "It's done. It's our report. Finish and in our handwriting."
"You're kidding," Carly exclaimed, hurrying forwards to have a look for herself. She began to read it and squealed in delight. "Hey, this is really good! Never mind winding up Sikes, we are going to get such a fantastic mark for this!"
"Serious?" Keiran asked, moving up to have a look for himself. The four of them began to read, remarking over particularly intelligent sounding points with one another. Noticing my lack of participation, Carly looked over to me vaguely concerned frown.
Cutting off her question before it was asked, I smiled and waved my hand at the group. "You guys go ahead and read it. I think I'm going to get something to eat. Anybody else want breakfast?"
And so further discussion of novels, Norringtons and knives was put on hold for a large fry-up of bacon and eggs. After all, we're British. We don't talk about things that trouble us if we can possibly get away with a cup of tea and putting a brave face on things.
The rest of the weekend passed smoothly. We all went to bed on Saturday evening, or early Sunday morning and woke up to find ourselves in the exact same place. We chose to concentrate on cleaning the house up before my parent's arrived back home and therefore went the whole day without talking about our experience once.
My parents came home, I dropped my friends off at their various houses and by the time we all met up on Monday, it had been silently agreed to write the whole thing off as some weird mass dream. Keiran and Carly constantly joked that someone had been messing with the mushrooms on our pizzas and would periodically accuse one of us of being the culprit.
We got an A on the report we handed in. Sikes raved about it. Even thought we hadn't written a word of it, we all still somehow had the feeling that we had earned that grade in some sense or another. Then we were swept up in the chaos of picking universities and courses combined with revising for the impending A levels. There just didn't seem to be any time to stop and think of an explanation for what had happened.
It was a gorgeous summer, hot and dry in the way that foreigners believe we can never have in the UK. It made sitting the A levels a complete hell. Trapped in hot, airless rooms, trying to keep the pen gripped tight enough to write when all it wanted to do was slip from your sweaty fingers. More than once the thick heat made my eyes tired and I had to stop myself from drifting off in the middle of an exam. Pro-plus and I became very good friends.
I think I did pretty well in all though, my friends likewise. Either way, there seemed little point in continuing to worry after the exams. London was stifling and airless, so we decided to celebrate the end of Sixth Form and A levels by driving down to Brighton for the weekend. We booked some rooms in a reasonably cheap hotel, packed our stuff into my car and set off.
Carly insisted on us all winding down the windows to compensate for my ancient car's lack of air conditioning. Then she turned my music all the way up to be heard over the deafening roar of the wind that blew in a flung our hair around in all directions and the droning of other traffic. We all gave up on conversing with one another, it would have been impossible to hear each other over either the music or the background noise that came from the open windows and so we simply all sang along with my tapes at the tops of our voices. We got quite a few weird looks, which only served to encourage us.
The M23/A23 down to Brighton was surprising quiet, given the weather. We had obviously finished our exams ahead of the bulk of students. Even so, the large roundabout at the end of the A23 still produced a slow stream of traffic piling into Brighton past Preston and we slowed down to a crawl like all the other drivers.
Carly took the opportunity to turn the volume of the music down and now lacking the self-generated wind of earlier, decided to start up a conversation. "You really need to tidy away these tapes, Blake," she informed me as she picked through the selection strewn across my dashboard. "They'll melt in the heat and then you'll have nothing to play but that fabled cheesy pop tape."
"As I keep saying, you'd have to return it first," I shot back.
Carly then flashed a smile of pure malevolence at me and I realised too late that I'd been tricked. "Funny you should say that," she all but purred, rummaging around in the bag at her feet. "But I happen to have a little something right with me that I think belongs to you … ah! Here it is."
From the bag she produced a cassette with a flourish and waved it at me. I took advantage of another halt in the traffic to look at the tape. A neon pink label upon which had been inscribed 'Blakey's cheesy pop tape' in Carly's handwriting informed me of just what I had let myself in for. I dropped my head to rest on the steering wheel for a moment and groaned. "Well I guess I asked for that one," I sighed.
From behind there was a burst of laughter. "That's right Blake, take it like a man," Matt encouraged.
"Just remember to ask yourself where Carly got all the songs to put on that tape in the first place," Kate consoled me.
Carly blushed at that and quickly cranked up the volume of the tape she slid into the radio. Any further argument was drowned out by Boney M's 'Rasputin'.
The hotel was on the seafront in an area of Brighton that we were quite familiar with. Luckily the place also had a car park for guests so I didn't have to worry about fighting for a space which I would then have to pay an extortionate amount of money for. We unloaded our stuff from the back of the car and got checked in.
We had ended up booking three rooms. Kate and Matt of course took one, but as I stepped into the second I became aware that Keiran was not following me in. I turned in surprise to see both Keiran and Carly smiling sheepishly at me. I rolled my eyes. "And just how long have you two been together without bothering to tell me?"
"It's not like that," Carly protested quickly. "We just kind of got talking while we were waiting for you to arrive and pick us up…"
"It's sort of been developing for a while," Keiran continued. "Ever since …" And then he trailed off, unwilling to put into words the strange experience none of us wanted to admit sharing.
I forced myself to ignore the accompanying pang in my stomach thoughts of that nature provoked and instead marched out of the room again with a grin on my face. "In that case, go ahead and take the room."
Carly gave me a hug as she all but skipped inside and Keiran winked as he passed. I leaned in just before he shut the door. "And whatever you get up to, remember we're supposed to be meeting outside in an hour!"
My own room was at the end of the hallway and although small, had a fantastic view and even a tiny balcony. It actually consisted of little than an iron railing about two inches away from the wall in front of a full-length window, but it enabled me to lean right out and breath in the air deeply. Seagulls screamed above me, waves crashed, traffic droned, and the artificial sounds from the amusement arcade and funfair on the remaining pier all drifted around me and I closed my eyes, determined to enjoy it as I basked in the sun. Then I turned back into my room and began to unpack my stuff quickly in order to be able to squeeze in a shower before I met up with the others again.
As I half suspected, they were all late anyway. Not drastically so, and I was hardly upset by this. Brighton is a wonderful place to simply sit and people-watch and so I was more than capable of diverting myself until both couples remembered about their poor, single friend. I was idly trying to find the most outrageously dressed person when I caught a glimpse of a young man with hair so dark it could almost be black walking down to the shingle beach and felt my heart stop for a moment. Then my common sense kicked in and I looked away, willing my stomach to stop performing somersaults. If I had seemed a touch subdued when the others finally showed up, they were quick in cheering me up again by dragging me off down North Laine to have a look in all the tiny, off-beat shops.
Carly decided to get her hair braided and we left her to it. We made some joke about getting tattoos done while we waited for her in a competition to see who would be ready first, but contented ourselves with poking around in the New Age and Occult shop. They had an occasional tarot reader in and I enquired after it mainly for a laugh and something to do, but it turned out she had a gap in her normally very busy schedule. At the encouragement of my friends, I booked myself in.
It was a mixed reading, much of which I found to be general insights into my personality. She reassured me about my exams and said that I should get into a very good university as she foresaw a very successful career for me. I figured that was good considering my friends and their expensive tastes and was pretty relaxed when she started on the subject of my love-life.
The tarot reader turned over several cards and paused in her explanations, frowning at the pictures that were displayed. I too, had a look, but could make little sense of them. There was a world hanging in space along with a card featuring five cups and another one with a whole bunch of swords but her attention was drawn to another card with many cups. "You lost out on something of importance to you," she told. "Possibly something that you didn't really see the value of at the time. But because of your distraction, this relationship passed you by and has been depressing you. However I foresee a definite turn around in your current situation."
I smiled at her and thanked her for the reading, but didn't actually feel any better. After all, fictional characters were hardly likely to re-enter my life. I re-emerged in the shop just in time to help dissuade Kate from buying a very expensive crystal wand and we headed back to the hairdressers to meet up with Carly.
Carly, it turned out, had decided that simply having her hair weaved into a multitude of braids wasn't nearly interesting enough considering her location. Therefore, when she greeted us, she also sported hair that was bright pink in colour. While Kate gaped in shock, Keiran burst into a huge grin and declared it fantastic. The two really were made for each other after all, it seemed.
A lazy afternoon browsing through the various shops followed. We went out to eat in this fantastic Asian restaurant right by the Sea Life Centre that was decorated in an eye-watering display of colours and various exotic objects. Upon finding out that all of said objects were for sale, we all had to talk Kate out of buying one of the gigantic carved wooden dragons, explaining that there was absolutely no way it would ever fit in my car. Then we headed off to a nightclub that was hosting a punk and indie night.
The others all made full use of the special offer on bottles of alco-pops, but I stuck to soft drinks, not really savouring the idea of waking up with a hangover tomorrow. We had all consumed a fairly impressive selection of cocktails back in the restaurant and I saw no need to continue. Plus I needed to keep my senses sharp in warding off advances from both males and females.
The club finished just after two and we wandered out into the warm night air, enjoying the refreshing breeze that came in off the sea. By unspoken agreement, we walked down onto the shingle beach, relieved to find that the pebbles had been deprived of the painful heat of earlier. We part walked, part skidded down a couple of the ridges until we came to one just above the crash of the incoming tide. Then we sat down and lazily watched the sea, throwing pebbles in every now and then.
The others decided they wanted to wade and so pulled off their shoes to descend further into the sea. I let them leave their bags and stuff with me as I settled back amongst the stones. It was far from uncomfortable, the day's heat had warmed them a great deal and it felt quite soothing against my body.
Skittering pebbles beside me informed me of someone else's approach, but I continued to watch the ocean, unconcerned with whoever might be passing. The crunching footsteps stopped beside me as the person came to a halt. Yet nothing was said to me and I continued to sit in silence.
Finally I decided to speak. "If you want a light or a cigarette, I'm afraid I don't smoke. You should try another group of people." I looked up as I finished talking and my breath caught in my throat.
Dark hair and dark eyes watched me from a face I had seen before. The young man stood beside me in a tight black top and combats, hands casually in his pockets and an amused smirk across his features. "Hey," he said revealing a strong American accent and a familiar voice.
"Hey," I stuttered back, asking myself if my eyes and ears were somehow playing tricks on me.
The guy sat down beside me, his face turned once again to watch the sea and my friends shrieking as they played about in the waves below. "I thought you said they'd be skinny-dipping," he commented offhandedly, seeming to confirm his identity as Callum.
"The night is still young," I answered inanely. "And they have had a lot to drink."
Callum nodded and turned to face me, the ends of his hair spilling over one shoulder. "Does this mean that you're the stoned driver who was supposed to get them back home?" he enquired.
I shook my head. "We're staying in a hotel down here for the weekend. Celebrating the end of exams."
Callum smirked again. "Me too. It turns out I have a whole inheritance I never knew about and I figured I would spend it on a trip to the UK. I remembered somebody telling me all about Brighton and it seemed like a cool place to visit." He paused and added in a quieter tone; "You said you'd show me around. Does that offer still stand?"
I couldn't think. I could barely breathe. I don't how or why but somehow Callum was sitting beside me. Real, living and breathing and as far from fictional as could be. Deciding all explanations could go to hell, I grinned back at him and nudged his shoulder. "Sure," I told him.
Callum's face broke into one of his rare smiles as he reached out to take my hand.
My friends took the discovery of me and a not-so-fictional character very well. Admittedly, that might have had more to do with their drunken state than anything else, but they all greeted Callum warmly and we arranged to meet up tomorrow after breakfast. I was a nervous wreck throughout said meal and therefore the cause of much amusement from my friends.
"Just remember Blake, don't fuck it up this time," Carly informed me with a grin.
"And no getting stabbed in front of him either," Keiran added, before frowning. "I wonder how everything appeared to Callum? Did we all just seem to hightail it out of the hospital or something?"
"Does it really matter?" Kate asked. "Blake's been miserable ever since the whole thing happened. Now Callum is here without an accompanying swarm of cops. Why question it?"
"First Blake has actually got to manage getting through breakfast without a major catastrophe," Matt cautioned us. "He seems to be a bit nervous."
"Ain't love grand?" Carly sighed.
I rose above it all and concentrated on not spilling anything on my clothes. We finished breakfast and I wasn't surprised to find my friends had planned to do their own thing, leaving Callum and I alone. When I eventually met Callum in the pre-arranged bar, he didn't seem unduly concerned either.
"That's a pity," he remarked as he sipped at his iced coffee with feline grace. "Now there's no one to protect you from me."
I smiled slightly then leaned across the table and gently put my hand on his. "Look," I said. "I have to ask. What happened back there?"
Callum paused before lowering his glass back to the table and subjecting me to a long searching look. Then he sighed and stared into his coffee. "I was kind of hoping you could tell me that," he confessed. "Everything seemed to go crazy that night. The cops took that insane bastard away and we all hurried to the hospital to find out about William and you. William was very weak, but it looked like he would recover fine despite the blood loss. But every time I asked about you, I couldn't get a straight answer. At first, they would just look grave and tell me it was too early to say, but as the night went on they would just look confused. I guess I wrote it off to a shift change in the nursing staff, but then I couldn't find any record of you being admitted. Your friends were nowhere to be found either.
"So then I was given the third degree by the cops," Callum continued. "And that was when I found out that as far as they were concerned, none of you guys had existed. Naomi had been the one to call the cops and the ambulance after she found me trying to help William while Norrington lay in the corner, knocked out cold after William threw him off. He hit his head on the bookcases or something."
He broke off to take a drink of his coffee while his eyes strayed to my shirt. "Is there any … you know…" he asked hesitantly.
I laid my hand briefly over where the knife had been plunged and shook my head. "I remember it," I said. "The pain and the shock and the way everything went fuzzy. But there's not even a mark. No way to prove it wasn't all in my head."
"Or all in mine," Callum added with a smile. I smiled back and he picked up his story again. "I thought I had imagined all of you guys, some sort of weird shock reaction to seeing William get attacked with the knife. I mean, no one else seemed to remember you.
"So Norrington got arrested and charged with attempted murder. He didn't even try to deny it. William broke off the engagement with Naomi and moved off to the west coast to start up some interior decorating business or something. And then of all things, Naomi decided to go along with him. The pair of them are pretty good friends, playing out the role of some fucked-up, transatlantic Will and Grace the last I heard."
I laughed at that, unable to help myself at the images Callum's words evoked.
He smirked at my amusement. "So anyway, William and I split everything between the two of us. I've kind of been quite interested in business so I'm planning on studying that when I go to college. But even so, I found myself with a heap of free time and a load of cash to spend. So I decided to come here to Brighton, I wasn't really sure why. You can figure out the rest."
I grinned. "Looks like we're both in the dark about the finer points," I sighed.
Callum pulled a face and shrugged. "Like I care. You could go mad trying to figure it all out. We're both here now and as far as I'm concerned, that all that matters."
We finished off our coffees and walked up to Churchill Square and the shops there. Then Callum decided to see how much he could make me blush by dragging me into Ann Summer's. But I had lived with my friends for quite some time and was more than prepared to be confronted with the large range of sex toys and numerous bizarre, novelty items. Callum ended up being the one who blushed and promptly hustled me out and into the large Waterstones on the corner.
We looked through the books for a while, slowly working our way through each floor. Then Callum tapped me on the shoulder and held up a trashy crime title. "What do you think?" he asked. "Something really bad to read on the beach?"
I smiled and put my arms around Callum. "Only if you promise to read the end first," I told him.