Other than dying, there aren’t too many things I recall about my sixth birthday. I know I had a new bike because I was riding it when I was killed. It was green with black trim and it had one of those little single chime bells you could twang with your finger to warn off pedestrians who had stumbled into your path. I can’t remember if I chimed it at the car that was heading to the crossing too fast or if it got hit by some part of the car at the same time I was struck but I know it was the last sound I heard. Still, it was a proper big boy’s bike that I could grow into; except, of course, I didn’t.
Sorry, I should probably clear a few things up. You see, I’m not dead. I’ve had plenty of other birthdays and plenty of other presents. Never a bike though. I just couldn’t face it. Besides, dad was always a runner.
When I lived in London I heard that you were never more than three feet away from a rat. It’s a bit like that with cyclists around here Danny.
The words are clear in my mind but I’m still confused. You see, I can’t remember if he used to say it to me before or after.
I guess this isn’t making a whole lot of sense to you but don’t worry, we’ll get there. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me at first. It still confounds me on occasion and I trip easily when I try to explain. I’m trying my best.
When I eventually woke up – twenty-three days and eleven hours later – I thought I’d just had a weird dream. Time passes differently when you’re unconscious I suppose. Three weeks compressed to a matter of moments. The peal of the bicycle bell and my dad screaming, bookended by the steady metallic bleeps of hospital machines and my mum shrieking as I opened my eyes. They didn’t stay open for long that first time, but with each passing day my body forced its way up from slumber until piece by piece I rejoined the world.
The rocks are warm against my back. Bumpy enough to keep me from falling asleep but not so uncomfortable that I need to move. From somewhere below I can hear the sea crashing into the shore. Above, the sky is crystalline. The sun feels nice against my skin and I stretch like a waking cat, or at least attempt to stretch but my body doesn’t respond. I drop my eyes from the sky and start gasping. Blood. So much blood. My legs are splayed in savage broken angles; my torso corkscrewed and displaced. I can feel a mixture of bile and panic bubbling in my throat and I open my mouth to scream.
“Shhh. Don’t be scared. You’re just remembering.”
I turn to face my father who is smiling at me and stroking my cheek like he does when I’m falling asleep. “Remembering what dad?”
His smile never wavers. “Nothing important. Rest a while. And stretch. Stretching is good.”
I look back down at my body and my legs are straight and true. I close my eyes. Stretch. Sleep.
When my eyes open again the sky hasn’t changed. The same canopy of sparkling blue that matches my sister’s eyes. I hear a wave breaking and get the odd sensation that it’s the same wave that was breaking when I fell asleep. A frozen moment in time with me at its epicentre.
“How are you feeling? Better?”
I turn and my father is propped up on elbow smiling his same familiar smile. I nod and smile back. “Fine. Where are we dad?”
“I’m not really sure what it’s called. It’s between some place and another is the best way I can explain it.” He keeps smiling at me but there is a weight in his gaze. “We won’t have to stay long. It’ll be dark soon and your mum will be worried.”
“How did we get here dad?”
He sighs and pretends to be cross at all the questions. “You never stop talking do you? Blah buhBLAH buhBLAH!” I start to giggle and he can’t stop himself from joining in. We just lie back for a while and laugh in the sunshine. He holds my hand and I feel safe.
“Yes my boy.”
“I can’t remember where I left my bike.”
The muscles in his face tighten and he looks away. When he turns back the smile is in place once more. “Don’t worry about that for now. How about we go for a swim?”
I roll my eyes at him. “But we haven’t got our costumes dad.”
I sit up and look down at my body. Bright red board shorts. I start to laugh again. “But we haven’t got any towels dad!”
He laughs with me and pulls me to my feet. “Don’t be a wuss. The sun will dry us off. Come on!”
We run to the sea hand in hand, gasping and screaming as the cold water numbs our legs. Dad picks me up and we jump over some waves. He grins at me as he puts me down. “Time to get your head wet. Are you ready?” I nod and stamp my feet to splash water over his chest. I can’t stop giggling.
“Three!” we yell together and dive under a wave before bursting back into the sunshine with matching ice-cream headaches.
“Can we do another one dad? Please?”
He looks up at the sky and ruffles my hair. “Sure. We can do a last one. Ready?”
I chase him back to the wide flat rock on the shore and we lie down laughing and shivering. He wraps his arms around me until the shivering stops.
“It’s time for you to go my boy. Everyone will be wondering where you’ve got to.”
I squeeze him as hard as my skinny arms allow. “OK dad. Let’s go.”
There’s a sound faint within his chest that I can’t place. He returns my squeeze and then pulls back. “Not us, Danny. Not today. There’s something I need to do here.”
“But I don’t know how to get home dad.” I start to cry and he holds me again.
“Shh. There’s nothing to be scared of. You just need to wake up.”
I wriggle out of his hug and stare at him. His face is wet from the sea. The sun has dipped low behind him and I have to squint a little to lessen the glow. “But how can I wake up if I’m already awake?”
Tears spill on to his cheeks but he’s laughing. “By closing your eyes of course! How else would you do it?”
My fear dissolves and I start giggling again. “You’re just joking dad. That’s so silly!”
“Says who? Try it and you’ll see.” I close my eyes and he grabs my hand. “Not yet. There’s something I need to give you first. It might hurt a little but it’ll be OK I promise. Are you ready?”
I nod. “OK dad.”
“You’ll always be my superstar Danny.” He puts his hand on cheek and then lowers his head. A single teardrop falls into his open hands and he clamps them closed. His hands twitch under the pressure for a moment and then he relaxes. Smiles.
“What is it dad?”
“It’s a seed my boy. Take a look.” He holds his hand out to me and in his palm is a silvery object the size of a jelly bean. I lean in closer and I can see faint shapes swirling within it like clouds in a breeze. He puts it between his thumb and first finger and holds it up between our eyes.
“Do we have to plant it dad?”
“Yes. You have to look after it and make it grow. Can you do that for me?”
“Of course I can dad, what do I…”
Without warning he pushes his fingers into my chest and the air goes out of my lungs. Images whirl and jitter between us so fast I want to be sick. People familiar and strange, rooms I know and some I don’t, places I’ve been and some that I may one day visit. There’s a car coming so fast. I can’t move. And somehow against the impossible distance my father shields me before it strikes. There is darkness and fear but love, oh God there’s so much love I feel like I’ll explode. I try to speak but I can’t form the words. In my head I can hear my father speaking to me from a distance. “Remember Danny. Remember everything. The good is who you are already and the bad is there to keep you that way. To be better than I was.” His face fades and I try to call out to him but I’m overwhelmed.
All at once the images fade and I’m left standing on the shore. My chest aches but there’s no mark on my body. My father is walking towards the sea.
“Dad!” I try to walk after him but my legs are rooted and I’m so tired. “Please dad. Don’t go.”
He turns and smiles at me. “Be brave Danny. Keep being you.”
“But it hurts so much.”
“I know. But it won’t forever. Close your eyes and wake up.”
My eyes burn as he turns and walks away. I watch him for as long as I can but it’s too hard. I see him plunge beneath a wave through a blurred veil of lashes.
I close my eyes.