Dave Wakely is one of the organisers of Milton Keynes Lit Fest and of the Lodestone Poets. Shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize 2017 and Bath Short Story Award 2019, his stories have appeared in Ambit, Glitterwolf, Prole, Shooter, Token, The Mechanics’ Institute Review and Best Gay Stories 2017 (Lethe Press), amongst other publications. He lives in Buckinghamshire with his husband and a growing collection of books, CDs and guitars, and tweets as @theverbalist.
In the dark, I have my arm around you. My right hand rests on yours, nestled under your chin. Glad you’re there, happy to be held. And then it starts again.
First your feet start to twitch. 'Chasing rabbits' I'd have called it, if you really were a terrier dreaming in your sleep, rather than just called one sometimes. Sinewy and slim, and so much stronger than you look.
They told me at the hospital this might happen, so I'm ready for it. Not that you were, of course, but at least I'm with you this time. Ready to look after you, soothe you.
You're not the terrier now, you're the rabbit. Being chased in your dreams.
I feel your fingers moving underneath mine as they ball into a fist. It won't be long now. Your breathing quickens. Fight or flight, although the option’s already chosen. You lurch as if you’ve been suddenly jostled. And then the voices start.
"Excuse me," you say, eyes still tightly shut. You sound indignant, surprised.
"Why? Wot you done?" comes the second voice. As deep as your larynx can manage, husky and rough. "You askin’ for somethin’?"
You twist in my arms, fidgeting faster.
I remember the doctor’s tips. Let it run. Don’t wake you. Stroke you so gently that I can feel the hairs but not the skin. Try not to touch any scar tissue.
The action replay is running in your head. I can never share it, never see the frames scroll past or pause it in time. I saw the CCTV footage when you were in court, but it was just as you said. Everything over in seconds.
And then your voice again.
"Just looking at toys for my nephew," you say, clear and polite, like you're talking to the shop assistant.
Funny how you’re always so good with my sister’s kids when you’re so awkward around children. Down to being fostered yourself, you’ve said. Scared for them, not of them.
"Why not 'ave a closer look then, eh?" grunts the second voice.
This far into the sequence, there'll be no stopping. I loosen my hold, ready for what comes next.
Your arms fling wide and you cry out in shock before you curl in on yourself like a startled hedgehog. Your heart thumps so loudly I can feel it. The mattress ripples as you thud into it shoulders first, unfurling like you’ve fainted.
You groan for a second or two before silence descends, your hands fallen at your sides.
You've gone back through the toyshop window and you're lying in a mess of broken glass, stuffed animals and teddy bears. I remember in the camera footage, there was a bear lying by your cheek. You looked like a sleeping child as the shop staff gathered round you like anxious parents.
It didn’t take them long to catch the guy that threw you. Just another pissed football fan, his red mist descending when he saw your blue and white scarf. You were just keeping warm on a spring afternoon, flying jacket collar turned up against the wind. Open and shut, the police said.
It was pretty much the same with the cell doors. The hearing lasted barely longer than the offence. And I remember you, sunny as ever, bouncing down the stairs on the way out of court.
"Well, that's all over then. Back to normal," you said, taking my hand and leading me off to lunch.
And I remember thinking well, not quite. Not with you in that beany hat, covering where they'd shaved off your hair to pick the glass out of your scalp, embroidered the back of your head with little stitches.
Three weeks later and it's still growing back. I can still feel the bumps and the little ridges as I run a hand across your scalp, soothe you back to gentle snoring.
I roll you back onto your side and wrap myself back round you. I tell myself it’s over again, and we can both sleep peacefully.
That’s the fifth time now. The consultant warned me it might happen. That something so random and so sudden is as much a mental shock as a physical one. The mind replays it, tries to make sense of it. To blend it into the bigger picture and sanitise it.
The jacket saved you the worst, he said, all that sheepskin taking most of the broken glass, most of the blow. But there was a teddy bear’s claw dug so deep into the back of your head, they had to use pliers to get it out. Dangerous things, toys.
He told me to call if I was worried about anything, said it might be a while before I noticed any effects. He asked me if you had a history of anything violent or disturbing happening, said concussion can be a funny thing. Sometimes one event can trigger something earlier.
I told him how tough you’d always been, resilient. Hate any kind of trouble. Always very polite. Ring your foster Mum every week to make sure she’s ok, but always proud to be on your own two feet. Determined, too. You’re never going to be the biggest dog on the block, but there’s no letting go once you’ve got the bone.
And now you’re lying there as if nothing has happened, cropped hair like baby feathers on a chick in a nest. In the dark, I can barely make you out but you look almost fragile, even though I know you’re not. There’s no sense teasing you.
‘Best place for trouble is behind you,’ that’s what you tell me whenever there’s a problem. ‘No looking back: history is history.’ Never looked up your real parents. Told me they were something military, airforce maybe. Had you taken into care – no idea why. Too young to remember.
That’s all you know, and all you tell me you need to. Never even found out why that one finger’s permanently bent. Some childhood accident or other. No lasting damage.
I gently kiss the back of your head, stroke your shoulder and roll over onto my back. Maybe a few more times, and we’ll be home and dry. Like we always are.
But it’s 3am and I’m wide awake while you softly twitch, restless about something.
Your hands fidget with something under the covers like a boy revving up a toy car. You’re making little noises, like baby talk or the way kids pretend to be a plane. Dreaming, I tell myself.
“No, I won’t. Mine.”
It’s your voice, but smaller. High-pitched and adamant.
You’re muttering something over and over, under your breath. I strain to hear it, but it makes no sense. Something about uniforms.
You sound defiant. Your hand movements speed up, become almost frantic. Another word I can’t catch and you pause.
Your feet shuffle for a few seconds and then stop. I turn my head and glance across in the dim light.
Your face looks determined. Clenched and aggressive. Just a nightmare, I tell myself. Nothing worse than my own.
Your head starts to rock back and forth into the pillow, invisible fingers prodding at you. First one shoulder, then the other.
You’re grizzling now, like a miserable toddler. And then more words.
“Don’t make fun of me.”
An odd, quiet treble like a resentful child. Still you lurch from side to side, face set in a grimace.
I stroke your arm, but there’s no reaction. I’m scared to touch you more firmly.
“I said no.” Still quiet, but firmer.
And then out of the blue, you punch straight upwards, hands curled in fists and thrown forward, vertical.
The covers land in a heap at our feet. I watch a bead of sweat run down through the hairs on your forearm and drip onto your chest.
You sigh like someone relieved at something finally overcome. Slowly your arms fall back by your sides.
You’re grinning. Looking satisfied. That look you have when you finish something you’ve been putting off.
Just a nightmare, I remind myself as I lay in the unexpected chill, goosebumps raising on my arms. All’s well that ends well.
Slowly you lift one hand to your lips and I watch in silence as you suck your buckled finger.
It’s your voice. Higher and younger, but definitely yours. Your grin comes again.
“Daddy’s fallen down the stairs.”