Jets of steam shoot into the air, and the open wounds in the landscape belch thick black mud. Around me the island hisses and fizzes, a volatile volcanic wasteland. The old man flicks his wrist and a wall of flames appears high above the acid-filled lake. And all of a sudden my fear is eclipsed by the overwhelming sensation that not just the last eight weeks, but also the nineteen years leading up to those eight weeks, might finally begin to make sense.
If I’m honest, I’m not sure how long I stood beneath the departure board at Heathrow, silently debating my next move. All around me the airport seemed to move like it was on acid. A frenzied blur of excitement. Families, businessmen, tour groups and air crew, ebbing and flowing in waves. And there I stood at the epicentre. The fragile redhead teenager struggling beneath the weight of her own backpack.
For all they knew, with the endless list of destinations above my head, and all my worldly possessions on my shoulders, the world was my oyster – a life barely begun. Little did they realise I was here because my world had already ended. Imploded on itself until nothing I knew or loved remained.
My name is Felicity Firestone, and I am an orphan.
The introduction rattled around my brain, the way it had for the past three months. As if that was a socially-acceptable thing to say out loud! And yet somehow saying it …. even to myself … made it feel just that little bit more real.
It’s odd when I think about it. I lived perfectly happily without my Dad for all those years. And yet losing Amelia was quite literally like losing my own identity. She had been my everything. My entire family. And in a few short months she had just dissolved. Becoming a weaker and weaker version of my mother every day.
She was the reason I was there. The ticket clutched apprehensively in my hand was one she had bought. The itinerary for my trip compiled in secret from her hospital bed. She had planned it all. But this next bit was down to me. No one else could board the flight in my place.
A flight to Australia is every gap year student’s dream. And yet I didn’t want to go to Australia. I wanted to go home. Not that home existed any more. The house I grew up in was still there of course, but it no longer belonged to me. And even if I’d decided not to sell it, all it would have been was an empty shell. One more thing in Bath to remind me of everything I’d lost.
I remember looking around the airport hopefully. And then chiding myself the moment my eyes left the departure board. Ally wasn’t going to come. No matter how much I wanted him to. He’d had three months to return to my side, and he hadn’t. Today was no different to all those other days. I was on my own now, and I needed to get used to it.
An unruly tear escaped my eye and I brushed it aside angrily, gritting my teeth and taking a determined step in the direction of the check-in desk.
This wasn’t how it was all meant to begin. My Gap Year. My adventure. This was my fresh start – my opportunity to make a new life for myself, away from all the things I had so suddenly lost.
I was still lost in my memories as I swung the heavy backpack from my shoulders. Not yet used to its weight, I rocked forwards and slammed the bag into the back of the man in front of me.
‘I am so sorry ….’ I mumbled, my voice disappearing into my throat. The man just shrugged, though as he turned towards me, he caught my eye, his gaze lingering ever so slightly. Embarrassed heat flushed through me and I stared down at my hands, not used to the attention.
Carefully I inched my gaze back up at the man. He was classically good-looking, his jaw chiselled and hair jet-black. His skin was the colour of milky coffee, almost white but with a perplexing darkness to it. He towered over me, his thin t-shirt and jeans leaving little to the imagination. Every inch of his body was solid muscle. But what surprised me most was the fact that I had noticed it!
For three long years I had only had eyes for Ally. I’d never had to look elsewhere with him at my side. But he wasn’t beside me anymore, so maybe it was time to remove the blinkers. Times had changed. And I needed to change along with them.
For a brief moment I toyed with the idea of trying to start a conversation – Carpe Diem and all that jazz! I was meant to be a new me, after all …. But then the queue moved forwards, and the guy turned back around.
One step at a time.
Just being here was a big deal, I reminded myself.
I’d come a long way in three months.
I’d arranged the funeral, sorted probate, sold the house …
One step at a time.
Being a teenage girl again could wait. For now I just need to focus on becoming a normal functioning human again.
* * *
The airport was a nightmare. At every turn it was like I was being tested. As if getting to the check-in desk hadn’t been my goal, but simply the first hurdle. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the airport security barriers, I’d have tried to leave at least twice before boarding the plane. I’d queued like cattle for the security scanners, and then the departure gate had changed three times, each one located at a different end of the airport.
By the time I arrived in the right place, I was out of breath, sweating from every pore, and near ready to collapse.
I frowned awkwardly at the enthusiastic air-hostess as she directed me towards my seat. It was eleven hours to Bangkok, and then another nine to Sydney. I was exhausted just from running the gauntlet of the airport. I wanted to find my seat, claim my blanket and sleep mask, and shut out the rest of the world for the entire flight.
Finding my seat, I unwrapped Ally’s water-polo hoodie despondently from my waist. It was the only item of his clothing I hadn’t yet been able to part with. To be honest I’d probably worn it more times than he ever had. Though it only every used to be something that I would sleep in, as opposed to wearing in public. But then since Amelia’s death all considerations of public and private had gone out the window. I was the orphan girl. My grief had become public property. And with it, I had forgotten all previous distinctions.
I shoved the hoodie into the overhead locker. I was exhausted and angry. Angry with myself for losing so much of me along with Mum. Angry at Ally for deserting me when I clearly needed him most. Angry at Amelia for dying … and then immediately angry at myself for even thinking of blaming her.
I slammed the locker shut with unnecessary force, and sank down into my seat.
‘Wow! What did it ever do to you?’ came a deep voice beside me.
I turned, confused. ‘I’m sorry … what?’ I stopped short as I realised who was talking to me. Sitting in the seat beside me was the same guy I had knocked with my rucksack in the check-in queue. The plane seat sagged beneath me, and my entire body prickled with an uncomfortable heat.
‘The locker!’ he gestured casually towards it, not seeming to notice my awkwardness. ‘Hey …’ he smiled, a flicker of recognition in his eye. You were behind me at the check-in counter.’ He grinned, an easy grin, which revealed teeth so perfect they could only have been achieved with the help of serious metalwork. ‘Bad day?’ he asked simply, raising an eyebrow.
I grinned to myself. Ironically today was probably the best day I’d had in weeks. I looked sideways at him, carefully noting the absence of any girlfriend. Instead, beside him a grumpy-looking man was fiddling with his seatbelt. I focussed my attention back to the hot guy and gritted my teeth nervously.
Coarse Afro-Caribbean curls framed cool grey-blue eyes that had a definite sparkle. His muscular jaw was speckled with dark stubble, cropped to a designer length. His clothes were casual, yet perfectly selected.
I tried to still my excitement, reminding myself that whilst the man might be the picture of relaxed confidence, my current appearance verged on midlife-crisis chic. He was just being polite, nothing more.
I nodded politely and leaned forwards, leafing through the contents of the seat-back pocket. I pretended to busy myself with the in-flight movie schedule, instead trying to still my disproportionate excitement.
Flic, he is just being polite.
‘I’m Daniel,’ the man continued, ignoring my attempts at silence, and extending a firm hand over my magazine. A proper introduction. His voice was a neat mix of South African and English boarding school.
I flinched, startled. ‘Felicity … Flic.’ I stumbled, awkwardly grasping his fingers.
My unease seemed to amuse him.
‘So, ‘Felicity-Flic’, what takes you to Australia?’
I lowered my eyes, worried they might betray my excitement. He wasn’t simply being polite. He was initiating conversation. Slowing my breathing, I tried to focus on what he was asking. I opted for the simplest answer. ‘I’m on my Gap Year. I’m booked onto a two-month adventure tour, starting in Cairns.’
‘An adventure tour?’ his eyes sparkled with interest. At least I hoped it was interest and he wasn’t just humouring me. Something about him put me ever so slightly on guard. Like I was the butt of some unknown joke … or was that just a facet of my own insecurities? Did everyone act like this on long-haul flights?
‘An adventure tour?’ he repeated when I didn’t immediately respond, showing a genuine interest in my words. ‘Sounds like you’re something of an adrenaline junkie!’ I decided to trust his apparent sincerity.
‘Hmm, maybe …’ I replied non-commitally. ‘Though I’m into endurance sports too.’ I added as an after-thought, surprising myself. I was flirting! I never flirted! I’d been so young when Ally and I had first got together, I don’t think I’d ever even had to flirt before. We’d been school friends, and the friendship had just taken what had felt like its natural course.
I waited nervously for Daniel to reply, wondering if my answer had been too cheesy.
His eyes flashed appreciatively down to my t-shirt. ‘Yeah, I can see that … the London Marathon … wow!’
I shrugged off the praise. ‘It’s not really that hard.’ I ignored the part about me running the marathon because my ex-boyfriend had wanted to. ‘I think the only reason I finished was because I’m so stubborn! Trust me, it had nothing to do with sporting ability!’
‘Impressive, nonetheless,’ Daniel countered smoothly.
I didn’t know how to take him. He was just so self-assured.
Ally had always been confident. But Daniel practically smouldered charm. It was definitely disconcerting, though perhaps being out of my comfort zone was just what I needed?
‘So Daniel,’ I grinned, feigning confidence and stumbling at what could potentially be flirtation, ‘What’s your sport of choice …? Or am I allowed to try to guess?’ I added cheekily, realising the question allowed me to glance quickly over his body.
It was impossible not to compare his body to Ally’s – the only male frame I’d ever known intimately. Both men were muscular, but Ally had been a rower and a swimmer, his musculature streamlined and lean. Daniel’s frame was bulkier. Whilst he was just as tall as Ally, he seemed shorter because his body was so broad. Every inch of him rippled with muscle. He was huge, and yet there wasn’t an element of fat on him.
‘Go on …’ he nodded, encouragingly. A playful smile decorating his picture-perfect features.
‘Rugby?’ I shrugged, going for the obvious option.
Daniel shook his head. ‘I don’t really do team sports.’ He grinned, unashamedly.
I lowered my gaze. Thick muscles strained at the denim of Daniel’s jeans.
‘Hmm … horse-riding?’ I tried again, regretting the words as soon as they escaped my lips. Horse-riding?! He was a twenty-year old man, not an eight-year old girl. I groaned inwardly at myself. Maybe it was a good thing I had never needed to flirt – I was appalling!
Daniel simply raised a confident eyebrow.
‘Um, sorry, I meant polo!’ I corrected quickly, wincing slightly as I waited for his response.
He smiled. ‘I guess you could draw some similarities … I ride bikes.’
I stared sideways at him, narrowing my eyes. ‘There’s no way you’re a cyclist! Sorry, but you’re way too stacked!’ I blurted, a hot blush colouring my cheeks as I realised what I’d just said.
‘Why thank you!’ he laughed, running a steel tongue-bar I hadn’t yet noticed between his lips. ‘No, you’re right, I ride motorbikes, not mountain bikes. I guess I’ve always been into my gadgets … and bikes are the most fun gadget of them all!’
I stared awkwardly down at the in-flight magazine, not really knowing how to respond. I was still embarrassed about the horse-riding comment and the conversation had backed me into a corner with a subject of which I knew absolutely nothing about. My vague bloom of confidence was disappearing almost as quickly as it had appeared. One step at a time.
Daniel filled the silence. ‘So, Felicity-Flic, how about you tell me about this adventure tour?’
I relaxed a little, glad for the change of subject. ‘Well to be honest, I don’t know a great deal about it! My Mum booked it, and she wanted it to be a surprise. All I really know is that I start in Cairns, and I’m not heading home until at least February.’
When Daniel didn’t interrupt, I carried on, aware of how nice it was to talk about Amelia with someone who didn’t cry at the mention of her name. At the funeral I’d felt like the responsible adult, consoling each of Mum’s friends in turn.
‘Mum really loved the outdoors. She grew up in Australia, so I guess it was in her blood! Had me camping before I could walk!’ I smiled, distracted for a second.
‘Have you been to Australia before?’ Daniel asked, intrigued.
I shook my head. ‘We could never really afford it … it’s such a long way. I guess she wanted me to be old enough to appreciate it.’
Daniel smiled empathically. ‘It’s a shame she’s not travelling with you?
I nodded slowly in agreement. ‘Yeah … I always thought she’d be with me the first time I headed out there.’ I frowned, and changed the subject back to his original question. ‘Anyway, I guess the tour will be pretty basic. No ‘flash-packing’ for me, that’s for sure!’
‘Flash-packing?’ he chuckled. ‘I haven’t heard that before!’
‘Your mum sounds pretty special!’ he added kindly.
I nodded slowly. ‘Yeah she is … was, I mean…’ I stumbled, still not used to the past tense. It was pointless tip-toeing around reality. I took a deep breath. The more often I said this out loud, the easier it would be to come to terms with. ‘Um, actually she died a couple of months ago. I only found out about the trip in her will.’
Something flickered in Daniel’s eyes, an emotion I found hard to read. Maybe it was just awkwardness, a reaction I’d created an awful lot recently. ‘I’m really sorry,’ he said quietly. I frowned to myself. Why did everyone do that? Apologise? It wasn’t his fault. No one was to blame. That was the problem.
‘Sorry,’ Daniel said again, and I turned my attention back to him. ‘It was a stupid thing to say. I’m sure you’re already fed up with people apologising for no reason.’ It was his turn to stumble over his words. I stared at him in disbelief, and shook my head, wondering if I had heard him right. ‘How did you ….’
He smiled sombrely, the strain of the expression showing at the sides of his eyes. ‘I lost my mother too … but she died a very long time ago. I never really knew her … and I’ve spent a lifetime having people apologise the moment they hear that she’s gone. It’s not their fault – they didn’t even know her! It’s not their fault …’ His voice faltered and I frowned again, not certain I understood the full meaning of what he was saying. I waited to see if he would continue.
Finally he spoke, his tone changed. ‘So, how’s your Dad holding up?’
I shrugged, ‘I never knew him. It’s always just been me and Mum. I guess she was more like a friend than a mum in a lot of ways. She had me so young, and treated me like a little sister most of the time …’ I drifted off into my own memories before realising I was still in a conversation. ‘How about you, are you close with your Dad?’ I asked politely, assuming that was the response he was expecting.
The question didn’t produce the reaction I had hoped. In fact, he just seemed even less at ease. Finally, more quietly than before, he replied, ‘You’d think I ought to be, wouldn’t you? But I guess I reminded him too much of her, Mum …’ Daniel paused, then went to say something and stopped. He looked down at the iPod in his hand, idly spinning his index finger around the dial.
He had said nothing, and yet I understood that he had said far too much. A few simple sentences had shattered his picture-perfect armour, revealing a lost soul that I understood far too well. Acting before I had a chance to think, I reached across the armrest and grasped the stranger’s hand.
Daniel’s hand was so cold it was as if my body heat drained straight into it. I snatched my hand back, motivated by the shock, and by the embarrassment of my actions. He hadn’t even said anything poignant. I had simply read between the lines of his words… clearly reading too much into a few throwaway comments. So his mother had died too, and he didn’t get on with his Dad. There was no cause to think anything more of the situation than what he had said. I focussed upon the attractive man in front of me, and reminded myself just how out of my league he was.
But Daniel looked back at me with an expression that was anything but awkward. An expression, which seemed to suggest he had different ideas about the league systems. He reached gently back across the divide of the airplane seats, and pulled my hand back down on top of his, placing his other hand over it. He stared down into my eyes.
‘Thank you,’ he almost whispered. His grey eyes moved like mercury – a rainbow of colours, and yet up close they were all shades of silver. ‘You know, I think you may have just become my favourite next-door neighbour!’ he winked, his cool exterior returning as he nodded over at the pensioner sat on his other side, who had just begun to snore.
* * *
I have never known a flight to go by so quickly. Daniel and I talked about everything and nothing. He told me about his childhood in South Africa, his father’s mining company, and boarding school in England. He explained how he was meant to be going into his third year studying engineering at Oxford University, but that his father had insisted he take a year’s sabbatical to travel and work in Australia. In turn I told him about Amelia, the little I knew of my Australian background, and my childhood in Bath.
I knew I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t help comparing him to Ally. Everything thing he mentioned drew a comparison for better or for worse. The two men were equally intelligent. Ally was about to finish his first term at Cambridge. But that was where the similarities ended. Ally was arty, his way was with words. He was studying Law. He had this innate ability to make any viewpoint sound convincing, often painting a scene so lyrically from his own perspective that by the end of the debate I couldn’t even remember my own point of view! By contrast, Daniel seemed mechanical. He was logical, his intelligence not in his eloquence, but in his thought processes. Daniel’s language was simple and unemotional. Functional … about everything other than his parents. Every time conversation steered towards them, he would neatly deflect it elsewhere.
To be honest, it was refreshing. I had always found it difficult to rival Ally’s ideas. Whilst I always liked to think I could be persuasive when I wanted to be, I also had a tendency to be emotional, and with it irrational. My passion is a quality that I have always treasured. Some of my most successful ideas have come from the less rational side of my brain. In fact, originally I’d wanted to study English at university – the perfect combination of logic and passion. But ironically Ally had managed to persuade me otherwise, insisting I study Law alongside him. Same University, same College, same course. As if Mum’s secret itinerary hadn’t been a big enough incentive to take an impromptu Gap Year to the other side of the world!
Daniel was so different … so accepting. It didn’t faze hi at all when my opinions differed from his, in fact he seemed actively interested in the differences, as opposed to being determined to make me see things from his point of view.
When the plane touched down in Bangkok, I expected that to be the end of the pleasantries. We had a four-hour layover in the airport, and it was the perfect opportunity to go our separate ways. And yet Daniel stayed glued to my side. He found a bench for us both, and knowing I hadn’t slept all night, casually offered me his knees as a pillow.
I don’t know if it was the sleep deprivation, or the surprising intimacy of our lengthy conversation, or just his incredible hotness, but I found myself forgetting my normal insecurities for a second, and accepting his offer.
It was only as my head connected with the denim of his jeans that I realised what I was doing. Who was I? This wasn’t something I did! Daniel was practically a complete stranger! He was just being polite! Oh God, what was I doing?! The first bit of social interaction I’d had in weeks and I’d misjudged the boundaries and gone too far. I knew I ought to pull away, but it was too late. I’d committed now, and moving away so suddenly would only make the situation even more awkward! Daniel draped an arm comfortably around my shoulders, clearly not sharing my discomfort. His attention focussed on the Blackberry in his other hand, he seemed to barely notice the contact. But I took comfort from it. And comfort frim how casual he was about it all. As if he wasn’t expecting anything from me.
The unexpected contact was nice. It was what I needed. It had been so long since I had had any form of human contact. I couldn’t remember the last time I had had a hug. A real hug. Not just the empty, lost embraces of the mourners at Amelia’s funeral. No, this was what I needed.
Even if I’d only known him a day, I trusted him. And that was all that mattered for now. Reassured, I allowed all my weight to settle on Daniel’s knee, and succumbed to sleep.
The cold metal vice tightened around my waist. Pincers, sinking deeper and deeper into my skin. And yet I was numb to the pain. I felt nothing. I could only watch on, as the sharp metal fingers sank deeper and deeper.
I felt nothing. There was no emotion. I had been so impassive to the pain of the metal around and inside me. And then the fire began. I felt it ignite deep within me, in the space where nothing had been before.
It engulfed me in a matter of minutes. Pumping through my veins like acid. The flames grew fiercer and fiercer, burning through my flesh from inside to out.
And that was when I finally felt the steel. The pincers conducted the heat, needles of pain digging into me at every angle.
But the pain was only momentary. As soon as the metal conducted the heat, it began to melt, its hold easing almost as soon as I recognised it. But the temperature only sought to increase, even once the metal had melted. Soon the metal was gone, but the fireball within me continued to grow.
Raging hotter and hotter, until it exploded. And then … there was nothing left.
I woke with a start, uncomfortable and disoriented. My throat was dry and scratchy; my skin burning like I had a fever. Realising where I was, and what I must look like, I bolted to my feet, my hands rushing to my tangled hair and roasting cheeks. Not for the first time that day, I cursed myself for not even thinking to pack a make-up bag for my trip. As if I didn’t look bad enough already in my baggy sweats and greying free marathon t-shirt.
Daniel leapt up immediately to join me. Without a word, he reached forward, and calmly tucked a frond of hair from my face.
‘Hey, why the panic?’ he asked calmly, placing his palms on my shoulders, and squeezing them reassuringly. ‘The flight’s not for ages, don’t worry, there’s no need to hurry …’
Moved by his concern, I tried to catch hold of my dream for a second, the strangely intense sensation of heat and light, which had stormed through me as I slept. But all memory of my troubled dreams evaporated as I looked properly up at Daniel.
The expression on his face … made me forget everything! And in that second of ambiguity, Daniel slipped his cool hands carefully around my waist. His eyes searched mine for a reaction, and without thinking I gave it.
I raised my hands up to his face, in an action that seemed to perfectly mirror his gentle hold on me. And yet as my palm connected with his face, what I felt beneath my skin just felt so foreign. Ally never let himself grow stubble. Not that he really had to shave all that often. Daniel’s face was coarse to the touch.
It was weird – I’d been chatting to Daniel all day and all night. I had slept on his knee, and stared into his eyes, and it had all seemed perfectly fine. His rock solid body, and jet black hair had been an exciting alternative to Ally, the boy who had been the very definition of my world for the past three years. And yet this intimate contact, holding Daniel’s face in a way I had only every held one man’s face before … it was as if suddenly the world had jumped into fast-forward … and it was disorienting. My stomach lurched, and I backed away.
He was different. It wasn’t uncomfortable. But he was different. And I wasn’t ready for different. Today was meant to be about small steps. And stepping onto that flight had been way beyond a small step in itself.
Daniel’s hands were still around my waist, though I had felt the pressure release slightly as I backed away. I placed my hands gently on top of his hands, my attempt to reassure him that he didn’t need to move them. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what any of this was. I was too tired to think. All I could do was tuck myself into the cave of his chest and hope he understood.
Daniel responded with a strong tight hug, clamping his solid arms around me in such a way that in that moment I felt untouchable.
* * *