It was a full twenty minutes before he returned. I’d spent the whole time alternating between studying her eyes for a hint of movement and trying to keep watch on the door. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I wanted to be careful.
Beth’s dad knocked gently enough that it didn’t make me jump. Even so, there was the briefest moment of paranoia: If someone wanted me to be relaxed and vulnerable, wouldn’t they knock like that? It would be the least likely action to cause alarm…
But I rationalised. Nothing was going to happen. We were safe here, right?
He kicked the door closed with his heel and approached me. I had no idea how to react. In all honesty, I didn’t know many men. I didn’t even know many guys my age, just Mike. Mike was serious about some things, but he hid it behind a care-free attitude. Beth’s dad was imposing. He stood, towered, over me as I sat in the plastic hospital chair. I draw my hands away from Beth. Was that all the time he’d let me have with her?
I couldn’t bring myself to look him in the eye, not after what had happened. I focussed on his boots. Utilitarian, but still showing a bit of shine. I was frozen in indecision. Then, unexpectedly, a packet of sandwiches fell into my lap. He turned and dragged a chair with him to the door, sitting down heavily.
I couldn’t help but notice the position wouldn’t let me leave the room.
“Eat that. She always said you never ate anything. You look like you should,” he said.
Dutifully I tore open the plastic shrink-wrap and took a bite without even checking the type it was. I wasn’t a fussy eater. I wouldn’t have survived this long if I was. My first bite reminded me just how hungry I was. I spent the next minute devouring it as fast as I could without choking. The flavour was lost on me, chicken or something.
“So,” he said when I’d finished, “you’re a fighter then?”
I looked at my awkwardly bandaged hands, then back at him, eyes narrowing. What did he want from me?
“I suppose so,” I said. No point denying it, especially if he’d spoken with the police.
“She never said that about you,” he said.
What had she said about me?
“You fought the people who hurt my daughter. For that I have to thank you, but if I ever find out that you caused, or will come to cause any harm to come to her I will make you very sorry you ever met either of us.”
He was… Ah. He was just trying to protect her, from me. I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. I was already the reason she was in this hospital bed.
He didn’t expand on the question, or pick up on my non-answer. Did he already think I’d hurt her, or that I wanted to because I wasn’t denying it?
“What are you going to do?” he asked, out of the blue.
I was confused as to what he was referring to. Was he asking what I’d do if he-
“You failed the test, I checked our system,” he said, breaking my train of thought. He meant, what was I going to do now? What did that have to do with anything?
“I… I have no idea. I haven’t really had time to think about it.” It hadn’t sunk in yet that my dream had just been shattered, more important things had happened. Perspective, that’s what it’s called when something so a thousand times more awful than you could have imagined crashes into your life. When everything gets turned up-side-down. I had gained perspective.
“You should. You can’t just hope things turn out ok. You need a plan, an idea of where you want to get to and work towards getting there. If something gets in your way, work out a way around it. If you find it’s not possible re-assess your goals.”
Why on earth was he giving me this pep talk? Besides, the one thing I wanted now I couldn’t plan for.
“What did you want from joining up?” he asked.
“To get off planet,” I replied instantly.
“Why? Why did you want that?” he said.
“I… I don’t know, because I don’t like this one?” Childish, but true.
“So you want to run away from something.” He said. Could I detected a hint of contempt?
“Everything.” I said, I don’t know why I was being so honest. I didn’t have a good reason to want to be a pilot. Why did I need one? It would have been a good job. Well paid, interesting.
“What about her?” he nodded towards Beth.
“Well… I… She wants the same thing, surely I would have been with her then?” I said.
“Not likely, very small chance you would be on the same deployment. Chances are you would be off planet at different times. You would get to spend more time with her if you stayed Earthside.”
I hadn’t thought of that, but then my thoughts of the future hadn’t really included Beth. She was my friend, I didn’t know how long friendships lasted beyond school… But here, and now? I couldn’t imagine life without her and I’d only had her in my life for a month or two. I hadn’t adjusted or reassessed the future to include her, and how it would.
Her dad just watched me intently as I thought.
“Running away is cowardice.” He pushed himself to his feet. “There is nothing wrong with a controlled tactical retreat, but that isn’t what you were trying to do. You don’t look to me like a coward. You should confront your problems. Your goal should be to fix them, not flee from them.”
He walked up to me, and held out his hand.
“I wish you all the luck with my daughter.” I stood, and placed mine in his. He gave it a firm shake.
I had no idea what the hell just happened.
* * *
The door opened without a knock. I was on my feet before I could see who it was. Ready. For what, I didn’t know.
Beth’s father also stood when his wife entered. Her face was set with a stern look, mouth drawn tight when she spotted him. When she spotted me by Beth’s side her eyebrows drew together.
“I’d better go,” I said, making a move to the door. I had to get out of there before her mom could murder me.
As I passed her I gave Beth’s sleeping form one last glance. I saw her dad place a gentle kiss on her forehead, then follow me out.
When the door clicked into place behind him, he looked down at me. “I can’t stay there all week…. She won’t be alone at least.”
I nod, mute.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
More questions. Ones I couldn’t answer. “I… it doesn’t matter. The Island. Please don’t give me a lift.”
I did not want that, not again.
“It must be awful going back there after what happened. Don’t you feel scared?” He started walking and I matched his pace, three steps for each of his two.
I spent a moment of thought. I really wasn’t scared to go back. The only thing I had really feared was Beth getting hurt, and there wasn’t much worse that could happen to her now.
He took my lack of a response as a yes, for some reason.
“You’re staying at our house,” he stated. Oh.
“But, what about…” I didn’t want to say it out loud, but Beth’s mom was really beginning to scare me.
He must have guessed though, “She is staying with her sister. Things are… difficult between us.”
Fuck. So not only have I got his daughter in hospital, I managed to break up his marriage as well. Why was he not trying to kill me?
Maybe he was and that was why…
No. Bad brain. Stupid thoughts.
“I’ll be fine. Thank you for the offer but I’m really ok on my own.”
He started walking, “Come on. You can borrow Beth’s room, she doesn’t mind.”
“But-” Damn, he was just like her.
* * *
Her room was overwhelmingly empty. I’d never been in it without her.
I hadn’t brought a change of clothes. Going through Beth’s drawers to pick out some of the oldest that I could borrow was strange. Other people’s drawers are so personal. I felt like I was invading her privacy, that I shouldn’t be allowed to go rummaging around in her stuff.
And her bed… it smelled of her.
I couldn’t sleep in it. Instead I pulled out the sleeping bag from underneath and slept where I usually did, on the floor.