An old man answered the door, wearing a bathrobe, loose pajamas and bed-head hair. With a grimace, he took a white toothbrush out of his mouth, swallowed and leaned against the doorway. His deep set eyes, with red, puffy skin surrounding them, were as unwelcoming as a slammed door. With a sigh, his bony shoulders fell. "You aren't Andrea." Turning around, toothbrush in hand, he slammed the door shut.
Steven flinched, "Mr. Ryte!" He rapped on the door with his bare knuckles. Nothing happened for the longest time, inside, he could hear footsteps and muttered curses. Something fell over inside the house, crashing onto the floor like a glass vase. "Mr. Ryte! I need to see Julia! Please, it's an emergency!"
He waited outside, wrapping his arms across his chest to keep warm in the cool breeze.
"Please-" Before he could say anymore, the door flung open and a now dressed older man stood in the doorway. Instead of a bathrobe and pajamas, he wore faded jeans and a wrinkled, plaid work-shirt. His eyes, still red and swollen, were now studying Steven with curiosity. "I'm sorry, is this a bad time?"
He ignored the question, a deep frown sitting on his face. "Who are you?"
"I'm Steven Walker, a friend of Julia's."
This caused the man's bushy eyebrows to shoot up his creased, lined brow. A shadow passed over his face. "How… how did you know Julia?"
Steven had been wondering how he would answer that very question all morning. Smiling, his heart fluttering with nervousness, his mind running with questions, he answered honestly. Sort of. "We met at camp in Alberta, I was just stopping by on my road trip to see how she's doing. Is it alright if I see her?" He pretended that he wasn't aware she was in a hospital bed, plugged into a machine.
"At camp? Have you been in contact with her recently?"
"No. I thought I would surprise her."
"I see," the man glanced at the floor, his frown stretching down his face. Staring back at Steven, he gave a little nod. "She's not at home, I'm afraid. I'm her father by the way, Nathan Ryte." He didn't extend a hand. Instead, he grabbed his jacket, which was draped over the back of a nearby couch. "I can take you to her, if you'd like."
"I'd like that." He smiled, found it wasn't returned and followed Mr. Ryte down the stairs. "How is she?"
He hesitated, "Resting." He fished a set of keys out of his jacket pocket. A small, beige car was sitting out on the road, which he told Steven was his ride. Getting into the driver's side, he unlocked the vehicle; Steven stepped inside the passengers' seat.
"Thanks for taking me to see her. I hope I didn't catch you at a bad time."
Mr. Ryte only stared straight ahead, putting the keys into the ignition. When they were out on the road, driving through the quiet, sleepy town, he spoke up. "I know who you are, Steven. Before the accident, Julia told me a little about you." The slightest of grins came to life on his face, yet it was short-lived. "Did you come here with your parents?"
"My mom passed away when I was younger, it's just me and my dad now." He really didn't want to have to lie to Mr. Ryte, so he hoped that would suffice as an answer.
"Seeing someone you love pass away is a difficult thing," he spun the wheel and turned the car down a narrow side street. Trees on either side of the road were shedding their leaves, which had taken on the colors of red, yellow and brown. The sun was now shining down on them, illuminating the street with brilliant rays of light. "When I lost my youngest daughter, it tore my family apart. I wasn't sure that I could ever love a child again, for I feared I would lose them too.
"When we adopted Julia, I realized that I was wrong." Tears were now falling down his face, wetting his work-shirt. "Bringing that sweet, smiling baby into our family was one of the greatest feelings in the world. I knew that I would give my life for her. Holding her in my arms, I promised her that I would always be there for her." Wiping his eyes, he pursed his lips and shook his head. "But I was wrong for making that promise. Sometimes, there's absolutely nothing you can do."
Steven only nodded his head, thinking about the accident. Opening his mouth, he forgot that he was pretending he was unaware of that happening. "Will be she alright?"
"Steven. I read your texts that you sent my daughter. I looked at her phone when she slipped into the coma." He turned the car onto a tight, two-lane road leading through black, iron gates. Steven was hardly paying any attention anymore; all he could do was listen to Mr. Ryte's shocking words.
"I know about the dreams," he wiped his red eyes, which were only swelling further. "She used to tell me when she was younger, then, as she grew, I began to realize they were true. She was so full of secrets though, so many, we loved one another, but she couldn't tell me anymore about those dreams. When I read your texts, I didn't believe it at first, how could I?
"Then, as read more," he broke down again, his hands gripping the steering wheel tightly. "Those dreams, Steven, can you really still talk with her? See her?" His eyes were bulging, while his tone was growing desperate and hopeful. "Do you?"
A silence filled the car as Mr. Ryte's jaw dropped, then clamped shut as he found a parking spot beside a truck. Turning off the car, he opened the door, stepped out and watched as Steven did the same. Instead of following him towards the field with trees and rolling hills, he stood on the pavement, shivering in the cold.
"Mr. Ryte? This isn't the hospital." Steven's eyes began to water while his heart plummeted into the darkest, deepest of depths. Trembling, he put a shaky foot forward, then another, willing himself to see what he was never prepared to see.
The breath was gone from him like wind from a sail.
Mr. Ryte put his hands in his jacket pocket, staring out at the field, which was covered in more then just trees and shrubs. In neat, long rows, gravestones popped out of the dying, yellow and brown grass. Leafs scuttled over the field, while a harsh, frigid wind blew more and more clouds over the sky.
"No. I couldn't tell you, Steven. When you came to my door, I knew I had to show you."
Steven just kept walking forward, off the pavement, closer to the tombstones. When he came to the curb, he stepped over it and onto the grass. His eyes were glued to the ground, unable to check the grave-markers for a name he thought he would never read in a place like this.
It was impossible.
He'd just seen her the previous night! She was alive! He'd held her in his arms, her frail, weak form melting into his. Turning around, he knew that Mr. Ryte had made a mistake. "Why are we here? Damn it! Why the fuck are we here!? I want to see Julia!" He stormed towards Mr. Ryte, while his body began to convulse.
He tripped, fell and crashed onto the hard, rocky pavement.
Mr. Ryte ran to him, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder as Steven wept shamelessly. Great, terrible waves of sorrow and shock ran through his body, causing him to make unearthly, wretched moans.
The pain mounted, tearing into his heart and soul with sharp, jagged teeth.
He heard a whispering on the wind, entering his ears in a soothing, calming fashion. "I'm still here, Steven, just dream with me, my love." Getting to his feet, ignoring the blood soaking his pants from where he'd landed, he locked eyes with Mr. Ryte.
"She's still alive."
"Steven." He shut his eyes, letting out a tortured breath. "We buried her nearly two weeks ago. After the crash, she was barely alive. She slipped into a coma for a few days, but," he couldn't finish as tears of his own enveloped him. Sobbing, he had to stop every few words to let out a sob. "She just couldn't make it… she wanted to, the doctors said she fought… in the end… the monitors went blank… her pulse was gone… the doctors tried to revive her… but we already knew it was a pointless battle… we'd already said our goodbyes."
Steven glanced behind him, his hands clenching into fists. "I still dream with her, Mr. Ryte. She's still alive." He walked down the road, his hands in his pocket. Mr. Ryte called after him, but he blocked the old man out, refusing to hear his lies.
Only, deep inside, he knew that Julia was truly dead. Gone. Kept alive only in those dreams that they shared. He made it a good kilometer down the road before collapsing at the side, overcome by his hallucinations and the mounting sorrow.
Mr. Ryte found him, took him into his car and said he could stay at his house for as long as he needed to. He was going to visit his wife and son who lived in one of the nearby towns for the afternoon. Steven took his offer, curled up on the couch and cried softly, slowly coming to grips that the only place Julia would live on in, were those wretched dreams.
But the pain, would not allow him to sleep.
Instead, thinking back on all those precious, amazing times with Julia, he lay on the couch. A grey, soft blanket covering him. While he cried and cried, wallowing in pain and sorrow, the front door suddenly burst open.
Someone other then Mr. Ryte was standing in the entrance.