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Changeling - 2

by  noddy

Posted: Saturday, May 10, 2003
Word Count: 2100
Summary: Second part of chapter 1. I would be grateful for honest criticism. Too wordy ? Too soppy ? Dull ? Did you make it to the end ? Thanks in advance !

Daniel finally regained consciousness on the tiled kitchen floor nearly two hours later, the right side of his face numb with cold and his left eye twitching uncontrollably. The wind was blasting through the house, the front door slamming against the frame with a hollow thud that harmonised with the pulsing of his heart.
He could breath again. The pain in his chest had gone.
He could breath again.
He lurched to his feet and staggered over to the door, pushing it wide open and gulping in long, deep breaths of glorious fresh air.
The sky was crowded tonight, a multitude of silvery-white speckles that made him feel small and empty and insignificant in their presence.
His mother used to say that the stars were the souls of the dead, and that the better you lived your life, the brighter your star would burn.
He somehow didn’t expect there to be much light in the heavens when he was gone.
He shivered. The winter had come slowly that year. The long summer nights had reached out until the end of Autumn, and every morning the sun had burst later into the sky, fighting hard to maintain its grip upon the brown, crisp land below. Now finally, at the end of November, the conflict had been lost and the intensity of winter seemed somehow heightened by its late arrival.
Leaning against the doorframe, his body tucked into his coat, he turned and stared out across the valley below. Stretched before him was the countryside of Wiltshire; rolling hills, clear rivers, empty fields. Far below, almost crouched against the hillside, was the town of Stannerton, a sea of tiny lights glistening like a shimmering reflection of the sky above. Several of the buildings were visible from where he stood; the old tithe barn to the west, the tiny church to the north, the shopping centre to the east. Thin plumes of smoke stretched up from the chimneys of the bath-stoned buildings and gathered in the air above the rooftops like ominous dark clouds before being swept away by the growing wind.
It had been this view that had drawn him to his home; the two-up, two-down period cottage that he loved so much.
It had been summer when he had first visited. The sun had been low in the sky, and the clean slate of the rooftops below had almost sparkled in its glory. He had been travelling through on the way to Bristol and had only stopped for a coffee and a comfort break. As he had walked back along the narrow high street to the car-park, his eyes had been strangely lured to the photograph of the cottage in the window of the estate agent. He could still recall the emotions that he had felt as he had arrived. The fresh air and distinctive smell of freshly cut grass from the front garden had filled his lungs and body with that magical, electric-tingling rush of inspiration that makes writers write and painters paint. There had been a sense of real peacefulness: a sense of feeling; of belonging. It had felt as if he had been returning to a home that he had long ago left behind. He had come here alone and dispirited, desperate to find somewhere to escape to; a place to hide, where nobody could reach him and where he could be undisturbed with his thoughts. Now, three years later, it had become more than just a hiding place.
It had become his home.
He turned to close the door, pausing briefly as he thought he saw something move in the darkness just on the edge of his vision. He stared across at the hedge on the other side of the road.
There was nothing but darkness.
Darkness and shadows.
“Why can’t you leave me alone,” he said quietly, half to himself. “Why can’t you ever leave me alone ?”
As he pushed the door shut, something soft brushed by his legs, darting into the house and across the tiled floor over to the sofa.
He breathed deeply to calm his pounding heart.
Calm down. It’s only Salvador. Just the cat, you idiot.
“Damned cat,” he called over quietly.
Salvador, a fat but sprightly marmalade tabby, had been part of the fixtures and fittings of the cottage when he had bought it; the previous owners had been a young couple splitting up and neither of them had wanted a pet in their new lives. Daniel had thought the same initially, but in the months that had followed he had grown fond of the animal and there had been times when he had been grateful for the companionship and affection that the animal had given him.
He slipped off his shoes, stepped over to the fireplace, and opened up the grate just enough for tiny yellow flames to dance up from beneath the glowing coals. He stood then for a moment, red hands stinging over the fire, and stared at himself in the mirror above the mantelpiece. The face that returned his gaze did not feel like his own. It’s narrow, grey eyes and gaunt features looked twenty to thirty years older than he felt - closer to sixty than thirty-five. Shoulder length silver-white hair framed sharp cheeks mottled with white stubble. His skin was beyond pale, almost colourless, accentuating the dark shadows under his eyes. It was the face of a man that had stopped caring for his appearance several years ago.
A man that had stopped caring when everyone else had stopped caring for him...
His head began to spin as the warmth returned to his body, and his ears burned. He slipped off his coat, dumped it onto the back of a chair, and collapsed onto his worn old sofa. Salvador hopped over onto his lap.
“It’s a bit cold out there, mate,” he said, stroking the tabby’s head. “I’ve got a feeling we’ll be having snow tonight. What do you reckon ?”
The cat purred quietly and pushed its head into his hand.
Feeling his limbs relax, he pulled the remote control from behind one of the cushions and flicked on the radio.
"... say economic recovery is inevitable...."
The News. Daniel glanced at his watch. Six O'Clock. That late. He'd only planned to be out for half an hour; just half an hour to settle his thoughts and make a decision. It had ended up being more like three hours. He glanced over to the kitchen, the contents of the drawer still on the floor.
And the decision was still no clearer.
“Finally, a severe weather warning has been issued by the met. office. Heavy snow is forecast over most the country, and combined with freezing temperatures and ice on the roads, conditions will be hazardous. Motorists are advised to keep journeys short and to only travel if necessary..."
He flicked off the radio. “Told you,” he said to the cat. “Well, at least that means some peace.”
He glanced down at the telephone on the floor beside the sofa, then turned his eyes to the photograph of a small, golden-haired toddler on the mantelpiece.
His son.
He moved his eyes from the photograph back to the telephone. The decision was no easier now than it had been three hours ago. No easier than it had been three weeks or three months ago.
He leant over and picked up the telephone, one hand on the receiver, the other nervously fiddling with the grey plastic number keys.
He hadn't spoken to his ex-wife now for over two years, but something inside of him still yearned to hear that voice.
To hear her sounding pleased to hear him.
He dialled the number automatically. They still lived in his old home; it was a number that he would never forget.
It rang for several seconds before she picked up. "Hello."
He felt his heart pound, his bottom lip trembling. Part of him wanted to slam the phone down, to throw it into the corner of the room and run as far as he could away from that voice.
Be calm. Be distant. Show her that she doesn't affect you anymore. Show her that you can stay in control.
"Sandra." He tried to sound bright.
That was enough for her to recognize his voice. "Dan ? "
"'Fraid so."
He heard her pause, recognized her sudden confusion. "Are you all right ...? What's wrong ? What do you want ?"
"Nothing's wrong. I'm fine. I just…" He fought to control his emotions, struggling to stop his voice from quivering as he spoke. "I want to see him, Sandra. I want to see him again."
“Sandra ?”
“No.” Her voice had changed. It was firm, controlled, threatening. “No.”
“You can’t stop me. You can’t stop me from seeing my own son.”
“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do, Dan. Who the hell do you think you are, just phoning up out of the blue like this.”
He was taken aback by the anger in her words, the steel-edged aggression in her tone. It brought back memories. Bad memories.
He paused. In the background he could hear the television blasting out a movie soundtrack; Toy Story, from the sound of it. He heard a child’s voice, distant but clear: “Daddy, can I have some more ice cream.”
"Have you... ?"
"Told him about you ?" She spoke his thoughts.
He didn't reply.
"He's happy now. I don't want him confused."
Daniel still said nothing; could no longer speak.
“Goodbye, Dan. Don’t call us again. And don’t even think about coming up here.”
He found his voice, fought for control. "I... I just need to know. Just to know how he is. That's all. I think about him all the time. I can't help it. I just need to know that he's OK. I still love him, Sandra. He's my son and I miss him."
There was no hint of sympathy in her reply. “Don’t go there, Dan. You were the one that moved away. You were the one that wanted to start a new life for yourself.”
“You know why I left. You gave me no choice. You stopped me from seeing him. You and that bast…
There was silence on the other end of the line. He thought that she might have put the phone down and so he softened his tone.
“I had to move away. You know that. I had to move away.”
Silence again. Then, "Matthew’s happy now, and I'll make sure that he stays that way. He's got a family that cares for him and a normal life just like all of the other kids at school. I don’t have to hide anymore, Dan. I don’t have to shut the curtains every night wondering when you’ll be home and what state you’ll be in when you get there. Simon and I love him and look after him properly. We give him something that you and I could never have given him. Stability. That's the most important thing a child can have at his age. Surely you, more than anyone, can understand that. "
He felt his frustration, his fear, swelling to anger.
That bastard stole your child, Adams. Stole your wife and child. That bastard stole your life away from you.
“I have to see him. I have to.”
“If you can prove to me that you’ve changed, that you're a different person now. If you can show me that I can trust you, that you’ve found a way to control… to control it. Well, then…”
There was pain in her voice, the first hint of pain that he could remember hearing since the day she had walked out on him.
That hurt more than anything.
He couldn’t reply.
“You can’t do that, can you ? You can’t change that side of you and you never will.”
He suddenly wanted to escape, to put the phone down and escape into the darkness of his mind. Just hearing her breathing was too much for him to take.
Of course I can’t change it. I can’t stop being me, for God’s sake. I can’t stop being me.
When he replied, his voice sounded like a stranger. "Look after him."
"We will. You know we will. Goodbye Dan."
He heard the phone go down, heard the tone, yet sat for a while unmoving, staring at the photograph of the child on the mantelpiece.
Knowing inside that he would never see him again.