By the time they got there Matt, Steph and Dale’s parents and other family members were standing at his bed. They made way when Brian and Elyse entered and both gave him a big hug. His voice was croaky and his eyes glazed and unfocused, but he was awake alright. Both Brian and Elyse were covered in sweat and dirt and Brian shot a nervous glance at Matt and Steph, who were staring at them with deep suspicion. Not that it mattered. They’d know everything soon enough, anyway.
‘Hey, Brian, what’s new, man?’ Dale said.
‘Nothin, bud. You sure took your sweet ass time to wake up.’
For a while, none of them got much chance to speak to Dale, and they only stood around grinning as the rest of the family surrounded him and gave him a million presents and get well cards. Eventually, the nurse came in, a stern woman of forty, and ordered them to let him rest.
After everyone but his parents said their goodbyes, Brian cast Dale an urgent look and when the nurse next came in he said: ‘Hey, can’t my friends stay a little?’ His mother looked doubtfully at him, but he shot her wide smile, a rare thing to see on Dale’s face at any time, and she relented and raised her eyebrows in appeal to the nurse.
‘Alright, then. The doctors don’t seem too worried, so neither am I. Not too long, boys and girls.’ She left, and Dale’s mom leaned over to kiss him on the cheek, making him squirm a little and look embarrassed. ‘Alright, ma, I didn’t die, okay?’
‘We’ll be back in an hour, right? Don’t stress him out, guys.’
‘We won’t,’ Matt said. They waited until the footsteps disappeared down the hall, and then Dale took a deep breath and pushed himself higher up in his bed. He looked so pale and fragile compared to the Dale they once knew, but his gaze was getting sharper by the second.
Before anyone else could speak, Matt stepped in and spoke in a low voice. ‘So who was it, Dale? Was it Jordan?’
Dale let out a long sigh and shrugged. He ran a hand through his messy black hair. ‘I don’t know, man.’
‘You don’t know?’
‘The cops already visited me before, just after my parents got here. Asked me everything. The doctors asked me a bunch of other questions, too. They said it’s called retrograde amnesia. Pretty standard for big knocks on the head, apparently, happens all the time.’
‘Amnesia?’ Matt said.
‘Yeah. Retrograde. As in, I can’t remember anything. I didn’t even know why I was here until the doctors told me. Chucked over the cliffs, right?’
‘That’s crazy. My last memory is trying not to fall asleep in Geo. Then the end of school bell goes, and then it cuts out. Like I got shot in the back of the head or something, never saw it coming. Then everything’s black until now. Like, literally, I feel like I was in class a few hours ago.’
‘Oh my God,’ Steph said. ‘Did they tell you how long you’ve been under?’
He nodded. ‘Yeah. Guess it could’ve been worse, though. Could’ve been years, or forever.’
‘We thought it would be,’ Elyse said.
He smiled, looking sickly, and spread his arms: ‘Ta Da. I’m back.’
‘Idiot,’ Brian said, grinning.
They spent the next twenty minutes taking turns in rushed, excited voices, to catch him up on almost everything that happened. Rather, Matt and Steph took turns and Brian shot pleading looks at Elyse, silently praying she wouldn’t tell now. It was too soon. They should just wait and see if she’d caught what he had before they just up and closed the world, shouldn’t they? Just wait a bit and see how it developed.
But Dale was too smart. After Matt had described a blow by blow account of the second fight with Jordan (very different to how Brian remembered it, but he was too worried to call Matt out on it), Dale gave Brian a close look. ‘That’s pretty impressive, man.’
‘Uh. I guess I was just real angry. You know, because of what happened to you.’
Elyse shot him a sharp glance and Dale caught it. After that it was all over. Dale asked where they’d just been, how come they were all covered in dirt and sweat, and Elyse answered before he could. Now it was Matt and Steph who fell silent, listening with growing looks of shock, their eyes moving to Brian as she spoke while he tried to back all the way through the wall behind him.
Since he wasn’t saying anything, Elyse went on and told his side of the story, too, complete with the fight with the beast, and the changes he’d been going through for weeks without telling anyone. She breezed quickly over their kiss in a matter of fact fashion, and ended with a brief description of his scars. ‘Go on,’ she said. ‘Show them.’
Brian, defeated, lifted his shirt for all to see and heard a round of gasps and curses all round. He held it up for a couple of seconds and then dropped it. There was a long silence.
‘You fucking idiot!’ Steph said.
‘I knew there was something going on,’ Matt said. ‘I mean, no one normal can fight like that! No one. That is awesome.’
‘It is not awesome,’ Steph said. ‘He could have killed someone. And what if Elyse has it, now?’
‘Look, guys, it’s alright,’ Dale said. He was remarkably calm considering he’d woken up from a coma less than a day ago. They turned to him. ‘All we gotta do is close the world, right?’
‘Exactly,’ Elyse said, clearly relieved. ‘That’s all we can do, isn’t it? We close the door and just wait for the effects to go away.’
‘Well we better do it really soon, then,’ Steph said, glaring at Brian.
‘Why?’ he said. ‘It’s fine. I’m fine.’
‘I wasn’t talking about you. Don’t you realise you probably infected Jordan?’
There was a shocked silence.
‘No. No way, I was really careful. No scratches – and I wasn’t bleeding at all,’ he added with more than a little pride.
‘How do you know it only gets passed on with scratches or blood?’
‘Well, I mean… It wouldn’t make sense, otherwise, would it? If I just punch someone, that’s just, you know none of my blood is getting on them, nothing from me is contaminating them. No disease in the world gets passed on with a few punches.’
‘No disease on earth. It could be airborne for all you know!’
‘No, it couldn’t,’ Elyse said. ‘Or we’d all have it by now, the amount of time we spent over there. Listen, it doesn’t matter either way. We close the door, the parasite or virus whatever it is dies, end of story.’
‘And then we can go looking for some other world, right?’ Dale said. Matt laughed. Steph just stared at him. ‘Really?’
‘Hey, I’ve been in a coma, alright? I missed out on all the action.’
Even Steph couldn’t resist a small smile, and just like that they were all friends again. Brian had got off easy and he knew it, and even though the burn was rising in him, and he knew he was going to have to get out of here soon so he could saw a little skin off his shins, he couldn’t help but feel good. It was all going to be alright.