Note: I've been meaning to update this for awhile now. After cutecanuck left a review, I finished this chapter, but… well, gosh, it's been about 5 years since I updated anything on and I was a little intimidated by how much change there has been! Well, just the epilogue left, which is mostly written, but I can't seem to commit to a format.
Charlie couldn't stop shaking, a combination of the sheer volume of alcohol in his system and an information overload to his senses. So far he had seen the best and worst moments of his life, followed by horrific events due to unfold in a few hours. Perhaps what was really making him shake was the fact there was more to come.
Charlie realised that he had come to a significant point in his life, taking a drink tomorrow would be the point of no return. Taking a drink tomorrow would set the events in motion that would lead to him losing everything, hitting Adam, offending Connie and Guy, terrorising Cassie, letting his mother's marriage to Bombay fall to pieces because he couldn't be bothered to get in touch, forcing Bombay to cover for him, which made Casey think Bombay was deliberately getting between them when all he was doing was protecting his wife from the harsh realisation that her son was an alcoholic.
He sat down and buried his face in his hands and let out a shaky breath. It was all too much to process at once. In Annie's words, he had received a huge kick up the ass and, as she hoped, he knew he would be bruised for weeks after – but that was nothing when compared to what his friends had put up with over the years.
He realised suddenly that he wasn't alone. Part of him didn't want to raise his head and see which of his departed friends or family might be his guide for the final stage of his journey. Seeing Terri and Hans had been disturbing, while he may not have accepted that their deaths had been right, he had accepted that they were dead. Seeing them again had unsettled him, maybe he could have lived with that, but they also saw some of the worst moments of his life. It had been humiliating and painful to let two such respected and loved friends see what he had become.
He didn't want to see what might become of him – he knew he would be looking into the future this time, that much he had deduced. He didn't want to see who might show it to him. Hans' words floated back to him, How can you learn if you leave halfway through the lesson?
He raised his head. Standing before him was a… shape, for lack of a better word. It was draped in a black shroud, which covered its face. The veil was made of a thick heavy material and it was impossible to see through – though Charlie was secretly relieved, if the thing wanted to cover its face, then he wasn't so sure he really wanted to see.
The shape pointed to him, with a hand draped in material, then turned its hand over, offering it to Charlie.
"Not a big talker, huh?" he said nervously, then he reached out and touched the thing.
There was a swirling vortex of lights and colours, but unlike the previous trips, all the colours were dark, blacks, browns and reds, like blood and tar, and Charlie knew that he wasn't going to like what he was about to see.
He opened his eyes and found himself in a funeral home, a closed casket was at the head of the room, draped in flowers. Beside the casket stood Connie and Guy, Cassie was not with them. Connie was slender once more, so Charlie could deduce that it was at least six months into the future, but beyond that there were no indications as to when he was. Chairs were not set out, there was no minister, the room was empty save for Connie and Guy, this was either before or after the funeral.
Connie was sobbing and trying to staunch the flow of tears with a tissue. Guy was dry-eyed but dazed, one hand resting lightly on the curved lid of the coffin.
Charlie had a very strong idea of who was inside, but he still had to ask. "Me?" The question came out as a whisper.
"We should have done more," Connie said. "We should have been with him. He called and we said no. He was in so much pain and we just ignored it and told him we'd see him next week."
Guy nodded slowly. He looked to be in shock. "I can't believe he's gone."
"I thought he'd be ok," Connie continued. "I thought… well, it's been going on for years. I'm so stupid."
"Oh, god," Charlie moaned in horror. "After all this time, they're blaming themselves for this? It's my fault and they are blaming themselves?"
The shape did not move. It made no indication it had even heard him.
Guy simply repeated, "I can't believe he's gone."
"Why would Charlie drive?" Connie whispered.
Charlie felt a tightness in his throat and a hotness behind his eyes. He felt sick. It had nothing to do with the alcohol. This couldn't be the future. It simply couldn't. Charlie never drove. Never. He'd barely been behind the wheel since the crash that stole Annie and Terri's lives. It was his only rule – his one absolute – he did not drive.
But – he flushed in shame as he realised plenty of absolutes had already been destroyed – not hitting Adam was something he should regard as an absolute, and it hadn't taken much to break that one. Don't tell a child that Santa isn't real, another broken easily.
The shape clapped a hand down on Charlie's shoulder, hard enough to hurt, and the swirling darkness took him.
Charlie fell to his knees and opened his eyes to find himself in his mother's house. He staggered to his feet and took in the scene. Casey Bombay sat in the kitchen, stirring a cup of coffee with vigour. Her eyes were red but dry, but she had dark circles beneath them. In front of her were balls of screwed up paper, some had fallen to the floor, clearly whatever she was writing was taking a lot of revision.
Casey turned her attention to a newspaper on the table. Charlie moved closer, he wasn't able to make out the text of the article but the headline read "PRO HOCKEY PLAYER DIES IN CAR WRECK". Underneath the picture of twisted metal that had once been a car.
"Oh, Charlie!" Casey gasped. As she buried her face in her hands and let a fresh deluge of tears fall Charlie noticed something. She wasn't wearing her wedding ring.
"Where's Bombay?" Charlie asked. "Where is he?"
Though it made no sound, Charlie thought the shape was laughing at him. It clapped its hand down on his shoulder and dug its fingers in. Terri and Hans had been sorry for the waste that Charlie had become, but for the first time Charlie felt frightened of this guide. He felt that it hated him, that it enjoyed his suffering, and that it could not wait for these visions to become reality so that it could claim him, take him into the darkness, and keep showing him more. It wanted to hurt him.
He didn't know what was worse – that the shape was waiting for him, or that he deserved it.
Charlie whimpered as his feet went out from under him. He didn't want to see any more. It was enough. He had driven and killed himself, he'd broken the only rule that he'd set himself. He'd destroyed his friends' lives and his mother's marriage.
He found himself in a sparsely furnished apartment. He was in a bedroom which was almost devoid of furnishings, a bed, a chest of drawers and a wardrobe. The only human touches were two pictures on the wall, one of Gordon and Casey on their wedding day, the other of Charlie and Gordon during the Goodwill Games, simply sat beside a campfire. The pictures tugged painfully on Charlie's heart. Bombay was still very much in love with his mother, otherwise they would not be on the wall. Charlie gasped as he saw an empty alcohol bottle on the chest of drawers.
"No," Charlie moaned. He turned to the shape. "Please tell me he didn't start drinking again. Please."
The shape pointed to an open door behind them. It led to a bathroom, from it Charlie heard the unmistakable sound of someone retching and vomiting. He pressed a hand to his mouth, horrified that his actions had pushed Bombay so far. He'd been sober for – Charlie paused to think – sixteen years in real time, but he didn't know when they were now. Maybe he'd made it to twenty.
The shape cocked its head towards the bathroom door. Clearly it wanted Charlie to see Bombay drunk. It wanted him to see what he'd caused. They weren't going to move on until the vision of his step-father drunk was burned into his brain.
Charlie stepped through the bathroom door fearing the worst. He bit back a sob as he realised he had no comprehension of "the worst". It just kept coming, it kept pushing him harder and further into the darkness.
He was not prepared to see himself vomiting into a toilet as Bombay rubbed his back and uttered soothing words. "Come on, son, you're nearly there. Just stay with me."
"I want to die," his other self said, swiping at his lips with his sleeve. "Just let me die."
Bombay offered him a tissue, which the other Charlie accepted with shaking hands. When he made no move to clean himself up, Bombay guided his hand. Charlie's eyes filled with tears, but his vision was still clear enough to see that Bombay was still wearing his wedding ring.
"Withdrawal is hard, Charlie. But you can get through it."
"What about the rest?" the other Charlie asked.
Bombay had no answer.
Charlie whirled to face the shape. "But I'm dead!" he yelled. "I can't be there! I can't be there with Bombay! I'm dead. I'm in a damned coffin!"
The shape made no reply but Charlie could feel that it was enjoying this. It was revelling in his pain. Every tear was a delight to it.
"If I'm not dead," Charlie said tightly, very afraid of the answer, "who was in the coffin?"
If material could sneer – and Charlie was now convinced it could – it did. He felt that it wanted desperately for him to know the answer, but on its own terms.
He felt a rush of anger. "I did this!" he yelled. "You tell me right now!" When it made no response, Charlie stepped forward and shoved it hard. He was pushed backwards on contact and fell to the ground, only to be swallowed by the rush of darkness, the colours were getting deeper and darker now.
He opened his eyes and found himself in his own apartment. He wasn't home yet, he could tell. The front door had changed – Charlie doubted it was anything to do with his or Adam's desire to change it. With disgust he realised he'd probably kicked a hole in it or something equally stupid in one of his drunken rages.
Adam stood in their open plan kitchen, talking on the phone. "Yes, I understand." He looked disappointed. "Of course it's hard to get a babysitter." He forced a smile onto his face. "Well, Evan is going through the terrible twos." There was a long pause as Adam listened to whoever he was speaking to. "Yes, dinner next week, that sounds good."
He pulled the phone away from his face and let out a sigh before forcing the smile back. In a light tone, he said, "Sure, send my love to Connie and the kids."
He hung up the phone and dropped it on to the kitchen counter. Softly he said, "But it's my thirtieth birthday." He rubbed his face tiredly. "This is your last chance, Charlie."
Charlie wanted to go to Adam, put an arm around him, he wanted to comfort him, but he knew it was his doing. Connie and Guy would not step foot in the apartment if Charlie was there, not even if it was an important birthday. He wondered if they'd gone back on that decision since making it, if they had, Charlie had certainly blown any chance they had given him.
God, why didn't Adam just leave? Why couldn't he just walk away? Why was he so goddamned loyal?
The scene changed slightly. They were still in the apartment, but it was now filled with people. Adam was wearing a stupid cardboard crown with a large 30 on the front. A cake was adorned with sparklers. Adam was surrounded by people, a girl stepped up, dropped a kiss on his cheek and handed him a gift. Adam grinned and placed it on a pile of presents on the table and thanked her.
Robson, his teammate, handed Adam a bottle of beer and said something that made Adam laugh. Still talking to Robson, Adam placed the beer on the table next to the gifts and picked up a bottle of water instead. Charlie wondered when Adam stopped drinking. Maybe he never had – Charlie couldn't ever remember him drinking, come to think of it. Even earlier today – the real today – Adam had made a comment about catching up on the drinking, but he'd not taken a drink.
Over in the corner, Charlie sat alone, nursing a bottle of Jack Daniels. He had a scowl on his face and was glaring resentfully at the crowd of people.
Charlie had never hated himself more than this moment. He knew who was going to die, he knew who he'd managed to kill, he didn't even care why. He wanted to shake himself, to tell himself to stop. He strode over to his hateful other self, who looked particularly disgusting today in worn jeans with stains on them, a rumpled top that could do with a wash, his hair was greasy and getting too long – and Jesus, when was the last time he'd shaved?
"What the hell are you doing?" Charlie yelled at himself. "Go up to your best friend! Tell him happy birthday and that you love him. Move out, leave him alone, and for god's sake, put that bottle down!"
The other Charlie flinched, and appeared to lock eyes with Charlie. Charlie paused, wondering whether he had gotten through to himself. Maybe he could make a difference now.
Charlie gaped at himself for a few seconds, then turned, following his line of sight. There was no sign of Terri. There was a tall curvy girl with pink hair in a shade that matched her dress and shoes perfectly. She was not Terri. Terri was small, cute and slightly boyish in figure. She never wore heels, hell, she hated to wear a dress. At a party, she'd be the girl wearing jeans and a t-shirt with comfy trainers. The girl Charlie was staring at was nothing like her.
The other Charlie said Terri's name again.
Maybe he was seeing Terri. Maybe he was hallucinating. Maybe the vibrant hair was enough and his drink-addled brain was filling in the blanks.
"Or maybe we're a self-indulgent prick who needs to stop making excuses," Charlie said.
The other Charlie leapt to his feet and staggered towards the door. The drink slowed down his movement, and he nearly pitched over on to his face but for the quick reflexes of Adam, who caught him. "Charlie, what's up?"
The other Charlie pushed Adam away and made for the door. He paused for a second. Next to the door was a bowl where they both dropped their keys when they came in. Well, Adam did, and Charlie dropped his anywhere. The other Charlie grabbed Adam's keys, Charlie knew instantly, because his own set comprised of two keys with a bottle opener as a keyring; Adam's had his car keys, his home keys, his parents' keys, and a Mighty Ducks keyring.
"Charlie, no!" Adam yelled, and took off after him.
"Stop!" Charlie cried. "Let him kill himself, don't go!" He started after them both, but the shape blocked his path and laid a hand on Charlie's shoulder. He closed his eyes against it all but could still see the sickening twists of black and red, they were so dark now, and the colours had texture. They reached out for him.
Charlie cried out and opened his eyes. He and the shape were in the back seat of Adam's car. The other Charlie sat in the driver's seat, trying to get the key to fit in the slot, muttering curses and disjointed threats against the key, the car, and pretty much anyone on the planet.
"Please," Charlie whispered. "Please don't let me do this."
The passenger door swung open and Adam leaned in, still wearing his stupid birthday crown. "Charlie, stop!"
"I have to do this, Banksie," Charlie replied.
"No, let's talk this out." Adam climbed into the car. "You don't drive, we both know that."
"Come on, you're not going to drive. You've had a drink, Charlie. You can't drive now," Adam persisted.
The other Charlie managed to get the key in the slot. He turned the key and the engine fired up.
"Charlie, please stop," Adam said as the car lurched forward. "Please!"
"Get out now!" the other Charlie bellowed.
Adam shook his head. "I can't let you kill yourself, Charlie."
The other Charlie paused, a tear rolled down his face which he swiped away angrily. The car rolled to a stop.
Adam continued, placing a hand on Charlie's shoulder. "Don't do this, don't give up." The other Charlie seemed to consider Adam's words. "Think of Annie and Terri."
With those words, Charlie realised that Adam had just pushed his other self over the edge. Charlie was sober enough to read Adam's tone, to understand the words, to – damnit – just know Adam wasn't throwing anything in his face. Adam was asking him to stop, to consider the loss of life too early, to live because they couldn't.
What his drunk self had heard was the angelic Adam Banks, who had never done a bad thing in his life, throw out Charlie's biggest regret in a shower of self-satisfaction.
The car tore forwards, scraping past a parked car to the side of them. The bumper was torn off as it caught on the car, and the other Charlie pressed down further on the gas.
As the car careened through town, Charlie wondered what was going through his hateful self's mind as Adam pleaded with him to stop. Why wasn't he stopping? Was he trying to kill Adam, as punishment for bringing up the past, or did he just want to scare him? He hoped it was the latter, but it didn't matter. He was about to kill Adam, his best friend – maybe only friend at this point in his life, and there wasn't even a damned reason for it.
Charlie joined Adam in the pleas for future Charlie to stop. He tried to grab himself around the throat, take the wheel, anything, but he passed through everything like a ghost.
"Charlie, slow down!" Adam cried.
The other Charlie seemed oblivious to Adam's distress – maybe even to his presence, as he continued on his way.
Charlie didn't know what exactly happened, he wasn't sure of the trigger was, but the car began to slide as they rounded a corner, maybe the road was wet, or maybe the other Charlie just lost control. Adam screamed at Charlie to slow down, and he dimly seemed to register this. The car span out of control, sliding across the road into incoming traffic. In a bizarre attempt to wrestle control of the vehicle, the other Charlie grabbed the handbrake and yanked it. The car did a complete 180 turn, placing the passenger side of the car straight into the path of an incoming tanker.
The other driver pumped the brakes but they were too close for it to make any difference. The force of the impact seemed to launch Charlie from the car. He found himself standing on the road, staring at the mangled metal that used to be Adam's car. The car was squashed on the passenger side, the car had collapsed inwards like an accordion. It was a miracle that even Charlie had survived. The driver of the tanker stirred, but the fact that he had only killed one person instead of two was of little consolation.
He heard an anguished howl, barely human, from inside the car. He hated himself more than was possible. He didn't want to see Adam, and for once, the shape was not pushing him towards the scene, it was not forcing him to look and see the damage he had caused.
It allowed him to turn away from the wreckage, away from his dead best friend. It allowed him to face it.
"I won't do this," Charlie said. "I won't." He meant every word.
The shape began unwrapping the shroud from around its face. It shook the material away from its hands – oh god, they were human hands.
Charlie had a sinking feeling he knew what he would see.
It unwound the material, revealing a tuft of blondish hair. Then blood-splattered skin, then its eyes – blue eyes, familiar eyes – the side of its head was pushed inwards, nothing could survive that. It kept unravelling until he was face-to-face with the corpse of Adam Banks. Adam, for the first time in the history of their friendship, was not looking at him with understanding, not kindness, not sympathy.
Charlie waited for the assault, verbal or physical, but nothing happened. Adam just kept staring at him. Charlie was able to fill in the blanks though. Why would he do this? Adam had stood by him through everything and this was the way he was paid back, in death.
"Adam, I'm so sorry," Charlie said. Weak pathetic words, words that did not even begin to deal with all of the things he had to make up for – how could he give a life back, how would those words even count?
Stirred by his words, Adam stepped forward, his face twisted into a hateful sneer that was eerily reminiscent of Charlie's own expression in almost every scene he had been shown tonight. Adam raised his fist and let fly.
Charlie didn't even try to block the blow, knowing it was not even close to what he deserved. The punch landed true, and Charlie fell to the ground, his eyes closing, a bloom of pain shooting across his face.
He closed his eyes and let the darkness take him once more.
"Charlie! Charlie! Wake up!"
Charlie blearily opened his eyes, and a wave of dizziness hit him. If he hadn't been flat-out on the floor of the apartment, he would have fallen.
"What happened, are you ok?"
The world swam into focus, then out again, then back in, all in quick succession, and Charlie felt his stomach roll. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath to steady himself. Then he took a couple more before opening his eyes again.
Adam knelt beside him, looking down – not with hatred, but concern. "Charlie, what happened? Did you fall?"
Charlie pushed himself into a sitting position. Then it hit him – Adam was alive. Adam was not even bruised. He had a chance to stop everything. He could change the horrible future where he killed his best friend, the looming fight where he punched Adam, where he destroyed Cassie's happiness on Christmas day and burnt his bridges with Connie and Guy. He could stop the fight between his mother and Bombay. Everything could be stopped.
Except the things he had already done. Emma, Adam's ex-girlfriend. That was something that needed to be addressed.
"I'm calling an ambulance," Adam decided. "I think you might have a concussion."
Charlie tried to talk, but all that came out was a dry crackle – he needed a drink, not a real drink, just water. Just water. He tried again. "I'm fine."
Adam didn't look convinced. He ran a hand over Charlie's head, feeling for bumps and Charlie was simultaneously amazed by Adam's unfaltering concern, and awash with shame that Adam kept trying, even when Charlie didn't deserve it.
Charlie flung his arms around Adam, and Adam flinched. Charlie tried to think back to the last time he had hugged Adam – was it graduation? He couldn't remember. Maybe it was Terri's funeral. Charlie did not let go. "I'm so sorry, Adam," he said, feeling hot tears spill down his face. "I'm so sorry."
Adam tensed, then wrapped his arms around Charlie. "What's wrong?"
"I need help." Charlie said. "I need to stop drinking. I'm going to stop drinking."
There was a long silence.
"Thank god," Adam said.