Authors: J. L. Merrow
The whole parade was a little like that—cheerfully home-made, relaxed to the point of being shambolic, reminiscent more of English village carnivals than slick, American-style parades.
I blinked. Where had that thought come from?
Sven, I realised, and a curious defensiveness crept over me at the realisation. We must have watched the parade together last year. I supposed it wouldn’t have been at all the sort of thing he was used to. No gorgeous, tanned go-go boys shaking their booty in gold shorts and little else—Icelandic summers were too cold for that.
The people on these floats weren’t gorgeous, not most of them. They were just…people. Ordinary people, taking a day out to celebrate something they had in common. I felt oddly protective of them. I was sure they’d be pathetically grateful for the dubious protection of a limping amnesiac.
The back of my neck prickled, and I spun around. A man was staring at me from across the street, and something about him sent an icy thrill shooting through my chest. He looked familiar—but wrong, somehow. He was of stocky, powerful build, most of his face hidden by his overlong dark hair and beard.
Overlong? I wondered where that thought had come from. His hair didn’t even reach to his shoulders. I frowned and started towards him. His face broke into a smile, and he waved, calling out something in Icelandic. A man pushed past me, crossed the street—and then the two of them were hugging, clapping each other on the back. It hadn’t been me he’d been staring at after all. Just someone behind me. Crushed, I turned back to watch the rest of the parade.
My leg was aching by the end of it, and I considered going back to the car and driving home. Maybe it was childish, but the raised hopes followed by disappointment had made me feel like an idiot for seriously expecting to come across anyone I’d known. Then a low, mellow voice rang out in my ear.
“Paul! I didn’t know you were back in Iceland.” A large hand clapped on my shoulder, arresting my progress. Startled, I turned so fast my neck cricked.
The man now in front of me was…hot. Tall, bronzed and muscular. With his sun-bleached hair and short golden beard, he looked like a well-trimmed, modern-day Viking.
“Has the cat eaten your tongue?” he asked in lightly accented English.
I rubbed my sore neck, trying to collect my scrambled thoughts after the double whammy of the Viking and the dark man before him. “I—you know me?”
“Of course! You’re Paul, from the university. You must remember me.” His smile was confident. I hated to dash it.
But then again…there was something about the tension around his ice-blue eyes that didn’t seem to fit that smile. Or was I just imagining things again?
“I’ve forgotten everything,” I explained, my throat tightening on the words. “I had an accident. It was eight months ago now. I lost my memory.”
If we were friends, how come he hadn’t known about it? My eyes narrowed, and I took a clumsy step back from his overwhelming physical presence. My neck was itching again—was the dark man still watching me? Watching us? I felt a strange reluctance to turn my back on the Viking to find out. “Who are you?” I asked bluntly, too rattled to think of a polite way of saying it.
“Viggo. You don’t remember me?” His weathered brow creased, and he closed the gap between us, putting a hand on my shoulder again.
I didn’t want him touching me. It confused me, made me feel all kinds of emotions I wasn’t prepared for—like guilt. Why did he make me feel guilty? Because I couldn’t remember him? “I’ve been in England,” I said, as if it were an answer to his question. “In hospital and at my sister’s. Recovering.”
And now his left hand came up to rest on my right shoulder, trapping me there. My heart pounded as his touch seared through my thin shirt. Had I been cold before? I wasn’t cold now. “What happened?” he asked softly.
“I told you. An accident. At Gullfoss.” I forced myself to look into his eyes. His blue eyes, with lines at the corners from laughter and squinting into the sun. Was it he I’d remembered in my dream? “My partner died.” How had he not known this? Even if we hadn’t been all that close, surely the accident would have made the news?
His hands tightened convulsively, and I made an involuntary sound of protest. It had been more shock than pain. Viggo let go of me, and I noticed for the first time the tattoo on the back of his right hand. Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir—not the heavy, stubby version familiar to movie-goers, but the slender Icelandic form, more like a cross than a weapon. I swallowed. I wanted to reach out and touch it.
“Ah,” Viggo said. “See? I knew you couldn’t have forgotten me.”
“I just like tattoos,” I said quickly.
Too quickly. His eyes dimmed with hurt.
I ached to take the pain away. “I’m sorry. This is all a bit…disorientating. I mean, I’m sorry, I don’t remember you exactly, but you do seem, I don’t know, familiar? Somehow.” I took a deep breath, tried to stop babbling like an idiot. “How did we know each other?” I asked.
His face cleared. “I drive the riverjet at Hvita River. You came with your department. You’ve forgotten? You must come again.”
Riverjet? My mind threw up confusing images of fast-moving spray and high stone walls—and yes, Viggo.
My breath caught. It was no more than a flash—a half-seen smile, a pair of blue eyes that creased at the corners—but it was a memory. I started forward, gripped him by the arm. My heart pounded. “Yes. I remember. At least—” I shook my head. “I need to do it again.”
His gaze was almost fierce in its intensity. “Then that’s what we will do. I’ll call you, okay?”
I nodded. “Wait—I don’t have the same number.” My phone hadn’t survived the accident. The ability to withstand falling down a waterfall isn’t in the design specs of most modern gadgets, I’ve found. Or most people, come to that. By the time I’d been in a fit state to think about getting a new phone, it hadn’t seemed worth the bother of getting the number changed to one I’d all but forgotten in any case.
“You give me your new number, okay? Then I’ll call you.” He held out his mobile, and clumsily, I tapped my number into it. When I handed it back, Viggo held my gaze for a long moment. “It’s good to see you again, Paul. I’ll call you soon. But perhaps we can spend some time together now? Go to a few bars, hear some music?”
I almost said yes. But he stepped forward again, grasped my arm once more. It was too soon. Too much. Too…everything. “I can’t,” I blurted out, backing off a few paces. “I shouldn’t drink. My head…”
Viggo’s face fell. “Are you okay?” He stepped forward, reclosing the gap between us, and frowned when I backed off even farther.
“I’m fine. I just need some space.” I tried to smile, lifted a hand as if to pat his arm. Placate him. But my nerve failed me, and I let it fall back to my side.
He ceased his pursuit, raising both hands in a conciliatory gesture. “It’s all right. I understand. I’m sorry, Paul. I shouldn’t put pressure on you. I’ll call you. For now—you enjoy the festival, okay?”
Trying to ignore the kicked-puppy look in his eyes, I nodded and turned on my heel. I walked off blindly until I found a quiet café in which to take shelter. The coffee was awful, explaining the lack of customers, but at least I could sit in the corner and think without being disturbed.
Why on earth had I panicked and run away from Viggo like that?
Now he was gone, I wanted him back. But I knew I couldn’t trust my reaction to him. I hadn’t been lying when I’d said I liked tattoos. They seemed to exert a fascination on me I didn’t know how to explain. There had been an incident in London, just before I came back to Iceland—thanks to Gretchen’s ruthless efficiency in waking me up, I’d had some time to kill before my taxi to the airport. Packing had taken me all of twenty minutes, as I hadn’t had a lot of stuff with me.
Even after brushing my teeth, I’d still been able to taste my sister’s tea, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone and dropped into a coffee shop just down the road from her flat—just one of the bland, identikit chains that had sprung up all over London like a pox.
It was quiet inside, post rush hour but before the midmorning mothers’ meetings. There were no customers waiting to be served, and a whip-thin young woman was halfheartedly wiping tables by the window. The good-looking, twenty-something barista behind the counter smiled to see me, not fazed by my walking stick. I wasn’t sure if I smiled back or not. I was mesmerized by the cascade of skulls tattooed on his upper arm, left bare by the sleeveless T-shirt he wore under his green apron.
“What can I get you?” he asked, his accent startlingly American.
“I—filter coffee. Please.” I had to force myself to stop staring at his tattoos and look him in the eye.
“Sure thing. You want tall, grande or supremo?” The skulls seemed to tumble with the movement of his arm, as if some spirit still animated them. There was a memory hovering at the back of my mind, frustratingly unreachable.
“The…middle one. To drink in.”
“Coming right up.” He turned away to pour the drink, and I rested my hip on a stool at the counter. There were other tattoos on his back; I could see teasing glimpses of them peeking out from under his shirt, not enough detail showing for me to recognise what they depicted. I stared, trying to work out the patterns, until he turned with a smile and my coffee.
“Thank you.” I took a deep breath and kept my gaze on his face. I was probably coming off like some creepy, ink-obsessed stalker. There was no sense in trying to force memories out; I’d learned that by now. “You sound like you’re a long way from home,” I said with stunning originality. Was that how I’d chatted up Sven? Then again, we’d both been far from home at the time.
The barista just laughed and leaned on the counter. “Don’t think I’ve seen you around here before either. Are you just passing through, or did you move into the area?”
“I’m staying with my sister.” I shrugged. “But yeah, just passing through, really.”
“Pity.” His lazy smile surprised me by tightening a knot of desire in my lower belly, for the first time since the accident. He had clear blue eyes and shaggy, overlong dark blond hair, with a fresh-faced, boyish smile.
Not my type, I told myself. “How about you?”
“Here for three years. This is just a part-time gig. I’m a student at LSE.”
I stirred my coffee. “Oh? I’m an academic myself. What subject?”
“International relations. So I figure I should get extra credit working in a place like this. How about you?”
“Nothing so modern or practical. Icelandic literature.” I took a sip. It was disappointingly flat, but drinkable.
“Postgrad, right? Or are you a mature student?”
“Postgrad,” I confirmed. Postdoctoral, actually, but it seemed a bit pretentious to say so.
We chatted some more, on and off, as I slowly drank my coffee. Customers came and went or hunched at tables, reading papers and staring out of the window.
I asked about his tattoos.
“Got these in San Francisco,” he said, turning to display the skulls on his shoulder. “Hell if I know what the guy was on, but he did some pretty cool stuff. Did my back too—all kinds of mythic shit.”
He leaned over the counter to give me a better look, and I traced the lines of black and red with one finger. The memory was tantalisingly near. “Wish I could see them,” I said without thinking.
His voice dropped, that lazy smile teasing once more at the corner of his mouth. “I could show you, if you like. I was just about to go for a break.”
I froze. It shouldn’t have surprised me, after the way I’d acted, but somehow it did. Of course he’d think I was coming on to him. Maybe I had been, a little. For a moment, I could see it happening, could see myself following him into the staff toilets, pounding into him desperately, feverishly, as if it would somehow bring back my lost year.
My lost lover.
Maybe he’d talk—
Fuck, yeah, damn, that’s good.
Would he sound like Sven? Would I even know?
“I—sorry,” I blurted awkwardly. “I’ve got to go now. Plane to catch.”
“No problem. Hey, you want to grab a beer when you get back from your trip?”
“Thanks, but I’m not coming back. Not soon, anyway,” I added, realising how morbid that had sounded.
“Oh, okay,” he said, smiling. “That’s cool. You have a good trip, now.”
I’d spent half the flight over to Iceland wondering just what it was that tattoos meant to me—or had done, until I’d lost my memory.
I didn’t start to unpack my old belongings until the following day. I soon realised that, for the most part, I didn’t have a clue which were my clothes and which had been Sven’s. Thick, padded jackets and traditionally patterned wool sweaters had clearly been bought here, but by whom? They were all the same size—my size—but couldn’t all have been mine. Why would I have needed two almost identical overcoats? Sven and I must have had similar builds as well as features, I guessed. It seemed obvious when I thought about it, given the “twins” thing. In the end, I just hung the things I liked best in the wardrobe and left the rest, and the cold-weather gear, in the suitcases.
Monday morning, on a whim, I put on a dark, bottle-green shirt that would look good with my navy chinos. I’d always been a little superstitious about wearing green, but I was fed up to the back teeth with fearfulness and uncertainty. I’d fallen down a bloody waterfall and lost my lover; how much more bad luck could there be for me? Bracing myself, I glanced in the full-length mirror inside the wardrobe door. A stranger stared back. Spooked, I shut the door on him. Damn it. This was all so bloody ridiculous.