My first memory was of moonlight winking off the mostly empty glass bottle in my hand....
|Word count: Approx. 3,400
Summary: Written for the prompt: You find yourself curled up around a shopping trolley with a bottle in your hand, with no memory of anything else in your life.
My very first memory was this: moonlight winking off the clear, mostly empty glass bottle in my hand, and similarly off the metal grill of the shopping trolley I was curled protectively around. In the trolley was a clear plastic garbage bag, the kind used for recycling, filled with empty beer and soda bottles; another such bag filled with cans; and also a frayed, filthy duffel bag that I could only presume held belongings—mine or someone else’s.
I sat up slowly, clutching the bottle and taking stock of myself. I was not hurt in any way, and quite clear-headed. Casting an incredulous eye upon the glass bottle I held, I wondered if I’d consumed such a large amount of alcohol in one sitting. Then I chastised myself; of course I hadn’t. I’d be dead if I had. Besides which, my mouth didn’t taste of alcohol. It didn’t, upon further exploration with my tongue, taste of anything at all. Nor were my teeth mossy in the way I’d expect for having slept for any real amount of time after imbibing.
And anyway, I suspected I was a fastidious brusher. One who brushed before bed, as well as after breakfast.
At the thought of breakfast, my stomach growled, and I realized I was hungry. And on the heels of that realization, came my first noncircumstance-related thought: Who am I?
I looked around me. I was lying on a cracked sidewalk near an empty car-park, under a tree. The distant lights of a city—some city, or other—shining like a beacon of . . . something. But of what, I could not remember. Nearer at hand was a dun-colored building, short and sprawling, in the way of a warehouse or perhaps a plant. It had few windows that I could see, and no door on the side that was visible to me.
Still clutching the bottle, I got slowly to my feet and dusted myself off. I was wearing a battered and grimy, olive-drab trench coat; old, brown boots with the laces untied; grey tracksuit bottoms that were a touch too short; and a black t-shirt that was markedly too long. The latter had holes in it that let in the welcome summer breeze.
I put the bottle in the trolley after making certain it was closed securely then shrugged off the trench coat, putting it, too in the trolley. I then patted myself down for a wallet, which was, it turned out, too much to hope for. A search of the duffel bag turned up nothing but old clothes with a faint mildew-sweat reek (much like the clothes I was wearing, and the doffed trench coat), another full bottle that bore the same name as the one I’d woken up clutching: Everclear, and a gallon-sized plastic zip-bag that held what looked to be a few precious keepsakes. Notably, it held several old photographs—very old . . . they were sepia-toned—of unfamiliar people in old-fashioned clothes; what looked to be two wedding bands tied together by a length of ribbon; an old watch, the kind that needed to be wound, made of gold; a woman’s lavender handkerchief made of what felt like silk, and which bore the monogram L. K. D.; a few limp pieces of what I could only assume was currency, bearing the faces of dead men; and finally an antique straight razor, with a white-and-gold filigreed handle, in very good condition. Simply looking at it made me shudder, however . . . the way the moonlight winked off of it, too, was cold, and somehow . . . hungry. I quickly put it back in the bag and closed it. I shoved the lot back in the duffel and buried my face in my hands.
“Who am I?” I wondered aloud, and was startled by the sound of my own voice. It was low and pleasant, and despite my initial start, the sound of it made me feel less frightened. Less inconsolably sad and alone.
My next thoughts were of what I should do with myself. A hospital seemed to be the order of the day, but then . . . would I not be sent to an asylum, to be penned in with the mad? Kept and observed and treated until I remembered who I was?
And who knew when that would be?
No, I decided. A hospital wasn’t for me. For I was neither injured nor mad . . . I simply had no memories prior to waking up on this night. I was certain that I could recover those memories once I was around something familiar, in spite of the fact that the old photos and mementos had jogged no memories loose, nor occasioned even the slightest feeling of familiarity.
I leaned on the trolley for a few moments as I was momentarily robbed of strength and daunted by the days, weeks, months, or possibly even years that lay before me.
And yet, I thought with desperate optimism. Could it not have been worse? Suppose I had woken with no memory whatsoever—a true tabula rasa, like a newborn infant, unable to speak or think or reason, only feel and fear? At least I have a my understanding of the world, such as it is, and as long as that is intact . . . as long as I can reason and understand, I am in good shape.
And I did feel somewhat better about my circumstances for having told myself that.
But the question still remained: What was I to do?
Glancing back at the lights that shone in the distance, under the alien, unforgiving moon, I began pushing my trolley out of the car-park and toward the city.
By dawn, I was exhausted.
But I had reached the city, proper, after pushing the noisy, lurching trolley through the suburbs, and hoping I didn’t run into any authorities. I sensed I would be neither protected nor served by their attention at this time.
Traffic began to appear just after sunrise, and I stuck to the sidewalks, not knowing where I was or where I was going. I simply walked, ignoring the increasing complaints from both stomach and head—and my feet had also joined this chorus of dissatisfaction—passing stores and businesses that were preparing to open for the day. I saw my first people, commuters, shopkeepers, etc. And they saw me and didn’t see me, in a way I was startled to find familiar. The first familiar thing since I woke up, was this way of being seen and not seen.
It’s because I am indigent. They see me for just long enough to un-see me, so that they don’t have to think about me, or think that, there but for providence, go themselves.
This realization also had the ring of the familiar to it, and I sighed, and kept moving, eventually ignoring the increasing populace in return.
As I passed shop windows, I caught my reflection many times over, until at last, I could have picked my own face out of a line-up: I was male—that much I had already sussed out for myself—but my stringy, greasy, mouse-brown hair hung past broad, scarecrow-thin shoulders. A long, square face with aquiline features and haunted dark eyes met mine hesitantly, with a mixture of wariness and curiosity. This, in the midst of a complexion that was—for all that it was likely a homeless one, and in the midst of what was already hinting at a hot summer—pale as a cave-dweller’s. I was neither tall nor short, but quite thin. Almost alarmingly so. And I could not guess my age without closer inspection, but I feared what would happen if I stopped for long enough to make use of the windows I passed. I feared being apprehended by the authorities. For if they questioned me, what could I tell them about myself that wouldn’t see me put in the madhouse, after all?
Anyway, I supposed my age—older than twenty, I guessed, but not yet forty—was the least of my worries.
What mattered was to keep moving, and that’s what I did, until it felt as if my feet would fall off and I’d drop in my tracks. Till hunger pangs became hunger pains, and were rivaled only by the ache in my back from bending to push the trolley. Till, finally, sometime after mid-morning and fast-approaching noon—or so I guessed—I heard them.
Mustering up the energy from somewhere, I began to push my trolley faster, then faster, still, till sooner, rather than later, I was standing at the front steps of a rather plain church.
The bells hadn’t even stopped ringing and I smiled. Here, at last, I might find some help. Churches had to help the helpless, did they not?
There was a young man of perhaps twenty-five or thirty sitting on the front steps, playing with a Jack Russell puppy. Enchanted, I watched them play and play—both tugging on a knotted piece of rope, the former laughing, the latter growling adorably—whilst leaning on my trolley tiredly. I didn’t realize I’d started laughing, too, until the young man looked up and squinted at me, where I stood in the oppressive sun.
He smiled crookedly at me, displaying even white teeth in a very tan face, made all the more dark—compared to my own evanescent whiteness—by the shock of sun-bleached light-brown thatch curling wildly above it.
“Nice day for it, huh?” he said, his baritone rumbling with good humor and the sweet simplicity of an uncomplicated and pleasurable moment shared with another. I nodded once, though it made the uncertain, and somehow detached world suddenly and rather dismayingly revolve.
“Quite,” I agreed, only the second time I’d ever spoken in my admittedly limited memory. And hearing my own voice in comparison with to his, I realized our accents were quite different. His was a drawl, flat but rolling, like the foothills butting a mountain. Mine was more round and precise. Almost clipped and sharp, somehow . . . like a straight razor.
English, I thought, shuddering with a distinct chill despite the heat of the day. I tamped down thoughts of that straight razor under instantaneous excitement and relief at this revelation. English is the language I’m speaking and the accent I have. And his accent . . . why it’s American. Western American, I believe. Could that be where I am? Western America?
“Wow, the young man drawled, his voice on the edge of another laugh. “You look like your day just got real good, real fast.”
“I do believe it just did,” I replied. Then I was swaying to the left as the world really began to spin, and rather nauseatingly, too.
Everything began to go grey—color simply leached out of the world, and the young man let the puppy have the rope and stood up, saying: “Hey—are you alright, buddy?”
I’m fine, I started to say. I’m simply tired.
But everything went decidedly dark before I could get past: I’m.
I’d been suffering three ailments which’d contributed to my swoon outside The Universal Unitarian Church. First and foremost, I was exhausted beyond further endurance—add to that the heat-stroke from walking around all morning without relief or water, and the malnutrition I’d apparently been dealing with for literally longer than I could remember, and you have one rather ill man.
But I didn’t know any of that pertinent information when I woke up, suddenly and quite panicked, at the one place I’d dreaded most: a hospital.
I blinked my way to dizzied, blurred wakefulness to see a small, curtained-off area, possessed of one bed—which I was occupying—one night table, and one chair. On the former was a pitcher of water and a cup. In the later, asleep and snoring just a little, was a familiar figure.
The young man with the puppy.
I remembered him and the dog very clearly, and was thankful for that. But beyond exchanging greetings, I didn’t remember anything else, just a world gone dark until waking up to my sterile surroundings.
Who knew how long I’d been in hospital?
I moved to sit up and noticed I was connected by a tube to an intravenous unit.
Worried about what had already been pumped into my body, all unawares, I tried even harder to sit up and remove the thing. I made little enough noise, weak and tired as I was, but it was enough to wake the young man.
“Easy, there. Easy, fella,” he said, leaning forward to swat my hand away from the tube, which I was trying unsuccessfully to pull from my arm without inflicting further damage. ”That there i.v.’s in ya for a reason. You were pretty thrashed. Still kinda are, I’m guessing from the looka ya.”
“What—what happened to me?” I croaked around a dry, clicking throat and a tongue that felt like three feet thick of dirty, old carpet. The young man frowned.
“Ya don’t remember?”
“I—” leaning back into the pillow and letting the intravenous unit alone—for now; the damage was already done—I thought hard. “I remember we . . . you and I . . . spoke in front of a church . . . then everything went dark.”
“That’s ‘cause ya fainted dead-away.” The young man hitched his chair closer to the bed. He looked weary and worried, and there was beard stubble there that I didn’t remember from our previous meeting. “Dropped like a bag of rocks. Scared the bejeezus outta me and poor Dennis.”
“Who?” I asked, trying to recall another person at our meeting and drawing a blank. But the young man smiled.
“Dennis is my dog.”
“Ah,” I said, relieved that I hadn’t forgotten even more than I already had. I remembered the little brown and white terrier quite clearly. And I wondered where he was, if not with his master.
Then I was wondering something a bit more relevant to my situation. “How long have I been in hospital?”
That crooked smile turned apologetic. “’Bout eighteen hours, give’r take. Depends on how long I been dozin’.”
I gaped. “And you’ve been here all this time?”
He shrugged, sitting back in his chair. “Well, I couldn’t ride in the ambulance with ya on ‘count of Dennis, but after I dropped him off at my sister Shana’s, I drove straight here. Been here ever since. Didn’t want ya to wake up alone.”
I shook my head, puzzled. “But why would you care whether or not a homeless stranger woke up in hospital alone?”
That smile gentled into a self-deprecating, earnest one which quite took my breath away, for there was no artifice in it, and yet I was certain it was the best smile I had ever seen. (And that includes the portion of my life that I’d so inconveniently forgotten.)
“Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” the young man said, blushing just enough to show up under his deep tan. I smiled wonderingly and before I could think about it, I was replying:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me—” I understood as I spoke that I was quoting a Christian holy book, as had the young man before me. “I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
The young man’s smile widened into a dazzling grin, both brilliant and pleasantly surprised, and he leaned forward in his chair again, this time in excitement.
“That’s right! You know your scripture!”
I chuckled weakly, demurring. “It’s been said that even the devil can quote scripture for his own ends. And I know this isn’t exactly prison, but it’s close enough for my ends.” I fell silent for a few moments and we kept smiling at each other. “Oh, and thank you for your generosity and kindness, Mr.—erm—”
“Pfeffer. Evan Pfeffer. You c’n call me Evan. Mr. Pfeffer’s my old man.”
Charmed, I took the hand he held out—it was roughly the same size as my own, only noticeably cleaner and darker. Really, the difference between his tan and my sickly pallor was the difference between night and day. “I’m enchanted to make your acquaintance, Evan, circumstances notwithstanding.
“Well, my, my . . . ain’tchoo a charmer!” Evan laughed and let go of my hand, but only well after a polite few moments for doing so had come and gone like a thief in the night. He stared into my eyes, his own leaf-green ones openly curious, and I looked away, my face heating rather abominably.
“This is the part where you tell me your name, you know,” Evan noted, still grinning. My face grew hotter, still.
“I. . . .” faltering, I couldn’t think up a fake name—John-anything would’ve done in a pinch, but I was once more drawing blank—and wound up blurting out the mortifying, horrifying truth. “I would, but I don’t recall it at the moment!”
Evan laughed again, as if he thought I was making a joke. But the look on my face, stricken, I’m certain, stopped him almost immediately.
“For real?” he asked in a whisper, and I nodded. “Jeezum. Do ya remember anything else? Like a family member or friend I c’n try to contact for you?”
“No, I’m afraid not. For I woke up in a car-park last night with no memory of who I was or anything that might give me any clues as to that. But I do seem to have a working knowledge of the world and I have deducted one thing about myself, so far,” I said, leaning in to whisper: “I’m English.”
“Well, no shit, Sherlock.” Evan snorted. Then he was frowning. “Damn—I oughta run down your doc and tell her about this—”
“NO!” I exclaimed, putting a hand on his wrist to stop him as he made to stand up. He paused, half-standing, half-sitting. “They’ll think me mad! They’ll put me in an asylum if you tell!”
“An asy—listen, buddy, this’s 2014, not 1814,” Evan hastened to reassure me, standing fully. “They don’t institutionalize people for havin’ lost their memory. Now, I’m gonna get your doc and we’ll all get to the bottom of this togeth—”
“No, please, wait!”
Evan paused again in the act of drawing back the curtain and sighed. “Look, they’re gonna start asking ya questions, ya know? Like your name and where you’re from. What’re ya gonna do, then?”
“Lie, of course.” I held out the hand that wasn’t tangled up in the intravenous tube. “Ian English. Very pleased to meet you.” The name came so easily and quickly to my lips, and out of nowhere, that I began to wonder. But Evan rolled his eyes.
“A name they can run through the system and dig up info on. Especially since you obviously ain’t from these United States.”
“Sher am. And I’m proud to be an Amurric’n,” I said, trying my best to imitate his drawl. We both winced.
“Never do that again,” he all but pleaded, and I nodded, chastened.
“I shall endeavor not to.”
Sighing again, Evan came back to my side and took my hand, freeing it from the tubes of my intravenous unit. He squeezed it firmly in both of his and looked into my eyes. “I promise, I won’t let them institutionalize you. Not that they would.”
I shook my head once more. “That’s not something you can promise, Evan, noble though your intentions are,” I said sadly.
“Actually,” Evan murmured thoughtfully. “I can. Leave it to me, buddy, and it’ll be okay. I promise.”
And looking into his eyes, so honest and sure, I believed him.
So I nodded reluctantly, and Evan squeezed my hand once again. Then he was gone, the curtain drawn shut behind him. And I. . . .
I only hoped that I hadn’t made the biggest mistake of my short life.