by Jonny Hyams
A man wakes in a hospital bed with memory loss and his doctor insisting he's a superhero.
|Oh, but he was perfect: that noble face, that thick hair, that heroic form. To see him unconscious and hurt like this — it was like looking on a fallen god.
“Please shut up,” Ellie said out loud. “Please stop being an idiot. You’re going to embarrass yourself one day.” She paused what she was doing, and glanced around the room to check no one heard her speaking to herself.
Bar her patient, the room was empty, and the guards outside would not have heard.
Ellie returned to checking Judgement’s vitals. She had to remain focussed, she decided. A doctor should not fawn over her patients, no matter how muscular or handsome they may be.
After a few more moments of silence, she said, “Besides, he’s not even as muscular as he looks on TV. He’s shorter, too.” She thought he looked shorter, anyway. Her only encounters with Judgement so far had him in a horizontal positional, and not in the way she would like.
As usual, his vitals were perfectly healthy. Ellie did not need to bother testing anything else to know what the results would be. His everything was perfectly healthy. And even though he appeared to be in a coma, his brain activity did not match that of a regular coma-patient’s.
Of course, Judgement was not entirely human — or perhaps not even slightly human — so that complicated things. Not that this stopped her superiors from expecting results.
She unwrapped a chocolate from her secret stash and popped it in her mouth. Knowing full well that her annoyance with her patient was irrational, she poked one of his arms, and told him between gooey chews, “You really are a nightmare. You know that, right?”
The arm moved and Ellie jumped. She almost choked on the chocolate.
Judgement opened his eyes, groaned, and rubbed his face. “So I’ve been told.” As though he had not just woken from a month-long coma, he sat up and looked around. “Where am I?”
“Saint Francis Hospital,” Ellie said, swallowing the remains of her chocolate. She could feel herself blushing for some reason. “My name is Doctor Grant. You had a nasty fall. How are you feeling?”
“Like I had a nasty fall.” He grimaced and rubbed his face again. “What did I fall from?”
“You fell from one of the Twin Towers.” Ellie had seen it on the news — several people had caught it on camera — and the image of his tiny silhouette tumbling from the sky, backlit by the incandescent glare of windows, was fused into her brain. The country mourned that day, to see its hero so unfairly cast down.
No one truly knew how or why it had happened. Naturally there was gossip, and rumours, and conspiracy theories.
Ellie herself was partial to the idea that Doctor Death was involved.
Judgement said, “Pardon?”
“It was the North Tower, to be exact.” Ellie said. He still looked blank, so she added, “At the World Trade Center."
Judgement swung his legs off his bed so he could perch on its edge, and cradled his head in his hands. There was no intravenous drip to get in the way — the nurses had tried to give him one, and failed to pierce his skin. “My head really hurts. I can’t think straight.”
Ellie hesitated. For Judgement, a headache and confusion might mean nothing, or it might mean something incredibly serious, or it might mean something in-between, or it might even mean something positive — she really had no way to know. “What are you?” she wanted to demand of him.
But Ellie believed a doctor should not show weakness in front of her patients, so instead she said, “You need more rest. You fell off a skyscraper – be happy all you have is a headache.”
Judgement sighed. “What actually happened to me?”
Ellie pulled her phone from her white coat. She had it set to airplane-mode — just to be safe, as she knew the equipment in the hospital was modern enough to be shielded from radio-waves. She took a few seconds to find the video she was after.
Judgement took the offered phone and watched himself fall from one of the Twin Towers, and grunted. “I saw videos of this back in 2001. That’s not me.”
Ellie did not say anything. She was not sure what to make of Judgement’s behaviour. The video continued as the cameraman ran closer and closer to the fallen figure, which had now smashed into the ground. Sirens wailed through the phone’s tinny speakers, as the camera zoomed in on Judgement’s unconscious face, on his square jaw and thick hair.
In real life, Judgement gaped at the phone.
Ellie knew the image of Judgement lying in his tarmac crater would hold for exactly eight seconds before the video would cut to black. She counted down in her head, then reached out and gently pried back her phone. “Well?”
“That was me,” he whispered. “That was definitely me. But that can’t be me.”
“Of course it can be you. You’re Judgement, all-American superhero. You’ve been through worse. Falling from the Twin Towers — that’s no big thing for you.”
Judgement reached out and gripped her hand. “I want you to listen to me very carefully right now. My name is Jake Gallagher, and I am a librarian. My name is not Judgment, I am not a superhero, and I am definitely not all-American. I’m Irish.”
“That’s a mighty-fine impression of a Southern accent you have going on then.”
“What are you talking about? I—” He cut-off, looking aghast, and tried to stand. His legs gave way, and he crumpled to his knees. His broad chest heaved. “What have you done to my voice?”
“I haven’t done anything. That’s your voice. That’s your accent. That’s how you’ve always sounded.”
“That’s a lie!”
Dealing with angry and irrational patients was all part of the job, and that was fine, but Judgement was capable of levelling the entire hospital. Ellie considered hitting the panic button sewn into her coat; the two armed guards would rush in, but what would they do?
What could anyone possibly do to subdue Judgment?
Ellie marched to her desk where she kept her stash of treats, fished one out, marched back, and offered it to him. “Strawberry chocolate?”
Judgement looked up at the red-wrapped chocolate being wafted in his face.
“They’re my favourites,” Ellie said, “but I’ll share one with you anyway.”
Judgement huffed, dragged himself back onto his bed, and stared Ellie down. A moment later, a smile flittered in-and-out of existence at the corners of his mouth. “They’re my favourite too.” He took the chocolate.
Ellie fetched another chocolate for herself, and the two of them ate in silence.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” he said after a while.
“I’m sorry, Jake. I believe you believe it, absolutely, but I was here from the moment the paramedics brought you in. You wore Judgement’s costume, you looked exactly like him, and the paramedics had just pried you from the tarmac at the foot of the Twin Towers. How could you be anyone else?”
He was silent for a moment, and then said, “You still called me Jake, though.”
“I’ll call you whatever you want me to call you.”
Jake smiled, and opened his mouth to speak, when the doors were thrown open with a crash.
Ellie jumped, and turned to see a man dressed in a formfitting bodysuit and cape stride in. Her two security guards trailed him, looking sheepish. Upon spotting Jake, the newcomer stopped where he was. “Brother!” his voice boomed.
“Oh for Pete’s sake,” Jake grumbled.
The man marched forward and put a big hand on Jake’s shoulder. “Tell me true, are you well?”
“What’s it to you?”
Ellie didn’t know who this newcomer was. Dressed in the gold and scarlet of Judgement, and with the same square jawline and thick hair, this man was a decent imitation of Jake. Looking closer, though, Ellie could see that this new hero was a touch taller and a tad more muscular. Could there be two Judgements?
God, that introduced some … interesting … possibilities.
“I see you have visited realities you should not, brother. What do you hope to gain by letting this human control you?”
Jake brushed the superhero’s hand from his shoulder. “I don’t know who you are, but you’re no brother of mine.”
“I am the champion of this country and defender of this planet. My name is Judgement.”
Jake opened his mouth and closed it again, and then turned to Ellie and said, “I feckin’ told you I wasn’t him!”
The superhero — Ellie was not at all convinced he was the real Judgement — clasped Jake’s wrist. “I can help you, brother. Come with me.”
“Now you hold on just a moment,” Ellie cut in, confused and annoyed. “This is my patient, and he is under my care. I will not have you just … gallivanting off with him.”
“I appreciate your concern, good doctor,” the superhero said, “but you find yourself involved in a matter you cannot hope to comprehend. This man is Doctor Death, and he is a danger to you all.”
“I … what?” Ellie said, and looked at Jake.
Jake pulled free of the superhero and threw his arms up in the air. “I wash my hands of this ridiculousness. If you need me you’ll find me in the nearest pub.”
“I know you’re still in there, brother,” the superhero said, grabbing Jake’s wrist again and preventing him from walking off. “Do not fight me — you know it is for the best you let the innocent return to his reality. Come.”
“Look, mate, I’ve had a really long day–” Jake started. His voice turned to confusion as he plunged his closed fist into the superhero’s stomach. Ellie swore she saw a thin blade mist into existence in his hand as he did so.
Dark blood spurted, and the superhero gasped.
Looking terrified, Jake pulled the knife from Judgement’s gut.
“I see…” Judgement wheezed. “So this is how you circumvent the Pact. Clever.”
“This isn’t me,” Jake said, sounding helpless as he plunged the knife into Judgement again and again, making a gory mess of his chest and face. “I can’t stop. Doctor Grant, help me!”
Ellie rushed forward, not thinking, and grabbed his arm. “Stop it! Stop it, Jake!”
The two guards now had their guns trained on them. “Out the way, doctor!” one of them said.
Jake let Judgement slump to the ground, and threw the knife at the guard that had spoken. The guard fell, and the other started firing. Agony exploded through Ellie’s chest. She had been shot. She tried to scream but could not find the breath.
Jake strode to the remaining guard, bullets ricocheting off him. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “It’s not me doing this.” Ellie could not see what he did to the guard, but a moment later his body thumped to the ground.
Alarms were going off and lights were flashings. Jake walked back to Ellie and knelt beside her. “Help me,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”
Ellie coughed, and felt blood trickle from her mouth. “I think I might need a doctor.”
“I’ll get you one.” He hesitated, and looked to Judgement. “Is he dead?”
The superhero, Judgement, America’s champion, Earth’s defender, was not breathing. “Yes.” She looked at the two guards. Even though every word hurt to say, she added, “They’re all dead.”
“I killed them.”
“It’s stopped for now. I’m me again.” He shook his head, as if to clear it. “Wait here, Doctor Grant, I’ll find you a doctor.” He ran off down the corridor, chasing the alarms. Everyone would be evacuating the building, Ellie knew.
She also knew she would soon die without treatment.
She dragged herself to Judgement’s corpse, teeth clenched against the pain. This man, this bloodied chunk of meat, his death — it meant nothing to her. Just another life lost. She had encountered much death in the hospital. This was not any different.
She closed her eyes, waiting for Jake to save her. “Please … stop being an idiot,” she said, spitting blood with the words. “You’re going to … embarrass yourself one day…”
There was no one alive in the room to hear her.
The alarm sung and the lights danced.
And Ellie waited to be saved.