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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Detective · #2269642
You must understand, I was a hunted man.
You must understand, I was a hunted man. I spent my days traversing the shadowed walks of the city and my nights sheltered beneath rags, refuse, and the eaves of mute households. What food I could scavenge, I scarfed down in back-alleys. A match, a cloth soaked in lighter fluid, and a bucket of frigid water served to disfigure my face, to shroud me from recognition. But that was not enough; I hid my features with filth and my past with silence.

My actions were not my own. To be in hiding is to be anyone but yourself. It negates a person ‒ prior you were a certain individual, now you shed that personhood to become another. Any other with the exception of that former identity. Therefore, my actions belonged to everyone but myself. Perhaps you could say that my actions were determined by my pursuers, but that leads to an equivalent conclusion. My actions were those of my adversaries, but because I was not privy to the plots and preconceptions of those men, my actions became those of all possible pursuers. Again, a collective including all but myself.

I am not asking for absolution from my crimes while in flight. I do not claim to be innocent because my mental state was that of another. Such a thing would be childish. I only ask that you understand my condition.

I could not simply erase my identity and become a different man. A single cavalier transition from one person to another risks detection. Instead, I became a multitude. Before my flight, I was invariant under perception. The man who worked at the university, who left out milk for the cats behind his apartment, who penned correspondence to his childhood therapist ‒ they were united under a single name and a single being. Across both moments of time and the eyes of others, my identity always bore a common correlation. You may call this a natural ontological state, but it has only ever been a liability for me.

Take the act of paying for food with cash found after jimmying open the window of an abandoned basement. It would not do for a cashier to be able to recognize me if we crossed paths again a month later, darting among the bustling crowds. My pursuers could chain together a series of such remembrances. Far better if I was a different person by then. In fact, far better if I was a different person from the very moment I exited the cashier’s sight. To ensure my safety, my ideal identity would shift with such vivacity that any conversant would recall each phoneme I spoke as an utterance from a distinct person. If that conversant was later interrogated by my pursuers, they could only report the meaning of my words as a fractured cacophony, a quarreling multitude. If I looked in a mirror, I ought to have gazed at a stranger ‒ for I would have become someone else before the reflection made its way back to my eyes.

If time can be subdivided infinitely, then to be indistinguishable, my identities between any two moments needed to become likewise infinite. Each existence infinitesimal and independent from its predecessors. Of course, my reality failed to achieve this ideal, so they caught me.

I cannot say how long elapsed before I encountered my pursuers. A pair of them passed me in the street, perhaps by chance, on a brisk winter day, marching along with their straight backs, polished shoes, and double-breasted overcoats. I knew better than to panic. I kept my head down and my breath steady, allowing its condensation in the cold air to further shield my facial features. They moved on and hours passed. I reassured myself that my current, transient identity could no longer be linked to the man they sought. And although fears still clung to me, later that night, after the sun lowered itself between the city’s steel towers, exhaustion and malnutrition coaxed me to sleep beneath a worn sheet and the warmth of an exhaust vent.

I awoke from my uneasy slumber to strong hands grasping my frail arms. I hollered and lurched and spat but, although the two men held me at a distance so as to not sully their attire, they did not relent. My feet kicked out over the pavement, searching the ground in a hope to reel in the sharpened knife that I kept by my side each night, but it was lost among the sheets and the darkness. No one came to interfere ‒ they were clear authorities and this was not a street where people interfered. I could feel their eyes crawling over me, gaining advantage over me, reducing my personhood from a set of infinite cardinality to a singleton. One containing the solitary element that I sought to conceal.

The rest is simple, almost irrelevant. They bound me, brought me to trial, sentenced me, and locked me away in this cell. The cell where you came to watch me from the other side of the bars with a mixture of pity and shame. I am but myself again.

I tell you this, though, because I wonder about the role of temporality in these events. As I withered away in my cell, a certain concern pierced my clouded thoughts. When I was in hiding, I was like a draft of a story which an author continuously discards as soon as they first put down words. A blank page holds the potential to relate infinite events, but once writing takes place, those possibilities narrow until they taper to a single collection of fixed sentences. Consider me analogously. Each time I aimed to change my identity, I reverted back to an empty canvas. And each time I was noticed by an outsider, they composed as author some perception of my being, forcing my infinite possibilities to converge towards a single person. The men who hauled me off in the night wrote a novel over me.

But the act of authorship does not create a definite series of events from a just single moment onward in time. It is crucial that each character’s past is written into being at the same time as their present and future. Whether it be through flashback and backstory or through implication and allusion. And that is what you must understand. Perhaps my reality while on the run ‒ as a blank page, as infinite possibilities, as all-but-myself ‒ was my primordial, original state. And the moment those authorities grasped me with their eyes, they crafted not just my present as a screaming refugee in the darkness and my future as a husk in a cell, but also my past and its sordid crimes. How can I know that their cognition did not compose my entire history with such force that even I believe in it? More than just physically, their gaze captured me as an entity within time, my fate sealed from the moment pen touched paper.
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