I Like Your Smile

(Inspired by this writing prompt.)

Comments and critiques are always welcome.

Memory is an artist’s interpretation of the facts, a construction of patchwork signals put together to fit a narrative, to confirm a singular, easily influenced, perspective of events.

“How threatened did you feel?” “Did you feel threatened?” “How did you feel?”

I look out my window at the squat, brown and grey streets outside my building. It’s morning, and there’s something about those pale blue hours that make the city feel even dirtier than usual. The wan lighting washes away the few colours left, blending them into the grimy bricks and windblown concrete. It’s a scene that frustrates me as much as it comforts. There is a certainty there, though it’s a certainty of slow decline. Everything falls apart, but that still takes awhile. Entropy, you know? People get worked up over the idea that one day the sun will burn out. There’s something in that fact that tugs at a primal instinct, but that’s just our primitive senses coming to grips with yet another form of death. Some day the room I’m standing in will be nothing but empty air, a space where something used to be. But it was something else before this building was put together, and it was something else the day before I moved in. There is no solid state, no unbroken passage from there to here, from here to the future. Not for me.

The canvas is filling out now, as I dab away with pastels that can’t quite capture what I see. This is part of my art therapy, a personal decision made from the available options. If I could put down what I see, what I feel, I could capture it more permanently. But it’s never what I see, or what I feel. It’s another interpretation, another memory, as flawed as the ones in my head. I’ll look at it again in a month and it will be foreign. I think again about photography, but even that is a flashbulb of a single moment, and memories are not about moments. They are about continuous experiences.

I’ve done all I can with the paint, so I begin to clean up and put things away. As I’m cleaning the brushes, my phone begins to ring from its perch on the cheap dresser next to my bed. I live in a small bachelor apartment, so it’s an easily accessible spot. I try to wipe the paint from my hands with a moist rag, but by the time I’ve removed enough to feel comfortable touching things, the ringing has stopped. I check the missed call, and Samantha’s broad, toothy smile fills the screen. She’d taken that picture herself when she added her number to my phone, and I couldn’t help but admire her for it. Her smile was not pretty in any of the classical senses, but her picture had effectively captured how it was warm in an unselfconscious way. When I thought of her, it was that smile that I remembered, more than the frizzy brown hair that complimented the colour of her skin, or her slightly upturned nose.

The phone buzzed in my hand, and I read her incoming text message. “Meet me at the bar. 5pm.” I sent her an affirmative response, then returned to my cleaning.

The city itself felt like a memory, something that had happened before. I passed a mural of a bustling main street scene, full of laughing children, smiling parents, set against a blue sky. The mural was faded and cracked, and the drugstore it had been painted on was boarded up, with a “For Lease” sign hanging in the window. I lived on the outskirts, where the architecture itself was an imprint of a previous time.

I continued on through the cold afternoon. My apartment was pretty close to the bar where Samantha wanted to meet, but even that distance was like passing into another era. Within the space of a few blocks the stores went from heavy, iron-barred faces to the slickly updated facades erected for the influx of young, new money. Years from now, who would remain? Perhaps the city was more like a body, gradually replacing and rebuilding itself over time, so that, while it was structurally the same, the pieces were always different. Black coffee replaced by flavoured lattes, greasy spoons replaced by organic, locally sourced upscale burger restaurants. Each a distinct identity inhabiting the same shell. Who could say which was the right one, the one that was more real, that belonged.

My preoccupation with identity and memory isn’t something spontaneous, or even unique. It’s a big part of the zeitgeist. It’s been that way ever since the so-called “Erase and Replace” laws were passed. Ever since someone had the bright idea to start scrubbing the brains of people who committed certain severe crimes. It was cheaper than life in prison, they said, more humane than capital punishment. Everyone wins.

But how do you feel when you realize there are years of your life that you can’t grasp? Not that they’re hazy, that the dates have become blurred and indistinct. They are simply absent, as if they never happened. I was living a life, going to a decent school, and then I was moving into my apartment of faded wallpaper and cracked linoleum. Just like that. I had a job doing shift work at the chocolate factory near the edge of town, the only one still up and running, and I did art therapy. My life was like a scrolling stage in a video game, always pushing forward, with nothing to look back at, nowhere to return to.

The bar I met Samantha at, with the nondescript name of The Imperial, was straddling the line between the past and the future. A son had taken over from his weary father, and was doing his best to appeal to a fickle crowd of new money, with off-beat menu items and import beers to go along with the only local brew still in production, while also trying to keeping the local regulars happy. He seemed to have gotten lucky with the interior at least. The brash, grainy wood and old, exposed brick being played off as ironic kitsch. Samantha hated it, complained about the sour alcohol tang that clung to every surface, and hated the hipsters who came to it even more. “How long till they realize they’re not fucking tourists here?” she’d said. But it was the only place within walking distance of where both of us lived, so it’s where we went when she wanted to drink something stronger than fair trade coffee.

Samantha was waiting at a booth in the back corner, a tumbler of what I assumed to be whisky and water on the pockmarked table in front of her. It was her hard drink of choice, which meant that I was in for a long night. She went for the whisky when she really felt like complaining. I stopped at the bar to order a beer. The bartender knew me by sight, and knew to reach for something other than another PBR. I carried something heavy and German over to where Samantha sat.

“How was the painting, James?” she asked as I sat down across from her.

“I’m going to be the next van Gogh,” I said.

“He used actual colours. You know what those are, right?”

I shrugged. Sam was one of the few people I’d shown my paintings to. Really, she was one of the few people I could show them to. She was the only friend I’d made, and that was mostly her doing. I’d explained to her the reasons for the painting I did, and I was pretty sure she understood them. It didn’t stop her from poking fun, though. I liked that about her.

“Anyway,” she said, and took a sip of her whisky. It was probably her first, but I didn’t think it would be her last. “You would not believe the bullshit I’m putting up with at the factory.”

I listened attentively while Sam talked. She was now the head of our shift, which made her effectively my boss, but the work was straightforward and most of her managerial attention was directed at her peers. There was always some sort of union politicking going on, and none of it happened without her being involved from the start, or becoming involved as soon as she found out. She told me it was her responsibility, as her father had been a union rep. As conversations go, talking with Sam about her job was one-sided. My main contribution was to nod at the appropriate times and throw in a few token words of agreement now and then. I didn’t mind it at all, as I would have little to contribute otherwise. Sam’s other main topic, and also the other reason we came to The Imperial, were the hipsters and their gentrification of the neighbourhood, both of which she openly despised.

It was dark out by the time Sam had run through her list of complaints, and had her fill of mocking the skinny jeans and flannel shirts in the bar. When she realized that a short, pudgy guy sitting at a table nearby was ironically wearing a shirt with the name of one of her favourite bands, it was time to leave.

We navigated the chilled evening streets by the light of the newly repaired street lamps–the promise of extra commercial opportunities went a long way for local upkeep–until we found a place that would sell us something suitably cheap and greasy to eat. A little shawarma restaurant, door propped open to entice the evening street traffic with the smells of cooking meat and warm pitas, that was just ethnic enough to be interesting to residents both old and new. And really, who doesn’t need a falafel once in a while?

Wraps in hand, we wandered back outside. Normally, we’d take them over to a bench at the entrance to a nearby park, a spot from which we could see the sporadic lights of the trio of high-rise apartments that loomed over the commercial streets. We were on our way to doing just that, but as we passed a discount electronics store, something caught my eye, and I stopped.

“What is it?” asked Sam, as I stared through the security bars, fixated on an LCD screen that had been tuned into a local station.

I didn’t answer for a long time. There had been something, an image, that had flashed on the screen and fired off a signal flare in my brain. It was important, it demanded attention. But it had been too brief to track. It had been something, but I couldn’t say what. “I’m not sure,” I said at last.

The TV was showing an interview. A vaguely familiar local media face, all pressed grey suit, white teeth, and hair products, sat across from a woman. There was no sound, but it was obvious that she was there to promote something. She wore a sharp-edged suit the colour of fresh blood, and had a heavy mane of dark hair that framed large and equally dark eyes. “She’s pretty,” said Sam. Which was true, but not why I’d stopped. The caption named her Natalie Cook, and she was the author of a book titled Survivor’s Guilt. I assumed it was part of the increasingly popular reality-based crime fiction sub-genre. With how court records in the cases of crimes that would necessitate memory alterations were sealed for the duration of the sentence, there was very little of it that ever made the news, and people still craved that vicarious violence. What court records could be accessed were ritually cannibalized to create “based on a true story” novels full of all the gory details.

I was prepared to move on when the host asked a smiling question of the author, and she smiled back before answering. It was a demure smile, no teeth, a slight tilt of the head. It was the kind of smile that took practice, I thought. A wave of intense deja vu washed over me, then caught in my throat, as if it could physically choke me. I took a step back and nearly dropped my sandwich as my hands went numb. I knew that smile. I knew it as sure as I knew my own face in the mirror. I knew it like I knew my own name. But I could not remember ever having seen it before.

I have dreams. I know I do, because I can remember them as I have them. I get a brief flash of self-reflective consciousness in those moments where it becomes entirely obvious that I’m in an alternate reality. I remember that I have the dream, and I remember that the dream was about something mundane–my dreams are always surprisingly mundane–but I don’t remember the contents, the specific events. Like my memories, the dreams lose all detail. Like my memories, the dreams are vague impressions of events that could have happened to someone else. I had a theory that maybe I was remembering a day that had been lost to me whenever I had one of those dreams, but that was impossible to confirm.

They say that the Erase and Replace process has a 95% success rate. Statistically, that’s something that everyone seems to be comfortable with. You get moved around, it’s like witness protection. Out of sight, out of mind. That’s how it’s supposed to work. It’s not that I can’t remember my childhood, growing up, where I was raised, but it’s so distant. There’s a continuity issue. Not in the movie and TV sense–not as if there’s a camera cutting back and forth, showing the same glass as both full and empty–but in the sense that the gap of years is real, it’s a dam between myself and my self. Who I think I am and who I must have been. Sometimes I worry that my dreams and my memories become mixed up in my head. How would I know?

Natalie Cook had a smile that I knew in my bones. I had never met Natalie Cook before, as far as I knew. How far was that? The length of the two years I’d been living here. My body, my emotions, were reacting without telling me why. They understood what was going on at some deep, subconscious level that I had no access to.

I ate my sandwich listlessly. I felt textures–the soft bread, the crunch of the onions and pickled turnips, the slightly chewy chicken–but tasted nothing. I looked at the apartment buildings and saw them as towering concrete masses, the lights of individual apartments blinking on and off like a computer in a ’50s B movie. Sam sat next to me on the bench, waiting expectantly as she ate, taking the occasional sip from a can of Coke she’d bought with her wrap. I knew she was waiting for me to tell her what had happened. I didn’t know what to say.

“Too much hot sauce,” I said at last. “I should have got a drink.”

“Yeah,” said Sam, still waiting. “That’s what I always tell you.”

I crumpled the wax paper around the open end of my sandwich and set it down on the bench. I could see Sam watching me, eyes open and curious. “So,” I said, “you saw that?”

Sam coughed out a little laugh. “Yes. Yes, I did see that.”

I shrugged. “What do you think?”

“I think that you’re not enough of a hipster to have moved here willingly, James,” she said. “I mean, maybe if you were a chocolate lover you could justify the job, but you don’t even take from the trash bins.” She didn’t mean actual garbage, she meant the big plastic bins that were filled with any dropped chocolate, even bars that were already fully wrapped and sealed. Anything that hit the floor was automatically binned, and workers were free to take as much of as they wanted. “You don’t move here unless you enjoy spending a hundred bucks for a pair of second-hand skinny jeans, or you think selling your sister’s hand-me-downs for thirty times what they were originally worth is a sustainable business model.”

“It’s not like that–.”

“James, I’ve known you for a while now now. Do you think I’m dumb? Come on.”

“You knew the whole time?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“‘Knew’ is a strong word. I suspected, just like I said. People like you don’t come to places like this unless they have a reason, and that reason is not painting boring cityscapes or cleaning up melted chocolate with a mop.” She took a bite of her sandwich, chewed, swallowed. “I looked you up online. A history of nonspecific psychological issues, years of therapy. It doesn’t take a genius to do the math.” She took another drink from her Coke, a quick and automatic action, and showed me that warm smile. “Truth is, I kind of like it. It’s more interesting than anything else around here.”

I wasn’t sure how to react to that. “What is it, exactly, that you think I’ve done?”

She frowned slightly at that. “I’m not sure. It must have been something pretty bad, that’s how it works, isn’t it? It’s usually murder, right?”

I felt something within me let go, and I began to relax. “It’s usually murder,” I repeated, relieved that it was out in the open.

We were quiet for a bit. I picked up my shawarma and began to eat again. The bread was no longer warm, and had become soggy from the grease and sauces, but at least I could taste it.

“Are you supposed to report to a parole officer or something?” asked Sam. “If you start to remember?” She gave me a squint-eyed look. “Do you remember anything?”

“No,” I said.

We finished eating together, not saying much, and then said our goodbyes before splitting up for the walk home, though Sam seemed reluctant to leave me. I told her I just needed to sleep before an oncoming headache caught me. She relented after insisting that I call her first thing in the morning to let her know if I remembered anything else. I told her that she’d be the first to know.

If I had dreams that night, I didn’t remember any of them. In the early morning I woke with a start, the same sensation as I got sometimes when in that moment of semi-sleep my body is convinced it’s about to fall. A physical imprint of a mental impact. I stumbled to the bathroom and threw up while my head pounded. I lay back down, but sleep wouldn’t come, and my body became restless. I sat down at the drab table I used as a desk and booted up my laptop. The artificial light of the screen stung my tired eyes. I did a quick google search for Natalie Cook, read her biography on Wikipedia. There was nothing there that seemed familiar, but how could I know if any of it were true?

I did an image search. There was one of her, smiling that smile. It was a picture taken of the “About the Author” section on the inside of the dust jacket of Survivor’s Guilt. A few more clicks and I’d ordered a copy of the book. Satisfied, I closed the laptop and crawled back into bed. The headache was fading, and soon I was back asleep.

There is a fundamental problem with ignorance. It has to be pure in order to be truly effective for that whole bliss thing to work out. Even the slightest drop of doubt will damage it, often beyond repair, like drops of black in white paint. People can fight against that doubt, and they do. They fight as hard as they can, because somehow, almost paradoxically, they know that it only takes a tiny crack to permanently weaken that perfect, virginal state of snow-white ignorance. That crack lets curiosity seep through, and where curiosity flourishes, ignorance perishes.

I was ignorant of my past, and I might have remained ignorant if Natalie Cook had never smiled at me the way she did. Now, though, my perfect shell was pierced. There was no taking it back, there was no ignoring it. Sooner or later, I would have to know. Maybe my shell had never been perfect in the first place, and it only took someone shinning a light to expose those cracks. Either way, the situation was the same. I had to find out who I had been, who that person who looked back at me from yearbook photos was.

It didn’t help that Sam was all over it as well. She was my friend, and I valued her support, but the way she looked at me sometimes. It wasn’t quite salacious. Perverse, maybe? Her interest was definitely above and beyond the call of duty.

She was the one who looked up Natalie Cook’s book tour and found the date and time when she would be within driving distance. (Apparently hipsters bought vinyl locally, but preferred Kindles for reading. That trust fund cash hadn’t helped local bookstores very much.) She was the one who offered to drive me. Which is why a few days later, even before the copy of her book that I’d ordered had arrived, we were pulling into the flat, treeless expanse of parking lot outside a large bookstore the next town over.

Sam parked as near to the store entrance as she could, resting the car’s front tires in shallow puddle slicked with gasoline. The sky was a ceiling of placid clouds, restful after the early morning rain. The parking lot smelled of wet pavement and exhaust fumes. Suburban smells. Different from my own neighbourhood, where travelling on foot was at least possible. We hurried inside.

Natalie Cook held court from a plastic folding table set up on the book store’s main floor. She wore a variation of the red suit she’d been wearing when I saw her interview. This one was a deep purple, the colour of a bruise. Display stands had been shoved to the sides to make space, but the crowd of people waiting for autographs still stretched back to the main entrance. There had been a book reading on the schedule, but we’d arrived too late for that. I’d hoped there would be fewer people around by now. I bypassed the line and led Sam up some stairs, to the cafe that overlooked the rest of the bookstore. We bought some overpriced coffee and settled down to wait out the line. I figured that even if the book signings ran long, I could catch her on the way out. It’s not like I would know what to say to her anyway.

“What do you expect me to do?” I asked Sam. It was her idea, after all.

“See if you remember anything,” she said. “Ask her if she does. I don’t know.”

Maybe it would be enough simply to see her face to face, to look into her eyes. If she recognized me, if I recognized her, we’d know.

After about 15 minutes had passed, Sam stood up. She went down the stairs and grabbed a copy of Survivor’s Guilt from one of the bookshelves, then paid for it at the front counter before bringing it back up to her seat. I finished my coffee as I watched Natalie Cook interact with her fans. Every greeting accompanied by a handshake and a polite smile. Not the smile I’d seen on TV, not the one from the book jacket. A normal smile, but somehow it looked just as rehearsed as the other one. It had a self-aware quality, a moment of hesitation, like she was remembering the exact muscle twitches each time.

“‘Survivor’s Guilt is the true story of one woman’s struggle against the true horrors of human nature,'” Sam read out loud from the back of the book. “‘Natalie Cook takes us inside the lives of 3 high school students who become instant best friends, and the terrible tragedy that ended that friendship permanently.’ I don’t know how people can read this tripe.”

“Do you think she knew any of them?” I wondered.

“Isn’t that illegal?” asked Sam. “Writing about crime that recent, I mean. Her biography says she’s in her mid-20s.”

“Yes, that would be illegal,” I said.

“You could have just known her before, you know. It doesn’t mean she’s involved in any way, especially if you can’t even remember doing anything.”

The ease with which we had transitioned from whys to whats made me a little queasy. The problem was that I knew I must be guilty of something, even if I never found out exactly what it was. I had once believed that if I never found out, it would never matter. What do you do when you find out what kind of evil you really are, anyway? Did I cling to that part of me that hoped it was something that I could at least understand? A moment of passion, a crime that was a weakness to overcome. Everyone makes mistakes, right? I kept telling myself that I am who I am already. There was no malignant entity lurking in my psyche, a Mr. Hyde waiting below the surface.

I ate a carrot muffin and read through a tabloid magazine, trying to keep my thoughts occupied. “Man accuses wife of sleeping with aliens. Unwilling to pay child support for ‘Starchild,'” I read aloud. Sam hummed distractedly as she read from the book.

Eventually, the crowd began to thin out, and Sam stood. “Let’s go,” she said, and I followed her down the stairs.

As we neared the front of the line, Sam shoved the book into my hands. My heart began to hammer in my chest, and I could feel sweat on my brow.

“What are you going to say?” Sam asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “Same goes for you. If she recognizes me, if she says something . . .”

“Then what?”

“I’ll ask her how she knows me,” I said.

“How would she know you? Do you remember anything else?”

“No. Which is another reason to say nothing. This could be a mistake, it could be we just went to school together or something.”

Then it was my turn in line. I stepped toward the table, and Natalie Cook looked up at me. She didn’t smile. She just looked at me for a long, awkward moment, expensive-looking pen held ready in her right hand, while my chest thumped in my ears. Finally, she said, “Name?” I heard it as if it came from a distance. I didn’t say anything.

“James,” said Sam as she stepped up beside me and pried the book out of my frozen hands. “He’s a big fan. You know how it is.”

Natalie Cook smiled politely. I watched her face for any hint of recognition, but saw none. She looked back at me, meeting my eyes, and then handed the book over. “Enjoy,” she said.

I nodded my head mechanically and let Sam tug me away, toward the exit. I looked back once, but Natalie Cook was already speaking to the next person in line, a middle-aged white woman who was gushing animatedly. She did not look back.

A light drizzle had started outside, so we hurried to the car. I held the book protectively under my jacket until we were inside.

“Well?” Sam asked as we pulled out of the parking lot.

“Nothing,” I said, catching my breath. I could feel the distance we put between the car and the bookstore like a pressure release on my nerves. My heartbeat was calming. “Maybe that’s it.”

Sam gave me a curious sideways look. “Maybe.”

She dropped me off at my apartment, and even stuck around a bit, reading the signed copy of the book while I lay in my bed, staring at the stains on the ceiling. I guess she was hoping I might still remember something, but I didn’t. I hadn’t slept well the night before, in anticipation of the trip, and I dozed off at one point. When I woke I could see the last of the twilight fading into evening outside my window. Sam had left the book on my desk, next to my laptop. Groggily, I picked it up and opened it to the signature. Maybe I’d recognize the handwriting. Maybe I’d have to live the rest of my life with this looming uncertainty over my head.

Only, there was no signature, or dedication. Instead, a neat hand had written a message: “522 River Street. 9:30pm.” I knew where that was, it was only a couple of blocks away from the chocolate factory.

I checked the time on my phone. It was 8:27pm. If I left immediately, I might still be able to make it.

More than the rest of the town, I associated smells to the industrial district. The cloying scent of milk chocolate mixed with the smells of dirt and rust, that was an aroma that I encountered most days of the week on my way to and from the chocolate factory. I’d tried to understand it visually. I’d brought my paints out and tried to let the buildings express themselves to me. They were too dead, though. There was not a struggle for identity as there was in my neighbourhood, but merely a collection of rotting corpses. Exoskeletons of soiled concrete block and crusted steel that had been hollowed out and left to the weather, utterly lacking personality. Sam was convinced they would eventually be converted into studio spaces, arty communes for the latter-day hippies, the ones who shared some of the culture of the hipsters she hated, but not the money.

There was a bus that serviced the chocolate factory directly, as it was the only reason anyone came to that part of town. It stopped right at the corner, so that’s where I got off. It was 9:35pm. and I began walking hurriedly in the direction of River St., which was a couple of blocks north. I nodded politely at people I recognized from other shifts as they sat near the loading bays drinking coffee from paper cups. There were a few questioning looks, wondering if I was there to cover a shift, but I gave a single negative shake of my head, and they lost interest.

The spacing of working street lamps became wider and wider as I moved away from the active factory. The sky had cleared up enough to allow some yellowy moonlight through. The streets were wide to accommodate large delivery trucks, and also completely empty, so there was no danger of running into anything as I walked down the middle of the road, along the faded divider, until I reached River St., where I consulted the map on my phone, and then turned right.

Why meet out here? I could understand wanting to be discrete, if Natalie Cook really did know something about my past, especially as a writer. If she recognized me from that, it could mean her work was illegal. Still, this seemed extreme. A chat in her hotel would have been as good. One more mystery on my pile. It made me uneasy.

When I arrived at 522 River St. I saw Sam’s weary-looking blue Toyota, small and alone in the empty parking lot of an abandoned strip mall. There was a single street lamp providing flickering light, but the stores were all boarded up, dark and silent, revealing nothing. I checked the car. It was empty, the hood was cold. My phone told me it was 9:48pm.

An alley ran behind the strip mall, a means for goods to be delivered without clogging up the customer parking out front. It was cluttered with old garbage, debris that nobody thought was worth taking away when everything shut down. I could see a back door propped open half way down the alley, so that’s where I went.

“Hello,” I said as I stood at the threshold. There was no light inside, so I used my phone, sweeping it back and forth and revealing filthy, grease-covered counter-tops and cooking surfaces. It was the kitchen of a fast food restaurant, I could tell that much. Strong, musty smells of thick dust and rat droppings. I stepped inside. “Hello,” I called again. No answer.

My light showed another open door, leading to what must have been a manager’s office when this place had still been open. It was even darker inside, without the glow from the alley. I shone my light around, and saw a familiar figure sitting slumped in a chair against the far wall. “Sam,” I said as I darted forward. She was breathing in shallow gasps, and I realized she must be unconscious. I shook her gently by the shoulder, and her eyelids began to flutter. “Sam,” I repeated. “Are you alright? What happened?”

Her head rolled back as her eyes cracked open. She looked at me, attempting to focus. “James,” she said, voice husky with pain. “You have to get out of here, James. She’s fucking crazy.”

Before I could ask for any sort of clarification, the door to the office slammed shut. I spun around, holding the light up, and saw Natalie Cook, still wearing her purple suit, which looked the colour of dried blood in the dark of the abandoned restaurant. In her right hand I could see the dull metal of a pistol, pointing directly at me.

“Hello, ‘James,'” she said, saying my name as if it were an amusingly sick joke. She smiled at me, not the one she had used at the bookstore, but the one I had seen on TV. The one that sent a cold shiver down my spine, even without the presence of a gun. “And I was worried you wouldn’t make it.”

I had spent a lot of time over the last couple of years thinking about the idea of justice. How could I not? I was someone who knew that I had committed a crime, a crime so bad that it needed to be erased from living history. The loss of my memory, of my identity, was that enough to qualify as justice? Did that punishment fit the crime? How could I know that without knowing what the crime was? How could it be called justice at all when nobody involved could connect cause with effect? I had more questions than answers. The system tried to sidestep that debate by releasing the convicted back into the wild, giving them a new start. Society had decided that rehabilitation, however draconian the methods, was the goal. That’s how the arguments went.

But that insatiable instinct, that need to know, was always there. For all I know, my mind had been probing the entire time, waiting for a sign. Because even though I couldn’t remember anything of my criminal years, that is still where I lived. That hole was where I was trying to set the foundation of my life, of who I thought I was, and it just sank deeper and deeper the more I tried to build. I was never going to move on unless I know where I had been, no matter how bad it was. Even if I found a monster at the end of that journey, I would still have to take it eventually.

Those had been my thoughts on the bus ride from my apartment, as I wrestled with why I still needed to find out, after all the dead-ends, and even as my body tried to physically rebel. I had been prepared to find that monster, I’d thought, within myself. I had never counted on there being another monster as well.

“She’s a fucking psychopath,” Sam muttered at me. We were sitting next to each other against the rough wall of the office. Natalie Cook had taken away my phone, and Sam’s as well. She had forced Sam to use a roll of silvery duct tape to bind my wrists together behind my back. Apparently she had not counted on there being two of us, but the gun was probably more than enough to keep Sam docile.

“Shut up,” said Natalie Cook, voice coming through clenched teeth. She sat on the chair, legs crossed, gun pointed lazily in our direction. In her other hand was a heavy-duty flashlight, the type that is as good for beating someone with as it was for light. It was pointed at the floor, the light bouncing up to fill the small room, revealing all of the dust motes that our activity had disturbed.

“Natalie,” I said. “We can talk about this. Let Sam go, and we can talk about this. If you’re worried about your book, don’t be. I don’t care what you write. Seriously.”

Natalie raised the flashlight, shining the light into my eyes, forcing me to squint and turn away. “You want to talk about the book? You want to talk about how you don’t care about the book?” She began to laugh, a harsh cackling sound. “You really don’t remember, do you?”

“No,” I said.

“Well that’s not good enough,” she shouted. “It’s not fucking good enough.”

“If I did something to wrong someone you loved, if I hurt someone. If I . . . killed someone.” I said, trying to sound reasonable. “I’m . . . ” I trailed off. What was I? Not sorry–how could I be sorry for something I didn’t remember doing? “I regret it. I wish it had never happened. I wish I could take it back, whatever it was.” I left out the, “but I can’t.”

“Oh, no, you would never hurt anyone. You would never kill anyone,” said Natalie. Then she was silent for a second, before raising the flashlight to show her face. “‘I like your smile,'” she drawled, and then she tilted her head and smiled the way she did on her book photo. “Do you still like it?” she asked.

With that, it came loose. I remembered a warm fall day, painted in earthy reds and browns, sunlight yellows and the final reserves of green waiting for a strong frost to root them out. “I didn’t know anything about it,” I said. But I must have. A bookish girl throwing wads of stale bread to the ducks that hadn’t fled south yet. Long, dark curls pulled back into a ponytail, tied with a red ribbon. It was always easier to concentrate on a single truth than to cast around for a lie that might stick. She really did have a nice, practised smile.

“You always were a great liar,” said Natalie. “Even to yourself.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, and I meant it. I really did.

“What’s she talking about, James?” asked Sam.

That’s when Natalie shot her. I felt the bullet impact, a vibration through where our arms touched. The sound was deafening in that enclosed space. When I could finally hear again, I was screaming something at Natalie, and Sam was sobbing with pain. I could see the wound, a dark spot on her jacket, high in her chest. Opposite her heart. That was good, I told myself. It had to be good.

“What are you doing?” I screamed. “Sam has nothing to do with this.”

Natalie shrugged. “I told her to shut up,” she said.

“We have to get her out of here,” I said. “We have to get her to a hospital.”

“You aren’t going anywhere,” said Natalie. “Not until you’ve paid for what you did.”

“What?” I said. I leaned into Sam, trying to keep her upright. Her eyelids were drooping, and her breath was coming in ragged fits. She was dying, and I couldn’t even move my arms to hold her.

“It took me four years to remember that I’d killed those shitstains,” said Natalie Cook. “Do you know what I felt when those memories came back?” She waited for me to respond.

“No,” I said.

“Anger,” she said. “I was fucking angry. That’s not something I did so that I’d forget about it! I sleep better knowing there are three fewer rapists breathing my air.”

I remembered the phone calls, the worried roommates, the police interviews. Three missing girls, then two dead girls. Two dead girls that I had met, that I had told about a great party that they just had to go to. That I would meet them there. That I never saw again, until the pictures of their corpses were shown in the court room. I was charged as an accomplice. Aiding and abetting, an accessory before the fact. Legal words that all meant that I was just as guilty as the ones who had committed the murders. Only, I was the only one who went to trial. The other three, the ones who were there, who did it, were poisoned in their cells. Packages delivered by someone whose identity was unknown at the time. They died in pools of bloody vomit, and I was put under police protection until my sentence had been delivered and carried out.

“You were the one that got away,” said Natalie Cook. “I was having dreams. My therapist suggested I write them down. A publisher showed interest. That worked out perfectly. I knew you’d come wriggling out of your fucking hole like a worm if I used the right bait.” She smiled again. “If I just kept smiling, the way you liked.”

She raised the gun, pointing it at my face. “How about you smile for me now?”

Sam’s breathing was slowing. I could smell the coppery blood, could feel it sticky on the floor beneath me. “You can’t do this. Not to Sam. She’s innocent. Do you understand that? She’s just someone I work with. You have to get her some help.”

“You think your fake sympathy for this slut is going to save you now?” said Natalie. “You’re pathetic.”

Natalie pulled the trigger. There was a bright flash and an incredible noise. I flinched. There was no pain. She had missed, leaving only a small hole in the soggy drywall next to me. She cursed, and then stood, setting the flashlight onto the chair so that it pointed at me and Sam, then extended both of her arms to get a better grip on the gun. I rocked forward, gathered my legs underneath me, and sprung up and forward even as the next shot came. I felt a sting in my left leg, a fireball flare of pain in my thigh, and I stumbled, but I already had the momentum I needed. I plowed into Natalie, head down, shoulder out, and brought her to the ground.

She was screaming in my ear, a ceaseless string of guttural swear words. All I heard was the sound of the gun as it clattered away. I still couldn’t move my arms, and Natalie was clawing at my face, my eyes, my throat. I rolled off of her, toward the direction I thought the gun had gone. My feet tangled with the chair legs, and it toppled over. The flashlight bounced to the ground, sending shadows to wildly lurch around the room, as if it had been dropped into a stormy sea. The wound in my leg caused me to seize up, but I gritted my teeth and kicked out with my other foot, hitting Natalie squarely in the stomach. She gasped as the wind escaped her, and was quiet. I looked into her eyes, wide and white, and saw only hatred, an insane, insatiable need to destroy. She was not going to stop, or listen to reason.

And I knew that it was my fault.

I pushed away with my good leg, rolling again until I felt a hard, metal lump dig into my ribs. I struggled around, getting my hands into position. I was holding the gun now, but what good was that going to do me? I couldn’t aim it, and I couldn’t stand on my wounded leg. Natalie was on all fours, head down as she sucked in air. All she had to do was stand up, and she would be able to club me with the chair or the flashlight, or just leave us in here to bleed out.

I rolled again, away from Natalie, until I bumped up against Sam’s outstretched legs. “Sam, take the gun,” I said, and I dropped it at her feet. I craned my neck around and saw her looking out through heavily lidded eyes. If she couldn’t pick the gun up, we were as good as dead.

I managed to sit up. Natalie was struggling to her feet, looking toward the overturned chair. I used my good leg to manoeuvre around Sam’s legs till I was pushed up against the wall next to her. I wrenched my hands back and forth, up and down, but no amount of twisting or pulling was going to break the layered tape, and it was wrapped too tightly for my to slip a hand free. “Sam,” I said. “Pick up the gun. You have to.”

She grunted, then bent forward and got a hand around the pistol’s grip. She slid it along the floor and pulled it into her lap. “I–can’t–do–it,” she gasped, spitting each word out. There were flecks of blood on her lips.

“Yes you can,” I said, desperate to encourage her. “Lean it against me.” I slid down slightly and put a shoulder under her arm, then lifted it up. She held the gun out, tight enough, but it swayed back and forth. I lifted a little more, then tried to clamp her arm down by bending my neck and resting my head against her. “You can do this,” I said.

Natalie was advancing with pained steps, chair raised in both hands, ready to bring it down on us. I bent my good leg, making ready to kick out at her again. “No,” said Natalie, as Sam pulled the trigger.

The sound beat against the walls, the flare of the muzzle burned into my vision. I blinked, and saw that Natalie was still coming. Sam mumbled something, and then fired again. And again. And again. She kept firing until the gun wouldn’t spit out any more bullets. I couldn’t see anything. I braced for an impact.

The chair hit me in the legs, sending a shock of pain through me, and then everything stopped. I opened my eyes and saw Natalie laying in a foetal position in the middle of the room. The gun had fallen to the floor next to Sam, and she was leaning into me, eyes wide as she struggled for breath.

“It’s over,” I told her. “You’re going to be okay, Sam. It’s over, and you’re going to be okay.”

I was stroking Sam’s hair as her head lay in my lap when the police and the paramedics arrived. I’d found my phone in Natalie’s pocket, and, after I’d made the call, I’d crawled into the kitchen, where I found a shard of glass that I used to cut the tape away. The police flashlights revealed the trail of blood I’d left, which I’d been expecting to see. More horrible was the pool of blood that had leaked from Sam. But she was still breathing when they took her away.

So was Natalie, who had taken a bullet high in her stomach, and another that grazed her left arm. Or so I was told. They were still working out the details, since Sam can’t talk right now and Natalie seems unwilling to. I was questioned, and I answered as honestly as I could.

Sam was going to pull through, and everything she did was self-defence. I didn’t think that would comfort her much, though.

There are some legal precedents involved. Double-jeopardy and a statute of limitations preventing people who have already had their memories altered from being charged for crimes they can’t remember committing, and that’s only if I could remember women that weren’t part of my old charges. A second memory wipe was out of the question. It was too dangerous. Legally, I was free and clear. Morally?

They let me see Sam, and the way she looked at me, like she saw someone else, someone other than the James that I’d been for the last few years, hurt more than the bullet wound. I had to tell her everything. I had to tell her that I was a man who had lured women into rapes. Natalie wasn’t the only one, nor were the girls that died that night, when everything went wrong. I could ask her the questions: “How threatened do I make you feel?” “Do I make you feel threatened?” “How do I make you feel?” I didn’t though. I didn’t want to hear her answers.

A bullet was pulled from my thigh. The doctor told me it didn’t hit anything important, not even the bone, and that I’d be able to leave on crutches, or in a wheel chair, long before Sam or Natalie recovered. So, a week later, I did. Without telling anyone, I grabbed a pair of wooden crutches and hobbled my way out of the hospital. I took a taxi to my apartment and packed up my things, but left my paintings. I told my landlord that someone might be around to pick them up, but if not he can throw them out. He gives me a package. It’s the copy of Survivor’s Guilt that I’d ordered. I let him keep it.

I empty out my bank account, and then I get on a bus. I don’t know where I’ll go, or what I’ll do. I just know that I need to be alone for a while. I send Sam a final text as the bus passes the city limits. “I’m sorry,” it says. I want to write more, but I can’t think of anything else to say. I turn the phone off.

Be careful what you wish for, right? I’d wanted to find myself, and now I knew everything there was to know. The only question left was what did that make me? Who did that make me? Was I still the man who had ruined all of those lives, or was I the one who had tried to defend my only friend from death at the hands of a murderer? Were those even different people?

I was now the artist trying to fit those facts together into a coherent whole, to construct the narrative of my life.

“Where are you headed?” asks a young blonde woman sitting in the row across from me.

“Away,” I say, “to start again.”

She smiles. It’s a nice smile, I think.

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