The first thing he felt was his hand on his head, the texture of his hair. Then he was aware that he was lying on the ground with his eyes closed. He opened them.
He looked up at a thin strip of orange glowing sky, bordered by two brownstone buildings squeezed together. This was a back alley, grungy and filled with garbage.
“Where am I?” he said.
He sat up and rubbed his head. Maybe he had fainted, but he had no injuries and wasn’t in any pain.
Maybe he had drank too much–he had wandered to a strange area in a drunken stupor, puked and passed out. But there were no bottles around him. No puddle of vomit, although the standing water looked the part. And he was fairly clean.
For all he knew, he had just lied down. What was the last thing he was doing? He tried to recall, but found that he couldn’t. He couldn’t remember anything that happened to him.
“Jesus,” he said. A sensation of dizziness struck him. Not a name, not a memory, not a scrap of his self. It just wasn’t there. His heart began racing.
He looked around the alley. Only a couple cans of garbage and a soaked magazine, fuzzily dated in the year 2024. Nothing looked familiar.
So why was he here? Did he come here for a reason? Why would he go to a back alley? Did he come here himself or did someone force him to?
Maybe he’d been in a fight. But again, no injuries. Maybe he’d overdosed on some drugs and stumbled back here. That might explain the memory loss, which meant it could come back soon.
He scooted against a wall, nestling between the garbage can and the piked wooden fence separating the block. He rubbed his temples, trying to coax the memory out. Five minutes passed, growing more frustrated all the while.
“What the fuck-” he pounded on his head. Stinging pain erupted on his knuckles and skull. He blanked out his mind, trying to grab that one memory that had to be there.
Nothing. He felt like he didn’t belong here, like a being outside of time. Maybe that was it, maybe he was a time traveler.
No, that didn’t make any sense. He was a pretty poor time traveler if he had wound up in a back alley with nothing but the clothes on his back.
His brandless t-shirt and pants told him nothing. But something was in the right front pocket, a tube of some kind. He clapped a hand on it. Jackpot.
The ecstatic hope of being able to solve a mystery faded when he pulled out an orange pill bottle, a handful of caplets inside. No label and no writing.
“What in the world are these for?” he said to himself. He took one out and examined it for a brand name or manufacturer, but they were blank.
He was in a lot of trouble if he had some sort of disease, and only a smattering of pills left with no way to get a refill. But they could also be like allergy medicine, taken when needed.
“Well, I feel normal,” he said. “Won’t take these till I need to.” There would probably be some signs of sickness beforehand. He shoved them back into his pocket and felt it rub against some paper. Something else in there?
He pulled out a fifty dollar bill. Thank god whoever left him like this had given him some pocket change. He could hail a cab and get to a hospital.
A cat jumped on a garbage can lid, screeching metal together. He jumped, almost falling into a puddle.
“Jeez,” he said, and looked up. His assailant was a ragged tabby that looked more like a small bear with yellow eyes. “What the hell are you doing?” he asked as he put the money back in his pocket.
The cat looked at him with hungry eyes. “Reow.” Its voice was so gravelly it sounded almost human.
“Jeez, you sound like you’ve been smoking two hundred cigarettes a day.” He laughed. It must have damaged its vocal chords in a fight.
The cat stared back, maybe anticipating a hand-out, maybe getting ready to rumble with this punk invading his turf. Maybe it was his cat. Maybe someone sent the cat with a message.
Argh, too many unknowns. He was starting to get a headache. He could go crazy trying to think of possible pasts. Right now, he would be better off not thinking about what could be. Only what was. And ‘what was’ was a smelly back alley. He had to get out of there and find some help. He couldn’t sit there waiting for some thugs to jump him.
“What’s your name, kitty?” he said as he stood up. “Can I borrow it? I don’t have one of my own.”
The cat looked up at the wall behind it at a concert poster for a band called ‘Ashes of the Memory’. Whoever thought anyone would see it in this alley must have been out of his mind. But he couldn’t help but smile at the name.
“Heh. That’s ironic,” he said.
The cat meowed again, its tone rose at the end like a question.
He smiled. “Hello, cat. Name’s Ash.”
The cat did not answer back.
Ash stepped out of the alley. Maybe finding his identity was just a matter of retracing his steps. Too bad he didn’t paint the soles of his shoes.
He didn’t recognize anything. Shabby and run-down jewelry stores, strip bars thinly disguised as gentleman’s clubs, check cashers adjacent to bars.
Standing still wasn’t going to accomplishing anything. He could go either left or right, but neither path looked appealing. The left looked brighter and livelier, so he headed in that direction.
Every building he passed was a convenience store, a foreign restaurant (usually Greek or Vietnamese), a bail bondsman, or a liquor store. They all had bright, buzzing neon signs over their windows. None of them offered a safe haven.
He looked through the window, thinking about going in and asking for help, but they were filled with strangers. People with long hair and thick mustaches, talking to their friends of the same race and language.
He passed under a jutting sign that read “Duchy’s – Buy o Sell”. The windows, like many others on the block, were barred by wrought-iron. It looked like a prison for guitars, Blu-Ray players, smart phones, and computers.
In the window, there was a TV playing–maybe there was something on to jog his memory.
On screen, a burst of light fluttered by a grassy field. It touched a man on the cheek and he blossomed from depressed and sallow to perky and pert. Then the word Asgardix floated by, along with a long chemical name. ‘Ask your doctor for a prescription’, it read.
Then the logo for HNC Nightly News floated by. Maybe current events would jog his brain. Or maybe he was part of the current events.
Two news anchors started speaking, but there was no sound and no captioning. The scroll at the bottom ran useless headlines like “OREGON PROTESTS AGAINST NEW BIRTH CONTROL RESTRICTIONS”, “MINNESOTA WILD MAKE NHL PLAYOFFS”, “LIONEL STARKWEATHER DENIES STEPPING DOWN AS CEO OF STARKWEATHER INDUSTRIES.”
The news cut away to a forest fire, changing shot by shot to black trees, to half-burnt homes, and then charred animal corpses. Unconsciously, he lifted his hand towards the screen. He didn’t know why, but this had given him a strong sense of familiarity.
The entrance to the store opened with a jingle, and a burly man with a comb-over stepped out.
“Hey, is nice TV, you know? Are you wanting to buy?” He held the door open by one hairy, bulky arm. He was a well-fed Greek–his face was as round as his body, including his nose. .
“I- I, uh… uh,” Ash stammered. He didn’t even know if he had a house to take the TV to.
“Come, come in. Many good things. Come.” The storekeeper gestured for him to come inside.
“No, I just… I’m not looking for a TV right now.” I’m looking for my brain, have you seen it? Maybe it’s in with the watches.
“Okay, okay, what else you want? Is good store. How ’bout nice stereo? Play MP3. Many good things.”
“No, thanks. Is there a way you could…” let me borrow your phone so I can call a number I don’t know.
“You come in, see my store. Many good things to buy.”
Ash gritted his teeth. This was starting to give him a headache. “Look, I don’t want anything. Could you tell me where the police or a hospital or something like that is?”
“Police? Why you want police?”
“I… uh… I don’t know.” He didn’t want to risk telling him that he’d lost his identity. This guy could kill him and no one would know. “Do you know where I can find a hospital or something?”
The storekeeper’s eyes narrowed. “What your deal? You think I have stolen merchandise?”
“No, no. I’m sorry. I got… um.”
“You. Little punk. Get out.” He shook his finger threateningly.
“Look, I’m not with the police. I just want-“
The storekeeper shouted over Ash’s pleas. “You get out of here. Right now. GET OUT!”
Ash ran, nearly falling. The storekeeper jogged after him a few feet and stopped.
Ash got a few blocks’ distance, too afraid to turn back, before he stopped to rest. He would find no help from any of these citizens. They all wanted to sell him something or were looking out for themselves. He was going to have to help himself on this one.
Sweat had formed on his brow. He bunched up his shirt to wipe it away. The skin of his torso felt rough, for some reason. He pulled away his collar and looked down.
His mouth dropped.
His chest was covered in burn scars–knotted fleshy ropes of black, red, pink, and purple. Stretched, mottled skin of a corpse. Pale, smooth, shiny spots. Raised blotches of scar tissue ranging from the size of a paper cut to foot-long gashes.
“What the hell happened to me?” he said.