He heard a rumble in the sky and looked up. A cottony shark-gray had replaced the orange sherbet. A fat drop of rain fell into his eye. Ash squinted and wiped it away as more drops fell around him.
“Great. Great first day this is turning out to be,” he said to himself.
As the rain grew from drizzle to downpour, he walked faster, hoping to find some shelter before he got hypothermia.
He couldn’t get the burn scars out of his head, those horrible streaks of jagged tissue. Was he in some accident? Was that why he couldn’t remember anything? Maybe he was in an explosion, and took a traumatic blow to the head. Must have been some explosion to blast him all the way into an alley.
It didn’t matter right now. All the burn scars meant to him was that he had to keep his shirt on at the beach. Anything else he would find out along the way.
At a corner shop called Café Noche, he stopped cold. The smells of fried beef and sweet tangy spices coming out were too good not to linger on. He had to resist the urge to press his face up against the glass, like some orphaned urchin with fingerless gloves.
Was that what he was now? Homeless? A vagrant? He had no money and no home, so… well, the evidence spoke for itself. What could he do? Stand outside the door and beg for food?
“No way,” he said to himself and walked on. He looked down an alley and caught sight of a large metal dumpster. He would eat out of one of those before he asked someone for food. He had too much pride to sit on the street corner, approach good people with his hand out and ask if they had any spare change.
He turned a corner and saw a sign that said Good Health Hospice. Finally, something was going his way. He entered a building with a pulled window shade next to an old door.
The waiting room consisted of cafeteria chairs where a few uncomfortable-looking people sat, cracked walls, and kids toys littering the floor. A heavyset black woman looked at her nails behind a receptionist’s desk.
“Hey, excuse me,” Ash said to the receptionist. “Can you help me?”
She looked up. “Sure, honey, what’s the matter?”
“Well, I… think I lost my memory. I woke up in an alley a few blocks from here…”
“You pass out?”
Ash shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know.” He felt his head, as if he was going to find a brain hemorrhage he hadn’t noticed.
She sighed and handed him a clipboard full of paper. “Here. Fill out the top two sheets with everything you can.”
“You need me to fill out a form? But I don’t… I don’t remember who I am.”
“Just fill out what you can. Gonna take a minute anyway.”
Ash took the clipboard and pen, and picked a seat in the middle of the room, next to a yellow plastic train. It only took a few seconds to realize that he could fill out almost nothing but his gender. Even his name wasn’t technically correct, but he wrote it down anyway. Address? None. Phone number? None. Age? Who knew. Occupation? Drifter, currently. Education history, exercise history, family history, diet, substance use, medications–there was nothing he could fill out. For all practical purposes, he had been born a few hours ago.
After making sure that two lines of information were the best he could do, he handed it back to the receptionist.
She stared at the form. “Uh… Ash? Honey?” She snapped her fingers before he could go back to his seat. “You got a last name?”
“Uh… no, not… no.”
“You ain’t got no address? No phone number? No age?” She shook the clipboard like it was a piece of homework he had botched.
“I filled in everything I could,” Ash said. “I told you. I have zero idea who I am. I woke up in an alley, and I have no idea how I got there or why.”
“Mm-hm,” she grunted. “You remember your name though.”
“That was just written on the wall where I woke up.”
“You serious, kid?”
Ash furrowed his brows. This was taking far longer than he thought was necessary to convince her. “I am serious.”
“Look kid, you gotta fill out the form, all the way. We can’t bill the guv’ment if you don’t have no address. You can use the homeless shelter address if you gotta.”
“But I don’t live at the homeless shelter. I think.”
“Either write something, or get out. Unless you want to go to the mental services hospital,” she said.
Ash sighed and took it back. He returned to his seat and filled out the form like the lady asked.
Presently, he lived at 1234 Fake Street (the house number being remarkably similar to his phone number 123-1234), in Wyoming City, Wyoming. Life was good with his father Luis and mother Helga in the Mulrooney household. He had no prior felonies, and attended Liverwark High School, working nights as a professional boxer and shipping clerk.
“Here,” Ash said, resisting the temptation to throw it at her. “All nice and filled out.”
“Thank you, sugar. Just have a seat, kay?” she said in a syrupy tone.
Ash grunted and walked back to his seat.
“Hey, man, they take your sheet okay?” A tall black man with dreadlocks and sunglasses asked him.
“Huh? Oh, yeah. Why?”
He laughed a smoky laugh. “Shit, that’s a good one. I’ll have to remember that. Government spooks always want your info. I should’ve just said I lost my memory too.”
“I really have lost my memory.”
He cocked his head. “For real? And you ain’t got nothing on you? No ID or nothing?”
Ash shook his head.
“Damn, lucky you.”
“Lucky me? Why?”
“Cause you’re off the grid. Look at us. We’re all sitting here bleeding ’cause they gotta run the insurance checks through to the spooks, fill out the paperwork so no one sues them. Look at this place,” he gestured to the receptionist’s counter. “I’m just trying to get some Adravil, and they want my name, rank, and serial number. It’s legit too, got prescriptions. But no, they want my first born, my SSN, my credit cards. They really need all that? What are they gonna do with that info? Just makes it easier to steal your identity.”
“And me not having any info is good?”
“Hell yeah, it’s good. Spooks don’t know who you are, they can’t track you. You’re invisible.”
“That doesn’t mean I can do anything I want.”
“No, but you don’t get the spooks poking into your life, sending you e-mails, not letting you cross the border because of some street shit that happened eight years ago. Government never forgets anything.”
“Been here an hour. I can’t even leave now. They mark it as a no-show, and they make you wait even longer next time. Pharm companies don’t want slackers getting their products for free. They want you registered and stamped.” He leaned back. “Man, you lucky. Surprised they believed you.”
“Yeah, I’m kind of surprised too.”
“Next time I’m just going to the shop for my meds. More expensive, but no questions.”
“What’s ‘the shop’?”
“Ash?” a woman in a white coat said. She stood by the door with a clipboard looking into the crowd.
The black man said, “Man, you even get in faster. Nice.”
“Severity, I guess,” Ash said. “I’ll put in a good word for you.”
He grinned. “Thanks, bro. Name’s Moss. If you need anything, I’ll hook you up. I’m always up for anyone who wants to stick it to the man.”
“Will do.” He slapped hands with him.
Ash followed the nurse through a door, into another hallway, and to a room marked FOUR in big black font. It was empty, except for a chintzy desk and a flat table covered with white paper.
“Have a seat,” she gestured to the table. “Says here you have amnesia?” she asked.
“Sort of. I lost my memory. I don’t know who I am, or how I got here, or what I’m doing here. I have knowledge of other things, like facts and history. Just no knowledge of myself.”
“And when did this memory loss start?”
“I woke up an hour ago. That’s the furthest back I can remember.”
“What medications are you on?”
Ash scowled. He didn’t like how she said that–like she expected him to be on some. “I don’t know if I’m on any. I lost my memory. Although I do have some pills. I’m not sure what they’re for. Maybe you can tell me?” He fished out the bottle and handed to her. She took a brief glance, then pocketed it.
“And you just wandered here?” She kept her eyes on her notepad, but didn’t make any notes.
“Yes. Also I seem to have some burn scars. I don’t know where they came from.” He lifted his shirt so she could see. She took a sidelong glance, and wrote something down.
“And that’s something you got today?” she asked.
“It’s something I discovered today. I don’t know how long they’ve been there.”
She sighed. People here did a lot of sighing. “Okay, stay here. The doctor will be here in a minute.”
“You’re not the doctor?”
“No, just the nurse.” She turned around and closed the door behind her.
Ash smirked. “Well, goodbye to you too.” He crossed his arms again, and sat back.
Five minutes passed.
Ash stared at the door, the wall, the box of rubber gloves. He pawed at the blood pressure monitor. He examined the trinkets on the doctor’s desk–a dull landscape photograph and various office tools. The clock ticked by minute after minute.
He jumped off the table and looked through the desk drawers. He read the posters advertising drugs that covered the walls. His favorite was one with a big picture of a young woman looking up at the sky with unnaturally white teeth. The title read ‘Coming Soon – DREAMCATCHER – From Starkweather Industries, the makers of Blindside’. Underneath read Do you suffer from bad memories? Can’t shake the awkwardness of your high school prom? Depressed by your absent mother? Try new Dreamcatcher – the Mind Filter drug guaranteed to eliminate unpleasant and negative memories from forming. The active ingredient – Memzinol – recognizes when a memory is formed in the brain and determines whether it is positive or negative. The good memories are allowed to sift through, while the bad memories are put in ‘brain traps’ – JUST LIKE A NATIVE AMERICAN DREAMCATCHER!
The door burst open. Ash froze like he’d been caught doing something wrong.
“Ash?” she said.
“Someone will be here in a bit.”
“What?” Ash yelled. “I’ve been stuck here almost twenty minutes. What the hell is taking so long?”
“The doctor has to finish up with his other patients.”
“Look, why’d you take me out of the waiting room if you were just going to make me wait? Can I go back there? At least they had magazines.”
“Sorry, can’t do that. Legal reasons. Someone will be here in a minute,” she repeated, and closed the door behind.
Ash yelled at the door. “What? Hey? How much longer is it going to be?”
The door didn’t answer back.
After Ash watched ten minutes and thirty-six seconds tick by, the door opened again. He rolled his eyes when he saw the same woman.
“Ash?” she asked. “When you said you lost your memory, did you have any identification documents on you?”
“No, I had nothing but fifty dollars and the pills. I want to leave.”
“What? I’m sorry?” she said.
“I’ve been here for half an hour, and I’m just sitting here suffering. I’d have been better off if I’d never come here.”
“Sorry, I can’t legally let you go until we know you’ll be all right. Otherwise, we could have legal problems if you walk out and something serious happens.”
“What? Like I get hit by a car?”
“No, but if you had a fatal condition left untreated, you could sue us.”
“If there’s a fatal condition, I’m dead. How am I gonna sue you?”
“Your family could sue us for malpractice.”
“I don’t even know where my family is.”
She looked like she didn’t know what to say to that. “Since you came to us in an emergency, you can’t leave until we know you’re not in a life-threatening situation.”
Hot blood rose to his face. “So now you’re trapping me? What do you do with the real emergencies? Lock them in the basement?” Ash felt his arms and head getting warm. “I’m sick of this. Unless you can-“
A twenty-something man in blue scrubs appeared in the doorway. “Hey, Kim,” he said.
“Oh, good.” She handed him the clipboard and left. The doctor looked puzzled, then looked at the paperwork. “Ash?”
If one more person said his name in a questioning manner… “Yes.”
“My name is Dr. Giambi. How are you?”
“I’m fine,” Ash said, gritting his teeth. “I’d be more fine if I could get out of here.”
He didn’t take his eyes from the clipboard. “You’re from… Wyoming City? I didn’t know there was a Wyoming City.”
“It’s a small town,” Ash said. “Could I get looked at so I can get out of here?”
He picked out a device from his shirt pocket. “I’ll be recording this diagnostic for insurance purposes. Is that okay with you?”
Ash shrugged. “Sure.”
He spoke into the device. “Patient zero-two-nine, Ash Mulrooney.” He put it back in his pocket. “Well, let’s see. No superficial wounds. No visible head trauma. Is your vision clear?”
“Yeah, but I have a slight headache.”
He touched cold and rough fingertips to Ash’s face. “No visual trauma. No tenderness or swelling.”
“I had some pills when I-“
“Shh, shh. Can’t talk while the recorder’s on,” he said.
The doctor continued inspecting him as if he were a museum piece. “Looks like a small scar on the back of the neck.”
“A scar? What sort of-?”
“Shh-shh. Testing shoulders. Ribs.” He poked his fingers into Ash’s side.
“Hey, ow,” Ash shouted and gave him a bad look.
“Tender,” the doctor finished. “Some scuffing on the skin. Patient looks like he may have lost consciousness.”
“I did,” Ash said. “You didn’t-“
“Sh, sh,” he said. He lifted Ash’s shirt. “Multiple blemishes all around the torso area. Possibly caused by exposure to heat or fire. Look pretty old… and layered. Scar tissue on scar tissue, like you had multiple burns. Where did these come from?”
Ash paused purposefully. “Oh, I can talk now? I don’t know where they came from.”
The doctor scowled. “Do you have a history of abuse?”
“Where are your parents?”
Ash sighed loudly. “If you’d bothered to ask your patients anything, you’d know that I lost my memory.”
“You have amnesia,” he said.
“Yes, I’ve had it for a few hours. How many times am I going to have to repeat myself?”
The doctor scratched his chin. “Then how did you know your address and phone number?”
Ash rolled his eyes. “I filled in the form with a bunch of bullshit, because the lady wouldn’t take it. I didn’t know I had to make a tribute to the Overlords of the Insurance Company.”
“You lied on your medical history?”
“I don’t have a medical history. I don’t have a history! Haven’t you been paying attention?” Ash flailed his arms as blood rushed to his cheeks.
“Hey, if you want to joke around, that’s fine with me. I gotta treat you either way. But I’m winding down a thirteen hour shift of crackheads whining for Percocet, and all I wanna do is finish the day. So could we just get through this?”
The doctor opened his drawer and pulled out a paper strip of packets. “Well, the most I can do for you is a sample pack of medications.”
Each was brightly color-coded like candy. Each had its own logo. For antibiotics, try Aqua Cure. To combat erectile dysfunction, use Uspirim. Hormone replacement is a snap with Isoporvalyn. Try it now! “What is this? You’re giving me drugs for amnesia?”
“There’s really nothing I can do, if you really have amnesia. Besides, they’re free.” He turned towards the door.
“What? That’s it? You’re just gonna shove some drugs at me?”
“Hey, calm down,” the doctor said.
“Calm down? I have no memory. I woke up in a dirty alley. And you’re giving me hormone replacement therapy?”
The doctor rolled his eyes. “Look, if you’re a vagrant or homeless, that’s fine. We treat them like anybody else. You can take this, if you want.”
He picked out a card from his pocket. It was the number for a Christian mission shelter.
“Now,” he moved toward the door, not taking his eyes off his papers. “If you could wait here, for just one more-“
“Oh, hell no.” Ash darted in front of the door and crossed his arms. “I’m not gonna stay here while you spend ten minutes at the vending machine deciding between Snickers and Milky Way.”
“I’m just going to get some paperwork-”
Ash yanked away his clipboard and held it over his head.
“No,” he said. “No more of this. I didn’t come here to get a bunch of advertisements and a pat on the head. Did you even read this?” he shook the clipboard like a lawyer at trial. “You’re too busy with keeping me all ‘legal’ to actually give me the help I need. Now either you give me some actual fucking REAL medical treatment. Or I’m going to shove this clipboard so far up your-“
The clipboard burst into flames.
“Jesus!” the doctor exclaimed and cowered back.
Ash looked up. He felt the heat, but did not register that he was holding a flaming object. But when he did, he dropped it and jumped back. The fire alarm blared out an ear-piercing shriek and the sprinklers activated, quickly soaking him.
Ash put his hands to his ears as the doctor rushed out of the room. Ash followed him, getting lost in the chaos. All he needed to do was follow the person in front of him. Follow the rats to get off the sinking ship
He ran through the waiting room and into the rain again. Even out here, the siren pierced his ears. So he punched through the crowd to the other side of the street, away from anyone who could identify him.