Rain was still coming down. Big obnoxious drops that got into his eyes and beaded on his arms. Ash shook his head to clear the rain soaking into his hair.
His legs ached, his sides ached, and his head was throbbing. He’d lost his stupid pills at the doctor’s and there was no way he was going back to get them. Dammit, the only key to his past, and he’d lost it. He better not have some strange disease.
But he’d traded them in for a fantastic packet of sample drugs. He sighed and ripped out one of the pain-killers. After a few more blocks, the pain subsided, but it did nothing to soothe his stomach.
And what was the deal with the clipboard catching on fire? Did he have something to do with that? Before it happened, he felt a surge of energy run from his chest into his arm. But then, he was livid at the time–his whole body felt like it was going to explode.
At the next corner, he saw a store with an alarm-red roof and white walls next to a tall sign that said Beefy Queen. It would get him out of the rain, and he wouldn’t say no to some food. Who knew the last time he had eaten? Could have been days. He crossed the street and walked in.
Most of the tables were unoccupied, except for one older man eating alone, and a pair of girls with shopping bags. Three of the cashiers lingered in front of the milkshake machine, speaking in their own language. They glanced his way and continued their conversation.
Ash shook the water out of his hair and looked up at the menu, which prominently displayed the all-new Maximurgers, along with tender Chicky-Fried Birdburgers with ‘secret flavoring’, Potato Tots, and Creamshakes.
The problem with losing his identity was that he had no idea what he liked. For that matter, what if he was allergic to something? He could choke to death on a birdburger before he even knew what his real name was. On the other hand, if he kept wondering what might happen all the time, he’d never accomplish anything.
As he contemplated the menu, he fingered the fifty-dollar bill in his pocket. The card with the number for the homeless shelter rested alongside it. Maybe they had a pay phone.
Ash approached the counter. A plump man with a mustache, greasy hair, and olive skin approached the register. “Kay?” he said.
“Is there a pay phone in here?”
“How much does it cost?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know.”
“But it takes change, right?”
“All right, can I have the first meal deal?” Ash said.
“One?” the cashier clarified.
“Yeah, one,” Ash said.
“Uh, sure.” He didn’t know if he liked Coke either. Worth a try. He somehow knew it was the most popular soda brand. Did he like popular things?
The cashier hit more buttons and said, “Five-seb’nty-nine.”
Ash fished out the fifty dollar bill and handed it to him. The cashier changed it into two twenties, four ones, and twenty one cents.
“Hey, can you give me back some quarters?” Ash said.
“Some quarters. I mean,” he handed him one of the dollar bills, “Take this and give me quarters instead.”
“Mmm, yes, quarter pound maximurger?”
“No. Listen. I need some quarters for the pay phone.”
He pointed to the restrooms. “Phone there.”
“No. Dude. Listen.” He held up one of the dollar bills. “Please take this back and give me four quarters instead. That equals one dollar.”
“Mmmm, no say.”
“Dude, do you understand anything I’m saying?”
He stood still.
“If you work in America, at an American restaurant, serving American people, how can you not understand ‘give me four quarters instead of a dollar’?”
“Mm, I’m sorry.” Every time he said “mm”, Ash felt his nerves grate.
He took a breath, trying to calm down. “All right. Listen to me. I need to call a number. I need to use the pay phone. To do that, I need quarters. The pay phone doesn’t take bills, and I need more than twenty-one cents. Got it?”
The cashier gave him a blank stare.
“So please give me quarters instead of ones,” Ash said.
Another employee slid a tray on the counter with a burger wrapped in wax paper, a carton of french fries, and a paper cup with dark soda.
“Hey,” Ash called to him. He stopped in his tracks, looking like he’d done something wrong. “Do you understand what I’m saying? I need four quarters.”
“Four quarters, yes.” He nodded and walked away.
Ash rolled his eyes. “Never mind.” He snatched the tray off the counter, gave the cashier a glare, and walked to a table.
He sat down in an uncomfortable swivel chair, hoping someone who spoke English would appear. In the meanwhile, he would enjoy his burger.
There wasn’t anything ‘max’ about the Maximurger–a fatty disc of beef between two grease sponges. It looked nothing like the picture in the menu board. The puffed sesame seed bun on a glistening beef patty with crisp lettuce, tomato, and melted cheese looked like a work of art. His looked like garbage.
What was he going to do if he couldn’t use the phone? Keep walking? In the rain? What if it didn’t let up before he found some help? Maybe he could ask one of the other customers to break his dollar.
Ash caught a black blur out of the corner of his eye. Four teenagers burst through the door. Their puffy starter jackets and basketball caps were drenched with rain, and they shook off the excess like dogs.
“Whoo,” one said, “Jesus, that’s some fucking rain out there.” Key chains all over his pants and shirt jangled over his words.
“Goddamn,” another said, and took off his jacket. He flapped it up and down like he was shaking a rug, spraying water over the floor. “It’s fucking raining like a mother fucker. Fuckin’ jacket’s soaked.”
The others laughed. “That game’s so cancelled,” said a tall one in an orange cap.
“Hell, yeah,” Chains said.
“Fuck,” the shortest said, “You gotta call Jamal ‘n let him know.”
“Fuck, I ain’t usin’ my minutes. You call him.”
“You fucking call him,” said Shorty.
“Just call him, dude,” Jacket said, and gave Shorty a push. This started a shoving match between all four. It started friendly, but became serious when Jacket heaved Shorty over the feeder line railing. Shorty sprang back and shouldered him into the wall. “Knock you the fuck out, bitch,” Shorty said.
“Hey, let’s get some cheeseburgers,” said Chains. “Quit fucking around.” He smacked Shorty on the shoulder. The two stopped fighting.
Jacket pulled out a few bills and a handful of change from his pocket. As he counted it, Shorty leaned over the counter, much too close to the cashier. “You got cheeseburgers?”
“Mmmm.” The cashier looked too scared to talk. The two others had huddled together by the drive-thru window, hoping no one would notice them.
Orange Cap jumped and sat on the counter. “Hey, this is a nice place. Whatchu got back here?”
“No,” the cashier said quietly. “No, please, to be off the counter.”
“What? ‘Please to be off the counter’? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Hey, check this out,” Jacket said, “Where you from, homes? Packy-stan? India?”
“I-N-S! I-N-S!” Shorty called out. The two behind the drive-thru window opened their eyes wider. Shorty laughed.
The cashier said, “Please, get off counter.”
“Hey, man, what can I get for a dollar and seventy-three cents?” Jacket asked, holding out his money.
The cashier turned to him. While he wasn’t looking, Orange Cap took the cashier’s red visor and replaced it on his own head. “Hey, look at me. Now I work here. Free cheeseburgers for everybody.”
“Uh, uh,” the cashier stepped back with his hands up. “Robbery. Robbery,” he started muttering.
The kids stopped horsing around and froze. “Yo, yo, quiet down, man. We’re not robbing you,” Chains said.
“You, shut the fuck up,” Shorty said.
Orange Cap dropped off the counter. “Jesus, take your hat back. I was just having fun.” He flung the visor off and threw it at the clerk. It hit his chest and fell on the floor.
The cashier’s voice rose as he backed away. “Robbery. Robbery.”
“Yo, shut the fuck up man, or I’ma turn this into a robbery.” Chains reached across the counter and yanked on the man’s shirt. “Shut up. Shut the fuck up.”
Chains shook him. “I told you to shut up. All we want is some food. Understand ‘food’?”
The cashier kept still and said ‘robbery’ over and over. He didn’t understand what was going on. It looked like he was from a country where this sort of behavior was common.
This sounded like a good time for Ash to leave. He’d finished his food, and no one was coming out to help him. Before he got up, he looked around the restaurant.
All the other patrons were slunk back in their chairs. They didn’t know if these teens would pull out guns or knives. Maybe they would be next if they spoke up. Maybe one would turn around, glare at them, and say ‘whatchu lookin at?’ So they sat frozen in fear.
Who was going to tell them to stop? The old man with his ice cream cone? Two young girls? Cops wouldn’t get here in time–they were only useful after the fact. There was no one here that those hoodlums would respect.
Except him. He was closer to their standing than anyone else, they might listen to him. Plus his frustration with their behavior prevailed over his fear. It wasn’t enough they had to disturb everyone, they had to get their jollies harassing some poor foreigner trying to make a buck. Ash had already given them enough crap.
Ash pursed his lips and walked over, feeling like a noble knight. Was this part of who he was? Maybe following this feeling would jog something in his memory.
Ash moved around the dividers and patted the shoulder of Shorty, the closest. Shorty whipped around and glared at Ash.
“Hey,” Ash said, and realized he had no idea what to say. He should have come up with something clever before he came over. “Cut it out.”
“What? Tch,” Shorty held up his hand an inch from Ash’s nose. “Get out of my face, boy.” Ash wanted to slap it away, but didn’t want to prompt another shoving match. Orange Cap, Chains, and Jacket turned to them.
“I’m serious,” Ash said, “Cut it out. The guy didn’t do anything to you.”
“You steppin’ up?” Orange Cap said.
“Fuck you, punk,” Shorty said. “You friends or something? Little bitch?”
“I’m friends with no one,” Ash said. “Now are you going to take your buck seventy-three and order something or take your homoerotic shoving outside?”
“Fuck you. Look at this guy, thinking he’s the shit.”
Ash started to realize how futile this was. These kids were looking to blow off steam, and he’d given them an excuse.
Shorty approached him. “I said step off, bitch. You wanna get fucked up?”
The two stared at each other. Shorty opened his eyes wide and clenched his fists like a gorilla. Ash didn’t want to fight him, but he couldn’t back down now.
Shorty snapped forward, like he was going to attack, to spook him. Ash flinched back. Shorty and the others laughed.
“Yeah, like a little bitch,” Shorty said, glancing at his friends.
Ash’s face turned red. He was sick of being intimidated.
“Fuck you,” Ash said, and he shoved Shorty.
Shorty shoved his shoulders. Ash did the same to him. Then there was a lightning crack to his left temple. The world blinked out for half a second.
Then Ash opened his eyes again, and realized there was a fist taking up his field of vision. He was trying to figure out what was going on when it connected and made the world blink out again.
His legs turned to jelly, and he dropped to the floor. Something big and black came down. The thick rubber boot knocked his head to the floor. He couldn’t open his eyes, couldn’t will his body to move, let alone fight back. But he was still conscious.
They kicked him over and over, all four at once. He could hear words being said, yelling and curses, but couldn’t distinguish any of it. Four legs smashed into his stomach, his legs, his back, his butt. Over and over again. It was like a cramp, an ulcer, and a sledgehammer all at once.
He heard the phrase “Get his shit” although he was too groggy for it to register. Then his pocket was being dug into.
Someone said “let’s go” followed by sounds of running. Someone made a ‘ptu’ sound, and a glob of wetness landed on his cheek.
Ash laid there, aching and throbbing. He smelled and tasted metal. He thought he would have lost consciousness before the beating got bad, but he had not been blessed as such.
He twitched his fingers on the smooth tile. One eye opened to the underside of the counter. How long had he been on the floor? Five minutes? Did he pass out? He heard voices above, but couldn’t make them out.
“Help,” he said meekly. There was no one around him. No shadows. No movement.
“Help,” he said again. Did everyone leave? Did the fight scare them off?
He moved his arm across the floor and prepared to sit up. A white hot fireball of pain exploded in his belly. He gritted his teeth, and tried again.
He sat like an overstuffed teddy bear–head down, shoulders slumped, legs splayed out, as dizziness swept over him. All he saw was the floor, because he didn’t have the strength to hold his head up.
“Sir? Sir?” said a male voice from above. It made Ash’s ear buzz. “Sir? You have to get up.”
Blindly, Ash obeyed. He found a grip on the top of the counter with one good arm and pulled himself up. A doughy white man in a sweat-stained collared shirt and black tie was standing at the register.
“Are you all right?” he said.
Ash nodded, too afraid of the pain if he talked.
“I’m sorry but I have to ask you to leave,” the manager said. “I can’t have any more violence in here.”
Some gratitude. “Yeah, yeah, I’m going.” Through his blood-filled mouth, it came out as ‘Y’n, y’n, mm-go’.
“I can call you a cab or something. Do you need to go to a hospital?”
“Jus’ lemme use the b’throom first,” Ash said. He groped along the wall like a zombie towards the bathroom, each step accompanied by shooting pain.
He looked out at the tables. The two girls at the window cast their eyes on their tabletop. The old man pretended nothing was going on. They should have had admiration in their faces, not horror. Why? Hadn’t he come to their defense? Didn’t he stop things from getting ugly? Did he do something wrong? Besides get his ass kicked?
He shoved the heavy men’s room door open and limped to the sink. It was the first time he had seen his reflection, but the face was unrecognizable. His upper lip was coated in crusted brown gunk and his nose was stuffed like he had a cold. It looked like someone had taken a paintbrush to one side of his head. And those were just the injuries on the surface.
Ash pulled his shirt off and splashed some cold water on his face and torso. He winced. It burned his cuts and scratches, but he had to clean himself. He scrubbed away the grime, being delicate with his nose.
This was what he looked like. And those mewling assholes out there told him to leave. They’d glared at him like some kind of freak. He was trying to save them, and his reward was a busted up face, an empty wallet, and slack-jawed stares.
And no one had stopped those assholes. They’d run out as nice as you please, unpunished. They’d stolen his money, stolen his dignity. They were probably walking around laughing to themselves, reminiscing about kicking the crap out of some young punk.
He stared at himself in the mirror. He was pathetic. He couldn’t remember who he was. He couldn’t fight back. He couldn’t defend himself. Ash pounded his fists on either side of the mirror.
A white spark burst in front of his face, making Ash step back. It made a noise like a cap gun. Then another burst to his left, and another, and another. Like fiery popcorn coming from nowhere. Ash staggered back against the wall.
He turned to run, but ran into the garbage can by the door. The used paper towels on top suddenly caught on fire.
“Whoa!” Ash stepped to the side. His instinctual fear washed away all of his anger.
He gathered some water from the sink in his cupped hands and threw several handfuls into the can. The flame withered away before the smoke detector triggered.
“What the hell?” he said. Was that him? Did he do that? Two things spontaneously catching fire around him couldn’t be a coincidence. He saw nothing ignitable in the can itself. Did he have some kind of power? Was this related to the burn scars or the lack of memory?
He waited for something else to happen, but nothing did. Not knowing how else to proceed with this new revelation, he pulled his shirt back on, and took a deep breath. The stinging pain was gone, now he was just tender.
He stared at himself in the mirror. “Well, it can only get better from here.”
Ash returned to the serving area. The three cashiers were huddled near the milkshake machine. The store’s manager kept his eyes on him, looking like he was itching to call the cops.
“Do you need any help?” the manager said.
Ash glared at him. “I’m fine.” He wondered if he could set anything on fire, if he thought hard enough.
He headed for the door, hoping everyone in this restaurant would meet horrible accidents, when the manager piped up. “Hey, are you one of those White Knights?”
Ash turned back. “What?”
“I thought…” he shrugged. “Your clothes are kinda like them.”
Ash looked down at his pink-stained white shirt. “What are the ‘White Knights’?”
“Sort of a neighborhood watch group, like the cops, but volunteers. I think they re-opened a chapter around here or something, two miles that way.” He pointed. “They put one of their flyers up here.”
He next to the door, where there was a bulletin board layered with years of leaflets and local ads. A red one advertised a party line. A green one talked about lawn services, although Ash hadn’t seen a blade of grass so far.
In the middle was a white one-sheet that said Tired of violence? Sick of crime? Help out YOUR FELLOW MAN! Underneath there was a bunch of rhetoric about investing in the future of your safety, conflict resolution, and being protected. And you could do it all thanks to a group calling themselves the ‘White Knights’.
“And they’re like volunteer police?” Ash asked.
“Sorta. I guess they’re trying to protect the city, since there’s not many cops.”
Ash smiled. “Do they get paid?”