He had been given a notebook to write in, and the lawyer had loaned him a brushed-steel mechanical pencil with golden accents that he claimed were real gold. ‘I am loaning you this,’ his lawyer told him when he handed it over, ‘so you will know how important and serious the matter is, and so you will do your best to remember everything you possibly can and write it all down as it actually happened.’
The lawyer leaned down close and looked at him without blinking, his eyes steady. He doesn’t blink as much as normal people do, the man thought. Sometimes he felt as if the lawyer was not even a person at all, as if he was simply pretending to be a person, and not very well.
‘Life and death,’ the lawyer said. ‘That’s how important this is.’
All right, he told the lawyer. He would do his best. He would try to remember.
And that is exactly what the man is trying to do. Anything that you remember, the lawyer had said. If he felt compelled to write down something but didn’t understand why, he shouldn’t try to figure out what the thing meant, he should just write it down. They could sort it out later. I’m your friend, the lawyer insisted, I’m on your side. Other people, the lawyer claimed, might try to insinuate things, to convince him that certain things had happened. It was better to let the real things come back on their own instead of making up things that never happened.
‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ the man had admitted.
‘All right,’ the lawyer said. ‘That’s just what this is going to help us figure out,’ he said, tapping the notebook. ‘Write. And don’t show it to anybody but me.’
The doctor has told him that it is common for individuals with head trauma not to remember what happened to cause it, nor even to remember the days surrounding the trauma. But then sometimes something suddenly just clicks and it comes flooding back. Maybe not everything, maybe not even most of it, but some of it, anyway. It would be nice if he could remember at least some of it.
From what he knows about the rest of his life, he doesn’t see how he could have done anything wrong. If he did, he’s sure it must have been by accident.
He has said this over and over to whoever will listen. They just nod as if they want to believe him, but don’t. Sometimes they even seem a little afraid of him. When he said this to the lawyer, the lawyer didn’t even bother to nod. He can’t tell what the lawyer thinks. ‘Don’t tell me. Just write it all down,’ the lawyer insisted. ‘Whatever you can remember.’
And what if he really did do something wrong? Does he really want to know?
He thinks so. Even if he did something very wrong indeed, like, say, murder. Even then, he thinks he would rather know than not know. Right now, the man doesn’t even know who he is. They tell him who they think he is, they pronounce a name, but it doesn’t sound right to him. It is as if they’ve written a name on his forehead that doesn’t belong, and they can see it and he can’t. His life was apparently going along like normal, then suddenly there came a black patch. After the black patch everything seemed wrong, as if he was leading someone else’s life. As if he was possessed. Or maybe had taken possession of someone else.
The doctor also warned him that sometimes things never click. Sometimes you never know what really happened. He tried to feel something about that, some worry or anxiety, but he was still medicated enough to make it hard to feel things when they were happening. He only starts to feel things later, once it’s too late.
When he first woke up, he didn’t even know where he was. His eyes had a hard time focusing. His jaw hurt and his throat was sore. He tried to swallow a few times, gagging before he realized there was a tube running down his throat and he couldn’t swallow, not really. He remembered – if he is remembering correctly now and not making just a little of it up – that he was staring up into a round, blurred light that slowly went from a bright white to a pale orange red, like a dying filament.
Then he blinked and his vision cleared, more or less. There was a ring of faces all around him, but the bottom halves of these faces were gone – all he could see were their eyes. A whole circle of eyes, intense, intent, all staring at him.
Maybe, someone prompted later, these were doctors, and their faces were just covered by surgical masks?
Who suggested that? he wonders now. And why did they want me to believe it? In any case, at the time he didn’t think of them as doctors. At the time, he thought of them as men who were missing the bottom halves of their faces.
This terrified him.
And then these half-faced men started to make sounds. Which terrified him even more.
The next time he awoke, it was a little better. There were not so many half-faced men, not so many eyes. No eyes, in fact, none at least that he could see. He was alone.
He was lying on a bed of some kind, but it was not his own bed. There was a curtain on a fixed track around the bed, but it was mostly pulled open. He could see things: white walls and a metal tray and a shiny floor. It was as if there was a whole world around him again. Not just a half world full of half-faced men.
He closed his eyes. Probably he slept. When he opened them again he saw, past the end of the bed, a guard near the door. He seemed to have a whole face. He was sitting in a chair, his arms folded across his chest. Half asleep but still stiff as cardboard.
The man tried to speak, but no words came out, only strange, half-choked sounds. The tube, he only then realized, was still down his throat, his cheeks stiff where they had taped the thing to his face to hold it in place.
The guard was awake now and staring at him and speaking into his shoulder radio.
Everything started to blur.
The last things that happened before the man’s eyes rolled back into his head were that the guard’s radio crackled, and the bottom half of his face started to fade away, and then, mercifully, the man passed out.
Probably between those times, between when he awoke a first time and when he awoke a second time and then when he awoke a third time, there were dreams.
But if there were dreams, he doesn’t remember them now. Not a one. But he’s sure that if he could remember them, they would be nightmares.
A little later, someone was touching him softly. Then, very gently, they began shaking him.
‘Honey,’ said a woman’s voice. ‘Honey, wake up.’
It was his mother’s voice. For a moment he thought he was back in his bed at home, asleep, and she was waking him up for school. That was how she always used to wake him up. A gentle touch at first and then gently shaking him awake. But why wasn’t she calling him by his name? And what was his name again?
‘Honey,’ she said again, more insistently, and he opened his eyes.
Only he was not at home. He was in the hospital room, and it was not his mother. It wasn’t even a woman. In fact, there was no one there at all.
He lay there, head wrapped in gauze, almost anonymous, afraid.
If he squinted his memory enough, he seemed to remember the chief of police standing beside the bed and reading charges to him. Murder, was it? Several counts? Four, say? He was not sure when that had been exactly, where it fit with everything else that had happened. But he remembered it. He was almost certain he did, anyway. Unless it had been something he had seen on TV.
If you feel compelled to write it, write it. ‘Murder?’ the man had said when the police chief finished. His voice didn’t sound like his voice anymore, still hoarse from the tube they had snaked down his throat. ‘Are you sure you have the right person?’
The chief just nodded grimly, his lips a thin line. The man heard his mother start to cry. His dad awkwardly put his arm around her shoulder, tried to comfort her.
Of course that last part was all in his head, since his parents both had been dead for years now. But he was almost certain the rest of it could have been real.
Murder? he thought. No, it didn’t sound right. Even now it still doesn’t. But what else does he have to cling to?
Another early memory. A man parted the curtain and came close to the head of the bed, pulling up a chair so close that it was almost as if he was in the bed too.
‘Who the hell are you?’ the man in the bed asked.
‘Language,’ the other said. ‘Make a good impression. Every little bit counts. I’m your lawyer,’ he said. ‘Your parents hired me.’
‘My parents are dead,’ the man said.
The lawyer ignored this. ‘I will be representing you,’ he insisted. ‘What’s this all about?’ the man asked. ‘Is this the way it’s usually done?’
‘Not usually,’ the lawyer said. ‘But you’re a special case.’
‘What’s this about murder?’
‘A murder? Why don’t you tell me?’ the lawyer said.
But he couldn’t tell the lawyer anything. Which is why he now has the mechanical pencil and the notebook and is trying to write, trying to make things click.
There is a guard. Sometimes he can see the guard and sometimes he can’t. He doesn’t know if the guard is here to protect him, or to keep him from escaping.
When the guard is here, he sits in a chair just outside the curtain. Sometimes he reads or talks into his shoulder radio or cleans his gun. Mostly he just sits and waits or sleeps. Sometimes, if the curtain is open, the guard glances over at the man.
‘What’s this about murder?’ the man said.
‘A murder? Why don’t you tell me?’ the lawyer said.
But he didn’t remember anything about it. Nothing at all. He just looked at his lawyer helplessly.
‘All right,’ said the lawyer after a while, low enough that the guard couldn’t hear. ‘Maybe you don’t –’
No, wait a moment, the guard wasn’t there when that conversation was going on. That was before the guard was there. He is getting confused again. He and his lawyer were alone. The lawyer must have just said it in a normal voice.
‘Maybe you really don’t remember,’ the lawyer said, in a normal voice. ‘You’re accused of killing four people. Who do you think they were?’
He was too stunned to say anything at all.
‘How old do you think they were?’ the lawyer asked.
‘Wait a minute,’ the man said. ‘Four people? Me?’
The lawyer didn’t answer. ‘How old do you think they were?’ he asked again, as if he were following a script.
‘How do I know?’ the man said. ‘Normal age?’
‘What’s normal age?’
‘These are weird questions,’ the man said. ‘Why are you asking me them?’
‘Do you know how you allegedly killed them?’ the lawyer asked. ‘Gun? Knife? Poison? Bare hands?’
‘I don’t even know that I did kill anyone,’ the man said.
The lawyer nodded. ‘That’s good. Keep that for when they question you,’ he said.
‘Don’t you believe me?’
The lawyer looked at him again with those flat, unblinking eyes, as if he neither disbelieved nor believed. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said.
‘Why not?’ the man said, confused.
The lawyer gave him a grim smile. ‘Why do you think?’
And that’s exactly the problem, isn’t it? He hasn’t the faintest idea.
‘At least tell me how I did it,’ he said.
‘With a gun,’ the lawyer said. ‘You allegedly shot four people and then tried to commit suicide by shooting yourself.’ He gestured to the side of the man’s head, to the bandages there. ‘You apparently didn’t succeed in the latter,’ he said. ‘Do you think you were trying hard enough?’
The man took a deep breath. His mouth was dry. I am finally getting somewhere, he thought. ‘Who,’ he asked, ‘did I kill?’
‘With a knife,’ the lawyer said. ‘You allegedly stabbed four people and then tried to slit your own throat.’ He gestured to the man’s neck, which was, the man realized, also wrapped in gauze.
‘Wait,’ he said. ‘You said it was a gun.’
The lawyer smiled. ‘With your bare hands,’ he said. ‘You beat four people to death and then tried to commit suicide by striking your head repeatedly against a cement wall.’ He gestured again to the side of the man’s head.
‘Wait,’ the man said. ‘I thought you were here to help me. Why are you trying to confuse me?’
‘With poison,’ the lawyer said. ‘You allegedly poisoned four people, one after another, and then tried to commit suicide by swallowing poison yourself.’ He gestured to the man’s throat again. ‘It hurts to swallow, doesn’t it?’
‘Stop it!’ the man said, closing his eyes. ‘Stop!’
When he opened them again, he was alone.
Sometimes the lawyer does help. The lawyer, for instance, warned him that the doctor would be coming to see him. If the man passed an examination, he would be moved. Where? the man wondered. ‘Are you sure you’re ready to be moved?’ the lawyer asked. But anywhere, the man had to believe, was better than here. ‘Just remember not to go along with everything they suggest to you,’ the lawyer said. ‘Resist. No might haves. No could haves. Stick to what you remember, and if you don’t remember just say you don’t.’
‘But I don’t remember anything,’ the man said.
‘All the better,’ the lawyer said. Then he held his hand out for the notebook. The man almost couldn’t give it up. Even when he managed to hold it out to the lawyer, the lawyer had to pry it out of his hands.
The lawyer began to read. Watching him, it seemed to the man that the lawyer could read quicker than anyone the man had ever met – either that or morphine or some other drug the man had been given was accelerating the world around him. Almost as soon as he had begun, the lawyer had reached the end. When he closed the notebook and looked up, the lawyer’s face was so distorted and angry that it was hard to think of it as a face.
‘No! No!’ he cried. ‘Not ‘he’! Call yourself ‘I’!’
‘Yes,’ the man said. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘What’s wrong with you?’ the lawyer said.
‘I don’t know what the rules are,’ the man said. But something in his head immediately translated it into: He doesn’t know what the rules are.
The lawyer is going to speak when there comes a noise from the hall. The lawyer shakes his head. He hands the notebook back. He presses his finger to his lips and backs slowly out of the room, leaving the man alone.
I need to think about what really happened. I need to try to remember instead of making up situations in his head. My head. I –
No, I doesn’t sound right. I can’t do it: he.
He needs to try to remember instead of making up situations in his head. But it’s hard not to, especially when he’s alone.
Now is the time, he thinks, when the voices should start, when faces and half faces should start to well up. Now is the time for him to see himself, pale and washed out as if in a dream, and either see what he did or see some false version of the same, offered to him by whatever devil or god has brought him here to suffer.
But nothing’s coming. Not a thing.
‘Who can say?’ he heard the doctor report in the hall. ‘Head injuries aren’t predictable.’ The man couldn’t hear how the person the doctor was saying this to responded.
‘I wouldn’t recommend it,’ he heard the doctor say, then ‘I could stop you, but I won’t.’
A moment later someone who looked like a policeman came in. He placed a tape recorder on the bedside table and turned it on.
‘Shall we begin the examination?’ he asked.
‘Examination?’ the man echoed.
‘State your full name,’ the policeman said.
The man tried to say something, but his mouth wouldn’t move.
‘Let the record show the subject has no name,’ the policeman said.
But no, the man insisted, it wasn’t that he didn’t have a name, only that he was having difficulty locating it.
The officer smiled, ignored him. ‘Would you like to confess?’ he asked.
‘We have two witnesses who saw you,’ he said. ‘A man and a woman.’
‘Shouldn’t my lawyer be present?’ the man asked.
‘Your lawyer?’ the officer asked. ‘What good would he do?’
‘I just thought –’
‘You can’t seriously believe that both witnesses, credible people in their own right, would have cause to lie, can you?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Maybe they just got it wrong.’
‘We’re just talking here,’ the officer said. ‘An informal chat. We’re all friends here. Aren’t we?’
‘If you say so,’ the man said.
‘I do say so,’ the officer said. ‘They saw it happen. They hid under a table, but you found them anyway. Fortunately for them, you found them after the others.’
‘I don’t remember any of this,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t sound like me.’
The policeman’s eyes tightened slightly. ‘What they say,’ he said, ‘was that you made them come out. You looked at your gun and laughed. ‘Only one bullet left,’ you said. ‘How do I choose?’ Ring any bells?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘So it was a gun?’
‘Eenie, meenie, miney, mo. Still nothing?’
‘It was the male witness who ended up ‘it.’ You pointed the gun at him, and he thought he was a goner. Do people of your generation still say that, goner?’
‘I don’t know,’ said the man.
‘How would that feel? To have a gun pointing at you? Can you imagine how that would feel?’
The man didn’t say anything. ‘As it turns out, you can,’ the officer said. ‘Since a moment later, you turned the gun away and pointed it at your own head and pulled the trigger.’
The police officer stayed looking at him, watching his expression. The man held his face slack and still, but inside his brain was spinning.
‘Officer, I’d like to speak with my lawyer,’ he said.
‘Officer?’ the officer said and laughed. ‘Just who do you think I am?’
‘The police,’ he said.
‘The police?’ he said, and laughed again. He laughed so hard his lower jaw disappeared, leaving only the upper half of his face. ‘Ah,’ he said hollowly, ‘you’re killing me.’
Upon which the man fainted.
The doctor shined a tiny light into his eyes. ‘How are you feeling?’ he asked. ‘Are you getting plenty of rest?’
‘People keep interrupting,’ the man said. ‘They keep waking me up.’
‘Oh?’ the doctor said. ‘People? Who, the orderlies? I’ll have a chat with them.’
‘Everybody,’ the man said.
‘The police. My lawyer. Everybody.’
‘The police? And why would you have a lawyer?’
‘Because of what they think I did,’ he said.
He knew he’d made a mistake when the doctor stopped shining the light into his eyes and peered at him closely. ‘And what would you say they think you did?’ the doctor asked.
His voice, the man noticed, had changed. Before it had been offhand, ordinary. Now it was casual, but deliberately casual – as if he was trying not to startle the man away while he crept closer.
For a moment the man didn’t say anything. Then he said, ‘You’re a doctor, right?’
The doctor nodded. ‘Technically, yes,’ he said.
‘And I’m in a hospital,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ the doctor said, frowning a little. ‘You could call it that.’
‘And I’m ill.’ The doctor smiled. ‘I don’t think there can be any question but that you’re ill,’ he said.
‘You still don’t remember anything?’ his lawyer asked.
‘The doctor told me to rest,’ the man said. ‘I’m not supposed to talk to anyone. I don’t even know how you got in here.’
The lawyer waved the statement away. ‘Tomorrow we take out all the stops,’ he said. ‘Deploy everything we can.’
‘Please leave me alone,’ said the man. ‘Please go away.’
‘Go ahead, keep it up,’ said the lawyer. ‘See if it does you any good.’
His head was starting to ache. When he reached up to touch the bandages covering it, his fingers came away bloody. He should have paged the doctor, but he wanted to write more down first, even though his fingers were shaking and the blood was dripping onto the paper. He was afraid of dying, but he was more afraid of forgetting.
He had dreams just before the bleeding started. He was dreaming but he was still awake, hunched in the bed. He saw people rushing out of a building, people hurling chairs through windows and throwing themselves out, the sound of an alarm going off. It wasn’t right. It was as if he was watching a bad TV set. There were jerky black-and-white images of people running, and he was there among them. In the dream, he was panicked.
Why does his head hurt so badly? Who is doing this to him? Did someone take his place for a few days and then depart again, leaving him to take the blame? Is he mad? Is it the world itself that’s starting to come apart at the seams?
He was still sitting there holding his special borrowed pencil, clicking it to make a little more lead appear so he could write, and suddenly it was as if the whole world started to dissolve. There was a humming in his head, and the notebook seemed too far away to be in his lap, miles away now, and had begun to be eaten away by threads of darkness. And then suddenly it all disappeared, just blinked out.
He woke up having fallen partway out of the bed, the notebook lying on the floor. The guard was still in his chair just outside the door, still sleeping. He hadn’t woken up. How was it possible he hadn’t woken up? The man didn’t know how long he had been there on the floor like that. Enough time for the bandages on the left side of his head to become sodden with blood and for blood to form a small puddle on the hospital floor.
He managed to retrieve the notebook. The pencil too, though reaching for them made a lump of darkness clot his vision for a moment. A numbness oozed out into his arm. He managed to slide the notebook under the covers and pulled himself down lower in the bed until he was lying down mostly flat, his head bloodying the pillow. Then he reached out for the call button, but his fingers found the morphine release button first.
So he pressed it. He wasn’t thinking all that clearly. His head felt as if it was muffled in cotton. He knew he needed to press the call button, that he was still bleeding, but he could never quite find it. And then he thought, okay, he’d just close his eyes for a minute, he’d just catch his breath.
The last thing he wanted to do was lie in his bed and bleed to death. The last thing he wanted was for blood to slowly puddle around his brain until he died.
He felt as if he was drowning. Or maybe choking. He still had his eyes closed, but he was starting to wake up, groggy but still alive. He opened his eyes and found something covering them. Something was draped over his face. No, pressed hard against it, smothering him. He tried to shout but could only make a muffled noise, hardly even human. He couldn’t breathe. Blood pounded slower and slower in his ears. He was barely there, blood in his throat now too. For a while, it was all he could do to breathe. And then he couldn’t even do that.
Perhaps hours later, he awoke to see a doctor’s face.
‘What happened?’ the man asked.
‘You tried to die,’ the doctor said.
‘Where are the police?’ he asked. ‘Where’s the lawyer?’
The doctor looked at him strangely. ‘The police are where they’re supposed to be,’ he said. ‘And what lawyer do you mean?’
But this can’t be true. He has a lawyer, his lawyer’s been coming to visit him.
‘No,’ the doctor explained, ‘nobody has come to see you since you were admitted.’
But, but, but, he said, maybe they came and nobody saw them. Yes, that must have been what happened, yes.
The doctor shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘We have a very serious protocol here. Nobody could get in or out without our knowing.’
Once again, he knew then he should have been quiet, that he’d said too much.
‘Language,’ scolded his lawyer, who was suddenly there beside —
Wait, maybe that was from the same conversation or maybe from a different one. Everything mixes with everything else, and he’s so groggy he has a hard time keeping things straight. How is he to know where one thing starts and another ends?
The doctor paid the lawyer no attention. Which means he probably wasn’t really there. But since I am telling the story, I am going to keep him there. He, I mean. Since he is telling the story, he is going to keep him there. If he’s the man’s lawyer, well, he should have been there.
The doctor paid the lawyer no attention. Instead, he stared at the man.
‘Where are my parents?’ the man asked. The doctor looked at him quizzically, started to thumb through his file. ‘I thought your parents were dead,’ he said.
‘That’s exactly what I’ve been telling him,’ the man said, nodding toward the lawyer.
‘Don’t listen to him,’ said his lawyer, but the man wasn’t sure if the lawyer was speaking to him or to the doctor.
The doctor, in any case, didn’t seem to hear him. ‘Telling who?’ he asked.
‘Your parents are exhausted,’ the lawyer said. ‘I told them I’d stay with you as long as the hospital let me. They’ll come when they’re feeling better.’
‘How can they feel better if they’re dead?’
But wait, how had he gotten confused? It had not been his lawyer after all, but a nurse, and she wasn’t talking about his parents but making him follow her moving finger with his eyes.
‘Good,’ she said. ‘Good. Good.’ The doctor had withdrawn to one side, scribbling on a pad – the doctor at least was still there. The man looked closely at the nurse to make sure she wasn’t his lawyer in disguise, but if it was a disguise, it was good enough that he couldn’t see through it.
A liquid touched his lips, and it felt as if his tongue was on fire. Then he was half asleep and half awake and watching a long procession of people who looked as if their bodies had been bled dry. He knew he was observing a battalion of the dead, a long line of ghosts. They nodded to him with their missing jaws. They beckoned and opened their arms wide.
The doctor was there beside him, in his shiny white coat. A nurse was with him too, either the same nurse or a different one.
‘How are we feeling?’ the doctor asked. ‘Let’s take a look at that head.’
Which head? the man couldn’t help but wonder, and he kept expecting the doctor to pull one out, but then the doctor reached out and touched him. A wave of pain ran through him, and he realized the head in question must be his own.
Finally the doctor stopped prodding it. ‘Could be worse,’ he said.
He began to unwind the dressings from around it. They were sopping with blood. The nurse collected them as they came off, in an enameled bedpan. They made a wet sound as she slopped them in.
The doctor stared at the exposed wound for a while, his brow furrowed.
Then they wrapped the head back up again, and the doctor began to write on a clipboard.
‘What happened?’ the man finally managed to ask.
‘Hmmm?’ he said. ‘Problems with blood pooling. And your brain was swelling. We had to cut a hole and put a shunt in, to take the pressure off. You should be all right in a few days.’ He smiled. ‘Then we’ll install a plate.’
He nodded. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Nothing to worry about. We’ll graft skin over it. Nobody will even know it’s there.’ He turned to the nurse. ‘Let’s let him rest for a while,’ he said. Then he gave the man an injection of something.
But I’ll know it’s there, he thought as he drifted off. And the doctor will know, and the nurse too. And anybody who reads this notebook. How can that constitute nobody?
Morning again, a pale light streaming in through the window, motes of dust whirling in the air. A nurse moving about the room, smiling. She changed the bedpan and then, with the help of an orderly, moved him from his bed to a new, clean one. It hurt a little, was a little jarring, but it didn’t kill him. He only began to relax as they set the brakes of the new bed and wheeled the old one out.
It was starting to get dark when the sound of voices in the hall woke him. Soft at first, then growing louder. Soon, his lawyer opened the curtain and came in.
The guard was back. Now that the curtain was open, the man could see he had retreated to the doorway and stood in the hall. He leaned awkwardly against the wall, stiff as a board.
‘Hello,’ the lawyer said. ‘Feeling better?’
‘We won’t have long,’ the lawyer said. ‘Did you look at the file?’
‘Yes,’ he said. He lost just a little of his composure. ‘I told you I was leaving it. I asked if you understood. You said you did.’
‘I don’t remember any of that,’ he said. ‘I never saw any file.’
The lawyer regarded him silently. ‘Well,’ he finally said. ‘We don’t have anything to talk about, then. Not yet. It’s tucked under the mattress,’ he said.
The man made a move to pull it out, but the lawyer shook his head no. Not until after he was gone.
When the guard still hadn’t moved, the man snaked his arm out from under the sheet and slipped it over the side. He pushed his fingers under the mattress, poking around for the so-called file.
But nothing was there.
All right, he thought at first. The lawyer had pushed the file in too far. No problem. He scooted over to the very edge of the bed and made sure his arm was sunk in to the elbow and wiggled his fingers around. But he still didn’t feel anything.
All right, he thought. Just because the lawyer was seated on that side in his last visit didn’t mean he wasn’t on the other side the visit before. So the man labored his way to the other edge of the bed and slipped the other hand in.
He lay there for a while staring at the ceiling in the slanting light of evening.
Someone took it, he thought.
The police? A guard? His doctor? The orderly? The nurse?
Or maybe his lawyer didn’t leave it after all. Maybe he’d forgotten to. Maybe he just wanted the man to think he had.
All those thoughts spun about in his skull, slowly starting to consume him. Until he remembered that they had changed his bed. They had moved him from one bed to the other and wheeled the first bed out. The file must have been under the mattress of the other bed.
He pressed the call button. He would call the nurse and have her find the bed and get the file for him. He needed the file. He needed to see what he had done.
He pressed the button and waited, but nobody came. He pressed it again. Still nobody.
Was the guard there this time? Sure, why not? Let’s put him there. Let’s say that the man could see the edge of his shoulder just past the edge of the curtain.
‘Hello?’ the man called to the guard. ‘Can you help me?’
The guard didn’t move. He stayed exactly where he was.
‘Hello?’ the man called again.
When the guard still didn’t answer, the man very carefully moved his feet to the edge of the bed and then let them slip off. He pushed himself up with his arms until he was sitting. It was almost too much – his brain was sloshing like wet sand. He could feel the blood pounding in his skull and imagined the dressings wrapped around it beginning to saturate. He managed to get his legs onto the floor, and a wave of nausea went through him, only slowly ebbing back.
And then suddenly he was standing, walking, feeling as if his feet were impossibly far below him. It was all he could do to stay upright.
He made his way around the curtain and there, just on the other side, he found not a guard at all. What he had thought was a guard was only a crude figure made out of cardboard. The word Guard had been written in the middle of the blob that was its head, the letters like the features of a deformed face.
Panicked, he stumbled out of the room and found only a dimly lit hall, dusty and impossibly silent. Only a few of the ceiling lights still functioned well. Others glowed a dull red and still others had gone completely out. Stacked against one wall were more cardboard figures. Some seemed well used, others almost untouched. Nurse said one. Chief of Police said another. Lawyer said a third. Orderly. First Reporter, and on its reverse side, Second Reporter. Almost everyone he had met and a few he hadn’t, not yet.
Near the back of the stack, one said Mother and another Father. But both of these figures had had their heads torn mostly free.
Behind these were four more figures, each of them with a quarter-sized hole burned in their cardboard heads.
He looked for a door out, but there was nothing but hall, seemingly going on forever. He started down it and before he knew it was back at the stack of cardboard figures without any sense of how he had gotten there. Lawyer was on the top now, though he hadn’t moved it. This, he thought, must mean something. And where was Doctor? he wondered.
Overwhelmed, he tried to return to his room but found only a piece of cardboard pasted to the hall wall where his room had been. He pushed at it, but it was just a piece of cardboard with a word on it, the word Door. Other than that, it was nothing at all.
‘Hello?’ he heard a voice say, and when he turned he saw the doctor – flesh and blood it seemed, not cardboard. How had the doctor gotten here, and why hadn’t he seen him before? The man felt the doctor touch him on the arm, but the touch felt wrong somehow.
‘What are you doing out of your room?’ the doctor asked. ‘How did you get out?’ He tried to respond, but when he did nothing came out.
He tried to gesture with his hands to show the doctor that something was wrong, but they were flat and stiff and wouldn’t move.
‘Come on, then,’ said the doctor. ‘Come with me.’
When he hesitated, the doctor reached out and effortlessly gathered him under one arm. He carried him toward the word Door and somehow – the man couldn’t see how – opened it up and brought him back into his hospital room.
The doctor set him upright. For a moment the man saw his reflection in a brown square labeled Mirror and realized that he too was a crude figure in cardboard, a name scrawled on his insubstantial chest, the word scratched out and half effaced, illegible.
‘There now,’ the doctor said. ‘Isn’t that better?’
But he couldn’t say if it was or wasn’t, because he didn’t understand what was happening. He couldn’t move.
He listened to the doctor chatter on a bit, and then the doctor checked his watch and said, ‘Let’s let you get some rest.’
He allowed himself to be placed flat on the piece of cardboard labeled Bed because he could think of no way to prevent it. The doctor went out, and when he did the world around the man became even more impoverished.
He lay there, hoping the world still had some tricks left up its sleeve, and that some, at least, would fall his way.
After a time, an hour, a day, a month, perhaps longer, he could move again. He was holding a notebook in his hands. Someone was holding out a pen to him, telling him to write.
This is the extent of his report. He has done as you asked and kept a record of everything he can remember. He has kept it to himself and shown it to nobody but you.
Now, we need you to tell us what we should make of it.
Photograph © ISOtob, 2011. ‘Click’ is reprinted by permission from the forthcoming collection, A Collapse of Horses (Coffee House Press, 2016).