This is just me playing with myself. Uh, not literally. I mean you know, playing with themes and ideas and stuff. Anyway, it was all for fun, and when I read over it I realised it was actually not a bad story, too. I was split right in two minds about whether I should include those last scenes at the end or not. I’ll let you judge. Enjoy!
By Ben Pienaar
He woke with a pounding head and a mouth dry enough to sand the splinters from a plank of wood. He rolled over, repressed the urge to vomit, and then pushed himself up against the wall.
It took a few moments to realise the pounding wasn’t all in his head.
‘Open up, buddy! Let’s not make this hard, okay?’
He was in a dingy one room apartment. The place looked like a… Oh, shit. His eyes had come to rest first on the loaded .38 in one corner of the dusty room, and second on the bloody knife half wrapped in bed linen just a few feet away.
Wait, how do I know that’s loaded? What the fuck happened last night? He thought the empty bottle of Jack lying beside an old desk could explain that, but then he realised he couldn’t remember the whole previous week. In fact, forget last week, what about last year? Last decade? He had no idea what he’d been doing his whole life. It was as if he’d just woken up today. A fine time for amnesia to strike.
‘Come on, Jack, there’s only one way out of there and we got it covered.’
Cops. It had to be. He’d murdered someone last night and the cops were here to pick him up. So why didn’t they just smash through the door? Maybe they thought he had a weapon. Shit, he should have a weapon.
Jack fought off fresh waves of nausea and crawled over to the .38, which was in fact loaded. He tucked it into his belt and used a short dressing table nearby to pull himself to his feet. The room spun wildly around him but he managed, somehow, to steady it.
When he forced his eyes to open wider than a squint he saw two things. The first was the victim, a huge guy – the kind of guy you see playing the villain’s muscle in the movies. He was pretty cut up, and his throat was opened in a big red grin. The floorboards were saturated with blood. Damn. No wonder this place is so trashed. The second thing was that the door wasn’t the only way out, after all. There was a small sliding window. Jack went over to it.
‘Stay the hell back, I’ve got a gun!’ he shouted at the door, using the sound of his voice to mask the bang as he wrenched the window up. He heard the guy on the other side relay the information to whoever he was with him. There were murmurs of worry. Good – the more reluctant they were, the longer he had to get out.
He stuck his head out of the window and looked down. Six stories. Broken legs if he jumped from here, for sure. Nothing but smooth brick all the way. The window was no way out. No way at all. He swore quietly. How had this happened? How the Christ had this happened?
He tried to remember things about his past, but all he could come up with were a few scenes in italics about his past in the army…
Wait. What the fuck was that thought? Scenes in italics? Who thought of their own memories in italics? That was the kind of thing you saw in a book. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. ‘You’re losing it, Jack.’
Only he wasn’t losing it, he was just starting to get it. He opened his eyes again and looked at his hands. He turned them over to see the palms, then turned them over again, and then again. They were different. The first time, his hands had looked… generic. Like anyone’s hands. They could have belonged to any one of millions of males in their twenties. But when he turned them over again, he suddenly noticed a deep scar on the back of his right hand that he swore hadn’t been there, and when he looked at his palms for the second time they were no longer smooth but rough and calloused.
‘What the hell?’
‘Listen we’re gonna be here all day and night if we have to be. You just come out in your own time, alright Jack?’
‘Stay the fuck back! I’ll kill you all!’
Come out in his own time. Yeah right. They probably had a swat team landing on the roof of the building right now. But how were they after him? If he’d only killed the guy last night, who tipped off the cops?
No one tipped them off, that was who. No one had to. The cops were there because it made things interesting. Because he was Jack Hunter and he was supposed to break out of here and go in search of the truth, and maybe cure his amnesia.
‘You’re thinking crazy, man.’ He went into the bathroom, swaying a little on his feet and trying to keep whatever was left in his stomach down. It was a dingy, mouldy old room with a cracked mirror, and when he looked in it he saw the face he pretty much expected. It was a hard, carved out of wood face. Square jaw, ice cold grey eyes, scars all over the place from a million fights. He knew the face, but he really didn’t recognize it. It was his, but he was certain he’d never seen it before.
There was more banging on the door, but it sounded almost half hearted. They were only trying to seem genuine, distracting him while the backup came.
Jack put a hand up to his face and felt his skin. Rough. Only… Was he really feeling it? Suddenly he wasn’t so sure. On impulse, before he even had time to think about it, he rammed his hand into the mirror, shattering it and spilling shards of bright glass all over the place. He pulled some glass out of his hand and winced. There was plenty of blood – and it sure felt like pain, but why was he so disconnected? Like the hangover, it was there when he thought about it, but… He looked at the wall for a minute, focusing on all the little cracks and fissures in the concrete. He inhaled dusty air and sneezed. The pain vanished. And now it was back.
The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. The amnesia, the cops surrounding the building, the dead guy. And who had a name like Jack Hunter, outside of some noir action story? It had to be a noir action. His thoughts were made up of witty similes and dark cynicism. The city outside was vast and grey and rainy. I’m just a character in some goddam story.
No, no. It couldn’t be, because if it was, surely the writer would never allow him to think that. If he really was a character, the writer had full control of his thoughts as well as his actions – so why would he let him know so much? Why not just block it all from him and let him go ahead and get on with the story.
It’s some kind of experiment. He wants me to be real, as real as possible – only he made some kind of mistake, made me so real I saw through the thin world he created. It’s just a goddamn veneer, wool pulled over the eyes of everyone but me.
‘That’s right, asshole. Only you’re missing just one thing.’
Jack froze at the sound of the voice. It had come from the other room. It sounded raw, like someone with a very sore throat.
‘If it was a mistake, how come he didn’t just go back to the beginning and start over?’
Jack took a step towards the door and then stopped. He was supposed to go check it out, wasn’t he? So he didn’t. He stayed where he was, and before the voice could say anything else, he raised his arms above his head and spun around like a ballerina. ‘I feel pretty! Oh so pretty! I feel pretty and witty, and freeee!’ He shouted at the top of his lungs, executing enthusiastic if awkward dance moves. He stopped and stood there, heart racing.
The cops from the door started up again. ‘Come on Jack, buddy, just calm down and come with us. We’re not here to hurt you or take you away anywhere. Just put the gun down and come with us.’
‘Fuck, fuck! I can say anything I want!’ Jack screamed from the bathroom.
There was a throaty chuckle from the other room. ‘Having fun in there?’
Jack looked at himself in the mirror again. There was still that same feeling of disconnection, the knowledge (growing more and more sure by the second) that he was in a story, but now he was also sure he was free. There was no way his character – a hardened man with a name like Jack Hunter and a military history – there was no way a character like that would do what he just did. And no one had tried to censor him, either. He hadn’t screamed Fudge, after all, and while that may not be proof by itself, it was something.
Finally, he stepped out into the other room.
The corpse – the big guy – was sitting up, and while his once white shirt had been pretty red before, now it was drenched black. The act of sitting must have caused some of the pooled blood in the back of his throat to seep out of the wound. He was smiling, and Jack noticed he was missing some teeth.
‘Heyy, Jacky boy. You made it.’
Jack said nothing, his teeth clenched. Whatever it was, it was just another game or trick put there by whoever was writing this to make him do something. Get him moving in the right direction.
‘That’s sorta right… Only not really. I’m here to help, Jacky boy.’
‘What the hell would you know? You’re just some thug.’
‘It ain’t the thug talking now.’ He made a sick choking noise and some more blood dribbled from his throat.
‘Way I see it,’ Jack said, ‘There’s only two ways about it. Either I’m just a character doing what I’m told, in which case there’s nothing I can do that I’m not supposed to anyway, or else I’m the only one in this world who’s not like that.’
‘Bingo,’ the corpse said.
‘Who’re you talking to in there, Jack?’ The voice started up outside. ‘You can talk to me, you know, I’ll help you out, I promise. There are some more friends coming who can help you out too, but they’re not as nice as me. Why don’t you talk to me instead?’
‘Touch that door and you eat bullets!’ Jack shouted at the door.
‘The latter,’ the corpse went on as though nothing had happened. ‘You’re the real one. The only real one around.’
‘No shit? What about you?’
‘This guy? He’s got even less of a past than you. He was born the moment he walked through that door, knowing only enough to make a few threats and get himself killed. He only existed so you could kill him, just like this room exists so you can be in it. Ha. He never even had a name.’
‘What’s your name?’
‘What does it matter? I’m not from your world. Point is. You’re real, Jack. You’re as real as they get, and you’re free, too.’
Jack opened his mouth to say something, and then things the corpse was saying struck home. He looked back at the window, thinking of the fall.
‘Go ahead,’ the corpse said. ‘I won’t stop you. I can, you know, but I won’t. It’s not my place.’
‘If that was true I wouldn’t be in this goddamn mess in the first place, asshole.’
‘I made you who you are, sure, but that’s the end of the story. You should be grateful, you’re a pretty capable guy, Jack.’
There was some kind of thumping going on in the ceiling. It occurred to Jack that he forgot to look up when he looked out the window, to see how far he was from the top of the building. For all he knew the roof was right above him.
‘I’m not stupid.’
The voice outside, sounding a little more frantic now: ‘Jack, gimme a break okay? Just let me in the door and don’t shoot me, all I want to do is talk, alright?’
‘I know exactly what you want me to do. You want me to break out of here, maybe kill some people in the process. I’ll bet a hundred bucks I’ve got a few decades of hand to hand combat training under my belt, and I’m not bad with a gun either.’
‘Well sure, look what you did to muscles over here.’
‘So why’d you give me all this? You want some kind of an action hero? I’m gonna escape this place and go find out all about my past? Maybe find someone I’m supposed to get revenge on, or whatever?’
The corpse shrugged. ‘You do what you want, Jacky boy. But hey, maybe there’s a love interest in it for you.’
Jack went over to the window and looked out again, this time twisting his body so he could look up. Thankfully, he wasn’t in the top apartment, otherwise the four SWAT guys rappelling down the side of the building would have reached him ten floors ago. He swore, ducked back inside and slammed the window shut.
‘Still time, Jacky, you’ll know what to do if you think hard enough.’
Jack put a hand on his chest and closed his eyes. His heart was beating there, regularly and slowly. Of course it was. He was a stone cold killer, wasn’t he? No fear. Maybe he wasn’t even the good guy. Maybe it didn’t matter anyway, since everyone in this whole world was made of cardboard.
‘Fuck you,’ he said, then: ‘Fuck. You!’ He turned, took aim and fired. The sight of the corpse’s brains splattering all over the back wall, that wet sound, was so satisfying that he fired again and again into the now horizontal body. He fired all the bullets but one. The voices outside were screaming, and one of the SWAT guys came swinging in through the little window, boots first.
Jack could have beat them, even then, and he knew it. He could have disabled the first guy in a matter of split seconds, then used his gun to take care of whoever came afterward. Then it would just be a matter of the guys outside the door and disappearing into the vast city before anyone else could show up to the party. Hangover or no, he was calm and tensed, ready for the action. He was certain he could handle it. But why?
He was quick, too, and while the SWAT guy was still rising from a crouch and bringing his gun to bear, Jack stuck the .38 so far into his mouth it was practically touching his tonsils. ‘Fuck you’ he said (or meant to say – with a gun in your mouth everything comes out in vowels).
His last thought was: Before anyone else could show up to the party? Who thinks like that at a time like this? And then, loud and clear: THE END, Asshole.
He pulled the trigger.
The rest of the SWAT team landed while the first of them stood over the body, shaking his head. Once they saw the body, the others relaxed, lowered their guns, flicked off the safeties.
‘What the fuck?’
‘Don’t beat yourself up, Jay, we went as quick as we can.’ A rough hand rested on his shoulder for a second and then fell away.
‘What the hell is going on in there?’ A frantic voice came from the hallway.
Still shaking his head, Jay stepped over the body, looked around the trashed but otherwise empty room and opened the door. A group of four guys in pale blue uniforms with nametags stared at him, shocked.
‘Oh, God,’ said one of them, a middle aged professor type with messy grey hair. His nametag said Daniel.
Jay shrugged and stepped aside, letting them come in and see for themselves. One guy stayed in the hall and leaned up against the wall, his eyes closed. Some people just couldn’t take it, Jay thought. He didn’t blame them.
Daniel was staring down at the body while the other SWAT guys stood around awkwardly. Tanner was radioing it in, in case they hadn’t heard it from the street. By the look on Daniel’s face, the dead guy was his own son. Jay stepped up beside him.
‘Friend of yours?’
‘Yes, very much. On his better days, anyway.’
‘You’re from a nuthouse, aren’t you?’
Daniel nodded without talking.
‘So what was his deal?’
‘He thought he was a character in a story. Just for short periods at a time. Sleep seemed to be the trigger and the finish of all his episodes. He had entire days where he was just as sane as you or I. Saner, even. Diggory Hermon. That was his name.’
‘Shit. A character in a story, huh?’
‘I had hope for him.’ Daniel put a hand to his forehead and turned away again. The ambulance sirens were loud and clear now – they sounded right outside the building.
‘I really had hope.’