With dry, dull pain in my mind and an alcohol induced ache in my stomach, I sat between some moldy old boxes in an abandoned alley while the rain fell in sheets, covering the buildings and covering the streets. Cleansing the city of dust and smoke, grease and smog, the rain formed into flowing streams along curbs and concrete walkways, bubbly and slick with a spectrum of oil on top they flow into the underground drainage systems. The cityís absolution.
I wish it were so easy for me.
The rain was very cold, and I couldnít really feel my fingers anymore. Cold snot ran slow down my face, slowed by its own thickness, and I wiped it away with a blood-soaked sleeve. I donít remember exactly where the blood came from, or even the shirt for that matter. Whether this was the effect of the drunkenness or some other mysterious source of the amnesia I still canít recall, but I do remember that feeling of sickness; a complaining belly and a slight headache, a pain in the heart. It wasnít the alcohol or any of the other recent injuries. This wound was deeper.
I guess I had gotten up and started walking because I was heading down the street holding myself and muttering. The pain became more and more distinct, more localized and I began to whimper. Plumes of breath steamed from my mouth and nose, encrusted and frozen with saliva, snot and alcohol, and now fresh tears. I walked past park benches and trees, past corners I didnít recognize and then some I thought maybe I did. I cried in silence, freezing and bleeding from the heart, I was an animal.
I tried to distract myself from what was tearing at me on the inside; I tried to think about the name of the city I was in, if I could place names to faces. I realized as I walked by a coffee shop that I couldnít. I couldnít remember my name, I didnít know where I came from or where I was. I didnít know what street I was on or where I was going, I couldnít form in my mind the face and voice that was trying to come through. I felt like a true ghost, like a man whose sadness had turned to numbness and rage had turned into indifference. I suspected that there was such a time when I had opinions and real feelings, as well as logical and coherent thoughts about everyday things, but the truth was I didnít remember ever having any of that. It was just a feeling. And even though I had no real reason for thinking so, I felt as though my amnesia was nothing so new; I felt strange, but not particularly different.
Stumbling amnesiac, I continued, mumbling to myself. Perhaps I was talking aloud, I donít exactly remember. I placed my hands under the pits of my arms and held myself tightly. I could easily feel my ribs through my shirt and skin, and I couldnít remember the last time I had eaten anything. The sun was setting through a break in the thick black clouds, and I cursed it and turned away as I walked, the day was ending and people were scurrying about, running home in such a frenzy that their faces blurred and I could tell none of them from any other.
I walked past a graveyard without giving it a second thought. I looked behind as if I expected to see something, someone, but there wasnít anything there.
It was raining again and with the setting of the sun it became very cold, so cold that my teeth made an audible chattering noise, percussion to accompany my mumblings. I remember this all now with some effort, though at the time I didnít notice my own physical discomfort. A figure was trying to form in the fog of my mind, a face or frame of some sort, and though it was not specific nor clear at the time, I remember all of its blurry detail very clearly now, now as I have seen it in focus and remember it all too well.
Something I saw on the street had caught my eye and set me to motion. Something I read in a headline or store display I canít now remember, and why it was pushing me to move; I couldnít remember that then either.
That word had been prominently displayed somewhere, in big black lettering and now it ran through my mind like ink from a paper, staining all else within my mental frame. As if I had been preprogrammed somehow I began to run, run like there was someone chasing me. I imagined them being men in suits. I ran through the roads that themselves ran with freezing water and luckily I saw no cars as I wasnít watching for traffic or any other obstruction. I may have fallen flat on my face a few more times because my face hurt and my nose was bleeding again.
An apartment. I was in an apartment, my apartment. I tripped over a bike someone had left sitting in front of the door. One of its wheels was bent. I guess I must have left the window open for some reason because it was as cold in there as it was outside. Still, swiftly, calmly, I led myself into the bedroom and looked around before falling to my knees and prying open the closet door. Under a pile of neatly stacked socks I found what I was looking for. I took the backpack sitting next to it and emptied it. Thousands of pages of notes flew around the room, twisting and looping in the air. Each sheet was covered front and back with neat rows of tightly compacted text and small, precise drawings. I didnít need them anymore. It was all in my head, every last word, line, and punctuation mark.
ďDurabilityĒ I continued to mouth to myself, between every labored breath as my heart beat and beat trying to catch up to my sprinting brain.
The pack was very heavy and my slim body struggled to keep it on my back. I must have looked strange with a blood and vomit stained shirt on, a fifty pound backpack behind me and my pockets stuffed with everything else I needed. I didnít run into very many people, they had all locked themselves inside and the neighborhood was as still as a picture.
Cold and wet, cold and wet. It was one of those days that was so cold yet humid in such a way that all of the heat seems to be zapped right out of you, like jumping into an ice-water pond. But I didnít think about the cold, I made steps as steady as I could and now that I thought I knew where I was going, and now the sun was out of sight and the clouds on the horizon displayed smoldering shades of pink and purple. I began to run again.
And it seemed that at this moment, for the first time in the last several minutes (hours?) I knew exactly where I was going. The Geneva Street Bus Station was just down the road. I was going to take the yellow line to 47th Street. At that point I was going to go North along the railroad lines and alleys until I reached my destination. How I knew this I did not know at that time, and I was not even sure that my destination was where I suspected it was, though I was confident; I had traveled this path a thousand times before.
I reached the turnstile and stopped, digging in my pockets for change. I had exact fare. Before that point, I had no idea that there was anything in my pockets at all. I stumbled through, turning my head slowly to try and catch a glimpse of the yellow line. Like the streets outside, the station was abandoned, and I walked towards the oak benches where the train would be pulling up in about three minutes. It was 7:02 when I thought that. I sat down slowly on the closest bench. My fingers moved over the grain of the polished wood, sliding over, around, under the bench probing the surface of it while I probed my brain, trying to find a way out of this fog, a light in the darkness. I felt something sticky and I focused to see what I had caught. Gum. Bright green and...gummy. I stretched it and squashed it over and over again between my finger and thumb. Focusing past my own hand I saw the concrete was littered with gum spots, brown and black (depending on age) and randomly collected along the floor of the station. I remember thinking they were supposed to keep places like this clean, I remember wondering where were the men in bright municipal coveralls with mop buckets? I imagined that there was organization to their arrangement, nothing happens randomly, science teaches us this. Even if it appears to be so, it really isnít. Science, I was muttering something about science.
I was jarred back to coherent thought by the whistle of the train. It had arrived exactly on time, as I knew it would. This is not to say I knew of what I was soon to do, much less my motive for doing so.
I felt as though I had something to prove. I took a deep breath before stepping on. There was a dull pain in the bottom of my throat when my lungs expanded fully, a slight burning feeling much like that a person may feel after a day of too many cigarettes. Exhaling fully, I realized that the pain was probably not there, again, not physically; it was a phantom pain caused by the presence of an empty heart.
I entered the train and sat down. The seats were set low, not very high above the floor. They were arranged facing each other on either side, and long, unfriendly fluorescent lights spanned the distance of the rail car. There was graffiti above the windows, there was gum on the floor. I let my bag slide off my back and I took a seat next to it.
The car was empty, save for one man sitting opposite myself and down from me several seats. He was reading a newspaper intently but soon stopped when he noticed me looking at him. He smiled and introduced himself promptly. I canít remember his name, but I imagine the look on my face at the time must have been inviting because he came over to sit closer to me. He had a Scottish accent, and he was talking about his affinity for key chains and other collectible trinkets.
I donít remember the detail of his conversation at that point for something he had said, or at least the nature of what he was saying brought something to my mind. It took me a moment to realize that I had something else very important very near me, on my person somewhere. My hands slid down to check my front pockets, but before I even searched them completely my mind registered an object under me, laying flat between me and the bench. Staring out the window opposite and barely hearing my companion, I reached around and found the opening of my back pocket. I retrieved a small knife and held it in front of my face for me to image.
I must have said it out loud because the nice foreign gentlemen focused on my object and added what a piece it was, and how durability was indeed important when it came to valuing such items. I couldnít speak, I couldnít think. I couldnít move.
Everything came back in one instant and my mind was lost. Tears ran down my face as I stared at the knife. It was smooth and clean, and it felt very cold. I collapsed on the floor screaming. I looked down at my legs, and both were bleeding profusely. The blood shot out in fanned splatters as it gushed out of the arteries and from the thin exits made from the blade, shooting out into the air like a lawn sprinkler. My chest was covered in vomit, and the knife was covered in it as well as my own blood. I know the vomit was not mine; this I know because of the body laying next to me, and the yellow filth that was still trickling out of its mouth. It was the body of a very tall man, the man who had given me the knife. I gasped looking up. I saw the summer constellations layed out in chewing on the rail car ceiling, and soon that view was blocked by the bodies and hats and sunglasses of silent and suited men, looking down at me. I screamed, trying to run.
But none of that had happened.
The next thing I remember is the rail car door sliding open in front of me. The station was empty, as was the car I had just ridden there in. The men were an illusion, as was the body and the blood, and my legs were in very good condition. Other than what I have just described, I remember as much as I did the moment before. Looking down at the knife again it yielded no further flashbacks. Maybe in time, I thought, but I knew that time was something I didnít have.
I jumped onto the platform and into the body of the station, the 47th Street Station. It felt eerily abandoned. The cold and rain must have kept everyone home. It may have been late, I donít recall knowing what time it was, or even the month or season for that matter.
When I reached the steps of the station to exit, a series of sounds caught my attention and I looked back. The train had not left, and within it were several men in yellow overalls. it looked like they were mopping blood and vomit off of the floor. (Something in my mind told me that they werenít going to do anything about the gum) As I had done many time that day, I picked up my feet and ran.
I ran behind the station, taking back alleys and darting between dumpsters and trucks and other clutter a city accumulates where some rarely go. I was heading North, just as I knew I had to. To avoid a large brick wall I turned and went down another alley. I thought I would take the street as long as I had to and them vanish back into the darkness where I was safer. I didnít make it to the street, at least not yet.
Standing there to his back to me was one of the men in sunglasses and a suit. Though I tried very hard not to make a noise, he turned around just the same as if I had shot a gun into the air. Something took over. The pain I was feeling had blending with my own rage at my amnesia and before I even understood what I was doing the knife was out and the blade was drawn. My first swipes were clumsy, but as he rushed me I grasped the opportunity, swinging hard. I honestly thought I had missed him; I must have been of by at least a foot.
The man collapsed on the ground. His entire torso had been cut through.
I looked at the knife, but only for less than a second. I had little sanity left and I damn sure wasnít going to waste it on this blade, or that dead man. I folded the blade and ran. Instead of taking the alleys again I ran down the street, straight down the middle. I had a suspicion I was being chased, but I didnít dare look back.
When I came to my destination I sprinted up the driveway towards the guards station, where tonight no guards stood. I punched in the security code I didnít know I knew and the gates opened with a rattle. I walked through and turned around. Dozens of suited men stood there, trying to guess my next move. I retrieved from my pocket the blade and held it above me. They all took a step back and remained there as the gate closed between us. For once in the last day (hours?) I felt some measure of confidence, some strange feeling of victory that was so unfamiliar to me. The rain began falling again as I walked through the huge parking lot toward the monstrous building, not having to look back, somehow knowing they wouldnít dare follow me.
I had the strange feeling of knowing where I was going but not knowing where I was. The buildings surrounding me were dark and sterile, looking even more foreboding and solid in the night and rain. They towered over me as I shivered, going slowly and slouching as I walked down a long concrete path. There was grass everywhere but no trees or stones, just buildings and grass and concrete paths crossing over each other in mad, random patterns. Beyond the buildings there were more buildings and beyond those there were more grass and more concrete pathway patterns, all of them themselves adorned with chewing gum constellations. None of it looked real. Nothing had felt real since I woke up earlier (Or was I still dreaming?)
All of the walking, the running, and the hallucinations- none of that seemed real. The only one thing I could focus for very long on was that pain that was still within me. I felt pregnant with it. As if it took up all of my being, as if it was the source of this pain that was driving me to do what I was about to do, though I still did not yet know what it was.
I donít know how long I had spent darting between buildings, trying to find the right one; whichever one that might have been. I could have been going in circles for all I knew, but eventually I reached my destination. It was a building that looked even taller and darker than the others, more enchanted, more important. I walked right in, I donít remember if the front doors were locked or not. Soon the sanitation workers would be over to pick up the broken glass, I supposed.
The hallway was long but not unfamiliar. I unslung the pack from my back and held it before me as I walked. I was almost there. The walls of the corridor were adorned with meaningless, manufactured art. The inside of the building was as warm and welcoming as the outside. The doors were hard to see too, this is because a lot of them were recessed into the walls. A lot of things went on here, a lot of very important things. Some of those things I had participated in, though sometimes not to my knowledge, and certainly not to my knowledge now. Behind these walls were monstrous creations, things so hideous and totally devoid of feeling. They represented a part of humanity that humanity itself couldnít bare to see. Thatís why so many of the doors were recessed into the walls. Thatís why they brought in people like me, people so empty theyíd live for the job, theyíd live for the opportunity to slave day in and day out, maintaining and feeding the machines. We created machines that fed off of other human beings. Machines that could crawl under peoplesí skins and take their mind and take their money. We made machines that were designed to kill other humans in the quintuple digits. We made a very small number of men very, very rich.
I found the door I needed to open. It was at the end of the hall, and I remember it being very difficult to enter the code with all the tears flowing from my eyes.
The lab looked as I had left it. This was going to be easy. It was dark inside, but I knew the lab well enough. I had walked through it for days without sleep before, in a caffeine induced haze dancing around expensive equipment and sensitive instruments, taking down notes and writing downs observations. I didnít even know what I was looking at because I didnít want to know. I didnít want to think.
I slinked into the office and turned on the lights. It was also as I had last left it. The drawers were turned out and the cabinets emptied, their contents splattered across the floor. The computer was turned on, but the disk was empty. I remembered that it would be. The door was closing behind me, I knew that it was now or never. I ran for it.
But I didnít. The door was wide open, and I was still standing in the office. Outside the lab was silent.
I had work to do.
I watched as a tall, dark figure glided through the lab. I couldnít see what it was, I didnít want to know. Maybe it was a ghost. There certainly should have been more than one. I didnít hesitate. When I could no longer see any movement I walked slowly through the lab towards The Chamber. The knife wasnít in my hand, but my hand was right above my pocket just in case. I was not to be stopped.
A few seconds later I was in the control room, looking over the main chamber. I sealed The Chamber with a lockout code. Normally my codes wouldnít have worked, they probably stripped all of my codes out of the system once I disappeared, at least the codes they knew about. They had forgotten how involved I was with everything here. This was my chamber. I designed it from the ground up. I knew every flaw, every weakness. I must have programmed back door codes because I was in.
Everything that was necessary to conduct any conceivable experiment in the chamber was easily accessible. All the data banks, all the paper files, all of the backups and all of the results and data were within the chamber, inside its walls, or very near in adjoining rooms. At first the executives and directors didnít like the idea, they wouldnít even look at my blueprints. When I told them how quickly I could turn results and the amount of secrecy that could be guaranteed with the setup, they agreed to it without taking a vote.
In looking around at all the silent, sterile equipment I realized how strange it was to see this place not filled with scientists and students and curious, excitable rats. Everything had been here at one time, everything they had needed. After how many weeks or months (years?) the project was almost complete and everything we needed to reproduce the breakthrough experiment was in the lab. Everything but one.
I opened my bag and started my work.
Things were coming back to me as my hands fiddled with the components before them, meticulously connecting and tying and reconnecting. I remembered names of people but I couldnít remember their faces. I could remember faces but couldnít remember how long it had been since Iíd seen any of them.
I thought a lot about the nights and days in the lab, except there really werenít either. Iíd eaten coffee and slept at my desk. Iíd forgotten what sunlight was like. Even though no one was after me then, I was nonetheless running. The only way I could live was by running myself to death.
Except then I didnít have the knife to cut my legs off if I had to, I didnít have the complete contents of the bag then either. But now I had a measure of power, a chip in the pile against those who had employed me.
I donít know how long it took me to get everything ready, smashing and removing panels, running wire, setting the C4 up around the load bearing sections of the chamber, under the chemical tanks and electrical conduits.
The whole complex was going to go sky-high.
They would see the smoke for miles around before the embers stopped burning. It would take days for them to put all of the fires out; the amount of toxic and radioactive elements in the buildings would be enough to keep the fire fighters away for a long time. Through all of this I neglected to consider my own fate after the fuse was to be triggered. It seemed natural to me that the last, most important piece of the experiment go up with the rest.
The formula had to be destroyed, and I with it apparently. As long as I was alive and the formula safe within me I would be running forever. Nobodyís wants to run forever. I had been running for days and I still couldnít remember my own name.
The lab used to be filled with white rats. Every few hours techs wearing masks and aprons would take away the dead ones dozens at a time and a few minutes later would return with dozens more. There were cages and glass enclosures all throughout the labs in the chamber, little white rats trapped in the glass of their little cells and scientists in white lab coats looked on, themselves trapped behind the thick glass and concrete and steel of the chamberís walls. It really didnít matter which ones were the rats and which were the scientists. They were all rats. I was a rat.
The higher-ups in the Wheeling Hubcap Factory used us all the same, to test, to prod, to run us to death. We fed the rats and used them until their usefulness was exhausted and then we incinerated them after they died. The company fed us and paid us, but ran us nonetheless. I was the only one who didnít need prodding, I ran ahead of all the rest, running without thought of all the bodies I was causing to accumulate, and all in the name of what? In the name of some ideal or great discovery of which even I knew so little about?
I knew I had sinned, maybe not in the biblical sense, but I couldnít help but think that maybe that was what all of this was about; the C4, the blade, maybe even the hallucinations.
But now the chamber was mostly dark, a condition that I could not remember it ever being in when I had been working there. The rats were gone, and the scientists were as well of course. Maybe they were buried and gone, I didnít know.
I turned to face the chamber center.
I knew this wasnít a hallucination. Two green eyes gazed in to mine from the chamber floor below me. Two beautiful green eyes that for a second I thought I did not know, but I knew this not to be true. As my mind took in the face which contained these eyes, the image that had been blind to my mind since regaining consciousness earlier emerged, smashing through and, for a while, complete shattering any of the sanity I had left remaining.
She had dyed her hair black, just like it was since I had seen her last, since I had seen her and she had the gun pointing at me. All of the pain, all of the regret and all of the suppressed emotions of the last few days and years spilled through. Tears fell from my eyes as I looked into hers, I lacked the strength even to stand yet I continued to do so. If it had been any one else standing before me, if it had been one of the men in suits or one of the sanitation workers I would have ran, I would have ran back into the night and back into the streets and back in to the rain. I felt like the world was collapsing around me, like I could feel the rain and hear the thunder outside as if I was in the middle of the storm, I felt as cold as if I had been running bare the whole night, I felt sick, I felt weak, I felt destroyed. As we stood there facing each other as the world crumbled around us, I couldnít help but think that this all felt very familiar.
Kate had been hired by the higher-ups to replace some of the staff lost in one of the accidents we had had weeks or months before. Kate was the perfect woman, embodying quiet, reserved passion and strength, she employed a playful spirit that almost betrayed her immense intellect. She had the womanly ability of being able to hush me with a look and win me with her deceivingly innocent smile. Her touch had been so soft and persuasive, and there was a time prior to tonight that I would have done anything for her contentment, I would have lied and stolen for her, I would have murdered for her (I may have), I almost would have stopped running for her, if, as I was just discovering, it wasnít for her pushing me forward, making sure I was running well ahead of the other rats. I didnít know then what she wanted from me, but I know now. It wasnít love or companionship, it wasnít any of my virtuous traits and it probably wasnít any good looks I may have had.
Now she had the look in her eyes of the men she was with the other night: cold, callous. This was all business to her.
Kate had almost everything she needed to retrieve the formula from me. She had a gun, she had dozens of men in suits waiting outside and she had herself. She had all of the records and data and transcripts needed to reproduce the experiments within arms reach here in the chamber, she had connections within the company and she had all the money she needed from those contacts to do whatever had to be done to extract the formula. Kate had a lot to work with.
For all she had I had only two things. The first of these having been the formula, the second was my thumb, now resting on the detonator.
ďYouíre such a fool.Ē Kate said, breaking the silence. She said it in a sweet way, the way one may jokingly call his or her lover a fool, but I was not deceived, the look in her eyes had not changed. Kate was a wolf speaking with the voice of a sheep.
ďDid you really think theyíd let you get away with it, after all youíve done, after all youíve got in that little brain of yours?Ē She laughed softly and smiled, still talking to me as if I was a foolish child.
I stammered but couldnít make any words.
At that very moment I realized why it was I loved Kate so much, it was the reason I suppose I had ever loved anyone. Kate didnít have a soul, I knew that now. It wasnít her smile or her touch, her personality or her intelligence, it wasnít beauty or any of those things that made me love Kate, for even though she had sold her soul to those so blinded by their own greed, I still loved her for one simple reason.
Kate had betrayed me, and thatís why I loved her, and to a point, continue to love her still. It was such a human thing to do. As stained as the deed was it seemed to me to be perfectly innocent. I knew she couldnít have resisted, no one could have really. The reality was that her sin, her betrayal, did nothing more than validate her own humanity. For this I loved her.
She reached into her pocket and produced a handgun and pointed it right at my head.
ďWe gave you a chance last time. Youíve got three seconds to talk or youíre dead. Three...Ē
I felt sorry for her, I didnít want to have to do what I was going to do but I knew it was necessary. Kate had been dead since she had conspired to destroy my mind. I couldnít have killed her any more than she had already killed herself.
ďIím sorry Kate, dear, I love you, I forgive you."
A bullet shattered the viewing window and I could feel flying glass tear through my face and arms. I heard another shot and a ricochet off the chamber wall.
But not before I activated the detonator.
The world exploded around us, and I was redeemed by the rain and the fire, and the blood of my lover.
I donít know if fate is preferential to fools, or if it is the fools that can best tolerate fate. I donít know if it was because of fate that I didnít die in the explosion or because of some other unaccounted variable. In time all things show themselves, and those that donít perhaps are best to be left unknown. Regardless the circumstances and regardless the odds, the truth is you canít run forever. Sometimes you can fight, and sometimes you may even win, and though there is much to be said for durability, the fact of the matter remains.
No one wants to run forever.