A/N1 [Embarrassed stammer] I, uh, I thought I was done. For a while, at least... [Kicks awkwardly, abashedly at the dirt...]
And then this story idea hit me just as I finished Turned Tables. I couldn't not write it.
This story is not a saga of the sort that Cables and Tables were. It is more focused, more compact. It is told in a tense, urgent way, an exercise in compressibility. The chapters will be short: between 2500-4000 words typically.
The story is a different take on the end of Chuck, one that employs motifs from Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity (the novel).
Don't own Chuck or The Bourne Identity.
Great is this force of memory, excessive great...a large and boundless chamber! whoever sounded the bottom thereof? yet is this a power of mine, and belongs unto my nature; nor do I myself comprehend all that I am. Therefore is the mind too strait to contain itself. And where should that be, which it containeth not of itself? Is it without it, and not within? how then doth it not comprehend itself? Augustine, Confessions, Book Ten
A Lost Time Ago
The white van is grey in the black. It plunges into the even deeper darkness of the all-but-forgotten dock and skids to a stop. For a moment, nothing happens. The universe stalls, but the engine continues to run. Then the side door slides open. Two figures in black, darkness made humanoid, push a body out. It lands with a dull thud.
A searchlight from a passing boat, far out on the water, weakly illuminates the van and the body for a moment: a flash of blonde hair. Then the light is gone, and evidently, no eye had followed the beam to see the flash.
"Shut the damn door!" A harsh voice from the driver's seat. One of the figures yanks the door and slides it shut. The engine guns; the van is gone.
The searchlight from the boat sweeps past again, even weaker this time, and the hand beside the blonde hair glints. Or, the rings on it do, a wedding set, an engagement ring, and a matching wedding band. Then the light is gone and it does not return.
Hours later. The body moves-no mere body, no corpse. A person. Still. A woman. She is prone on the dirty pavement. She pushes herself shakily up with her arms, twists with a moan, and lifts her hips, so that she is seated. The movement draws her deep into icy nausea. She leans over and vomits-nothing but bile. Almost-dry heaves. She swipes at the thin string of saliva that runs from her bottom lip to the pavement, breaking it.
She looks around her, something in her compelling her to assess her surroundings. Her eyes dart around the docks. She has no idea where she is. All she knows is that she is vulnerable. An easy target. She needs to get out of sight. The dark does not cloak enough.
Standing is not an option. When she tries, the nausea put its fingers down her throat again and she vomits more bile. She struggles onto her hands and knees. There is a dumpster against the wall, ten or twelve feet from her. She crawls glacially to it, terminal moraine, stabbing her right hand on a shard of glass she did not see. Painful, not serious. When she finally reaches the dumpster, she pulls herself up through the opening in its side. The stench is awful. Rot and filth. But her instincts tell her she is better off there than on the pavement. She slides the plastic cover partially shut, further obscuring herself from view. She passes out, passing into a darkness more complete than that in and around the dumpster.
Hours later. Gray dawn. Cold. She wakes. Her body aches. Her head is pounding. But her stomach is not at sea any longer. But the stench has encircled her and settled into her clothes, a black shirt and black pants. Offensive.
She examines herself more closely. She is badly bruised. Her knuckles on both hands are raw. Her nails are torn, bloody. Her wrists are rope-burned.
Her whole body trembles. She knows by feeling that her back is a mess of abrasions; her hips ache. She's been beaten, badly beaten. But she's capable of moving now, maybe even of defending herself, for a moment or two, anyway.
Pushing back the cover on the side of the dumpster, she spies an elderly woman stumbling toward her. In the woman's hand is a brown bag, the neck of a bottle stretched out of it. At her side, long-sufferingly evading the woman's unpredictable steps, is a small dog, brown and dirty, a mutt. The woman stops and looks down at the dog, bending at the waist to scratch behind one of its ears. "Good girl. Good girl. Momma loves her Peaches."
At the last word, the insides of the dumpster vanish. The woman inside it has...a vision. She sees an attractive woman with dark hair-and then a photograph of a dog, perhaps a cocker spaniel. The two-part vision blinds her, a knife blades between her eyes. She groans and loses consciousness. Free in the dark...I am never free in the dark...
The old woman hears the groan and she gives the dumpster a wide berth, wider than the stench alone justifies. "C'mon, Peaches, s'time to go." The small dog jumps up on the side of the dumpster, whining, but eventually, it obeys and rejoins the old woman on their unsure, unsteady journey into the dawn.
Hours later. The woman in the dumpster fights her way back to consciousness. Her head is still throbbing. Nausea squeezes her stomach. Ignoring both, she takes stock of the flat afternoon daylight and climbs from the dumpster. She leans against it, panting from the effort, and from the concentration, it takes not to be sick again. She knows she needs water. Dehydration has set in. She also needs food. She needs real rest. Water, food, rest is a weapon. She can't remember being so weak.
But-then again-she can't remember. Full stop. She can remember becoming conscious on the pavement, crawling to the dumpster. Examining her injuries. Nothing else. Before that, and after it until now, nothingness. Blank. In an attempt to keep herself from complete panic, she begins an internal monologue.
"It's ok. Temporary amnesia. Temporary. I was beaten. Must've taken a blow to the head. It's ok, …" She means to call herself by her own name, but it is as if she's hit a wall. No name came to her mind.
What the hell?
Who am I?
She starts walking, keeping herself in the shadows without realizing that she is doing so. Her eyes are busy, searching. She can see everything around her as if displayed in a 3D grid. Angles, lines, vantage points. Exits, entrances. Signs of people.
Even though she is stiff and aching, she forces herself to move quickly, but without any obvious signs of hurrying. She knows she likely looks bruised and dirty. She stinks like the dumpster. She needs to make herself presentable. Then she needs to think about how she can get help, and what kind of help she needs. Her hand automatically moves to her pocket. No phone. She glances at her empty hand and sees the rings.
A wedding set.
She stops. A wedding set? But she isn't married! Is she? The rings do not seem alien to her, foreign. Not exactly. But finding them is a surprise. A twinge of something passes through her. Joy? But it is wrong for them to be on her hand; she couldn't possibly...deserve them. But it is lucky too. Maybe that explains the twinge: they are expensive. She can pawn them for cash. Maybe that explains the twinge. She can pawn them, maybe for enough to keep herself alive until she knows who she is keeping alive.
After walking for a brutal distance, given her condition, the woman finds herself in a more populous, but unwholesome section of town. She still isn't sure where she is, although the language around her is English-signs, graffiti, used fast food bags. McDonald's. Almost certainly a US city. Water. Docks. Coastal. She walked away from the water without looking back. She regrets it now. She struggles to keep her mind focused.
Always know where you are, always know the time. Never lose track of these things. It will get you killed.
She keeps her head down and walks close to the buildings. People are passing her now, but no one pays any particular attention to her or her to anyone. She sees a thrift shop, its lights on. Without deliberating and without forming a plan, she slips inside. She knows it is another lucky break. She sees a rack of dresses. A bit out of date, certainly not anything like her style-how does she know that?-but long enough and loose enough to keep her from drawing too much attention. Long sleeves. She was suddenly sure she had drawn attention in the past. She'd been gazingstock for lust, sometimes used that fact to her advantage. She chooses a grey dress, a size too large. Moving quickly, she finds a display of used shoes. A pair of black flats in her size. How can she know her size but not her name? She grabs them.
Near the back of the store is a turnstile display of cheap but new, still-packaged underwear. She grabs a package of panties, and a lacy camisole. She moves without hesitation, efficiently. The girl at the counter had looked up for a second when the woman came in, but not long enough to become interested. Good, just a customer.
Dress, shoes and other items in hand, the woman goes into one of the dressing booths. She stops. Panic starts. A full-length mirror showed her herself. She is tall, blonde, athletic. Statuesque. Beautiful. But her hair is matted and filthy. Dirt and streaks of brown, dried blood, she realized, are on her face. She is pale, her features drawn.
But the frightening part of the confrontation with the mirror was that she is confronted by a woman she has never seen before. She knows it is her, but she doesn't know her. Reflected unfamiliarity.
Who am I? Who is this I in me?
She puts her hand against one wall of the booth and steadies herself until the panic decreases. Forcing herself to calm down, she wedges the dress and shoes and underwear under the bench in the booth and heads for the door, purposely drawing the attention of the girl at the counter. The girl looks up again, but only for a second before she looks down again. Her phone. Of course. Very good.
As the woman gets to the door, she ducks quickly to the side, behind a mannequin display. Peeking out, she sees that the young woman did not look up again. The woman creeps quietly back through the store to the dressing booth. Once inside, she peels off her shoes and clothes, her underwear. Bruises criss-cross her body but reveal no meaningful pattern. Her back is badly scraped.
Taking a deep breath, she slides her hands down below her waist and carefully touched, probes herself. She blows out the breath when she feels no damage, no soreness, finds no trace of blood, or anything else. She gets the things she has hidden and opens the packages silently. She slips into the panties and camisole. Then puts on the dress and the shoes. She quickly pulls the laces out of the black shoes she's been wearing. She drops one into a dress pocket.
Never waste anything you can carry effortlessly and might be able to use. A rubber band or a paperclip could save your life.
What are these instructions? How do I know these things?
Shaking her head-that is a problem for later-she runs her fingers through her hair to loosen it and make it more manageable. She uses the other shoelace to tie it back into a simple ponytail. For a split-second, as she looks at herself in the mirror, she seems familiar. A name is on the tip of her mind, then it is gone. The familiarity vanishes. She is estranged from herself anew.
She double-checks the clothes she has taken off, to see if there is anything in them or about them she had missed. Nothing. Then she pulls off the wedding set. Holding the engagement ring up to the light reveals nothing. But the wedding ring-something is inscribed in it: Your heart is my heart. -C. Nothing more.
She drops the rings into the other dress pocket. She silently steals out of the dressing room, not obviously the same woman who had gone inside. She finds a swinging door at the back of the shop with a handwritten sign: 'Employees Only'. Opening it reveals a chaotic storage room-but also a bathroom and the back door. The woman almost runs to the bathroom. Inside, she washes her face and hands and as much of the rest of her as time and her reach allows. She uses the rough brown paper towels to dry herself. She drinks from cupped hands below the faucet-deep and long. When she stands up, she feels better than she can remember feeling. Ever. Weird. Of course, she can only remember a few hours.
She gets to the door. She knows it will beep when she opens it. Nothing to do but to do it. She pushes it open. The beeping starts. She walks down the narrow alleyway quickly and out onto the sidewalk. No shouts. No one following. She'd done it.
How had she known how to do it? It had all seemed familiar, almost routine, as she concentrated on what she was doing and not her knowledge of how to do it. When she tried to concentrate on the latter, her sense that she knew how to do it vanished. She had no idea how she knew what she knew. She wasn't sure she knew it until she did it.
She finds a pawn shop a few blocks away. The man agrees to pay a decent price for the rings, although he glances at her sadly. She realizes it is because her eyes are brimming with tears. Her heart is sinking. She blinks the tears back, ignores her sinking heart, and reaches for the money. It is enough money to keep her going for a while if she is careful. Being careful is something she knows how to do.
She can barely breathe. It is not because of her sore ribs, bruises. The pain is internal, psychological. emotional. She stops outside the pawn shop and turns to go back in. To retrieve her rings. Her rings. But in what sense 'hers'? They had been on her finger. She has a sudden...memory. But of a different set of rings, cheaper, less...significant.
A name! But as she rolls it around in her mind, it attaches to nothing, attracts no other memory. Not her name but still not not her name. What does that mean? Divorce? All the name does is make her feel more empty.
She does not go back in. She makes a note of the place and carefully puts her claim ticket in her pocket. She needs to find a place to sleep; she needs the money. Exhaustion, pain, both are mounting. She cannot function for much longer. Sleep. And food.
A convenience store on a corner provides her with a bruised banana and a small, green apple. Both seemed symbolic of her current state-bruised and yet somehow unripe (except for her odor: the sink bath had not done all that she might have hoped; she still stank). She gulped down the banana and then the apple.
A few blocks further on, as the neighborhood becomes less sketchy, she finds a motel. It would do, if she can get checked in. She walks up to the double doors and looks inside. A young man, tall and thin, is finishing up with an older man at the front desk. She walks in and finds the restroom. There is a soap dispenser, so she washes again. She pinches her cheeks and bites her lips-trying to cope with the pallor of her skin. As she walks to the desk, she feels herself stand up straighter, her smile brightens. When she gets to the desk, she crosses her arms on it and leans against them, pushing her breasts up, tight against the fabric of her dress.
Effortlessly feigning shyness, she looks up at the young man through her lashes. The older man has gone away while she was in the bathroom.
"Hi! I'm Rebecca." The name came from nowhere. "And I need a room. I'll pay cash. Do you need an ID?" The young man looks at her, his eyes sliding from her eyes to her lips to her breasts. He lifts his eyes back to her eyes, but his eyes seem to have become heavy. He has a hard time keeping them from sinking back down.
"Well, yes, we are supposed to. But it's mainly a way of preventing credit card fraud. If you have cash...I can probably work around the ID thing." He says the last as if they have just become co-conspirators, intimate. The way he looks at her galls her but is predictable-and she needs to do everything she can to make him pliable. She tucks her anger away. That tucking-away feels familiar-for a second, anyway.
As the clerk looks down at the computer screen and begins to check on a room, she notices his brown hair and loose curls. Her body responds to something about him (not him) and when he looks up, pausing for a moment again at her breasts, she realizes that she was staring. She had responded, her breasts had responded to something...to the whisper of the ghost of a memory. Her knees feel weak and something deep and low in her heats up. The clerk grins and gives her a form to fill out.
Again, effortlessly and without deliberation, she fills in the blanks. Rebecca Franco. Cleveland, Ohio. She puts down that she is driving a Toyota Camry, white, and writes out the license number with 1's that looked like 7's (and vice-versa) and 2's that looked like Z's (and vice-versa). The man is too preoccupied with sneaking glances at her chest even to look carefully at the card. He gives her a total and she pays him. He hands her the key, asking a question with his eyes, or trying to. She misses it on purpose. With a small, purposely ambiguous wave in his direction, she gets on the elevator and rides up to her room.
She is in San Diego. She saw the address of the motel on the form she filled out. San Diego. That makes her feel anxious, badly anxious. But she has no idea why. Then she has another flash of memory. A box hurriedly dug up and full of money. In the woods. The greenery around her coated in bereavement. Then the flash is gone, an answer to a question she doesn't know. She rubs her temples-trying to cope with the dull pain the memory causes.
Once inside her room, she sheds the dress and shoes and underwear. Once the shower is on and the bathroom filling with steam, she phones the front desk. There is a burger place nearby that delivers. She gets the number and calls. A burger and a salad and fries-why not? she was starving-and three bottles of water. She is about to hang up when a craving overtakes her. Pickles. She wants pickles, extra, lots. Pickles.
She hangs up the phone.
So she likes pickles.
She didn't remember that, but there is no mistaking it, the intense reaction, the watering of her mouth. But had she ever wanted pickles so bad before? And speaking of bodily reactions: what happened at the front desk? When had she ever felt a flash of desire so intense? And for whom? The clerk had caused the flash but he was not its target, not its object. Someone else? No answers to her questions. Maybe after some food and a night's rest...maybe, there'll be some light, something. Not just nothing, blankness.
She stands in the shower, letting the water nearly scald her. She lets her body go limp. She lets her mind go blank. Not hard, she thinks bitterly. And then she begins to cry. For real. The tears she blinked back at the pawn shop finally escape. She has no idea why pawning the rings affects her so much.
And then she remembers-but just from earlier in the day: Your heart is my heart. Thinking about that makes her heart ache, creates more tears.
'C' is for heart, and heart is for…?
Blank. Nothing. Tears without context.
She eats when the food arrives. Everything, fries included. She drinks two bottles of water. In the bed, under the covers, she shivers for a while. Warming, the tears come again.
'C' is for heart…
Who is Mr. Anderson?
Who am I?
Who is 'C'?
Just as her heartache becomes too much, she flips a switch. She doesn't turn the ache off, she turns the light off on it. It goes on aching-but in the dark. She can all but ignore it. She frowns. Has she found that a useful skill to have too?
A/N2 Thanks to WvonB, David Carner and halfachance. Chapter 1, "Jigsaw" will post at the end of next week.