Rio Youers is the British Fantasy Award–nominated author of Old Man Scratch and Point Hollow.His short fiction has been published in many notable anthologies, and his novel, Westlake Soul, was nominated for Canada’s prestigious Sunburst Award. He has been favourably reviewed in such venues as Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and The National Post. His latest novel, The Forgotten Girl, was released by Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press in June.
Rio currently resides inVienna, Austria, with his wife, Emily, and their children, Lily and Charlie.
I’m not a coward. This will become evident as we move forward, but I want to put it out there, nonetheless. A definitive, no-bullshit statement: I am not a coward. I’ll admit that I’m sensitive, and that my stomach tightens at the mere suggestion of confrontation; I’ll walk away from an argument before it gets too heated. I inherited this from my mom: a gentle-hearted pacifist and vegetarian who, like Linda McCartney, died of cancer anyway. Violence is how stupid people negotiate, she once said to me. I was maybe twelve or thirteen at the time. I smiled and told her that she was brilliant and beautiful. I’m paraphrasing Asimov, she replied, kissing my forehead. Mom never took credit for anything.
I got into a few scrapes in high school. It happens when you’re just south of ordinary. I was never the instigator, though, and I always tried to make peace. It’s not that I was afraid of getting hurt; I simply found the whole exchanging-blows thing unnecessary. So I proffered the white flag and bore the chickenshit denomination. I could forego being popular for those few ugly years of adolescence, if it meant keeping my integrity. But allow me to state again: I am not a coward. I wasn’t in high school, and I’m not now. I just have zero capacity for violence.
Or so I thought.
His fist jackhammered the left side of my face—three swift, blunt blows that sent fluorescent particles swirling across my field of vision. The pain felt as if it were wrapped in cloth: a thing both large and round-edged. My cheek swelled and blood spouted from a cut beneath my eye. I slumped to my knees. My emotions shifted from fear and confusion to outright terror. These men were going to kill me.
I crawled a short distance and watched the blood drip between my hands. I imagined them having to scrub it later with bleach, perhaps using a toothbrush to get into the fine cracks in the cement. They would dispose of my body efficiently. My crazy father would assume I’d been abducted by aliens.
“Please …” Blood dripped from my mouth, too. The inside of my cheek had been smashed against my teeth.
Another thug—boots like Frankenstein’s monster—kicked me in the stomach and all the air rushed out of me. I rolled onto my side, knees drawn to my chest. More of those fluorescent particles whirled before my eyes. I blinked them away and staggered to my feet. There was another thug—how many of these guys were there?—guarding the door and I stumbled toward him. I thrust my shoulder into his chest and bounced off him. He shoved me back into the middle of the room. I turned a slow circle, wiping my face with trembling hands.
“What do you want from me?”
My vision swam. Five of them. No … six. Maybe seven. They surrounded me, as robust as trees, and all grim-faced. That was when I started to cry. And no, that doesn’t make me a chickenshit. Jesus, I was terrified—anybody would cry. Even those ballsy, testosterone-jacked Neanderthals from high school.
My tears brought no pity, though. No reprieve. Some brick-headed dude with fists as hard as bowling balls dropped me with one punch. My head struck the cement floor and chimed. I felt it then: the first toxic pangs of rage. I thought of the many confrontations I’d turned my back on—the punches I could have thrown but hadn’t. It was like I had banked all my aggression and now I was cashing it in. Adrenaline surged like a whale breaching. I got to my feet and made fists of my own. Be damned if I’d go down without a fight.
I stepped toward the thug with the monstrous boots and threw a sizzling right hook. I imagined it an asteroid that would impact the planet of his skull and split it to the core. Instead, I tripped over my own feet and my fist sailed harmlessly wide. I caught my balance in time for one of those boots to connect with my bony ass. Down I went again. The rage was flushed from me, as if it had never been there to begin with. I curled onto my side and whimpered. Thug one—Jackhammer—rolled me onto my back. He placed his foot on my chest like a victorious barbarian.
“Tie this skinny motherfucker up,” he said.
So I have this theory: that we all have tunnel vision; we move through life seeing only what’s directly in front of us, with little interest in the periphery. I mean, when was the last time you really looked around, a 360-degree appreciation of your environment, where you note—at once—the architecture of that building, the sun-washed red of that stop sign, the black car idling in a different spot every day? We see these things, but—because they exist beyond the conveyor belt of our lives—we rarely absorb them. It’s a remarkable form of blindness.
My old man once claimed that we have microchips implanted into our brains at birth, that we’re essentially automatons hardwired to certain corporate signatures and propaganda. Conspiracy theorist paranoia, of course, but I can’t help but believe that something is scrambling the signal. Something is blinding us.
They’d been watching me the past few days. That black car idling first outside the Bank of America, then in the Cracker Barrel parking lot. That stranger standing two behind me in the line at the post office. That brick-headed dude walking past my apartment every few hours, often wearing a different jacket. They occupied the periphery, but I didn’t really see them because I—like everybody else—have tunnel vision.
It had been an average Tuesday: get up at nine a.m., a breakfast of quinoa flakes with almond milk, thirty minutes of Ashtanga yoga, shower and teeth. Tuesday mornings I busk beneath the Tall Man statue in Green River Park. It’s a sedate vibe, where people go to read, relax, just be. I play Joan Baez, James Taylor, Jim Croce. Mellow tunes to complement the setting, and the money in my guitar case at the end of the session suggests that people appreciate it. Tuesday afternoons I hit the sidewalk outside the Liquor Monkey, where I break out the blue collar rock. After a couple of hours there, I go to the bank to unload the small change. Then I buy bread, return to Green River Park, and feed the birds: a little spray of color at the end of the day. Sometimes I’ll play to them, too. Sweet acoustic melodies. Birds dig it.
An average Tuesday, then I returned home and everything was turned upside down. The door to my apartment hung ajar and I stepped inside tentatively, wondering if Mr. Bauman, my landlord, had let himself in for some reason, and forgot to close the door afterward. Stepping into my living room, I saw this wasn’t the case: my apartment had been ransacked. Bookshelves had been cleared. Drawers had been emptied. Chairs were overturned and my few pictures shattered in their frames. In the bedroom, my clothes were strewn across the floor and my mattress flipped. There was similar disarray in the kitchen and bathroom. I dropped my guitar and it struck a muted, tuneless chord from inside the case.
“What the hell?” I said. There was too much chaos to tell if anything was missing. I stepped into the kitchen, where I kept a roll of twenties—maybe four hundred dollars—in a Ziploc bag at the bottom of an empty cookie jar. The jar was broken. The money was still there.
“What the hell?”
My computer hadn’t been stolen, either, but I suspected it had been tampered with. I always put it into sleep mode and closed the lid, but now it was open and wide awake, my Beatles-themed screensaver going through the motions. It occurred to me then that whoever had turned over my apartment wasn’t interested in money. They wanted information.
A case of mistaken identity. Must be. Because I had no information. I was a twenty-six-year-old street performer from Green Ridge, New Jersey. I didn’t mingle in other people’s affairs. I kept blissfully to myself. Just south of ordinary, remember?
Something else occurred to me: that the door to my apartment hadn’t been forced, which meant they’d either picked the lock, or Mr. Bauman had let them in. I thought I should pay him a visit—he’d need to know what had happened, anyway—before calling the police.
The landlord’s apartment was on the first floor (I was on the third) and the quickest way down was the stairwell. The elevator worked but it was slow as hell and swayed ominously as it descended. I’d just rounded the second flight of stairs when I came across two of the thugs blocking my way to the exit. Even then it didn’t click—I didn’t see them. I scooched to one side so we could pass without bumping shoulders, but instead one of them grabbed my T-shirt and threw me against the wall. My head cracked off the concrete and I saw the first of those fluorescent particles. I realized then that—for some unknown reason—I was in shit of the deepest variety.
I tried doing what I always do in the face of confrontation: I turned away. Or in this case, ran away. A deft spin-move took me out of the thug’s clutches and I darted toward the stairs, heading for the second floor. Footsteps echoed around me. I looked up and saw another thug—Brickhead—descending from the third. Only one option available: I crashed through the doorway onto the second floor and staggered toward the windows at the far end of the hallway. The fire escape was only accessible through the apartments, but I hoped—courtesy of too many cheesy action movies—that I might be able to leap into a Dumpster, or perhaps onto the back of a truck.
Voices behind me: thug one and thug two, with their unmoved expressions and granite shoulders. I passed the elevator and saw it standing open. It appeared I had another choice, after all. The doors rattled closed as I reeled toward them, but I squeezed through the gap and into the stale-smelling cube. I saw the thugs in the inch-wide strip of hallway before the doors came together. Frantically, I punched P for the parking garage. There was a moment’s hesitation—a pondering of counterweights and pulleys. I thought the doors would obligingly open again, allowing my pursuers access, then I heard a reluctant ding and the car began its descent.
There was a dulled mirror on one side and I noted my reflection wildly drawn: screwball cousin to the coolheaded dude who’d sat down to his quinoa flakes that morning. The car swayed and clanged like antique clockwork. I imagined the thugs patiently making their way to the parking garage. The doors would open and they’d be waiting. I tried the emergency button, hoping the car would stop—that the frickin’ Bat-Signal would illuminate the sky over Green Ridge. The red light above it sputtered but that was all. “Help me,” I shrieked, jabbing the button like a kid with a video game. “This is Harvey Anderson, apartment eighteen. I’m being—”
Cables swinging, creaking. The car stopped with a bang. I wondered if the emergency button had worked, after all, then the floor indicator displayed a mockingly bright P and the doors rumbled open.
The thugs were there. Four of them. They weren’t dressed like secret service agents, and were nothing like the muscle you see on TV. They didn’t have eye patches or neck tattoos. These looked like regular guys. Jeans and jackets. Designed to blend into the periphery.
“You’ve got the wrong man,” I said.
One of them stepped into the elevator. A baton telescoped from his sleeve. It swept toward me with a hummingbird purr—caught the ridge of bone behind my right ear. I went down and wavered for a moment on the rim of consciousness. Another thug placed a cloth bag over my head. It smelled of oil. I dampened the fabric as I sucked for air.
And then … nothing.
Nothing until I came to in a small room with a cracked cement floor and cinderblock walls. A dim light bulb buzzed behind a wire mesh set into the ceiling. A tender bump had risen behind my right ear and I examined it gingerly. It felt as large as a knot in a bed sheet.
The thugs circled me. I pushed to my knees and implored the blurred face of the one closest.
“What the fuck, man?”
They came at me.
I was pushed into a creaky wooden chair and my wrists bound to the slats behind me. I bled onto my T-shirt and screamed. The thugs waited for me to burn myself out. My blood darkened and dried.
Jackhammer stepped toward me. I flinched as he reached out, placed his fingers beneath my chin, and tilted my head so I could see him.
“And now it’s down to you,” he said.
I rasped something. Begged him with my eyes.
“We’ve shown you how serious we are.”
My blood was smeared across his knuckles.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Information,” Jackhammer replied. “Cooperate and we’ll let you go. Hold back and we’ll kill you.”
There was no character to his voice. It could have been his shadow speaking. His face, too, was remarkably blank. No moles or scars. His eyes were not a striking shade of blue and his nose not too flat. I imagined describing him to police as “nondescript” and having them roll their eyes. The facial composite would look as generic as a grapefruit.
He removed his fingers from beneath my chin. My head slumped.
“It’s your choice,” he said.
“You’ve got the wrong man,” I said.
“Harvey Nathanial Anderson. Born: zero-four, zero-four, eighty-nine. Mother: Heather June Anderson. Deceased. Father: Gordon Anderson. Served with the Ninth Infantry Division in Vietnam. Lost the left half of his face to fragments from a Viet Cong grenade.”
Lost his mind, too.
“How am I doing, Harvey?”
“Is this about my father?”
“Your father doesn’t concern me,” Jackhammer said. “To be honest, you don’t concern me, either.”
“Then what is it about?”
His nostrils flared as he inhaled. He brought his hands together in a bony ball and leaned forward, studying my expression, looking for any hint of recognition.
“Sally Starling,” he said.
There had been three unsolved murders in Green Ridge in the last three years. All women. Beaten, raped, stabbed to death. The killer was extremely careful, leaving no incriminating evidence. For a while the town was at condition orange. We even checked our peripheries, like the entire nation in the months following 9/11. It must have worked, because there hadn’t been a murder for sixteen months. The townspeople had since slipped into their usual zombie state.
That name—Sally Starling—was vaguely familiar, and I wondered if she’d been one of the three victims. Perhaps if I hadn’t been so scared, I could have identified it, but all I found in my mind was an empty space.
“I don’t …” Tears filled my throat. I inhaled sharply and the sound was drain-like. “It’s not … please—”
Jackhammer’s fist drummed off my jaw and the chair teetered sideways. A flare exploded in my skull and set an alarming glow over everything.
“Did I mention how serious we are?”
I spat a red ribbon from my mouth.
He pronounced the name slowly. Four precise syllables. I churned through my bruised mind but there were only blanks. A terrible thought occurred to me: that if Sally was one of the murder victims, these guys likely believed I was her killer. They could be vigilantes, or Sally’s stricken family, taking the law into their own hands.
I lowered my eyes and groaned miserably, then recalled Jackhammer saying that they wanted information. Cooperate and we’ll let you go, he’d said. It didn’t jive with the vigilante theory.
“I don’t … don’t—”
He hit me again. More an open-handed slap. My head rocked to the side so viciously that capillaries erupted in my neck.
“NO,” I screamed. “Jesus fucking Christ.” I coughed up blood and snot and spat it down the front of my T-shirt. The pain encircled me. “I’ll help you if I can. I swear. I fucking SWEAR.”
Jackhammer’s lip flared. He flexed his fingers.
“Sally Starling,” he said. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know, man. I don’t even know who she is.”
“WHERE IS SHE?”
That diamond of a fist drew back yet again and I braced myself, thinking the next blow would shut out the lights, perhaps cause permanent brain damage. I thought, bizarrely, of Swan Connor, Green Ridge’s celebrity resident. Swan had been a big-time record producer in the seventies and eighties—back when people actually bought records and there was money to be made. He was always so engaging and bright, happy to share an anecdote or a smile, but a recent stroke had turned him into a maundering imbecile. I’d seen him just the week before, stumbling down Main with the aid of two canes. He was drooling like a teething infant and had a thick green booger on his upper lip. That would be me after this punch landed. There’d be deep crevasses in my brain where cognitive functions and motor skills used to live. I would eat mashed potatoes with plenty of ketchup. I would wear eight-dollar track pants and maunder with Swan.
I waited, but the punch never landed. Another thug had stepped forward and placed his hand on Jackhammer’s chest.
“She got to him,” he said.
“I know,” Jackhammer said.
“I know that, too.”
I had no idea what they were talking about, but—for the time being, at least—the beating had stopped and that was a positive. Albeit a meager one. I lowered my head and started to cry again. Jackhammer loomed over me. He rolled back my head and used his thumb and forefinger to peel my swollen eye wide.
“We should make sure,” he said.
We often think of our memory as a vast library containing volumes of information—a place where “books” are stored and sometimes lost. It’s a romantic notion, but an inaccurate one. In truth, it’s more like a factory, with forklifts speeding along the neural pathways and production lines operating 24/7. In recalling a childhood Christmas, for instance, we don’t send some dusty librarian to hunt through the holiday department, but rather assemble a team of neurons from pertinent regions of the brain to encode and reconstruct the desired memory. It’s an efficient system, but complex and susceptible to malfunction.
Memories deteriorate. They get lost forever. I don’t know—nobody does—whether they actually disappear, or if the conjunctions necessary to reconstruction become damaged. I favor the latter theory. You ever smell something—a perfume, home cooking—that whips you back in time, floods your brain with recollection? Sure you have. I like to believe that all lost memories are equally recoverable. They just need the correct stimulus.
It’s a little different when certain memories have been stolen—plucked from your head like they were never there to begin with. Scientists argue that this isn’t possible, but I know that it is.
“We need to find her.”
“I can’t help you.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Jackhammer had procured a chair from somewhere and sat opposite me. His expression hadn’t changed. He could have been waiting for a bus. Again, I considered my father’s theory about microchips in the brain and automatons. Maybe he wasn’t so crazy.
“We are proceeding under the assumption that you are telling the truth, and that Ms. Starling has performed her little party trick on you.” He linked his fingers and leaned toward me. The chair creaked, offering the impression of a tree bowing in the wind. “Let’s just see if there’s anything left.”
I nodded, as if that were all fine with me. As if they were suddenly being reasonable. Something warm trickled from my swollen left eye.
“Sally Starling isn’t her real name,” Jackhammer said. His blank eyes felt like the backs of cold spoons, placed on my cheeks. “She was born Miranda Farrow, June 1991. That makes her twenty-four years old. She used the name Charlotte Prowse after her parents abandoned her at age fifteen, then became Sally Starling when she moved to Green Ridge six years ago. Places of employment include Marzipan’s Kitchen, Pennywise Used Books, and the Health Nut.”
Iknew those places well, but nothing stirred in my brain.
“Her last known address was apartment eighteen, Passaic Heights, Green Ridge, New Jersey.”
“We spoke to the landlord: Mr. Ralph Bauman. He told us that you and Ms. Starling had been living there for five years. Good tenants. Quiet. Always paid your rent on time. He hadn’t seen her for a week or so, but had no reason to believe she’d moved out. She certainly didn’t notify him. No forwarding address or number where she could be reached.”
“This is …” I couldn’t find the right words. My body was slumped and something inside my skull hissed like a cracked pipe. “This is all news to me.”
A folder appeared in Jackhammer’s hand. I didn’t see which of the thugs had handed it to him. Possibly the one who purchased his footwear at the same place as Frankenstein’s monster. From it, Jackhammer pulled a sheet of paper. He studied it for a moment, then held it up for me to read.
“The rental agreement for your apartment,” he said. “Signed August twentieth, 2010, by co-tenants Harvey N. Anderson and Sally Starling. Tell me, Harvey … is this your signature?”
I looked at my strike-through scrawl, identifiable even through the tears in my eyes, and nodded. Sally Starling’s signature—a vivacious, bubble-like cursive—sat beside mine. I was positive I’d never seen it before.
“Mr. Bauman was kind enough to make a copy,” Jackhammer said. I thought I detected a smile in his voice, but when he lowered the agreement I saw that his mouth was a humorless gray line. “We can be very persuasive.”
“Yes,” I said stupidly.
“Jogging any memories, Harvey?”
He blinked, slid the agreement back into the folder, and took out a color photograph. It was a headshot. Sally Starling, I assumed. Tousled, mousy hair. No makeup. The kind of girl my heart gallops for. She had a zit on her chin that she hadn’t tried to hide. There was a crusty something—perhaps dried tzatziki—on the bib of her Health Nut apron.
“Seems absurd,” Jackhammer said, “to ask if you recognize a woman you lived with for five years.”
“I don’t recognize her,” I mumbled. The woman in the photograph—agreeable as she was in her crunchy, au natural way—was a stranger to me.
“Very private, your girlfriend,” Jackhammer said. “Very careful. Like you, she doesn’t own a cell phone or subscribe to social media—the things that tie you to society. It was difficult to find a current photograph of her. But once we determined her location and the alias she’d adopted, we found this: the Health Nut’s employee of the month for February 2015.”
I looked at her again, because it was far more appealing than looking at my blood on the floor, or any one of my dour tormentors. She had hazel eyes, the color of turned leaves, and her nose was slightly off-center. Her face shape, though, was perfectly oval, and I imagined how it would complement the cup of my palm—how I could cradle her brow or jaw, and it would be the counterpart to my hand. I wondered if the rest of our bodies would enjoy a similar harmony, and if we’d make love like strawberries and cream.
And yeah, there was … something. But was it a memory, or imagination? I closed my eyes and concentrated. A woman, swaying her hips to music I couldn’t hear. Her dress was knee-length. It switched between blue and yellow.
“Dancing,” I said distantly.
Impossible to tell. She had no face.
“Tell us what you see.”
That blue/yellow dress flickering around her knees. Her arms making flowing motions. I pushed deeper, but there was nothing more. It was a sketch done in pencils, partially erased.
My eyes crept open. Jackhammer was leaning forward in the chair, only inches from me. I could smell his breath, which had decidedly more personality than his face.
“I think I’ve been brainwashed,” I said.
He stood quickly and the chair toppled backward. I thought he was going to beat the dancing woman from my mind. Instead, he ran a hand through his average hair, righted the chair, and looked at the others.
“Make the call,” he said.
I can’t tell you how long I was in that boxlike room, alone and bleeding, tied to a chair. There was no window, so I couldn’t use the light to measure time, and my body clock had been damaged by Jackhammer’s fists. It could have been a day, or three days, or a week. I faded in and out like a ghost in an old movie, never unconscious or asleep, but caught in a surreal daze where pain and fear were ever present. My throat was too dry to scream.
Escape was out of the question; I was too weak, and the thugs kept guard outside the door. I heard them shuffling their feet, clearing their throats. If they spoke to one another, I didn’t hear them. I told myself that if they were going to kill me, they would have already. It was a small comfort.
So time passed in mysterious excerpts. I suffered deeply and prayed shallowly, and worried for my father, whom these thugs knew all about, and who was delicate and paranoid. I imagined them bringing him here, wide-eyed and confused, and Jackhammer pressing a gun to his forehead. Dig deep, Harvey, the thug would say expressionlessly. Tell us about the dancing girl. And my old man would puff out his chest and regard me through his single whirling eye. Goddamn Russian sleeper agents, he’d say. The red hammer is falling.
My wrists flexed weakly at the rope binding me to the chair. I counted my pains and wept. It felt like a circular saw was buzzing around the inside of my skull, scoring the bone, and with any sudden movement my head would fragment like a fortune cookie. My dreadlocks—clotted as cows’ tails—had absorbed blood like sponges.
I faded in … and out.
Was it average Wednesday? Or slightly-better-than-average Friday?
Out … and in.
Three words kept floating into my mind, and sometimes they’d lodge there like arrows in a bull’s-eye: Make the call. What did that mean? Who were they calling? It couldn’t be good, right? Let him go. Now that was good. But make the call … no, that sent unpleasant vibes racing through me.
I default to my mom in moments of duress. She was a beacon of strength—my only beacon of strength—when she was alive, and I could always rely on her celestial wisdom. On this occasion, however, I turned to the girl without a face—the dancing girl. She lured me with the timing of her hips, the flash of her dress, and I went to her meekly. Who are you? I asked, stepping into the partially erased scene. Why can’t I remember you? I took her featureless face in my hand and cradled it perfectly, and I knew for certain, from somewhere deeper than my mind, that this was a memory.
Who are you?
I felt the tick of her hips against mine. The warming pressure of her breasts. I searched for greater detail—my brain fighting to pull together elements that simply weren’t there. I cupped the other side of her face and that, too, was perfect.
Sally … is that your name?
Her hair smelled of nothing. Her skin smelled of nothing.
Why can’t I …?
Time passed. Sometimes I was wide awake, with a wildfire of emotion burning through me. Other times I slumbered in that exhausted daze. Eventually, the door opened and Brickhead strolled in. He placed smelling salts beneath my nose and I popped to full alertness. A series of cracked sounds eked from my mouth. He held a small glass of water to my lips and I drank with my throat pumping.
“Please let me go,” I said, and followed him with my eyes as he left, slamming the door behind him.
Sally danced in my mind.
Make the call.
Moments later the door opened again, and in crawled the spider.
(C) Rio Youers 2014
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.