Deep in his closet, inside a box of useless trinkets and photographs he’s accumulated the last couple of months, in a boot, in a sock, he locates the laser scalpel. He goes to the mirror, where his face, his narrow nose and crooked smile, are familiar now and unthreatening and despite the fact that he still to this day cannot remember his past, he sees a person he might have been, hopes he was, and it brings him a kind of peace. It’s almost over, he thinks. Through the window, the moon shines dimly, veiled in clouds.
He pulls at the tip of his golden earlobe and slices it off, the laser sealing the wound as quickly as it’s made. He cleans up and dresses, pulls on a jacket, finds the ball and stashes it in his pocket. At the door, he presses his cheek to the cool surface, rubs his thumb over the ball’s curving seams. Quiet footsteps pad by. He waits until they pass and then steps into the hallway, a part of him missing now, decaying already in the trashcan beneath the sink.
A man’s face looms over the bed, black hair, a curious gold-tipped ear. “This must seem quite strange,” he says and then introduces himself as Fend. The words Facilitator, Transition Team, scroll across the pocket of his green jacket.
The patient has many questions. He does not know where he is or how he got there. More importantly, he does not know who he is.
“Retrograde amnesia,” Fend explains. “Trauma to the medial temporal lobe.”
The patient touches his shaved scalp, runs his fingers around the sutures. “Is there a mirror?”
Fend has one in his lap, having anticipated the question, apparently. The patient studies his long, unfamiliar face, his smooth, youthful forehead. A faint scar encircles the crown of his head. He fingers the film of gold coating on his own left earlobe.
“It monitors your vitals,” Fend explains.
Somewhere a machine beeps. There are people in the hall, walking and in conversation. Antiseptic smells.
“You were in a kind of— ” Fend begins. “A kind of a coma.”
Fend inhales. “Soon enough,” he says. He puts the mirror in a drawer.
Soft sunlight permeates the room through a floor-to-ceiling window that wavers like gel.
“Are you hungry?” Fend asks.
“I don’t know,” the patient says.
“Would you like to take a walk?”
“I don’t know.”
“We’ll take this slowly,” Fend says. “But I assure you, everything will be fine.”
I don’t know, the patient thinks. I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know.
On the patient’s lap, Fend places a tray scattered with a dozen rectangular tiles, all bearing a name. The patient studies the tiles, reads each one and searches his mind for any signs of recollection. The effort is not lost on him. “This is a test.”
Fend smiles, nods in approval. “Very good.”
The patient has tried often these last couple of days to locate his past, has ventured hundreds of times into the void of memory to confront the uninterrupted whiteness that extends beyond the present. Always, he comes up empty. After half a minute, he chooses a tile.
Fend reads it. “Williams,” he says.
“How did I do?”
“Very well. You did very well.”
The void is there, always. Silent, unyielding. He finds himself at the edge of his psyche daily, looking into it for some sign of himself.
Williams picks up a marble and places it into a jar. He slides a block into a square hole. He twists a screw into a bolt. He walks along a beam four inches across and six inches off the ground, heel to toe, heel to toe. Motor skills are automatic, and it’s so easy it makes him angry. When he jumps off the beam, he kicks a ball across the room.
“Excellent coordination,” Fend says.
“What next?” Williams asks.
Fend brings several balls to toss into a basket a few meters away. The balls fit into Williams’ large hand perfectly. He palms one, lobbing it with ease and accuracy.
“Well done,” Fend says, watching him.
Williams picks up another ball and studies it. It’s white, about 75 millimeters in diameter, encircled in seams of red stitching. There is a sense of something forgotten, a word or a phrase on the tip of his tongue, a notion that something more lies beyond the periphery. As he cups the ball in both hands, an idea slides toward the edge of his consciousness and then retreats. He looks to Fend.
“What is it?” Fend asks.
“There is something here.”
He goes to the window and opens it. Below, dozens of people walk the grounds of the Facility, golden earlobes twinkling in the midday sun. He aims for the side of the building next door, fifty meters away, and throws the ball as hard as he can. Cool exhilaration fizzes through his chest cavity. There is something here.
That night he dreams of geometry, of spheres, triangles and quadrilaterals, of perimeters and infinity. He dreams of green and white rushing into his mouth like wind.
Memories are tantamount to afterimages from another life; they cannot be seen if looked at directly.
On the first day of “Transition Group,” Williams is introduced to Ang and Resia.
Ang, whose head is fuzzed with black hair, towers over Williams by six inches, but his grip is weak. He is a nervous man, glancing now and then at the exit, as if agonizing over the time until they depart.
“Kippy, huh?” Resia elbows Williams in a friendly way. She wears a scarf around her head the same blue as her eyes.
“Sure,” Williams says. He can’t stop looking at the small gap between her front teeth.
After they’ve seated themselves in a semi-circle facing each other, Fend explains that they’re here to support each other, encourage discussion about their new lives, ask questions, give suggestions, bring up any concerns or fears.
“I have a concern,” says Resia. “I can’t remember a fucking thing.”
Williams laughs. It’s the first time he’s laughed since waking up, and for a moment, the joy rinses away the anguish. For a moment.
Williams takes a pod into the center of the city, where structures both shimmering and dull bunch up between a mountainside and an ocean. His reflection floats across the facades of luminous buildings that cast shadows across his path. Amid the noise and chaos, he passes from sunlight into shade, turns this way and that, through the crowds of shifting colors and faces, of sights, smells and sounds that he has encountered hundreds of times, that he has never encountered; tastes and textures that he has known his whole life, that he has never known; drawn into the panorama as it converges and overlaps and then diverges once more until he has the sensation of being refracted, split apart from himself and reconnected into someone else.
And then suddenly, he is lost. He backtracks, turns down a street, then backtracks again. When asked for directions, a Bengali street vendor answers Williams in Telugu. It is of little help. Sweat streams down between his shoulder blades as he scans the skyscrapers for a landmark, a familiar storefront. He should have paid more attention to the signs. Abruptly, he turns around and makes eye contact with a woman walking several paces behind; she stops with a look of surprise, as if caught in a trap. She is three times his age, at least, shabbily dressed, her gray hair pulled back at her neck. While she holds his eyes in hers, her expression changes to one of concern, or maybe it’s pity, and immediately he feels foolish for being lost. Faintly, she smiles and it’s then he notices the cerulean clarity of her eyes.
“May I be of assistance?” a man asks. Fend stands at Williams’ shoulder, looking calm as ever in his green jacket.
“I got turned around,” Williams says. He glances toward the woman, but she’s gone.
“Not to worry,” Fend says, pinching briefly his own gold-tipped earlobe. “We always know where you are.”
Williams follows. Once more, he looks back for the woman, but she is nowhere to be seen. The image of her lingers … a poor woman in rags, her heavy jowls, the dark crescents beneath her eyes, the look of surprise on her face. She was following him, Williams realizes.
In the bathroom mirror, his brown eyes stare back at him from under thick eyebrows. When he turns his attention to his narrow nose and large ears, the pupils follow, all the way down to his full bottom lip. Williams grins, sticks out his tongue. Every part of him is a stranger. As he turns to urinate, so does his reflection. He feels spied upon.
He thinks he sees Resia near the path that runs to the Children’s Hospital, so he jogs down to greet her. She is with three other women, all with cleanly shaved heads.
“I’ve been calling you,” he says.
She furrows her brow, confused. “Excuse me?”
“Resia,” he says.
The three other women look to him and then to her.
“I’m Asia,” she says, holding out a hand for the introduction.
But it’s Resia, he’s sure. Her blue eyes, her light eyelashes, her mouth, her nose, her gold-tipped ear, the gap in her front teeth. The rose she’d drawn on the inside of her forearm is gone.
Geometric shapes chase him in dreams: rectangles, diamonds and spheres, taunting him like incorrigible children.
In Group, they do memory exercises. These involve listening to music, tasting strong flavors, smelling various odors. Sometimes they look at images that, according to Fend, are iconic to the times in which the three of them lived, although he won’t tell them what time that is, just like he won’t tell them their real names or where they’re from. “An idea planted will not grow into a memory,” he likes to say.
On this day, Fend passes around ground coffee, oranges, garlic and rosewater.
They take turns sniffing.
Ang holds an orange in his long fingers. “There is something here,” he says, and sniffs again.
Williams thinks of the ball he now keeps in his room.
“An orange tree,” Ang says.
“Genius,” Resia whispers to Williams. Her eyelashes are so blonde, they’re nearly white.
“Knock, knock,” Williams says.
Resia lies in bed next to him, the back of her shoulder bare and smooth. “Who’s there?”
She turns over with a smile, the edge of her mouth smudged red in yesterday’s lipstick. “Orange who?”
“Orange you glad to see me?”
She rolls her eyes. “Did Ang tell you that one?”
Ang monopolizes the orange. “I remember a woman, not my mother, picking oranges from a tree and squeezing juice for breakfast.” He says it without looking at them.
Fend brightens. “Good, Ang.” He nods to Williams and Resia to encourage their encouragement.
Resia smiles and Williams knows she’s forcing it. Over lunch, she occasionally derides Ang for being unfriendly. “If that’s his real name,” she has said more than once.
Ang tosses the orange into the air, catches it, and then tosses it again. Williams watches him, his mind nearly remembering. He kept one of the balls with red stitching, stole it when Fend wasn’t watching. Now and then, he sits on the floor in his room, rolling it back and forth against the opposite wall. He inhales its fragrance the way he does other objects in Group. It smells, unremarkably, like leather. What is this thing to him? Why is he so obsessed? Lately he has begun carrying it in a jacket pocket, in the off chance he will remember something.
Later, on the path outside, Resia and Williams walk to the cafeteria together.
“I could pretend to remember orange juice,” she says.
“Ang isn’t pretending,” Williams says.
She stops, presses the side of her head for a few seconds. “The headaches are the worst.” The whites of her eyes have become red and pooled with tears.
“They are,” he says, though he doesn’t get them.
“What does Fend say?” She asks.
“Give it ninety days.”
He smiles and puts his arm around her shoulder. “It’s going to be okay,” he tells her.
In the city, Resia radiates happiness, pointing here and there at advertisements, amusing hairstyles, food carts and street musicians, as she and Williams weave in and out of the crowds, into and out of the shadows. Her hair has grown a couple of inches, and a cowlick at the hairline makes her appear impish. They come upon a fruit stand and Williams tosses an orange at her.
“Knock, knock,” he says.
She puts the fruit to her nose.
“No,” he says. “Who’s there?”
She has become forgetful lately. Yesterday she couldn’t remember Fend’s name and resorted to calling him The Twit. The vendor points at the orange and says something in Telugu.
“I don’t think he wants us to touch the fruit,” Williams says, taking the orange from her and replacing it on the stand.
“What is this?” Resia asks, pointing to the vendor’s forearm. On his dark skin, dusted with work, a rose transforms from a bud to a bloom, changing from pink to deep red in the process.
“Paccabottu,” the man says. The tattoo sparkles.
“Where can I get one?” Resia asks.
Williams scans the street for a shop. There on the corner is the old woman, in her same shabby clothes, her gray hair pulled back at the neck. She stands behind a table, selling flowers.
“Wait here,” he tells Resia.
As he approaches, the woman’s blue eyes widen and Williams is surprised by their youthfulness. He notices that her left earlobe has been cut off.
“Bubby,” she whispers, then covers her mouth.
“You know me.”
“No.” She looks trapped behind her table.
“You were following me. A couple of weeks ago.”
From behind him, Resia calls his name, and when he turns, he sees Fend beside her. Williams curses.
The woman glances over his shoulder at Fend and composes herself. “Buy flowers,” she says.
“You can’t come away empty-handed.” Her eyes are stern but behind them he sees something like fear. He asks for six.
She wraps them in a translucent fabric that trembles the surface of the ocean. Later, he gives them to Resia, and later still, after she’s forgotten about them, he brings the roses back to his room, where he discovers the logo for the flower shop embossed in the underside of the fabric.
The hospital is quiet when he wakes. After a restless hour he rises and slips his feet into quiet shoes. In the halls, he turns this way and that at random, and begins to feel as if he’s getting closer to the thing he seeks, though he can’t put his finger on what exactly that thing is. He begins to touch everything he sees and repeat its name as a way to reassure himself. Chair, door, desk, wall, light, cart, sign. At the end of a hall, he pushes through the door to what he believes is the cafeteria, but instead finds himself in a small auditorium. The space is empty except for a handful of people sitting a few rows up. They’re watching a video of a surgery. In it, a doctor uses a laser to cut through the cranial bone of a young woman with white eyelashes.
Someone touches Williams at the elbow. It’s Fend. “Instructional video,” he says.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Williams says.
“This way,” Fend says.
Williams allows himself to be led out, while behind him the top of the woman’s head is removed.
Williams has started fishing. A half-mile out, he drops the anchor and sets up his lines. The sun is already too high, and he knows he’ll be lucky to catch anything; but it’s not about the fish— although he imagines that it used to be. Now it’s merely the act of fishing, of reading the currents, of finding the spot, of bobbing on the water, of tying the lure and waiting. He could wait all day and be satisfied, and he does. He watches the lines, eats his lunch under the boat’s canopy, listens to the waves slap lazily against the hull. On the water, his existence becomes as clear and tangible as the sea air, salty on the back of his throat.
Just as he’s getting ready to head in, one of the lines stiffens and he’s up. He grabs hold of the rod and immediately the weight of the fish and the energy of its struggle send an electric charge through his body. He draws back the rod, which strains at the tip, and then lowers it, reeling the spool as fast as he can to keep out any slack that could give the fish a chance to turn its head and break free. For a half hour, the fish fights him, its life force vibrating unseen at the end of the line, twenty or thirty feet below the waterline. Suddenly, it breaks the surface, a striped bass gleaming like a sheet of chrome. He lifts it onto the boat and into his hands to remove the hook. Its eyes bulge, its gills fan wide and then close, fan wide again. Desperate.
From beneath Williams’ ribs, a notion flutters. “I know you,” he tells the fish.
He weighs it, twenty-two pounds, and then lowers it into the water, where it pauses, dazed, and then with a frantic flick of its tail, swims off.
At sea, Williams comes closer than ever, he’s sure, to his former self. The familiarity with the actions is deeper than any memory of them. He suspects the instinct goes beyond the neuron, perhaps to the level of the electron, which delivers its message to the atoms, to the molecules, the mitochondria and Golgi, which transport it to the muscles, to the bones, to the blood, so that even if the brain has forgotten, the body can remember.
His loss of memory is not a void, really, but more like a mass too heavy to be moved away. If it had a size, it would be a lifetime.
They watch a movie called King Kong. Resia likes it but Ang seems annoyed and Williams doesn’t blame him; he finds it ludicrous, a giant ape with affections for a woman, and so he spends much of the movie watching Ang, who fidgets with a stylus, tapping it until Resia gives him a dirty look. It isn’t until the end of the movie, when the ape climbs the skyscraper, that Ang starts to pay attention in a way that becomes a distraction, even to Williams. He paces the room and circles the projection to study it.
“Will you please sit down?” Resia says.
Ang ignores her. Even in the darkened room, his face has a brightness to it, his eyes are wide. He tips his head up to the ceiling with his mouth open like a fledgling awaiting its meal of regurgitated words.
“What is it?” Fend asks.
“The Empire State Building,” Ang says.
The ape swats at dive-bombing biplanes as if they were jungle gnats.
“There’s an observation deck on the 86th floor,” Ang says. “I put a dime in a viewfinder and saw Central Park.” He smiles. It is the first time Williams has seen Ang smile.
Williams wakes to Resia crying.
“There were babies,” she says.
“A room filled with incubators, one after the other.”
“You were dreaming.” He pulls her against his chest.
“At the Children’s Hospital,” she says. “It was so real.”
“You will feel some disorientation,” Fend says.
When Williams and Resia arrive at Group, they find Ang singing.
I got spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle
And they sing, Oh, ain’t you glad you’re single
And that song ain’t so very far from wrong
He is a different man. Tall, boisterous, relaxed. He waves to them both, and with his other hand, he slaps himself on his rear end and hops forward in a giddy-up motion. Disgusted, Resia leaves.
At the same time that Williams is sorting through dozens of images, Resia has her nose in the jar of rosewater.
“I used to have a tattoo,” she says.
Ang stands by the window, humming the same song over and over.
“Like this,” she says.
Williams glances at Fend, who looks worried.
Resia draws a rose on the inside of her forearm in pink and red.
Ang has a revelation. “My name is Albert,” he says. “Albert Ernest Lang.”
He was given tiles to choose a name, just like Williams, just like Resia. Some of them were his name; some were not, while others were versions of his name, with letters missing or added.
“You’ve come a long way, Albert,” Fend says.
Later, Resia smirks and says, “I knew Ang wasn’t his real name.”
He dreams of ovations, of diamonds that turn beneath his feet, stirring up the color of dirt.
Ang is gone.
“Integration,” Fend says. “You will reach the next step as well.”
For the first time since he awoke, Williams feels a tingle of doubt in his stomach. He feels for the ball inside his pocket. Resia spends the session tracing and retracing the rose on her forearm.
Resia is late to Group. When she finally arrives she nudges Williams and says, “Kippy, huh?” He doesn’t know what to make of it. They begin the session by looking at images.
Resia points to a large steamship. “I remember a boat.”
“You do?” Williams suddenly feels the world slipping away from him, or maybe he’s slipping away from the world.
“An ocean,” she says. “Days and days at sea.”
“Go on,” Fend says.
“I remember an island, home to a murderous tribe of savages.”
“Go on,” Fend says.
“And a beast.”
Williams stops her before she says King Kong. “Resia, don’t.”
“Go on,” Fend says.
She narrows her eyes at Fend. “You don’t believe me.”
Fend is calm as always. “It’s not a matter of belief,” he says.
“What, then?” Resia asks.
“It’s a matter of biology.”
She stands over Fend, who remains sitting. “What are the babies for, Fend? Why are there so many babies?”
Williams grabs hold of Resia’s arm. “Stop,” he says.
“I believe this session is over,” Fend says. He stands and buttons his jacket.
Williams intercepts him at the door. “You could give us something,” he says. “What could it hurt?”
“An idea planted— ”
“Yes, an idea planted,” Williams interrupts. He looks to Resia, who is weeping into her hands. “You don’t know what it’s like,” he says.
They go down to the ocean and wade in up to their knees.
A few yards offshore, children splash and laugh. Resia watches them with a smile.
“Let’s swim,” Williams says. He tries to pull her into deeper water, but she is fixated on the children.
“Look at them,” she says.
But he doesn’t want to and so he picks her up and carries her laughing out to where the water is chest-high.
Later, drying under the sun, Resia tells him with her eyes closed that she wishes she could remember her mother.
He reaches across the blanket and takes her hand. “What would she look like?”
Resia is silent for a while and then finally says, “Like me, I suppose.”
“Blonde?” he asks.
He waits, picturing a woman that could be Resia’s mother, a woman that could be his own. A gull flies overhead crying. “Yes,” she says. “No. Light brown hair.”
“What about her eyes?”
“Brown,” she says. “And she smells sweet, like gardenias.”
“What does she cook for breakfast?”
Resia lets out a small laugh. “My favorite. Fried eggs on toast with strawberries.”
She squeezes his hand and then rolls onto her side, her shadow falling across his face. “Thank you,” she says and kisses him.
Resia is gone. Williams presses Fend for information, but the man is tight-lipped in a way that infuriates Williams. Finally he leaves, going from building to building in search of her, a quest he knows all along is pointless. In one of the rooms, apparently a classroom for medical students, he pockets a laser scalpel without fully understanding why.
“Listen while I explain,” Fend says. He pulls a chair up to the bed and sits. “Some years ago, you were— put simply— frozen. Cryogenically suspended. The idea, at the time, was to revive you at some future date when medicine had advanced far enough to allow for it.” Fend pauses. “That time is now.”
Williams studies Fend’s face. This is another test, he thinks. “Funny.”
Fend smiles. “I know how it sounds.”
He waits for Fend to say something different.
“We have nearly perfected the Revival,” Fend says.
Williams imagines his body rigid and blue, ice crystals on his eyelashes. “You’re saying I was frozen?”
“Cryogenically suspended.” He holds up a finger. “Your brain.”
“Yes. Just the brain.”
Williams looks down at his legs.
“The body you have now was cloned from your cells.”
Williams lets the idea settle, examines his hands.
“You have a second life,” Fend says.
A second life. Williams cannot remember his first. He imagines his lump of brain on a metal tray, hard as a rock. He was dead.
“On average, people see improvement within ninety days,” Fend says.
“And after ninety?”
Fend smiles. “Let’s focus on today, shall we?”
He finds the old woman living in a two-room shack in the alley behind the flower shop. Her name is Mar. “Like the sea,” she says. She swooshes around the dirt floor of her home in a robe and cardboard shoes, clearing away a child’s drawings and tidying up as if Williams is an important guest, finally making a space on a chair for him to sit. “Please put this on,” she whispers, handing him a lightweight pullover. “The hood has metal fibers woven throughout that confuse radio signals.”
He points to his missing ear. “I cut it off.”
“There are other ways to find you,” she says.
She puts a kettle of water on the stove. The lights are dim. Mar continues speaking low and Williams learns that her grandson sleeps in the next room behind the curtain. He also learns that she and her husband used to work as genetic engineers until he died unexpectedly of a rare, untreatable virus. After that she grew bitter toward life, her superiors, the government.
A mouse scurries across the floor.
“In this world, we trade poverty for privacy.”
It’s then that she pours him a tea, sits on the cot opposite him and tells him the long story of his life; only it’s not his life, exactly, but the life of Tavin, her son, whom she called “Bubby” from almost the beginning. He was not her biological son, but her adopted son. They gave him to her, the people at the Facility— Fend’s people. She didn’t choose him, but with him came the money both of them needed to survive. “All of the Hosts are fostered that way, by poor people like me, who cannot live otherwise.” She pauses there and looks into her cup. She has not sipped from her tea, nor has Williams.
“You are my mother?”
Her eyes fill with tears. “No.”
At eighteen years old, they took Tavin back to the Facility, where he was born. They take all the Hosts back at that age, she explains. It’s contractual.
“Host?” he asks.
She nods and continues. On that day, she received a final payout and explicit orders to stay away from the Revived. It’s not difficult, she says, since they spend most of their initial days at the Facility, but occasionally they wander down to the harbor or into the city to explore. It’s human nature. And if a foster parent waits by the gate long enough, perhaps selling flowers to the staff, it’s not impossible to see her son, or the man who used to be her son.
Williams is stuck on the word Revived. He sees the image of his brain frozen solid on a silver tray. He was dead.
A boy, rubbing his eyes, comes out from the behind the curtain. “Gram?” He looks to her and then to Williams.
She goes to him, whispering reassurances, and leads him back to the bedroom. From behind the curtain, a soft song floats out. Williams drinks his cold tea and thinks of Resia and Albert and all the other patients with scars around the crown of their heads. Tavin was a Host. Williams has been Revived. The brain needs a body.
After a while, Mar comes through the curtain, tying her robe more tightly around her waist. Gently, she takes the cup of tea from Williams. “I was always so practical. Clinical. I never wanted children. Despised them, even. I couldn’t see how attached I’d become, and then it was too late.”
Williams feels a flash of anger. “Is he your grandson?” he asks, nodding toward the curtained doorway.
“Please lower your voice,” Mar says. She goes to a small sink and washes the mugs. “Just a child from the street,” she whispers.
Just a child. Who matters more? Who matters less?
“I didn’t ask for this,” Williams says.
“Oh, but you did.” She turns to him, her face hard. “Years ago. That’s why you’re here. It’s what you paid for.” Her tone is harsh, but how can he blame her?
He looks away. “I don’t remember.”.
She dries her hands on a rag and then pulls a blanket and sheet down from a shelf above the cot. After a while, she clears her throat and her tone becomes clinical. “It’s a form of organ rejection,” she says. “They haven’t been able to pinpoint the cause.”
“I have dreams,” he says. “They don’t make sense.”
“At about day 100, the brain cells begin to deteriorate at a rapid rate.” She checks the lock on the door. “You won’t last much longer after that.”
Williams tries to find a flaw in her explanation. He thinks of Resia, her forgetfulness and desperation.
Mar is tired, her eyes heavy. “It’s late,” she says.
She brings him a pitcher of water and a threadbare towel that smells faintly of bleach. The toilet is out back, she explains, the public showers at the corner, but she recommends that he keep the hood up for now until she can find a better solution. He removes his shoes and stretches out on the cot, mulling over everything she has said. Before she disappears behind the curtain, she pauses. “They tweak the genetics in another Host,” she says. “They try again.”
Williams sleeps late into the morning with the sounds and smells of breakfast come and gone by the time he fully opens his eyes. His earlobe throbs. On a table beside the cot, Mar has left a small glass of orange juice and a roll. Outside the shack, the city is alive with traffic, construction noises, the laughter of children. Somewhere a dog barks. Williams drinks from the glass and eats the roll while he considers his course— maybe take a boat down the coast, find a place to hide out until … until what? He wishes Resia were still around. She’d go with him and together they would eek out the last few days of their lives.
There is a sound at the door and then a boy comes through, dragging something behind him. It’s the child from the night before. He looks to Williams with suspicion, his eyes narrowed. He is young, about seven years old, Williams guesses, and small, but seems healthy enough, stocky, with good color in his cheeks.
“Gram said she’ll be here any minute,” the boy says. He stands just inside the door.
Williams nods. “What’s your name?”
The boy sniffs, looks at his feet. A child living in the street, scraping by, just this side of life. He’d probably never been to school. What would it matter? An education would likely give him too many ideas, anyway. Williams’ eyes fall on the object the child has dragged in behind him. It’s long and made of wood.
“Whatcha got there?” Williams asks.
The boy hesitates, looks at the object and then slides it out in front, his eyes sly and glossy with pride. “A bat.”
A chill scuttles up the back of Williams’ skull. Rectangles, spheres, diamonds. “Can I see?”
The boy demurs, puts the bat behind his back.
Rectangles, spheres, diamonds. He roots through his coat pocket and produces the ball. “Do you have one of these?”
The boy straightens up.
“It’s a game,” Williams says, realizing it only then and feeling somewhere deep inside that it has something to do with his past.
“We can play,” the boy says. “Come on.”
Williams follows the kid as he runs through the city, darts around traffic and people, down littered alleys, up and over decaying walls, until they come to an abandoned lot. They are both flushed and red-faced, sweating in the heat of another overcast, sweltering day. The boy has brought him to a rusted machine that faces a fence about 30 yards away. Hot, Williams takes off the pullover and drapes it across a dead bush nearby. The boy flicks a switch and the machine whirs to life with a high-pitched whine.
“When I signal, put the ball here,” the boy says, pointing to a funnel at the top of the machine. He runs to a white ceramic tile near the fence, stands nearly over it, and lifts the bat— which is too big for his frame— over his shoulder. A moment of recognition flickers inside Williams. “Okay,” shouts the boy.
Williams drops the ball into the funnel, and a second later, the machine fires it out a nozzle toward the space just over the white tile. The boy swings the bat and misses the ball completely. It slams into the fence behind him and drops at this feet.
“Not bad,” Williams calls. When he has the ball again, he repeats the drop, watching the boy miss again. He begins to have ideas about how the boy could improve his chances of hitting the ball, but he stays quiet, so as not to frighten him off. He begins to focus mainly on the bat and what it would feel like in his hands. Above, the clouds begin to break apart, revealing blue overhead. From somewhere deep in the city, a siren wails.
After ten swings, Williams says, “How about giving me a try?” The boy doesn’t argue. He brings the bat and they trade places.
At the fence, Williams finds the tile on the ground and stands over it as the boy had. He lifts the bat up over his right shoulder and looks down at his left elbow. “Ready,” he says. The ball comes at him; he swings and misses. Something isn’t right. He tries again and misses. The siren has become louder, and in the distance he sees a vehicle headed toward them, lights flashing. It’s Fend, he thinks, glancing at the hooded pullover draped over the bush. He could run, but there is something here. “One more,” Williams shouts. Quickly, he switches to the other side of the tile and in that moment senses he has stepped into a nearly perfect outline of his former self. He relaxes into it, squeezing the narrow end of the bat like he’s ringing out a rag. The air and the light are perfect. Fend’s green jacket is visible through the vehicle’s windshield. Williams lifts the bat up to the left, looks down over his right elbow. This is it, he thinks. Muscles taut, hairs on forearms standing, he glares at the machine as the boy drops the ball. It launches like a missile. Williams feels it before it happens, understands it without being conscious of it, how he’ll cock the bat just so, twist his shoulders, shift his weight back onto his left foot and then swing around to the right, hips leading, until the rapid end of the wood follows round to smash into the point in space no bigger than his fist. The pitch comes in. The electrons fire.
The horrible first breath. The rockslide of air that rakes the trachea and bronchi, assaults the alveoli with the insistence of oxygen. How it rapes the cells. In one violent arch, the body comes alive in a moment marked by light, a whiteness like the center of a flame that begins as a point under the ribcage and expands like a supernova through the corporeal universe.