Wednesday, November 14, 2012

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Being dead hadn't been particularly difficult, but John found slipping back into his old life to be almost too easy.  After a week spent cooped up in his new apartment, catching up with society and trying to ignore the specter of his forgotten fiancé, he returned to work. 
Thirteen years ago he had earned a position with Cohen and Associates, Philadelphia's premier architecture firm.  Now, thanks to their long and fruitful working relationship with the U.S. military, C&A was welcoming John back with open arms.
He took a cab on his first day back, and spent some time on the sidewalk staring up at the façade of the Cohen & Associates office.  It seemed to be made of one mass polished mirror, just like SkyCrest.  At each floor was a ledge studded with modern art, all wrought in what appeared to be glass.  Cetacean forms leapt and writhed from the wall, warping the light that passed through them into an infinite array of hues that lit up the sidewalk.  Old memories inundated John, years spent coming to this building, hopes for a future coming together.  But now he saw the dark spots, the little bits the memories seemed to leave out.  As he looked at the incomplete picture of his life, he realized this must be where Lucy dwelt, the unknown shadow now haunting his past.
He hurried inside.
There was a meet-and-greet, the president of the firm showing off his prodigal architect to the current employees.  Most, John didn't recognize.  A few he remembered, and spent several minutes catching up with, finding out how things had changed.
One surprised him: a short woman with an auburn bob-cut. 
“Alice!”  John embraced her when she introduced herself.  “I haven’t seen you since college!  How long have you been here."
She smiled sheepishly.  “I sorta got your job after you left everyone hanging.”
They caught up while everyone else drifted away and got back to work.  John tried to find out something about Lucy, but Alice knew little beyond her name and general appearance.
Their conversation was winding down when Alice said, "If you don't mind me asking... what happened?  I now there was a car accident, but the higher-ups are keeping everything quiet."
John swallowed.  He didn't like talking about the accident, but the sooner he could get it behind him, the better.
“I was in a--my brother's term here--permanent vegetative state.  Beyond that, my ID got switched with the Army colonel who rammed me going the wrong way on the freeway.  When he died, they put John Donalson on the death certificate.”  
"And after I came out of it a few months ago, I let them know who I was.  Since then they've been bending over backwards to ensure I don't sue."
Alice smiled.  "Well, that's one win for our litigious society!"
They both got to work after that.  John learned is way around the new modeling software, experimenting on a digital copy of SkyCrest Tower: changing its height, manipulating its structure, playing with its composition.  He got a feel for it, but kept the file around as a personal project, his own private SkyCrest to remake in his image.
After work he went home, had dinner with Reggie and Rachel, then spent the rest of the evening online, looking for Lucy.  Right away he found an old photo gallery, thousands of pictures of a young woman: pale, dark haired, her face dominated by a large, hooked nose.  In most of the pictures, kissing the woman, hugging her, just being happy with her… was John.
Night after night John stared at the pictures, wondered at the phantom woman and the phantom life they might have had.  At first it was just morbid curiosity: who was she?  Then it was an existential search: why didn't he remember her?  In the end it was an obsession.  She had no place in his mind, caused no feelings of fondness, but now he could see where she had been, could sense her absence in his memories.  Like an itch he couldn't scratch, she tormented him.
Once, he almost made contact with her.  Shortly after discovering the photo gallery he had found a  public profile.  There was a more recent photo of an older woman, still recognizable as Lucy, still a stranger.  Below her image was a phone number.
Just one call and John felt he could make peace with her, could let her go.
He was ready to make the call.
He dialed, the phone rang, and he hung up.  Whoever Lucy was, she had loved him, had grieved for him.  Tearing open old wounds for his peace of mind would be cruel.
"No, you should call her," Reggie opined.  "You'll feel better once you make peace with this element of your past.  At least that's what my patients always tell me."
But John couldn't make the call.  He would hold out, and hope she'd fade away.
Weeks passed. 
Rachel moved to California for the summer.
John was brought on board a team project at work, designing a bunker pulling double duty as a presidential bomb shelter and medical research.  After a month of working on it, he and the team were flown out to a developing suburb in Oklahoma to consult on the construction.  As John stood atop a pile of red dirt, looking down into the abyss that he had had a hand in making, he felt content.  He was finally where he belonged, seeing the labor of his mind becoming reality.
He could almost be happy...
Except for Lucy.
Two months after learning of her existence, he still spent his evenings sitting on the couch, transfixed by Lucy's phone number glowing on the television screen.  If he didn't get this over with, she'd always haunt him... always be a missing memory scratching at his mind.
He gestured at the screen and a low intermittent buzzing started up.  There was just enough time for him to realize that technically, he was haunting her, when the buzzing stopped and a high voice said, “Hello?”
John swallowed.  “Uh, yes, uh...  Could I speak to Lucille Dawkins, please?”
“Ahhh...”  He wasn't ready for this.  “This is John.”
“John who?”  She sounded distracted.
“Okay, please don't hang up, I know this is going to sound weird—”
“Saying that guarantees I'm going to hang up.”
There was no time to turn back.  “This is John Donalson.”
There was a long moment of silence.  “Yeah, I'm going to hang up now.”
She's giving me a way out, John thought.  Take it, take it.  “I'm not dead.”
There was another long silence.  “You might think this is funny, but I don’t.  If  you don't hang up right now, I'm going to go in the other room and let you speak to my boyfriend; he's a cop.”  Her voice was strong, but there were enough little hitches in it that John knew she still had feelings for him. 
He should have stayed dead for her. 
“I'm really not dead.  I just—I just needed to tell you that, to try to move on—”
“You have video?”
The abrupt change caught John off-guard for a moment.  She wanted to see him—she believed him.
“Yeah, let me just—”
“If you're doing something weird, I swear I'm—”
John activated video, and a small mirror image of himself appeared in the lower corner of the screen.
A low gasp echoed through the room.  “Shit!”
John swallowed again.
“How did you—You can't—they said that you were—”
“I was mislabeled in the ER.”
Lucy didn't respond for a moment.  Then the screen changed, a face blinking into existence: black curls framing a pointed face with a thick nose and wide eyes, just like in the photos.  “Oh, my God, John, I...”  Her voice remained calm but her eyelids began to twitch with emotion.  “How long?  Why didn't you call?  I would've come to see you...”  She was beginning to sound hurt.
John chewed his lip and stared at Lucy, at this woman who was supposedly such a big part of his life.  And... he felt nothing.  She was a stranger.  “I didn't remember you.”  As soon as the words were out, he felt a huge rush of relief.  He had done his duty to her, told her he was alive and that there was nothing between them.
She shook her head, not understanding.
“I was brain-dead for ten years.  I guess things... things didn't stay right in there.”
“Why'd you call then?”  Definitely hurt.
“Reggie mentioned you.  I just...  I needed to give you a goodbye.”
She closed her eyes and nodded.  “Thank you, I... thanks.”  She looked away, then back at whatever screen she was talking to.  “I'm, uh, I'm getting married.  In about a year.  I hope you don't mind.”
John opened his mouth, tried to find words, shrugged.  “Yeah, I'm... I'm good.”
Lucy sniffed and smiled.  “I still don't believe you, you know, but... but this felt right.  So... Thanks, I guess.”
They held eye contact for ten more seconds, then both hung up. 
John relaxed into the couch and sighed.  The scratching was gone...
The phone blared, jerking John out of the sofa, blinking wildly.  Lucy's number was on the screen.  John connected the call, still as video.
“Shut the fuck up and listen.”  It wasn't Lucy.  A young man stared out of the screen, tan, with close cropped brown hair poking up from a gaunt face, the skull bulging against the confines of the skin.  “I don't know who the hell you are, and I don't care, but if you call again I will find you and I will fucking kill you.”
The call ended.
John blinked and stared at the blank screen, unsure of what had just happened.  He assumed this man was Lucy's boyfriend.  A mysterious call, an emotional fiancé; surely giving some kind of protective threat made sense.  John didn't begrudge him that.
What didn't make sense, though, was that while John had no memory of Lucy, he felt sure he knew this man.
So now Lucy was no longer an enigma, and she left John's mind... Only to be replaced by this strange man.