I woke up, and the street was the beginning of my existence. The busy urban sidewalk was too clean. There wasn’t a piece of blackened gum, trash, or even graffiti. I knew something was wrong. I felt it emanate from the polished marble buildings, sensed it from the people who looked like average city dwellers, and smelled it in the clean, fresh air. Every major city should have some element of filth, and I didn’t know why filth was important. Perhaps it was because my memory was fighting to resurface. A well-dressed man with a briefcase stopped to examine me.
“Is everything all right?” he inquired.
“Fine, I just changed medication. A little disorientation, that’s all.” I smiled. I had no clue why I lied to the man.
“You should sit down for a while and take care of yourself.” The man patted me on the back and moved on.
In my attempts to ignore him, I didn’t notice that he left his briefcase. I decided to return it. He couldn’t have rounded the corner that quickly. The meandering crowd slowed me down. They displayed their disdain for my rude behavior. I didn’t know why I needed to return the case, maybe because he tried to help me. I could return the favor. I considered opening the case but didn’t feel right about going through another person’s possessions. After a moment of pushing through the crowd, I realized he might have entered a business.
The block had a grocery store, clothing store, bookstore, and café. Apartments towered above every business. I made the assumption from his dress that he would go into a clothing store.
A strange sensation came over me. I remembered that I never really went to new clothing stores. I visualized a thrift store with a rack of tacky old sweaters. I selected one and draped it on a pair of cargo pants. The sensation dwindled away. I was left with a disjointed image of buying used clothing. The new clothing store welcomed me inside, but it felt foreign whereas the thrift store was comfortable.
Inside the new store, my skull was assaulted with a bass drum and some pulsating electronic music. The lyrics had something to do with love or fucking. I couldn’t tell which. An attractive young woman with a retro sparkly belt pretended she was busy. I wasn’t the clientele of this store.
“How can you stand listening to this?” I asked the woman louder than necessary.
“What?” she said nervously.
“All day. I bet you get headaches.” The music was already starting to irritate me.
“Can I help you?”
She must have thought I was a creepy guy looking for any excuse to talk to a pretty young woman. Better get to the point. “Did you see a well-dressed man come in?”
“Uh…what did he look like?” She relaxed slightly.
I didn’t know. He looked good, like a man who took care of himself. “He was,” I hesitated, “well-dressed… I think a suit?”
I glanced around while I was trying to access my memory. There were teenagers all around me: a skinny skater looking kid with his arm hanging over his punk rock girlfriend, a couple of girls whose daddy bought them everything they wanted, and two bros with chiseled jaws who dressed like they should be in a catalog. No, this wasn’t right. He would never come in here.
I backed out into the street to the relief of the employee. I surveyed what I had left: grocery store, bookstore, and café. The well-dressed man wouldn’t bring a briefcase shopping. It should have been obvious to me. He would bring it to a meeting at a café. I would swoop in and save the day.
The café was small and almost empty: two older people, a college group studying, a homeless looking man with a long beard and hoodie hunched over a cup of coffee, and a lady sitting by herself. He must have been in the bathroom or told her to wait while he looked for me. I walked up to the lady. She looked at me anxiously.
“Are you waiting for someone?” Slap! She thwacked me across the head. Because of the mental haze, I felt the impact of her hand more than the pain itself. That’s when I realized I was numb. Had I been numb all this time? Why hadn’t I noticed before? She was yelling something at me.
“You tell him he can come and fucking talk to me in person. I will sue him for everything he’s got. I wanted to keep this out of the court, but he’s the one who cheated. I will…”
I backed away from her and stumbled toward the exit. I probably should have given her the briefcase. The well-dressed man was a lawyer, and he’d obviously went back to make new copies of the divorce papers. She would rip up the papers. Throw them in his face and…another man came into the café towards her. Her expression seemed to soften to confusion. Whose briefcase was this? I pondered leaving it, but the case was important. I somehow knew.
The bookstore would be the only choice left. Too much time passed to think he would still be grocery shopping. Grocery shopping with a briefcase was a quick trip. He would buy lunch or snacks. I couldn’t tell if it was lunchtime. I wasn’t hungry, but that didn’t mean anything. What was the time? The tall buildings hid the sun. I couldn’t tell which way was east and west. I couldn’t even tell if it was morning or afternoon.
The bookstore was massive. Escalators rose floor after floor. Books lined the walls. People of all ages roamed through the shelf maze. I forgot about asking for the time because the expanse of knowledge transfixed me. I felt that I liked books. I must spend hours in bookstores. Maybe I’ve even been in this store before. Why couldn’t I remember?
I roamed the store for what seemed like hours. Maybe the well-dressed man was like me. Maybe he had forgotten about the briefcase and was happily reading a book on one of the nice leather seats dotted throughout the store. He probably liked history. Or was that me who liked history? It irritated me that I didn’t know who I was. Maybe a book would help me remember. At least reading would pass the time while I decided what to do next.
I selected a historical text, found a brown leather chair that looked like it should be in the study of the landed gentry, and sat down. I leaned the briefcase against my chair. I had a very visceral reaction to the history text. The book was wrong. There was something off about the book that I couldn’t articulate. The author probably didn’t do their research well, and my subconscious knew. Maybe the author got the dates wrong, but I didn’t know any dates. Like today’s date… I stood up to find a newspaper. Thump. I kicked over the briefcase. I had forgotten about it.
I looked around the store for the well-dressed man one last time. He wasn’t anywhere. I remembered seeing some gaming tables on the third floor. A group of twenty-somethings occupied one of the tables. They attempted to barter each other for wheat or sheep. They gave me the farmer look. The one that states, “You’re not from around these parts.” The irony of people playing some farmer game giving a farmer stare was not lost on me. I informed them that I was not attempting to join their game by sitting at the table furthest from them.
I set the briefcase in front of me. It was black and smooth. There was no lock or combination. The morality of rifling through another person’s possession seemed to dwindle with the distance of the person. I opened it. There was a file inside, and it had a picture of a man on it. His face seemed familiar, but my memory loss prevented me from knowing who he was in relation to me. I almost touched the file when I noticed the words “Agency Secret” in a bright red stamp. There was a weird tingle on my hand. I coughed and shut the case. The gaming group was in the middle of some mineral exchange. They gave me the farmer look again. This wasn’t the place for reading such a file. I gathered the briefcase and left the gamers alone.
I stuffed myself into the furthest reaches of the store in a section of standardized testing help books. There was no one around. I brushed my hand on the smooth side of the case. Trembling, I reached to open it again.
“Can I help you find anything?” A balding bookstore clerk with a logoed smock startled me. I turned to face him. My vision went dim. My mind went blank. I had the vague impression of my body in motion, and I didn’t remember what happened next. There was a commotion, and people screamed. My mind snapped awake, seconds later. I felt as if I blanked out. I was a couple of feet from where I last remembered myself being. I looked down at the briefcase. It was covered in blood. The bookstore clerk groaned in the aisle and cradled his face in his hands. His head was bleeding.
“Somebody stop him! He attacked that man!” A lady yelled pointing at me.
A heavyset security guard turned toward me.
“Stop right there!” he screamed.
My mind raced. The clerk must have startled me, and I used some super spy ninja training on him. The security guard bounded toward me. He pulled out a taser from his belt. I was probably foolish, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. I swung the briefcase like a club. The briefcase smacked the taser out of his hand. I brought up the briefcase again, and he rushed me, knocking me to the ground. The briefcase skittered to a halt far away from us. He flipped me around to pin me down, and I snapped my leg back. I connected with his balls.
I wiggled out from underneath him. The woman who screamed earlier ran in fear. More security guards were on the way. They looked fitter and ready for action. I looked at the briefcase. It was halfway between the security guards and me. I decided to abandon it.
The third floor seemed like it would be a problem, especially because more security were scrambling up the escalators. There was an emergency exit with a big red warning label. “Opening door will sound alarm.” I slammed through the doorway, and a loud fire alarm shrieked through the building.
A huge amount of people had surged through the exits by the time I got to the ground floor. Soon, we were packed together. The guards were at the edge of the crowd, digging their way in. I yelled, “He has a gun!”
The crowd crushed me as a shockwave of panic swept through what would have been an orderly exit. As I got closer to the door, the crowd pushed and shoved each other. My gun statement exploded into a full-blown shooter rumor. Soon, they began to crawl over one another. People were pushed under and trampled. I would have been one of them, but a large Native American man lifted me from going down and put me on my feet. I eventually made it through the exit and took off running.
The grocery store probably had a back entrance to an alleyway. I wanted to get out of the street before one of the security guards spotted me. I stepped into the grocery store and almost tripped over myself. I saw the well-dressed man. He was standing by the apples. He picked each apple with great care. It was as if each fruit was sacrosanct. I almost forgot why I needed to find him. For a moment that lasted an eternity, I was transfixed by the apples. They were a gift from the gods. The sweet crunch filled my mouth with delight. I never tasted an apple this good.
“You’re going to have to pay for that,” an employee politely reminded me. I felt disjointed and out of place. The well-dressed man was nowhere to be seen. There was another gap in my memory. I had no idea how I got from the entrance of the store to the apples. I held the apple in my hand. A bag was slung over my shoulder filled with fruit. The apple taste lingered in my mouth. How will I pay for it?
I put down the fruit bag and checked my pockets. Did I have money? Why didn’t I check my pockets earlier? At the very least, I could figure out who I was. I dug deep into my pockets of both my jacket and pants: a wallet, a fresh pack of artificially-flavored wintergreen mints, and a key. The employee expectantly waited for some sign that I wasn’t a thief. I took the opportunity to look at my ID.
It was blank. It was the size of an ID card, but nothing was on it. I checked the others. Every card in the wallet was blank. They were devoid of any content. There wasn’t even a picture. I wasn’t even sure what I looked like. I hadn’t looked in a mirror once. If I was a spy, I wasn’t a very good one. The worst part was that there was no cash, no coin, and more importantly, no way to pay for the fruit I just ate. The employee became impatient. I panicked.
I did the only thing that came to mind. I pegged the employee in the eye with the apple and ran. The employee was barely recovering when I realized I had forgotten the bag of fruit. If I was going to shoplift, I might as well get more than a bite of apple. I sheepishly trotted back up to the bag, swiped it, and ran again. The employee realized a few seconds too late that I grabbed the fruit and yelled after me, “Hey!”
I trotted for a distance to an alleyway and sat near a dumpster. The police had arrived at the scene I created at the bookstore. The run didn’t wind me. I must have been fit or a runner. A few moments passed, and I didn’t know what to do. I had a wallet full of blank cards, breath mints, and a key to who knows what. I pulled the key out and inspected it. It was too small to be a hotel or a room key. I pocketed the key and dug through the fruit. I wasn’t hungry. It was more of a compulsion to eat.
I stood myself back up again, and my brain ceased all other functions. Any semblance of control over my situation left when I saw the discarded mirror in front of me. It was some crappy Victorian mock up that a resident must have trashed instead of moving it to their new apartment. But it wasn’t the mirror that made my heart sink. It was the face in the mirror staring back at me.
I remembered the brief instant I opened the briefcase. The briefcase held an important file, a file that would tell me exactly who I was and what I was doing here. I should have read it the moment I opened it. While a lot of my memory may be unclear, I was certain of one truth. The well-dressed man did not leave the briefcase by accident. He intended for me to read its contents. It was my picture on the file.