“It says John Doe.” My own voice seems distant and alien. The thin hospital bracelet catches the afternoon light, and I’m more than tired. The bruised skin below the white plastic still hurts.
The car engine hums over the country music, seeping from the radio. John taps his fingers to the beat. I wish he’d stop.
Everything makes my skin crawl, including my reflection. I catch a glimpse of my black eye, and the bloodshot green one, googling back at me. I look like I have been in a bar fight with a drunk moose and a lunatic grizzly. The cut on my lip burns. The moose and the bear stop wrestling and laugh at me instead.
The seatbelt’s tug feels too tight…
To be honest, everything outside the hospital room creeps me out. The doctor tells me, it’s time to face the world, that hiding in a clean room isn’t going to help me remembering who I am… The panic attacks are normal, he says. They will go away.
Who am I?
Reality filters through the dirty windshield. A fire truck flies past the intersection. The sirens’ wail echoes from the buildings around.
I look at my wrist. “Am I a John, John?” The man in the driver seat smirks at me.
He says, his name is John Blackmoore.
“No.” The smirk turns into a real smile. He has brown eyes, and a chipped lateral left incisor. “You’re a Benjamin.” He flicks his cigarette stub out of the window.
John says, he is my brother.
The traffic light turns green. With trustworthy obedience, the car turns to the right, down the main street, out of town. Memphis’ skyscrapers reflect sunlight. One last orange flash, before vanishing from the passenger side mirror. “Benny.” I say, probing the sound of it.
John fishes for another cig in his breast pocket. Ketchup spots on his denim shirt go great with all the grease stains. Not my idea of casual clothing, but hey – I’m an amnesic guy, who got mugged and beat up, and now has to wear a police jumper.
He chuckles, “Benjamin Too-smart-for-his-own-Good Murphy, or Benny Knucklehead Murphy? Oh, wait! My favorite: Ben Nincompoop Murphy!” Maybe this is how brothers talk to each other… His lighter spits fire. I hold out a hand, but John only scratches his stubby chin butt.
“Nuh-uh dingbat, you quit.” He exhales smoke. A roughneck in appearance, John ruffles his blonde hair. His sigh is heavy with some kind of memory of his own.
I can’t remember a thing. My hands don’t sweat, and they don’t jitter. He’s right. “Then. I’m hungry.”
“Lost the memory, not the appetite, huh?” He throws me a curveball glance. Heat rises from my back to my nape, cold settles on my cheeks. That look stings, like a scalpel slash. “Burger it is.” His eyes shoot back to the road.
Some blocks away, heading north, there is a fast-food truck, with yellow sun shades. White plastic tables and chairs hide under them.
“Scratch-the-Itch Beef-Stand” sounds perfect to me.
John pulls into a parking spot. The snarky remark bares its fangs into my pride’s throat. “You look like you got thrown out of police academy.” He looks me up and down. “Pull over the reflective vest. Let’s hope nobody recognizes me.” I pull it over and grab the shades he leaves lying around in the glove compartment.
Cold steel brushes my fingertips. It belongs to a revolver muzzle and I run out of movement. John has a gun…
His stare pierces the side of my head. He sees me noticing it, and winks a mischievous school boy wink at me. “Always ready. Never sorry.” He gets out of the car and I follow, with shades and a lot of new concerns.
John gets us two slugburgers with onion rings and extra chili fries. An elderly man with salt and pepper hair works the deep fryers and a tiny grill. He moves clumsily, placing four food baskets unto the narrow counter.
“Earn the heartburn! That’s what pop used to say.” John plunks down into the plastic chair in front of the truck. He digs in, like there’s no tomorrow. A mouthful of beef patty and white bun grin at me. “Remember?“ The burger bleeds grease down my fingers. I shake my head. This is all wrong. John’s grin withers to a disappointed slit. “Course not.”
He stares at the flow of the traffic and I try to focus on my lunch. One bite at a time, but I’m not hungry. No hunger, no thirst, no cold… There is only numbness and exhaustion.
“HEY!” His voice makes me jump. My knees hit the underside of the plastic table, like I’m some stupid teenage girl. “Don’t zone out on me.” I stare at my hands. “Tell you what. I glue myself to you, till you remember, dear brother.” I nod. That’s all I can do. I know John tries to cheer me up, but… It’s not working.
He looks at me, observing, searching for some hidden truth I’m not able to find. “Cat got your tongue?”
I breathe out, but the heavy remains in my chest. The burger is a greasy bliss, and to my surprise, I’m better. My hands and feet warm up. I must have been strung to breaking point.
The onion rings are superb. I tell John, but he just snorts. “Superb? Is that even a real word?”
As I start with the chili fries, I can’t help, but think that John doesn’t look like me – at all. What did he say? After our father left his mother, he met mine…
I wish I could focus for once.
Other customers walk past, to settle near our table, eying me. The three men talk Spanish. I’d stare at me too, the walking silicone with shades, but John is faster. “Stop staring, Chico!” He slams a hunting knife into the table. Its black handle sticks out, like a homing beacon for disaster.
The men scramble away as fast as possible, and as far away as possible from our table. John winks at me, with the same sly grin.
This is so wrong!
“Dig in, dum-dum.” He looks most pleased with himself, and steals some of my fries. My mouth feels like an ant-farm, so I push the basket over to him, before the ants find a way out.
He smiles a starving-man-smile.
I dig for my wallet instead. The address is scribbled unto a yellow post-it. Ten seventy-four Corinth.
John tosses another wallet over to me. “This is the one I found in your jacket.”
“Two wallets?” I ask, but my brother only shrugs. Interesting. “Once I was told – I guess – that one should have a decoy wallet. You know, to play pick pockets.” John gives me the brow. It’s news to him.
“Explains why all your cards are dead. And that note.” My confusion dissolves, as I pull out a fake one dollar bill, with red sharpie written “HAHA” over it. “Stuff like that, gets you killed. Not even funny.” He finishes the remaining onion rings and my fries.
John knows the way. Those eighty-eight miles, from Memphis to Kossuth, do their best to hide in the misty evening air. Head and tail lights fuse to red and white snakes. They coil around fields and woods. On a straight stretch of route seventy-two I fall asleep.
It’s the lack of noises, that startles me most. With a jolt, my consciousness slams back into my body. I hit my head against the passenger seat window, and my knees on the glove compartment. The revolver hides in there, a reminder to move carefully.
The car parks in front of a small brick house with black shutters, and a white porch. Tree branches hide the entrance door. Warm orange light floods unto the street, as John’s black silhouette moves towards me.
A hollow icy feeling leeches from my stomach.
This has happened before. I have been on my back, on wet concrete. I pull down the window. My breath forms little vapor clouds. “You’re up! Was gonna wake you.“ In the remaining street light, my brother’s face flashes bright and pale, like ivory.
I get out of the car. The cold night air creeps under my police jumper.
Soundless, the entrance door closes behind us. The hallway looks elegant, with welcoming polished hardwood floor. “I’m home.” My voice doesn’t echo.
I half expect to hear a dog’s claws thrumming the floorboards, running towards me. A small dog? “John? Is there a dog?” He only shrugs me and my question off. He pushes me out of the way and moves, like he’s at home.
“Move, Johnny Head-in-the-Air.” He yells. Each doorway pulls me in, like a riptide of secrets. I flick on every reachable light switch. The rooms are nicely done up, with arts-and-crafts style furniture. Gustav Stickley hammers through my head. Wonder who he is… Maybe a designer?
The living room is full with bookshelves. There’s a comfy leather couch too. “Kitchen!” John calls and I follow his voice. I gravitate towards the back of the house. Art is omnipresent. No signs of a dog though. Sadly.
The kitchen is bigger than I imagined. I love the scent of coffee. There is no isle, but a gas flame oven, and an oval wooden table, with two mugs of steaming liquid bliss.
John opens the fridge. Cold light spills unto the tile floor, and reveals its stuffed content. Beer, beef and mac’n cheese will be my and John’s future for some time. I sip the coffee and spit it right back into the cup. “Hot?” John asks. The burning sensation on my tongue and palate are numbing out the awful taste. His voice isn’t betraying his disappointment, but I can tell, he’s not happy. “You look like you ate a cockroach. Was it so bad? I just couldn’t figure your coffee machine out. It’s monstrous.“