Fragments of Knowing

Allen Stroud

 

We turn our thoughts and prayers all to those affected by recent tragedy. At times like this, we feel alone and question our faith. If our God is a loving and caring God, why are we suffering like this? Why are people losing their lives, their loved ones and their homes? When hardships come, things we cannot control, we lash out, we question the existence of a creator and we question whether we have a purpose in some grand fate and destiny.
Some ask me for answers, but there is no truth or revelation that I can offer to heal the mind, soul and body of its own wounds, without all three wanting to be healed.
We seek to know the intentions of our creator, but we must ask ourselves, is it our place to know such things? A glimpse of God is not what we were made for. That we are born, live and die are accepted events. What more we become part of might be our reason for being. Any small thing may be connected to an unfathomable plan of entities we must not presume to comprehend...

---

The first thing I remember is opening my eyes and being here.
I look around. I'm in a toilet cubicle. I recognise the wooden stall walls, the commode that I'm sat on and the cistern behind me. There's a tissue dispenser on the wall - all familiar things.
I can hear people outside and see feet moving the other side of the door. Thankfully, the latch is drawn across. I must have done that when I came in.
I don't remember my own name, why I'm here or even, where here is.
I pull a tissue from the holder and dab at my face. A mixture of sweat and blood comes back. A nosebleed it seems. No idea if this is anything to do with my loss of memory. I tilt my head back and try to stem the bleeding. With no mirror, I can't be sure how successful I am, but the fabric is quickly soaked. I replace it with another and another. Maybe this is why I came in here?
Someone knocks on the door. “Hey buddy, you gonna be long?” growls a male voice.
“Out in a sec!” I blurt in reply, more instinct than anything, although I sense I don't need to use the toilet.
I stand up, take a deep breath, flush away the bloodstained wipes, unlatch the door and walk out, to find there is no-one in the restroom. I've been sat in the third cubicle along, the two other cubicles are empty.
Weird.
In front of me are three sinks a wall mirror and a hand dryer, one of those rolling towels that encourages users to wipe their filth on the filth of others. I make use of everything, examining, and cleaning my face and hands. The dryer coughs a little as I yank it around and there's a stale odour to the air after it's done.
I don't recognise the person in the mirror. The face has that ageless mid-thirties quality to it, weathered with recent lines, thinning brown hair and grey-blue eyes with crow's feet at the corners.
But it isn't mine.
I’m wearing a torn shirt and jeans, both are oversized. Either I’ve lost a lot of weight, or they don’t belong to me.
This face doesn’t belong to me either.
I recoil from the mirror, my hands clutching and feeling my cheeks, chin, nose and ears. The bruised skin, the flesh, bone, organs, all wrong. What did I expect to see and touch? I don't know, but it wasn't this.
Who was I? Who am I now?
My heart is thumping, my breath comes in great gasps. I lean against the wooden stalls, trying to calm down. I’m staring at the chipped edge of the sink. 
Strange feet refuse to obey me at first, but I force them forward, stumble to the door and out into the darkened corridor beyond. Wooden walls and floorboards, yellowed peeling paint that was once white and new. At the end is a rectangular arch that might once have contained another door, but it is wholly absent now.
A large lobby greets me, a bar of some kind, long since closed and again, empty of people. I blink several times as my eyes struggle to adjust to the muted daylight from the bay windows. There is a sickly sweet smell to everything, as if the sun is disturbing something.
“Mister Jansen?”
On hearing the rasping voice and I turn. A man crouches behind the wide wooden counter, leaning upon it, drawing strength from the rough wood. Why didn't I notice him before? He looks at me, his bloodshot stare is an accusation. “Your room's ready. You need a hand with your things?”
“No I...” I glance around, panicked but grateful for the new information. I have a name, it'll do for now. My gaze rests upon a suitcase and a rucksack near the staircase to my left. “I'll manage.”
“Good,” the man says. He throws something at me, which I catch. A rusted key. “Room 428,” he announces, his lips quirking into a sinister smile. “Right at the top.”
I sense something unsavoury about the man. I am the subject of a joke that hasn't been shared. “Thank you,” I say. “I'll make myself at home.”
The ascent is difficult. The rucksack proves no issue, but the wheeled suitcase is not designed for these old winding stairs. What makes it easy to transport on the road is no help to me here and I’m quickly out of breath again. I’m out of condition, sick with something perhaps? Everything aches and I’m bruised all over. There are marks on my wrists and ankles as if I’ve been bound or chained.
Do these bags contain the answers I crave? It is hard to struggle on when such discoveries are so near at hand. Although, I do consider my circumstance of ignorance. Am I not in a paradise right now? unburdened of the cares of life that a return of my memories will bring? are Mrs Jansen and some Jansen children waiting for me? Will I find them at the top?
Each floor has a small landing, providing me with a brief respite from manhandling the case. Instead, it trundles across to the next set of stairs, near a window that overlooks the bleak street below. I take a moment to peer out, hoping that I will recognise something, but I don't.
By the third landing, I’m dripping with sweat. I spot a figure on opposite side of the road, only its movements, betraying it as being anything but a pile of clothes. A long grey fisherman's coat and thick hood, both covered with other layers hide any feature I might recognise. The hood turns in my direction and a shiver runs through me as our eyes meet. I break away and hurry on.
I find no-one else upon the stairs.
Room 428 is near the end of the hall. I take out the key, which has a tag with the word ‘Gilman’ printed on it in a curious font and ‘428’ scrawled over this in thick black ink. The door opens easily, but I am disappointed to find no-one waiting for me inside. There are two windows, an adjoining bathroom and minimal furnishings. It’s been divided from a larger space, the partition wall at the far end is a little whiter than the rest.
I go to the window. The view below is of a bleak courtyard and drab roofs, stretching out into a fog-drenched countryside that reveals no more to me of my past.
I sit down on the bed and turn to my baggage. The rucksack comes first. The zip has tags on it to make it easier to use. I open the main compartment and tip the contents onto the bed.
Wallet, mobile phone, a set of keys, a pen and some receipts. A bag with a bottle of shampoo and several pill containers. Anti-allergy tablets, vitamins, an electric toothbrush, toothpaste, a small towel. More remnants of a life I don’t recognise.
I open the wallet. Mr. Paul Hatchall, is says on the credit card tucked in the front slip. Is that me? I thought my name was Jansen.
Like everything else, the name Hatchall means nothing to me.
I get up and run the faucet in the sink, filling a clouded glass. The pipes whine a little and the tap spits, but I step back and manage to avoid soaking my trousers. I take one of the anti-allergies and a vitamin pill, washing them down. There’s a salty taste to the water and it lingers after I’m done. Something to tell the management?
The receipts are for petrol and some books. The petrol’s from a station outside Rowley, the books from ‘The Book Castle’ on the high street there. There are three volumes, a total price of $18.45.
I turn to the mobile phone and power it up. There’s a full battery, but no charger in the bag. The screen flashes and I access the contact list. Names scroll past, Matthew, James, Casey, Jason, Hannah, Emma, on and on, but no surnames that would give me a clue as to who they are . Nothing triggers a memory. I select Hannah and press the call button. I get a weird whining sound, like an old analogue radio trying to tune in and then the attempt to connect fails. There’s no signal it seems, despite the five bars and ‘4G’ symbol listed on the top row. 
The web browser is the same – no access.
I turn to the suitcase and unzip it. Inside I find clothes for at least a week’s trip. No tags or labels. Three pairs of underwear have been worn. Everything’s the same size as the t-shirt and jeans, too big for me. There’s deodorant and all the other things you expect to have packed, only I don’t remember packing them or owning them.
I don’t remember anything before being in the toilet.
I put the suitcase down and lay back on the bed, staring at the cracks in the ceiling. Who am I? Am I ‘Paul Hatchall’, or ‘Mister Jansen’. Are they both the same person, both me? Or am I someone else?
I close my eyes, trying to remember something from before. Perhaps being relaxed will help, perhaps then I’ll...

---

A dark tunnel, the stink, palpable. I’m running fast and blind through filthy water, breathing hard and feeling that burning sensation in my chest. Ahead, there is a light. I must reach it.
There’s something in my hand, my fingers clenched into a first around it. A scrap of paper. It burns my palm, but I cannot let it go.
“Come on, faster! I warned you!”
A woman’s voice in front of me, I’m not alone.
They’re behind us, running as fast as we are, if not faster. We have a lead on them, I don’t know why, nor why they are chasing us.
I glance back and see nothing, but I know they are there, ambling after us on all fours as fast as they can. Their eyes are better suited to darkness, to them, the gloom is perfect daylight and these passageways, familiar territory.
“Hurry!”
I can see her now, fast moving shadow illuminated by faint light from above. She stops and climbs up the wall, reaches above her head with both hands. The scraping and grinding sound of metal being moved echoes in the cramped space.
I catch up to her and stop. “Can I help?”
“No!” she shouts through clenched teeth. The metal screams and then gives way.
Light illuminates us both and I see her face.

---

It’s dark when I wake up. I’m lying on a bed, the room shadowy and quiet. The woman’s face remains in my mind.
How did I get here? I don’t recall—
There’s a knocking and I’m sat bolt upright, my hands shaking. “Who is it?”
There’s no answer. I go to the door and find it locked with the key on the floor. I listen and hear voices – sort of watery, but I can’t make out what they’re saying. “What do you want?” I ask.
The voices go quiet.
I pick up the key and open the door. I look out into the hallway, left then right. There’s no-one—
“Mister Jansen?”
 To my left a twisted looking man walking towards me down the corridor. How did I miss seeing him? “That’s me, yes,” I reply.
The man grins. “Horace Gilman, Mister Jansen. There’s been some trouble with your bill. If you could pop back downstairs to reception, we’ll get it all straightened out.”
“Of course, I…” I glance back into the room. “I won’t be a moment.” I walk back inside and shut the door.
Someone warned me this would happen. I remember, but I don’t know who. They won’t let me out of the town with anything that might arouse suspicion. Gilman’s request is a pretext to separate me from my luggage, so they can search through my things and make sure I haven’t kept anything, any evidence of what I’ve seen.
What have I seen?
I’m leaning on the wall, my head pounding. It’s hard to remember. Something in me doesn’t want to, but fragments come back. Night time. The smell of salt in the air, the high tide and the chanting. The words slip from my mind, as I hear them again. A collection of sounds and syllables that should mean something but I can’t…
“Mister Jansen?”
“On my way!”
I’m staring at the suitcase. There’s something in it, something I need to make sure they don’t find. What was it? Where was it? I need to make sure I escape with the evidence, but my mind crawls away from the memory of what that might be.
The books, I need to look in the books!
I’m emptying the suitcase. The three books are at the bottom. The thick hardback is a list of births and deaths from 1841-1851, including the plague of 1846, the two paperbacks are local history guides, that detail events and legends from settlements all along the Manurey river. I’m drawn to the hardback, there’s something tucked into the pages, I have to…
My fingers stop before I touch the paper and take it out. I recall something about it. Something dangerous.
Where can I hide the book?
I stumble into the bathroom and tuck the book behind the pipes at the back of the toilet. There’s something there already but I haven’t time to find out what it is.
“Mister Jansen?”
“Coming!”

---

I was talking to Hannah when I made the decision to go to Lyme.
The sun glittered over the hills, bathing her veranda in beautiful orange. We were sat in deckchairs sharing a bottle of red wine and gazing out over the garden.
“You know it could be dangerous, right?” she said softly.
I laughed. “Locals out to murder me you mean?”
She leaned forward and I realised she was actually worried. “It’s a close knit community who hardly feature on survey maps. There’s no news articles about them, next to no local transport services and a whole lot of rumours. Paul, you need to take this seriously.”
I sipped my wine. “There’s a lot of places around the country with patchy records. These people aren’t forgotten about because they want it that way, they’re forgotten about because of cutbacks. Plants close down, workers get laid off. The state and federal government ignores them in their hour of need so they turn inwards, clench themselves together, hard against the world that they think doesn’t care.”
“And you’re going to change any of that?”
“I’m not naïve, Han. What I do is a drop in the ocean, but at least they’ll see a friendly face trying to help and do a job. It’s a short land survey to update what we have. Two days and I’m done.”
“What if you get told you’re trespassing?”
“I won’t, I’m careful. I talk to people first, get them onside and make it clear it’s just a job. I hardly ever have to show a badge or get out the permits. No-one’s bothered.”
“But what if these people are? They aren’t going to call the cops on you. You’ll be at least an hour away from any help.”
“I’ll be fine. I have to do my job. That’s what pays the bills.”
She scowled at me and stared silently for quite a while. “All right,” she said eventually. “But you take your phone and you call me if anything gets strange.”
I smiled at her and drained my glass. “I’m sure it’ll all be strange, but I’ll call if there’s any trouble.”

---

I don’t recall arriving in the Gilman House Hotel. I recall getting off the Brayton-Almsport bus and wanting to find this place, but…
There’s a clammy hand on my shoulder. Horace Gilman shepherds me down the stairs. They’re a wide and impressive switchback, with landings after six or eight steps between each floor and large dirty windows. The carpet’s worn and fraying but looks like it must have been expensive when it was new.
“Glad you decided to pay cash, Mister Jansen. We always have trouble with the credit card machine,” Gilman says. I turn towards him. He’s crabbing down the steps awkwardly as if the effort’s not one he usually makes. He’s a strange looking fella with wide oval eyes and thin straggling hair stretched over a bald scalp into a ponytail. “Your name, that Swedish?” 
“Danish.”
“You from Denmark then?”
“No, Wisconsin.”
“Oh.”
It takes a while to get to reception. The room with my stuff is on the fourth floor, right in the top corner. While we’re making the descent, I check my pockets. My wallet’s there, a stack of bills in the sleeve which’ll cover two nights. I just wish I could remember how I got here from the—
“You married, Mister Jansen?”
“No, I travel a lot, doesn’t leave room for a family.”
Gilman frowns. “Want to be careful. Nothing’s more important than family.”
We reach reception. My host shuffles around the desk and pulls out a pen and a ledger, licking his thin fingers and turning the pages. “The problem is, Mister Jansen, for the last two days, we’ve had a guest named Paul Hatchall staying in Room 428.” He flicked the book shut, leans forward and gazes at me. “And that guest looked just like you.”
I stare at him, but I can’t match those strange . “I–I don’t know what you mean.”
Gilman smiles knowingly. “Perhaps I was wrong,” he says, but his smirk tells me he plainly doesn’t mean it. “Two more nights will be one hundred and twenty dollars.” He holds out a hand.
I open my wallet and pay him.
“Pleasure doing business with you, Mister Jansen,” he says.
I turn away and head back up the stairs.

---

The bus ride wasn’t pleasant. Few people bothered traveling to Lyme, they said, so an old sixties Hillman was left to service all the stops. The driver hunched over his wheel and ignored me as I got on, brandishing my ticket.
I took a seat. A dark haired woman sat across from me caught my eye. She leaned over, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“Lyme,” I replied.
She stared at me, biting her bottom lip and with a pinching of her forehead. “Why?” she said.
“Because I…” Those eyes made me hesitate, but I swallowed and pressed on. “I’m here doing government census research.”
She nodded. “That sounds… intrusive.”
I tried to smile, but succeed only in twisting my lips. “Not really. I just ask people a few questions, fill in some gaps in the records.” I sat back in the chair. “What about you?”
“I’m not going to Lyme,” the woman said, “and if you know what’s best, you won’t be either.”    
“I didn’t catch your name.”
“No, that’s right. You didn’t.” With that, she turned away.
The rest of the trip passed slowly. I remember taking out my phone and doing the usual scan of social media and messages, but as we got further away from Brayton, the signal became weaker and weaker.
I can’t read on a bus, so without my phone, I took to looking out of the window. It was then I noticed just how slowly we were travelling and the poor condition of the road. The juddering wasn’t only because of the Hilman’s ancient suspension. Potholes outnumbered flat sections of tarmac and the verges were completely overgrown. In places, I could see grooved tracks and tyre marks where other vehicles had got stuck. I remember wondering if we would suffer the same fate and be forced to get out and push.
I saw a house in the distance, its once white walls invaded by vines and weeds. The roof torn apart during the siege. The whole place seemed surrounded by growth. Who could have lived there? Clinging on whilst mother nature reclaimed what had been taken from her.
The bus stopped, pitching me forward in my seat. Two people shuffled off to stand in the dirt as we pulled away.
Surely they couldn’t be—
“Your stop’s next,” the woman said to me. “That is, if you haven’t changed your mind?”
I turned to her again and forced a smile. “I haven’t.”
The engine growled as it pushed up hill. Over the top and for the first time, I saw Lyme, the coast and the shadow of the reef out in the distance. The road wound down towards them all and we bumped our way along, the driver hunched over his steering wheel. The bus gathering speed and momentum, hurtling towards the buildings ahead. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.
And that is all I remember.

---

I’m cold, naked and in pain.
My arms ache at the wrist and the shoulder. My legs at the ankle and hip. My whole body hangs from them, face down. I’m naked and I can feel a fiery ring of rope around each limb, abrading my flesh.
I open my eyes. Darkness writhes beneath me. Gradually, my sight adjusts. There are people down there in the black. Hundreds of them, moving, crawling over one another, their mouths gaping open, as they writhe and twist.
“We know what you stole.”
A voice echoes off stone walls. I glance around, but cannot place the speaker. “I don’t know what you mean!” I shout out. “Please, just let me go.”
“There is nowhere to go. All paths lead to this place.”
There is something amidst the people. A large creature, aware of me, aware of them. Its feelers wrapped amongst struggling bodies, drawing from them as they yearn towards its embrace. Grey mouths and teeth clasp and clutch at flesh, biting, consuming. The people and their symbiotic matriarch, consume each other slowly, in a languid and visceral dance.
“You will join us,” the voice says. “In many ways, you already have. In time, you will beg to join the others beneath you in full knowledge of the fate that awaits you. Consummation of your flesh, your experiences and memories will sustain those who seek to return. Those who deserve to rule over humanity and save it from its own ignorance.”
There’s a rustling noise and a slight breeze. I shiver instinctively and know the speaker has left. There  will be no respite from this torture. No end until I agree to the oblivion that awaits me below.
I close my eyes and scream.

---

“Shit! Be quiet!”
Hands on my shoulders, shaking me. The dark haired woman from the tunnels and the bus. She’s crouched over me as I lie down, her face twisted into a scowl. “You need to shut up and lie still,” she hisses. “If you don’t we’re both dead.”
“How did I—”
“End up here? By being very very stupid and very very lucky.”
I prop myself up on my elbows. I’m lying on a concrete floor in pre-dawn light. My movements echo in this room, it must be a big space. I’m wet, cold and in pain. There’s a sense of soreness in my limbs, as if I’ve not used them. I’ve been wrapped in a blanket. “Where are we?”
“In the old fish market,” the woman says. “No-one comes here anymore.”
“I need clothes.”
“We’ll find you some.”
“You never told me your name.”
She looks at me and smiles. “If I had, you probably wouldn’t know, would you?” the smile fades and she stares out into the dark. “But they would know. They would have taken it from you.”
“The only memories I have of you is running through tunnels and when we talked on the bus.”
“That was where we were earlier, after I got you out and before we stopped here.”
I remember being suspended over the pit and shudder. “You cut me down?”
“I dragged you out, you’d been lying in that filth for days. I don’t know why you’re still alive.”
Her answer terrifies me. There’s another hole in my mind, a gap where the memories should be. I can’t recall anything between the moment hanging above that writhing pit and running through the tunnels. Only this conversation suggests the order of things, that my escape followed my imprisonment. All the rest  are disjointed, pinpricks of light in a fog that will not let go.
The woman grabs me by the shoulder, forcing me onto my knees. The concrete is harsh and unforgiving, cutting through my bruised and battered skin. “Why do you think you can’t remember things? Why is everything so broken up in your mind, like shards and dreams? That’s what they’re all like. Dying by inches in there. Everyone coming here with some strange notion and getting sucked into the darkness. All for something nameless that doesn’t even know they exist.”
I take a deep breath and stare at the concrete floor. “My name is Paul Hatchall, I’m thirty-three and I work for the Land Surveyor’s Office in the Bureau of Land Management. I came to Lyme to fill in some gaps in the land designate records, not to get kidnapped!”
Hands release me and I almost fall, but I catch myself and stay there, in the penitent’s position. “All over the world, people go out hunting for things, seeking knowledge, wealth, fame and whatever else,” the woman says. “They never realise ‘til it’s too late, where the real gold lies.” She taps the side of her head and in the half-light I see an angry red scar trailing out of her hair down around her right ear. “Knowing who you are, what you are, that’s precious. People around here can take that away. You can’t let them.” She glances down, drawing something from a holster a her hip. A gun, an old six shooter by the look of it. “Well, this time, the beast will have to stay hungry. We’re getting out of Lyme for and we ain’t gonna be stopped!”
“I need clothes,” I say again, “and food. Perhaps then I can—”
She rounds on me. “We need to be on the edge of town by sun up, otherwise we’ll never make it. Now’s the time to tell me what you did with it.”
“Did with what?”
“The paper fragment you stole. Where did you hide it?”
“I…” My hand is burning. I open it. There’s nothing there. I distinctly remember a piece of parchment, torn from a book, running with it, escaping, but these flashes in my mind don’t fit together. They aren’t a sequence. There’s gaps all over the place. 
I focus on the woman and stare into her eyes. The memory is there, nearby, I can almost taste it. There! Yes, there it is! “In the hotel, Room 428, behind the toilet.”
The woman sighs and her shoulders slump. “We’ll have to go back,” she says.

---

I open the door to Room 428, close it behind me and sit down.
Horace Gilman knows who I am.
I know who I am.
I know why I am here.
I have to get out.

I look around. My rucksack isn’t where I remember leaving it and the suitcase has been opened. The clothes have been pulled out and strewn all over the bed and the floor.
I walk to the bathroom and reach behind the toilet. The book is there and behind it, a fragment of paper, old, layered and thick, the kind you don’t get made in a modern factory. It’s been torn out of a book.
I tore it out of a book.
There’s writing on the parchment. Writing over writing over writing, some in between the layers. Words jumbled and patterned in different directions. I can make out some letters, but nothing coherent. Some of it isn’t English, isn’t any language I recognise. The ink is thick and florid, red and black stains on ancient beige. Just looking at the marks, makes me dizzy and sick. The act of violation, stealing this from where it belongs, in bound pages, is something I did. Something that prompted retaliation.
Why? Why would I do such a thing?
I sit down on the bed. My memories don’t join together neatly. I need to get out of here, but I’ve no idea what I’m supposed to do, once I leave the hotel with the parchment. I remember the figure I saw on the street. Was that… Yes, it was! She’s waiting for me, waiting to escape with—
There’s a knock at the door.
“Mister Jansen?” – it’s Horace Gilman again.
“Yes?”
“Best I come in Mister Jansen, then we can talk.”
I stare at the door. Its old and won’t keep out a determined intruder. Besides, he’ll already have a key. There’s painted over holes where a bolt might have been, long ago.
I glance around the room. There’s no other way out.
“All right then,” I say and tuck the parchment into my pocket.
The door opens and he skitters inside, leaving it ajar. I see movement over his shoulder, more people. Guests? Or…
“This isn’t where you need to be, Mister Jansen,” Horace says, standing over me.
“I know that,” I reply. “I need to leave.”
“Yes you do,” Horace says. “But you can’t go home.”
“Why not?”
“Because you’re part of our community now, wedded to the town, like all the rest of us. You’ve become part of the flock and I’m here as your shepherd to guide you back to where you belong.”
He’s standing in front of me, his protruding gut level with my face. I can see faded stains on his white shirt and there’s a stale smell about him I hadn’t caught before. He’s got his hands behind his back. Might be he’s concealing something?
“What happens if I don’t want to stay in Lyme?”
“Everyone wants to stay, Mister Jansen. Some people just don’t know it yet.”
I don’t reply to that, letting the silence extend for a while. I’ve missed my chance to get away. Horace wouldn’t have knocked before everything was in place. There’ll be people on all the exits and in the street waiting for me if I make a move to resist. “Why do you keep calling me that?” I ask. “You know it’s not my name.”
Horace smiles, a crooked gesture that lifts the right side of his face. “Who’s to say that? For all I know, you’re Mister Jansen pretending to be Mister Hatchall, or Mister Hatchall pretending to be Mister Jansen? Or perhaps you’ve lived before an’ an old life is coming back to you, hidden beneath it all.”
“You don’t care about me,” I say. “You want the page from the book I stole.”
Horace sighs. “Bad business that. Got people angry about it all over the town. Some’d like to skin you for what you done. To them, it’s like you stole a part of their lives.”
“Just like you’ve done to me.”
“In what way?”
I tap the side my head. “By stealing parts of my mind.”
Horace leans back. “What if I told you you’re not alone? That everyone volunteers a little bit of themselves to those who are more than us, more advanced and more deserving.”
“I’d say you were mad.”
“But you can’t disprove it. You spend nearly half your life asleep, like most people. In that time, you dream all sorts of strange things. You only have your recollections and the recollections of others as evidence of what you’ve really done. Those memories fade. Why not give them away to someone who can use them far better than you?”
I frown at him. “Someone, or something?” I ask.
Horace rolls his eyes. “Many people dream when they come here. There’s something about this place that helps them see the world differently. Who’s to know what you actually saw or experienced?”
“I know what’s real.”
“Do you?”
I can hear raised voices in the hall. A woman is shouting, she sounds familiar. I start to stand up, but Horace drags me back and pushes me down. I struggle, but I’m too weak to resist him and he pins me to the bed.
“Where is it?” he rasps. “Give it up now, or I promise it’ll end badly for you!”
There’s a loud bang and more shouting. Horace’s hands are tearing at my loose fitting clothes, trying to find the page. I’m fighting him, but it’s no use. He flips me over and rips the parchment out of the back pocket of my jeans.
There’s another loud bang and a splash of something against the back of my neck. Horace coughs and then he’s on top of me. I thrash, but he’s a dead weight and slides to the floor. I struggle to my feet and stumble past him to the door, running for the stairs, not daring to look back.
“This way!”
The woman from before is standing there, a smoking revolver in her hands. There’s another slumped figure further on, a man whimpering and clutching at his guts while blood pools around him on the threadbare carpet. I don’t see much of his face, but there’s a similarity to Horace, I guess the two of them are related.
“Move!”
I’m pushed down the stairs, I slip forwards, my numb fingers grab for the bannister, but my feet slide out from under me and I’m falling towards the bay window. My hands fly up in front of my face, my elbows bounce off the wooden frame and I collapse into a heap on the floor.
Footsteps thunder towards me, hands grab my arms, lifting me up. “Come on!” the woman breathes in my face. I struggle to help, to move and get to my feet, but everything’s too much. I fall again.
“I can’t do this,” I say. My hand goes to the back pocket of my jeans. I pull out the torn page. “Here, this is what you wanted.”
She hesitates, but then, takes the parchment from me. “I’ll get this out,” she says. “People will be warned. What you’ve done, it’ll make a difference.” She hands me the revolver. “There’s two rounds left. I’m sorry.”
I don’t know what she means. I’m too tired to care. My hand closes around the smooth wooden handle of the gun and I shut my eyes.
Her footsteps fade away.

---

At dawn, we reached the hotel. Our journey from the abandoned market had been tortuous, my companion determined to avoid any chance we might be spotted.
She told me her name, or at least, a name I could call her. I can’t remember it. I guess they took that away.
“Wait here. I’ll open the door, then you go inside, make your way up to your room and get the parchment.”
She left me crouched at the corner and went to the door. A sunlight flashed on the blade of a knife that she thrust into the gap around the frame. It took her a long time, but eventually, the old lock gave way and she beckoned me over.
“Hurry! Get what you need and meet me back here.”
I went inside and walked towards the stairs, but then I heard someone coming down, carrying something. I ran back into the lobby and then down a passageway, into the toilets. I went straight to the middle cubicle, sat down and locked the door. 
      
---

It’s dark when I come to.
I’m still lying on the stairs. I still can’t remember all the details of my life. I know they’ve taken things from me, robbed me and violated me in a way that I cannot accept. My mind has been invaded, scoured and sifted through without my permission or acceptance.
Or at least, without any memory of either.
Flashes come to me from before. Walking around Lyme taking photographs, people watching me, being asked questions, people watching me. Asking questions and getting strange answers.
People watching me.
Chanting coming from a church as I listen by the window, opening the door and finding it dark and empty, going inside, to the lectern, finding the book, ripping away pages –  two pages.
Being awakened in the dead of night, a hand over my mouth, being dragged out to a chanting mob,
My hands tremble, I can’t make them stop. I’m cold, but that’s not the reason for the shivering. My body aches, yearning for something. My throat is dry and parched. My stomach throbs. Is this how addicts feel when their supply is cut off? There's a pain behind all the other hurts, it's constant scream tells me something is missing. I'm incomplete without it, but I don't know what it is.
Someone is here. I can feel it, even though I can’t see anyone. I hear voices below, in the lobby. They’ll make their way upstairs and find me. Then the pain will end.
“You’re feelin’ withdrawal aren’t you, Mister Jansen?”
The voice is little more than a whisper, but I recognise it. Horace Gilman has hauled himself to the staircase. He coughs, a wet, throaty and painful noise. His eyes glitter in the dim light, staring at me.
“You’re missin’ bein’ where you belong.  We all do when our turn comes. You don’t belong here anymore. You belong with them in the depths, as part of the one you were given to. You can’t live without it now, you’ll die just by being here, being apart.”
I shake my head. “You’ve lost. The parchment’s gone. You’ll never find it.”
Horace laughs painfully. “Doesn’t matter. Your friend’ll take it to people. Eventually, one of ours will find her and bring it back. You can’t escape, the believers are everywhere.”
“If that’s true, you wouldn’t have come after me.”
“Like I said before, I’m a shepherd, here to guide you back to where you belong.”
The voices from below grow louder. The people are much closer. They will discover me soon. I shift my weight against the wall beneath the window, resting my back against it. “If what you did to me is so wonderful, why aren’t you down there instead of running this rotting hotel?”
“Some of us have work to do before we’re granted the privilege.” I see Horace shuffling down the stairs towards me. Each step brings forth a wheezing, painful breath. “Shot me in the guts,” he says. “Probably means I’ll be joining you in paradise, if they’ll take me.”
“Paradise?”
“What else would you call it? All your cares taken away as you accept your rightful place. I mean, are we really so special? Look around your world, we fucked it up, but we can’t see it. They understand better, they always have.”
He’s almost at my side now and I can see flashlights below us. People are coming up the stairs. I lift the gun, aim it at Horace, he grunts, but doesn’t stop moving. He’s sitting down next to me, leaving dark stains on the chipped paint of the wall.
“In Anu’s kingdom, the worry and the pain all disappears. Just shut your eyes, close your ears and open your mouth. Suck on the teat as they take away your life and make it into something useful, greater, eternal.”
I point the gun at the darkness down the stairs. They’ll be coming soon. There’s two rounds left, she said.  My arm is shaking. I’ve never…
Horace’s hand closes over mine, turning the revolver back towards us, towards me. “Why fight it, little lamb?” he says. “Just let go. Make your end. Rejoin the flock or accept the cull.”
I can feel his breath on my neck. His fingers on the gun steady mine. The barrel is pointed at me. I turn my wrist, then slide my fingers out, so my thumb rests on the trigger.
I open my mouth.

Allen Stroud