By: John McNee
You wake up one morning and don't know who you are. You lie in bed trying to remember how you got here, but you can't. You go to the bathroom and stare into the mirror, but the old man staring back at you is no one you recognise. You wander the house, searching for some clue that will revive your memory, but find nothing.
You try very hard not to panic. And then you panic.
At the hospital, you face a barrage of tests and too many questions for which you have no answers. The paramedics who attended your home found your wallet and ID. The hospital has accessed your records and have all your information, but when they show it to you, all you see is a jumbled blur.
It is more than 24 hours before you speak to anyone who seems able to help. They call her a specialist. Her name is Dr. Allahan.
She gives you a magazine and asks you to read one of the articles aloud, which you do. She then gives you a card on which are typed two printed words and asks you to speak them. You try, but you cannot. The letters make no sense to you. Whatever the words are supposed to say, it is indecipherable.
"It's your name," she says.
You tell her you might have guessed.
"You appear to have suffered an acute brain event, not dissimilar to a stroke." She smiles as she tells you this. "Do you know what a stroke is?"
You tell her yes.
"The cause is unclear," she says. "The way in which it has attacked your memory centres, effectively erasing your identity, and preventing you from relearning it, suggests it may even be psychological. But the scans do show evidence of... damage." She hesitates over the last word. "Are you aware that it was your birthday yesterday?"
Yes, you say, but only because you were told.
"Perhaps coincidental," she says, though she sounds unsure. "I can say that it's a very unusual case, but not completely unheard of. In fact, I was recently reading about two startlingly similar cases from earlier this year." She smiles again. "Perhaps it's catching."
You ask her if you will ever remember who you are.
"It's possible," she says. "There are certain therapies we can try, though I should warn you that they have not proven particularly successful with those other cases I mentioned. Given time, of course, the brain may repair itself. However..." She glances down at your case notes. "Given your age, time may not be on our side. Frankly, this may be something you have to learn to live with."
That's impossible, you tell her. Impossible.
You learn to live with it.
A case worker accompanies you home and helps to make some sense of your surroundings. He leaves once you've convinced him that you can make it from your bed to the bathroom and back without killing yourself, but he returns the following morning. He visits you every day for the first few weeks, but then his visits become more infrequent, till eventually they cease altogether. During this period you learn how to complete simple tasks like a trip to the supermarket without making a complete ass of yourself. Complications prove inevitable. You have no idea who you are. But you make a habit of carrying documentation explaining your condition, along with a phone number for Dr. Allahan.
You get by.
They put you in a support group for people who have suffered strokes and brain injuries. You attend twice a week. The intention is to teach you coping mechanisms, but what you really learn is humility. There are so many others, it transpires, who suffer with afflictions far worse than yours. The catastrophes that have engulfed their minds have made things like comprehension, communication, even basic movement almost impossible. And somehow you struggle on. They learn to live with it. Your only disability is you have no idea who you are. Is that so bad?
Eventually you come to the conclusion that it is not. You don't know who this man is whose life was once your own, but you are able to make a few assumptions about him. At the hospital, they had no record of any next of kin. No address can be found in your home. The phone does not ring during your recuperation. No concerned friends, family or neighbours stop by the house to see how you're doing. What you infer from this is that there are no concerned friends, family or neighbours in your life. You appear to be a man who has lived decades without making a single human connection. You wonder how this is possible.
You are retired now. Dr. Allahan and others have told you what you used to do for employment, but you can't keep the information in your head. With no family, friends, and no work to occupy yourself, your days quickly become a tedious bur of TV watching, interspersed with visits to the grocery store and the support group.
Your memory does not improve. But at least it doesn't worsen.
"What you need is a hobby," says Dr. Allahan, during one of your increasingly infrequent appointments. "Something to occupy your mind. Something that will get you socialising."
You wonder what kind of hobby would suit a man like yourself. For all you know, you were proficient at many things, but there's no proof of it now. No memory in the muscles.
Photography, you think. One wall in your living room is covered in framed photographs, all landscapes. No people in any of them. It strikes you as lonely more than anything, but you imagine you must once have found beauty in it. Perhaps you even had talent.
The local college offers evening classes. The participants are mostly retirees like yourself, looking for something to occupy their minds and stave off the rot.
Your condition makes socialising difficult, but not as much as you feared. Conversation flows when you ask people questions about themselves. You remember their answers. It's only when you're the subject that difficulties arise, but with practice you learn how to navigate your way through.
After just a few classes you must conclude you are not much of a photographer. But you stick with it. You are making friends. One in particular.
Her name is Ruby. She is divorced, with grown children and a large house on the edge of town that she can't stand to be alone in. The photography class is just one of dozens she has taken to fill her days.
You take a shine to each other. Something about her obvious loneliness attracts you. It's comforting to be in the company of someone almost as awkward as you are. But there's more there. Soon you both feel it.
After a few weeks, photography class - and the rest of your classmates - fall by the wayside. You and Ruby relocate to cafes, bars, the theatre. Romance blooms as autumn leaves fall.
Then something happens that you can't explain. You take Ruby to dinner at a restaurant near your home. Afterwards, you hope to take her back to the house for the first time, but it doesn't work out that way. The restaurant is not one you've been to before. You chose it for its location, its closeness to home, but you soon regret it.
There is something about the people here. Not everyone, but the staff and a few tables are watching you intently, glaring, as though they can hardly believe what they are seeing.
You try to hide your distress. Ruby lets you, but it is clear she can tell something is wrong. You're halfway through your first course, and thinking about fleeing, when you look up and see a monster.
He has the body of a man, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, but his head is a whirling sphere of molten flesh. Rivers of liquid skin churn across his bones, carrying hair, teeth, nostrils, and ears like so much debris in the current. And his eyes. They grind against each other in the chaos, bulging and shrinking, but for a very brief moment they hover beneath his bubbling brow and fix themselves on you. They are furious.
The monster crosses to your table, points a finger in your face and unleashes a torrent of words you can make no sense of. Panicking, you try to flee. You try to take Ruby with you, but the monster is in her face now, shouting more nonsense with its broken tongue. Incredible as it is, she seems to understand it.
You pull her from the table and hurry her out of the door. The rest of the diners and staff watch as you leave, the monster ranting indecipherably at you as you go. Some applaud. No one demands you pay for your half-eaten starters.
You are relieved to make it out to the street. Ruby stays with you long enough to ensure you'll be okay, then makes her excuses and catches a cab. You return home alone.
If ever you wanted to forget a night, it is this one. But you can't.
Autumn turns to winter. You do not see Ruby again. You try contacting her, but she makes herself unreachable. You soon get the message. You do not blame her.
The night in the restaurant plagues you. You wonder about the monster. What did everyone else see? Was he just a man? A man who knew you? Your mind makes him unrecognisable. It twisted his words so that they were incomprehensible. Yet others understood only too well. You wonder how it is that the mind could do something like that.
You attend the support group meetings a few times. You want to talk about the restaurant, but you can't bring yourself to do it. Eventually you stop going altogether.
You rarely venture out of the house now. Even on a trip to the shops, you can feel people staring at you - or imagine you can.
The nights grow long.
You take to drinking more.
In mid-December, you receive a Christmas card from Dr. Allahan. It is the only one you will receive.
On Christmas Day, you awaken with a bad hangover, the hands on the clock ticking towards noon. You drag yourself to the bathroom and splash some water on yourself, then head downstairs, thinking of coffee and trying to decide on the liquor to cut it with.
You halt when you reach the living room.
A package sits on the coffee table, wrapped in glittering red paper and tied with a green bow.
You are perplexed and concerned - how did someone get into your house? When were they here? Who would do this?
But you're curious, too. You cross to the table and pick up the gift. It has a tag, but the writing is illegible. You tear off the bow and the wrapping paper to reveal a small metal box. You open it...
...And you remember.
You remember your name. The names of your parents, your brothers, the town where you were born. You remember your schools and university and the sports teams to which you belonged. You remember all your workplaces and colleagues. You remember your friends, your lovers, the woman you married. You remember the life you shared.
Glancing around the room at the photos on the wall - you see them, all the people who were a part of your life. Not landscapes. The faces, hidden from you for so many months, suddenly resolve themselves into focus. Finally you can see them. You remember them.
You remember it all.
You remember the abuse, the threats, the brutal wielding of power. You remember the violence and the repeated assurance of worse to come. You remember a litany of crimes; the scandals that, when they came to light, brought an end to your career, tore you from your family and left you alone and unloved.
You even remember the man from the restaurant now. No one of consequence. A member of the local PTA you'd met once or twice and knew of your crimes from the papers.
And you remember the rest. The scandals that never came to light. The evil acts the papers never made public. The secret horrors you managed to keep hidden from the wider world. All the sadistic terrors you inflicted on those closest to you in service of your petty gratification. You remember the inexcusable pain you caused others and the satisfaction you took from your own depravity.
You remember the shame, the guilt, the constant agony of waking up each morning with the knowledge of who you are and all the terrible things you'd done.
You remember who you are, why you are alone, and why you deserve to be.
It was your birthday. You received a package. You opened it and found a small metal box. At the time, you thought it was empty and threw it away.
You know better now. That box, you realise, released you from the knowledge of all that you are, everything that you were capable of and all the unspeakable acts you committed. That box was the greatest, most generous gift you could ever hope to receive.
The one you hold in your hands now is the most hateful.
You spot the tag on the coffee table. Its words are suddenly legible to you. Through tears, you can make out the name scrawled at the bottom.
And above it, the words: "To Dad, Merry Christmas."
About the author:
John McNee is a writer of strange and disturbing horror stories, published in a variety of strange and disturbing anthologies. He is also the author of Grudge Punk, probably the only dieselpunk-bizarro-horror-noir anthology around. His first novel, Prince of Nightmares, was published in January of this year by Blood Bound Books. He lives on the west coast of Scotland, where he works "in magazines."