By Daniel Sellers
The neighborhood was illuminated at intervals by streetlights that cast the sidewalk in little, electric islands of light. Roy shivered whenever he passed beneath one, and watched his shadow as it paced beside him, faceless in the street. In the light, he could close his eyes and the suburban facades would disappear, but the lamps still permeated his eyelids, glowing red, as if a spotlight trained itself directly on his face. It was inescapable.
Jitters, he called these observations, and as he climbed the hill toward the target house, he felt a droplet of sweat form on the underside of his arm and dribble down toward his elbow beneath his jacket. In his pocket, Roy groped the side of his pistol — his jolter, as the Bureau named it — to ensure that the safety was set. In his other pocket, he rolled the extra cartridges between his fingers. Harmless as they were on their own, Roy felt an immense weight within them. Each contained enough electricity to fry a man in moments. Jitters. He played with the word in his mind. Jitters. Jolter. Jolter Jitters.
He glanced at the waxing moon and frowned. It was too bright. The houses he passed were dark and dead, but every star he counted seemed to him like marbles being rolled onto a scale. Clear nights posed no problem to the mission, and Roy remembered at least a dozen completed under blank horizons, but the exposure weighed on him. He searched the sky for Bureau drones. They were too small, he knew, to be seen with the naked eye, especially at night, yet the possibility of being watched turned his stomach into slush.
His thoughts shifted back to the target. Marcus Rosario, it stated in the dossier. Warehouse worker. Married. Two stepdaughters. Black hair. Brown eyes. One hundred ninety pounds. Five foot eleven. Military experience. Exposure to the Proust-Lethe Realignment Method. The picture provided to him in the dossier churned his stomach. The creases on his face, saturated with age, seemed to bear experience, and his serious eyes stared into him as if he knew something that Roy did not.
The scant file said little else about who Marcus Rosario was, aside from descriptions of his daily and weekly routines. Roy felt an affinity for the minimalism of his target’s description, and he often imagined his own name and picture appearing in a file for another agent before each mission. The fantasy meant doom for him, of course, but the simplicity of the details found in such files agreed with him, as if his entire being could be encapsulated by a few, disconnected statements between the covers of a manila folder.
Roy Bennet, he read in his mind. Agent for the Bureau of Domestic Threats. Single. No relatives. Brown hair. Brown eyes. Two hundred pounds. Six foot. Killer.
The winter wind coaxed redness onto his cheeks.
Marcus’ file was nearly identical to every other that fell from the higher ups onto his lap, aside from one detail that flickered in his thoughts like the killing spark of an exposed wire. Proust-Lethe Realignment. It seemed to flash from the page with a tugging, unreachable meaning. Realignment meant a history, something Marcus would rather forget, or someone else would rather him forget.
Roy knew fewer details about it than he knew about his target. Controversy. Illegal in almost every state. Only the government was allowed to conduct the procedure. Memory alteration was a clandestine business, and every time he heard its name, a vast, monochrome plain manifested in his imagination. Even as he ascended the suburban street toward his destination, the familiar feeling of walking a white, eternal desert settled over him like snow.
He shook his shoulders. The jitters had him good this time.
A black sedan rolled down the street toward the way Roy came from. A Bureau vehicle, he guessed. Few people ventured the streets so late for fear of suspicion, and each house he passed bore locked doors and covered windows. Even against a suburban facade, the Bureau remained vigilant for whispers in the dark. Roy ensured that the silence remained unbroken.
Before him laid the crest of the hill. Roy read the painted numbers on the sides of mailboxes.
Each mission was unremarkable as the next. Mere names to be crossed off of a list. Dissidents. Conspirators. Labels that meant as little to him as an ant beneath his foot. Two people who knew nothing of each other, never crossing paths until a fateful night. Roy admired it. It was a good, goddamned system. He never remembered the names of his targets, and he wasn’t supposed to. What good would they do him anyway? A good agent had no personal attachments, not even to his work, and it was better not to do anything that might raise the suspicion of the Bureau.
The moon loomed behind the top of the house’s slanted roof. The windows stared back at him like black portals. In the day, the siding of the house might’ve been blue and the lawn an artificial green, but at night the building stood in black and white. The drive was desolate, as promised by the dossier. His wife was away with the step kids. He glanced again at the sky for signs of being watched. He wondered if the Bureau could see the nervous hole that his awe for their effectiveness had bore into his stomach.
Roy paused in front of the house and listened in the darkness. The door ahead was white and waiting. The listless air seemed to separate around him, cutting the neighborhood away into a universe apart from his own. He searched the scene around him another time. Cars sat dormant in the drives of other identical houses. The occasional tree stood with their leaves undisturbed. A streetlight sputtered back in the direction he came. Roy called this moment The Calm, and always just before he began, he felt his heart suspended in a blank, bottomless sea inside himself. For a moment, he remembered the neat little letters, penned in by hand beneath the typed, professional font of the Marcus’ description, that read like prophecy: Rosario presumed to have sought illegal Proust-Lethe Realignment to assist with reintegration into society. Retention of motor memory possible. Anticipate combat capability.
Roy approached the doorstep, knees bent, mindful not to make his presence known. When he reached the door, he covered his hands with black latex gloves and withdrew from his pocket a small, circular device with two, thin prongs protruding from its side. He placed it against the door knob and pressed a button on the face of the device. He held his breath while it vibrated with an electric whir. Something clicked behind the door. Roy pulled the device from the knob and moved it over the deadbolt, inserting the prongs into the lock. Again, he pressed the button, and the bolt clacked open.
After another search over his shoulder, he turned the knob and crept inside, easing the door closed behind him. The interior of the house was black without the moonlight, and its oppressive singularity of color thrust him back to the blank plain his mind was too often drawn into during missions. Roy blinked the illusion away until the silhouettes of pictures appeared on the wall and the shapes of shoes materialized on a mat beside the door. Beneath his boots, he felt the cushion of rug, and without words he thanked Marcus when he saw that it extended over the entire room and up the stairs before him. His footfalls would be muffled.
He was in the nexus of the house which fed into the living room to his right and what looked to be the kitchen beyond the staircase. His body fell into the motions of routine. Every muscle moved with deliberation. He walked toward the stairs and produced the jolter from his pocket, feeling the safety resist the weight of his finger as he switched it to the off position. With one foot on the first step, he raised the jolter, elbows bent, and aimed it toward the top of the stairs.
As he climbed, he felt a dull pang of envy trickle upwards from his stomach. A speck of seconds separated him from Marcus’ bedroom door, behind which he would find the man alone, like him, but asleep – conjuring the uninspired dreams of normal life. Roy envisioned himself, tangled in an afghan on the couch of his dormitory at the Bureau, rubbing his aching eyes at the television as he waited for sleep to overtake him, his bed abandoned because the dull, colorless walls reminded him of the desert in the dark. Formless, Undeniable.
He planted his feet with every step as if a stream of water would rush over the stairs at any moment to wash him away. When he reached the top, he took account of the second floor. It consisted of no more than a short hallway, with one door to his left and two at his right. He touched his hand to the first knob of the closest door on his right, nearest to the top of the stairs, jolter poised before him at the ready. Roy drew a thick breath of the house’s heated, stagnate air. Sweat collected on his chest beneath his prolar jacket, yet he kept it sealed all the way to his neck, aware that the special material would protect him from any weapon his target might use against him. Rarely did he need the protection, but his body was trained and cautious, unwilling to take the unnecessary risk.
Roy twisted the knob and pulled the door open with a single, fluid movement. Through the opening he leaned his shoulder and thrust the jolter into the room, keeping the rest of his body concealed behind the door. Into the abyss of the room he scanned for the shape of a bed, but it was far too small to be a bedroom. As his eyes readjusted, he spied the form of a seat, a sink, a mirror. Bathroom. Roy withdrew into the hallway and resealed the door with the feeling that his insides had turned over in his gut. The seed of a chill vibrated at the base of his spine, and he looked around to make sure that the hallway was unchanged.
The next door stood at the end of the hallway, facing him directly. He reassumed his stance and approached with his weapon raised. Again, he rested his hand on the doorknob and breathed, deep and slow, to settle his heartbeat. His fingers were damp beneath his gloves.
Roy gripped the handle hard and turned his wrist, but the door gave only a little, and the sound of metal against metal tapped into the hallway. Like thunder after the flash, the lock clicked open and the door rushed toward him. It made a wooden thwack as it connected with his forehead. The force of it slammed him away from the doorway, and he staggered backwards into the hall. Despite the surprise of the impact, Roy leveled his jolter at the doorway. He caught the black form of a man through the darkness and squeezed the trigger. The jolter sent out a sharp snap as the rectangular cartridge at its tip shot open. Its cylindrical projectile fired toward the bedroom at a blinding speed, but the man was prepared. The two needle-like spikes at its tip embedded in the folded pillow brandished before him like a shield. Roy regained his posture in time to see his assailant pull a pistol from behind the pillow. His reflexes worked in an instant. He raised his arm in front of his face just before the shot cracked through the hall. The round smacked into his sleeve.
Anticipating the next round, he moved to dodge into the bathroom, but the man threw down his pillow and charged forward instead. Roy was caught off guard, and he crashed to the floor under the weight of his attacker. Before the man could land a blow, Roy brought his knee between them and rolled to his right, dragging the man off balance and rolling him down the stairs.
Roy scrambled behind the wall adjacent to the stairs. He sat on the floor, drawing breaths, short and fast, through his nose. In the darkness, his face was taut and serious, but beneath the mask he felt the heat of adrenaline reverberating through his body. How was he detected? He struggled to draw answers from his limited knowledge of his target while his fingers — though they shook — felt for the release toward the tip of his jolter. He squeezed it and heard the expended cartridge click as it fell from his weapon. Marcus Rosario. Warehouse worker. He fiddled through his pocket for another cartridge. Married. Two stepdaughters. He slapped the cartridge onto the tip of his jolter. Military experience. Proust-Lethe.
“I knew you would come eventually.”
Roy froze. He thrust his head around the corner and peered down the stairs. A light had been turned on and illuminated the bottom of the stairs from one of the adjacent rooms, but Marcus wasn’t there.
“You guys are good. You were always good.”
Roy pulled himself back behind the wall and caught the silhouette of something protruding from his arm. He plucked it from his jacket and held it up, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger in examination. It was a jolter round.
The sound of bare feet against tile came from somewhere on the floor below. A drawer rolled open and he heard metal sifting over itself. Roy guessed he had moved to the kitchen. The drawer slammed shut.
“It’s all there, you know. I just can’t — feel my way into it.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Roy called down the stairs. The footsteps moved across the room and disappeared. Moments passed without a sign of movement, and Roy was tempted to call out again, but the prospect of giving away his own location was too great. Breathing deep and steady once again, Roy planted his feet and pushed his back up against the wall. Jolter first, he turned the corner and, seeing that the bottom of the stairs was still clear, he descended.
Halfway down he turned and trained his jolter toward the kitchen when it came into sight. Light spilled into the hallway from a bulb above the sink. The shape of stools stood up against a counter beyond the entranceway, but Marcus was out of view. Roy rounded the end of the rail at the bottom of the stairs and crept toward the kitchen, passing a wall full of pictures beside a coat rack. Before he crossed the threshold of the kitchen, one of the images caught his attention. It was a dark photograph, veiled in dust and hung at eye level. In it Marcus posed, clad in thick, bright orange hunting gear, lifting the limp head of a twelve-point buck by the antlers, with victory shining in his smile. He must have been years younger in the photograph, and beside him knelt another man, roughly the same size, holding two rifles, boring two grave eyes at Roy through the glass of the frame.
A deathly freeze overtook him, and he felt the blood drain from his extremities. Roy recognized the photograph. Details trickled into his mind like water from a leaking faucet. He smelled the hot steam rising in the midnight air as he and Marcus gutted the animal, piece by piece, and felt the weight of the carcass press on his shoulders as he hauled it back to their truck. He tasted the sting of whiskey, warm over his tongue as they bumped along the woodland roads with their prize in the truck-bed. Marcus bellowed from behind the wheel as they sped through the night, and the truck slammed over a divot in the road. A book tumbled onto Roy from atop the dashboard and spilled open on his lap. Marcus slowed the vehicle and trained his gray, grim eyes upon the pages. “It’s— heavy,” he said, thinking out loud, “what we do.”
As if caught on a current, Roy’s thoughts drifted outward, and once again he stared at the faces in the photograph. His guard had lowered, and he raised his weapon back toward the kitchen, conscious of the silence of the house. Shadows from the light lapped over the edges of the room and seemed to shift, searching with little black tendrils for something he couldn’t see. Adrenaline fired through his bloodstream as he stepped toward the light, and his feet seemed to drag with intangible weight.
“It’s like a wasteland.” Roy squeezed the grip of his jolter and felt his stomach tighten. The voice from the kitchen was weak, just out of his view around the corner beyond the threshold.
“Stop fucking with me!” Roy hissed as if his voice might wake something asleep in another room. He heard the clatter of heavy plastic on the kitchen counter.
“Come here. My weapon is down. I want to talk, not to fight.”
Roy listened for a moment, then crept into the kitchen with quick footsteps. Fingers firm, he held his weapon at Marcus, who stood to the right of the room on the other side of the counter. Behind him was a wall and a glass sliding door covered by a curtain thick enough that it obscured the outside from view. On the counter between them laid Marcus’ jolter with a new cartridge at its tip, ready to be fired again. Marcus examined Roy with deep lines carved into the creases of his face. His arms hung limp at his sides as if he were unsure of how to hold himself without a weapon in his hand.
Roy kept his sight trained on Marcus as he extracted the jolter from the counter and stored it between his belt and the small of his back. Marcus’ eyes followed the weapon as it was moved, but his expression was unchanged and serious. Something tugged at Roy’s thoughts, threatening to draw him from reality and pull him back into the depths of his memory. His chest was slick, and he unzipped his jacket halfway, letting the hot, sweat-saturated air escape from his body. As he struggled to focus, Marcus spread his fingers and raised his hands, slow, deliberate so as not to startle Roy.
“You can let down your weapon. I knew if they sent anyone, it would be you,” he said, low, with traces of defeat in his voice.
Roy held his weapon steady. “What, the Bureau? What do they want with you?”
Marcus dropped his gaze and breathed a laugh.
“Cut the shit and answer me straight.”
“I can’t remember,” His eyes moved and seemed to search the grains of the counter. “Every time I try to think back to before I settled here, it’s like a wasteland. Nothing’s there,” He lowered his arms and traced circles on the marble. Wetness glistened under his eyes. “But little islands popped up. Pieces that make no sense. Water rushing over me. A little book,” He gazed back up at Roy. “You.”
“Where’s the book?” Roy spoke quickly. His thoughts seemed to ripple away from him in all directions.
“I assume you’ve seen the picture,” He leaned close over the counter. “It reminds me of something — like when a smell takes you back to a time that you can’t put your finger on. We were friends then. Hunters too. You still are. You knew I had it, but they didn’t retire you.”
“Marcus, where’s the book?” His fingers shook. He dropped his weapon to his side.
Marcus erected himself and pointed to the light above the sink. “There. Under the bulb you’ll find a key, and in the cabinet below the sink you’ll find a compartment. I guess I was poetic once,” he chuckled.
Roy allowed himself to turn away from Marcus, his thoughts as formless as water. The image of rain clouds gathering above the empty dunes of a white desert undulated in his head as he approached the sink and unscrewed the lightbulb. For a minute, the room was thrust again into darkness as he fingered the socket and felt for the key. His nail caught against something protruding in the socket. He withdrew his finger. Metal clinked against the bed of the sink. Roy replaced the lightbulb and the kitchen flashed back into his vision. A small, brass key rested at the bottom of the sink. Roy took the key and opened the cabinet. He searched the empty space for signs of a compartment, but found nothing aside from pipes which extended from the top of the cabinet down through the floor.
“There’s nothing here.”
“Feel the roof of the cabinet. There’s a keyhole.”
Roy ran his fingers along the top until he brushed a small, metal circle, at the front of the cabinet, hidden behind a lip of wood just out of sight. He inserted the key and turned it. Part of the cabinet’s roof swung downward, releasing a small, worn, black book that tumbled onto the ground. Roy took the book and shut the cabinet.
“It’s heavy, isn’t it? What we do.” Marcus said. He turned his head and studied the door behind him. “I think you felt the same way. But we don’t feel what we don’t remember. I must have hid this when they removed me from the Bureau. To protect both you and me. But they watch. I scoured the house for bugs, but I found nothing. They don’t know where it is, but they must know I have it.”
Roy set the book upon the counter and thumbed the cover over to the first page. From top to bottom names and dates were scrawled onto the paper, and as he filed through the book he found that it contained countless others compiled over the course of years.
“What is this?” Roy said, breathless as his mind seemed to swim through a cloud.
“My memories,” he said. “Or rather, the things they didn’t want me to remember. What I did. What I was. All for this. I don’t even know how many times they washed all of it away.”
Marcus looked back at the door again.
“The watchers. I remember them.”
Roy’s mind churned like the skies before a storm. The handle of the sliding door behind Marcus clicked beneath the curtain.
In the span of a moment, the door was flung open and a gloved hand thrust itself into the kitchen bearing a jolter. The sound of the shot snapped its way through the room. The round pierced the thin fabric of Marcus’ shirt and implanted itself between his ribs, landing with a smack, followed by a methodic, electric clack as the current seized his body. For a moment he remained standing with eyes bulging and teeth bared, until the shock sent him crashing against the counter before it overwhelmed his heart.
Roy stumbled back as the Department agent dashed through the door. The man slammed another cartridge into the tip of his weapon. Roy snapped his jolter into position and fired a round into the man’s jugular. It impacted just above the collar of his jacket. The man reached for the cylinder imbedded in his neck, but his arm seized before he could touch it. He dropped his weapon and crumpled, grunting in pain as he convulsed on the floor.
Disorientation pounded Roy’s senses like rain upon a lake. He snatched the book from the counter and turned for the front of the house, but another man had entered through the front door. Roy dropped his empty jolter and reached for the other at his back. Something punched him in the chest, just above the lowered zipper of his jacket. He let go of the book and clutched at the object. Electricity exploded through his body. He felt the sinew flay from his muscles. His face tightened. His cheeks pulled back, exposing his teeth. Lightning heat blistered his skin. He forced his eyes shut just before the current tore his heart apart.
In the instant of death, behind his eyelids, his thoughts swept away to the desert — that past time — endless and empty. The sky was black and swirling. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Droplets of rain plummeted to the sand and sank into it, drank up by the vast, voracious dunes. Faster the rain fell until the desert was filled and coated in a layer of sable water. A current carried the water to a single point where it pooled together and spilled over itself to create a body, arms, hands, and fingers. It cascaded up into the shape of a head. Features formed upon the face in ripples, and the man existed in the middle of the desert like a speck of light against an impenetrable sky. The water receded from his skin and the man became flesh, fettered in a chair with electrodes taped upon his temples. He flung his head from side to side, kicked his legs and slammed his fists against the armrests. From high above a torrent crashed down upon him. He sputtered for air and lost himself as the deluge flooded his face. The ground sucked up the water and the storm clouds dispersed, leaving the desert blank and naked. The chair dissolved, and the man was left in the stark desert alone on his knees, clutching handfuls of white sand.