The mans eyelids twitch - an absent flutter that sets off a deep, nasally inhale.
“God, you could’ve told me you’d be passed out when I found you.”
Before his mind has caught up, his eyes open. He blinks, focusing his vision, performing a routine sweep of his surroundings. A little girl with a green beanie over tangly blonde hair is kneeling in front of him. He watches the pom-pom on the top of her hat bobble as she talks.
“I’m totally gonna be late for school. You said this would be quick.”
His eyebrows furrow. There’s a pressure in his head, the pulsing ghost of something forgotten that’s desperately trying to be remembered. He tries grasping for it and falls through air, and keeps falling, and falling. There’s nothing. No ledges or vines or steps to catch his bearing on.
He can’t remember.
He can’t remember in the way that, if remembering is a skill, a task to be performed, he’d have never been taught how.
“Who are…” he coughs, tongue dry. He smacks his lips uncomfortably and decides to sit up instead of attempt speaking.
His head throbs.
“C’mon, c’mon,” the little girl prods and, quickly shoving her hand into her jacket, pulls out two white beads. No, not beads, orbs, more like: shimmering brilliantly, tinkling quietly like wind chimes and – he has to blink to make sure he’s seeing it right – orbiting slowly around one another in the center of her palm.
The girl watches him watch the orbs. When he looks blankly back up at her for an explanation, he sees something dark chase the ease off of her face.
“Oh…” she licks her lips and looks down; not meeting his gaze even though, moments before, she’d been glaring impatiently. Mustering up the courage from somewhere, “H-How many do you have left?”
“How many what?”
He turns to regard the alley they’re in. If they’re not going to look at one another, he might as well scope out his location and see what he can gather on the situation.
The alley is dingy and dark, and they’re seated so far back that the light coming from the street is a distant, slim strip of white.
He turns back. The girl’s watching him out of the corner of her eye, as if looking at him straight on is too grand a task.
Slowly, knowing the answer is none, he says, "That’s an odd question.”
Just as odd, this seems to be answer enough for the girl. Her already stricken eyes widen eagerly.
“Do you still have your name?”
His face scrunches, “Do I still have my name?” But - the words come out before he’s even considered the question. Instantly, he’s back in that edgeless cavern inside his head. He calls out for his name, but no noise leaves his lips.
He doesn’t know it. He doesn’t know his name.
“Maybe one of these is your name,” the little girl is saying, gazing down at the orbs still floating in her hand. Did she mean his name could be written on one of them? Maybe they are beads, after all.
He reaches to grab one and –-
-- the girl pulls them away so fast her arm blurs to color.
He gawks. She looks smug.
“Cool huh?” She grins impishly. “Super-speed. Cost me my first Christmas.”
He blinks. Twice. “I don’t understand.”
The girl’s smug face drops. “No, I guess you wouldn’t. At least I’m smart enough not to trade my name," she grumbles. Then, as if realizing something, she carefully regards him. “What’d you get for it?”
“Yeah, yeah, you don’t remember,” she rolls her eyes and holds her hand out again, revealing the two orbs. With her second hand, she makes a grabby motion. When this fails to jolt him into action, the girl shakes herself. “Oh, right. Sorry, I’ve never met someone who didn’t know how to trade. I guess I can walk you through it… I’m late for school at this point anyway.”
The girl perches on the balls of her feet and tucks the orbs back in her pocket to free her hands, presenting her forearm for the man to see. As quickly as before, she sweeps her right hand along the surface. Three golden, bead sized orbs awaken under her skin.
She points to the orb in the middle and excitingly says, “This one’s my speed! Hey- “
He yanks her arm forward, eyes glued to the orbs. His chest is rising and falling, rising and falling, rising, rising, rising-
“Whoa, hey – calm down –”
He drops the girl's arm and turns to his own. His hand shakes as he pushes his ratty, ripped sleeve up, but as he aligns it over his forearm, it stills, and begins to glide without command; as if the movement has been performed so many times, his body knows the way. He lets it work.
A myriad of orbs awaken under his touch, igniting the entire expanse of his arm into glowing, overwhelming light.
The girl’s gasp is a needle shot through glass. The shards clatter in the silence. If the alley were outer space, the man’s arm would be the sun.
Long moments pass before the girl speaks, “What. The. Shit. You have more than I have ever seen anyone have. Why the hell did you need one of mine?”
He manages to pull his gaze away from his forearm. The girl doesn’t. Momentarily, he’s more shocked by her cursing than his fluorescent light stick of an arm.
The girl gestures vaguely, golden light reflecting in her eyes. “You know, I gave you an orb in exchange for your two memories. Oh, wait,” She digs around in her pockets, and once again brings out the two orbs. “I traded you immunity for them. Well, only the one at first. Then I got your other memory in the mail with a note saying you'd give me three orbs if I brought both of your memories back today.”
“I… traded you my…memories…for immunity.”
“Well, yeah. That’s how it works.” She holds out her forearm: “My first Christmas,” she points to the middle orb, her speed. Then her left, “The time I won the spelling bee. And this one,” the one on the right, “Was in exchange for the memory of the first seizure I had in class.” Her face scrunches. “I got green eyes for that one. Not very cool because the memory wasn’t special. The more precious the memory, the more powerful the orb,” she explains. “I can’t remember what immunity cost me…” Her fair eyebrows push forward by the slightest bit. “That can happen sometimes though, if you trade for a more powerful orb. I knew you were crazy powerful when you couldn’t remember your name, but I didn’t expect that ,” she gestures to his forearm wildly and huffs a single, tickled ‘ha.’ “I wouldn’t wanna cross you on a bad day- “
“Immunity against what?” He interrupts hastily, feeling his chest growing tight with each word spoken.
She makes an ‘I don’t know’ noise. “Everything?”
The idea that he was desperate enough to wager two of his memories - when he clearly had few to work with - in exchange for ‘immunity against everything’ did not bode well. His heart slowly begins to quicken.
“You said I sent you a memory by mail after we traded for the first time,” his mind churns sluggishly. What type of person makes a gamble like that? What if this little girl had decided to keep his memories, and to fuck with him? “How long ago was that?”
“I got the note, like, only a few hours after we’d traded. That same day. Not gonna lie it was kinda weird, but I wasn’t about to pass up three orbs, so I came. Though you could've made it easier if you had actually come to the meeting point instead of making me track your ass down,” she ends cooly.
He doesn’t imagine he ended up in this alleyway by choice, but decides not to say anything.
His mouth twists as he tries to make sense of it. He’s not sure why he’d trade all of his memories, but for whatever reason, he’d gone to skeevy lengths to make sure the two in the girl’s custody made their way back to him.
He needs to know what they are.
His gaze drops to his forearm. “Can you… Is it possible to see if your immunity is here… somewhere?”
At this, the little girl looks peeved. “It's not. I checked while you were out cold.” She makes an ‘I’m getting to it’ gesture in response to his confused face. “That’s what happens after you’ve traded orbs. Your body can always recognize it, even when you don’t have it anymore.”
“I still don’t understand why you’d take my memories. Why not just trade some of your own?”
She makes a face like this suggestion is absurd. “Um, I’m 13.” A snort. “I don’t have as many valuable memories as someone older, like you. That’s why I took yours for leverage, to make sure you'd really come through on your promise to give me orbs. I mean, all I really have that's worth a lot is the memory of my parents. But that’s just stupid. Who trades their parents?” (He tries to recall his parents and realizes, stomach sinking, I guess I would. ) “My name could fetch a hefty price,” she continues with a nonchalant shrug, “But I don’t think I’d ever be able to trade that.”
The question, then, is how he was capable of that very thing.
His eyes lift to the memories in the little girl’s hand – his memories , the two most important ones, it would seem. The only ones left.
He feels at once ravenous.
“Any three, you said?” When the little girl nods, he holds his forearm out. Like before, she stares in open awe. “Remind me how.”
Once three of his orbs are successfully transferred to the little girl’s forearm, the man tips his head back, as he was instructed, and drops one of the two memories down his throat.
Images burst into the empty cavern inside his mind. He watches his body walk through an abandoned building, sidestepping exposed pipes and crumbling pillars until he reaches a door. His hand turns a knob and in a concrete room, curled up on a clean mattress in the corner, is a young, unconscious man.
He realizes as he gets closer - though in the memory it isn't a surprise to him - that the man is shivering fiercely, his trembling body wracked with fever. Dull, sickly blue and green veins are visible through his skin, it's so pale. He’s wrapped snuggly in heavy wool blankets. The sight makes the present him, watching from a distance, uneasy, unsure. It makes the past him, living in the memory, sick with sorrow; a feeling so consuming that it left an edge on the memory, cutting
into his throat on the way down.
He collapses to his knees by the man’s bedside, hand shooting out to rest gently on his pulse point. It's almost undetectable.
“Shit,” he hisses, a surge of adrenaline and dread lighting his insides to burning. “Shit, shit, shit.”
He goes for his sleeve. It rips under his hurried hand. In a few practiced moves he has his orbs lit and one in particular grasped in his palm. He can't hear himself over the roar in his ears.
“Hey,” he says, voice wavering, hand shaking as he slides it around the man's neck to prop his head back. The man on the mattress makes a pained, nearly inaudible noise, and opens his eyes to slits. His fingers tighten on the clammy skin of the man’s neck. “Hey,” he repeats, softer, adoring, on the brink of breaking down. The man looks delirious with pain until, for a single, blindingly beautiful moment, his eyes light up with recognition, and he smiles.
With incredible strain: “D-”
“Shh,” he interrupts, bringing their heads together, eyebrows furrowed; the only indication of his inner anguish. “Don't speak. Don't waste your energy,” and he lifts that single orb into view. Immunity.
It's the only remaining thing they haven't tried in defense against this.
He watches the man's expression, slow confusion morphing into refusal, when the closed door explodes inward, an infantry of armed men pouring into the room.
He whips back to the man on the mattress with fire in his eyes, his hand holding the orb shooting up, reaching -
The memory ends.
He falls again into that endless emptiness.
That couldn't be the end.
What happened? Who was that man? Did they successfully trade the immunity?
His heart is beating in his throat, clawing, clawing, clawing -- he swallows his second memory for it to latch onto.
It’s dragged down, and like the one before, it bursts into his mind in pure, crystallized clarity.
Every part of him begins to ache.
The little girl wiggles impatiently in front of him, shuffling the dirt beneath her. “…Was it your name?”
He can’t open his eyes. He feels like his throat would crumble if he spoke, but his mouth forms the single syllable; as if this, too, is muscle memory.
“Aha! I knew it –”
He shakes his head, mind replaying those six letters over, and over, and over.
“It’s not my name,” he says. “It’s his.”