I don’t know who I am. I don’t know where I am.
It’s cold. And wet.
A steady throbbing, like someone continually pounding my head with a fist, makes me flinch.
I try to stand, but my legs ache as though they’ve been asleep and are coming out of hibernation. I feel nauseated. Bile races its way up through my throat.
I vomit. And vomit some more.
The gore smacks against a brick wall. Looking around, I realize I’m in an alleyway. Blackened snow piles up along the walls. A small flurry sprinkles down overhead.
The feeling in my legs comes back completely. Unsteady, I stand. But as I lift myself up, a fresh wave of nausea hits.
I vomit again.
The back of my throat burns with acid. I let out a scream of exasperation.
The pounding continues on my skull. I grab my head with both hands and try to push the pain away. It’s useless.
My hands feel sticky. Pulling them down, I notice they’re covered in viscous, syrupy blood.
I heave, but I’m all out of vomit. Bile seeps from my mouth.
What is happening?
That’s when I notice flashing red and white lights hitting the walls of the alley. I don’t hear a siren.
I yell, “Help!”
Men in suits rush the alley. Guns drawn.
I feel like I may be seeing things because, instead of coming to my aid, the men surround me and shout. They spit contradictory commands at me.
“Get on the ground!”
I repeat my plea, “Please help. I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what’s happening.”
It feels like I’m being smothered by an elephant. My knees buckle, my body trembles. As I go down, I see a man lying on the ground a few paces away from me.
Smack. I hit the ground and follow suit.
“Wake up!” A voice snarls.
My eyelids feel like lead, but I comply. The man standing above me wears an untailored suit and an overly-angry expression on his unshaven face. He’s got a toothpick sticking out of his mouth. Spittle drips from it onto his beard. I don’t recognize him.
“Finally,” he mumbles.
Blinding white light surrounds him like a halo. But it’s clear this man is no angel.
“Let’s get right to it,” he says. “You’re going away for a long time. But if you cooperate, we can make it more comfortable for you.”
I feel lightheaded. What is he talking about?
“Just tell us where you have the girl stashed.”
Girl? What girl? He’s talking, but the words might as well be Mandarin. I shake my head, trying to break out of this nightmare, and get back to where things make sense.
“No? Hey guy, if the girl dies, you go down for two murders. Is that what you want?”
“I...I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I stammer.
The man scratches his balding head. His face seems to be growing red.
“Don’t screw wit me! I don’t have time for this!”
“What is going on?” is all I can say.
A hand grips the man’s shoulder now. He turns so quickly and angrily, I think he may slug whoever has him by the shoulder.
But he doesn’t. He quiets down and steps back. This new person, a woman with shoulder length brown hair and commanding eyes, steps into view.
She’s quiet for a moment. Studying me. I look away, not able play this game.
“Jacqueline Miller. 16 years old. She's out there somewhere. Scared. Now, I don’t know why you took her or what you’ve done to her, but I know she doesn’t deserve this. And we’ve got you. You can’t do anything more to her. So, please, just let us know where you have her stashed so she can go home to her family.”
I’m stunned. My heart hurts. I would never do what they’re saying. I’d never hurt anyone.
Would I? I just don’t know. I don’t know who I am.
Am I the monster they think I am?
“I want to help. But I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t remember anything,” I admit.
The man makes a loud sighing sound. The woman just stares.
“James Wilson. 32 years old. You live alone. You’re an aspiring artist, but haven’t sold anything in over a year. You don’t feel like you’re living up to your potential, and you detest anyone who has what you want. You’re anti-social.”
I don’t react, so she continues.
“I don’t think you’re a bad person. You’re just tired of failing. Maybe you saw Jacqueline at the grocery store or the library. She smiled and made you feel good for the first time in a long time. Maybe her smile made you feel like you aren’t a failure. And so, you wanted that feeling to stay. So, you took her.”
I shake my head. “Stop! I don’t know a Jacqueline.”
“But you claim you don’t remember anything, so could it be possible that you do know her and you just don’t remember?”
“No!” I shout.
“I believe you, James,” she finally says.
“Yes. Your head injury is pretty severe. Your doctors say memory loss is common. But I know you. I know what you’re capable of.”
“You killed your cousin. With the same bat he used to knock the memory out of you. He knew what you’d done. He confronted you, and you killed him. Maybe he attacked first, but you finished him off.”
I remember the unconscious man in the alley.
Did I do that?
It seems possible and impossible at the same time. But I was the only other person in the alley. I must have.
“What was his name?” I ask.
The suit-man says, “Andrew.”
A flash of memory plays across my mind. I’m gripping the bat over my shoulders. Andrew throws his hands over his face. I swing down.
Tears spill over, streaming down my cheeks. I did that. I killed Andrew.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
The woman nods her head. “I know you are, James. But that brings us back to Jacqueline. We need to know where she is.”
I close my eyes and try to think.
“I can’t remember!”
She snaps her fingers and the man in the suit hands her something in a plastic bag. It’s a red sweater, frayed on the sleeves. She pulls it out of the bag and brings it toward me.
“This is Jacqueline’s. Take it.”
I hesitate. She thrusts it at me, and it falls into my arms. I breathe in. A distinct cotton candy smell fills my nose. Another image pops into my head. It’s a blonde teenager. She’s smiling. Her big blue eyes seem like they’re looking right at me.
Jacqueline. I’m sure it’s her.
And then I remember.
Still crying, I hand the woman the sweater and say, “I can take you to her.”
“Just tell us where she is!” the man almost shouts.
I shake my head. “You’ll need me to get to her.”
The woman smiles. “Fine, James. But if this turns out to be a lie, you’ll pay for it.”
“I want to help.” My voice cracks. “I don’t know why I would have done this, but I don’t want Jacqueline to die.”
“Well, that's good at least,” the woman says.
They help me out of bed and get me dressed, cuffs and all. It’s hard to walk and my head spins, but it’s worth it if I can help Jacqueline out of the mess I put her in.
When we get out of the room, I realize we aren’t in a hospital. We’re in a small clinic instead. It’s empty, except for a doctor and a handful of nurses. The woman talks to one of them in the corner. He looks over at me and nods.
She walks back to me. “Your doctor’s given us the okay to take you, but you’ve got to come back for observation.”
I nod, not too worried about myself at the moment.
We get into a black SUV and drive.
I still have so many gaps in my memory, but I manage to get us to the building without too many wrong turns.
It’s a large office building. Covered in 20 stories of glass.
Why did I bring her here?
The woman seems to have the same question. “You’re positive Jacqueline’s in there?”
I think so.
The security guard at the front desk stares as we cross the threshold. The woman and man hold out badges and he waves us past.
The elevator opens and my lungs close. I’m suddenly afraid of what we might find. I don’t know what I would do if we find Jacqueline dead. I don’t think I can handle the guilt.
I feel like I’m having a panic attack. My chest is tight.
“Why are you so nervous?” the man asks.
I can’t speak, so I just shake my head and push the 20th floor button.
Taking deep breaths, I count as we make our way up. When we finally reach the top floor, my breathing seems to steady. I right myself and head into the room.
It’s completely empty. Wires hang from the ceiling. Cubicles lie scattered around. It appears that some company just up and left one day.
At the far end stands a wall, so I head straight for it. When we reach it, I stop.
“Now what?” the woman asks.
I search the wall until I find it. There’s a tiny bolt barely sticking out of the wall about 7 feet up.
“I’m going to need my hands,” I say.
“That’s a negative!” the man protests
“I can’t reach what I need to. Please.”
The man looks at the woman. She nods, so he obediently takes the cuffs off. I immediately place my hands on the wall. Reaching for the bolt, I push it down. A touchscreen pops out of the wall at eye level.
I have no words. I remember all this, but it makes no sense to me. It seems like a movie.
Then I place my hand on the touchscreen. It beeps and lights up yellow. A tiny camera at the top of the screen blinks red. I place my eyes directly in front. Another beep and the screen flashes green.
A sound like air escaping someone’s mouth sounds and the wall begins to separate.
I feel my mouth hanging as I watch. The others stare too.
Once the wall recedes, two metal doors, like the entrance to an elevator release as well. A room appears. A cot. A sink and a small toilet. Food along the back wall. A computer screen on a metal desk. It looks like a bunker.
But no one is there.
“Jacqueline?” the woman calls.
“I knew this guy was screwing with us. She’s not here!” the man shouts.
The woman grabs my arm. Her grip stronger than I would have expected.
“Where is she?” she spits. It’s the first time she’s seemed upset.
I shake my head. “This is the place I remember.”
“Cuff him,” she demands, pushing me toward the man.
From around the corner, Jacqueline appears, a pistol staring back at us from her hand. Her eyes are droopy, tired. She’s shaking.
“Jacqueline?” the woman asks.
Jacqueline turns her attention to the woman.
“Put the gun down. I’m detective Florence. This is my associate, Detective McMillan. You’re safe now.”
Jacqueline hesitates, looks over at me, then points and shoots!
A bullet hits Detective Florence in the shoulder. She stumbles.
I watch in horror as McMillan rushes Jacqueline. But the girl is too quick. She pulls the trigger again and hits the detective in the chest. He falls. Dead.
Florence screams, but not in agony. Hatred fills her eyes and she looks like a cougar headed toward its prey. Jacqueline cries, but steadies her hand well enough to shoot another bullet.
This one hits Florence in the neck. Blood waterfalls out of the wound. She places her hand over the hole. But it’s no use. Florence collapses on the floor. She’s gone within 20 seconds.
I panic and try to run, but in the commotion, the nausea from my head injury seems to have come back with a vengeance. My legs give completely out.
Jacqueline rushes at me. The gun in her hand.
I prepare for the end.
But, instead of a bullet, I feel a hand on my shoulders. Looking up, Jacqueline has her hands on me. She’s propping my head up with a jacket.
“Are you okay, Detective Wilson? Oh man, that’s a lot of blood.”
She’s not looking at me now. Her eyes are burning holes into Florence’s dead body.
“W-what did you call me?” I ask.
“Detective Wilson,” she says.
“Detective?” I ask.
She nods. I can’t comprehend what she’s saying. Nothing makes sense. I feel my eyes closing, my mind slipping. I just need sleep. When I wake up, everything will make sense again.
“Detective, stay awake! Detective! I need you.”
A warm sensation explodes on my cheek, and I’m bolted back awake. Jacqueline holds her hand at a slight angle.
“Did you slap me?”
She nods. “We need to get out of here.”
“Why did you kill them?” I ask, ignoring her.
“You said you’d only come back alone. You told me if anyone shows up with you to grab the gun and prepare to fight. That's what I did.”
“No, no, no, I kidnapped you. They were trying to save you.”
Amazingly, she laughs. “What? You didn’t kidnap me. You’ve been protecting me. Not very well, obviously.”
I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out.
“Come on,” she supports my back and tries to help me up. She smells of cotton candy.
Memories pour out like a pitcher of water. Jacqueline, her frightened parents, the police station. I remember bringing Jacqueline here, giving her the gun, and showing her how to use it.
I remember Andrew lurking in the shadows of the alley, pulling the bat out from behind his back, and bringing it down on my head.
“Tell me where she is or I’ll kill you,” he threatened. “You know who I work for. They won’t give up until she’s found.”
Unless my family is really dysfunctional, I realize that Andrew was definitely not my cousin. And Florence and McMillan—not cops.
“We need to get out of here. I’m sure others will be here any minute,” I say.
“That’s what I’ve been saying!” Jacqueline retorts.
“Don’t worry, we have back-up plans for our back-up plans. They’re not going to find you. They’re not going to use you.”
She looks into my eyes, trusting, and I finally know who I am.