When the paramedic requested my last name, it took no skill to look convincingly confused and claim, again, not to remember. When he asked where my parents lived, I did the same, not about to tell him that my father had died of congestive heart failure when I was thirty-seven, and my mother of liver cancer ten years later.
When lots of other fruitless questions had at last been exhausted, the man rolled and tucked my clothes in so that I could move more easily. Then he and his partner strapped me to a gurney and bundled me out of the alleyway.
Not until we reached the curb was I able to see the patrol car parked a short distance behind the ambulance, its lights cycling silently as well. An electric jolt of fear coursed through me as I realized that I was wearing the clothes and keys and wallet of a man who would not be showing up for work that morning—or, possibly, anywhere else ever again. Who would authorities suspect once his disappearance was reported, if not the boy who’d shown up wearing his identity? And even if I wasn’t locked up for murdering the man I’d been, what else might they do with me once they discovered I had literally appeared from nowhere? Was I even a legal citizen anymore?
“Are they—here about me?” I stammered.
“Who?” asked the paramedic.
“The police car.”
“Oh, well, yeah. Of course. Someone reports an unconscious kid in an alleyway, who else they gonna call, right?” My terror must have shown, because he smiled and waved at the patrol car dismissively. “Relax. They’re just here to make sure you’re safely taken care of. Real nice guys—both of them. They’ll probably want to ask you some more questions at the hospital, just to help them figure out what happened to you, and make sure you’re safely taken care of until we figure out where you belong. But you’re not in any trouble, if that’s what’s got you worried.”
“Oh.” I could think of nothing else to say, far from reassured about precisely where they would decide I belonged.
“You’re in good hands,” the paramedic assured me as they prepared to lift my gurney into the ambulance. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
I couldn’t imagine how anything could possibly ever be ‘fine’ again.
As we drove through town, my handlers continued making attempts at reassuring patter, while I scrunched my eyes shut, trying to will myself awake. I had occasionally been able to get out of dreams I didn’t like this way, though this all just felt less and less like any kind of dream.
I had seen this movie, of course. Several times. Who hasn’t? The adult transformed suddenly back into a child—or vice versa. Invariably a laugh riot crammed with dumb puns and puerile bathroom humor all the way to some sentimental finish. I’m not sure which I found harder to believe now that I was in it: that such a thing could actually happen, or that anyone had imagined it could possibly be funny. Might as well make a sentimental comedy about a bear attack or a plane crash, right?
Eventually, the paramedics fell silent, and I finally began to think beyond the moment. Absent explanations aside, this was happening and had to be dealt with. I wondered if those policemen were going to buy my amnesia story—and, if so, for how long. More to the point, where would they put me while they checked it out? Surely no one was just going to let an underaged amnesiac walk out of the hospital under his own recognizance. I spent the rest of that ride trying to work out some brilliant plan, and came up with this: as soon as someone unstrapped me from that gurney…I would run like hell in any available direction.
There were variables my plan did not address, of course—like run to where? But I’ve already acknowledged that my attention to detail was less than keen just then. My shell-shocked brain didn’t seem able to assemble anything more complex.
Happily, our ambulance ended up beating the patrol car to the hospital. Had they stopped for donuts along the way? I had no idea. But after wheeling me into Emergency, and moving me from the gurney to a bed behind some curtains—wallet, keys and cell phone still in my coat pockets—the paramedics spoke briefly with a nurse, then just left me there to go address some kind of paperwork. I guess everyone still thought of me as a victim, not the potential perpetrator of…whatever had happened. It was too easy. I just sprang up and implemented my plan—like the proverbial bat out of hell.
They’d done a first-rate job of tucking up and securing my pants, and rolling my socks into thick rings around my ankles, which kept them on as well. My now useless, boat-sized shoes had stayed behind, of course, and I’m sure I looked like a total freak, but I was delighted to discover that I could move like a blur now, turn on a dime, leap like a fawn, and hardly even had to breathe hard doing it. By the standards of my recently fifty-year-old self, I felt superhuman.
After bolting out through the sliding doors, I dashed, helter-skelter, across four lanes of honking, screeching traffic toward a huge parking complex across the street. Not until I’d gotten all the way across alive did I look back to discover that there was absolutely no one chasing me. A few random bystanders near the hospital’s emergency entrance stared curiously, then shrugged or shook their heads and went back to whatever they’d been doing.
I ran for cover in the garage anyway, sure my escape would be detected any second now. And, honestly, it just felt so damn good to run like that—filled with an effortless rocket-combustion that seemed almost to increase the more I used it. For all my fearful bewilderment, I began to realize that aspects of this impossible new condition might not be so hard to get used to. The mindless yet all-consuming task of high velocity escape also kept my thoughts away from terrifying unanswerables, like, What? How? Why? and, worst of all, What next?
This last question was soon answered—temporarily, at least—by my bladder. All that running inspired an urgent need to pee. From the garage, I dashed at the speed of my new hummingbird’s heart toward a nearby strip mall and made a beeline for the first entrance I saw, bursting into a narrow restaurant paneled in cheap wood-grain veneer and filled with the smell of eggs and bacon and pancakes. I felt instantly ravenous, wishing I could afford—in any way—to sit down and tuck into a giant breakfast. A waitress came toward me, unhappily surveying my dress-up-like-an-adult costume, which was starting to unravel badly.
“I’m in a play,” I blurted as she approached. “At school.”
“It’s almost nine o’clock,” she said uncertainly. “Shouldn’t you be there?”
“I missed the bus. … So I had to walk, and I’m late, and …” She looked down skeptically at my badly abused socks. “I need to use a restroom, please?”
“Back there,” she said as if still deciding whether I were dangerous. “Down that hallway. We have a phone too, if you’d like to call someone at home about a ride?”
“Thanks!” I said, giving her what I hoped was a charming smile, and hurried toward the indicated hallway, which continued past the restrooms to the kitchen.
I pushed through the restroom door to be confronted by a large square mirror above the sink—and nearly wet my pants.
As the door swung shut behind me, I walked forward to stare, slack-jawed, at the boy I had become. His stricken, barely teenaged face was as familiar as it was impossible. I knew it instantly from old school photos that had hung in my mother’s living room for decades before cancer had taken her and the house I’d grown up in away forever.
Not even my pressing need to pee could pull me from the sight. I reached up to touch his smooth cheeks, his freckled nose, his full red lips, the tousled mop of shiny black hair that overhung his wide, dark blue eyes—still looking for the flaw in this illusion—needing to absorb, with my own hands, or his, that I was really…this now…again. Everything that boy in the mirror touched, I felt too. And with each of those shared touches, it became more and more real to me, and more and more impossible to believe.
I might have stayed there staring at him for much longer if I hadn’t heard the waitress telling someone, “He’s in the restroom.” Alarming images of angry policemen barging through the door nearly made me wet myself again before I heard her ask, “Should we call someone?” Not the police then.
I rushed to lock the bathroom door, then to the urinal, which was way higher than it should have been, and yanked my zipper down. What I found behind it was yet another shock. I almost wet myself a third time trying to get it out past wads of grown man’s boxers underneath my bunched-up slacks. Despite its diminished size, however, it still worked—better and faster than before—like everything else about me now.
Someone tried the door.
“Little boy?” came the waitress’s voice. “Are you in there?”
“I’m peeing!” I protested.
“When you’re done, my boss wants to talk with you,” she said, unapologetically.
“Okay!” I griped, wondering what to do now. “I’ll be right out.” I finished, zipped up, and quickly re-rolled my pants and fraying socks for tighter fit. Then I walked out the door to find the waitress and her boss—a thin, pimply ‘accountant’ type—blocking my path back to the restaurant. I glanced behind me into the kitchen, and saw a back entrance propped open there for ventilation. Apparently, neither of them had enough imagination to anticipate that I might leave by any door but the one I’d entered through.
I turned and sprinted through the kitchen, heedless of the screeching waitress and her bellowing boss, or the startled, angry looks of kitchen staff as I belted past a stainless steel counter covered with meals in various states of completion. I grabbed a ham steak off of someone’s plate as I rushed past and out into a gravel parking lot.
I couldn’t eat the ham and run as well, so I shoved it into a pocket for later. When I looked back, I saw the nerdy restaurant manager just standing in the back doorway, glaring at me, while the waitress, I supposed, was inside dialing the police—as must surely have been done back at the hospital by now too.
Keep this up, I thought, and the whole city would be looking out for me by lunchtime. I needed less conspicuous clothes, and some more complex plan than just ‘run, run, run away.’
Dressed as I was, I continued to draw stares, which kept me running for fear that everyone had heard the all-points bulletin surely issued for me by that time. Running was proving much less fun than it had seemed at first. Youth, I was discovering, is very good for short bursts of speed, but less so for the long haul. If there was any upside, it was that increasing fatigue and a steady stream of immediate urgencies continued to eclipse any attempt at understanding what had really happened to me. I was just coping with what was in front of me now, living five minutes at a time.
Eventually, tucked between two dumpsters behind an empty building, I cleaned the lint off of my slice of ham and wolfed it down, wishing I’d grabbed more. My meat-soaked coat pocket was disgusting, but, one way or another, I wouldn’t be wearing these clothes much longer anyway.
Next I turned to assessing my resources. I had a wallet containing about $50 in cash, an ATM card, two credit cards that would likely be tough to use in my current state, a driver’s license that was now laughably meaningless, and a lot of business and club cards even more irrelevant. I still had my house keys, and the condo they went with; very useful—if I could get back there and inside without being seen. And I had my cell phone.
I used that first, to call in sick to work, hoping this might buy me a few days before the disappearance of my previous self was reported and the police got seriously involved. I tapped Brian’s number, still at the top of my ‘recent calls’ list from the night before.
There was a lengthy pause before he said my name uncertainly.
“Yes. Can you hear me?”
There was another pause. “Who is this?”
“Brian, look at your phone,” I said, exasperated. “It’s …” I pulled up short, realizing what the problem was. “It’s laryngitis, Brian.” I lowered my voice as best I could. “I’ve come down with something nasty, I’m afraid.”
“Jeez,” he chuckled. “You sound like a little kid.”
“Yes. I know. Listen, I won’t be in for—the rest of the week at least.”
“It’s that bad?”
“You can’t imagine,” I replied. “Better start guzzling zinc chews and vitamin C. Would you pass the word around, please, and have Sally cancel my appointments?”
“Sure. Want to talk with her? I can just walk my phone over to her cube.”
Just then, a police car cruised slowly through the intersection two blocks down.
“Nope, I gotta go now. To sleep, I mean. Very tired. Very sick. Bye.”
I was already running as I hung up.
A few blocks later, I was elated to find a thrift store window filled with unremarkable clothes for kids just my size. The counter clerk looked up casually as I ran in, then less casually as my appearance registered. I told him about the play at school, and being sent out for some last-minute costuming additions. Oddly, he just nodded like this happened all the time. Maybe it did. What did I know about daily life in thrift stores?
I riffled through their racks with no thought for fashion or even color coordination. All I cared about was cost and fit. Minutes later, I gave the clerk a little over fifteen dollars in exchange for two kid-sized pairs of flannel boxers, two pairs of fairly clean socks, two T-shirts, some green cargo pants, a thick purple sweater and a pair of rust plaid tennis shoes, all of which looked like they’d fit me, and none more tattered than seems fashionable these days anyway. What a bonanza! I made a mental note to keep thrift stores in mind.
I changed behind the store, next to a donation bin, into which I tossed my expensive suit. Then I went looking for a bus stop. Now that I could finally travel without attracting attention, I wanted very badly to get home.
Unfortunately, I knew zip about the city’s bus system. When I finally found a stop, and a bus finally stopped there, I told the driver where I wished to go, and he just shook his head and started rattling off bus numbers, stop locations, and connection times until we both knew I’d never remember them. He finally wished me luck, closed the doors, and pulled back into traffic.
I didn’t want to keep wandering around asking memorably clueless questions until I got a ride in some police car. I looked despondently into my wallet, wondering how far a cab would take me for the thirty-three dollars and change I had left.
The first cabby I managed to flag down took one look at me and said, “Ain’t you supposed to be in school right now?”
“Home schooled,” I said, weary of having to justify my very existence to everyone I met. I gave him address and asked how much it would cost to get me there.
“That’ll run you forty bucks, at least.”
“Then get me as close as you can,” I sighed, handing him the rest of my cash.
I was headed home at last—and not in a police car. That was the main thing. I was utterly numb in the head, and starved, and exhausted, and, underneath it all, still just waiting to wake up … surely … any minute now.