Leonard Staple, in his Sunday best, waited patiently at the bus stop, seated on the metal bench and his hands tucked in his pockets. He glanced down the dark streets every now and then, the road bereft of even cars on the road and streetlights the only thing illuminating the thick darkness. The sky was blotted with nigh-black clouds, not a speckle of light to be seen in the midnight sky. Everything was quiet except for the wind hissing against the trees surrounding the barren little neighbourhood.
Why he was here, he had forgotten. Maybe he'd wanted to get away for it all, away from the constant calls bugging tech support about why their unplugged devices weren't turning on. Maybe he'd gotten lost on a nightly stroll. Maybe he was returning late, from an idle visit. His mind seemed to be deliberately suppressing something, something he couldn't conjure the memory of no matter how hard he focused.
It was like his mind had been prepared as a fine Swiss cheese. There were empty pockets where answers should've been. He felt lively, alert, like he was waiting for something or someone to arrive; but he couldn't quite place the reason why he had a checkered double-knot tie on; nor could he explain the sticky feel of perspiration on his brow, a fresh bead of it occasionally dribbling down to eye level before Leonard brushed it away. The last hour or so seemed an empty haze, to him; this was no part of Toronto he recognized. The surrounding neighbourhood scared him a bit, pitch-black alley mouths in-between clusters of dilapidated houses with not a light on within any of them. They all seemed eighty years old, each of them, some older. Even the streetlights flickered occasionally, as though exhausted with their long night shifts. He couldn't remember anyone ever being here, or why he was here to begin with.
So why did he feel as though someone else was here with him – right here, in the proximity of the bus stop?
Leonard's spine tingled suddenly, and he realized the temperature was at a usual Canadian chill. Gusts of wind stole away his warmth and made his hairs stand pointed on end, and he yearned for a sweater, or a tuque, or anything to stave away the teeth of the cold. He stood up, glancing more anxiously down each side of the street, rubbing his hands together and rocking on his feet.
After a vast four minutes, Leonard felt his heart throb in his breast as he saw a pair of headlights suddenly manifest at the very end of the street. He struggled to identify the emotion: relief? Dread? Horror? Merriment? The headlights came closer through the dark and their owner was revealed. A Toyota Corolla, dull grey, dull as any colour could be, lurched into view from the wall of darkness, creeping forth at a fierce twenty-two miles per hour closer to the edge of the bus stop. Still unable to identify the emotion that had swallowed him, Leonard gulped in a nervous breath of air and swept away the remaining glimmers of sweat on his forehead. The Corolla crawled to a halt at the bus stop and stopped scant feet away from where Leonard was standing rigid as a board.
The passenger seat window rolled down, Neil Diamond on the radio, the driver staring expectantly from within the car. Leonard stood tentatively still for a second, unsettled by the sudden presence of sound in the lonely vacuum he'd now waited thirteen– no, fourteen, or perhaps fifteen, minutes in. Then, he took a few precautionary steps forward, then leaned down to stare at the driver.
"So," said the man behind the wheel, as he eyed Leonard over, "how are you doing, Space Case?"
Leonard blinked, his hope at the manifestation of any answer dashed as he stared at the stranger in the driver's seat. "Are you here to pick me up?"
"Recognize me?" the driver said again, signalling to himself. He looked like the kind of chauvinistic reporter who worked behind a desk on Fox News; someone who'd started out as a mousy nerd who ran a school newspaper who'd used fifteen or so years to grow into someone more charismatic. He wore an inquisitive smirk that looked good on him, traces of the former geek he must have been once shamelessly hanging off his tousled, slightly greasy black hair. His expression was bright and innocuous, sincerity underlining his tone, and Leonard felt confused on how to feel all over again.
"What's your name?" Leonard said, giving his noggin a mock punch in a vague attempt at humour. "Afraid my memory isn't jogging at full speed."
"You seem sprightly enough, at least," the driver grinned. "Come on. Gideon. That's me. Scramble around the attic in your head, there. See if you can find some dusty old pictures in there. I know you've got 'em."
Leonard concentrated. The man reared over and stabbed him with a pocket knife made out of déjà vu, even that dull and tarnished in Leonard's mind, any familiarity in Gideon distant and indistinct to him. He couldn't quite find the memory he wanted, and shrugged. "Bone dry."
"Tsk," went Gideon, patting the passenger seat and inviting Leonard in. "You must've knocked your head fiercer than I thought. You could be brain-damaged, though. Or you could be jolting some early-onset Alzheimer's there. Come on. I'll take you back to my house. My sister's a nurse; she can probably do something quick for you before we take an hour getting to the hospital."
Leonard continued to hesitate, before an overwhelming urge to be somewhere warmer and more secure than the wind-ravaged void outside and he opened the door, stepping into the Corolla and locking the shadow outside from a box of plush cushion and air conditioning. Gideon gave him a bemused look, then stepped on the gas, returned his gaze to the road, and started driving up the street.
A stretch of silence paralleled the stretch of road up ahead. Leonard sat placidly, watching them pass a Husky at the side – its interior utterly dark and not a car in the lot, like all the rest of the neighbourhood – and contemplating his situation. A knock on the head. Perhaps that explained the amnesia, or the faint ache at the base of his skull that felt more itchy than painful; and perhaps this was a friend. Perhaps he would've been saner to refuse to ride, but he weakly noticed that denying Gideon's invitation into the toasty Corolla had never occurred to him prior. As they turned right between two rows of near-decrepit houses, into the abyssal territories of the destitute neighbourhood, Leonard finally found the gumption to ask another question.
"...Who are you?" he opted to repeat in befuddlement.
Gideon laughed, cheerfully. "Dude, try and think straight! I'm Gideon! Remember? We met at the breakfast this morning over in Scarborough. I didn't know you were still in the city, man – we went to school in Bayview Village years ago!"
Leonard clutched his head. He could remember far back, yes, to his old elementary education over in Bayview. He could remember all the little adventures he'd had, in his grade four class, and scattered images of faded faces and floating names: Charlie Nelson, Freddy Cambridge, the blonde he'd had a crush on for a few months before he'd dropped it at the suggestion of old Peter Lynch; the fat, curly-haired kid who spent all his time playing games when we were in the school library and kept losing teeth; and the little buck-toothed girl who'd landed the role of Dorothy in the school's rendition of Wizard of Oz. He flipped through those memories like a yearbook, and nowhere did he find Gideon.
"We must've been good friends if we went to the effort of meeting up tonight," Leonard chuckled, almost sad that he apparently didn't recognize this old friend. Continued suspicion and dread of the situation leapt over him; like something had been placed there to ward it off, though he never consciously realized it this time, a blockade that kept out thoughts that were contrary to the remote ease he felt with Gideon. Perhaps it was part of the suppression blocking out everything else. Perhaps it was just sheer desperation at placing his amnesiac trust in someone who talked and walked as though he knew what the hell was going on.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. That was all this night had become to him; a dark question, with an answer that continued to elude him.
Gideon sighed, seeming upset himself, as he briefly glanced over at Leonard. "Damn good, I remember. The chewed-gum prank we pulled on Mrs. Sammerson – you don't recall the riot that was? Kept the rest of the choir in stitches when it stuck to the bottom of her ass."
Leonard silently shook his head.
"Damage must be worse than I thought," Gideon muttered, concerned. "Shit. So sorry about all of this, man... you hit your head falling down the steps, and you didn't seem all there when you started your walk to the bus. I've been calling you for the past hour, Leonard."
Leonard pawed at his pocket, found a round shape within, pulled it out and clicked his tablet phone on. Missed messages, all from Gideon – just that one name – filled up the lock screen as far down as it scrolled.
Damn. The last hour really had slipped into oblivion.
"Don't fret, though," Gideon said, giving Leonard's shoulder an amicable pat. "We're pulling in. My sister's pretty good. She should be able to tell if there's any serious injury before we get you off to the emergency ward. You'll be fine."
"What's her name?" Leonard asked, if purely to keep the conversation going on his end. "Your sister, I mean?"
Gideon's eyes seemed to light up like bulbs in their sockets at the mention of her. "Lila."
The two eventually pulled up to Gideon's house, just as dark and withered as its company, stopping the car in the driveway ahead of the corrugated garage door as Gideon cut the engine. The lights of the car went dark, and for a second, everything was enshrouded in the black of the night around them. Gideon opened the door, the Corolla's interior roof light going on for a second as Leonard opened his in turn. He reluctantly followed Gideon up the cracked set of stairs leading up to the peeling wooden door of Gideon's establishment.
"...How's the place?" Leonard asked, in reflexive fright. He thought he saw Michael Myers stare up at him as a silhouette from the empty windows; turned his head firmly away from them, just in case he had. Gideon, fumbling with his keys in the front of the door, glanced behind him down at Leonard.
"Affordable," Gideon said, offering no further compliment beyond his grand superlative. "Don't worry. Nothing in there that'll bite. You said you liked it when you had our roast tonight."
"Roast?" Leonard pursued, following Gideon into the house, into another mouth of shadow, as he parted the door.
"Lila's," Gideon said, gleeful. "The woman could cook for the Queen."
The doorway was brightened up as Gideon flipped on the lights to the house, shutting the door behind him. Everything looked fine, not anywhere near as broken-up as the house's exterior. There was another stairway that led up to the living room, spotless white walls on teak wood floor. Leonard and Gideon walked up into the living room, as Gideon sat Leonard on the dusty sofa in the centre of the room, faced to the residence's archaic box television. Leonard could see stairs, leading up into darkness, at the right end of the room; over the television, he suddenly recognized, was an old class photo.
Three rows of twenty-five or twenty-six kids, smiles on young faces and garish t-shirts and jeans and sneakers, sat on bleachers, perky little Ms. Wong standing chipper and alert by the side. There Leonard recognized himself, on the upper left row, gaps in his smile and his hair parted to two sides through the style his mother had combed for him that morning, the dorky Autobots insignia standing proud and commercialized on his tee. Right next to Leonard, he quickly picked up, with the same tousled blonde hair and friendly eyes, was a nine or ten-year-old Gideon.
Class of 2005.
"See those two?" Gideon said, pointing to the two faces Leonard had already recognized, noticing his gaze was up on the class photos. "Us. 'Pranksters. Devils. Little shits.' I heard them mutter it in the break room, once – God, I'm still smiling over it today. It was so fortunate we bumped into each other again, Leonard."
"Yeah," Leonard said, foggy-eyed. "Sure was."
Gideon stared worriedly at Leonard for a second, then nudged him. "Want me to get you a bottle of water or something? Nothing too extreme... I don't want to agitate your amnesia, or anything. Could Coke exacerbate amnesia? Huh. You ponder that while I fill you up something to drink."
As Gideon walked off down the leftmost hall, into the kitchen, Leonard didn't ponder that question. He didn't ponder anything. He felt like he'd been left alone here, with the holes in his mind dark and taunting. He couldn't feel the power to do anything, question anything.
Something was suppressing him. Something was holding onto his mind.
Leonard felt the urge to stand up and run, as far away as he could, flutter weakly inside him. His focus passed it over, nailed mostly to the class photo, the remaining fragments of his rational self being quietly and meticulously silenced by some force he no longer had the will to resist or inquire about. Kid Gideon really did look like the gawky nerd Leonard envisioned he'd be. He was a full foot shorter than Leonard, as opposed to the half-foot he was now, and his teeth were crooked and uneven. His hair was a black tumbleweed, and Leonard thought he could make out the knots in his hair even through the dust and smudges that had gathered over the picture.
Who was this?
Gideon returned, a plastic Aquafina bottle filled up from the faucet to just below its neck. Gideon gave Leonard a troubled look, observing his old friend's troubled gaze, and offered him the bottle.
"Lila's upstairs," he said. "Earth to Major Tom, there? You look a bit... dizzy."
"Where is this place?" Leonard asked, barely even recognizing the words that came out of this own mouth. At the least, now, he couldn't understand the reason why he now asked a question he was half-sure he'd already asked before.
Gideon didn't reply, and merely frowned. He took Leonard by the hand, stood him up, and put the water bottle in his hand before he led his old friend to the stairs. "We need to get you looked at stat. God, I'm so sorry about this, man. Watching you run and trip like that was just a total fuck-up on my part."
"Who are you?" Leonard cooed as he ambled up the stairs while Gideon directed him. He mouthed it again, over and over, one more empty stream of words from the last vestige of his rational self as it was overpowered by the growing absences in Leonard's mind. Gideon sighed again, tiredly.
"Drink," he told Leonard. Leonard obediently did as told, sipping the water like a dog lapping out of a bowl, the lukewarm taste of sink water strange and alien on his tongue. He hated the feeling of it; he'd liked it when his mouth had been dry, and thirsty, and he craved it drier to the point where he couldn't speak. He felt the compulsion to be silent grow stronger, every step he took upwards like stepping over a canyon wall. His feet were anvils under him, attached to thin strips of meat; the only thing he could see, now, and truly understand, was Gideon and the clarity he brought to the question that had become his reality.
They reached the top of the stairs, and made their way to the end of the hall, Gideon flipping on another light as he led the shambling Leonard onward. He opened the left door at the very end of the hall, his anxious glance still on his friend as he parted open the door with a creaking gasp.
"You know, I'm happy I can at least be here, for you," he said, soothingly. "After all, what are friends for? Lila's a miracle worker. Don't you worry about nothing anymore, Leonard."
Leonard murmured something and became incoherent.
Gideon stood by the side of the door, watching his friend enter the bedroom. He saw the lump in the cover of their king-sized bed, smiled as he saw the stains of the sheets and remembered the fun times with Lila in the bed together. He felt ecstatic he'd brought their visitor back after his unfortunate trip, and grinned when he saw realization return to his friend's face as Lila shuffled from underneath the blanket and let it drop from over her.
The corpulent, drooling mass on the bed reared toward Leonard, as he wordlessly stammered. Lila let its grip loosen from Leonard's mind, saw his face twist in recognition of what had been behind the wall he'd put up after he'd escaped the house. He saw it peel open, and squeal hungrily, wetly, in the dark. Gideon watched, wiping a tear away from his face in happiness, as he let the bedroom door hang open a little bit wider and light from the outside hallway pour a bit further into the bedroom.
Leonard's eyes left Lila, almost instantly, the first time they glimpsed something more pleasant than what lay before them. Class photos, all set in different frames; of different classes, and teachers, and students, older and older down the wall. Gideon was in all of them, something irresistibly disarming about his mischievous smirk; something even in his frozen, childish face that played with Leonard's common sense. He was always in the upper left corner, beside some other boy or girl with all the same gap-toothed smiles born of an innocence he'd preyed upon for decades.
"Welcome to my family, Leonard," Gideon said, cupping his hands together. "I'm so happy to have you."
Leonard's memories returned to him, all of them, before Gideon closed the door and Lila's jawed folds enveloped his vision.
He still couldn't remember Gideon, and realized he never once had – but there he'd been. Always there, waiting for that reunion.