Lens Flare

That’s me on the left, with the glasses, My name’s Antony. I’m the one looking right at the camera like I know it’s there. Which I might have — I don’t remember. It’s only a picture now: Me on the left, hands shoved into my pockets of my coat and looking right at the camera, my eyes obscured by snow; Rick on the right, my shadow with no hood, looking tired and worn out and off into the middle distance. And in the middle there’s a man in a pea coat whose name I can’t remember. He’s looking down, walking between Rick and me, keeping his eyes on the ground, and there’s a closeness between the three of us that reeks of familiarity.

We’re in step, in the picture; our feet are coming down together. We’re walking in stride through the snow and I remember Rick, I can’t forget Rick, he’s three behind me in the line for the stuff they call food down here, but I don’t remember the snow and I don’t remember walking in stride down a concrete sidewalk and I don’t remember the man in the pea coat, but I think if I knew his name it would change everything. I think if I remembered then maybe I wouldn’t belong down here any more.

The picture is hung on the wall in the hallway on the way to the mines. I walk past it twice a day, six and six. We’re the six shift, me and Rick and a dozen other folks whose names I always have to ask again in the morning, even though I know I mine with them every day, twelve hours in a dark shaft smelling sweat and stale farts and the strange acrid scent of the gases sifting up from the black depths underneath us. We’re the six shift, and we walk past the picture of me and Rick and the man in the pea coat twice a day.

Rick doesn’t know, any more than he knows the names of the men in any of the other pictures we walk past, until somebody points at one of them and says “That’s me.” And then he knows and I know and we all know each other for twelve hours, six to six, in the depths of the mine shaft, but when we walk out of there we forget. We forget names, and we forget places, and we forget snow and pea coats and walking in stride with two of us looking up at the camera and one looking down. I wonder every day what we were doing, but we’re working too hard in the shaft to think about anything except not falling into the endless acrid blackness beneath us and then when I eat the stuff they call dinner I get slow and my mind stops working and I forget to wonder.

He’s wearing a pea coat and he’s looking down, out of the snow. I think that’s important. All the “that’s me”s on the wall are looking at the camera, some of them smiling and pointing and some of them, like Rick and me, just looking at it. But we’re all looking at the camera and the man I can’t remember, he’s not. He’s hunched over into his pea coat, and I think that’s important. But I can’t think about it for very long because I forget, I forget everything except Rick is three behind me in line and we’ve been whispering in the mine today, and I am using all of my memory to remember that we have a plan and I don’t eat the stuff they call food.

I slip it to Rick, hiding the movements even though there’s nobody watching us, no guards, no overseers. There never are and there never have been. We are the six shift, six to six, and we come out and eat our food and go to bed and wake up and go to the mine shafts. We don’t remember about revolution. We don’t remember anything at all. We just do. Rick does, he eats my portion and his and I see his eyes brown and bright go muddy and slow almost before it’s time to go back to the bunks.

I can’t see my eyes in the picture. I don’t know what color my own eyes are. My stomach twists with hunger as I follow the line back to the bunks and get in them just like I do every night, only tonight I didn’t eat anything at all, and my thoughts are as sharp as the scent of rising gas from the black depths of the shaft and I can’t sleep a bit.

I can’t sleep and I’m thinking about the picture and the empty place in my memory and I’m wondering what I can’t remember. It keeps skittering away from me, sliding like a dropped hammer, bouncing and ricocheting down into the endless empty blackness of everything I’ve forgotten, only this time I’m awake and I follow it. I am remembering that I can’t remember, trying to hold the idea in my head and not let it go, and I’m wondering how long I can go eating only breakfasts and I forget to breathe like I’m asleep.

I hear it at the same time I hear the footsteps approaching: I’m out of sync, out of rhythm, and I can’t make myself breathe like everyone else is now because I’m awake — very awake — more awake than I’ve never been in my life, and I don’t know what’s coming up to stand beside my bunk but I know it’s not human and it’s not real and it’s not a dream and its name is Paul.

“Hello, Antony,” it says, and I turn my head to see the pea coat looking very warm and fashionable and familiar, and I open my eyes again and again and again and I remember — I remember everything. It wasn’t a camera. It was more than a camera, so very much more, and I remember looking up in the snow and feeling some secret fundamental part of me suddenly vanish and leave me hollow, remember Paul’s voice a moment too late murmuring “don’t look in its eye,” and I understand that it wasn’t bad timing after all.

Paul opens his eyes and then he opens his eye. “Shh,” he says now, and I am trapped by the black iridescent sheen of it. “Shh, Antony. Sleep now. It’s only a dream. Only a bad dream.” He smiles underneath the eye. “The bad dreams that come from going to bed on an empty stomach. Here. Sleep now. Forget. Let go.”

Something rests against my mouth, and I open reflexively, let him feed me. It’s not food, but they call it food and my twisting starving stomach doesn’t know the difference. I take another bite, and sleep grows heavy around me, the effort of maintaining thought too difficult. I remember that I have to remember that I forget everything, and then I forget. I close my eyes, sleep, wake.

In the morning Rick is three behind me in line for the stuff they call breakfast and then he’s three behind me in line as we walk down to the mine shaft. We’re the six shift, in at six and out at shift. We introduce ourselves as we walk; I only remember Rick. And then we walk past a picture, and it’s my turn. “That’s me,” I tell them. “On the left, with the glasses. My name’s Antony.” I can’t remember who the man is in the pea coat, the one standing between me and Rick, looking down, in perfect stride with us. I wonder if it’s important. I wonder what his name is.

If I could remember his name, I think it would change everything.


Prompt: Flash Fiction January Shenanigans, Day 2 — Marching Through Edinburgh Snow, by Martin BurnsMarching Through Edinburgh Snow

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