© J.D. Random November, 2022
“Looking for Sean O’Mallery.”
Suddenly, his mind filled with the memory of bells, and he smiled.
He didn’t know where he’d heard the bells; it seemed only a fragment of a dream.
For the third afternoon in a row, he wandered the park during his lunch break, and for the third time, this strange memory ran through his thoughts.
The young man looked at people around him and wondered why they were here. Personally, he hated being close to plants. As on the previous days, he had no specific destination. He ended up at the weathered green bench. It sat under a massive weeping willow. Long branches hung with leaves dragging across the surface of the pond, leaving new ripples with each gust of wind.
The tree was too big for him to put his arms around. He knew he would not touch it because it was a plant, and he was never comfortable being near them.
As soon as he plopped down on the bench, the odd sense left him. The young man had been in bed all night trying to decide what he felt. He had experienced nothing like it. It was not pain; or grief; or sadness. It was not loneliness or depression or loss. He felt it was powerful and hid it in a dark corner of his mind. When he had woken that morning, he knew from how tired he was that he could not have been asleep for long. Now he sat on that decaying old bench, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich he had packed forgotten in its brown sack on his lap, while he enjoyed the fact that he was free of that alarming sensation.
When he had been a child, his class had gone on the required trip to the State Forest. The Directorate separated the children from the Hub for 3 days. It was the first time they were not part of hub think. They had gone on a hike and he had gotten separated from the group. Without a link to the Navi System, he ended up lost and running through the dense undergrowth, screaming for help. The adults didn’t notice he was missing for hours and by the time they realized he was gone and used his implanted tracker; the damage had already been done.
He had spent over two weeks in the hospital. Skin boiled and ran from his arms and legs because of the burns he sustained by brushing up against the plants. He had neglected to use the sealant spray on his exposed skin on the morning of the hike. The toxins on the plants could get deep into his skin, they had warned him. The yellow pustules had been everywhere and the burning itch had driven him mad. He tried to cover the scars on his arms and legs, but they were still there.
The alarm on his wrist startled him, and he looked around. He watched the branches as they trailed in the water. A glance at his chronometer gave him just enough time to get back to his console. They punished those who were late. He stood and walked around the pond,following the black gravel path that would lead him back to the park gates.
The further from the bench he walked, the more annoying the pain became. It felt like something had burrowed into his ear. His brain itched, deep down and insistent.
He was certain that it started when he sat on that bench three days ago. There had been a brief flash of pain, and it was gone. When he had stood after eating his lunch, it had come back. It built through the afternoon, refusing to be ignored. Now he sensed it everywhere, except that one spot underneath the tree, sitting on the old creaking bench.
He returned to the Directorate and completed his shift. He sat at the desk in its tiny cubicle, processing digital requests for extensions on form 49a21 “Official Request for Release from Requirements to Submit Form 723r.” The shift bell rang.
Jones taped him on his shoulder. The old man had been standing by the open side of the cubicle, waiting. The young man quickly slid from the chair and made room for the old man to take his seat.
“You adjusted the keypad again,” as he sat in the chair and focused on the screen.
The old man had said little to him yet, having started the week before. Sean had tried to get the elderly man to explain why he had transferred from some other part of the Directorate. Jones had refused to say why a fellow of his age was working at such a low level task. Instead, he just stared at Sean and complained about the chair, or the pad.
Sean lingered for just a moment. When he couldn’t think of anything to say, he turned and left. The jostling flow of Directorate employees headed to the ramps and lifts that led to street level. As he walked, he could feel the odd sensation building.
He let the crowd carry him along until it thinned. Once through the main doors and out on the street, he waited at the first intersection, where he usually crossed on his way to his shabby apartment in the Public Employee District.
As the massive barricades dropped across the street, he paused. He looked at the front of the enormous transport the barricade protected him from and suddenly the itch became a powerful pulsing pain, causing him to have to catch his balance on the shoulder of the man in front of him. The man shrugged him off without a backwards glance. The surrounding people simply parted as he stumbled, not bothering to look at him. He turned in place and spotted a health officer a ways down the street watching him and he almost froze in place. When the barricade lifted, he turned and, as calmly as possible, walked across the street.
Soon he was standing at the gates to the park, the old rusted iron bars covered with peeling black paint. The gates were always open, and he doubted they would close even if someone had tried. The street lights were just coming on. There were a few walkway lights that were still functional inside the park. He stood for a moment and then let his feet guide him.
He’d never been in the park at night. It reminded him of his terror-filled run through the woods so long ago. Now he walked the deserted paths with growing fear. Soon, he was back under the branches of the willow, now shrouded in darkness. Sean stood looking at the bench. Suddenly consumed by anger; he clenched his hands into fists so tight that he could feel his nails dig into his palms.
He turned and ran, not caring where he ended up, just fled headlong down the hard black path. His footfalls echoed in the night and his heart tried to keep pace in his chest. The red mist of his anger made it hard to see. He tripped and landed hard on the gravel of the path, the sharp stones plowing deep furrows in his already bleeding palms. He did not care. Getting back to his feet, he kept running.
He ran blindly, not choosing a path, only wanting to be away from the pond, the tree, and that strange old bench. The sense of panic overwhelmed him. He came to a sudden stop, and with a sick pain rising in his stomach, he realized he was right back at the green bench.
He let the tears come. They were tears of panic and a a sense of helplessness. Sean hung his head and sat heavily on the bench, which responded with an alarmingly loud combination of creaks, squeals, and cracking sounds. He almost stood again for fear of it collapsing under him, but as he moved his feet. A distinct crumpling sound caught his attention.
Peering down, he realized that a small brown bag lay at his feet. He plucked it off the ground and discovered his lunch, cast off and uneaten. The young man took the small sandwich from its plastic wrap and began chewing. He tasted nothing as he swallowed. He carefully folded the bag and slid it into his pocket, then leaned back against the old green slats of the bench.
His mouth was dry, and he wished he had an ale to wash down the tasteless sandwich. Then he caught the faint pattern of light on the dark surface of the pond and his thirst got the better of him. He slid from the bench and carefully leaned forward, thinking to dip his hands in the water. His reflection seized his attention instead. Looking closer, he tried to make sense of the blurry image in the water.
“No, that’s not possible.” and then he was falling forward.
Thrashing his arms, he tried to grab at the stones on the side of the pond. His hands found only air. He struck the icy water face first and felt it close over him. Total blackness surrounded him. The faint light from the weak lamps did not penetrate past the surface.
Sean could not tell which way was up and panicked. He tried to swim in the direction he thought would get him to the surface, but all he found was more water.
His lungs were burning for air as he became more desperate to breathe. He had never learned to swim, few did, and now his clothes and heavy shoes acted like weights, pulling him deeper into the pond. Becoming increasingly desperate, his lungs and eyes burning, he screamed for help. Water rushed into his mouth and he could feel it clog his lungs. He tried to scream again, but only swallowed more water.
He lost control of his arms and his legs as the cold seemed to take hold of them. He could not make them move. For a moment he just floated, his lungs no longer burned. He lost all sense of himself. Then he felt an arm wrap around him and tug. Someone tried to haul him to the side of the pond. He coughed and fought for breath as his lungs expelled water, his body responding in a desperate need to breathe.
The arm released him, and he slid beneath the surface once again. Before his panic could rise once more, he felt hands grab his arms, and his head was suddenly above water again. Someone pulled him until he rested his head on the stone-lined bank.
“Seán, ye ‘av ter ‘elp. I’m not strong enoof ter lift yer!”
He had never heard that voice before, though the accent was familiar. There was a sound of anger and frustration mixed in with a note of fear. He opened his eyes and stared into the large brown eyes of a young woman.
She was lying on her belly facing him on the ground, where she must have dropped when she reached in for him the second time. The young woman shivered from the cold. He watched the water streaming from the long dark hair and said nothing, just stared at her and kept breathing. The air was cold and painful in his lungs. He’d never been happier to be in pain.
He attempted to haul himself up and out of the pond, but slipped and slid back into the water. She sat up as he did so and lurched forward and helped until he finally rested on his tummy. He rolled onto his back and lay on the shore, coughing and staring at the dark sky. Suddenly, he realized that something was missing.
“Where’s the willow tree?” His throat burned with the effort.
“Willow tree? wat willow tree ye blatherin’ about?” She glanced over her shoulder.
He struggled to make sense of what she said as he lifted himself up on his elbows and followed her gaze. The willow tree was there, but it was small, a mere sapling. Twisting against the stake that held it in place in the chilly breeze.
“That’s the wrong tree.”
He gave his head a couple of hard shakes, trying to get the water out of his ears. It failed to help clear his head.
He saw a look of surprise at the sound of his voice cross her face. She hesitated a moment, then helped him sit up. He looked around at the pond but recognized nothing. His eyes fell on the old bench. It was now closer to the pond and was no longer old and weathered. In fact, it looked freshly painted. The young woman sat back on her heels and then stood, hands on hips.
“Wat on de Goddesses green earth ‘as come over ye, Seán?” Sean could hear the growing anger in her voice.
“Ye almost drowned an’ tuk me, witcha. An’ why ye askin’about trees?”
Turning, she plopped down on the bench. “Oi’m drenched an’ oi’m perishin’. Let’s go afore we catch our death, oyt ‘ere.”
She stood and held both hands down to him. He grabbed hold and her hands felt ice cold in his. He let her pull him to his feet. She turned his hands over and saw the deep scrapes and clicked her tongue at him, then led him along the path. He looked around but could recognize nothing in the park. The old black gates were gone, replaced with glossy new ones. They also looked freshly painted.
He looked up and saw row upon row of tall brick buildings, windows shining bright with light that drove the shadows from the sidewalks. Those sidewalks were nearly empty of the usual crowds of silent and sullen workers headed back to their drab, tiny apartments.
They dripped water as they walked down the street. He noticed many doors propped open along the street, open to the night. Laughter and music spilled into the darkness. He caught a whiff of tobacco smoke. How was that possible? There were harsh penalties for its use. He tried to turn at an open door. She stopped him with a firm tug on his hand and pulled him up the sidewalk.
“Molly, oi see dat ye ‘av foun’ ye fella!” A voice came from up ahead.
Sean saw two men hurrying toward them. One was large and round; the other was tall and skinny. That’s where the similarities ended. The round one, sharply dressed and overbearing, the other disheveled and subdued.
“But ye are all’ soaked ter de bone lass.” The tall one said from behind the round man as they drew near.
“Step aside Molly, ‘elp is ‘ere.” The round one said.
They grabbed his arms and hauled him along the sidewalk.
“Now hold on a moment…”
They looked a bit startled at the sound of his voice, but they didn’t slow as they moved along the sidewalk. He shook his head again and fell silent, growing more confused by his surroundings. He saw the tall one glance at him with a pitying look.
“Tis sad ter see Seán dis way.” he whispered to the round man, who ignored him as well.
“Be easy with’ ‘him lads.” The woman said as she followed. “Seán almost caught ‘is death, fell into de pond an’ oi just caught sight av ‘im ‘eadin’ under. It was a close tin’ dis time.”
The two men exchanged a sidelong glance. They did not hide the emotions that played across their faces.There was exasperation mixed with disgust and, under it all, pity, more pity than anyone had ever given him.
“Nigh why ye go an’ do dat for, Seán?” said the round one, shaking his head. “Draggin’ yur goodwife out in dis cold, nigh she’s near frozen!”
The men exchanged another look over his head; he kept his silence.
“Tis true Jimmy, maybe ‘he won’t come back next time.” the tall one said in a near whisper.
The round one nodded and said, “‘Tis fin’ so nigh Seán, we ‘ill ‘elp ye home safe an’ soun’.”
They turned and helped him up the stairs of a large brownstone.
Sean saw another man throw open the front door of the building.
“Good Lord, where have you been Sean O’Mallery?” he said.
Sean’s head snapped up when he heard the man’s accent. He opened his mouth, but the round one spoke first.
“Speak Oirish or not at al’ ye silly twit.”
The man fell silent and held the door for them.
“Miss Molly, ye are both soaked te’ the bone an’ frozen.” Sean heard the doorman say quietly to the young woman.
Sean looked past and saw a long hallway lined with doors.
“Mrs. O’Roarke! Mrs. O’Roarke! come ‘ere please an’ ‘elp!”
An old woman appeared at a slightly open door along the hallway.
“Oi knew ye were there’, now stop listenin’ te’ other people’s business an’ lend a ‘an’, will yer?”
The old woman sputtered.
The round man said. “Damn it al’ women, can’t ye see they wan’ warm clothes an’ sum ‘elp?”
The old woman clapped her mouth shut and turned back through the doorway. She soon reappeared with blankets that she proceeded to fussily drape over the young woman’s sopping clothes and then placed one over Sean’s shoulders.
He tried to pull the blanket close, but the men still held his arms.
They guided him up four flights of stairs and stopped outside a door at the end of a short hall. The young woman fumbled at her soaked skirts.
“Oi sure ‘ope oi didn’t drop them in de water.” The young woman said under her breath.
“I have mine, Molly,” the man from the front door said and Sean saw him pull a large ring of keys from his pocket.
The round man hissed under his breath.
The lock clicked, and the tall one reached forward and pushed the door open.
“Molly, oi will git ye a key first tin’ the morro,” the doorman said with a glance at the round man. Then he stepped aside so they could pass.
Sean let the men guide him into a small apartment. They stood awkwardly for a moment. Sean could hear the woman whispering to the others by the door.
“Tanks Mrs. O’Roark, tanks Tommy.” Then, at the last moment, “Ah will wash th’ blankets an’ return them, Mrs. O’Roark.”
The door clicked shut. The young woman moved past him and pulled a wooden chair from the kitchen, which she placed in front of the three men. They lowered Sean to the seat. He glanced around the room with some trepidation.
“Dare yer go laddie, al’ safe an’ soun’.” the round one said, addressing the woman, not Sean.
“Cheers me lads, it won’t ‘appen again.’’ The woman kept her eyes on Sean, not looking at the men.
The round one shooed the tall one to the door. The footsteps paused.
“Any time Molly, anythin’ ye nade jist ask.” With that, they were gone, pulling the door closed behind them.
Shivering as he sat, he glanced around the apartment, but nothing was familiar. There was a heater in one corner, a couple of old overstuffed chairs pulled up close. A large rug lay over the hardwood floor. He could see into the kitchen with its small wooden table and chairs. Pictures covered the walls.
“Nigh Seán, let’s git yer ought av dohs wet duds.” The young woman said, letting the blanket drop from her shoulders and stepping over to pull him to his feet.
As she worked at his dripping clothes, her hands paused over the zipper on his shirt. She fumbled with it, confused. He raised his hand and pulled at it. She brushed his hand aside and finished for him. She began humming a song that sounded familiar. Sean was sure he could hum it, too. He also knew that he had never heard it before.
Slowly and carefully, she finished undressing him until he stood completely naked. She heaped his clothes right beside the door. He’d never been naked in front of a woman before. He covered himself, staring at the floor. She batted his hands away in anger.
“We are married, laddie! Wat is wrong witcha?”
She took his left hand in hers and gasped.
“Where is yer ring’?”
Sean could hear the sadness in her voice.
She gave a small sob, but no tears fell. Sean looked down at his large hand in her small ones. He knew he’d never worn a ring. He shrugged. She didn’t seem to notice because she was now staring at his arm. She ran her fingers along the dark hair that grew there and then looked at his other arm.
“Wat ‘av ye done to yerself, lad? Dat did not ‘appen in de pond.”
She sat looking at the scars.
Her attention moved to his legs. She reached a hand down and gently ran a finger along his thigh, tracing the old scares where they were just visible in the dim light. His body reacted to her touch; she looked up at him and said.
“Ye sure are off ta-day ‘usban’ if ye tink we are ‘eaded for a tumble.”
She grabbed his hand again and guided him to one of the overstuffed chairs. She pushed him down and wrapped him in a dry blanket. Then she pulled the heater closer and fiddled with some dials. It soon glowed orange and he could feel the welcome heat.
“Oi need ter git out av dees duds.” she said over her shoulder and slipped through the closed door.
In a moment she was back, wrapped in a plain robe with her hair in a towel. She drew the other chair close and sat facing him. He watched her closely.
She was striking, large dark eyes in a heart-shaped face. He could make out a band of freckles that ran across her small nose. He thought her lips were full, but now she drew them straight with frustration. She had a long neck. The top of her breasts were visible where the robe lay open. She followed his gaze and snorted, but said nothing.
He had never seen her before, yet could not shake the impression that he knew her. Not only knew her, but loved her.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
She sat back in surprise at the sound of his voice.
“Wat ‘as gotten into ye Seán?” She tilted her head as she looked at him.
“Oi ‘av never ‘eard ye speak like dis, yer voice sounds quare te me.”
She studied his face, then reached out to pull his left hand onto her lap. She ran her hand over his fingers and looked up at his face again. He sat still, just waiting. Suddenly she dropped his hand and stood up, then moved past his chair and he heard a click. The corner of the small room was bathed in a soft yellow light.
She moved back into his line of sight and grabbed a large framed picture from a small table he had not noticed. She came back to her seat and placed it in his hands.
He studied the picture. It was a picture of him; at least it looked like him. The young woman, Molly, was there as well, her hand in his on the steps of a large building, surrounded by smiling people. They wore strange clothes. He wore some type of coat. She was in a long silvery dress. He looked closer, sure it was him in the picture. He had no memory of this.
He glanced from her face to the picture. It was definitely the same young woman. He looked up again and saw her eyes fill with a deep sadness.
“That’s our weddin’, Seán…” Her voice broke into quiet sobs.
“I… I can’t…” She glared at him.
“I can’t keep doin’ dis Seán, oi canny.”
“I don’t understand how I’m in these pictures. I don’t remember any of this.”
She squeezed her eyes closed, tears now rolling down her cheeks. He Leaned forward and lifted a hand to her face so he could wipe away the tears. She grabbed his hand and hugged it to her as the tears flowed.
“Oi don’t know if oi’m gonna be able ter keep doin’ dis.” She drew a ragged breath.
“Dis Sean, dis!” tears flowing down her cheeks.
“Yer are not the laddie oi married!” She paused.
“Each time yer wonder off an’ we ‘av ter go fine’ ye, ye like a differen’ man.”
She wiped her nose on the sleeve of her robe, then scowled angrily at her sleeve. She spared a glare for him before going on.
“Each time we brin’ ye back, ye are different. Each time ‘tis like oi ‘av a new ‘usban’. oi never knew wat te’ expect Seán. I just want de laddie oi married. Nigh ye ‘av all’ of the’m scares an’ yer rin’? Where is yer rin’?”
Sean could barely understand her. It made him feel foolish, and he didn’t answer. Trying to avoid the pain and sorrow he saw in her eyes, he stood and carefully placed the picture she had handed him back on the table. He saw other pictures, most of the two of them, of their life together. He had no memories of these events.
He walked around the room, studying the pictures that hung on the walls. The woman and the man who was not him looked back in silence.
Nobody else was familiar except the young woman, at least until he came to the last one. He carefully took it from the wall so he could study it in the light. He recognized the two men who had helped them inside. The round one had his arm around the girl. They were smiling at each other. The man that was not him had shoulder length hair. He sat off to the side, holding a glass of dark beer and watching the girl. There was a look of astonishment on his face.
Sean hung the picture back on its nail, careful not to let it drop. He glanced at the girl and found that she had fallen asleep. He crossed the room to look down at her. She lay curled in the chair, snoring softly. He pulled the blanket from his shoulders and carefully covered her to the chin.
He stood back and watched her sleep a moment longer, just listening to her breathing. A chill ran through his arms and legs. Sean realized he was completely naked. He spotted the door that she had gone through, so he went to the door and opened it.
Behind the door lay a modest bedroom, dark save for the small light sitting on a table next to the bed. That bed took up half the room. Never had he seen a bed that large. The Directory apartment they assigned him had a narrow cot. Sean wanted to lie down but did not want the young woman to find him in her bed, naked.
With a last glance at the bed, he moved to the only other door in the room. This turned out to be an even smaller room. It held a toilet and some kind of shower stall. He had never seen a shower inside an apartment before. It must be wonderful to wash whenever you want.
Closing the door, he used the toilet before moving back into the bedroom.
He went through the drawers of a tall dresser until he found clothes he thought might fit him. There were no zippers. Even the pants were button ups. Sean looked at the shoes, but left them.
Moving back to his chair in the sitting room, he sat and watched her sleep. The sound of a soft tapping at the door brought him back to the small room. Sean went over and fumbled with the unfamiliar lock, all the while trying to be as quiet as possible.
When he got the door unlocked, he cracked it open.
There in the hall stood Jones, a slight smile on his face.
He had never seen the old man outside of their cubicle. Now the unsociable fellow stood outside the apartment as if it was the most natural place for him to be.
“Well now, Seán, I see you found your way home.” The old man said.
He leaned against the doorframe, but Sean saw he did not quite touch the wall. Jones glanced past Sean into the dimly lit room. He must have noticed the young woman sleeping because he spoke in a quiet voice, barely above a whisper.
“I see your clothes there on the floor. Better get rid of them fast. Don’t want questions and don’t forget to get rid of the I.D. disk as well. You won’t need it here. Try to burn them if you can. Everything you brought through with you needs to go.”
Sean recovered enough to say, “What are you talking about, Jones? Why are you here?”
“Now quiet down, son. This is no time for a chat. I’ll be missed if I’m not back. It’s my lunch, after all. Here you are, and here you shall stay.”
He glanced down at his hand, where Sean saw a small glowing box. Jones nodded and turned away.
Sean reached out to grab the old man. Instead, his hand passed right through the old man’s arm and shoulder. Jones turned and smiled.
“What did you expect? Now, Molly is a fine woman, better than you deserve. You’re a better fit than the others we have tried, so we think you are here to stay. Sooner you learn about your new life, the better.”
He turned away again and then stopped and turned back once more.
“Almost forgot this.”
He hit a button on the side of the glowing box and pointed it at Sean’s head. A strange high-pitched noise filled Sean’s ears. He brought his hands up to cover them, squeezing his eyes shut at the pain.
When the noise stopped, he opened his eyes. Jones was gone. He started after the old man, then looked down at his bare feet. What if Molly woke, and he was gone? He wondered if he had gone completely crazy. This could not be happening. Then he realized he could not sense the itch in his head any longer. It was completely gone.
A floorboard creaked, and he turned. Molly stood a few feet away, watching.
“Seán, please come back inside.”
Her voice was quiet, yet firm.
“Come back inside an’ lock de door.”
She waited quietly on her bare feet, with the blanket now wrapped around her shoulders. Sean stepped back into the apartment but left the door standing open behind him. She must have seen the entire exchange with Jones, he thought. How would he explain any of it?
“Molly?” He said, testing the name. “Molly, wat is ‘appenin’ ‘ere? oi don’t understand…”
She cocked her head to the side, listening. Then she smiled.
He caught his breath. She was beautiful. He stood staring at her, not moving.
The girl’s eyes went from his face to the open door and she moved past him and quietly pushed it closed. He heard the lock click. She took hold of his hand and he noticed hers were no longer cold.
She crossed the sitting room and pulled him after. Pausing just outside the bedroom, and without looking back at him when she spoke.
“Al’ ye need’ to understan’ is dat oi love ye, an’ yer finally ‘home.”
She glanced at him over her shoulder and gently tugged him into the bedroom. He caught sight of the large picture she had handed him sitting in its place on the table.
Suddenly, his mind filled with the memory of bells, and he smiled.