Oleander

By Andy Betz

The man with the ax faces me.  His face is always unrecognizable, but his blade singularly distinct.  I see the few drops of blood mirroring an otherwise perfect finish reflecting the light from the moon in the sky.  I can feel it burning me, coaxing me, almost provoking me into making the first move against the man.  I can run, but he can fly.  I can evade, but not for long.  I have no defense against this apparition.  He laughs at my situation, but never advances.  It is his design to break down my resolve.  He wants me at his mercy.  Every night, he wants me afraid.  He swings the ax and I block as best I can.  Both of my wrists leak crimson, but his blade remains nearly immaculate.  I sweat and I tremble, not from the danger, but from the cold that I confuse ironically as heat.  He arrives when the cold arrives, as a fog rolling across the moors whose touch withdraws the warmth of life itself.  I call him a wraith.  From beneath the shadows of his face, his tongue emerges to lick clean the blood from his ax.  This act is staged, more for his amusement than to demonstrate my peril.  The blade never is clean.  I can neither close nor distance myself from my dream.  He is not a nightmare in that I have no feelings of fear.  He is my unwanted companion, ruining my dreams and thus my sleep.  He begins his penultimate act of raising the ax for a vorpal slice.  I say penultimate because . . .

I awaken in another pool of cold sweat, soaking the sheets, making what little hair I have on the back of my neck stand erect as if to predict the onset of an electrical discharge.

Despite all I experience, I feel nothing.

The clock radio reads 4:13am.  A few minutes later than yesterday, but still much earlier than sunrise.  I could get out of bed and begin my day.  I could also forget who I am and let slip the only possibilities for success I have by remaining in bed.

The sheets stink.  I stink.  This room stinks.  However, the coffee downstairs makes my decision for me.

The mirror reminds me of the slowly changing clues of who I am, or was, or were to be.

I am female, short (5 feet at best), with auburn hair and the skin beach girls have in commercials (a few freckles).  I am fairly young, maybe 25, fairly attractive, and a hot mess.  I have old scars on my wrists from a (possible) suicide attempt of which I have no memory.  My feet ache, my figure trim, and a few stab wounds in my left shoulder that have nearly healed (how I received them and when I received them are still a mystery to me).  My left ring finger has a tan line from a ring I cannot remember nor want to.  In all, I have all of the markings of a young lady who has escaped a brutal relationship or receives pay to end such pairings.

The hot water beckons me to the shower.

On my right elbow is a mark, not a tattoo, barely visible, but highly sensitive to hot water.  I discovered it when my memory began to fade last Christmas (I think).  It burned in contact with the water.  It also glowed an amber hue in the presence of UV light.  The bouncer at the rave thought it made me look easy.  I told him it made me untouchable.  He thought differently and grabbed my arm.  I bit his thumb off.  I could have screamed or spit it out.  I just kept eye contact with him as I let it fall from my mouth.  I watched him sicken as he saw his blood trickle to my shoes adjacent to his thumb.

And I felt nothing.

A hot mess with a plethora of problems and no emotions, no feelings, and little in the way of memory.  If I had to guess, I am not a camp counselor.  This is my last day in this room.

Someone else can clean the sheets.

I walk into the coffee shop and instinctively move to the corner table.  I have reading glasses on to make a menu selection, but the barista beats me to it.  She departs leaving a croissant and a medium coffee, black.  The bill has an itemized list of 12 previous purchases over the last two weeks, deducted from a cash deposit.  I have no idea if any of this is true, but both look too good to begin an investigation in lieu of eating.

The table seats four.  I have my back to the wall.  My large bag occupies the seat in front.  My purse stays to my right.  When he walks by, he sits in the last chair.  Not directly in front of me, but in the seat in the opposite corner.  The barista brings him a plate of food, orange juice, and coffee.  She likes him.  She offered no smile for me nor did she let her hand drape over mine as she walked away.  He begins his conversation by stating his name and then mine.  He will eat as he talks.

“I am Hakim.  You are known as Oleander.  You know me, but you have forgotten that you do.  Do not be afraid.”  As he speaks, he removes a sealed envelope for me.  He nods to my purse.  Message received as I hid the envelope inside.

I want to speak.  He knows I do, but has anticipated this (how many times?) and nods at my coffee cup.  Hakim takes a sip and begins dismantling his buttered toast.

“We have a routine, you and I.  We meet here for a few weeks and then we move elsewhere.  You have difficulty with both short term and long term recall.  You also have difficulty with emotion.  Nod if you agree.”  I engage with a small gesture.

“How is the shoulder?  Ready for a job?”

If the clock on the wall here read 4:13, I would be sweating.  As it is, Hakim (if that is his real name) kept his composure as he ate.  I stared at him wondering before I inquired, “what’s the gig?”

I didn’t take Hakim for a bacon eater, but he was.  So light and crispy when it broke, but absolutely quiet when chewed.  At least by him.

“It’s a sting.  You will receive a percentage.”

I waited for a tell on his face.  He never offered one.  He never would.

“Your coffee is getting cold.  Time to decide.”

The instant Hakim began that word, “decide”, I said yes.  My lips did not move in doing so.  I uttered the word as if by osmosis or ventriloquism.  Either way, I committed to something without a shred of prior information.  A lesser person might have been scared.

But, I felt nothing.

I don’t believe I ever have.

The envelope contained enough money to narrow down my occupational choices to one.  The card inside the envelope had a time and an address, nothing else.

“It all happens tonight.  Afterward, we will not see each other again for a few months.  Make yourself scarce.  When I need you, I will find you.”

Hakim did not finish his coffee before he departed.

A distance of four miles and a time of two hours before show-time.  I could have walked, but I opted for a cab.  I took a peek at the license plate to see I was in New Jersey.  The traffic signs for the George Washington bridge explained the rest.

I had the cab driver drop me off at a hotel two blocks from where I was wanted.  I waited for him to turn the corner before I began the rest on foot.  My bag contained a few changes of clothes and not much more.  Somewhere I must have a place I call home.  It just is not here.

I entered the building, an office supply warehouse and was given an elevator key.  The building was six stories high.  The card said 3rd floor.  My elevator took me to the top.  While moving, my right elbow begins to burn without a reason either physical or environmental.  The pain is enough to wince, but I don’t wince.  I dropped my bags and stood to the side of the elevator door.  I removed the blade from my belt buckle and crouched low awaiting the violence that was sure to start.

I waited and I waited.  Nothing happened.  I peered around the open elevator doors to find a floor devoid of furniture, people, and equipment.  It was as if I had to see the space to independently testify of its existence. 

I took the elevator back to the 3rd floor.  There I met a few people working the same job I agreed to.  None of them spoke or rose from their chairs.  I didn’t expect chivalry, but I did expect answers soon.  The pain from my mark radiated less intensely on this floor than the top floor.  With each passing minute, I forgot I was once even in pain.  Soon, I wish I hadn’t. It is difficult to imagine a single moment passing in which you pay attention only to remember something that you do not remember.  Details scatter as if butterflies and foundations laid and promises made crumble and disappear as if dust in the wind.  Each job has me working with new people, perhaps for my safety, perhaps for my future employment.  Hakim schedules me for jobs in which he must be paid handsomely.  My faulty memory is my guarantee against recriminations.  The few that know me know I no longer know them.

I trust Hakim.  I also trust his decisions.  The mark on my elbow does not flare in his presence.  How long I will keep my faith in my status quo is not certain.  How long Hakim keeps his faith in me is equally as uncertain.

“Tonight, you are Mary.  Your gown is in the dressing room.  We have your size and style requirements.  All you have to do is pinch the mark for his time and attention.  Do not mention money or inquire about specifics.  Keep the mark entertained.  I was told you can dance.”  I nodded.  “Good.  If you have to drink, keep it light.  Remember, you are the distraction and only the distraction, nothing more, nothing less.  Best go and get ready.”

I rose and moved to my dressing room.  I could play the house doll with ease.  I walked to the closet and found my gown.  Dark red, high necked, revealing neither shoulder nor cleavage.  Even the sleeves had that small loop to end over my middle fingers.  Almost a glove in appearance.  Almost an excuse to avoid questions about my scars and injuries.  My boudoir mirror was as equally impressive as the collection of hair and makeup supplies available.  I took my time and followed my instructions to wait until needed.

After six hours of waiting, someone finally needed me.  She was the woman who gave me the elevator key earlier.  She knocked, and then entered to begin prepping me with details.  I am to be Mary Augustine from Philadelphia.  I am a first year graduate student at Temple University studying law.  I am failing most of my classes and will not be back next semester.  My reasons for being here tonight are in order, escape from my old life and open to new possibilities.  “Keep the conversation simple.  Let the mark talk all night if he wants.  He will have people who will verify what you say.  All I told you is true.  There is a Miss Augustine with this pedigree who actually looks like you.  Dance with him.  Kiss him if you want.  Lie to him for he will most likely be lying to you.  We will give you an out by 10pm.  You will know it when it happens.  We will extract you at that time.”

I listened stone faced to her every word.  She told me to smile. I turned on the charm and moved and greeted my imaginary guests with the eloquence of an actress auditioning for the role of a lifetime.

My handler was pleased.

It was also time to leave.  I grabbed my purse and wrap and followed her to the elevator I originally encountered earlier in the day.  My elbow began to twitch then ache.  My face remained stoic as I glided to work.

I took the elevator back to the 6th floor.

I heard the party music first.  Then the doors opened.  I adopted the look of a newly minted daughter of a rich father to a foreign social scene.  I was confident, but not overconfident.  I inspected the confines and wondered how many people it took to present the facade of grandeur I was witnessing.  The crew was all present in their rolls, all ignoring me as one working should.  I move slowly toward the bar ignoring the patrons in their tuxedos and gowns.  I was to make contact with a mark I could not identify without details as to how.

Fortunately, the inverse is the contra-positive of the converse (how did I remember that?).  Thus, I did not have to locate the mark for he already located me.

“Hello, my name is James, James Lankshire.  Can I get you a drink?”  With each word he spoke, I felt the pain emanating from my mark increasing.  I should be uncomfortable and I should be screaming, but I found the pain a relief.  Intense as it was, it exactly counterbalanced the difficulties of my role as Miss Augustine accompanied by his (obvious) role of Mr. Lankshire.

I drank tonic water during the evening.  James kept ordering scotch.

By the end of the first hour, both of us (Lankshire? Really? How lame is that name?) kept our lies to a minimum.  We danced close, patrolled the perimeter of the floor, and received guests who thought us a lovely couple destined for greatness.

By the end of the second hour, my elbow pain from my mark leveled as only a constant reminder without the surges and spikes I am accustomed to.  I noticed a similar shading from James on his left elbow.

Wouldn’t it be a hoot if James was like me?

I never had the opportunity to ask.

The clock struck 10pm and the lights went out simultaneously.  I felt James grab both of my arms to pull me close to the outer wall distant from the elevator.  All I had to do was resist.  Maybe feign a fall and crawl under a table.  No one would question my motives.

But I faltered when I was not to do so.

James, on the other hand, went into action.  He whispered a single phrase to me among the confusion.

“The pain of being marked pales to the pain of being unmarked.”

He pulled me to a fire escape door and we took our leave. 

The harnesses for the two of us waited from the overhead helicopter.  Velcroed for speed, we were airborne in seconds.

No spotlights.  No gunfire.  Not even a single siren followed our escape.  I held James and kept my eyes closed for the duration of the trip.  I am glad I did.

***

The man with the ax awaits my return.  He gestures to my elbow as my mark glows brightly.  He remains hooded as before and carries the same ax of lore, but tonight is different.  He raises his robed sleeve to show a similar mark on his left elbow.  I cannot help but notice his wrist is scarred as is mine.  The wind begins to increase and the fog retreats as slowly as it arrived.  In his hand are two eggs.  He crushes each one, individually, silently.  His face soon begins to take shape.  He wants me to beg for information.  I want nothing from him.  I never have.  I told him so.  My mark on my elbow surges in intensity as never before.  I am distracted, a first for me.  I see the shadow of the ax just as it falls.  My head rolls away from my body giving me a fleeting, but unique perspective of a last moment.  He utters his only word, “Deserving”.

I awaken again, sweaty as ever, feeling nothing.

Nothing, but the shirt covering muscles of the man sleeping next to me.

His clock reads 4:12am and my sweat is not cold.

Yet, for all of the night’s highlights, I cannot recall a single one after the helicopter.  By the sound of his snoring, I may have enough time to think it through.

Maybe, as I go back to sleep.

I awaken alone, still in my gown, still with my makeup, but without my heels.  They sit on the chair adjacent to the bed incorrectly.  The right shoe is on the left.  The left shoe is on the right.  I need to walk to the bathroom.  In the mirror (this has never been good for me), I see a woman rode hard and put up wet without the pleasures of either.  My lipstick is smeared.  My eyeliner is smeared.  My hair rivals the Bride of Frankenstein. 

And I smell.

The note on the back of the door says I have a few minutes to “make myself presentable” before breakfast.  I see no robe.  Instead, the closet houses an inordinately large supply of oversized bath towels.  Too big for me.  Maybe just right for him.

I take ten minutes showering and another ten prepping.  I have a towel on my head and another around my body.  I take a third and cover my shoulder and hide my wrists underneath.  If, no, when he returns, I don’t want to answer more questions than necessary.

My mark is beginning to hurt again.

He must be close.

Stiletto heels are the impromptu weapon du jour.  Properly wielded in an apartment without a knife in the kitchen, they are all I can muster for impalement.  The cast iron skillet will suffice for blunt force trauma, if it comes to that.

On the kitchen table is a file with my name on it.  Inside are two pictures.  Each picture shows me holding a newborn infant.  I must be a nurse or an aunt to someone.  My ambivalence to the photos is normal for me.  I place each back in the file and look for some food in the refrigerator. 

He was nice enough to leave me half a BLT.  I give in to hunger and take a bite.  Not bad.  Not great.  It will do for now.

I began to explore the apartment.  I found his clothes in the other bedroom, but nothing for me.  If I am to leave here, the gown is all I have.

The pain from my mark informs me that Mr. Lankshire is now very close.

The knock on the door tells me my instincts are correct.  The peephole verifies what I already suspected.  I let James in and forgive him for blushing.  A horizontally placed towel covering my frame works well unless I want to sit or reach.

He has a few bags in tow.  The first has clothing for me.  The second has some food.  The third contains files similar to what he left on the kitchen table.

I can live with the towels for right now.  I place another on the chair and motion for James to serve me in the manner to which I am accustomed.

I tell James to start explaining why all of the subterfuge and intrigue from last night.  He throws it right back at me.  The grapefruit comes pre-sliced and the spoon is one of those plastic fast food sporks.  I now know he saw my wrists last night.

James gives me hot cocoa.  He is drinking water.

I waited for him to finish.

“Shall I ask the questions or will you tell the whole story?”

“Go ahead.  Ask away.”

I am not good at reading people, but I think I have a bead on James.

“Who are you?”

“I really am Mr. James Lankshire.”

“Who are you to me?”

“I am your husband.  You are really Mary Augustine from Philadelphia.  We married six years ago at the courthouse on Filbert Street.  You made a beautiful bride.”

“Then where is my wedding ring?”  I showed him my left hand.

He reached for my right, ignoring the barely visible wrist scars.  With his free hand, he removed a wedding band (matching his) and placed it on my ring finger.  “You always wanted to be different.”

I would have blushed right then and there, but I was too self-conscious about the scars.

“Last night, exactly what happened?”

“Yes, last night was a ruse designed by me.  The helicopter was bought and paid for.  The elevator trip to the 6th floor (instead of the 3rd) and your assignment was all my idea.  The party was real.  I found a surprise party that needed a cash injection to cover the costs.  The man in charge, you know him as Hakim, he works for me, sent you there.  The family throwing the party agreed to take you and me in as secret agents meeting on assignment.  I rescued you and brought you here.  We have done this before.”

“Then why don’t I remember the before?  Why do I have problems remembering anything?”

“Mary, you have always had difficulty with your memory.  That is why you are marked.”

Instinctively, I looked at my elbow and rubbed it without thinking.

James did not ask a question.

“When it became apparent that you might forget important information, I had a small chip implanted, subcutaneously, in both your elbow and mine.  Have you noticed that it begins to heat and glow under UV light when I am near?”  I gave him a nod.

“The chips help me find you.”

“How often do I need to be found?”

Now James became silent, thinking before he answered.  He did not want to reply, but I laid my hand (with my ring) on his hand (with his wedding ring).

“I have to know.”

James inhaled and then began speaking.  With each day, I forget more of my life.  He told me it was not Alzheimer’s, but it was close.  Fortunately, we have money so I would never be for want.

Unfortunately,

I looked at the file with the photos of the infants.  The worst thought of impending dread coursed through my mind.

“Did I?”  I could not finish the rest of the sentence.

James could not reply at first.  Tears welled in my eyes as did his.

“It was an accident and it wasn’t your fault.  William, our first son, died of SIDS five days after we brought him home.  Douglass, Dougy, died of heat stroke in the car.”

“Are you telling me I left my baby in the car to die?”

“No, you had Dougy with you when you were attacked.  A thief stabbed you in the shoulder to get your purse.  You fought back and then ran to the car.  You locked yourself inside at 9am.  That car always had problems starting.  He beat on the car and decided to wait you out.  The sun was hot and the car was sweltering.  A jogger saw you suffering when he ran past at 4pm.  You nearly died of shock and blood loss.  It was over 160 degrees in the car for the better part of the day.  Dougy would not have made it for as long as he did it if you had not done what you did.”

I grabbed James for support.

“Mary, you are a great mother and wife.  We’ve had more setbacks than most, but I am sure we can keep trying.”

I didn’t want to ask about my wrists, but I had to know.

“When you recovered from the induced coma, four days later, the doctor told you about Dougy.  Under the same set of circumstances, it could happen to anybody.  Please Mary, if there is one part of your life I want you to permanently forget, let it be that.”

We spent the rest of the day in that apartment, making love, crying, and reliving all that made us a couple in the first place.  James was caring and patient and willing to help me remember.  I felt at ease, without the pain my elbow used to cause (James told me the controller could turn the chip off when not needed). 

I slept the tranquil sleep of a woman worthy of such.

Morning came without the Sun, only the windup clock reading 4:20am, proved otherwise.  I did not set the alarm last night, but my cold sweat intervened as an interloper to my plans.  I wrestled control from my nocturnal nemesis with the ax to discover another contender for my attention, the bitter cold of a Minnesota winter, gliding in between the poorly insulated window panes of my efficiency apartment.  If I am to make it to work at the office on time, I had better get up, none-the-less.

The mirror reminds me of the slowly changing clues of who I am, or was, or were to be.

I am female, short (5 feet at best), with poorly dyed blonde hair and the skin that any drug store cream works well to hide my freckles.  I am still young, maybe 30, fairly attractive, and a hot mess.  I have old scars on my wrists from a (possible) suicide attempt of which I have no memory.  My feet ache, my figure could use a spin class, and what could be a few nasty scars on my left shoulder that have healed (how I received them and when I received them are still a mystery to me).  My left ring finger has a tattoo that my friends say substitutes for a lost love.  In all, I have all of the markings of a young lady who is at the prime of her life, still looking for the right guy to sweep me off my feet. 

Until then, the hot water beckons me to the shower.


Bio: Andy Betz has tutored and taught in excess of 40 years. He lives in 1974, and has been married for 29 years. His works are found everywhere a search engine operates. Andy has written many great things that have been posted to The Yard: Crime Blog. He has written “Oleander”, “Senny” in collaboration with Dounia Saunders, “Et tu”, “The Less You Have, The More It Hurts To Lose It“, “How My New Life Began“, “I Knew Her as Tigist“, and  “Water“, which was written by Jaysa Brown, in collaboration with Andy.

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