He can't hear.
No, that's not right. He can hear but it's muffled by a high pitched ringing and everything else is like he's listening through cotton balls, like that ear infection he had when he was a kid. Benjamin moves to stand and his hands are raw and his knees are raw and he can see—through foggy vision—blood crusting the backs of his knuckles and coagulating underneath his fingernails. His aching muscles protest every shift but he has to stand up. He has to get up and he has to—has to—he has to—?
Why is he here? What happened?
He is hit with a wave of dejavu and nausea at once, a lance of pain holding the cherry on top. His knees wobble as he pushes himself to his feet.
His memory is Swiss cheese.
(It starts like every morning. He starts his routine and finishes it like clockwork. Basic cereal, medications for stress and blood pressure and a billion other things, getting dressed, wearing a new tie.
He arrives at school on time and preps for the day with the rest of the teachers, a cup of cheap coffee, and a Krispy Kreme. Anthrope is surly—as always—and angry—for some reason—but he ignores her.
She's always like that—no she's not but he doesn't care enough to bother. He just starts up announcements and prepares. Tenses up. Today is important because—)
Benjamin is upright. His body doesn't want him to be, no surprise there, but he is. He's stubborn like that. He can't hear—no, that's not wholly true, the ringing is gone but the cotton ball muffle remains—and the hand he presses against his ear comes away tacky with more blood. Each breath hurts.
Something is going on, just out of his foggy and wobbly line of vision, but he needs to be here. To be present. To know what he's doing here.
There is a sound, loud enough to rattle his bones and knock him back down. His legs fold like a bad poker player, arms barely enough to catch him as he falls. He's certain he loses a layer of his palm just keeping his head from cracking like an egg on the ground—the rubble of—of where? Where is he?
His memory is Swiss cheese.
(They're coming back to see her. Heidi.
She's Harold's little sister. She looks just like him, with soft blonde hair, curly and pinned back with a pink bow. She wears dresses with pants or shorts underneath so she can spin and leap without worrying. She laughs just like him and smiles just like him, but is thankfully much less destructive.
He doesn't know how he knows so much about her when she shows up for her first day. He just does and, if the strange looks she gives him is any indication, she's knows a lot about him too.
It's her dance recital. When he reinstated arts—when did he do that? Why did he do that? Why doesn't he remember doing that?!—dance is an option and she takes to it like a fish to water.
They're coming back to see her recital and that's why he's so tense. That's why they're all tense—though Tara retired a few years back, so she is blissfully exempt—because they're visiting and it looms over them like a specter. Their breath, bated and bit back, makes them woozy but it's just for a day. Not even.
They're not staying and that is enough, isn't it? Isn't it? So why is he so—)
Benjamin has pushed himself up again. His mouth is full of pennies. He figures how he got those bullet holes in his memory. Whatever is going on here has to be responsible.
There is a sound that cuts, with surgical precision, through the cotton and blood and pain and sharp. It's to his right, just out of view. He turns his head to look and the world warps and tilts. Nausea rips through him again but he stands still, knees bent a bit to brace against any off-kilter moment. It saves him as another attempt to look sends him reeling.
Sour spit, orange and stringy, dribbles from his lips. He hacks and spits and attempts to look a third time, slow and steady.
A crater, drag mark leading to a form collapsed in the crater itself. His hazy vision overlays a smaller form over this one and he fights to figure what is real.
Long, thin, like a stretched out piece of taffy. Striped shirt, red that is dye and pinkish red that is blood on white cotton, torn and tattered. Shoes, untied, laces singed. Shorts, above the knee, comfy and practical. Blonde hair, fluffy, side matted flat with a redbrown liquid. Cuts up and down arms, burns, welts, Benjamin knows this person.
He sees a smaller version, a child, and his mouth moves. He isn't sure if he speaks aloud, because he can't hear through the ringing and cotton, but his mouth makes the shape of this person's name as he fights his own broken limbs to reach him.
"Harold!" He cries.
His memory is Swiss cheese.
(They graduated, George and Harold. Left Jerome-Horwitz and moved to the middle school. It is a saving grace that, each day, he doesn't come in to their monkeyshines. There's only so much stress one man can take.
But it's Heidi's dance recital and they're coming to see it and it sets everyone on edge.
He, himself, feels it settle in his chest, behind the jail of his ribs. A bubbling monster of anxiety and fear and no, not again, I just got free. And something else—something akin to the same feeling of floating he gets when he thinks about, talks to, is around Edith—but he can't. Not with them. Not now.
He won't admit that he passes their middle school on his way in and admires their handiwork. The rearranged sign this morning is covered with newly-discovered obscenities. He can appreciate that he doesn't have to deal with this version of those two hellions.
It doesn't hurt that the school was slowly building back its funds. Weekly damage control cost a lot, after all.
But they are coming here again and he has to drink his coffee to keep from spilling it. Anxiety, yes, and that strange longing, but there is also a fondness he had forgotten existed. It's easy to miss something when it's gone.
Speaking of gone—an irony considering the people coming by—he finds that he avoids dance practice. He'll still see the actual recital, after all. It's his job. It's just something about the way they keep time, toes tapping, fingers out, clicking measures and beats and hemi-demi-semi-quavers. It makes his teeth hurt. It makes his skin crawl. It makes—)
Benjamin moves with a purpose, albeit slowly. He moves to Harold, whose name he calls again, even if he can't hear himself.
Tears? He's crying now and it stings but it's nothing compared to the way that glass and other sharp bits tear into his feet. His bare feet. One hand steadies himself using a piece of bent rebar jutting from a hunk of concrete while the other clutches his chest. There's something in him, in a cut that runs up his bare stomach, and it hurts to breathe.
He recognizes this. Not the pain or the destruction or the blood. He recognizes waking up, mostly naked and confused, sopping wet.
Only he isn't wet this time. He isn't wet and Harold is there, not laughing or making excuses, but prone and not moving and his blurry vision tints the same red as his shirt—not the bits stained with blood, but the proper red, a matador's cape—and he hisses through clenched teeth as he plods onwards.
"Harold?" He thinks he says. He still can't hear, not well anyway. He can, however, feel his mouth move. He can see the goal in front of him. He can see the prone and unmoving form of Harold Hutchins. He can feel the pain he's enduring but he needs to needs to needs to—!
His memory is Swiss cheese.
(He sees them when they come in. Mr. and Mrs. Beard are there to support their neighbor. Mrs. Hutchins looks fit to cry, camera in her death grip. Harold and George enter together, laughter trailing off as they see him.
He expects this, but it sets the ugly ephemeral floating longing in him flat. He wants to sink beneath his skin and he doesn't know why and that's the hard part.
He doesn't know.
It's hard, not knowing as an adult.
They're older now. Time does that to people. Kids, though, show it more than adults. George and Harold are taller, the barest hints of puberty leaking out through hair on their face, awkward proportions, acne, and wiry thin frames. It feels as though he's looking at a caricature and the whiplash sets him on edge again. The urge to yell and rage rears its head up.
He kills it though.
It's her recital.
He sits in the back, away from everyone else. He watches with a soft smile. He doesn't know why—why he knows about her, cares about her, likes this so much. Before he can even blink, George and Harold have made their ways out of the crowd to sit on either side of him. They smile, kind and happy, and the dark riptide of his fearangerfrustration parts for joyous waves. Elation.
He almost misses what happens next.
The dance is wild, moving feet only the basis. They move fast, twisting and turning, clapping to accent, and any normal human would miss the way that the dancers' fingers pull together in an innocuous gesture. Poised. Patient.
Benjamin notices and, with a practiced motion, moves to cover his ears.
George grabs one arm, Harold the other. They meet his eyes, understanding, and shake their heads.
"Trust us," Harold whispers, barely audible.
"We won't let anything happen, we promise," George adds.
He has no time to respond. The dancers complete the motion, snapping and—)
The closer Benjamin gets to the event horizon in his memories, the faster they come through.
Singular purpose, he manages to reach Harold and—thank G-d, vengeful Father who would strike down those who would harm these literal children—his chest is rising. He's breathing. Barely, perhaps, but breathing.
A noise to his farther right, dull and heavy, draws his slow gaze. George, injured but moving, is making his way to Harold and himself. Benjamin feels a wild surge of relief and joy and fury.
Both of them are okay.
Both of them are not okay.
As George arrives—he notices the way he favors his left leg, how he doesn't move his hand, how he blinks rapidly and asymmetrically, how his breaths are shallow, the bruises already forming in large handprints on his neck—he thinks he calls out to him.
"What happened?" He thinks he asks.
George doesn't meet his eyes, instead staring at a point above his shoulder. He turns to see—to see—
His memory is Swiss cheese, but it's not that far gone.
(Benjamin Krupp is in his forties. He's overweight and overworked and overtired. He's bald and probably gonna die in the next ten years if he even lives that long. He's not a good person.
Only that's not true, is it?
Benjamin Krupp, one day after a strange loss of his memory, finds that many things that would wind him no longer do so. He finds that he doesn't know his strength when he's angry and that's cowing. He finds that his doctor returns blood tests and they're clear. He's fine. The lapses aren't anything to worry about because he's healthier than he's been since he started seeing that doctor.
"What about the bruises?!" He asks—yells is more like it, but he remembers a man he knew, hollow and sunken, fingerprint bruises littering his arms and it haunts him in his nightmares. "What about my memory?!"
But the doctor shrugs and brushes him off. By all records he's fine. The bruises go away fast enough and they aren't anything bad. Even if he thinks so.
And when he sleeps, Benjamin finds his dreams pleasant. He's saving people, helping them, and they don't flinch when he reaches forward. He doesn't see his father in the mirror in these kind dreams. He doesn't smell leather and metal and pipe tobacco and sweat. He doesn't hear swearing and sorry sorry sorry. He's a hero and it feels right.
Benjamin Krupp is a contradiction and he can't remember why. He wakes up from strange narcoleptic sleepwalking in only his underwear and a red cape, sopping wet and confused, and thinks that this is just how he goes.
Naked and afraid. Confused and lost. Same as he came in.
But that's not true, is it? Is it?)
Benjamin sees a robot, large machine built of cobbled together pieces, like something out of a scrapyard mech fight. Inside, screaming incoherently, snotty, with glasses cracked and fists bloodied, is another child. Ginger, thin as a brittle twig, pale as pine wood, and trapped.
He thinks he calls out to him as well. He thinks he hears a wordless cry in response. His hearing is still shot.
Gunfire and bombs, his fevered and confused brain helpfully supply, can deafen in close contact.
When would he have come in close contact with bombs or guns?
It makes no sense but nothing does now. He calls out to Melvin again, the way his mouth moves the only indication.
Beside him, he sees George crying into Harold's chest. He wants to say that they'll be okay but that's a kind lie. He wants to assure them that it'll be okay but that's a lie as well.
He wants to be a hero but that's a lie too.
They're going to die.
That's a lie.
(They never admit to it. They never tell him. Would he even listen, let alone understand?
No one makes the connection. Not even himself. Who would, with such a stark contrast between them?
It rots, like all secrets, like all lies, until it's a fermented sickly sweet thing that permeates every aspect of his life.
Because his memory isn't Swiss cheese. That was the kind lie then.
Because Melvin was helping his mother test her new project. Government funded, big and metal. Something inspired by video games. Something powerful.
Protect, they'd specified, but offensive is important. She'd delivered.
But he'd gotten stuck. Melvin became trapped and screamed and howled for help. His mother tried to disable it and it blew a large hole in her lab and escaped.
Prime directive: protect passenger.
No-holds-barred. Lethal force allowed.
George snaps and so does Benjamin.
Or no, not Benjamin.
George snaps and Benjamin goes to sleep. He dreams of being a hero. He saves the day.
But he doesn't.
This time he wakes, bloodied, ears blown by a bomb that took out a chunk of a pizza parlor in downtown. George is missing. Harold is missing. He is confused.
His memory is Swiss cheese.)
Benjamin looks at George, cradling Harold against him and sobbing. He can't hear his words but can imagine the begging. The oaths. The pleading.
He can imagine.
He looks at Melvin, trapped and afraid. Notes the hollow eyes, the wide gaze, G-d they're just kids.
He closes his eyes and snaps his fingers.
He hears nothing.
A hysterical laugh bubbles forth, free from his lips. Shakes him.
Fine. Alright. Okay.
He opens his eyes and takes a step forward.
His mouth is moving. He hopes he's saying what he wants. He moves forward with purpose.
"I'm proud of you. All of you." He hopes he says. The truth. The truth, too late. "You're going to be okay. It'll all turn out fine in the end." A pretty, pretty lie. No one buys it. No one should.
But G-d, they're just kids. Don't let them die now. I've lived my life.
G-d, take me instead.
He's so close. The machine doesn't move. It only moves to defend its cargo, he remembers through holes overlaying holes. It doesn't move to attack unless provoked.
He reaches out with one hand, the one that is scraped raw from catching him earlier.
G-d let them make it out of this alive.
"I'm going to save you," He thinks he says.
Not a lie. Not the truth. A wish, pitiful but wholehearted.
He places his hand against the leg of this robot, calm and slow. Then he moves his other hand around and, with all the power he can afford, swings it into the joint of this leg.
Another loud noise. Another blur. Another nauseating wave of pain and light and he feels it in his throat. He stands, resolute. The robot kneels, unable to balance on one leg.
He steps over its flailing leg. Moves with purpose again.
G-d, please make sure they aren't hurt. Not like me not like me.
A punch, fast, into the chest of this robot. He remembers, through holes on holes, a power source there. Glowing and cylindrical. He tears it free. The lights of the machine dims. Melvin spills from inside, sobbing incoherently, not that he can tell.
The world spins.
It's hard to breathe.
His legs give out, he thinks. Everything goes sideways. He sees Melvin in his fading vision.
He thinks he sees Melvin say his name.
He thinks Melvin calls out for "Captain Underpants".
His memory is Swiss cheese.
(George and Harold are smiling on either side of him. Its been so long since he's seen them.
George and Harold hold his hands and shake their heads. They're quiet but insistent.
George and Harold keep him from taking off his restrictive clothes.
They say it's important he stays in disguise.
They say it's Harold's sister's dance recital.
They say that he's someone who needs to be there, clothed.
He watches it and it's beautiful. She's so talented. He's so happy she got here. He's not certain how she got so big but he's so so proud.
He claps so much. His hands hurt and so does his heart.
He's happy there's nothing bad going on now.
He can hear. An even beeping, a monitor of sorts. Softened, behind the cottony feeling of before but less so. Sobbing, hysterical. Snoring and anxious murmurs. His own raspy breaths.
Benjamin opens his eyes and regrets it immediately. The world is too bright and he feels the light in his throat. It sets him coughing around a tube in his nose, wheezing in surprise.
There's movement in the corner and he reaches out but there's an IV in that arm and everything hurts, feels like the world is weighing down on every centimeter of his skin. The thing in there with him comes to focus, a thin, tired Melvin. He nervously wrings his shirt.
"I'm—" He starts and Benjamin can hear him and that's enough to startle him. Melvin stops, afraid to move. Benjamin hisses through clenched teeth.
"Don't." Melvin looks distraught at this but clams up. Benjamin isn't done yet though. "Not your fault." Each word is the mermaid princess dancing on legs. Glass in his throat, cold fingers of a witch around his lungs. His weak ears pick up the ache and croak of his words.
Melvin melts into tears and that's enough.
Behind him, leaning against the wall and bandaged up like twin mummies, George and Harold say nothing. They don't need to.
Their eyes say it all.
But they're alive. They're okay.
For now, the ugly part of him adds.
They're okay, the warmth inside him replies. And now I can sleep.
The world fades to black. This black, however, is interstitial and transitional, not final. There will be a fade in. And that is true, not because it is pretty, but because it isn't.
Benjamin Krupp is harder to kill than that.