A Clear Conscience

I stared into the mirror and a stranger looked back.

My eyes blinked several times in succession. Anxiety rose with every movement of my eyelids. I knew there were going to be consequences, but this? I stood there, staring flatly with annoyance at the mirror. Instead of seeing myself in my standard Italian-style suit, the reflection of a stranger who wore a gray shirt and pants stared back. Gingerly, I raised my hand to my face, trying desperately not to be shocked as the stranger mimicked my movements. My skin was dark and had a metallic sheen to it. Ghostly white hair hung down to my shoulders, and my eyes appeared pale and clouded. I closed my eyes, keeping them like that for several minutes, hoping when they opened, my reflection would go back to normal. 

It didn’t. 

My chest tightened as I struggled to control my breathing. A thought occurred to me then, and I pulled the waistband of my pants forward and looked down.

As I feared, my genitals were missing. 

A flood of emotions filled my thoughts while a torrential downpour of tears flowed from my face as I tried to come to terms with my predicament. I found myself in a genderless body, a prison, an artificial construct used to house the consciousness of convicted criminals. 

Problem was, I hadn’t committed any crimes. 

Okay, Antonio, I thought, let’s see what you can find out.

The windowless room I found myself in had barren gray walls. To my left, a closed steel door appeared to be the only way in or out of this room. On my right, a small lamp sat on a desk, its low light barely provided enough illumination to reveal the room’s meager furnishings. The desk and its accompanying chair were both rickety and worn—they appeared to have seen better days. Shoved in a corner laid a thin pallet on the floor one could barely call a mattress. Other than the sound of my breathing, it’s eerily quiet. A small notebook sat on the desk.

The contents of the notebook could wait. My belly rumbled as the savory scent of roasted chicken from the other side of the door seeped into the room, making me salivate. When did I last eat? Walking over to the door took several attempts, I struggled as I pulled on the handle. I needed all of my strength to pry it open. When it did, I nearly stumbled backward as light immediately filled the doorway, blinding me.

I stepped out of the room and into a carpeted hallway in what appeared to be a modest home. The alluring aroma of roasted chicken wafted once more past my nose. My hunger was increasing, so I put all nervous thoughts about my predicament aside and went toward the smell.

Reaching out with what I found to be a surprisingly well-manicured hand, I gently touched the picture frames hanging on the walls of the hallway as I passed. Each contained a different photograph. They were people of various ages and genders—a middle-aged man, an old woman, a college girl, and many others. The fact they all stood against the same brick wall intrigued me, looking deadpan in the direction of the camera. Who were all these people? I had a feeling I should know who they were, but I couldn’t recall why. The scent of the chicken became stronger as I neared the hallway’s end. I stopped dead in my tracks and did a double-take before I entered. The last frame on the wall hung bare.

I left thoughts of the mystery of the empty frame behind and stepped into the kitchen. A myriad of bright and colorful foodstuffs greeted me. Baskets filled to the brim with breads, fruits and vegetables lined the walls. A wooden table sat in the center of the room. On top of the table sat one perfectly glazed, cooked chicken sitting in a roasting pan. A place setting with a plate and silverware had also been left out. 

“Hello?” I asked. My voice sounded like smashed gravel. Definitely not normal.

The sizzling of the roasted chicken breaking the dead air’s silence was the only response I received.. Looking around, I wondered who could have left all this here. As far as I knew, I was all alone in the house. My stomach rumbled, voicing its discontent.

Since I’m here, I might as well eat, I thought. I pulled one of the stools from underneath the table out and sat down. Cutting a slice off of the bird, I laid it on my plate. I took a bite of the meat and savored the taste as I sat back.

To say the chicken tasted decadent would have been an understatement. There were no words that could have properly described the flavor as the juices dripped from the first tender bite. My hunger not yet satisfied, I voraciously dug in, nearly eating all the bird’s meat in one sitting. Juice from the glaze ended up on my fingers, and I licked them off as I stood. I didn’t see a towel nearby, I didn’t see it, so I wiped my hands on my pants.

My belly full, I decided to explore the rest of the house in the hopes of finding a solution to my quandary. 

Stepping out of the kitchen, I walked past the empty picture frame to the other side of the hallway, which opened into a wide foyer. It was a grand room, with a marbled floor and a wide carpet leading from the front door to the stairs. A giant chandelier hung overhead. Its crystals glistened as sunlight shining from a window above the front door struck each facet with illuminating brilliance. A grand staircase set in the middle of the back wall led to the house’s second floor. I started to head for the stairs, but something in the back of my mind told me to stop.

I looked at my hands with disdain, then tilted my head back and sighed. Where was everyone? Who cooked the chicken? This place—none of it made any sense. 

I’m pretty sure I’m innocent, I thought as I took in the rest of the foyer. I would have enjoyed it more if I could figure out why I was stuck in an artificial body wandering around an empty building. Last clear memory I could recall involved me sitting on a bench underneath a giant oak tree, waiting for Elaine to come outside…

A chirping noise drew my attention. Bluebirds, from the sound of it. Curious, I decided to investigate. However, when I opened the front door, I didn’t expect to see what I found. The sight frightened me.

I remained in the doorway, uncertainty rising as I watched the fog that seemed to envelop the house swirl and crackle. Tendrils of light occasionally cracked and flashed throughout the fog’s inky darkness. For a moment, things appeared calm. I thought about stepping onto the porch, took a cautious step forward, and…

Crack!

Immediately, I hustled back inside and slammed the front door shut. I looked up at the window hanging over the door and saw sunlight shine through as if it were still a clear summer afternoon and there wasn’t a swirling phantom of death enveloping the house. The sound of bluebirds chirped again, adding to the lunacy. For a moment, I thought about opening the door and peeking outside but immediately changed my mind.

Instead, I ran full-tilt back to the room I woke up in. Surely, I must have been dreaming. Pinching my skin, I quickly realized from both the pain and still being stuck in this place this was no illusion. I needed to take a beat, needed to rest. Pulling the chair out, I sat at the desk. The notebook still sat where I had left it, unopened. Looking at it, I sighed, then reached down to open it.

I should have known better.

Pasted inside the pages of the notebook were about a week’s worth of newspaper clippings. As I flipped through the pages, skimming the articles, the content contained in each blew my mind. I recognized the picture of the house featured in each one. Elaine’s house. What struck me as odd was the house having been overgrown with ivy, the windows either boarded up or broken. Tendrils of the ivy’s vines spread across the entire abode, acting as a gatekeeper to whatever it kept prisoner inside. It didn’t make sense. I had just been there. The yard had been well-manicured and the exterior of the house kept pristine. The only similarity between my memory and the picture was the river running beside the grounds of the estate. Near the river stood the giant oak tree and the bench where I had been waiting for Elaine.

Elaine!

Flipping back to the first page, I began to read. Surely it couldn’t have been that long since I went to visit—

No, this can’t be right. There’s no way the information I read could have been true. I’m not a criminal. I would never do such a thing.

I remembered knocking on the door of the house. Elaine’s house. The butler told me to wait outside, instead of the foyer, which I found odd, but who am I to argue? It was a nice day, so I walked to the oak tree…

My thoughts drifted away from me as my eyes shifted to the top of the article. The date indicated it was still early summer. How long have I’ve actually been here, stuck in some kind of rehabilitative hell in which I didn’t belong? What happened to Elaine’s house? More importantly, what happened to Elaine? I still remember the woman’s face like it was yesterday…

Only one of us gets to walk away.

The last words Elaine said to me ran through my head as clear as day. What were we fighting over? I shook my head; I couldn’t remember. Her sleeveless blue dress fluttered in the wind as she stormed off, heading up the bank of the river. I immediately began to follow…

Arf!

The sound pulled me from my thoughts and brought me to attention. Was there a dog in here? Who let him in? I was alone. Except for the invisible person who cooked the chicken…

Maybe I was going insane.

Arf! Arf!

Immediately, I closed the notebook and followed the sounds of the barking dog. His panicked barks became louder and increased with intensity with each step I took toward the foyer. I began to head for the stairs, but the pull of something held me back once more. It wasn’t long before I found myself by the front door. The dog could be heard right on the other side. 

Arf! Arf! Arf! Arf!

I stared at the door, trepidation rising in the pit of my stomach. Last time I stepped out; I had been forced back in by the fog. Still, I couldn’t leave a dog out there in the chaos. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I opened the door.

The massive fog still enveloped the house. Its clouds swirled, and the crackling lights I saw within them before appeared to have ceased their activity. However, the barking dog was nowhere to be found. Exhaling slowly, I took a cautious step onto the porch. 

I was thankful the fog didn’t try to push me back in.

Looking around, the porch appeared to cover the house’s front exterior. It was constructed from wood and felt out of place given what I had seen of the inside. A pair of wicker rocking chairs sat to my right; an end table made of the same material between them. But that wasn’t what drew my attention.

It was the bluebird.

The bluebird sat on a folded newspaper on the end table. It chirped melodically and fluttered it wings for a moment before stopping to turn its head toward me. My jaw hung open as it engaged me in a staring match. Then, the bird flew away into the fog. Where did it go? Did freedom exist on the other side of the fog’s mists? I started toward the steps leading down from the porch, but my instincts kept me at bay. Instead, I picked up the paper and sat in one of the rockers.

Wicker chairs are uncomfortable, by the way.

The front-page article was all I needed to see.

DRUNK DRIVER CRASHES INTO TREE, 4 CHILDREN DEAD

Elaine Chestnut, 28, was seen driving down Fairchild Avenue when her car struck four children before the vehicle crashed into a tree, according to police reports. Ms. Chestnut had a blood alcohol level of twice the legal limit. Witnesses claim her car swerved multiple times. Two of the children were pronounced dead at the scene. Due to the victims being minors, names of the deceased are not being released at this time.

“I was trying to avoid the dog,” Ms. Chestnut said as police walked her into the 35th precinct for booking. “I didn’t see the kids.”

Ms. Chestnut is currently being held without bail at the Kentwood County courthouse. Her first appearance in court is scheduled for 8 a.m. Monday morning.

Looking up, I wiped tears from my face with my dark-skinned hand. I had no idea why I had been crying. Was it because of what the paper said Elaine had done? If so, why do I still remain trapped in this cursed prison of a body? If what the report said was true, then why was I the one stuck in this living hell? Where did the line fall between truth and lies?

Only one of us gets to walk away.

The memory of Elaine’s voice returned; this time volatile. Angry. Get it together, Antonio, I thought. Shutting my eyes, I continued wiping my tears as I attempted to shut out the sound of her voice while at the same time trying to remember.

And remember I did…

#

“Elaine!” I shouted, running after her as she stormed off. I huffed while trying to keep up with the woman. The speed of her gait surprised me. “The lawyer got you cleared of all charges; this should be an exciting day! We can finally go back to the way things were and get married like we had planned.”

Elaine paused, turning to look at me, the waves of her hair framing her face perfectly as she regarded me with a flat stare. The wind ceased, and her lips remained held tightly together. Her silence matched the stillness of the air. I wished she would say something, Anything. Even shouting would have been preferable to her damnable silence. Even the rushing water of the river next to us spoke louder.

“Look, I don’t care how much of what happened is the truth, and how much is a lie.” I reached for her arm but she jerked away, resuming her trek up the side of the river behind the house. 

Like an idiot, I followed.

Unfortunately, I had been looking down at the ground, trying to avoid stepping on a giant root when Elaine stopped suddenly. This caused me to walk right into her back. She scowled at me as we tumbled forward a few steps. Luckily, we didn’t fall over completely. I would have hated to get mud all over my suit. Italian cut cloth is expensive.

I was straightening the cuffs of my sleeve when I heard Elaine gasp. Looking ahead, I saw what had her petrified.

The wolf was huge, its fur standing on end. It stared us both down with beady eyes, its lips pulled back in a snarl. Saliva dripped from its mouth, droplets plopping to the ground as the animal shifted back on its haunches and growled.

Not sure what else to do, I grabbed Elaine’s hand and ran.

The wolf howled, sprinting close behind us, nipping at our heels. We neared the oak tree, and Elaine tripped, causing us both to fall to the ground.

The wolf ignored me and lunged at Elaine; she barely managed to roll away before the beast could sink its teeth into her neck. Looking to my side, I saw a branch, and used both hands to pick the thing up while I scrambled to my feet. I swung it at the wolf, but it slipped out of my hands, knocking both the wolf and my fiancée into the river. I ran to the bank of the river, searching the raging waters frantically for any signs of Elaine.

I scanned the river frantically for any sign of Elaine amongst the rapids. On the far side of the river, the wolf emerged, its fur drenched. It retched up some water before briefly shaking its fur dry and running off into the woods. I didn’t watch it go. Elaine still hadn’t surfaced. Her body was found downstream three hours later…

#

Tears streamed down my face. No matter how hard I tried, wiping them away would not remove thoughts of what happened to Elaine. Was this why I was being put to trial? Over an accident? My innocence didn’t matter. The system had found me guilty. I don’t even remember being arrested. I just woke up here, in this place, in a body not my own. This entire situation was all part of a sick game, the elites determining who could re-enter into society. 

I placed the newspaper back on the end table, placed my head in my hands, and cried even harder. What could I do? 

I’m not stupid. Anyone stuck in this predicament would want to save their own skin. But what is it I have to repent for? Everything leading up to now has been an unfortunate series of coincidences. I’m innocent. Just because I don’t believe myself responsible doesn’t mean I don’t feel bad it happened.

Only one of us gets to walk away.

Dammit, Elaine, this couldn’t be what you meant, could it?

Wiping the last of the tears from my face, I stood. If only we hadn’t gotten into an argument. If only she hadn’t walked away…If only the wolf hadn’t been there…If only I hadn’t…Elaine used to be a strong swimmer…

The river proved to be stronger. And all I did was stand there at the river’s edge and watch her drown.

Wait, no. That’s not right. I didn’t leave Elaine to drown.. After she fell in…it wasn’t long before I found myself in a jail cell. The police interrogated me for hours. Everyone said I was nuts, that I had attacked my fiancée.

That I left her to die.

Is that why I am here? To be absolved of my guilt? I shook my head as I quietly reentered the house. Closing the door behind me, I heard the bluebird chirping. Did it wait for me to leave before returning? If it survived going through the fog, did that mean I could get to the other side?

I looked up at the window above the front door, the sunlight shining through a lie masking the exterior of the house outside.  Running my hand through my hair, I cleared my mind.  

I had to get out of here. 

I had to leave.

Problem was, I didn’t know how. I knew there were only two choices—stay trapped and remember everything, or leave, having my memories wiped in order to start my life anew. The system is unfair. Either choice resulted in death.

I know I’m innocent, but I’m also responsible for Elaine being knocked into the river in the first place. Pacing back and forth in the foyer, there wasn’t much time to weigh the pros and cons. Do I stay here until death befriends me? What happens if I go upstairs? Will I lose my memory if I proclaim my innocence or even my guilt?

Arf!

Hearing the dog bark snapped me out of my thoughts, and I came to a possible third solution—leaving down the porch stairs. However, there was only one way to test it. It’s just it’s never been done before. At least, if it had, I’d never heard about it. One of two things were going to happen—either I would win and I live, or I would lose and die. Neither choice is optimal. I’d rather make the decision to leave and remember everything. I know this might not work, and I very likely wouldn’t come out unscathed, but I had to try.

This was the only fair option, the only choice I had available. I wanted freedom, and I planned on holding onto my identity for as long as could.

Taking a deep breath, I turned and faced the door. It was now or never. Opening the door, I stepped once more onto the porch. The storm within the fog had returned.

Crack!

This time, the lightning didn’t push me back. 

I took one step down off of the porch.

Then another…then another.

Soon my feet planted themselves on solid ground. One foot followed after the other as I slowly walked through the fog while the lightning cracked and snapped around me. The darkness of the fog started began to lighten, and I smiled.

I was going to remember.

I wouldn’t feel guilty for Elaine.

I was going to remember….


#

According to the calendar, it’s been three weeks since I woke up with no recollection of who I am.

One of the nurses said my name was Antonio, because the name on my bracelet tag said so. I took her word for it. My brain had been foggy and everything still felt like a dream. Maybe I was in a dream. My doctor told me I had been in a coma, but when I asked for how long, he just shook his head and walked away. I kept asking for a mirror, but the hospital staff refused to hand me one. All I could see was the darkness of my skin and the lengths of my hair being as white as the clouds outside. The doctor said I was in an accident. There’s still a bandage wrapped around my forehead. Whatever had happened to me must have been pretty bad.

Oh well, at least I have this notebook to write in.

Don’t know where it came from, it just showed up the other day. Today, I finally decided to start writing. Odd how a few of the pages were torn out. It doesn’t matter. Need do something to pass the time until I heal up. Whenever that is.

A TV nearby played the local news. The reporter mentioned something about a woman who had drowned earlier in the year. The man who pushed her in had finished his court sentence. Poor guy. Would hate to be him, waking up as a completely different person…

Wait a minute…

One of the nurses came by and turned it off before I could offer any sort of protest. 

My room was plain and simple. The bed had been positioned in the back of the room near a window. I found it rather lovely. I could see in a field down below a small gray dog chasing after a bluebird that got too close. It hurt to smile, but I do it anyway. The sight was oddly comforting to me.

I heard the creak of the meal cart being rolled down the hallway. I could feel excitement brewing... Tonight, they were bringing me roasted chicken.


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