He did not know where he was, only that he was returning from a far, dark place. The smell was the only thing he was sure of. He used it like a rope, pulling himself hand over mental hand back from the pit. There was a sharp familiarity to the smell. He knew he had been in a place before that had worn this appalling odor like a badge. In this addled moment, that knowledge was all he had.
He arrived back to a point where he could open his eyes.
He lay on a concrete floor under a cold fluorescent sun. Pain attacked with the return of sight. His head thundered. Every inch of his body cried out. His mouth felt gummed shut.
A bellowing thirst drove him to move. Testing each motion before committing, he managed to roll over. Next to him sprawled a snoring mountain of beard and leather and stink. He crawled around the other man and searched for water.
“Well, lookee here. The dead is commencing to rise.”
The words were meaningless. But he knew the tone. It fitted into the blank puzzle of his brain. It connected to the smell. He spotted a sink in the corner. He used a bench that was bolted to the floor to push himself to his feet. Only when he started shuffling across the yawning distance did he realize he had no shoes.
Bending over the sink almost dislodged his skull. The faucet creaked open. He stuffed his mouth under the flow and groaned as he drank. He doused his head, then used his one remaining jacket sleeve to dry his face. The other sleeve appeared to have been torn off. Colored threads dangled over his shirt like military braid. If only he could remember the battle!
He blinked through the sheen of moisture. Two sides of the chamber were the same grey-painted concrete as the floor. The other two were floor-to-ceiling metal bars. He shared the lockup with perhaps a dozen other men. More than half were still sleeping. Two youths in shiny athletic gear argued in words that he could not piece together. Only one man, perhaps the largest in the cage, met his eye. His weather-beaten features and flat, dark gaze had once probably sparked with intelligence, but now were merely aware.
The stranger waved him over. “You come on over here and sit yourself down.”
“You heard me. Get yourself on over here.”
He shuffled over. The stranger waited until he was seated, then turned to the youths and said, “Give the man back his shoes.”
One youth responded with a curse.
“You want to get on the wrong side of me? That really what you want?”
“What are you, his mama?”
The other youth said, “No, man, it’s just fresh meat. The dude’s looking after his own self. Wants to get the meat all close and cozy. Ain’t that right, meat?”
The man said, “I’m not asking you again.”
The youth took off the soft black loafers and threw them. Hard. “Wait till your honey drifts off, meat. I’ll be watching.”
“Don’t you listen to him. Put your shoes on.”
“I’ll be watching,” the youth repeated. “Got me a blade with your name on it.”
The man eased forward a trifle. The youth was suddenly blocked from view. “The difference between y’all and me is, I know what I’m in for. I made a mistake. Again.” The giant spoke with a steady monotone. As if he’d been over this terrain a billion times. “I fell. Again.”
“Like I care.”
“When I fall, these days what I do is I drink. After that, I got a problem with my anger management. So you two best hush up while you still can. Otherwise I’ll have to spend time on my knees for smashing you like a couple of shiny bugs.”
The mountain let the silence hold a moment before turning around. “Do you know your head is bleeding?”
He reached up and touched the spot that thundered the loudest. His fingers came back red. But when he spoke, it was about what worried him the most. “I don’t know who I am.”
“Me, I go by Reuben.” Nothing seemed to surprise this man. “I heard the cops talking about you. You were at a bar they had under surveillance. The bartender and his ladies, they had a scam going. They was slipping something in the johns’ drinks and rolling them. What you want to be going in a place like that for?”
“I don’t remember a thing.”
“They brought you in on account of you duking it out with one of their own. Sounds like you might need some of that same anger management yourself.”
“I hit a cop?”
“You tried. That’s what counts. Looks like they’re the ones that connected. Turn around and let me have a look at your head.”
When he did not move fast enough, the man swiveled him easy as a doll. Fingers probed the wound. “They gave you a couple of good licks, that’s for sure.” Reuben held up fingers. “How many you see?”
“Follow my hand. No, don’t move your head. Just your eyes.” The fingers went back and forth, then up and down. “I used to be an ER nurse. Which is where I got hooked the first time. That place is full of the most awesome drugs. Okay, cross your legs.”
Reuben poked beneath the kneecap, making his leg bounce. Then Reuben gripped his chin and the base of his neck and swiveled the skull, still probing. “You getting dizzy?”
“No. But everything hurts.”
“It ought to, after what you put your body through.” Reuben dropped his hands. “Probably shoulda had a couple of stitches. But you don’t seem concussed.”
“But I can’t remember.”
“Weren’t you listening? You got drugged, you took a couple of hits with the stick. You’re gonna need a while to wake up.”
A steel door clapped open as a guard stepped from the bullet-proof viewing station across the hall. “Adams!”
“I told you, I don’t know--”
The cop pointed straight at him. “Jeffrey Adams! Front and center!”
The black man helped him rise to his feet. “Ain’t everybody gets called back from the pit, man. Question is, what are you gonna do when you find out who you are?”