On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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The man slowly became aware of his surroundings, piece by piece, like an old photograph being developed in front of his eyes.
Walls, blank and faded, with stains in places. A radiator with chipped paint, and the clear marks of a leak in the valve at some point. A carpet pressed thin from too many years of use, doubtless now several shades darker than it was when it was first laid. There was a smell, too. Maybe dampness in the walls. The place didn’t exactly look like it was well taken care of.
The disorientation struck him all at once. As the fog of sleep fell away, he realised he had absolutely no idea where he was. The man sat up, realising it was an old couch he’d been sleeping on, and then he winced at the sudden shooting pain in his head. He clasped a hand to his temple, but the pain had already vanished as quickly as it had appeared. He stood up, carefully this time, and tested his legs. Everything seemed to work, and there was no further pain, so he walked over to the solitary window and lifted the tatty curtain to one side.
A dirty and nondescript alley greeted him, with a blank wall opposite. Strewn litter moving in the breeze, but no signs of life. He was obviously one floor up. He thought he could probably jump it if he had to, and it occurred to him that it was an odd idea to have.
It was then that the man realised he didn’t know who he was.
He felt a tightness in his chest that he recognised as panic, and he cast around in his mind for any clue to his identity. Nothing came. No name. No occupation. No age or background. No memories at all. He didn’t even know what his own face looked like.
The man swayed on his feet, but he didn’t fall over. He looked around and located the door that seemed most likely to lead to a bathroom, staggered over to it, and pulled it open. He wasn’t even surprised that the mirror above the sink was broken, but there was still more than enough of it to permit seeing his reflection.
The face was unfamiliar, but he thought it might be unfamiliar even to his own mother at this point. Haggard and haunted were the words that sprang to mind. He had deep lines beneath his grey-blue eyes, his hair was unkempt, and he had several days of growth all along his jawline. There was a wound high up on the left side of his head, caked with dried blood, but it didn’t seem too bad. At least it explained the pain earlier. He thought it looked like the sort of injury you’d sustain from a fall or a similar accident, rather than something deliberately inflicted, but there was no way to know.
The man switched on the tap in the sink, and after a long moment of nothing, water began to flow. It was clear and icy cold, and he cupped his hands under it and drank again and again. Afterwards he washed his face as best he could, and then looked around for a towel. There wasn’t one, and he just shook his head in resignation and returned to the adjoining room, leaving little dark spots of water in his wake.
He saw a jacket crushed into the corner of the couch, and he used it to dry his face. It only took another couple of seconds for the obvious idea to occur to him, and he hurriedly searched the jacket’s pockets, then those of the clothes he was wearing. He didn’t find a single thing, and he almost threw the jacket across the room in frustration before deciding it would be a better idea to put it on instead.
Something in his peripheral vision made him turn towards the meagre and makeshift kitchen area of the dingy apartment, and his pulse immediately accelerated. Sitting in the middle of the scratched, stained and cheap-looking table was an incongruous object, only a few centimetres on each side, but completely identifiable. It was a carved wooden shape with a pad attached to the underside, used with ink to apply a personal stamp to letters and other documents. The shape was that of an elaborate and stylised horse, with dark and angry-looking eyes. There was no ink bottle or paper, or anything else at all, but that didn’t matter — because the stamp was familiar.
Somehow, the man had seen it before. He couldn’t remember where or when, but he knew that this unlikely trinket was the first thing he’d seen since he woke up that seemed familiar. So why didn’t he feel relieved?
The next sound he heard had the quality of déjà vu. The rumble of vehicle engines, and then the squeal of brake pads against rubber. Doors opening and then slamming closed, and heavy boots thudding against the ground below. And the faint but unmistakeable metallic sounds that the man somehow knew were caused by firearms being readied for use.
They found me again, he thought, with no explanation but also with absolute certainty.
Somewhere downstairs, an outer door crashed open. He knew that his pursuers — for that was definitely what they were — would be upon him in much less than a minute.
There was nowhere to go. He could jump from the window, but they would have left someone with their vehicles, and he might be injured in the fall. He had no weapons of his own. He glanced around desperately, and then he became aware that he’d picked up the wooden stamp.
It had a pleasing weight in his palm. Textured and warm. And so evocative. An image flashed through his mind of a row of little shop fronts, staffed by Asian-looking people squatting on brightly-coloured plastic stools, shouting cheerfully to each other and to passing customers. They all sold the same thing: the stamps, but in hundreds of variations. Shop after shop, all along a street that lay within a maze of similar streets.
They’re narrow because in the past the government taxed businesses by the width of their premises, his mind said, and again the man had no idea how he knew that.
Another door crashed open somewhere below, closer this time, and the ominous thud of boots began to echo up through an unseen stairwell.
Hanoi, he thought. The stamp is from Hanoi. It’s my next stop.
And then he could see the bustling city in his mind. He could smell it; the food, and the thousands of moped exhausts, and the steam and the sweat. The spice of the breeze. He could smell it, and see it, and he thought he could even feel it.
The man closed his eyes. He focused his mind, reaching instinctively down within himself even as he closed his fist tightly around the wooden stamp.
Men in the hallway outside. A safety lever being disengaged. But it didn’t matter. They were too late.
The man could see his next stop. He knew where it was, because he’d been there before. He knew the way; the hidden and direct way, above and below and behind everything else. The wooden stamp cut into his palm.
And he went.
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