Clean Slate: The past

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He was as far from London as a man on foot could travel in three days.

Three days ago he had awoken with no memory of who he was. Now his mind was full of memories. But they were as chaotic as a battlefield, slipping and slithering like soldiers trying to keep steady in mud and blood.

First, he had followed his instincts home through the cobbled streets. The brick-built townhouse had a large bay window, with a white stucco surround, where a single candle glowed as if waiting for him. It was the home of a well-to-do man, or perhaps a family. He’d hesitated at the door and then knocked awkwardly. The door had opened, and a gawking maid barred the threshold. Her familiar blue eyes had tugged at his heart, but his mind remained an echoing cavern.

“Please, Leland—Dr. Kelley. Go. Run! I know you are not what they say. You are gentle soul.”

She had not offered him shelter; but her eyes had offered him kindness, her caressing hands had pressed a leather wallet into his, and her lips had given him something precious—his name.

He had tried to find a place to rest, but each time he stopped to collect himself the darkness had gathered, a demon presence at its heart. And every other face he had seen on the streets of London became a mask of horror at the sight of him; people had pointed and shouted for the constabulary. And so he had quickly given in to her advice. He ran for his life.

Now he was coming to the end of a pier in some northwestern port town. Boats rocked in their moorings and the stench of tar invaded his nostrils. The early fall sky was clear and bright, stabbing his eyes with unending blue.

His mind was full of contradictions. Gaslights in the streets were both a wonder of modern technology, and painfully primitive. Travel by horse-drawn taxi was a comfortable and expedient way to travel, but it told him he was in an undeveloped and backward place. The idea of men traveling in tiny vessels bobbing on the open water was natural, and yet unthinkably archaic. Memories had returned, but so scattershot he could make no sense of them. Each memory seemed at odds with the last.

Cracks of black ocean alternated with planks beneath his feet. His mind hummed the old rhyme: “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” No face came to him at the word mother. He concentrated harder. A slough of women’s faces bombarded him. Dark faces, light faces, bloody faces, burned faces. Leland cried out in horror.

The black between the planks began to deepen and he averted his eyes to the merciless sky. But even without seeing it, he could feel its oozing presence. The darkness had found him again.

His heartbeat quickened, urging him to run, but his feet could take him no further. Water stretched out endlessly on the horizon before him. He had come to the end of the pier.

He looked around franticly. A fair sized fishing vessel was preparing to leave, clouds of sooty steam puffing up from its stack. A large man, with salt and pepper stubble, stood nearby, coiling a rope with precision and speed. Leland lurched toward him, then stopped.

The gaps of the dock throbbed with an evil that threatened his right mind, but square on a board before him, pure and untouched, laid a small lock of black hair carefully tied with a red ribbon.

Leland mustered his courage and snatched it away from the reaching fingers of shadow. “Sir, did you lose this?” He hadn’t spoken in days. His voice sounded strange, like someone else was speaking.

The man turned. At the sight of the black curl in Leland’s outstretched palm, his eyes widened and his hand flew to the pouch at his hip. “Heaven help me if I were to lose my Jennie’s token!”

As though handling a delicate butterfly, the man picked up the hair between two calloused fingers and placed it in the pouch. “I am in your debt, Sir. What can I do to repay the boon?”

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