“Scars?” Avril asked and held Beads’s stare, fighting a strong desire to recoil.
Beads leaned forward and nodded eagerly. “Scars.”
Avril shook his head. Shit, what kind of sicko is he?
“You never hurt yourself as a child? You said you were raised on discipline and hard work. That sounds like a euphemism for took a beating or two,” Beads said.
Avril shook his head from side to side again. Ethan had been a tough guardian, and he’d shown a frightening familiarity and ease with violence when anybody threatened them, but he’d never hit Avril.
“Really?” Beads seemed surprised. He blew out a sigh and said, “You were lucky, young man. My father beat the crap out of me when I was a kid. I can’t even say I blame him. If I had to deal with a snot-nosed, well, beatings would be getting off light.”
As the other man talked, Avril squinted and reached out with his senses to detect any electrical devices Beads carried that Avril could overload or turn against him, but there was nothing.
Beads turned his head and lifted curly hair behind his left ear to reveal a thick white line of scar tissue where his hair didn’t grow. “I got that as a kid courtesy of my father. Do you have one?”
Avril shook his head again and tried to keep the fear from his expression. He knew some predators fed on fear and lost interest in its absence.
“Show me. Turn your head and move your hair so I can see… Ah, well, just turn your head, your hair is short enough,” Beads amended, seeming to remember he’d bound Avril’s wrists.
Avril did as instructed and noted Beads’s expression changed when no scars were visible. He wondered, Disappointment or relief?
Neither made sense.
The fat man leaned forward as if worried somebody might overhear. “It’s safer out here, away from the cities and the chosen, and—” he stopped, then continued, “I’ve seen some strange things. The world before the Cleansing always felt strange, but after it happened, and I thought I was alone, it made more sense.”
“What about your wife?” Avril asked.
Beads frowned then laughed as he understood. “I was never married. I made her up. Somebody once told me I need to be more like other people, that I needed a disguise. So I invented a wife who made necklaces. I even gave myself the nickname. It works well, people believe almost anything, it’s incredible, and honestly, I enjoy making the necklaces. It gives me something to do between jobs.”
“You said you’d seen strange things,” Avril said, his sense of unease increasing with every passing second.
“And you said you wouldn’t ask questions, young man.”
“Sorry,” Avril said.
Beads nodded, satisfied. “People are doing experiments on people. I figured you were an experiment, and that’s why I have this job to take you back instead of just putting you down. The most recent one looked like a cloning and memory transplant experiment. I thought maybe you were a successful clone, and that’s why they want you back.”
Avril shook his head.
Beads gazed off into the distance for a moment. When he looked back at Avril, he asked, “Are there any gaps in your memory?”
“Nasty business cloning,” Beads said. “There didn’t ought to be more than one of anybody. We get our life, and we die. Fuck it up or live it up; either way, when it’s done, it’s done. The clones I saw were all miserable bastards. Most of them go mad. Or the cloning process mutates them into weird freaks who have to be terminated. Nasty business, but I imagine they’ll get it right one day, and then it’ll be normal. Perhaps they’ve already figured it out, and I only saw the mistakes.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“Are you sure there are no gaps in your memory?” Beads asked. “Well, how would you know? It’s a funny thing isn’t it, how do any of us know? The only thing we can be sure of is this moment. Our memories tell us who we are and where we’ve been and what we’ve done, but how do we know our memories are our own?”
Beads looked expectantly at Avril, and after a moment, he continued, “It’s strange. Seeing that experiment made me think. How do any of us know? How do you know your memories are really your memories? Well?”
“I don’t know,” Avril said.
“Me either. I’ve got all sorts of gaps in mine, but I’m a lot older than you, so that probably explains it,” Beads said and stood up.
“Probably,” Avril agreed.
“It isn’t right.” Beads rubbed the old scar behind his ear, and Avril doubted he was even aware of the action.
As Beads advanced, Avril said, “We have to trust our memories. That’s all we have.”
Beads stopped. “There are people who can play with our minds. There are people with talents, and there are people with technologies. It isn’t right. How can any of us know our memories are real? How can I…” He stopped in front of Avril and kneeled. He unscrewed the top off the vial in his hand then held it toward Avril.
Desperate to stop Beads putting him back under, Avril said, “You could record things.”
“What do you mean?” Beads asked. “Like a journal?”
Beads considered this for a moment.
Avril glanced at the vial and thought about trying to break it, but he didn’t know if Beads had more or what he’d do to Avril if he did.
“How would I know my memories of writing the journal are real?” Beads asked.
Avril tried to think of an answer, but when nothing occurred to him, he shuffled away from Beads and the vial, but the other man grabbed the back of his neck and held him in place. Avril’s eyes grew heavy as he struggled, and then it was dark again.