He rises to sit in his bed, mechanically. Little by little, he is learning to react to those few syllables as dog would to a whistle. Sounds like it is his name, or something to that effect – and if they say it is, then he believes them.
To tell the truth, it does click into place now and then. Some other hours, he plain forgets it. But they are there to remind him.
“Come in, sweetie.”
She does, immediately. In the faint lamplight, his eyes trace her silhouette, a tangle of soft round lines in the space of the doorway. According to what he’s been told over and over in the past couple of days, she is his beloved niece. Mabel, was it? Mabel.
Judging from the photos, he must really be attached to her. There is plenty of evidence – last but not least, she worries the most. Unsurprisingly, the fact he loves her is one of the ideas that ring truest.
She climbs in bed by his side. She does not look reluctant at all. It makes him wonder how close they used to be.
“Can’t sleep, Grunkle Stan?”
“I don’t know,” he replies, in a meek tone which – they claim – never was his own. “I guess my head is too full of rubbish.”
Her round eyes search his face, utterly broken. He can almost read her answer within them.
At least it isn’t empty.
She has a point, he muses. It isn’t always empty, he would rather say. Even so, with such a flat surface replacing his memory, the rare bursts of lightning – the ones that throw him back to the man he used to be, without a warning – are possibly more confusing than the blank.
He goes with the flow. It’s not like he has many other options. What else is he supposed to do?
“What about you, Mabel? Can’t sleep, either?”
“It’s not that,” she lies. How does he know she is lying? “I just… found something, and… I wanted you to have it.”
He hadn’t noticed. Not right away, at any rate. He takes the chance to study the battered strip of cloth she is torturing between her hands. It is something he has never seen before – or has he?
He reaches for it with instinctive curiosity, delicately loosening her grip. Although she welcomes his gesture, her mouth bends in surprise.
It’s strange, a corner of his thoughts whispers. This is the first object he has been drawn to since he awoke.
He feels it, careful. It would certainly be softer, if it weren’t covered in dirt and little tears.
“It looks… yellow,” he mutters. “And dirty. What is it?”
“It is inside-out. You have to flip it over.”
In that very moment, on the inner side, his fingers meet a line of thick stitches.
“I don’t think you remember when I sewed it.” Right now, her voice has such a fragile edge to it. “I just thought, if Grunkle Stan keeps it close every day, if he touches it from time to time, maybe it can help some more. Every little bit helps, right?”
Every little bit helps. Her words echo in his ears. Some kindness. Some stories to tell. It might work.
He spreads the cloth open, supposedly in the way it was meant to be looked at. Even in the nightly shade, he can make out the contours of the letters – half-fallen, but still readable and colourful.
What happened to this sash?
“There was a star here,” she says feebly, pointing at the space between the words. “I’m sorry it fell off.”
He does not answer. He is too busy reading, repeatedly, to make sure he is not wrong. The words he has heard so many times already, from all sorts of people, stand out brilliantly against that dull yellow.
He may not be the brightest of the bunch, but he feels those words are – at long last – a concrete hint he can make use of. The truth is a touch away, swinging that little hook just in front of his nose. (A grappling hook?)
If nothing else, they are the first words since then to scan a precise order in his mind. He chases after them.
He is an ocean. An endless expanse of blue. He came into being that way, peaceful and motionless. The strange thing is, the water has dried out. His ocean has no waves nor sand.
Somehow, he knows it was also born in fire.
Like that, all dry and salty, he opens his eyes on the world for the first time. They fill up with colours and sensation. It is tranquil, beautiful, yet vibrant with life.
Is he part of this world?
He has no idea. But the man in front of him – did they ever meet? – seems to know better. He talks in the voice of the wind among the caves, alone and melancholic and dripping with tears.
The caves… the caves…
His words are too frail. They escape him. But the last ones, for reasons he can’t name, stay in the hair, hanging from his clothes like an embrace.
“You are our hero, Stanley.”
He is devoured by a tightening circle. He has no moves left. There is something he wishes he could escape – what it is, well, it beats him – but he is sure of something else, and it is that he can’t.
Nevertheless, his hands don’t let go of the rectangle. That one flat rectangle, whatever it means, is all he cares for in the world.
For that, he is ready to go. The idea makes his heart swell. He goes for them.
“Grunkle Stan… is everything okay?”
He is their hero, a small, unfamiliar mayor proclaims, kneeling by the side of his chair. He won’t stay like that forever, will he?
The faces are different, but everyone repeats those words. A bearded old guy who smells weird, but thinks sharply. That strange young man who buzzes around him a lot, and cries more. The super nice teenager with flowing red hair. The young kids, self-proclaimed members of his family.
And the man. The first person he ever laid his eyes on.
“Our… our hero,” he reads out loud, to no one in particular.
His insomnia makes him wish he were emptier. But he isn’t anymore.
There is a man now, slumped in a chair he found somewhere around his brain. Not a real man – a man of words and paper. The man they claim he once was, in some other dimension he has lost.
In there, the old fellow does not do anything productive. He seems to favor the most monotonous game of ping-pong. It is through their words, more than within him, that he comes to life.
He steals money from entire crowds of dumb blokes, with the force of his natural charm. Or his talent for lies, for that matter. He compliments whoever he needs to be friends with. He tries his best – and life beats him down, relentless. But he gets on his feet again.
He receives two children as guests, for one summer, and puts them in danger countless times.
He never fails to save their lives.
He pays attention to their fairytales, drinking information from their starry eyes. The one who looks so much like him – his brother? – listens with equal interest.
He does his best to picture himself doing all that. He really tries. But the old guy in the chair, inside his brain, does not move yet. He smirks instead.
The old guy is waiting for something. They both are, he somehow understands.
Aren’t they one and the same?
“Grunkle Stan,” Mabel whispers, clinging to his wrists. “Do you remember anything?”
He clings to cold metal bars. If he does not go up fast, something will fall. Something too precious to let it break like that.
He has strong muscles. Trained for combat by a life of desolation. His bare biceps glisten with sweat and reflected light.
There isn’t much else. There is a smile, and small fingers in his. There is relief.
“You remember this sash, right?” She waves her hand frantically, pointing at the letters. “Do you remember what day that was?”
“It’s not official, but I think it fits.”
The pang in his chest hurts. It will hurt later on, when a sudden apocalypse forces him to lose sight of such a precious gift.
Well, it is official now, an anonymous voice from the present guarantees. You are our hero.
The hero of a lifetime that never was, after failing to become one in another.
The hero of his niece and his nephew, the hero of his friends, his employees, his town and his countrymen. A universal hero, someone exaggerated.
The hero of the man without a name, the first man.
All he ever wished to be.
The hero of his family.
Without speaking, Stan blinks. He opens his eyes once more.
In front of him, a young girl clenches her fist around a dirty sash. He knows what it is, a mildly shocked part of himself announces. The sash he had thought he had lost, in the whole mess of his emergency plan for survival. The greatest honor of his life.
He must wear it again. Tomorrow, if he can get the dirt off.
The man dancing inside his head, the man of stories, photographs and glittery text, touches his reasoning once more. His life, with all that he is and used to be, does not seem to belong to someone else this time.
The empty spaces between the two of them collide once and for all. It must not be temporary anymore. Not if he wants it.
This time, he is going to stay.
Stan reaches out to Mabel, not even trying to conceal his trembling hands. He grabs her like a lifeline, and holds her to his chest as if nothing else mattered.
His voice is full of tears. But he doesn’t care.
“It was the day you two gave me a good scare, pumpkin.”