A Man By Any Other Name

Submitted to the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition (2014).  My first short story writing contest.

My task: write a mystery story about pharmaceuticals involving a substitute teacher.

Update: I didn’t make it out of the first round with this story, but did earn an honorable mention (which I suppose I’ll take considering this was my first competition).

A year ago, Martin Anthony’s life was forever changed.  Until today, he had no idea just how much.

…..

At 40 years old, Martin Anthony would be lying if he said that working as a substitute high school Math teacher was particularly fulfilling.  Every day he went over the same lesson plans with the same students who had the same lack of interest in what he was teaching them.  What made him decide to be a teacher in the first place?  It wasn’t his love of working with children, of that much he was certain.  He actually did enjoy the math, though.  Most people laughed when he told them that, but math had always been exhilarating to him.  It’s true that numbers don’t lie – he wasn’t a painter or a sculptor or anything artsy like that – but if you knew how numbers worked, really understood them, then you could make them dance as surely as any prima ballerina.  Martin even enjoyed simple things like figuring out his taxes or investing online because he could make those numbers on the page sing.

But here he was trying to explain the rudiments of algebra to a classroom of kids who cared about seeing those numbers on the page as much as they cared about reading Shakespeare on the page.  He could have been an accountant or gone into finance – that certainly would have paid better and been more fulfilling.  So how did he end up here?  The fact is, he couldn’t remember.  But then again, he couldn’t remember a lot of things.

A little over a year ago, Martin had a major surgery to remove a tumor in his brain.  The doctors told him that there may be some issues with his memory, at least for a while, but he had a hard time remembering anything that happened before the procedure.  Sometimes it seemed as if the day those doctors dug into his brain was the day he was born.  He wasn’t sure if that was all because of the operation or if it was because of the pills he had to keep taking.

God, how he hated those pills.  What were they even for?  He didn’t know what they were supposed to do, but he knew what they did: they made him tired, they made him feel as though he was going about his day while fighting through a wall of spider webs.  They made everything seem…muddy.  His psychiatrist, Dr. Petty, told him repeatedly that his recovery was going just fine.  But he always seemed to hedge when Martin asked him about the pills.  Was he going to have to take them forever?  Were they causing the problems with his memory?  What were they doing for him?  Or to him?  Were they supposed to stop infection or stop the tumor from coming back?  Dr. Petty’s answered always just seemed vague and forced.  To be fair, though, maybe that was just Martin being paranoid.  Martin had noticed that as well: he always felt like he was being watched, like people were following him.

He pushed his way through another day at Fenn High School, home of the Vikings.  Not that it mattered which school he was teaching at today: it was Friday, football day.  Not that there was ever really a math day, but on Fridays, in particular, nobody cared about anything he had to say.  That meant his last class of the day was even more of a grind than most, with most of his students staring at the clock, waiting for the final bell.

As he walked out to his car after school, he noticed a man in a dark suit walking down the sidewalk outside the school gate.  Was that the same man he’d seen this morning, when he arrived?  It couldn’t be, could it?  Or maybe it was.  Maybe he happened to work nearby and worked the same hours that Martin did.  That made sense, didn’t it?

“Get a hold of yourself, Marty,” he thought to himself.

As he made his way home, he found himself constantly scanning his rearview mirror.  Once or twice, he could have sworn he saw the same car back there, following him.  But was one dark sedan really that much different from another?  Granted, staring over your shoulder at headlights wasn’t exactly the easiest way to tell the difference between one dark car and another.  Maybe he should ask Dr. Petty about the paranoia next time.  Was this normal, too?  Of course, he was just as paranoid about the answers he got from the doc half of the time.

Dinner was dull, consisting of some microwaved morsel that somebody, somewhere, had the audacity to call lasagna.  He took his plate over to the sink, turned on the water to rinse his plate and pulled his pills out of the cabinet.  As he fumbled with the lid, which was at least as adult-proof as it was child-proof, he was startled by the sound of a car door slamming outside.  That was followed immediately by the sound of his pills clattering all over the sink and down the drain as the lid popped off of the pill bottle.

“Dammit!”

With the water running, the pills were quickly swept down the drain before he could grab any of them.  He yanked the faucet off and stomped over to the front door to see what was going on outside in time to see a black car creep down the street.  He couldn’t make out the license plate, but could have sworn he had seen that same car before.  He rubbed his head and took a deep breath, silently urging himself to keep it together.

He walked back into the kitchen and grabbed the pill bottle to see if any pills had survived his latest attack of clumsiness.  Of course, none had.  Exasperated, he let out a deep sigh – the sort of sigh that only forty years of letting out deep, exasperated sighs could teach.  He grabbed his jacket and stuffed the empty bottle into his pocket.  Obviously, Dr. Petty wouldn’t be in his office this late to refill the prescription, so it looked like he’d have to make a trip to the pharmacy.

Driving to the pharmacy, Martin fought the urge to keep checking his rearview mirror and was pleased with himself when he made it to the parking lot without any bouts of groundless suspicion.  He walked inside and back to the counter, presenting his pill bottle to the pharmacy tech handling the counter.  The young girl checked the pill bottle, looking quizzically at him and back down at the bottle before walking to the back.

Martin fought back more of those all-too-familiar feelings of suspicion.  His wasn’t a common prescription, he thought to himself, so it really wasn’t strange that she hadn’t filled one before.  Was it?

He saw her in the back, talking to the pharmacist, who also looked puzzled.  When the pharmacist picked up the phone, Martin felt a lump forming in his throat.  The pharmacist turned away to write something while he was on the phone and Martin could have sworn that he flashed him a frightened expression before he did.  Martin’s heart froze in his chest as the pharmacist hung up the phone and came out to the counter.

“Sorry for the delay, Mr. Anthony, just needed to confirm the dosage with your doctor.  You know these doctors and their handwriting,” the pharmacist chuckled.

Martin thought the chuckle seemed forced – as did the explanation.

“It will take a bit to fill this” the pharmacist told him.  “We don’t keep these stocked, but I can get together enough to carry you through the weekend, until you can get to your doctor.  It will be about an hour, if you want to come back.”

Unsure of what else to do, Martin thanked him and walked out to his car.  He drove to the coffee shop to grab a drink and pass the time.  He sat a table, pulled out his phone and did some quick web browsing, determined to find out what was so terribly interesting about his pills.  The part of him that dreaded what he might find was both vindicated and terrified when he failed to find anything at all.  It was as if the pills he’d been taking every day for the past year didn’t exist at all.  He knew he was spelling the name right.  Even if he wasn’t, surely he was spelling it close enough to get matches on a web search.  Suddenly, he couldn’t care less about the five dollar coffee he’d barely touched.  He ran out of the coffee shop and headed back to the pharmacy.

Martin arrived at the pharmacy in time to see a man in a suit get out of a dark sedan and walk inside.  He could have sworn the man was carrying a pill bottle.  Martin drove around to the back of the store, to the drive-thru pharmacy window.  Through the window, he could see the man in the suit handing a bottle to the pharmacist.  No longer was Martin suspicious, he was terrified.

He sped off, headed for home.  He hadn’t decided what he was going to do yet, but he was going to get as far away from Dr. Petty and his damned pills as he could.  He’d find another doctor, who had never heard of him and get himself checked out.  He’d get some real answers this time.

As he pulled into his driveway, he noticed the Johnsons’ porch light on across the street.  That was weird: it really wasn’t dark enough yet for the lights.  Had it been on since last night?  He didn’t remember seeing Mr. Johnson leaving for work this morning, but he wasn’t really paying attention.  As he saw the curtain in the front window move, he realized they must have ordered a pizza or something and turned the light on for the delivery driver.  Now he was certain that he was losing his mind.  So certain, in fact, that he rushed inside completely unaware of the midnight blue Ford that passed his house and parked just down the street.

Once inside, he grabbed a few changes of clothes and threw them into a duffle bag.  He grabbed what cash he had in the house and stuffed it into his pocket.  He stopped cold when he realized he had nowhere to go.  His parents were dead and he had no family.  All his friends were here in town and not exactly the sorts of people one would drag into something like this – especially when even he didn’t know what THIS was.

As he struggled to come up with a course of action, he sat down at his laptop and searched again for his prescription.  After searching a few different spellings, he tried to search for prescriptions used in brain tumor cases like his, eventually finding his way to a message board. He found some cryptic posts about mind control and other conspiracy theory nonsense, dismissing it as the ravings of people who were convinced the government was putting fluoride in the water to turn them into zombies.  Even he wasn’t that paranoid…yet.

That was when his world shattered.  As he stared at the ravings of lunatics from the darkest corners of the internet, all telling him that he was destined to be a government guinea pig or worse, he heard a knock at the door.

He flicked off the lights, immediately realizing how foolish that was even before he heard Dr. Petty’s voice at the door.

“Martin, please open the door.”

This was it.  He was trapped, with nowhere to go.  Whatever they had been doing to him, they must have realized that he was on to them.  It was over.  Sadly, he turned on the lights and went to the door, ready to accept his fate.

“May I come in, Martin?  It’s time you knew the truth.”

Martin meekly stepped aside as Dr. Petty and two men in dark suits walked in.

“Martin, I’m sorry things have happened this way.  I hope you believe that.”

“Please, doc, just get it over with.  I’ve got nowhere to go.”

“Martin, please tell me everything you remember about your operation.”

“Why are you doing this to me?!  What do you want from me?!  You know everything already.  That’s when you decided to use me as some sort of lab rat!”

“No, Martin.  A little over a year ago you were arrested by the FBI.  In return for your testimony against your employers, you were given a new identity in a new town.  In the past, witnesses in the program who were compromised were almost all compromised when they reached out to old friends or family members and blew their cover.  So we created the story of the brain tumor and placed you on psychotropic drugs that would suppress your long term memory.  We gradually crafted new memories for you of your new identity.  Obviously, things haven’t worked as smoothly as we hoped.”

“What?  Who am I?” Martin exclaimed as he slumped weakly into a chair.

“Your name is Vincent Martine.  You laundered money for the Antonelli family in Washington, D.C.  I’m truly sorry that this happened, but I’d like for you to let me help you.”

“You want me to let you mess with my head all over again?!”

“There are still powerful men who want you dead.  We can pick up where we left off here.  If you try to go it alone, they will find you.  We can even give you a new identity again.”

“I’ve spent a year not even knowing who I was.  Do you know what that’s like, doc?  I can’t do it again.”

“We can do it without the drugs, without the lies.  You can’t do this by yourself, Martin…sorry, Vincent.”

“Vincent.  Yes, my name is Vincent.”

So much can change in an instant.  A few short moments ago, when Martin Anthony opened the door to Dr. Petty, he feared his life was over.  In a way, he was right.

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