Erhard really should have been used to life-altering changes at this point. Now that he thought about it, his whole life seemed rather like a series of loosely-connected incidences of the tables being turned. Not only that, but as he interacted with people more and more frequently, they became easier to read. It wasn’t difficult to predict the actions of the people he knew well.
But despite all of these facts, he had no way of knowing what would happen on the twenty-third of September, 2020. That date had become ingrained in him ever since, almost like a second birthday. In a way, that was exactly what it was.
It had been a normal day up until around noon. He’d done a hernia surgery the day before, and was lying in wait in his cell. After the pandemic, his operations had grown more and more frequent, and he’d end up leaving the prison at least three days a week. Guards were far more lenient in general, too, which he began to suspect that someone was behind. They tended to look the other way when he brought things back with him, which resulted in Erhard amassing a decently-sized collection of trinkets and small gifts.
Pressed flowers from Hank. A pig charm that Maria had won in a claw machine. A finely-fashioned steel pendant from Tomoe. They all sat neatly organized in a corner of the room, and sometimes, when Erhard had nothing to do, he would pick one of them up and just hold it, probably to remind himself that it was real.
At the bottom of the stack sat a piece of paper, which had almost been shoved in his hands by a pediatrician when he was about to leave a month ago. It had a messy, simplistic crayon drawing of a smiling sun and what was probably supposed to be him, with a small sentence on the bottom in bright purple.
Thank you, Mr. Doctor. From Alyssa.
He’d kept it folded up in his pocket every time they took him out. They may have only been six words, but they were important ones.
Now that he thought about it, he was still the only one who knew his own name. It had come to him soon after the virus, but the circumstances made mentioning it rather inopportune. His identity simply hadn’t come up after that. He was mainly referred to as “kid”, or “Doctor”, or sometimes “moron”, and he’d grown rather fond of those endearments. His name was something that was entirely his, confined within his own head.
In some ways, his circumstances were the same, but in others, they were very different.
Erhard lifted his head as he heard the doors open and a guard’s approaching footsteps. The growing number of operation requests meant constantly staying alert, as they often came without any kind of warning. He sat up, prepared to be handed another clipboard with some new patient’s information, only to have an envelope dropped unceremoniously on his chest instead.
“That’s for you. We checked it, and it seems harmless.” The guard didn’t say anything else, instead turning and walking back out of the room. Erhard was slightly confused at the abruptness of it all, but decided to open the envelope instead of focusing on that. Inside was a single sheet of paper, with a handwritten note and nothing else.
You already know me. You may not know who I am right now, but that does not matter. Let’s just be frank here: I owe you. I am indebted to an extent that I doubt I could ever repay. You’ve given me things that I had long since given up on, and I believe it’s about time I do the same. My payment will come in about a week, if my sources are reliable.
See you on the other side.
There was no signature.
Erhard reread the letter several times. The words themselves made sense, but he could barely comprehend what its reasoning had been. He didn’t recognize the handwriting, although there was an inkling of an idea forming in his mind as to who the sender might be.
A strange kind of excitement (or was it apprehension?) began to bubble up in his chest. What exactly was this payment? “Payback” could mean anything, and some forms of the word were quite unpleasant to think about.
He let out a loud, long breath, setting the letter down on the floor. He supposed he’d worry about it when the time actually came. There was no sense in dwelling on something that wasn’t due to happen for another week, and with that declaration, he lay back down and closed his eyes.
He was satisfied with that plan, although it wouldn’t last very much longer.
Some time passed before he became aware of a strange sound. That time might have been a few minutes, or it might have been a few hours. Everything sort of blended together when he was in his cell, a space that was beyond normal perception of time.
The noise from outside disturbed that peaceful static, muffled shouting and footsteps and a little bit of cursing. Erhard craned his head to the side, trying to make out what was being said.
“-are you kidding me? They tell us this NOW?!”
“Somebody musta pulled some strings or something. Doesn’t it normally take, like, months for them to process these?”
“Shut the hell up and keep moving, they’re gonna be on our ass about this!”
Something about this seemed oddly familiar. Erhard opened an eye, turning his head towards the voices’ direction. Coming from just outside his cell doors.
He had no time to react. With a familiar soft, pneumatic hiss, the doors slid open, revealing an exhausted, panting pair of guards.
“Holy shit,” one of them groaned, leaning against the wall. His breath was loud, coming out in large, fluffy clouds of condensation. “Can’t feel my legs…”
“J-Jenkins, you’re...useless.” The other seemed as though he was trying to calm his breathing down, although he was still clearly having difficulty speaking. “S01. They’ve opened...an investigation. Reopened.”
“What does that-” Erhard was almost immediately cut off by the guard, who was apparently named Jenkins.
“Yours! Somebody from the FBI pushed it through.” He looked up, letting out a very loud breath before he spoke again. “Said they had some important evidence, said your conviction was a mistrial, all that. Told us , what, five minutes ago?”
“Six.” The other guard glanced at his watch before responding. “Told you you were useless.”
“Okay, okay, whatever.” Jenkins rolled his eyes, then looked back at Erhard. “Anyway. They told us to tell you something, and made us run through the whole damn building to get here.” He looked expectantly over at his colleague. “Maybe you can tell him, cause you’re so freakin’ perfect.”
The other guard shot him a glare that could melt steel, but spoke, simply and concisely.
“Your retrial’s been scheduled for next week.”
A week passed by in the blink of an eye. The date grew closer and closer, and with it came a strange sense of uneasiness. Erhard wasn’t exactly sure why. He’d given up trying to figure out what he was feeling a long time ago, but this time, there was something that pressed at the back of his mind and refused to let up.
His case was being dragged up again. He currently had 186 years left to serve, but there was the very real possibility that even that would be reduced to zero. He would be free.
It made no sense, but some part of him dreaded that concept. He’d fallen into quite a simple routine over the past eight years, with relatively minor modifications, but to toss it all out felt...wrong, somehow. What would it be like to actually rejoin society, completely? The world had gone on without him for nearly a decade, and he sincerely wondered whether or not it would actually need him in the first place.
But the letter made sense. This was his payment: a second chance. He thought he’d figured out who the sender was, but surprisingly, that fact made almost no difference. These circumstances had been given to him, and he would take them no matter the source. And once he’d reached that conclusion, it was as if a gentle voice had whispered in his ear, causing much of the previous anxiety to fade.
By the time he woke up on the morning of, Erhard had accepted it completely.
That morning started out ordinary as ever. Hours passed, and he waited. He hadn’t even touched his breakfast, food being the last thing on his mind.
He didn’t do much besides a quick run-through of his cell, placing his small pile of belongings on the bench beside him. Whatever the outcome, he’d have them, and that thought was as comforting and filling as the best home-cooked meal.
Erhard was ready when they came in to take him. He took a quiet inhale as he was cuffed again, considering the possibility that this would be the last time.
“It’s time,” The guard to his left said, simply. Erhard nodded. He knew.
“Good luck, man.” The other guard spoke up after a few seconds, reaching his hand out. Erhard’s attempt at shaking it was barely passable, considering the cuffs, but he tried anyway. The guard looked towards the opposite wall as he slid his hand awkwardly back into his pocket, quickly mumbling, “I never thought it was you.”
“To be honest, whole thing was just...wrong.” Left gave a deep sigh. “Always kinda doubted it.” It took him several seconds to collect himself enough to regain his serious voice. “We should get going. You ready there, S01?”
“Yeah.” There was no hesitation.
He was as ready as he ever would be.
And they started off, through the iron gates and into the light.
This court hereby finds the accused, Mr. Erhard Muller, not guilty of the bioterrorist incident of Cumberland College.
It didn’t feel real.
There were a few people cheering in the gallery and the public defender was grinning and it didn’t feel real.
He sat there in the defendant’s seat, suddenly becoming aware of everything that was around him. The chair pressed into his back. There was chattering all around him. The lawyers were packing up their paperwork into briefcases. He was still cuffed, but that fact was the farthest thing from his mind.
The trial had been fast, with rapid-fire presentation of all of the evidence gathered over the course of the pandemic. Erhard, now more than ever, began to think that he was the one who owed a debt instead of the other way around.
Despite the prosecution’s best efforts, there was a quick and unanimous verdict. And just like that, he was innocent. Just like that, he had gone from an irredeemable killer to a sympathetic victim.
Of course, he didn’t just get to walk right out of the courtroom afterwards. There was still release paperwork that needed to be filled out, which would take a few hours at best, but once they lead him down a hall and into a conference room of sorts, it became clear that that fact wouldn’t be so bad.
They uncuffed him, and a bailiff handed him a tray with half a sandwich and a glass of water.
“Eat up, Muller. You can’t just skip meals like that.”
The tone of the man’s voice was nonchalant, but a sudden wrenching in his chest made Erhard realize that he hadn’t heard his name spoken aloud in years. He took the tray, setting it down on the table, and once they’d left, he rubbed at the red marks on his wrists for a minute or two.
They were uncomfortable, but he’d never have to deal with them again.
He’d sat down in one of the chairs when the door creaked open again. Erhard looked up to see Holden on the other side, striding slowly towards him.
Erhard was about to say something, but he was silenced by the agent holding out a large plastic bag. Inside, a wallet, neatly folded clothes, and an ancient flip phone. He took the bag, recognizing its contents as what he’d had on him at the time of his arrest.
He’d completely forgotten. It was almost like getting gifts, even though everything belonged to him regardless. Did those clothes even fit anymore?
Then another agent came around from behind Holden, setting a stack of his cell’s contents on the table, which was covered in things for Erhard at this point. That fact made him feel slightly overwhelmed.
“I noticed you haven’t touched your lunch,” Holden said matter-of-factly, after a long stretch of silence. “I can’t figure out what you’re waiting for. You’re a free man.”
Erhard blinked, giving a quick nod, then picked up his sandwich and took a bite. It was simple ham-and-cheese, and yet it tasted amazing. There was a sort of simple, uncomplicated joy that resonated through his surroundings, making everything feel a little brighter. Whatever worries he might have had faded, and Erhard felt far more fortunate than he had in a long time.
Holden was right. He was free.
Despite his newfound optimism, Erhard was practically thrown into the wilderness when they ushered him out of the courthouse. He’d been given a plain white T-shirt, pants, and shoes, and that, coupled with a small amount of cash, was the only support he had.
The other main problem was that he had no idea what to do. His release was a good thing, ultimately, but Erhard was still suddenly homeless and unemployed, not to mention completely unaccustomed to choosing how to spend his time. The first few hours after his departure consisted mainly of wandering around town, carrying bags of things he had no idea what to do with. He could tell that he was drawing more than a few stares wherever he went, but at least that fact wasn’t especially difficult to ignore.
He eventually stopped at a park bench, taking a quick breather while he counted the money he had. The cash already in his wallet, combined with what they’d given him, made a total of just under 150 dollars. For the first time in his life, the prospect of financial obligation began to weigh on him. He had absolutely no plans, and this money wouldn’t last long. Like any other person, he needed to eat.
Erhard slipped his wallet back into his pocket, then got up. He wasn’t exactly sure what the time was, but it was starting to get a little darker, and he decided that the first order of business was to find somewhere to stay for the night. He would figure the rest out later.
By the time he actually found a motel, close to an hour later, the sun had mostly set. A sharp, chilly breeze ran through the air, causing Erhard to shiver every few steps, but he kept moving forward, the tantalizing prospect of a warm, comfortable environment egging him on.
After what had seemed like a very long time (but was, in reality, only a few minutes of treading through a few rows of buildings), he reached what looked like the front offices. There was a simple glass door set in the wall, with a brightly-lit, almost barren room behind it. The glass itself was undetailed, only sporting a rather garish paint job with the motel’s logo and the much-less-visible hours.
It was better than nothing. Erhard grasped the metal handle, which was downright freezing, then pulled the door open and stepped inside. The room he’d found himself in was an empty one, with nothing but a pair of chairs, a table with some tabloid on it, and a large, polished desk with a bell. The desk had another door behind it, probably an area that was off-limits to the general public. Despite the heavily sanitized atmosphere, the room smelled vaguely of cigarette smoke.
Erhard set his bags down on the floor, then edged towards the desk and, after a moment’s hesitation, pressed on the bell. It took several seconds, during which Erhard could have sworn that he heard a sudden bout of arguing from behind the door, but eventually it creaked open and a woman stepped out. She strutted over towards the other end of the desk, pulling a pad and pen out from somewhere, her face completely and utterly uninterested.
“You want something?”
“I was wondering...ah, if there were any-”
“Speak up, don’t like it when weirdos come in here and waste my time. You from out of town or something?” The woman smacked a piece of chewing gum with her lips as she spoke, gazing at her nails as if they were the most interesting thing in the world.
“...Something like that.” Erhard took another breath, then willed himself to continue. “Are there any vacancies?”
“105’s open.” She hadn’t even looked up. “That’s 50 dollars upfront.”
“I can pay that.” He fumbled with his wallet for a bit, digging out a few bills and placing them on the counter. The woman stared at the money for a few seconds, seemingly in disbelief, then shrugged and slid it behind the counter. A cheap plastic room key was almost thrown at Erhard a few seconds later, and with that, the clerk disappeared back through the door.
It was confusing, but he decided that questioning the events that had just transpired wouldn’t help much. He had a place to sleep for the night, and that was all that mattered. Erhard pocketed the key, then picked up his bags and pushed the door open to find where his room was.
Fortunately, that last step didn’t take very much time at all. 105 was on the ground floor, close to the central building, and the key had the door unlocked in no time. There really wasn’t much to say about the room; it wasn’t large or even particularly clean, but it was a place to sleep. Practically a palace, compared to a freezing steel prison cell. He shut the door behind him, then placed the key on a table and moved to sit down on the bed.
The second his body touched the mattress, Erhard became aware of how tired he really was. He suddenly felt exhaustion weighing on every inch of his body; not just from the day’s events, but a cumulative sort of fatigue. Every single night he’d spent sleeping on a steel bench without any kind of bedding came crashing back at full force, and Erhard realized, rather painfully, just how much he’d missed while he was shut away.
Then he passed out into the sheets.
He knew exactly what Resurgam First Care and the surrounding area looked like, since he’d practically memorized the place months ago, but actually getting there turned out to be harder than he thought. Most of his transport there and back occurred in a windowless van, so there wasn’t any chance for him to remember streets or landmarks that lead there.
It took over three hours to find his way there. The possibility of giving up had entered his head when he happened to glance at a clock for the first time, but it was easy to ignore. This was his only option, and if he had to spend hours searching, so be it.
He’d tried to make himself presentable before leaving the motel room, even with the limited amount of clothes he had. The things he’d had on when he was sixteen still fit decently well, and a collared shirt and slacks were probably appropriate attire anyway. He washed up with some of the free soaps, then tried his best to tamp down some of the more unruly strands of hair.
It was hard to think of himself as a doctor in these circumstances, he had to admit. But that was exactly what he was, and that was also the one thing that he could fall back on.
Once Erhard caught sight of the building, he felt something in his heart jump. He was really coming back. For the first time, he wasn’t handcuffed or surrounded by guards or being delivered like a package.
Erhard strode across the grounds, setting his hands in his pockets and taking in the sight of the freshly planted flowers. They were probably changed out seasonally, as he didn’t recognize any of the new lavender and pink blossoms. His mind drifted to the time Hank had taken a detour after surgery to tend to the previous ones, and he’d been invited to come along. He still knew absolutely nothing about plants, but it was an interesting experience.
He was stalling. He knew that much. There wasn’t any rational reason why, but Erhard was apprehensive of actually going inside. He had no idea who would be there to greet him, or even what they would think. He’d been trained well, trained to be paranoid. Trained to be afraid of abandonment, that no matter how good he thought his circumstances were, they could be destroyed in an instant.
But...the people here helped him trust for the first time in what felt like an eternity. It would be wrong of him to not at least give them some chance. He took a minute to breathe, centering himself in the world, and then he started forward again.
He pushed the doors open, setting foot on polished linoleum tile. They shut quietly behind him, and he looked up, scanning the lobby for anyone that he actually knew. The woman at the reception desk glanced at him, then turned back towards her crossword puzzle, and the few other people who were waiting in chairs were more preoccupied with their magazines or cell phones to pay him any attention.
Erhard took a few steps forward, trying his hardest not to draw unnecessary attention to himself. He kept casual, walking past reception and through the doorway ahead as though it was everyday routine. He wasn’t quite sure where he was going, but he was bound to run into someone else eventually, and that thought occurred only seconds before it happened.
Someone squealed from behind him, and the next thing he knew, he was being crushed in a hug by the voice’s source. He looked down to see Emma, her face only inches from his own and a wide, gleeful smile on it.
“Emma! Hey, don’t harass him!” Darnell ran over, fumbling with his clipboard as he tried to pull her off, succeeding after a few seconds. “I’m really sorry, Doctor, I’m sure she didn’t mean to-”
“I can’t believe you’re back!” Emma piped up, cutting the other nurse off. “You look like...like a regular person now! I missed you, you can’t just keep it to yourself that you got out!”
“It was on the news,” Darnell explained, lightly restraining Emma with his arms. “I wasn’t expecting you to come back immediately, but apparently she was…”
“The news? That quickly?” Erhard managed to speak with a minimum of gasping, considering the fact that Emma had more or less squeezed the breath out of him.
“Well, it was a pretty big deal, especially after the Rosalia Virus.” Darnell nudged the still-bouncy girl to the side, then pointed to a sign on the wall. “If you want to talk to Chief Patel, I think she’s in her office now. It’s right by room 210, follow the signs and you’ll get there.”
“Oh. Thank you.” Erhard nodded, then turned to keep going down the hall. Darnell had almost read his mind.
True to his word, Esha was at her desk when Erhard pushed the door open. She was sorting through an enormous stack of papers, but stopped when she heard the slight creak of the hinges.
“Excuse me...I hope I’m not intruding-” Erhard took a step back when he registered how busy she looked, but stopped when she shook her head.
“Of course not. I can’t say I wasn’t wondering when you’d come back, kiddo.” Esha grinned, gesturing to a chair on the opposite side of her desk. “Sit down, I can get you some coffee if you want.”
“That’s alright.” He shut the door behind him, then set himself in the chair he’d been offered. It was confusing, figuring out the right words to say. He’d always known what to say when he was in the operating room, how to make a fast and accurate call to action, but casual conversation was...hard. It took Esha looking at him expectantly to make Erhard realize that he needed to keep talking. “I suppose you know why I’m here, right?”
“I have an idea.” Esha scribbled something down on one of her sheets, flipping it over. “But I don’t like to make assumptions, so wouldn’t it be easier if you just told me?”
She really did just want to cut to the heart of the matter. Erhard swallowed before he responded, mentally preparing himself to ask the question.
“Can I...work here?”
Seconds passed, and he couldn’t read Esha’s expression. Some part of him began to shrink away, preparing a retraction or even an apology. Had that been too forward of him? There was no doubt in his mind that that was what he wanted, but was it selfish to ask on that basis? Was it presumptuous to assume that anyone would want him in this place?
“Are you kidding me?” It had taken nearly a minute for the chief to respond, and she started chuckling uncontrollably once she’d gotten the first few syllables out. “To be perfectly honest, I think I’d have to be out of my mind not to hire you!”
“R-really?” Erhard didn’t even realize he was speaking until it was too late, to which Esha shook her head, still trying to stifle laughter.
“Of course! I’ve seen you in the O.R.! You’re easily one of the best surgeons I’ve ever seen, and that’s high praise coming from someone who oversees them as a career.” She scooted her chair over towards a file cabinet, then pulled a drawer open and began rifling through it, eventually extracting a small, neatly stapled packet.
The packet was placed in front of Erhard, and he picked it up, giving it a cursory run-through. It appeared to be an application form.
“It’s not like you really need this, since I’ve already made up my mind, but it helps to make things official.” Esha slid him a pen, then gestured towards her door. “There’s a vacant conference room across the hall. Come back when you fill this out, and we’ll take it from there.”
He was back much sooner than he thought he would be, considering the fact that most of his personal information hadn’t even crossed his mind until just then. But once he started writing, the details came easily, and the packet was filled out within ten minutes.
Esha took a few minutes to look through it, nodded, then pulled a crumpled notepad out from beneath her desk and skimmed the pages.
“Looks like you can officially start the day after tomorrow. There’s some stomach operation that needs a lead surgeon.” She looked over at him, taking in the look on his face, which was almost silently pleading, then looked back at the notepad. “But...if you need something to do today, they’re remodeling the old ward. Turns out the electrical problems are worse than we thought. You can help with that. I’ll even pay you.”
“You really don’t have to-”
“Oh, shut up. Go help out.” She waved her hand towards the door. “They certainly need it.”
“Hey, did these things have to weigh two hundred damn pounds?!”
As Erhard approached the entrance to the old ward, he heard a familiar voice drift up from ahead. He couldn’t say it was entirely unexpected.
“Uh, excuse me?” He crept through the door, taking in the sight of some paramedics picking up loose supplies and tables, moving things from room to room. Scanning the crowd for a few seconds, he finally spotted her stacking crates onto a large, metal dolly. Stubborn as ever, it looked as though she was refusing every single offer of help. She hadn’t changed at all, and something about that fact was oddly charming.
A few of the paramedics stopped chatting to look at him, but then quickly resumed their conversations. She hadn’t even noticed, instead grabbing for another box and hoisting it up, and Erhard realized that he was going to have to come to her. He stepped into the room, slipping past clusters of people too engaged to notice him, then reached over to her and tapped her on the shoulder.
Maria let out a sort of yelp, the crate slipping from her grasp, but managed to put it down before it dropped. She looked over at him, fully prepared to give him a piece of her mind, but her expression softened when she recognized him.
“Oy, I know you’re excited to see me, but don’t ever do that again.” She let out a strained breath as she lifted another crate, her arms shaking slightly as she made her way back over to the stack. “Swear to God, I’m gonna have fucking back problems by 35-”
“The chief told me I could help here,” Erhard explained, stepping over to another crate and grasping the edges. “I hope you don’t mind if I join you?”
“Nah, ‘s fine.” She rubbed at her shoulders, stretching, and Erhard was surprised at how easy that had been. Much of the tension in her posture was suddenly gone, and he began to wonder if that was his doing. “So, heard you got out.”
“That’s right,” he gasped as he picked it up, coming to the realization that Maria really wasn’t kidding about the weight.
“Yeah, obviously. You’re right here.” She grabbed the other end of the crate, relieving a great deal of the weight, then helped it onto the dolly along with him. “So, since you’ve got your memories back and everything, can you tell me who the hell you are? I don’t like referring to people as numbers in my head.”
“Who I am?”
“Like...name, age, that kinda junk. The stuff you normally tell people.” They picked up another crate together.
“Well, my name is Erhard Muller, and I’m-” He thought for a second. “Twenty-four.”
“Dude, are you serious?” Maria snorted. “Shit, I thought you were older than me! Gabe’s right, you are a kid!”
“You calling Dr. Cunningham right is making me question if I’m talking to the right person.”
“Oh my God, shut the hell up! You’re the worst!” Maria set the crate down, then gave Erhard a playful punch in the shoulder. “I’m twenty-eight, so I guess we’re even.”
“I’m only four years younger than you. How does that make me a kid?”
“It just does.” She shrugged. “Sorry, I don’t make the rules.”
“ Who does?”
“Life.” Maria moved over towards the wall, sitting down on the floor, then gestured to the empty space where the crates used to be. “So I guess we’re done. I’m not moving that dolly, that’s someone else’s problem.”
Erhard raised an eyebrow, but moved to sit next to her anyway, hugging one of his knees to his chest. A few minutes passed, in which neither of them spoke, the ambient buzzing of things moving and small talk providing all of the noise. Eventually, Erhard saw Maria turn towards him out of the corner of his eye. She bit her lip, looking as though she was debating something with herself, before she spoke.
“Hey, so I know this sounds dumb, but...you wanna go out for drinks or something?” She leaned back against the wall. “I know a really good place down the street. It’ll even be my treat.”
“Maria, you don’t have to do that,” Erhard mumbled. “Really.”
“I know. I want to.” She moved over, setting her hand on his arm, which made him feel strangely warm inside. “Celebratory thing, you know? For the justice system finally pulling its head out of its ass. You can be boring and not go if you want, though, I’m not stopping you.”
“If you want to, then I suppose. When are we going?”
“I dunno. Now. Tonight. Whenever.” She stretched her other arm out, tracing patterns in the air. For some reason, it made Erhard so happy just to watch.
He felt a tiny, subtle smile make its way onto his face. “I’d like that.”