Where am I? was his first thought.
The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes were his feet on the gray, speckled asphalt. He was sitting on a green park bench. Behind him, children squealed on the playground equipment. It smelled of damp maple trees.
On the wall in front of him, a plastered billboard showed a grinning woman throwing her head back. The words “HYDROLINE – Ask your doctor about it today” sat beside her and tiny print below read Another Fine Product from Starkweather Industries.
His second thought was Who am I?
At first, he thought he was just disoriented. He tried to think of something about himself, like fingering through a file cabinet in his mind. But there were no files, not even a file cabinet to pull from.
No name, no identity, and no recollection of anything he was doing before opening his eyes and staring at his feet.
It became hard to breathe. He felt nauseous. His chest tightened.
Stop that, he thought, No one’s attacking you. You’re in a playground, for God’s sake.
He looked around. This was a park in the city, bordered on all four sides by brownstone buildings, except for a gap that opened onto the street. Pipes jutting from roofs criss-crossed the orange sherbet sky.
His bench faced what used to be a basketball court–the poles were gone, but indentations in the pavement showed where they once were. Behind him, a boy and girl spun on the merry-go-round. A woman sat on a bench near the swing set reading a trade paperback–probably their mother.
She wasn’t responsible for his being here. Nor were the kids. Nor was “Hydroline”. Then who was? And why?
Okay, he just needed to relax and the memories would come. He tried breathing deep. He tried concentrating. He tried shutting his eyes so tight they hurt.
But there was nothing. His mind was empty.
He brought his hands to his face. His cheeks were lean and bony, but clean. He put his hand on his head, felt the length of his hair, and plucked one off to see its color. His clothes were brandless. Nothing in his pockets.
But there was a salmon-colored satchel next to him. Jackpot.
Something rattled inside as he placed the bag on his lap and unzipped it. On top, he found a strange gun composed of seamless silver metal. It had a rounded barrel and grip, like a space-age ray gun.
Maybe that was it, maybe he was from the future. He was a time-traveler, and he lost his memory when he jumped eras. Something went wrong and he ended up here.
No, that wasn’t right. Although there was no evidence to the contrary, he didn’t feel like that was what happened. And feelings were all he had now, so he figured he should pay attention to them.
Not knowing what to do with the sidearm, he placed it next to him with utmost care so it wouldn’t go off.
The gun had been laying on a fuzzy pink sweater. Very feminine and too big for him to wear–all wool and warmth, and not aesthetically pleasing. He held it to his nose and smelled musty perfume steeped in the layers of fuzz. This was definitely not worn by him.
Why he had this was an even bigger mystery than the gun. It must have represented something lost in his memory. Maybe the perfume was supposed to trigger something, since smell and memory were linked.
How did he know that, though? He had no identity, but he still knew facts, like the two were stored in separate warehouses. One had burned down, while the other was still shipping boxes.
That meant he must be educated. He wasn’t having trouble finding words, but he wasn’t doing physics equations either. Maybe he was a soldier, hence the gun. Maybe he was a transsexual soldier, hence the sweater.
Maybe not. He dropped the sweater next to the gun.
Removing the pullover had taken most of the bulk out of the bag. He caught the source of the rattling–an orange bottle of pills. No label. Whatever they were supposed to cure, he only had a few doses left.
He hoped he didn’t have some disease, otherwise he wouldn’t last long. He didn’t even know how many to take. Better to not touch them until he started feeling sick.
The last item was a fifty-dollar bill. He was a light traveler, but at least he wasn’t destitute.
He scoured the bag twice more, hoping for something useful, like a wallet or I.D. card. Finding nothing, he placed the objects back in the bag. The gun was so unusual that it was probably his best chance of finding who he was. But what was he going to do with it? Waltz into the gun store and say “Excuse me, do you know what the hell this is and why I have it?” Yes, wave it around and see who recognizes it.
A red rubber ball bounced in front of him. A three-foot tall kid jumped into his field of vision, picked it up and ran back with it, without so much as looking at him.
Why was he here of all places? The temptation to go up and ask one of those kids or the mom bit at him. But what kind of question would that be? Excuse me, ma’am. But do you know who I am, or how I got here?
On the other hand, he didn’t have many options. And he certainly wasn’t learning anything more sitting here.
He approached the mother. She had short brown hair and stress wrinkles, probably put there by her children. In her hands, occupying her entire universe, was a battered novel with a picture of a girl in her underwear tied to a bed above the title–Rion’s Courage.
“Excuse me,” he said.
She shrieked, and dropped the book as her shaking hands went to her face. He stepped back, surprised and afraid.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…” She put a hand to her chest, breathing rapidly. “Sorry about that,” he said. He bent down and picked up her book.
This book sits on top of a pile of other books by the same author in a used book store. A man in a green coat comes up, picks it up, flips through it. He is gauging how hard it would be to read, how many pages, how small the print is. He puts it back down again.
The image ended in less than a split-second. He furrowed his brows.
The vision was unbidden and unwanted, so maybe it was a memory of his past. But the man did not look familiar, nor did the store.
But he knew, without a doubt, that this was a used book.
He picked it up and handed it to her. “Um…”
He thought about asking, just to confirm, but what a stupid question. Anyone could tell the novel had seen better days by the fanned-out leaves that artificially thickened it.
When their eyes met again, he said, “Excuse me, my name is-“
Crap, he didn’t even know that. And now he had to say something or it would look awkward. “My name is Rion. This is going to sound weird. But, um, do you know how I got here? I mean… did you see me walk in?”
She gave him a quizzical expression, like he expected. “No, sorry, I didn’t see you.”
“Not at all?”
“No, I was reading.”
He sighed and nodded. “Okay, thanks.” He turned around and walked back to his park bench.
Well, that was a bust, he thought as he gripped the cold slats. Not that he didn’t expect it to be.
But that thing with the book was weird. He knew she would say ‘yes’ if he asked her if she got it in a used book store. He almost wanted to go up again and do it, but that would be awkward.
“Kids,” she called out. “Kids. Luke, Jamie, get over here. It’s time to go.”
“Maaaw-om,” both the girl and the boy said.
“It’s getting dark. Come on, it gets dangerous here at night.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw her putting the book into her purse. He hoped he hadn’t given her the motivation to leave.
One of the children was already at the mother’s side. The other jumped off the slide and headed over. She picked up the coat she had been sitting on and walked out to the street.
Now he was alone. Maybe it really did get dangerous here after dark. If that was so, whoever dumped him here didn’t plan smartly, even if it was himself.
Maybe that was it. Maybe this was some sort of test or simulation. Maybe he was a secret agent and he was undergoing the final test of his training. The duffel bag had his survival tools, and…
Goddammit, these ideas were all stupid. Stupid dreaming, stupid planning. All based on nothing. For all he knew, some homeless vagrant had put the duffel bag there. Maybe he was the homeless vagrant. Tears welled up in his eyes. The buildings seemed so tall, so ready to cave in. So alone. So vulnerable.
No, no, he couldn’t start panicking. That would really kill him.
All right, let’s establish things here. You’ve lost your memory. No idea why. But you’re not in any immediate danger, and you’ve got some… protection.
Rion sighed a low lonely sigh. He felt like the only person in the world, despite the contrary evidence. But sitting on a park bench wasn’t going to solve the mystery. He grabbed the salmon-colored bag and slung it around his shoulder as he stood up.
Time to go for a walk.