Rion was lost.
He had emerged from the park hoping to see something to jog his memory. But it was one big concrete world. He stood on the sidewalk, trying to comprehend it.
The two-way road ahead of him was almost clear of traffic, and a rust-brown train track snaked above.
The left path had the setting sun boring into his eyes, with a line of stores, restaurants, and bars, most with protruding neon signs. The right path would take him deeper into the city, judging from the skyline. He started moving that way.
As he walked, he darted his head around, taking note of each landmark, trying to remember any of them. Electricity poles punctured the sidewalk every fifty-some feet, like badly hammered nails. Rion had to be careful not to run into them as he gawked like a tourist.
He stopped at a busy street corner. There was a lot going on here–skyscraper walls were sprinkled with animated billboards and advertisements.
One animated sign showed a woman and a man, holding hands and running through a field. Below them read “Ask your doctor about PLOMOX”, with no description of what plomox was for.
Across the street, a dilapidated LED news ticker scrolled stock quotes and headlines: “‘RESISTANT BACTERIA’ RESPONSIBLE FOR NEW ULM OUTBREAK”, “STARKWEATHER INDUSTRIES PLAYS MAJOR ROLE IN 2024 ECONOMIC BUDGET”, “GUN SHIPMENT SEIZED ON MEXICAN BORDER.”
2024? Did that year feel right? It didn’t feel unfamiliar. Besides, none of the buildings felt futuristic or astonishing. And besides the memory loss, he didn’t feel out of place. So much for the time travel theory.
A long dot that was probably a blimp floated in the cornflower blue between skyscrapers. Night would come soon, and he didn’t want to be out all alone. If he could break his fifty-dollar bill, he could get to a pay phone and call… whom? The police? The hospital? The hospital would be a better bet, in case he was a criminal and didn’t know it. The problem was he didn’t know any hospital’s phone number.
He kept walking. Twelve blocks later, he hadn’t found anything but residences. Cars passed by, but none stopped to help. There was no point in hitchhiking because he didn’t know where he was going.
A cop car drove by. Rion thought about flagging him down, but the car was gone before Rion could decide. What was he going to say anyway? Excuse me officer, I’d like to file a missing persons report on myself. Well, what distinguishing characteristics do you have? I have a fascination with sweaters and ray guns. Apparently, I need a prescription for something, so please find me soon.
He made it to a frontage road and had to walk between the narrow shoulder and the ditch, kicking fast food bags away. For a while, he made a game of it–counting the number of times he could kick a red and white plastic cup before it bounced out of his path. But on a misstep he almost sprained his ankle and fell into the ditch, so he stopped.
At least it wasn’t boring. Rion could marvel at the things people threw away. It was like looking in a museum–lots of shoes, mittens, a stuffed toy or two, playing cards. What sort of circumstances would make someone lose these sorts of things–intentionally or not. There was even an acoustic guitar sitting in the muck, strings and all.
Rion treaded into the ditch to pick it up, curious why someone would throw away a perfectly good guitar. Maybe he had some musical talent he wasn’t aware of. Maybe he could start busking and get a few dollars that way. He grabbed the instrument by the fretboard.
A car driving by honked its horn. Rion tensed, startled.
The guitar sits in the leaky basement, waiting. Never been played. Something about Jimi Hendrix, either memories or desires, maybe wanting to be like Jimi Hendrix. The guitar’s back is rotting from the water in the floorboards behind it.
Rion dropped the instrument and the image stopped. The strings made a cacophonous twang as it smacked the grass.
What was happening? It was like looking into the past. But not a person’s past. The past of the… object? Its memory?
That sounded stupid. How could an object have memory? But he saw what he saw. Maybe he was psychic. And the government wanted him, but he escaped, so they erased his memory, and….
He stretched his neck out, trying to get rid of his gnawing headache. He could use some sleep, but he had no shelter, and only ten more minutes before it would start to get dark. The pills might help, but he was still hesitant to use them.
Rion continued along a marshy area in the median–sewer run-off–until he came to a T-intersection. A residential area lay to the right, lined with evenly spaced maple trees. Down the left, another strip of commercial space.
Those homes, nice as they looked, weren’t inviting. They were dark and locked like a safe. Down the left, there might be a clinic, or a homeless shelter, or somewhere he could sleep inconspicuously. Number one priority right now was finding some place to gather his thoughts and sleep off this headache.
He crossed the street, looking both ways first. A flat rock in the middle of the road caught his eye. As he got closer, he saw it was a small turtle, its shell half-covered with moss. Must have come out of the marsh over the curb.
At first he thought it was roadkill, but then the turtle paddled a foot away, scared by the human. Rion ignored it and looked toward the city, thinking whether fifty dollars could get him a room somewhere.
As he stepped onto the curb, he thought If that turtle stays there, it’s gonna die.
He paused. He could keep walking, ignore the turtle, and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference. Animals get run over every day.
On the other hand, that turtle was would never get back to its home without help. It was almost guaranteed to die by someone cruising around the corner and turning it into street pizza. Meanwhile, he was here. He could do something about it. But he also had better things to do.
And while he was standing here arguing with himself, it could have already been done.
He sighed and walked back, again looking for cars. The turtle was still there.
Rion reached down and the turtle skittered away in the opposite direction. Every time he moved his hand close, the turtle would waddle away. It certainly didn’t like any help. And Rion didn’t want to risk being bitten. Do turtles have rabies? he thought.
Rion put a foot down in front of the turtle’s path. It rotated towards the marsh. He kept stepping in its path, directing it towards the marsh. Anyone coming down the road would probably be wondering about the dancing boy and his turtle.
Once they made it to the curb, the reptile flailed its arms and managed to climb up and into the cattails. Rion didn’t know if the turtle belonged there, but at least it wouldn’t get killed. He smiled as he turned the corner and massaged the back of his neck.
More of the same on this strip–convenience stores and fast food. No place he could stay. An hour had passed since he had woken up, and he still didn’t remember a damn thing. His headache still pounded. The pain was numbing and slicing at the same time. It was like something from another dimension squeezing his brain stem in its alien claws.
And now it was raining.
Perfect, he thought. I wonder if all my days are going to be like this. Pedestrians looked up at the sky and retreated back into the stores. Rion started running down the street.
The droplets evolved into a hard rain as he ran down the street. If lightning started, he would have to dramatically lower his standards of where to find shelter. Far in the distance, he saw a sign on a high pole displaying the words Super Motel.
Rion ran across the street as a thunderous monorail zipped overhead. It took him ten minutes to reach the building, and by then he was soaked. Under the ‘Super Motel’ sign a marquee read, in black lopsided letters, ‘WELCOME UNITED SALES CONSULTING CONVENTION”.
Rion pulled open the double doors and leaped in. Ah, relief. His shirt was drenched. He wanted to take it off and wring it out, but felt too modest. Maybe that was one of his old personality traits.
The lobby’s wall paint was washed out, but it smelled clean and had a restaurant. It was a perfect place to get a room and sleep off his migraine.
As he walked to the counter, he noticed the restaurant in the back, marked by the sign “NORTHWOODS BAR & GRILL”. Inside, a collection of men in suits gabbed to each other, holding martinis and low-balls. One of them laughed like he had a loudspeaker in his throat. Must have been from the convention.
At the check-in counter, an old man looked Rion up and down.
“Can I get a room?” Rion asked.
“$43.99 a night.”
Only enough for one then. At least there would be enough for food later. “One night, please,” Rion said as he placed the bill on the counter
“Can I see your ID?”
“I… uh… I don’t have an ID.”
He shook his head.
“I can’t let you check in unless you have an ID or a credit card.”
“Well, what about this?” He shoved the fifty-dollar bill forward again as another customer walked up behind him.
“What, are you bribing me?” the clerk said.
Rion was shocked. “No,” he gritted his teeth as another wave of pain swelled. “I’m offering you money for the room. Why do I need ID?”
The man shrugged. “Security. Hotel policy.”
“What kind of hotel policy? What’s it for?”
“I don’t know, I guess they gotta make sure they have a record of you.”
Rion scowled. The clerk probably thought he was a junkie or looking for a room to take a hooker.
“Do you have a phone book, or something?”
“Just got computers. But you gotta have a room, and you gotta buy a card.”
Rion and the clerk stared at each other. The customer behind him grunted and the clerk pursed his mouth, wanting to help the next paying customer.
Rion pulled the fifty back, and moved aside. The person behind him moved up as Rion stared into space, wondering what to do next as he rubbed the back of his head.
Well, he didn’t need to pay to rest in the lounge. It wouldn’t keep him overnight, but it offered shelter from the rain.
It felt liked it looked–coarse, too soft to sleep on, and cheap. A red and brown floral pattern wove around its creamy white background.
He pulled off the duffel bag and he rubbed the back of his shoulder. He might be able to find another cheaper, seedier hotel that didn’t give a damn about IDs. He should have asked the clerk if he knew of a free shelter or police station nearby. But why should he expect any sympathy from him.
In fact, everyone he had encountered so far–the mother at the playground, the honking car, the hotel clerk–had done nothing but hinder his progress. What made him think another stranger would do better?
He stretched his legs out, then rifled through the contents of his bag. There were six pills left–capsules with red one side, yellow on the other. He stared at them a long time, evaluating whether or not they were for his headache. Maybe the pain was a symptom of the disease the pills were for. Or it could have been a normal headache, and he didn’t need a pill yet. Of course, they could easily be cyanide capsules too.
He plopped them back in the bag. The risk outweighed the potential benefits. The sweater still smelled nice though, and he took a few deep breaths of it. It was a calming scent, like a freshly washed blanket.
He closed his eyes and clutched the sweater tight, trying to evoke that… thing that he could do. Physical contact seemed to be necessary for it to work. He tried clenching it, squeezing it, tapping it, and wearing it. No dice. He put it back in.
“Nice sweater. Not really your style though.”
Rion looked up. Another man in a pinstriped suit sat opposite him. He looked kinder than the hotel clerk–his hello was sincere, and even a bit concerned.
He picked up a National Geographic and said “You okay there, kid?” He had a slurred southern accent, as if he’d had a few too many.
“Yeah, just a headache.” Rion scratched his forehead.
“Just get in out of the rain?”
“Yeah, started up just like that, huh? Pretty hard rain. Bet you’re glad you found this place when you did.”
“Yeah.” What did this guy want? Money? To sell him something? Advertise his product and get another client? “I was trying to get a room, but they wouldn’t let me, cause I didn’t have ID.”
“Damn. Big Brother again. Damn government always needs to know where you are and who you’re with. My friend went to the hospital a few days ago. They stopped him at the door, because he forgot his ID. Had everything else in the world–credit card, cell phone. But no ID. The healthcare in this country is rotten.”
Rion frowned. If even a hospital wouldn’t treat him without ID, where could he go to get help?
“Do all hotels require an ID?”
“I don’t know, this is the first time I’ve been here. They change the conference location every year. And every year it’s some place cheaper. The service here is awful. It took two hours to check in because something was wrong with the keycards. There was this big long line of us alpha-types yelling at the guy. But they have a nice restaurant at least. The food is good. Do you like filet mignon?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” Rion said.
“They have it for cheap here. $24.99. I don’t know if you can still get it. I bet we bought out their entire stock. Most of us are getting our meals comped. You should have some while they still have it.”
“Well, I really need a place to rest for the night.”
“Are you traveling?”
“Uh, yes. No. Maybe?” Rion said. Damn, he was starting to sound suspicious.
“You’re not running away from something, are you? You look like you’re in high school.”
“Uh…” This guy was starting to ask questions that he couldn’t answer. Change the subject! Change the subject! Rion thought. He likes to talk about himself, use that. “I came by because I was curious about the convention. I was thinking about getting into sales consulting.”
“Oh, yeah? It’s a good business, if you don’t mind the assholes,” he laughed. “These conventions get worse every year, but it’s better than staying at home with two teenagers who hate you and their stepmom, right?”
“It’s a big excuse to see whose dick is bigger. Like this guy Paul. You see him over there?” He pointed into the restaurant. “Talking to the bunch of people? He even looks like an asshole.”
Rion looked at a man with a sharp nose, square chin, and bright eyes. His hair was conditioned in curly bouffant style. Older, but handsome. He was surrounded by three or four other people, and looked like he was telling a story using a lot of vulgar-looking gestures.
“Yeah?” Rion said.
“He just comes so everyone can heap praise on him. He’s gotten the United Incentive Award three years in a row. Everyone wanted to go back to the bar and get drunk, but he made a twenty-minute acceptance speech. But the sales force loves him. He could sell Astin-Provolex to a narcoleptic.” The man shook his head. “And he’s a horn dog. Always has a new woman every time I see him. You know he has ‘head’ day at his office?”
“Whenever his team makes a big sale, he hires a bunch of hookers to give all the guys blow jobs.”
Rion’s eyes opened wide. “Even the married ones? Aren’t there women in the office?”
“I guess not. He works in a different office, so all I hear is stories.”
Two suits approached walked up. “Hey, Bill,” he said to the man on the couch. “What are you doing? Those bottles aren’t going to drink themselves.”
“Yeah, guess I better get back to work,” Bill said. He folded up the National Geographic and tossed it back on the coffee table. To Rion, he said, “Nice talking to you kid.”
“Yeah, same here,” Rion said, “Thanks.”
As Bill walked back into the bar, Rion’s eyes fell on Paul standing inside the entryway. The people started laughing at his story, with Paul laughing the loudest.
Paul noticed Rion and met his eyes with a fierce gaze. He looked like he might run out of the bar and attack him like a gorilla. Rion averted his eyes.
The lights flickered. Rion knew it wasn’t an electrical problem. It was his vision. He still had nowhere to go. His headache was getting worse, and now his stomach started to churn, like he was going to throw up.
A sharp, feminine squeal caught his attention. A woman wearing a leather jacket and tight black shorts stumbled out of the hallway, tripping on her high heels. She was followed by a doughy man in a suit. Rion suspected she was a prostitute–her dress was tasteless and neither of them looked particularly into each other.
As they walked toward the door, the man fished for something in his pocket. He held the door open for the lady and tossed the object into the brass garbage can behind the couch. As they left, Rion leaned over the sofa’s arm to see what he had thrown out.
A card. A key card!
He almost knocked the can over trying to grab it. He looked around for someone to accuse him of stealing, but the clerk wasn’t at the counter. If he could get to the room before the account was cancelled, he’d have a place to sleep.
He palmed the card and walked into the hallway. Once he was sure no one could see him, he examined the plastic piece. There was no room number or floor number, just the name of the manufacturer.
He peered down the corridor. Would someone be suspicious if they saw him trying a key card in each door? All it would take was one nosy person to peek out and report him.
He wrapped his fingers around the card and cleared his mind. He waited, and thought about the key card. Just the key card.
Blurred like a dream. Brown and tan. Looking up from a doorknob. Small. 117.
As soon as he saw it, he opened his eyes. It didn’t matter if that was the end of the vision–he had his answer.
A wave of nausea overcame him. He doubled over, holding onto the wall for support. He breathed in and out, concentrating on keeping the poison in his stomach down.
He stumbled down the corridor, clutching the wall. At 117, he slipped the card into the slot, struggled to fit it in.
The light blinked green with a loud click. He shoved the door open and fell in the room.
An unmade bed, a TV, a closet. On the left was a bathroom. The room door closed behind him as he ran in and skidded in front of the toilet. He just managed to open the lid before he vomited whatever he had eaten before he lost his memory.