Rion wasn’t sure if he had fainted or not–the past few hours had been so blurry. And remembering wasn’t his strong suit these days. But the pain was gone.
After vomiting a bowl full of chunky orange liquid, the headache hadn’t stopped. So with shaking hands, he pawed for his satchel, unzipped it and pulled out the pill bottle. With the bright light drilling into his eyes, he screwed off the top, plucked out a capsule, and downed it in a sandpapery swallow.
He rubbed his forehead on the cool side of the toilet as he waited to see if the medicine would stay down. Then he slurped some water from the sink, and lurched to the door to hook the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door. Then he fell on the bed, and started feeling better almost immediately.
Now he was trying not to think too much as he lay on the crumpled sheets, letting his body work out the shakes. But the simple questions he had started with had blossomed into unexplainable phenomena.
When he used this psychic feeling–what should he be calling it? Focusing? Sensing?–it was like he was communicating with an inanimate object. When he had used it on the keycard, it told him what room it belonged to. He didn’t force anything–like squeezing an orange for its juice. No, he just asked politely and it told him where to go. Like the object had a memory.
But using it made agony sear through him. There was a cost for everything in the world, and the cost for ESP was a migraine that could split a casaba melon. That was why he had the pills. But the mystery of the gun and the sweater remained unsolved.
At least now he felt back to normal. But night had come and the rain still fell–not that he felt like going anywhere now anyway. He picked up the TV remote and stared at the thousand buttons. After thirty seconds of searching for one called ‘power’, he pressed it. The screen showed the home page of the Hotel Media System–a basic menu for television, Internet, one-touch ordering, and other basic information.
Unfortunately, the hotel clerk had been telling the truth. When Rion tried to log on, the screen displayed a prompt for an ID number. The other viable options, like hotel directory and city information, required the credit card number used to purchase the room.
He tried using his ‘extra sense’ on the remote, but nothing happened. Maybe not everything had a memory.
All the local news programs were over, so he wouldn’t be able to find anything there. Instead, he watched a bad sitcom about a fat husband, shrewish wife, and their passive-aggressive family. After the episode ended, Rion decided it was time to get moving again. But where to next?
His stomach growled, telling him the answer. He had expelled all his nutrients, after all. Fifty dollars had to buy a plate of something at the hotel restaurant. After that, some sleep.
He cleaned up his mess in the bathroom, washed up, and peeked outside his room, in case hotel security was waiting to arrest him. No one there. Laughter and bustle sounded from the bar.
Trying to look nonchalant, as he was still nervous about stealing a room, he walked towards the Northwoods Bar & Grill. A large bar island with hanging wine glasses and a large assortment of taps occupied most of the floor space. Despite the late hour, there were still quite a lot of salesmen floating around, red-faced and guffawing.
Rion glanced at the menu by the entrance. The cheapest entree was a hamburger, served with fries and a pickle, for $8.99.
There was no hostess to greet him, so he took a seat at a table for two by the wall. After a few minutes, a perky woman in a black apron came up to his table.
“Hi, welcome to Northwoods,” she said and handed him a menu. “My name is Stacy, and I’ll be your server. Anything to drink to start off with?”
“Water,” Rion said. “I’ll have the hamburger, please.” He handed the menu back.
“Sure,” she said as she wrote on her pad, “I’ll get that right out for you.” She walked off.
Rion looked around at all the businessmen, wondering what sort of lives they had. Then he saw a woman shuffling through the spaces between, her hands curled and her eyes sweeping across the carpet, left and right. She looked about twenty and had mousy brown hair that fell past her shoulders and over her eyes.
She circled around the bar, and passed by Rion. Then she started her loop again, moving slower. She made eye contact with Rion from across the room, but said nothing.
The third time she passed, Rion felt a crazy urge to trip her. Maybe it was the starvation, but she was driving him nuts with her pacing around and pouting. He held up his arm to block her. “Hey, you okay?” he said in a gruff voice.
“Um…” She bit her lower lip. “No, I lost my earring. It’s a diamond earring. You haven’t seen it, have you?” She had a gentle voice and slight Southern accent.
“A diamond earring? No, I just got here.”
“Oh,” she said. She continued glancing under tables and chairs around him.
What was she still doing here? He’d already said he hadn’t seen it, and she was still hanging around obnoxiously. All he wanted was a burger, not a sob story. Her earring wasn’t his problem.
Then he remembered the turtle. That wasn’t his problem either. But it needed help too. And it wasn’t like he had his burger in front of him yet.
“What does it look like?”
“Like this.” She held out her hand, displaying a metal hook dangling with a pear-shaped sparkly. If it was real, it must have cost a lot.
He could try using his power on it. It would end her quest in a snap. But the recollection of diving headfirst into the toilet bowl was still fresh in his mind.
“My… boyfriend just bought me them,” she said, “Just this weekend. He’s gonna kill me.” Her eyes flickered like a puddle. She looked like she was in serious distress. And she was pretty cute.
Rion nodded. Well, if I do collapse, they’ll get an ambulance, take me to the hospital, and get me there that much quicker, he thought as he picked up the earring.
Rion rolled the earring in his hand. Just a quick burst should do it. He took a breath and flashed the question: Where’s your brother?
Rion got the image, almost too brief to recognize it.
“Did you try the couch?” He handed the earring back.
“What?” she said as she dabbed her eyes.
“The couch in the lobby. Try there.” He was tempted to say the middle couch, near the upper left corner, next to the 1989 penny, but he didn’t want to look suspicious.
“Why do you think it’s there?”
Rion paused. “I don’t know. Just try it.”
“Um… okay…” She closed her fist over the earring and walked away. Rion had no doubt she would find it.
He rubbed the bridge of his nose, regretting his action and hoping the headache wouldn’t come until tomorrow. At least someone else wouldn’t be suffering. But he was going to have to learn to control himself. If he wanted to find answers before his pills ran out and his gray matter went supernova, he couldn’t be using his powers for every girl with nice eyes who walked past him.
The waitress came back and set down a plate. “Here you go,” she said. “Do you need anything else right now?”
“No, thank you,” he replied.
“Okay, enjoy your meal.”
Rion spied ketchup behind the salt and pepper packets, and wondered if he liked ketchup. For that matter, he wondered if he liked beef. Or if he had any food allergies. He could be staring at death on a bun. But the tantalizing aroma of greasy hamburger was more persuasive than his paranoia. He picked it up with two hands and took a big bite.
Delicious. It felt like he was eating for the first time. Slightly pink in the center, rivulets of clear, globular liquid ran down the sides of the patty. Already, his anger was dissipating. He took another bite and decided he would try the ketchup.
As he munched, he planned his next course of action. Where could he go if he couldn’t get help from the hospital? The police? Maybe a news station? If only the dickwad of a hotel clerk had given him a phone book.
The girl who had lost the earring jumped up beside him. “How did you know where it was?” she asked.
Rion choked on the bite he was trying to swallow. “I… uh… I-” He couldn’t tell her. And he had no time to make up a story. “I… just… that’s where I lose things all the time…”
Rion nodded. Sure, why not. “Yeah, couch cushions… under the table…”
The woman leaned down and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. Her lips felt warm, just like his face.
She said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t-“
Rion stared down at his burger. “Ah… uh… uh…”
“I’m sorry. Just… Thank you so much for doing this. I thought I was dead. I just got these today. I can’t imagine how much they must have cost.”
“Um, yeah…” Rion reached up to his warm face. “That’s, um…” Where were his thoughts? Say something! “You can sit down if you want,” Rion said as he dabbed a fry in the ketchup.
She glanced back at the bar. “Sure.” She scooted her chair in. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Rion.” Picked it out myself, he thought.
She offered him a dainty hand. “My name’s Memory.”
He gawked at her for two full seconds. “Excuse me?”
“Memory. Yeah, I know, I had hippie parents.”
He remained stunned. Must be a coincidence, he thought. How ironic– Memory lost something, and I lost my memory.
She asked, “You’re not here for the convention, are you?”
“No, I just sort of wandered here off the street. Been a long day. Are you here for the convention?”
She laughed, “No, no. I’m sort of here with… someone.”
“The one who gave you the earrings?”
“Yeah, he gave them to me before we went to the first after-party. It was a surprise.” She pawed at her earrings and slipped them in her purse. “I can’t imagine how much they cost. I came from kind of a poor family so these things are, like, more than priceless.”
“Does he buy you expensive gifts a lot?”
“Um, sometimes. He’ll spend all this money on me, and then I sort of feel… obligated… you know?”
Rion tilted his head like a curious puppy. “What do you mean?”
“I feel guilty I can’t give as much back, so… but he treats me so good. He gives me all these gifts and buys stuff for me.” She shrugged. “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. That’s what my mom always said.”
Rion nodded. “But if he keeps buying you stuff, doesn’t that make you dependent on him?”
“Well, it’s not that big a deal. I have a job. I have my own money. But, I mean, with him, I wonder why I work in the first place.”
“What kind of job?”
“I’m a cocktail waitress at a casino. So basically what I get tipped is what I make. And all these high rollers come in–they spend thousands of dollars at the table, and then tip a dollar for the drink.” She smiled a girlish smirk that said ‘well, what can ya do’.
“Really?” Rion asked. “That sounds awful.”
“Well, I’ve heard stories about waitresses getting thousand dollar tips, but I think that only happens at the really big casinos.” She rolled her eyes and smiled again.
“I mean, isn’t tipping unreliable? You never know what kind of money you’re going to get. Which brings you into situations like this. Maybe it would be better if they figured the tip into the bill. That way no one’s surprised, and the customer doesn’t feel guilty for giving too little or wasteful for giving too much.”
“Well, I… well, I never thought of it that way.” Memory looked away.
The waitress came up to the table. “How’s your burger?” she asked.
“Just fine, thanks,” Rion said.
She regarded Memory. “Do you need anything? A menu?”
“Could I have a glass of white wine?” she said. “Separate checks. Charge it to room 103, please.”
The waitress nodded and checked her ID.
“I’ll take my check too now, please,” Rion said.
When she left, Memory said, “I’d buy you a drink as thanks, but, uh, you don’t look old enough.”
“Don’t worry about it. Doesn’t look appealing anyway.” He nodded to a couple of sweaty, red-nosed salarymen embracing each other in drunken hysterics.
Memory’s laugh bubbled. “I’m so glad I found you. All they talk about are their boats and horses and ranches.”
“You must feel pretty alone then?”
She nodded. “Not alone, just separated.”
“I know exactly how you feel.”
“It seems like everyone in the hotel is here for the convention.” Memory smiled sweetly. “What about you? Are you on vacation?”
“No, I just came in to get out of the rain. I’m not even really staying here.”
“So where do you live?”
“Um… not really anywhere at the moment.”
“Oh, are you a… runaway?” She whispered like it was a dirty word.
“No, no, not exactly. Um, it’s hard to explain.” Rion tapped his finger on the table.
She seemed trustworthy, innocent, willing to help. Not someone who would take advantage of his condition. Maybe he could show her a little vulnerability. She couldn’t diagnose his problem, but she could take him to someone who could. He had to let someone know at some point. Otherwise he would become like the turtle–helpless and dependent.
“This is going to sound strange. I-“
“Hey. Memory,” a gruff voice called out. A silhouette swayed into the bar. “Mem, where the hell are you? Get over here.”
Memory turned around. “Oh, Paul, I’m over here.”
Rion peered closely. It was Paul. Paul who had ‘head Fridays’. Paul with the chiseled features and gelled hair. And Memory was his girlfriend. Rion’s heart hardened.
Paul stomped up to the table. “What are you doing? You better have found those earrings.” He gave Rion a fleeting look.
“Yes, yes, I found them, they’re right here.” Memory opened her purse and pulled them out, dropping one on the floor. “Oops.”
Memory bent over to retrieve them. Paul said, “Oh, Christ. Clumsy. No wonder you lost them. Do you know how much those were worth?”
Rion’s upper lip curled in disgust. He tried to will him to leave her alone, to treat her better. But his psychic powers didn’t extend to telepathy.
Memory said, “I-I’m sorry. I… don’t worry about it. I found them again-“
“And what are you doing here? We just had dinner.”
“I know, I just wanted… This is Rion, he helped-“
Paul nodded in his direction. “Hi-how-ya-doin,” he said like he was passing a stranger on the street. Rion continued his defiant stare. He said to Memory, “Come on, get up.” Paul yanked her by the arm out of her chair. “I’m so sick of you losing shit. You do this all the time. I bring you here with me to…”
As they walked out of the bar, with Paul still berating her, Memory glanced back. She might have been trying to say a final thank you. But Rion could see a different message in her dark, hazel eyes. Help me.
This wasn’t an isolated incident, this was their entire relationship. Paul had trapped Memory in a snare of yelling, manipulation, and… obligation. If a guy like Paul had ‘head Fridays’, imagine how he would treat his own girl.
The turtle was still wandering in the street.