Rion paid his check, apologized to the waitress for the lack of someone to drink the wine she had brought, and went back to his room. He stretched out on the bed, hoping the late news would have a missing persons report.
But he was too occupied with Memory and Paul to pay attention. He replayed the scene over in his head a dozen different ways. He pushed Paul down and carried Memory out of the building. He got into a massive martial arts brawl with him. He picked him up by the scruff of his collar, and tossed him one-handed over the bar. He teleported Memory and himself fifty miles away, ready to start over.
No, no, had to stop thinking like that. The girl was a passing acquaintance, and he had to take care of himself first. He had no memory, no identity, and superpowers, and he was worrying about a domestic dispute. He had to move on.
But if he moved on, Memory would be like the turtle–wandering helplessly, unable to leave on its own. If he came back a day later, he’d find that turtle crushed like a can of tuna, red and pink guts squirted out.
And Memory would be the same–a soulless, empty shell, instead of a warm, bright woman, crushed by Paul’s will.
He imagined her at the foot of his bed, watching him with sad eyes. Why didn’t you say anything Rion? I thought you were a good guy. I thought you liked me. I thought you were a better person than that.
And then Paul on the other side. You little kid. Why should I even say hello to you? You don’t matter. I’m going to keep doing what I want because I have horses and boats. Who’s going to stop me?
Indeed, who was going to stop him?
In front of room 103, he uncrossed his arms and rubbed the bridge of his temples. He had turned around a few times, thinking how stupid this was, but the thought of the turtle always brought him back.
He knocked on the door. Several seconds passed. Rion knocked again and put his ear to the door. He heard nothing, no shuffling or voices. Maybe they weren’t in, but it was so late, where would they be?
Rion knocked one more time. They wouldn’t have gone out, and they wouldn’t have checked out midway through the conference. He headed into the lobby. The rain poured down against the windows, highlighted by the outside street lights.
He saw the two of them sitting near the bar. Paul still had his suit on, but Memory had put on a sparkly black cocktail dress and the diamond earrings. Besides them, the bar was mostly empty.
A fat man with a small tie approached them. He laughed upon seeing Paul, and stuck out his hand. Paul grabbed his meaty hook and shook it. His companion clapped him on the back and yelled, “Hey, a martini for the best guy in the world right here,” so loud the hotel clerk must have heard.
Rion couldn’t start an argument while a third party was there, so he stepped into a corner booth, hoping to stay unnoticed. It was a good place to observe, but he couldn’t hear much.
Paul and his friend babbled wildly, stepping over each other’s sentences and interrupting frequently. Memory pretended to pay attention, but Rion could tell she was bored and lonely. Why did he even bring her? To show her off?
Paul said something to Memory, who was staring off into space. He snapped his fingers in front of her face. He asked her a question and she shook her head no. Paul asked her again, and again she shook her head. She looked tired, she probably wanted to go to bed. But Paul had to show off his trophy.
He swished his hand in a dismissive way and said something to his friend. They laughed, and Rion knew it was at Memory’s expense. Rion watched, letting his sympathy for Memory become frustration. The frustration fed into his anger. It gave him courage he would need for the confrontation. He had to get closer, to hear what they were saying.
While they were distracted with their drunken mirth, he treaded two tables forward. The men were too soused to notice, and Memory was looking away.
Paul said, “This guy was a farmer. And you know how farmers are? Bunch of rednecks.”
“Mm, yeah,” his companion said.
“Everything they do, they blame on something else. ‘We didn’t have enough rain.’ ‘We had too much rain.’ ‘The soil wasn’t good.’ ‘My tractor blew up.'”
His companion cackled and sipped his gin and tonic.
Paul continued, “So, I’m trying to tell him about payment plans, he’s telling me about how much a bag of feed costs. I’m like, I don’t care if you work from sun-up to sun-down, you’re still living below the poverty line. Get hooked in, for chrissakes.”
“I didn’t even know there were still farms left.”
“Aw, you know all those hippies out there. They don’t want hormones. I tell you, I can’t taste the difference. You, babe?”
Memory looked up, rubbing her neck. She shrugged.
“Hey, come on, quit acting so pouty,” Paul said.
His friend stood up. “Hey, I gotta knock off for the night. I’ll catch you at the keynote tomorrow morning.”
“Yeah, hey, we’re getting together for a red-eye an hour before.”
“I’ll be there.”
“All right, have a good one.”
The burly man stumbled out. Now, alone, he could strike. But he waited.
“Hey, you want a drink?” Paul said to Memory.
She shook her head.
“Well, speak up next time someone talks to you.” He turned to the bar. “Show a little appreciation, for Christ’s sake.”
“I thought I just did that,” she said in her sweet voice.
“Hey, don’t sass back to me. I take you out, I buy you those earrings, I give you money for a new dress. This is the thanks I get? A bunch of attitude?” Paul took a sip of his martini. “I should never have brought you out here.”
“If you don’t want to be here, maybe you oughta go back to the room.”
“I’m tired of the room. It’s so small. There’s nothing to do in there.”
“Then go out to a movie or something.”
“I don’t know where any of the theaters are. I wanted to spend time with you.”
“You are spending time with me. You’re not making much of it. Keep this up, maybe I’ll tell your boss what you’ve been doing. Would you like that?”
Memory shook her head.
“Huh? Speak up.”
“No,” she said.
“That’s what I thought.” He took another sip. “And what do you want?”
Rion didn’t realize he had stalked up to Paul until he acknowledged him. He glanced at Memory, who showed a hint of recognition.
Rion delivered the line he had selected as he had stood outside their door.
“Excuse me, sir, but I have a problem with how you’re treating your girl.” He tried to make his voice sound as mature as possible.
Paul’s eyebrows raised. “Excuse me?”
Rion steadied himself. He was resolved not back down this time. “She’s a nice girl. She’s done nothing to deserve what you’re doing to her.”
“What are you, eighteen? Nineteen? Pfft. Get outta here kid, you’re too young to stay up this late.” He swiveled back around.
“I’m serious. I don’t think you should be treating her like that.”
Paul turned back. “Listen kid, what’s your name?”
“Rion, my name is Paul.” He held out his hand to shake.
Rion didn’t expect this in his rehearsals. He expected Paul to start raving in anger–yelling at him, poking fingers in his chest, starting a fist fight–while Rion would remain steadfast and calm, winning out in the end. He did not expect Paul to start making friends.
Paul leaned back. “Rion, you still in school?”
“Um…” Crap, this was so off his script he had no idea how to answer. “Yes,” he lied.
“Get good grades?”
“You like girls? You ever been with a girl?”
“You ever have a girlfriend, Rion?”
“No.” Not to my knowledge.
Paul rubbed his stubbly cheeks. “Well, let me tell you something. Look at this girl, here,” Paul said, holding his hand over Memory as if she were a used car. “Pretty hot, huh?”
Rion nodded, not knowing how else to respond.
“Bet you wouldn’t kick her out of bed, huh?”
Rion furrowed his brows so much he strained his forehead muscles. “You shouldn’t-“
“Let me ask you something. Do you think this girl is smart? Or thoughtful?”
He smirked. “Well, let me tell you something. This girl was raised on a farm. Lived a typical farm life. You know, doing chores, cleaning up after pigs. She only had network TV. Then she came to the city right after high school. Not even community college. Why? Because she wanted to get out. Because she knew she was hot and that could get her places. But she just… doesn’t get it. And she never will. Know what I mean?”
“See if you want to play with the city boys, you got to go the city pace. She can’t call a cab by herself. She loses things. She can’t work my TV. She always has to call me in to do it. I try and tell her how it works, she forgets. You get what I’m saying? She’s cute and all, but,” he clucked his tongue, “she’s just not on the level.”
“That’s no excuse to mistreat her.”
He laughed. “You don’t have any right to judge me. You think I’m mistreating her? Don’t give me that liberal crap. Hey, I understand. You’re young, you’re idealistic. But you think that every human is a noble creature? That we’re all entitled to happiness and respect, right?”
Rion didn’t know what to say. His fists clenched tighter as he tried futilely to think of a way to regain control of this conversation.
“That’s all bullshit,” Paul continued. “No one’s entitled to crap. The reality is that we are all still apes in the trees, my friend. Still trying to grab all the bananas you can before some other monkey does. I grabbed this one first, and I’m keeping her.”
“You don’t deserve her,” Rion squeaked.
He laughed again. “You have no idea what I deserve, all right? I didn’t start out successful. I scratched and clawed my way up the top of the ladder. I kissed a lot of ass, did a lot of free favors, looked the other way when things went down. Now I make people look the other way. Get me? I didn’t get the United Incentive Award for nothing.”
“That doesn’t give you the right-“
Paul raised his voice. “You’re less than half my age, so don’t come in here telling me what I can and can’t do. Where’s your mother? Why isn’t she with you?”
“She’s not here.”
“Look, kid, what do you want? I don’t even know you, and you’re coming up here making demands.”
“I want you to…” Rion’s voiced drifted to silence. The only thing he could think to do was glare at Paul.
“See, you don’t even know what you want. You know what I think? I think you want her.”
“I think you want her. There’s only two people who stand up to me about this sort of thing–the pie-in-the-sky fundies who forget about the whole thing until the next axe to grind comes along, or the ones who want her. You think you’re the first to do this?”
Rion said nothing. This train had derailed so much he had no idea what county he was in.
“Look at her, she’s beautiful.” Paul nudged her head forward like an animal. “She doesn’t complain, doesn’t bitch. And that’s exactly the reason I have her. I can’t take those ‘liberated women’ that nag you at every turn, telling you what you forgot, what you did wrong, what she THINKS you did wrong. Memory’s not like that, right honey?”
Paul said to her, “And I wouldn’t like you if you were like that. You probably wouldn’t like yourself, right?”
“You see? She’s a piece. Not many people get a girl as hot as her. I got her because I earned her. She could break up with me, but she stays because I’m the best she’s going to get, and she knows it. And I’m going to treat her how I want to. So go cry to someone who cares, because I’m not changing shit for you.” He picked up his drink, and sipped it smugly. Memory kept her eyes on the floor.
Rion’s cheeks burned with redness. He felt like a school kid whose toys had been taken from him. He had no power, no charisma, no confidence. And Paul did, and that let him get what he wanted. But Rion didn’t want to move. Moving would meant he lost.
Paul glared at him. “You got anything else? Or are you going to stand there and wet your pants?”
Rion couldn’t think of a thing. His mind had frozen.
“Hey, you deaf or something? Beat it!”
Rion took a step back from surprise and walked out of the bar, tears brimming in his eyes. Before he left he could hear Memory say, “What was that all about?”
“Shut up,” Paul responded.
Rion leaned against the door of his room, dumbfounded and numb. He had gone in there with such hubris, thinking someone would do what he said because he said it. Why? What made him think he would win that game? What was he supposed to do now? Leave? Find the asshole authorities and report him?
He walked into the room, not sure what he was doing. He caught sight of his duffel bag next to the bed.
Sometimes when you wandered out, you got stuck in the middle of the road, and couldn’t see where you were going. Couldn’t see the safe path back right behind you. Because you were a little lost turtle.
But Rion could help. And only he could, because he was the only one that could see it and do something.
The whole reason he had lost was because he had played Paul’s game. Rion was a kid, Paul was a big-cheese salesman with life experience. Paul had used his abilities to instill fear and freeze him. He always got his way because he could. Now it was time to play Rion’s game.
He had expected Room 103’s door to tell him where the current key was. But it showed him something else.
First, he looked for anyone watching, then grabbed onto the doorknob and did… whatever it was he did. At first it said nothing, showed nothing. He concentrated harder.
Something came into focus. A dumpster behind the hotel. Opposite a concert poster. Between a box of Corn Flakes and a coffee can. A keycard.
Rion let go right away. His headache blossomed, but it was still tolerable.
The dumpster? Rion had expected to see Paul’s back pocket, or the back of the hotel desk. But apparently, there was a trashed keycard still capable of opening the door to Room 103. What kind of cheap hotel left keys around without erasing or overwriting them? No wonder his own still worked.
Rion walked out of the hotel through the back. He was in a parking lot filled with compact cars and SUVs backed up to a piked fence. He didn’t see a dumpster so he started walking around.
Maybe his visions weren’t just an imprint or an afterimage. They weren’t just autonomous facts, they were clues on how to get what he wanted.
And getting what he wanted wasn’t always pretty. He could smell the dumpster before he saw it–in a back alley that emptied onto the main drag.
The giant bin rested against the brick wall, one side of the cover flipped open. It was overflowing with trash and juice like a burst pimple. Yellow liquid oozed from one cracked corner. At first he thought this was for some other building, but he recognized the concert poster for “Ashes of the Memory”. Nice name.
Rion took a big gulp of air, gripped the edge, and hoisted himself up. He scanned the contents as fast as he could–mostly black garbage bags and cardboard boxes. Thirty seconds later he dropped and let out his breath. No key card. No sign of a cereal box or coffee can either.
He jumped up again and examined the dumpster’s contents without success. What if the keycard was at the bottom? All he knew was its relative location. There was no way he could see a tiny card like that from here. Maybe he should try something different. Maybe he could sneak into the concierge and swipe a master key.
No. The door had told him that the key he was looking for was here. There was a reason it had shown him this instead of something else.
This wouldn’t be pleasant.
Rion started taking deep breaths, arching his back to expand his lungs. Then he climbed onto the dumpster’s edge. After a few kicks, he got a hook on and dropped silently into the hot mush.
There was so much discarded food in here–full plates, meaty bones, filled styrofoam containers–and it was all rotting.
With one hand over his mouth, he pawed through the garbage bags, hoping not to get stabbed with a needle. He couldn’t move anything or he might accidentally kick the cereal box or coffee can away.
His brow started to moisten, and he was running out of air. So he let it out, and got a whiff of the core stench.
Sick, he draped himself over the edge of the dumpster, and spit once. He still had a taste in his mouth like brown banana peels.
What the hell he was doing here? Why was this so important that he was suffering, risking his health, all for a total stranger. Then he remembered looking in Paul’s glassy blue eyes. I’m going to treat her how I want to. So go cry to someone who cares, because I’m not changing shit for you.
With another big breath, he dove back in and stooped under the bin cover. There it was–a crumpled, soggy box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. A metal cylinder lay next to it. He jammed his hand in between the two pieces of debris and latched onto a slippery plastic rectangle. He yanked it out–a SUPER MOTEL key card, with a brown clump of goo on the corner.
He squealed in delight and jumped out of the dumpster, frightening a stray cat who crashed into a trash can and ran out of the alley.